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Ancestral Sin and Salvation

(Note:  Orthodox use the word "ancestral sin" in relation to the disobedience of Adam and Eve.  The Orthodox understanding on this matter is quite different from the "west" in its doctrine of "original sin."  This article will also explain why).

There is a bookmark point in this article on "Elucidation on Creation, Evolution and Death."

There are two major issues presented by these three texts:- Genesis 3:1-24, Roman 6:22-23 and 1 Corinthians 15:20-28, 51-58 when seen in conjunction:-

(1) The relationship between sin and death. Here we can identify:-

Romans 6:23: "For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord."
1Corinthians 15:56: The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law.

(2) The Orthodox doctrine of salvation as it pertains to the cross and the resurrection of Christ.

We start with the Garden of Eden. Since in the Greek this is paradeisoz (Paradise) we may rightly understand the Garden and indeed Heaven as a real place in space-time but removed from the fallen domain of this world. In this dimension, our first Parents communed with the world, each other and God. The Fathers, (Sts. Theophilus of Antioch, Ephraim the Syrian, Hilary of Poitiers, Maximus the Confessor), insist that our first parents were created neither mortal nor immortal. Until the point of his disobedience Adam was sinless but not perfect and able to sin. He was not immortal but capable of achieving immortality through obedience. This is most important for what comes after and especially as we compare the biblical doctrine of our original state with what later emerged in the post-Orthodox west.

We learn from this starting point that Adam was like a child, fully capable of growing up in obedience to his Heavenly Father and achieving immortality. We know that he ate the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in disobedience to God’s Word and suffered death as a result. We are not dealing here with the Promethean myth of Greek paganism in which Prometheus stole fire from the gods and paid the price for his audacity. The fruit itself was not placed in Eden with a permanent exclusion zone around it leaving humanity in state of infantile innocence. God’s intention was that Adam should grow up through obedience until he received the necessary spiritual maturity to handle such things. Like a child he had to be taught. But like many children and adults he would not be taught. He wanted to be autonomous; to be God-like without God and he thereby brought death down upon his head.

Listen to St. Irenaeus:-

"Man was a little one, and his discretion still undeveloped, wherefore also he was easily misled by the deceiver."

St. Irenaeus and the Fathers generally, therefore, do not see death as a divine punishment for the disobedience of our first parents. This distortion arose later in the west under the influence of Augustine. The Fathers rather interpret the consequences of the Fall as something we brought on ourselves when we distanced ourselves from God. God still walks in the Garden. It is we who hide and shamefully cover our nakedness. Likewise, the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise and the angel standing guard with the flaming sword is not an act of divine retribution but a compassionate and merciful provision lest we eat of the second tree, the Tree of Life, and die eternally. The fruit of this tree, if we had eaten it, would have condemned us forever.

Listen to St. John Chrysostom:-

"Partaking of the tree, the man and woman became liable to death and subject to the future needs of the body. Adam was no longer permitted to remain in the Garden, and was bidden to leave, a move by which God showed His love for him … he had become mortal, and lest he presume to eat further from the tree which promised an endless life of continuous sinning, he was expelled from the Garden as a mark of divine solicitude, not of necessity."

[Hom. in Gen XVIII, 3 PG 53 151]

The sin of Adam and Eve was one of disobedience born out of a demonically induced pride and we know from St. Paul that wages of such sin is death [Romans 6:23]. Cast out of Eden and barred from re-entry for their own good, Adam and Eve, in their mortality are now subject to the corruption of death. Corruption here does not merely mean physical decay, it describes the fallout from the Fall as death spawns yet new evils. As St. Paul taught in the context of the resurrection as the remedy for sin and death, ("O death where is thy sting …?"), "the sting of death is sin." [1 Corinthians 15:55-56]

Listen to St. Cyril of Alexandria :-

"Adam had heard: ‘Earth thou art and to the earth shalt thou return,’ and from being incorruptible he became corruptible and was made subject to the bonds of death. But since he produced children after falling into this state, we his descendents are corruptible coming from a corruptible source. Thus it is that we are heirs of Adam’s curse."

