This is the weekly Q & A blog post by our Research Professor in Philosophy, Dr. William Lane Craig.
Dear Dr Craig
I have recently been introduced to your videos and work and am really enjoying exploring the same further. I was also pleased to learn you obtained your PhD at Birmingham University in England, where I also studied. I pray you are guided to complete other good works and continue the excellent website and resource you have created at reasonablefaith.org.
My question is in regards to your response to question #549 on Original Sin. I was very interested to read your answer to this question as I have yet to see a cogent Christian response as to why this doctrine is compatible with a just God.
As justification for the concept of Original Sin you drew a parallel to the legal concept of Vicarious Liability (VL). Being a lawyer, I was interested how you would utilise the VL concept within this Christian doctrine. You state in your answer: “It should be emphasized that the employer is not being held liable for other wrongs, such as negligence or failure to supervise the employee. No, he may be entirely innocent and blameless, but the liability or guilt of the employee is imputed to him. So your objection is not peculiarly theological; the whole Western system of justice stands against it.
You go on to say that as our representative, the head of the human family, Adam (peace be upon him) acted on our behalf in front of God .."His misdeed was our misdeed because he acted as our proxy before God." If I understand you correctly, then you are saying that the concept of VL provides a parallel upon which we may understand Adam's mistake leading to each and every human being's account becoming "imputed" with a stain of sin. My contention however is that this is a false analogy because you have failed to correctly characterise the legal concept of VL which can be characterised by the following two-stage test:
- Consideration of the relationship between the primary wrongdoer and the person alleged to be liable, and whether that relationship is capable of giving rise to VL. In this context the person alleged to be liable must have a right, ability or duty to control the primary wrongdoer. This is easily found in the employer/employee relationship and hence its frequent use in Employment Law.
- Whether there is a sufficiently close connection between the wrongdoing and the reason for the relationship (i.e. the employment), to deem it fair and just to hold the person alleged to be vicariously liable. (So for example, a wrong committed by an employee whilst on holiday which has no connection to his employment would not give rise to such a finding of vicarious liability on the Employer.)
With the above in mind, looking closely again at your analogy with Adam and VL shows up its incorrect use.
- In cases of VL the "wrongdoer" is the one in the "weaker" position, namely the employee and the one held liable is the one in the "stronger" role (the strength being represented by financial resources). However, in the case of Adam and us, as you say Adam is "the federal head of the human race, Adam stands before God as our representative and so acts on our behalf." Therefore, Adam is clearly the one in the stronger or leadership position. Applying the case of Adam to VL would be the same as holding the employee responsible for the actions of the employer!
- Building upon (i) above - the doctrine of VL is only deemed just if both stages of the two stage test set out above are found. I suggest to you that neither part of the test is fulfilled in the Christian doctrine of Original Sin. For neither are we (or were we ever) in a position to have a "right, ability or duty to control" the actions of Adam or is there a sufficiently close connection between us and him (this clearly cannot be the case as we were not even alive at that time). Now if you contend, as you do towards the end of your answer, that God in his eternal and infinite knowledge knew that we would do the same as Adam if we had been in his position, then this begs the question - if God can impute sin on us knowing that we would have done something, even though we are not given the opportunity to actually commit that sin - then is this not either unjust or if he can do it once in this situation, then why can he not have judged all our actions in pre-eternity and placed us directly into heaven or hell?
In conclusion, please respond to the following:
- Do you agree that your attempt to defend the doctrine of Original Sin by using the analogy of VL is flawed?
- If you do not accept (a) above please explain how you maintain the link between the two? If your answer is that VL was meant to illustrate that on occasions innocent third parties can be held liable for the actions of others under Western law, then I would agree, however you have yet to demonstrate the true analogy which I think can be summarised as follows: The President of the United States commits perjury. The judge sends a message to all that perjury in such high office is not to be tolerated and orders that every man, woman and child in America (born and unborn; now and for all times) is sentenced to 10 years imprisonment forthwith.
