God the Mother
by Janice Allred
Toward a Mormon Doctrine of Original Sin
[p.130]Doesn’t Mormonism reject the traditional Christian concept of original sin, that all human beings are naturally inclined to sin because of the Fall? What possible reason could we have for developing one of our own when we have gained so much by eschewing the traditional doctrine? We cannot be accused of advocating the damnation of infants. We cannot be blamed for fostering a negative self-image in those who adhere to our beliefs. We escape the difficulties of reconciling the doctrine with a concept offree agency. We do not arouse the repugnance many people feel toward the doctrine of original sin and we can accept philosophical and psychological theories based on a positive view of human nature. We can also avoid the authoritarian ideas of government and child rearing often associated with it. Besides all this, isn’t it false? Doesn’t it contradict some of our basic doctrines?
Before we so easily dismiss this doctrine, however, we should consider the role it plays in traditional Christian theology. There is a distinction between the questions a doctrine attempts to answer or the concepts it seeks to clarify and the ways it does so; that is, a doctrine may be false and yet important. The central belief of Christianity is that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, provided an atonement for humankind, that we may be redeemed through him. Redeemed from what? The doctrine of original sin answers the question. Who is in need of redemption? The doctrine of original sin supplies an answer. The central purpose of the doctrine is to describe the universality of sin and humanity’s universal need of redemption. It poses the problem to which the Atonement and the Plan of Salvation are the solution. Without a clear understanding of the problem, the solution cannot be appreciated.
Since the concepts of the Atonement and the Plan of Salvation are also central to Mormon theology, the question can be asked: If Mormon theology [p.131]simply does away with the concept of original sin, declaring it false, how does it fill the gap? What concept does it have that describes the universality of sin and our universal need of redemption? That these ideas are an important part of our beliefs can be shown by citing a few scriptures. “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). “[I]f there should be no atonement made all mankind must be lost” Jac. 7:12). “[TJhere must be an atonement made or all mankind must unavoidably perish” (Alma 34:9). “[T]hus all mankind were lost and behold, they would have been endlessly lost were it not that God redeemed them from their lost and fallen state” (Mos. 16:4). I am not saying that these scriptures prove the doctrine of original sin or that given our belief in them we ought to embrace the doctrine of original sin in order to be consistent. The universality of sin and the universal need for redemption, rather, require an explanation or clarification, the traditional doctrine of original sin being but one possibility.
Many Mormons would, no doubt, argue that our concept of the Fall provides such an explanation. Of course, the doctrine of original sin is based on the traditional interpretation of the Fall and because we can point out problems in d1is interpretation, we seem to think that we have refuted the doctrine of original sin. Unlike traditional Christianity, we see the Fall not as a disruption but as a necessary part of God’s plan for us. Mortality has definite and necessary purposes, and the Fall was anticipated and provided for even before the foundation of the world was laid. Our interpretation raises the estimation of Adam and Eve over that of the traditional interpretation. They are not to be blamed but praised, for they made it possible for us to enter mortality and thus proceed on the path toward exaltation.
From our conception of the Fall some Mormons conclude that Adam’s and Eve’s partaking of the forbidden fruit was not really a sin. They reason that since the Fall was part of the plan, Adam and Eve must have chosen according to God’s will and surely to do so could not be a sin. Some have argued that Adam and Eve did not sin in partaking of the fruit because there was never a commandment against it. The prohibition against eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was really a statement of the consequences that would follow the eating of the fruit: “If you eat the fruit, then you will die.” Instead of a commandment with a prescribed punishment we have a statement of cause and effect. According to this view it was eating the fruit itself which corrupted the bodies of Adam and Eve, changing them into mortal bodies.
I see several problems with these lines of reasoning. The first argument, that Adam and Eve could not have sinned because the Fall was necessary, [p.132]obscures the distinction between “necessary” and “good,” which can lead to the belief that whatever is is good and a denial of the reality of evil. This interpretation of the commandment not to partake of the fruit as a statement of cause and effect is not consistent with the scriptures. Sometime after leaving the Garden of Eden, Adam was told by God that he had forgiven him of his transgression in the Garden. If the transgression were not a sin but merely a choice with certain unpleasant consequences, why would forgiveness be necessaty? God had said, “Thou shalt not eat of it” and “Remember that I forbid it.” If this is not the logical form of a commandment, what is?
