Paul Misner, Marquette University
G. K. Chesterton claimed that original sin is “the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved" (Orthodoxy, chap. 2). Now comes a work of theology in a trinitarian and incarnational mode that shows how Christian theology and catechesis can dispense with the doctrine of original sin altogether: Christianity in Evolution: An Exploration, by Jack Mahoney (Georgetown University Press, 2011).
Mahoney writes against the background of the long history of the evolution of animal species, of which homo sapiens is one. All the members of all these species die. The physical death of each member of a species is a condition of the survival of the species and of its adaptation to changes through time. The Hebrew and Christian people of God in the past, having no conception of human evolution, puzzled over why the good died. One dominant answer was that they were not obedient and that God had to punish them to cure them. One strand (Genesis, Paul, Augustine) went so far as to blame it all on a catastrophic original sin that infected the whole human race. This doctrine was then seen as the proper background against which to place the Resurrection hope of the Gospel. According to Mahoney, this background is theologically unsound and must give way to a deeper understanding of God's goodness and love.
The first question that arises in the face of this claim might well be this: if Christ through the Paschal Mystery does not redeem us from our inherited sin, from what does he save us? Well, our own sins and alienation from God, of course. But Mahoney, an English Jesuit, focuses still more deeply on death, mortality. The salvific accomplishment of Christ is first and foremost to save us from non-existence after death. Were it not for the determination of divine love to grant us life after death in Christ, we, like all our evolutionary ancestors and cousins, would individually die and be extinguished. We might contribute to the further evolution of the human race, but our own life would be over. In his human death and resurrection, however, Jesus has revealed to us the will of God to share God’s life with us forever.
Can Mahoney's views be reconciled with the traditional view of original sin and salvation? Do they need to be?