[Doctrinal Questions and Answers, IX, 6 in Cyril of Alexandria, Selected Letters]

Notice that there is huge difference between this belief that we share in Adam’s curse through the corruption of death and the view common in the west since Augustine that we are punished by death for an original sin in Eden. The west came to believe that this original sin was transmitted to subsequent generations through sexual reproduction and that we inherit thereby not only the sin of Adam but the guilt as well. This view is first found in Augustine.

" … now when this (the Fall) happened, the whole human race was ‘in his loins’ (Adam). Hence in accordance with the mysterious and powerful natural laws of heredity it followed that those who were in his loins and were to come into this world through the concupiscence (lustful desires) of the flesh were condemned with him." [Treatise against Julian the Pelagian]

Aquinas and later the Reformers for whom Augustine was all felt constrained to repeat :-

" … the commingling of the sexes which, after the sin of our first parent, cannot take place without lust, transmits original sin to the offspring." [Aquinas: Comp. Theol., 224]

This is not Orthodox. We are responsible for the sins that we commit, not the sins of our forefathers and not the sins of our first parents. Moreover, the Fall is not a taint in our character transmitted by sex, nor is sex itself necessarily tainted by lust. Orthodox refer instead to "ancestral sin," by which we mean our participation in the disobedience of the first Adam as inherited through death, not sex. It is a curse that the Law exposed in the inability of humans to fulfil the Mosaic Covenant. It is a curse which has been redeemed by Christ. [Galatians 3:13].

Some western commentators criticise the Orthodox understanding at this point by reminding us that,. according to Psalm 50(51):5 "behold I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me." (NKJV: Masoretic text).  As stated, this is capable of being interpreted either in the "western" manner or in the Orthodox manner.  However, the Septuagint (LXX) version of the Psalm translated into English reads: "Behold I was brought forth in iniquities, and in sins (plural) did my mother conceive me."  This makes it quite clear that sin is endemic to the human condition from birth to death.  It says nothing about transmission, let alone transmission by sex.  We must assume that the Jewish scholars in Alexandria knew what they were doing when they translated the Hebrew text into Greek.  The Orthodox Church certainly accepts their scholarship and, importantly, there is nothing in Judaism then or now that comes anywhere close to the Christian west's understanding of original sin which is rather important if one wants to understand St. Paul's teaching on Adam and Christ the New Adam in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15.  After all, St. Paul like our Lord, was a Jew by birth and by training, adept in the Law.

This, then, is the characteristic understanding of the Fall in the Orthodox Church: sin generated by the corruption of death. In the post-Orthodox, post Christian west however, many people see death as both the natural created state of man and an unacceptable reality. This mental bind is also not Orthodox. Death, being the curse of Eden, is an unnatural enemy, neither designed into Creation by God nor desired by Him.  Death, as the ultimate threat causes people to flee from their brothers, their sisters and their God in a selfish pursuit of earthly things as if these will put off the evil day. "Eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die," as the saying goes. This is the real death, the death of the spirit from whence death itself has cast a longer and longer shadow over the God-less secularism of western materialism.

We must remember that this terrible fallout was self induced and not inflicted upon us by a malign wrathful deity. Even the murderer Cain was given his mark as a protection. God did not cease to love and care for us in our fallen state. He desired that the self-inflicted curse hanging over humanity should be lifted and that humans should resume their role as God’s priests in creation by growing back into spiritual maturity. This of course, He achieved through the New and Final Adam, Christ. Characteristically the Fathers speak of God saving us by recapitulating or regathering the whole creation in Himself and redeeming it, [Ephesians 1:10]. The beginning of this process was in the Incarnation, its climax, the death and resurrection of Christ, its fruition in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Church, the Body of Christ glorified. As St. Irenaeus proclaimed :-

"God the Son became Man in order to regather in Himself the ancient creation, so that He might slay sin and destroy the power of death, and give life to all men."