The idea that the Fall was not a punishment for a sin but a natural consequence of a conscious choice ignores the fact that an action may have both natural and legal consequences. Because we suffer natural consequences of breaking laws does not mean that we will not be called to account for doing so by the appropriate authority and receive the prescribed punishment. Because I break my arm and wreck my car while speeding does not mean that the law will fail to impose the penalties for a traffic violation. God’s response to Adam’s and Eve’s breaking of his commandment was not, “You see what has happened to you. Well, I warned you about that.” He called them to account for their deed. He told them what their punishment would be and effected it himself by driving them out of the Garden of Eden. Perhaps eating the fruit brought about the temporal death of Adam and Eve, but God himself sent them out of his presence, thus, effecting a spiritual death.
My final objection to this softened interpretation is that by minimizing the spiritual effects of the Fall it fails to answer the central question answered by the doctrine of original sin: Why is it impossible for human beings to be sinless? Those following the softened interpretation point out that all will be resurrected because of the atonement of Christ. Mortality, that which we inherit from our first parents, will be overcome by Christ because it is not just that we should pay for their sin. Thus the individual is essentially unaffected by the Fall. He or she is free to work out his or her own salvation, to choose good or evil and then be judged according to his or her works. But what about spiritual death or alienation from God? Don’t we inherit it as part of the human condition? We know that spiritual death is being cut off from the presence of the Lord, but what effect does this have upon our spirits and their capacities? Christ may atone for this first spiritual death since everyone will be brought back into God’s presence for judgment, but that does not mean spiritual death has no effects in mortality. Neither does the fact of universal resurrection mean that possessing a temporal body does not affect us while we are mortal.
[p.133]If our doctrine of the Fall does not replace a concept of original sin then our ideas on the nature of humanity might seem to do so. Usually the doctrine of original sin is thought to define the nature of humanity. Human beings after the Fall are evil in their very nature, naturally inclined to do evil, incapable of meriting salvation, worthy only of damnation. Mormons are not comfortable with such characterizations. We prefer to emphasize the positive aspects of human nature.
Since we believe that our basic intelligence was uncreated, that our spirits are the offspring of God, that we have the potential of becoming gods ourselves, some Mormons argue that human beings must be essentially good. This, of course, would mean that the Mormon doctrine of the nature of humanity directly contradicts that defined by the doctrine of original sin. However, our beliefs concerning the premortal existence do not necessarily affirm our essential goodness. To be uncreated is not necessarily to be essentially good. Indeed, if we believed that God had created our basic intelligences we would be in a better position to affirm our essential goodness but in a worse position for affirming God’s. Our teachings concerning pre-mortality indicate that as spirits we exercised agency and attained different degrees of intelligence or spiritual power or godliness. Satan and those who followed him were also children of God, yet they rebelled against him, showing themselves capable of willing and choosing evil.
Neither does our belief that we can become gods affirm our essential goodness. It seems to me that our concept of free agency makes the question of whether humankind in general is essentially good or essentially evil meaningless. Isn’t part of the purpose of our mortal probation to answer the question for each individual? We are potential gods, but also potential devils and potential terrestrial beings and potential telestial beings. Our choices will determine our essential being; we are now ongoing projects.
We should remember that other Christians, too, believe that human beings have a divine potential, maybe not the potential to become gods, but to become sinless and live with God in glory. They also have a doctrine analogous to our doctrine of the pre-existence: the doctrine of original righteousness, which affirms that humanity as God created it was naturally good. This doctrine enables orthodox Christians to affirm that God’s original creation was good and to place the responsibility for evil on humanity’s choice. It also gives them a positive view of human potentiality; some of them even use it to distinguish between our essential nature and our sinful condition and to show how we are able to fulfill whatever requirements [p.134]their particular doctrine of redemption sets for us. Yet these orthodox theologians still maintain some interpretation of the doctrine of original sin.
