Recent discussions regarding racism have prompted an important question: What is the primary source of human sin? Is it individual human beings or is it human institutions, organized collectives of human beings? Or perhaps this is a false dichotomy. Might sin somehow reside neither in individuals nor in institutions in any “ultimate” sense but rather arise simultaneously in both individuals and the collectives we make up? This is essentially the old debate over the relationship between individual and social sin, which might be seen as a variation of the question regarding the chicken and the egg.

In the Christian theological tradition there has been a tendency to see the individual human heart as the primary locus of sin, while also recognizing that individual sins have social ramifications which, in turn, exacerbate and compound individual sins. It is a vicious cycle. As Gregory Baum puts it, “Personal sins . . . generate social sin. Conversely, social sin multiplies personal sins. Marginalization creates conditions that foster resentment and despair in the victims and thus easily provoke irrational responses. More than that, since institutionalized injustice affects all members of society, it creates conditions that facilitate personal sin on all levels.” Baum goes on to note that “because unjust structures are created by sinful humans, it is possible to speak of “sinful structures” and “social sin” in a derived and secondary sense.”

I believe Baum is correct in noting that individual sin is primary, while social or institutional sins are derivative and secondary in nature. This is not to diminish the significance or essential evilness of institutional sins but simply to identify the locus of the root of human evil. But what good reasons can be given in defense of this view? Here are four, mostly theological, arguments for this view.

First, Adam and Eve were both “fallen” individuals before any institutions existed. As individuals, they each succumbed to the temptation to eat the fruit of the tree, as described in Genesis 3. This was prior to any formal human institution. Now one might claim that the institution of the family existed at that point, though only consisting of these first two humans. But even so, Adam and Eve committed their sins as individuals. Their sins were not institutional or systemic in nature. So the Fall itself was not institutional in nature but a matter of individual choices.

Second, we may appeal to the biblical doctrine of original sin, according to which human beings are innately sinful, born into this world with a natural propensity to sin which precedes their entry into institutions. The Psalmist declares, “surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5). So not only did the human sin problem begin with the wrongful choice of an individual person, but this basic moral corruption is perpetuated by each of us as individuals at our very conception.

Thirdly, institutions are themselves collections of individuals. The parts precede the wholes. You can’t construct a building without first having the components from which to construct it. And so it goes for human systems and institutions. You can’t create a legal system, an educational institution, or a civil society without first having individual humans. And whenever any people enter into such institutions, they are already sinful. Of course, any such institutions may be poorly or unjustly constructed, but this only compounds the sin problem already infecting those social structures that is a consequence of the fallenness of the individuals involved.

Lastly, Jesus tells us that human defilement originates from within a person, not outside of them:

“Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”

After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)

He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person” (Mark 7:15-23).

Jesus illustrates this teaching in terms of food, but his broader point is unmistakable. Evil arises out of the human heart. We are not originally corrupted or defiled by things outside of us, and this includes the systems or institutions of which we are a part. Our sinfulness is surely manifested within institutional contexts, and these contexts often occasion more temptations and forms of sin. But the source of that evil is ultimately each individual fallen human heart.

Again, none of this diminishes the significance of unjust institutions or systemic evils. It simply demonstrates that the origins of all such evils ultimately lie in our moral corruption as individuals. Moreover, this implies that any corrections or improvements we make to our social institutions will never achieve perfection. There are significant limits to what we can achieve in our efforts to make our various institutions more just. Even a perfectly designed human institution—if such were possible—would still be flawed, so long as it is composed of fallen human beings.

One Response to “Individual Humans as the Primary Source of Sin”

  1. Gabriele


    Respectfully, Dr.Spiegel, I disagree. According to your definition ‘sin’ originates in human hearts, however evil did not originate with humans. Instead, we are told that there are powerful forces, even angels who have rebelled against God and formed alliances against him (told in Isaiah 14 & Ezekiel 28- the angel Lucifer). It was not man who just decided to join but instead was tempted to join in the rebellion (In Genesis 3 this is satan our adversary. So while perhaps according to your definition ‘sin’ may be defined as unique to humans, evil and the forces that seek to wage war against the ways of God are not just an individual sin issue. Forces continue to be at war with God’s plans throughout Scriptures- even an angel insists he would have come sooner to Daniel if he had not been detained by a ‘king of persia’ and an archangel- Michael came to his aid (Dan 7). In other words- there are forces and kingdoms that are spiritual in nature and seek to bring rebellion with God’s ways or promote his kingdom. And throughout Scripture this is seen as a ‘war’ which is tug back and forth- with mixed results. (As a student of scriptures, I know none of this is news to you.)
    I do believe this broader framework allows for an understanding that sin is not just personal. Rather sin is participating in evil- a force that is already out there and is adversarial to God. When as humans, endowed with creativity and stewardship over creation and power to manage others, we have at times created institutions that promote the degradation of other humans. In this we do not fulfill the two greatest commandments to love God and love our neighbor, we are clearly creating our own kingdoms and frameworks apart from him. Just as we have created ways of living that do not esteem God’s creation and his plan to restore it- as all creation is groaning to be renewed, we either participate in the renewal, or we instigate more groaning.
    While, I am not thoroughly versed in this, perhaps this aligns more with concepts in ‘liberation theology’.The institution would be that of ‘slavery’- the desire of satan (the adversary) to create and promote ways in which persons will no longer follow the ways of God which promote life, but instead the ways which promote death. This allows institutions to be evil, or participating in evil- apart from the individual or collective sin of those persons involved.
    It does seem that in liberation theology those who have been on the receiving end of much oppression (those enslaved, the marginalized over race and sex) seem to have an inherent sense of the systems that are blocking freedoms- (Freedom which is a sign of the spirit and Jesus!) While those who continue to hold the power think it is a lack of personal failure to rise and not an institution that continues (at times willingly and forcibly and other times by lack of awareness) to hold others down.
    I disagree with your interpretation of Mark 7- the point of the passage was not at all that sin originates with humans, but rather that humans are often blind to their hypocrisy and lack compassion for others. (Which is not only a personal sin, but a form of participating in systems which are said to promote others but rather bind them). He quotes Isaiah, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” And while he is assuring them that they cannot merely ritually wash away their sin, in no way does he suggest that evil is merely a human construct of personal piety. The fact that a person can become defiled with sin inwardly, does not mean that evil does not exist outside of personal failures. You do conclude that this does not diminish the evils of institutional racism, but that until humans are sin free- no such perfect institution would exist. But isn’t this the enterprise of what we endeavor as Americans- the right for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are only possible when structures are in place to protect peoples to pursue them?
    These systematic structures of oppression which we have seen more in recent history in Germany, South Africa, India, which have created castes of people ways of creating a ladder of power, should perhaps help us to turn a mirror on our own nation and with humility see the reality of who we are, rather than just the false sense of superiority of our declaration of ‘liberty and justice for all.”
    In this chicken and egg debate, I disagree- it is not original sin or the failure of humans to choose God that came first, but the spiritual battle of evil that began before us- with all of it’s kingdom of darkness which we participate in as we sin and continue to rebel or we join the way of Jesus through the power of his Holy Spirit in participating in God’s Kingdom.
    I know very little of this history- I wish I knew more. The stories of bravery in the journey to overcome systemic racism in these countries and the bravery of the individuals who have stood in the path of this evil have been incredibly brave, just as those who stand now to speak truth to power are brave.


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