[Against the Heresies, III, xix 6 ANF]

We should not be surprised then if death, itself the wages of sin, in bringing yet more sin upon the generations of humankind, must needs be destroyed in order that the gates of Paradise might be opened once more to the whole of Creation.. This is precisely what we believe about the resurrection. Death has been destroyed by death and Christ our God has emerged victorious by contesting that ancient serpent on his own ground: death and hell. The voluntary obedience of a Virgin-Mother bruised the serpent’s head in the Incarnation, [Genesis 3:15] and the voluntary obedience of her Son unto death on a cross finally granted unto us the victory in the resurrection. In this manner Christ is revealed as the New Adam and the Mother of God the New Eve. It is Christ our God who in the icon of Pascha storms into hell and liberates the captives from the grip of death and sin. A new way has thereby been opened up for us to regain Paradise, Christ the first fruits of all those who have fallen asleep.

In conclusion we should note that this state of Paradise is more fruitful for us than the first. At the point when Adam lost Paradise both he and Eve had not the opportunity to enter into their full inheritance as children of God. Their disobedience put paid to that. It is different for us. In Christ we now have that opportunity, not only to be saved from death and hell, but also to be glorified by His life in us, the Holy Spirit. By the love poured into our hearts by that same Spirit we are now able to eat both from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life. The tree of the cross has not only become our cure, the resurrection has also become our portal into the very life of God himself, our deification. Not just Paradise regained therefore but a whole Cosmos made new according to God’s plan and purpose.

Let the last word be with St. Macarius the Great as he picks up a theme of St. Paul, [2 Corinthians 3:18] :–

"the inner being of believers who through perfect faith are born of the Spirit shall reflect as in a mirror the Glory of the Lord, and are transfigured into the same image from Glory to Glory."


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Postscript: Evolution and Death

It is so commonplace now in the west to think of death as "natural" ... an integral part of a "good" creation that the Orthodox understanding of death as a necessary but temporary adjustment in God's plan ... his real goal for his creatures being immortality by grace seems completely irreconcilable with insights from the natural sciences.  According to these insights death has ALWAYS existed from the dawn of life.  Notice, however, how immortality in Orthodox Christianity is something to be acquired by grace, humans being created neither mortal nor immortal.  The Paradise account of Genesis reveals a certain latency toward immortality in humankind which has been spoiled by disobedience to God.  Genesis is silent on death as a more widespread phenomenon amongst all life forms but Romans is not so reticent.  With the coming of Christ we have new revelation from the mouth of St. Paul.  Corruption and death have indeed spread from humans to all life forms yet such bondage to decay is being reversed by the new birth of the resurrection.

"For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; 21because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. 22For we know that the whole creation groans and labours with birth pangs together until now." (Romans 8:20-22).

We should not, therefore, become too pre-occupied with the chronology of Genesis.  It is a perfectly Orthodox position to take divine teaching from Genesis without expecting it to deliver a scientific account of the creation of life and its problematic development. This, incidentally is why many Orthodox do indeed accept evolution as a credible scientific theory accounting for the development of life without feeling that somehow they have thereby sacrificed Christian insights into humankind's spiritual and moral development.  Indeed evolution itself might provide some clues as to the possibilities of an emergent human species redeemed by grace.  So, in the natural way of understanding things life is inconceivable without death.  In the perspective of God's saving providence, however, there will be in the Last Day life without end and a renewed creation.  Evolution might just be the natural process God's uses, hitching a ride as it were from the resurrection potential of repentance and union with God.

A final question ...

If death has always been around, did God create it ... how are we to link this to the Fall?

Well, let's get one thing straight.  God did not create death either for us or for any other living creature.  We find no such idea in Scripture and Tradition and it makes God a pretty lousy Creator to suppose that this is true.  The only way of reconciling the universality of death with the particularity of the Fall (at some point in our evolutionary timeline) is to suppose that the death spread to all creation backwards and forwards in time by some major break in the timeline.  The Universe branched into a creation subject to futility, corruption and decay ... which formerly it had not known.  Surely this must be the context to that great reversal of the cosmic effects of the Fall to which St. Paul alludes in his reference to the resurrection in Romans 8:20-22 (ante).  It seems to me that the solution of regarding "death" as "spiritual death" and therefore "resurrection" as a "spiritual resurrection" cannot accommodate the centrality to Orthodox Christianity of both the Incarnation of the Word made flesh and the Resurrection of the body.