Some Mormons would not claim that human nature is basically good but rather that we are dualistic beings, our spirits being the good part of us and our bodies being the evil. Either the spiritual part will bring the carnal part into subjection or the physical part will pervert and change the spiritual part. Although there is something to be gained in seeing humanity as dualistic, seeing the spirit as the good part and the body as the evil part leads to difficulties. It tends to make us believe that the worst sins (or even the only sins) are physical sins such as sexual sins, lust, gluttony, self-indulgence, and sloth. We forget the spiritual sins, such as pride, the will to dominate others, unbelief, mistrust, envy, and hatred and ignore the spiritual component in physical sins. Certainly the body introduces some desires and appetites to the spirit, as well as enabling it to fulfill them, but it is the spirit which desires, wills, reasons, and chooses. All commandments are spiritual because they are addressed to the spirit.
This dualistic view of humanity purportedly escapes the doctrine of original sin by showing that we are not totally depraved because only part of us, the physical part, was affected by the Fall. Yet, in fact, this raises another problem: it obscures the Mormon belief in the basic goodness of the body. Part of the reason for entering mortality was to obtain a body. A person may sin by not keeping the appetites of the body within permitted bounds, but that would not be the fault of the body but of the spirit. Also this view assumes that the spirit is essentially good, but neither pre-earth history nor the eternal potential of the spirit substantiates this. This view also assumes that the spirit is unaffected by its fall into mortality. Can we simply assume this? Given such considerations, I think it is clear that the Mormon doctrines of the Fall and our teachings about the pre-mortal nature of spirits and our post-mortal potential do not rule out a doctrine like that of original sin. But what would be the content of a Mormon concept of original sin?
The traditional concept of original sin distinguishes between universal sin and personal sin. Personal sins are inevitable because humanity is inherently evil and thus every person will inevitably sin. Mormons usually assume that everyone has sinned or will sin, hence all people are in need of redemption through the Atonement, but usually no reason is given for the inevita .. bility of sin. It is just regarded as an observed phenomenon, an obvious fact of life. But how can we know beforehand, for every individual, that he will sin? If we really believe in free agency and there is nothing in the human na-[p.135]ture that necessitates his doing evil, is there not a possibility that someone will completely avoid sin?
The essence of the doctrine of original sin, which I believe we must accept if we affirm the universal need for redemption, is that as human beings we must sin because we are human, we cannot avoid sinning. A Mormon concept of original sin, then, must explain why we cannot avoid sinning. Before proceeding with an explanation for the inevitability of sin, however, I need to give a working definition of sin. The story of the Fall illuminates the nature of sin. Adam and Eve partook of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In doing so they sinned, for they transgressed God’s specific commandment to them. This is a traditional definition of sin; to sin is to break a commandment of God. Satan had promised Eve that if she partook of the fruit she would become as the gods, knowing good and evil. That in this he did not promise falsely is shown by God’s words: “Behold, the man is become as one of us to know good and evil” (Moses 4:28). The tree of the knowledge of good and evil symbolizes the law, for it is through the law that we are able to distinguish good from evil, that is, the law defines good and evil. “And if ye shall say there is no law, ye shall say there is no sin,” Lehi taught (2 Ne. 2: 13), and Paul wrote, “[F]or by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). The nature of sin, then, depends on the nature of the law. The law need not be given as a set of revealed commandments. We have the law by virtue of being reasonable beings, by possessing the light of Christ or the ability to understand truth. Can we meet the demands of the law? For Adam and Eve to partake of the fruit (to know the law) was to sin. Can we avoid sin if we know the law? If we cannot, then sin is inevitable.
I would like to suggest three reasons why sin is inevitable. They have to do primarily with the nature of our fallen world and the conditions to which it subjects us rather than with human nature itself. In my discussion of the reasons for the inevitability of sin, I will consider the situation of a person who desires to do right, of one who knows the law and has committed herself to keeping it. I will do this, not because I suppose that all people are thus, but because I want to analyze the most hopeful case for sinlessness and show that even for the best of us, sin is inevitable.
