Ancestral Sin

On the Second Sunday of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church we remember Our Father among the Saints, St. Gregory Palamas. St. Gregory (1296-1359) was a monk and a proponent of the Hesychastic Theology. He was a monk of Mount Athos and later Archbishop of Thessalonica.

The Gospel passage for that day is drawn from St. Mark’s Gospel and is the story of the healing of the paralytic. In preparing my sermon for this day I chose to preach on the topic of healing and the Sacrament of the Anointing. I feel this Sacrament has fallen into disuse save for the Wednesday of Holy Week. Well that is a discussion is for another day.

The sermon brought up many questions regarding the nature of sin and suffering. Actually I had more questions after this sermon than I have had on any other sermon I have preached thus far. The nature of sin and suffering seem to be in the fore front of everyone’s mind because of the earthquake in Haiti and the most recent earthquake in Chile.

When one thinks of a Theologian I am not the first person that would come to mind. I try to see things from a pastoral perspective and so that is the perspective that these comments will come from. I welcome your comments as we work through this together.

We have to back to “In the beginning” to find the answer to this question. In the book of Genesis we are told that humanity was created to live in harmony with God. We were created to live in paradise and “walk with God.” Genesis goes on to say that God walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden and we were to dwell with Him there forever. Well I am sure we all know the rest of the story.Next we need to turn to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans 5:12, “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men…” The first sin of our parents brought physical death to all of humanity. The sin of pride and disobedience brought on the fall of humanity. The difficulty lies in what in the nature of that sin and how does it affect us all these generations later.

All of humanity has inherited this sin from our first parents. All of us are marked with the “stain” of this sin from our first parents. We use the term stain as a way to remind us that sin makes us unclean and reminds us that we need to be cleansed from this sin. In the Orthodox understanding we do not use the term “original sin” as is done in the West, but more appropriately we use the term “ancestral sin.” Because of this “ancestral sin” we have an inclination towards sin as part of the fallen nature of all of humanity. St. Gregory Palamas, whose memory we remember on this 2nd Sunday of Great Lent, taught that man’s image was tarnished, disfigured as a consequence of Adam’s disobedience.

So then if this is the sin of Adam how can this affect us?

Assume for a moment that your father committed some crime and was sent to jail for this crime. You would perhaps have some shame because your father is in jail. We may even suffer some social consequences of this transgression but you are not guilty of this transgression of your father. We do not share any part of the guilt, and therefore we do not go to jail for the crime that our father has committed. We do however share in the stigma or the stain of the transgression in a very real way.

In the Orthodox understanding we are not guilty for the actual sin of our first parents but we have inherited the consequences of this sin, and those consequences are physical and spiritual death. This “stain” if you will, is transferred to us by means of natural heredity and not the sex act of our parents as the West teaches, to the entire human race. St. Augustine of Hippo taught that we inherit this first sin and the guilt associated with it through the procreative act of our parents. It is passed on to us through our very DNA. This is reason that the West teaches the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.

The Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception teaches that the Theotokos was conceived in her mother’s womb without this guilt of original sin. She had to be conceived in such a way so she would not transmit this sin to Jesus who would share in her DNA because she carried him in her womb. In the Orthodox Church this doctrine is not necessary because there is no guilt associated with the sin of our first parents.

We are all descendants of Adam so “no one is free from the implications of that sin.” We are not free from the implications of this sin, death, but we are free of the guilt associated with this sin. We do not need to feel guilty because Adam and Eve were disobedient.

In our Orthodox Christological reading of this we understand the fall of humanity in light of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. Christ is the “new” Adam and frees us from this death and brings eternal life. In the Icon of the Resurrection we see Christ depicted holding the hand of Adam and Eve and bringing them out of hell. Christ is standing on the doors of Hell that he has broken down forever as a symbol of freeing us from this sin.St. Augustine of Hippo used the term “concupiscence” and described it as the “evil impulse.” In Orthodoxy we do not have that same understanding. The impulse toward sin is not evil, although sin could be described as evil, we would prefer to call this is our “disordered passion.” We are not only born with a distance between us and God but we are born with a disordered passion within us. And it is this disordered passion that causes us to sin.

Sickness, suffering and death are not a normal state for humanity they are a direct result of the fall of humanity. Humanity was created for eternal life and communion with God. Because of ancestral sin, communion with God has been broken. In the Orthodox understanding of this brokenness, sickness and sin then are the inevitable consequences of this separation from God.

We Orthodox look at healing from a holistic perspective. We cannot just heal the physical we have to heal the spiritual as well for if we do not heal the spiritual then the physical healing makes no sense. In order to be whole we need both the physical and the spiritual to work together in harmony.

Let us take time to look at what makes us sick both in the physical sense and in the spiritual sense. The Orthodox Church is a hospital for those who are sick and need healing. Through her sacramental life the church aims at restoring us to that for which we were created, eternal life with God the Creator.


  1. One of the greatest gifts God gave us is "free will". The ability to say NO. Allowing us to decide to love Him or not, to enter into sin or not. God loves us too much to force "His will" on us. Adam chose unwisely, he chose to disobey and humankind would need a savior. Christ chose to save us.
    His mother was part of the plan of salvation, when reasoning allowed her the choice to accept,as we all have "free will". Motherhood and God's grace was bestowed upon her. I think that the Orthodox Church has it correct. Otherwise, Mary the mother of God, would have been born immaculate with no choice and that conflicts with Gen. 2:16.(The Orthodox Study Bible). "Free Will" is all about Love.

  2. If Mary was conceived as some say "immaculately", then, why would we need Christ? Who was according to all teachings, the only sinless one. And, if she were "immaculately conceived" and had no sin, why would she have to suffer in this world, where the result of sin is death and destruction. If that were the case, she would not have died, and we are told that she did.

  3. Laura,

    The Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception says that Mary was born without the guilt or original sin it does not say that she never sinned. Jesus is the only sinless one. It is important to understand that.

  4. If Mary was as said to have been mmaculately conceived,she would have had to be born from immaculate parents, correct? Having said that,it implies that she was born no differnt than you or I. Born into the condition inherited from humanity which is the result of sin, and having the need for reconciliatiion and restoration between God and Man. Immaculate Conception says that Mary was predestined to be the mother of God, without choice. Which we do not believe. Is it correct to say then the we are individually born with an Original Sin or Original Condition, resulting from the sin or falling away from God by the sin of humanity?

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