Elucidation on Evolution, Creation and Death

Perhaps no other subject has caused so much unnecessary disturbance in the communities of both science and faith than the creation of the universe and life and the ubiquity of evil and death.  Some of the unresolved issues in my first article were subsequently taken up in correspondence with "Colin" who gave his permission for publication.  This theological conversation is reproduced here.


Christ Making the Stars


Colin writes ...

Dear Fr Gregory,

I accept the modern evolutionary account of our origins and I suppose I'm some brand of a "theistic evolutionist". I'm particularly interested in the issue of how an acceptance of evolutionary theory (for which the death of species is an obvious driving force) ties in with the doctrine that primordial man brought death into existence via his sin. I thought I spotted a contradiction between two of your articles on this issue:

1) In your “Ancestral Sin and Salvation” (from the “Postscript: Evolution and Death”), you state:

“God did not create death either for us or for any other living creature. We find no such idea in Scripture and Tradition and it makes God a pretty lousy Creator to suppose that this is true. The only way of reconciling the universality of death with the particularity of the Fall (at some point in our evolutionary timeline) is to suppose that the death spread to all creation backwards and forwards in time by some major break in the timeline.……. It seems to me that the solution of regarding "death" as "spiritual death" and therefore "resurrection" as a "spiritual resurrection" cannot accommodate the centrality to Orthodox Christianity of both the Incarnation of the Word made flesh and the Resurrection of the body.”

2) But in your “DISCUSSION 1: THE UNIVERSE DOESN'T CARE!” article * you say:

“As far as death in the Universe is concerned I think as Christians we have to say that death physically is natural but that eternal death, separation from God is not as it arises from the Fall.”

So it looks as if in the first statement you are saying that physical death is not a natural thing and that man's sin caused physical death to exist on the earth, but that in the second statement you are accepting that physical death is in fact natural and that man's sin was responsible only for spiritual death.

Or have I misunderstood?


* not published on this site (ed.)

Fr. Gregory writes ...

Dear Colin

I am indebted to you! Thank you so much for identifying the clash (and it is a clash of course). Actually the "Universe" reference reflects my earlier view which has now changed in a more conservative direction ... constrained by my traditional insistence on the need for the resurrection to undo a genuine physical problem ... the dissolution of a good creation on organic death. So I have now changed this to be in conformity with the other article revising as follows:-

As far as death in the Universe is concerned, I think as Christians we have to say that death was not part of God's original design for creation but rather arose from the Fall and spread out to the whole of the Cosmos. Likewise the benefits of Christ's victorious resurrection are by no means limited to humankind but, in the light of Romans 8:18-25 equally spread to the whole Cosmos.

Fr. Gregory

Colin writes ...

Dear Father Gregory,

Many thanks for answering and for clearing that issue up – although I was surprised by your answer! I thought you would say that the “death as natural” viewpoint was your true viewpoint!

Just a quick follow-up, if you are open to it (I won't plague you with more emails!):

When you say, “death was not part of God’s original design for creation but rather arose from the Fall and spread out to the whole of the Cosmos”, and assuming that you remain accepting of (theistic) evolutionary theory, are you suggesting that for the millions of years up until the evolution of primordial man, evolution occurred without the death of species? And further, if death was not natural, would gross overpopulation of the earth not have occurred within a relatively short space of time?

For me, the resurrection of Christ reveals the translation from the earthly-to-spiritual body that primordial man would likely to have experienced, without the fear or 'sting' of physical death, if he had not sinned.

...But I'm not sure if this view fits very well with traditional theology!


Fr. Gregory writes ...