The story of the Fall symbolizes each of the three reasons I will give for the necessity of sin. When Eve confronted Adam with the fact that she had already partaken of the forbidden fruit, he was faced with the first moral dilemma: two commandments had been given him and it was impossible for him to keep both of them. He had every intention of keeping all God’s commandments, but he found himself in a situation where it was impossible for [p.136]him to do so. On the one hand, God had commanded him not to partake of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. On the other hand, he had commanded Adam and Eve to multiply and replenish the earth. Since Eve had partaken of the forbidden fruit, she would be cast out of the Garden of Eden so it would be impossible for Adam to keep the commandment to multiply if he should choose not to partake of the fruit his wife offered him. Adam deliberately chose to enter a fallen world, sacrificing moral rectitude for love.
Adam’s dilemma symbolizes a condition of our fallen world: commandments conflict; it becomes impossible to keep all of them. Such conflicts are not necessarily simple logical conflicts between any of the commandments. They usually arise because someone has sinned, but the sin is not always directly traceable to the one who faces the dilemma.
The classic example of the conflict between commandments involves the commandment to be obedient to those in authority over us. But what should we do if a legitimate authority commandsus to do something wrong? Then, because of his sin, we face a moral dilemma. Some seek to resolve this dilemma by maintaining that in such a case we are no longer under obligation to obey him. Others would resolve it by claiming that in such an instance we ought to obey him, but he would have to assume the full responsibility for our actions in doing so. Both solutions resolve the dilemma by introducing a new law which tells us what to do in case of a conflict between two other laws, but they differ as to what they think the law should be. But would either solution really resolve it? The situation involves judgments on many different levels. How do we know that a conflict between two commandments really exists? What degree of authority does the leader in question really have over us? Is there another authority over us commanding an opposite action? How do we know that what he commands is wrong? Do we have the same amount of information and experience enabling us to judge the situation as he does? What if we know that he considers his directive to be absolutely right? What effect would our disobedience have on others? Which commandment is more important, the commandment to obey authority or the one that we would be breaking by doing so? But whatever we choose, if we face a dilemma, we will inevitably break a commandment and thus reap the natural, if not the legal consequences of our action. Despite our best intentions, we will have broken a commandment and have sinned.
It is, indeed, the person with the best intentions who is faced with moral dilemmas, the reflective man who sincerely strives to fulfill all his duties. The unreflective but morally sincere person sees only the command-[p.137]ment immediately before him. Lehi teaches that Adam and Eve could have had no children if they had not partaken of the fruit. But until Eve, who had her eyes opened with the knowledge of good and evil, had pointed it out to him, Adam had apparently seen no conflict between the two commandments God had given him.
Does it seem unjust of God to have placed Adam and Eve in a situation where they would inevitably sin, no matter what they chose? Yes, it does and this aspect of the Fall must be faced. One of the great tasks of the theologian has always been to justify God to humankind, to show how God is not responsible for evil. The story of the Fall seems to implicate God heavily. He gave Adam and Eve two contradictory commandments; he placed a tempting tree in full view; he allowed Satan, an opposing force, to enter the Garden. It almost seems as if the Pall were prearranged. Of course, our concept of the Pall regards it as part of the Plan of Salvation. But then weren’t Adam and Eve following God’s will in effecting it? And how can it be a sin to follow God’s will?
But Adam and Eve did not partake of the fruit in a conscious effort to forward God’s plan. Eve yielded to Satan’s temptation and Adam partook of it to remain with Eve and father children. It was not until later when the Plan of Redemption was explained to them that they recognized their choice had been the right one. “Yes, it was God’s will,” they realized. And if God wants us to come to a world where sin is inevitable then does he want us to sin, too? Of course, Adam and Eve chose freely both in the Garden of Eden and in the councils of heaven, for we believe that all of us chose to come here knowing the inevitability of sin and, to some degree, what it would require to return to God’s presence. This helps to free God from the responsibility of sin, but if anyone should still accuse God we can answer that God himself in the atonement of Jesus Christ is willing to bear the responsibility for all our sins. If he wanted us to sin it was not in order to punish us because he is willing to pay the price for all of us.