This is the problem that as a Christian I feel you must address. (In your answer to the question you suggested the example of a new car broken by Adam which was then passed on to each of us. However, again I believe this analogy falls short of the mark. Rather than being a gift handed down to us in a broken form from Adam, Original Sin is rather better characterised as a lack of free Will, because we have no choice in sinning ("non posse non peccare" as you state). How then is it just for God to mandate this upon us and not just Adam - how do you justify our suffering for his mistake?)
I hope you take the time to read and respond to my question as I know many people, both non-Christians and Christians alike have this same question.
With kind regards,
Dr. William Lane Craig’s Response
Thank you very much for your interesting question, Rizwan! I encourage readers to review Question #549 before reading my response. Familiarity with the earlier question will help us to see how a lack of careful attention to my argument has created misimpressions.
For the sake of succinctness, let’s go straight to your questions.
(a) Do you agree that your attempt to defend the doctrine of Original Sin by using the analogy of VL is flawed?
I do not agree; you have misunderstood the role the appeal to VL plays in my defense. My answer was given in response to a very specific question. The heart of the reader’s objection was “the ethical problem of my being condemned on behalf of another,” which he held to be “illogical.” It was in response to that objection that I appealed to VL to show that the condemnation of one person for the wrong-doing and crimes of another is an established part of Western systems of justice. So, as I said, the whole Western system of justice stands against his objection.
That’s all the appeal to VL is intended to show. I do not use it to explain or justify the imputation of Adam’s sin to us. It is meant only to remove the objection that it is unethical and illogical for one person to be condemned for the wrongs of another. End of point.
Thus, the disanalogies between VL and Adam’s relationship to us which you quite rightly note are irrelevant, since I have not appealed to VL as an analogy to that relationship. There is, by contrast, a relationship between Christ and us which does allow VL to serve as a very tight analogy of the imputation of our sins to Christ, namely (i) Christ as God stands to us in a relationship of superior to subordinate, and (ii) Christ as God has the right and the power (though not the duty) to prevent our wrongdoing. So he can be held vicariously liable for our sins. But you will notice by its conspicuous absence that I made no such claim about Adam and us.
So for my defense of the imputation of Adam’s sin to us, you need to move on to the next paragraph, where I ask, “How can we make sense of Adam’s sin being imputed to us?” Here you’ll find two points that are my defense of the Doctrine of Original Sin. Neither appeals to VL. Specifically, I do not appeal to VL to make sense of Adam’s being our proxy before God. Nor does VL play a role in God’s knowing what each of us would have done if we were in Adam’s shoes (figuratively speaking!).
With regard to God’s knowledge you protest,
if God can impute sin on us knowing that we would have done something, even though we are not given the opportunity to actually commit that sin - then is this not either unjust or if he can do it once in this situation, then why can he not have judged all our actions in pre-eternity and placed us directly into heaven or hell?
This is based on a misunderstanding, Rizwan. In discussion of how God judges the unevangelized, I have said that I do not think it would be just of God to judge us for deeds we would have done but did not actually do. So God does not condemn you because you would have done the same thing as Adam had you been there instead. Rather my point was that in view of God’s middle knowledge no one can complain that Adam misrepresented him before God. No one can complain, “Yeah, well, I wouldn’t have eaten the fruit!” God knows that you would have. I concluded, “So Adam does not fail to represent us accurately before God and so serves as an apt representative on our behalf.”
(b) If you do not accept (a) above please explain how you maintain the link between the two? If your answer is that VL was meant to illustrate that on occasions innocent third parties can be held liable for the actions of others under Western law, then I would agree, however you have yet to demonstrate the true analogy which I think can be summarized as follows: The President of the United States commits perjury. The judge sends a message to all that perjury in such high office is not to be tolerated and orders that every man, woman and child in America (born and unborn; now and for all times) is sentenced to 10 years imprisonment forthwith.
I don’t accept (a) or maintain any link between VL and the imputation of Adam’s sin. You’ve not been sufficiently attentive to my argument. Your Presidential analogy is wholly flawed, for it fulfills neither of the two conditions I lay down for the just imputation of Adam’s sin. The President neither represents me nor does God know that I would have done the same thing had I been in his situation.
The answer to the question in your final paragraph, “How then is it just for God to mandate this upon us and not just Adam - how do you justify our suffering for his mistake?” just is my answer to Question #549, once it is properly understood.