Dear Colin

I freely admit that there is a problem here for my view (since I accept evolution fully .... including the random element). However, there is less of a problem if the myth of Eden is interpreted more radically as a story of how the Universe is post fall and that the fall is something that predates human disobedience. I submit as myth-evidence the talking evil hisser. Satan's fall predated the human fall. I tend to the view that the pre-terrestrial angelic fall compromised the whole Cosmos ... probably as far back as the Big Bang itself, (the old problem of cosmology ... can information survive the transition to a new cosmos, (an evil meme that is). In this scenario (I think I am still staying faithful to both the myth and the Tradition) the human fall is subsequent to the angelic fall and derivative of that. So, in this Cosmos ... death has ALWAYS been a feature. Maybe when humans emerged (read "Eden") they had the possibility of escaping the curse of this Cosmos but instead they rejected that opportunity and were cast out (that is "in") to this world and its suffering (still staying within the bounds of both Genesis and evolution I think). What think ye?

Fr. Gregory

Colin writes ...

Dear Father Gregory,

Again, thank you for your reply, which I found very interesting, especially as it does seem to be, to some extent at least, compatible with both science and traditional theology. Your view also helps to explain the fact that death is universally viewed as a "bad thing", which arguably shouldn't be the case if death was just a "natural" process.

I like the 'evil meme' concept; it's like a persistent bug in a computer program - it could be imagined that God had a perfect 'program' for creating the universe, and Satan, as one of the most respected and senior programmers, turned bad and deliberately corrupted the perfect code with bugs that have caused the processes of death and decay to be actualised in our world.

I suppose your view entails that St. Paul's expressed view in Romans that death came into the world through one man's sin needs to be read more subtlety as something like "because of primordial man's sin, humans ever since have been subject to the processes of death and decay that, although such processes pre-existed mankind due to the fall of Satan, primordial man could have been exempted from had he lived up to his God-given calling".

My previously-described view of Christ's resurrection being illustrative of the fleshly-to-spiritual transition of body that primordial man might have experienced had he not sinned, ties in with your view, since I still think some kind of death-without-fear-or-sting would have been necessary in order for the planet not to have rapidly become overpopulated. I'd be interested to know your views on that.

If you understand the processes of evolution to have occurred only because of the fall of Satan (because obviously evolution requires the death of old species to make for the new so therefore God would not have used that method), do we therefore have no idea what God's plans were for the universe, or if and how He would have created species, including man, on earth, had Satan not corrupted things right from the start? Or was God's plan always to create creatures that He could share His love with and evolution was God's way of using the process of death induced by Satan to 'turn what was evil into something good'? I suppose we can only make conjectures about such things.

An additional point is that in Genesis, God described the creation as "very good". If creation was in fact corrupted by Satan's fall, then this wouldn't seem to make sense. Unless "good" is reinterpreted in some way, or if it's meant to mean just that 'God's program' is very good, even if it does have bugs in it, since everything can be redeemed.

I think your view is easier to accept than your earlier suggestion that the effects of primordial man's fall spread backwards in time.


Fr. Gregory writes ...

Dear Colin

I am pleased that our perspectives seem to be capable of mutual alignment and that these seem to respect both the spiritual message of Genesis and the findings of contemporary science. Of course science can have no view on the devil, God, angels or anything else that cannot be subjected to its own methods but I think that it at least behoves us to present the spiritual truths in a form that do not rule out empirical truths from the natural sciences where both disciplines experience some overlap. The creation of the cosmos and life and the issue of death and entropy constitute precisely that common arena, and of course, this explains why these issues are ... sadly and unnecessarily often so contentious.

A key insight from Genesis is the pre-existence of Satan to the time frame of the Fall. This means that the whole shebang, (death, evil and suffering) already had some existence in the created order. The question:- "When did evil first start?" now stretches back to the fall of Lucifer himself.

Of course a social anthropologist would just smile at this point and catalogue yet another aetiological myth. If we are asked what justifiable place such a diabolical fall can have in any account of reality (other than fantasy and / or conjecture) then we would have to fall back on Tradition (Scripture and more). It becomes easier if we are able to explain why certain things were excluded, (the evil demiurgic creation for example). You are right, therefore, to insist on the goodness of creation. Evil's locus is Satan, not the creation itself.