The second condition of mortality which makes sin inevitable is humanity’s finitude. Finitude includes egocentricity and limitations in power and knowledge. In a sense, these do describe human nature, but they are concerned with human capacities, which are neither good nor evil, rather than with inner characteristics such as individual will and desires, which may be good or bad. These capacities seem to be affected by the physical laws of our world. I am not implying that our spirits before the Pall were not subject to some kind of finitude or claiming that finitude is itself a sin. I merely wish to show that in this world, given the nature oflaw and sin, our degree of finitude makes sin inevitable.
[p.138]In the story of the Fall finitude is symbolized by nakedness. The one piece of knowledge that we are told Adam and Eve received from partaking of the fruit was the knowledge that they were naked. After partaking of the fruit they became ashamed of their nakedness and sought to hide it; they became self-conscious. Perhaps, then, our egocentricity is a result of the Fall. Egocentricity is the state of being directly limited to one’s own feelings, thoughts, desires, and will, being able to act only on one’s own motives, and being naturally disposed to favor oneself and regard oneself as the most important. Because we are egocentric does not mean that we cannot empathize or learn about another’s point of view or act unselfishly, but in order to do so we must exert imagination, will, reason, and spiritual power.
It is not difficult to see how egocentricity is the source of much sin. Who would injure another if he were forced also to feel the pain himself? But it requires an effort of the will and imagination to learn and remember that another is a self like oneself. It seems that in mortality it is impossible to completely overcome egocentricity. Even when the lesson has been learned and the commitment made to regard others as just as important as oneself and to try to empathize with them, the sheer numbers of people with whom anyone person interacts make it impossible for him to achieve empa~ the tic knowledge of each of them all the time.
Lack of power also leads to sin. I have said that being ashamed of nakedness symbolizes egocentricity. What does nakedness itself symbolize? Clothing can symbolize power and lack of clothing can symbolize a lack of power. What powers does humanity lack in this telestial state? To answer this question it is instructive to ask what powers we consider to be supernatural or what powers we seek to gain through science, magic, religion, or reason. We have some power over distance through our eyes and ears and feet, but we seek extensions of these powers: the power to see or hear things far away or very small or very large, the power to be quickly where we are not. We seek power over time; memory gives us some power over the past and our ability to plan and carry out our plans gives us some control of the future, but we seek extensions of these powers. We seek power over natural objects and elements. Through reason, science, and technology we have in, creased our control of natural objects, but this control is always reducible to matter acting upon matter. We have some power over the animal and plant worlds, but it is not complete. We also seek to obtain power over others; there are, of course, ways of obtaining such power but it is always incom, plete. We even lack complete power over ourselves. Disease, accident, con, genital imperfections, and death exert their influence. Conflicting desires, [p.139]failing memory, and other mental imperfections make our power over ourselves incomplete. Limitations in power can prevent a benevolent person from accomplishing her good intentions, though it is equally true that were our powers increased, some of us would probably be involved in greater sin than we are now. In addition a person often sins in attempting to gain these powers. It is not nakedness itself but knowing that we are naked that causes us to sin, for we seek to cover our nakedness by grasping power and there afe laws governing the use of power. In order to use power without sinning, we must already have achieved perfect knoledge and benevolence.
Nakedness can also symbolize a lack of knowledge. Incomplete knowledge also leads to sin. A person might seek a good goal but be ignorant of the means whereby the goal could be achieved. Someone might want to do good to another person but lack the knowledge of that person’s real needs and do him harm instead. A person might seek to do the right thing by considering the consequences of her actions, but it is impossible for her to know exactly what they will be or all the effects her actions will have.
