Ancestral Sin: The Fall And Its Consequences

Orthodox icon of the fall of mankind

In the Old Testament account of creation, God created mankind and established a place for him called Paradise. He also gave him a commandment regarding the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:16-17). In disobeying this commandment, Adam and Eve sinned, thus willingly departing from God’s path to perfection and separating themselves from Him Who is the Source of Life. In this, almost all Christian churches agree. However, when it comes to the details regarding the Fall and sin, the Roman West takes a different view than the Orthodox East. In this post, we explore the consequences of the Fall, highlighting the differences between the Western view of original sin and the traditional view held by the ancient Church, ancestral sin.

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

What are the consequences of the Fall?

The difference between original sin and ancestral sin manifests mainly in the consequences of the Fall. On some points here, the Eastern and Western churches agree, while on others they diverge.

We are mortal

First and foremost, the Fall caused mankind to become subject to mortality (Gen. 3:19). While the West often views this as a sort of punishment, or penalty, the East emphasizes the mercy of God in His judgments on Adam and Eve. St. Gregory the Theologian writes, “Yet here too He provides a benefit – namely death, which cuts off sin, so that evil may not be everlasting. Thus His punishment is changed into a mercy.”

Mankind has an inclination toward sin

Because all mankind fell away from the grace of God through Adam’s disobedience, man now has a propensity – a disposition or inclination – toward sin. Because just as death entered the world through sin, now sin enters the world through fear of death.

In the West, many Christian denominations insist that along with the inclination to sin, we enter this world with the guilt of Adam’s sin on our soul. This view came about through the teachings of Blessed Augustine of Hippo (c. 354-430 AD), whose teachings were (and still are) quite popular in Western Christianity. In the East, however, we maintain the view of the Church Fathers: we are guilty not because of Adam’s sin, but because of our own sin.

Sin mars the image of God in us

Because of our strong propensity to commit sin, the image of God in man (Gen. 1:26-27) is also fallen. In the West, Calvinism specifically tends to take this a bit too far, teaching the doctrine of total depravity. This essentially means that, as a consequence of the Fall, apart from the efficacious (irresistible) or prevenient (enabling) grace of God, every person born into this world is completely unable to choose by themselves to follow God, refrain from evil, or accept the gift of salvation. In other words, God must initiate the relationship and do all the heavy lifting. This view quite obviously necessitates the denial of free will.

Naturally, this contradicts the position of the early Church, which insists on the inherent goodness of human nature; after all, God is not the author of evil. That which He creates cannot be evil in its nature. Even in our fallen state, subject to ancestral sin, we are still capable of doing good. Although, bondage to death and the influence of the devil often dulls our perception of what is good and leads us into sin.

This creates a synergistic relationship between mankind and God, one in which we are fellow-workers with Him on the path to our salvation (1 Corinthians 3:9). If we are to achieve full fellowship with God, we cannot do so without His help. Yet we must also play our own part, making our contribution to this common work with God. Through synergism, we maintain our free will and ability to choose whether to walk with God or turn from Him.

Desire often goes out of control

Even after the Fall, the intellectual, desiring, and incensive (forceful/driving) aspects of the soul are natural and therefore neutral. They can be used in a good way, or in a bad, harmful way. For instance, desire is very good when one directs it toward God. But when desire is out of control, one may use it in very inappropriate ways, like becoming gluttonous or lusting after another person’s spouse.

The classic analogy is that these powers of the soul are like iron, which can be made into a plow to help grow food, or into a sword used to kill someone.

Other consequences of the Fall

Aside from all the other consequences we mentioned above, the Fall also brought with it things like sweat, toil, hunger, thirst, weariness, sorrow, pain, suffering, sickness, tribulations, tragedy, and tears. God allows them as the natural consequence of sin, and often they can be useful on our path to salvation and holiness.

How does the Church define Ancestral Sin?

Instead of original sin, which is used in Western Christianity, the Orthodox Church uses the term ancestral sin to describe the effect of Adam’s sin on mankind. We do this to make one key distinction; we didn’t sin in Adam (as the Latin mistranslation of Romans 5:12 implies). Rather we sin because Adam’s sin made us capable of doing so.

The Greek word for sin, amartema, refers to an individual act, indicating that Adam and Eve alone assume full responsibility for the sin in the Garden of Eden. The Orthodox Church never speaks of Adam and Eve passing guilt on to their descendants, as did Augustine. Instead, each person bears the guilt of his or her own sins.