Moving to science I think we would have to say that the evil meme stretches way back beyond the first emergence of life AS WE KNOW IT since, in evolutionary terms, death appears to be necessary and ubiquitous. Evolution and nature "red in tooth and claw" could well indeed be God's providential accommodation to a good creation corrupted by primal evil. In another version of the "Universe, Life and Everything, a perfect creation WITH death could involve immortal creatures who CHOOSE mortality for the greater common good or life forms that can multiply indefinitely within the resources and lifetime of a whole Cosmos without degrading either themselves or the Universe as an environment. On the Infinite Multiverse view of things if you can imagine it, it MUST exist somewhere, sometime.

As far as Adam and Eve (mythically ... let's say "us") .... as far as WE are concerned, we were born into a fallen world and we can think of our submission to the death-ridden affects of the "first" Fall (of Lucifer of course), symbolically through Hissing Sid in the Garden as our refusal to follow God's way to Eternal Life .... opened up to us again by Christ the New Adam and Mary the New Eve.

Fr. Gregory

Colin writes ...

Dear Father Gregory,

You mentioned that the pre-existence of Satan to the time frame of the Fall of man means that death, evil and suffering already had some existence in the created order. I hadn’t thought of it that way before – I had assumed that Satan didn’t act until the first humans came on the scene. I assume this is what St. Paul thought when he spoke of ‘death entering the world through one man’s sin’ – it seems clear that he thought that death had not made it’s entry to the world until primordial man allowed it to have entry. (I’d be interested to know what your thoughts are on how St. Paul viewed this issue.) But if Satan is the author of death, and if he pre-existed the Fall, then, as you suggest, death could always have been around. It’s tempting to say that ‘it’s inconvenient’ that the Bible does not explicitly state this. The fact that it doesn’t is one of the reasons why there are arguments between Christians on this issue, and of course between Christians and non-Christians.

It’s obvious that there are, and seemingly always have been, differences of opinion about this whole issue of our origins and the literal –vs-spiritual reading of the Genesis narratives. It would appear that whilst a literal interpretation was dominant up to Darwin, several early Fathers read these narratives spiritually/allegorically, as you point out yourself. On the specific issue of death occurring before the Fall of man, St. Athanasius (“On the Incarnation”) states:

“[If Adam & Eve] went astray and became vile, throwing away their birthright of beauty, then they would come under the natural law of death and live no longer in paradise, but, dying outside of it, continue in death and in corruption……….though [Adam & Eve] were by nature subject to corruption, the grace of their union with the Word made them capable of escaping from the natural law.”

Therefore, according to Athanasius, seemingly, Adam and Eve (“us” as you suggest) would not have been subject to the laws of nature (death, decay, etc) that other creatures were subject to, if they had not sinned. The Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne adopts the same view in his book “Providence and the Problem of Evil”, but I don’t think either he, or Athanasius thought that the pre-existing death and decay (the laws of nature) were due to the fall of Satan – I think they just simply viewed them as the laws that God had made, death being just a necessary thing created by God.


Fr. Gregory concludes ...

Dear Colin

If indeed we assume that humankind failed to attain to immortality in the protected environment "inside Eden" (there was a part of creation subject to death and suffering "outside Eden" to which of course we were consigned for our own protection, God not wanting us to die eternally by eating from the tree of life) then the link between human transgression and death in the cosmos is by no means clear.  I can't imagine that Satan was around pre-Fall doing nothing but just waiting for us to trip up before he could unleash physical death in the Cosmos first time round.  Maybe since Satan is hyper-anti-God, death is "in his blood" contrasting God of course who is wholly Life.  The tragedy of human disobedience in Eden is that we multiplied death and Satan's power by allowing it to enter our God-protected domain ... hence we had to leave, for death can have no place in the kingdom of God.  The resurrection then becomes God retaking the world from Satan to extend Eden and restoring human potential to immortality ... theosis.

Fr. Gregory



Revd. Fr. Dr. Christopher Knight
Professor George Theokritoff
Very Revd. Archimandrite Kyril Jenner
Professor Richard Swinburne
Wendy Robinson


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