Furthermore we have the capacity of thinking only one thing, of performing only one task at one particular moment. Thus if someone is fulfilling one duty, he is probably neglecting another. To set up a hierarchy of duties or to establish priorities does not solve this problem. How can we be sure that the hierarchy is valid? How do we fit the duty to the time? Knowing that one duty is more important than another does not mean that duty should always take precedence over the other; otherwise, the less important duty would never be accomplished. How do we know that a particular action fulfills a particular duty? Some duties, to love our neighbor, for example, are always incumbent upon us.
The third condition which accounts for the inevitability of sin might be termed the solidarity of humankind. When God asked Adam, “Hast thou eaten of the tree whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldst not eat?” Adam replied, “The woman thou gavest me and commandest that she should remain with me, she gave me of the fruit of the tree and I did eat.” When God asked Eve what she had done, she said, “The serpent beguiled me and I did eat.” It is tempting to see Adam’s and Eve’s answers as excuses or rationalizations and this as the beginning of the reprehensible universal tendency to palm off guilt onto others, to dishonestly refuse to accept the responsibility for personal sin.
Were Adam and Eve really trying to escape responsibility? What does it mean for a person to accept responsibility for something she did? Two things seem to be involved. To accept responsibility one must acknowledge herself [p.140]as the cause of something; she must admit that her choice led to a particular event or chain of events. This implies that she recognizes that she could have done otherwise. She must also submit herself to any authority that may have jurisdiction over her act and accept whatever punishment is justly imposed. Did Adam and Eve refuse responsibility for their act, then? Not at all; they both admitted, “I did eat.” They told God why they had done so, but neither suggested that the one who had influenced them should bear all the responsibility. Adam’s answer indicates that he was pointing out the genuine dilemma he had faced. God had commanded him to remain with Eve, and he had chosen to keep that commandment rather than the one not to eat the fruit. Eve told God that the reason she had partaken of the fruit was that the serpent had deceived her; she had thought she was doing the right thing. God accepted their reasons; he didn’t chastise them for failing to recognize their own guilt. Adam and Eve each received slightly different punishments because of their different degrees of culpability. And the serpent, who didn’t partake of the fruit at all but only influenced Eve, was also punished, indicating that God considered him partially responsible for the act.
This points to another human dilemma: no one is ever totally responsible for what he does in the sense that his decision is the only causative factor in his choice. There are always reasons for a choice and many of these may be beyond the control of the principal agent. We cannot always choose our choices. “Men will be punished for their own sins,” our article of faith declares. But might not someone be responsible for influencing another to sin and thus be to some degree responsible for that person’s sins? And might not others in the same way be responsible to some degree for his sins? A great number of the commandments are concerned with our duties to other people. Through stewardship over them we may bear some responsibility for their sins. This is not to say that those committing the sins are exonerated from all responsibility for them, but those influencing them and having stewardship responsibilities over them may share the guilt. Does this make your sin my sin or is my sin another one: failing to teach you or provoking you or putting a stumbling block in your path or teaching you falsely? Would it be possible thus to preserve the discreetness of sin, holding each person strictly accountable only for her own sins? Surely it would be impossible to list all the sins that have ever been committed and then ascribe responsibility for each one to a particular person. It would be impossible, since such a list would certainly be infinite if only because it involves sins of omission. If it were possible to make such a list, then certainly there would be [p.141]many possible ways of doing so. How many sins were involved in World War II? How many in the fight my children just had?
Not only is it impossible to enumerate and assign responsibility for individual sins, but human solidarity means that many sins are group sins. Who is responsible for group sins, who for group failures? The revelation which states, “But it is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin” (D&C 49:20), indicates that all of us are in sin because we participate in unjust economic systems. Is it a sin for me to enjoy the riches of the earth and feed my children milk and honey while others starve? But how can I possibly avoid this sin? The phrase “the blood and sins of this generation” suggests that there are group sins. From my culture I will learn prejudices, false values, and distortions of reality, and I must necessarily participate in its social, economic, and political systems, which, if they are not celestial, certainly involve some degree of sin. The church is under commandment to build Zion, the holy city, with its celestial laws and systems. If we fail to do so, doesn’t each of us bear the responsibility? Can we be perfect if those with whom we associate are not? What does the commandment that we become one mean? Can we fulfill our responsibilities if we are not united? How does God fulfill his?