How this impacts our understanding of salvation

Because Catholicism understands sin in legal terms, the West views sin and death as a debt and crime against God. Even if God forgives your sins, you must still pay for them with temporal punishment in Purgatory (note that most Protestants reject this). God essentially requires satisfaction both for the guilt of the sin and for the debt the believer owes God in payment. Therefore, salvation in Catholicism and Protestantism means satisfying God and avoiding punishment.

In contrast, Orthodox theology views sin as “missing the mark,” or failing to live up to the life expected of us by God. Therefore, our goal is not to miss the mark again. Salvation for the Orthodox means achieving theosis (becoming like God in the way we live our lives). The Orthodox Church does not teach temporal punishment, for God’s forgiveness cancels out the need for it. The Orthodox agree that forgiveness doesn’t “remedy all the disorders of sin” (CCC, 1459). However, we do not agree that the solution to this lies in making satisfaction for your sins. Instead, we teach that our behavior must change, and that we must reorient ourselves toward God.


Christ, by His Death and Resurrection, conquered the devil and death, freeing mankind from the fear of death (Heb. 2:14-15). He made possible a more complete communion between God and man than was ever possible before. This communion allows each of us to become “partakers of the divine nature”. It allows us to transcend death and, ultimately, the consequences of the Fall passed to us through ancestral sin.

Read More: 7 Differences Between Orthodoxy And Catholicism

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11 Responses

  1. ”Some in the West take this a bit too far, teaching the doctrine of total depravity”… ”the West”? this article willfully fuses Roman Catholicism with Protestantism (calvinism) under the ‘West’ banner. it is the fruit of ignorance I very much doub it, the fruit of intended confussion I hope not.

    1. Joshua,

      Christ is in our midst! Roman Catholicism is the foundation of Western Christianity and thus is part of “the West”. We will revise the sentence you cited to specifically refer to Calvinism. Our statement is neither the fruit of ignorance, nor the fruit of intended confusion; rather, it is merely the result of insufficient clarity. God bless!

      1. We do, in a wide sense, inherit the guilt of Adam though. That is why we are all born lacking God’s grace. In Roman catholicism there is “original sin” and “actual sin.” Catholicism teaches that we are only personally guilty of our actual sin not our original sin. Yet, because Adam was the father of mankind, we all suffer the consequences of his sin. In this sense are we said to be guilty of Adam’s sin. There is “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” This clearly shows that babies do have sin that needs to be forgiven. And if they’re too young to personally commit sin, then who’s sin is being remitted? For infants, “sin” is the lack of grace in their souls, and this lack of grace comes from Adam’s sin.

        1. Dan,

          Christ is in our midst. The Roman Catholic church teaches that all are “implicated in” (i.e. liable for) that first sin, per the teachings of Augustine of Hippo and the official catechism of the Roman Catholic church. Whereas the Orthodox believe that we only inherit the consequences of original sin. Thus for the Roman Catholic Church an unbaptized baby who dies cannot be saved because they believe we are born with the guilt of Adam’s original sin.

          The Orthodox Church, on the other hand, teaches that a child is born sinless and pure. Only Adam is guilty of his sin; we do not inherit his sin or guilt but only the consequences of his sin which is mortality and death. The Holy Mysteries exist to nourish our souls and bodies through participation in the life of the Church and union with God. Fulfillment of our intended purpose is not a “reward” per se, but instead is the natural condition of humanity. Therefore, not participating in the life of Christ is not punishment, but an illness of man’s soul and his whole being. It is an unnatural state, for which we were not created. Saint Gregory of Nyssa illustrates this by using the human eyes as his example. The capacity of our eyes to see is not a reward, but a natural condition of healthy eyes. And the inability to see is not a punishment but an illness of the human body. This is the same for the spiritual eyes of the soul: those who have purified their senses participate in seeing God’s light while those who have spiritually unclean eyes cannot participate in God and do not know Him. This is not a punishment, but a natural state of illness of the soul. Thus our participation in God or non-participation depends entirely on the state of the soul whether it is in a clean and healthy state or whether it is diseased.

          In babies, the state of their souls can only be in a state of purity because they have done nothing to make it impure. From his birth man experiences illumination of the nous. The nous is what the Fathers call the place where the spiritual heart and mind come together. When a person is created, his nous is in a state of illumination. It has been noticed many times that there are infants who pray, even in their sleep. As the child grows and passions develop, then the noetic part of his soul begins to darken.

