Recently, a reader wrote me to say, “I have Jewish friends who ask, ‘How can Jesus be the New Adam and the Messiah when it is painfully clear that everyone is still suffering from Original Sin? How can he have conquered death when the penalty for Adam’s sin—death—is still being inflicted on everybody?’ Is this a common issue for Jewish people? How do I respond to it?”
It sort of is and sort of isn’t. Catholics need to bear in mind that, in the grand scheme of things, we are the oddities in the religious world picture because we have a Magisterium and tend to presume everybody else does too. So we often talk about “the” Jewish notion of this or “the” Protestant notion of that or “the” Muslim view of the other, when in reality there is no monolithic Judaism, Protestantism or Islam. In the case of Judaism, the old proverb is “Two Jews, three opinions”: testament to a proud and lively heritage of intellectual combativeness that has produced a huge number of great thinkers. (By the way, if it comes to it, there’s no monolithic Catholic faith either. As Chesterton noted, Catholics agree about everything. It is only everything else they disagree about.)
So far as I know, modern Judaism does not affirm the notion of original sin at all. That’s an idea that comes out of the Western Christian tradition as a result of the fifth century Pelagian heresy. Pelagius said, “Jesus is our model. If you just pull yourself up by your bootstraps and imitate him perfectly, you can save yourself without grace.” The Church’s reply, following Augustine (who was following Paul, who was following Jesus) is “Apart from Christ, you can do nothing.” We are not sinners because we sin. We sin because we are sinners “in Adam” as Paul put it. We can’t save ourselves. We need the help of Christ’s Spirit.
Curiously, this notion of “corporate personality”, of being “in Adam” (and, for the Christian, “in Christ”) is deeply Jewish. The prophets are full of the notion that the nation of Israel and the man Jacob are somehow bound up with one another. Likewise, other figures from the patriarchal period (Ishmael, Esau, Ham, Ephraim, Judah, etc.) are somehow “summed up” in their descendants. So the concept of original sin, while not a feature of modern Judaism, is deeply rooted in this peculiarly Old Testament way of seeing the human family. Christianity simply elaborates on it and holds that we are bound up, not only with the primordial tasks of Adam (marriage, fruitfulness, rule, work, and worship) but in his fall as well.
That said, the question is: if modern Judaism doesn’t buy original sin, why is your friend appealing to it? It would appear he is grafting onto a specifically Jewish critique of Christianity bits and pieces of Christian teaching that are not really part of the original Jewish argument. The specifically Jewish critique is summed up in this old rabbinic story:
The student of Rabbi Ben-Ezra rushed in excitedly and announced, “Rabbi! The Messiah has come!” Rabbi Ben-Ezra put his head out the window and looked up and down the street. “I see no change,” he remarked, and went on with his business.
“If Jesus is the Messiah, why is the world the same?” is a good, concrete, classically Jewish question. The appeal to Jesus’ seeming failure to fix original sin appears to be an attempt to show that, even on Christian terms, the Faith refutes itself since Jesus does not appear to do even what Christians say he does, much less what Jewish conceptions of the Messiah say he was supposed to do.
The problem is this: the argument seems to me to fall between two stools by appealing to the Christian category of original sin because it fails to engage what Jesus and the Christians following him actually teach about Jesus’ conquest of death and sin. For, of course, Christianity has never said that Christ would magically eradicate sin from the world or stop physical death. On the contrary, it has always made clear that sin is bound to come into the world “but woe to him by whom it comes”. It has always insisted that it is appointed unto man once to die and, after that, the judgment. As Jesus himself said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” Christianity is not about the cancellation of death, but about the transformation of death. It has likewise always insisted that the main thing Adam suffered was spiritual death: the loss of God.
So it is a mistake to try to prove that Jesus cannot forgive and heal original sin. Original sin is indeed cured by baptism, but it does not follow that we are free of concupiscence, that is, the disordered appetites, darkened intellect, and weakened will that result from original sin. These remain and constitute the field of battle on which we express our dignity as children of Adam and co-creators with Christ of our own salvation. The curse of Adam is transformed into blessing by our suffering with Christ in the labor of cooperating with grace not only in our salvation but in the salvation of the world.
This requires grace to see, much as the crucifixion requires grace to see properly. The earliest Jewish critique of Christian messianic claims is blunt, concrete, and seemingly unanswerable: “Cursed is he who is hanged on a tree.” To Jewish eyes this looked like a slam dunk rebuttal of Jesus’ Messiahship. Deuteronomy pronounced the curse. Jesus was hanged on a tree. End of story.
But Paul, with the eyes of faith, realized that this paradoxically confirmed Jesus’ Messiahship because it pointed to the fact that he who had no sin became sin for us and bore our curse, just as Isaiah 53 said he would. He was pierced for our transgressions. He was bruised for our iniquities. The punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his stripes we are healed.
In the same way, the transformation of Adam’s curse and death into life and blessing also requires faith–faith in the Risen Christ, who is the down payment on the final conquest of death and sin that will take place only when all things are put under his feet at the Last Judgment. This too is a deeply Jewish idea known as “The Last Day”. What the Christian revelation has made clear is that the Last Day will be the day in which Christ, who has already endured the worst we can throw at him, will come again to dispense perfect mercy and justice, just as the prophets foretold. Till then, we have the grace and glory of being active agents in his transformation of the world and of ourselves by his Spirit. The curse of Adam has been reversed in Christ, who lives forever. But the transformation of the rest of us is something we must participate in freely for it to benefit us–and that process will not be done till the Last Day.