Besides providing an explanation for the inevitability of sin, a Mormon concept of original sin must account for two special cases, both of which the scriptures specifically declare to be sinless: little children and Jesus Christ. Does the sinlessness of little children or Christ mean that sin is not inevitable in a fallen world? Understanding why little children are considered sinless should make it clear that the Mormon concept of the status of little children does not conflict with but rather supports the concept of original sin that I have been developing.
The question as to whether or not little children can sin usually arises in the context of baptism. Our rejection of infant baptism has been considered as sufficient reason for rejecting the doctrine of original sin inasmuch as that doctrine supplies the rationale for infant baptism: if a corrupt nature is inherited, then baptism is necessary for even the youngest infant. Mormon doctrine has been clear on the subject of infant baptism. The prophet Mormon set forth the basic doctrine. Hearing disputations among the people concerning the baptism of little children, he inquired of the Lord and received this revelation:
Listen to the words of Christ, your Redeemer, your Lord and your God. Behold, I came into the world not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance; the whole need no physician, but they that are sick; [p.142]wherefore little children are whole, for they are not capable of committing sin; wherefore the curse of Adam is taken from them in me, that it hath no power over them; … (Mar. 8:8).
Mormon goes on to explain that little children need no repentance or baptism because “baptism is unto repentance to the fulfilling the commandments unto the remission of sins. But little children afe alive in Christ, even from the foundation of the world.” Little children are not capable of sinning. Why not? They have been known to lie, to steal, to be disobedient to authority, to break the commandments. Why is this not sin? Christ says, “The curse of Adam is taken away from them in me.” What is the curse of Adam? I have suggested that it is to be separated from God and to be made accountable to the demands oflaw. Twice Mormon declares that little children cannot repent; this is why they do not need baptism. Why can’t they repent? Is it simply because they have no need to or because they lack the capacity? Mormon’s words suggest that both are true and that perhaps the first is true because of the second. Since little children have no sins, they do not need to repent, but the reason they have no sins is that they are “alive in Christ” because of his mercy. “All they that are without the law” are also alive in Christ because “the power of the redemption cometh on all them that have no law.” The mercies of Christ are given to little children because they are incapable of understanding the law. The Curse of Adam has been taken from them because they have not yet partaken of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And not being able to understand the law, they certainly cannot repent, for repentance requires knowledge of a broken law and the demands of justice.
One thing seems clear from Mormon’s words: little children depend on the atonement of Christ for their salvation. They are not saved because of their own merits. Those who teach that baptism is necessary for infants are correct in thinking that they are in need of mercy through the Atonement but wrong in the way they think its effects are applied to them. The sinlessness of Christ is more problematic. In the traditional doctrine he is exempted from original sin because of his divinity; his nature is divine rather than human. It is clear that Christ was not subject to the same degree of finitude that we are. He retained his powers of godhood or was given them gradually as he approached manhood, but he remained finite in many ways. It is not obvious that possessing a divine nature would enable Jesus to overcome the other conditions of a fallen world which have been shown to make sin inevitable. I cannot resolve this issue here, but the sinlessness of Christ is the revealed truth upon which our reasoning about the [p.142]nature of sin is based. He could not have atoned for our sins if he had not been sinless; the scriptures testify that he did and that he was.
I think that the resolution of this theological problem lies in a careful consideration of Christ’s relationship to the law. This suggests another direction that a concept of original sin might go and how such a concept can strengthen our theology. Having been developed to answer the questions posed by the doctrines of the universality of sin and the universal need for redemption, the concept of original sin itself gives rise to further questions: What is the nature of sin? How did Christ overcome the world? Is there a distinction between essential goodness and legal innocence? Can the law fully reveal the nature of righteousness? Although the revelations of the prophets should provide the truths from which we proceed in supplying answers to such questions, our own reasoning, or theologizing, is necessary if our answers are to be complete, harmonious, and coherent.