          This brings us to the baptism of infants. Holy Baptism is not simply a means for “getting rid of original sin”. Rather, it is our participation in the very death and Resurrection of our Lord. By Baptism we are grafted on to the Body of Christ and we acquire the power to conquer death. This is how we understand the baptism of babies. We baptize them so that they may become members of the Church, members of the Body of Christ, so that they may pass over death and overcome the garment of decay and mortality. In other words, as children grow and the nous becomes darkened by the passions and evil in the world, through baptism they have the ability to conquer death in Christ, they have the ability through the Church to overcome the passions and cleanse and purify the noetic part of their souls once more. This ability remains with them into adulthood and with the help of the Holy Mysteries and ascetic struggles ordained by the Church as tools to help in the purification process, they can acquire the power to defeat death and attain theosis/salvation. For theosis is the purpose of baptism and it can only be achieved in Christ and in the Church.

          A child that dies before it is baptized does not mean that he/she too cannot receive deification. He/she is born pure and when he/she dies, he/she continues to exist in pureness. His/her soul has not become infected with darkness caused by sin, thus his/her soul remains healthy and in its natural state and is not prevented in any way from partaking of the divine light. We hope this explanation was helpful.

          God bless!

          1. All human beings are born without God’s grace. That is what original sin is, the lack of Divine grace in the soul. We lack this grace because of Adams sin. Baptism gives that gift of Divine grace to the soul. In other words we are born with original sin and baptism gives life, takes away that sin. This is an Eastern as well as western teaching which is why the creed says “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” If babies have no sin, what baptism do they receive? It doesn’t seem to be the one from the creed.. original sin is not the same thing as actual sin, which is sin we commit with our will and mind. Babies don’t have actual sin, but original sin

          2. Dan,

            Your explanation is correct; however, in Orthodoxy we differentiate this by using the term ancestral sin. Original sin imputes guilt upon each individual for Adam’s sin, when it is truly the consequence of the sin we experience, not the guilt. We baptize infants to graft them into the Body of Christ and allow them to participate in Christ’s death and resurrection, which gives us power over death. Ancestral sin cannot be cleansed completely, because we will all still experience its inevitable effect. God bless.

  2. Before my questions, I must say this essay is insightful and rational. Thank you and may you be blessed for sharing it.

    You wrote: Because all mankind fell away from the grace of God through Adam’s disobedience [how did all mankind fall because of what one (two) of them did?], man now has a propensity – a disposition or inclination – toward sin. [How did that propensity transmit? Corrupted genes? Observation that death is not an instant consequence? Or, as Hank Williams Jr might say, simply a family tradition?]
    Because just as death entered the world through sin, now sin enters the world through fear of death. [“Fear of death” is why I sin? If anything, I sin because I do not fear a consequence as much as I enjoy the immediate satisfaction. Or so it seems to me. Thoghts?]

    1. George,

      Christ is in our midst! You asked several questions, so let’s take a look at each. 1. How did all mankind fall because of what one/two of them did? When Adam and Eve sinned, in essence they pursued their own will rather than the will of God. This tendency toward self-will is, indeed, a “trait”, if you will, that is inherited by all their progeny. Even those who become Saints and successfully live their lives conforming their will to God’s, do so through a lifetime of abject struggle. It does not come “naturally” to us. (We suppose that somewhat answered your second question as well.) 3. A very thoughtful response, indeed. You are correct in a sense, that we do tend to overlook the consequences in favor of the gratification. However, we would posit that every sin, at its core, is done in service of death. Every action that “misses the mark” and deviates from God’s will serves the devil, the one who orchestrated the entrance of death and its captivity over us. We serve the devil out of fear, while we serve God out of love.

      We hope this helped clear things up a bit! Please feel free to follow up with us here. God bless!

  3. Thanks! So the trait, not the sin itself, was inherited. Corrupted chromosome(s). That must be passed only by fathers, since Jesus had Mary’s 23 but not the other 23 from a human father. Please don’t tell my wife about this — she used to say, when the kids acted up, that they got that from me. What you’re suggesting is she’s right! LOL.

    I still don’t see sin as being inspired by fear, but that’s OK. As you say, we all sin. The why is not so important. It’s obedience that matters, not the explanation.

    Thanks for your time and insights on this! Be blessed.

  4. We still Orthodox Churches Churches in England dating back before the Norman invasion. We have loads of history here. I live in a small town and we have 4 more recent ones. Great teaching and thank you very much. God bless.

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