In reading about original sin and the Fall for my course in systematics, I was presented with a number of equally unsatisfactory options for understanding the Genesis narrative, Adam and his role in transmitting sin to humanity. Either Adam was a historical man who represented humanity in the primordial garden federally or naturally (either as the representative human or as the natural father of all mankind) or he is merely a symbol, a narrative device that depicts the existential reality of the origin of sin in all of us. All these interpretations seem to mistreat the text in my view. I certainly am inclined to think of the Genesis narratives, particularly the creation narratives as etiological and so in some sense the story must be about the origin of sin in the world. More critically, however, I read the Fall narrative as primarily theodic.
It is easy for exegetes or even simple readers to pick up in Genesis and read these stories from the implied standpoint of the narrative, to mentally enter into a world that predates the Fall and then to anachronistically read modern questions of origins into the story. That, I believe, is the root of many problems, not the least of which is the young earth reading of the text. In general this is the cause of a great deal of fundamentalist misunderstanding of Genesis. The concern for origins as mere objective facts is undeniably a modern construct.
With this in view, I think it is safe to assert that the origin of sin as objective fact is not the primary concern of the text. This leaves the mystery of what is. To answer this, it is necessary to reverse engineer the question that might give rise the answer given in the text. My first impulse is to offer “Why do we experience suffering?” In reality, however, this question is better answered not by pointing to the original sin itself but to the result of sins. Thus, the curse which is issued as the divine response to sin where the idyllic state is stripped from humanity and it is left to the cold, cruel creation answers that question.
The original sin itself, in my opinion, answers the question which arises from “Why do we experience suffering?” If the answer to the former is “as a result of sin,” then the natural question (with its implicit accusatory tone) arises: “Why did God allow us to sin?” It is as a response to this question that I think that the actual narrative of the original sin – as distinct from the narrative of the results of that sin – finds its true purpose. It declares with certainty that even when God gives it every advantage, even in a state of bliss, if humanity is given the freedom to choose evil it will work out a way to do so. It strips away human excuse for sin. If we try to claim that we live in a dark, dangerous world where survival seems to depend on selfishness, deceit, theft, and violence the biblical authors remind us that we love the simple freedom of choosing so much that we chose evil even in a world that was neither dark nor dangerous.
This interpretation even gives some light to the juxtaposition of Adam and Christ in the New Testament. Adam is the old humanity that sinned even when there was no “need” to. Christ, in contrast, inaugurates the new humanity by refusing to sin even in the fallen world that we feel necessitates ethical compromise. Just as in Adam, who sinned in spite of every advantage, we find a humanity without excuse, in Christ we find a humanity excused and redeemed into a new life that permits freedom from sin.
Those are, at least, my humble thoughts on the matter being by no means a biblical scholar. I would welcome any biblical critique of that understanding, particularly with regard to the Christ-Adam dichotomy which I have never studied in depth.