Jesus, Original Sin, the Sufficient Reason for Suffering, and Thomas Aquinas

Jesus came and was crucified two thousand years ago. Wasn’t that supposed to quell God’s wrath against humanity? Jesus was supposed to have gone up to heaven in a cloud with the intention of being back quickly. He’s still not back. What’s going on here? The original sin thesis for ongoing natural evils, aging, corruption, and death (if taken seriously) begs questions surrounding the principle of sufficient reason. None of the reasons offered (so far as I can tell) get anywhere near to being sufficient to explaining the horror and magnitude of suffering in the world, and now I read in Thomas Aquinas himself that God is directly and actively withholding his protection from human beings because of Adam and Eve’s departure from First Reason. Here’s Thomas Aquinas in Summa Contra Gentiles, Book IV, ch. 52:

[We Christians] affirm that man was, from the beginning, so fashioned that as long as his reason was subject to God, not only would his lower powers serve him without hindrance; but there would be nothing in his body to lessen its subjection; since whatever was lacking in nature to bring this about God by His grace would supply.

In other words, Aquinas is saying that the covenant (deal, bargain) God made with Adam and Eve was this: if they subjected their reason and will to God, then God would, by his grace, prevent their composite bodies (bodies consisting of parts) from disintegrating into corruption and death.

But Adam and Eve didn’t keep their side of the bargain, so God withdrew his grace. He let them age, corrupt, dissolve, die.

Put another way, the human body tends toward falling apart. Dissolution is the result of its potential as something composite reaching its actualization. In Thomism, this is called “potency” and “act”: all composite things posses potencies that are only sometimes actualized. Wood, for example, can become fire. It’s one of its potencies.

Likewise, if Adam and Eve had never sinned; if they had submitted their reason and will to God, then their bodies’ potential for corruption, by God’s grace, would never have manifested.

This means that if a lion had tried to eat Adam and Eve, or a storm to batter them, they would have gone on living by God’s ongoing miraculous protection and grace, but that was withdrawn after they stopped submitting their reason and will to God, and so their “potency” for corruption and death became their “actuality” (they really and truly aged and died). This withdrawal of God’s grace from them as composite beings has continued down to this day, to their descendants. We, Adam and Eve’s descendants, are being punished for our distant parents’ sin.

This is the doctrine of original sin.

This isn’t God wishing it were different. This is God actively letting the battering torment of composite potency turned to actuality go on and on for no apparently sane reason (Adam and Eve disobeyed orders they barely comprehended in the first place, and now their descendants go through excruciating decomposition, unprotected by God, to this day).

What am I missing in the original sin thesis that makes it plausible? And why would one ever give oneself over to the worship of such an inscrutable deity?

Is it fear of additional punishment and hell? What other reason could it be?

Here are some more questions: Is original sin really a sufficient reason for tsunamis wiping out 100,000 people at a time? Has God justly withheld his (her?) protection from Adam and Eve’s descendants? What’s the sophisticated explanation here that I’m missing? What’s the higher good that this ongoing and active withdrawal of God’s protection from Adam and Eve (and their descendants) producing? Why is God prolonging this withdrawal of protection?

I simply don’t understand. Explanations?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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24 Responses to Jesus, Original Sin, the Sufficient Reason for Suffering, and Thomas Aquinas

  1. There is nothing to understand. It’s all make believe BS. Now that you’ve asked the question this way I’ll bet apologists will say something that brings into question their god’s omnipresence, omnipotence, omniscience etc. and the ball will be bounced from bumper to bumper with the occassional flipper action to keep it in play until it eventually falls down the slot and they will agree to disagree.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I’m curious. Have you not seriously sought answers to these questions?
    Maybe you disagree with the answers Catholic websites offer , or the online Catholic Catechism, but I would expect you to at least research those arguments first rather than imagining what they might be.

    Specifically, what makes original sin plausible is that we do “age, corrupt, dissolve, die,” but still think that it shouldn’t be that way. Your recent posts seem to insist that some injustice is being done those who propose an answer to that question.

    We all know that that animal and plants die and don’t seem to phased about that fact. However, we all seem to wonder why we die. It’s as though we thought that this was not suppose to be our fate. Why?

    • Santi Tafarella says:


      Original sin is not remotely plausible as the explanation for death because we now know, via the sciences, that death and change existed in the cosmos long, long before Adam and Eve (the first humans) hit the scene and sinned. God’s method for life’s evolution entails an often brutal process of competition and death, something Aquinas had no understanding of, living 600 years before Darwin.

      The injustice in thinking that our sufferings, deaths, and the human and natural evils that befall us (from such things as dictators, psychopaths, and earthquakes, etc.) are things we have coming to us because of sin and God’s wrath is obscene. And Jesus supposedly paid for our sins anyway, yet doesn’t come back to make things right now.

      Think about that. The apostle Paul (for example) believed that the logic of his theological system was such that Jesus should be back–and would be back–in his own lifetime. And it never happened. It was a failed prediction.

      Yet the religion kept going.

      So what sort of psychopathic God prolongs the ordeal of human history, and puts such a cruel trip on finite human beings? What higher good has come to God’s purposes (for example) in letting accusations against the Jews of deicide transform into genocide (the Holocaust) 2000 years later? How could the Holocaust reasonably fit into a good deity’s higher plan? (“I needed to let this happen because…”)

      And why would God threaten humans with an eternal Auschwitz (hell) if they don’t believe the narrative? It’s crazy from top to bottom. There appears to be no sufficient reason for any of the traditional Orthodox narrative, and you’ve certainly not offered one yourself.

    • Alan says:

      The short answer is no! Santi has asked this question dozens of times but he was unhappy with the answers. Unable to challenge or refute the answer, he pretends said answers never came. It is a case of simple denial.

      • Santi Tafarella says:


        Because it focuses the mind, I’ll ask you about the Holocaust and the 2004 Christmas tsunami that killed over 100,000 people: what’s YOUR answer as to God’s sufficient reason for allowing these two historic events to happen? What greater good could possibly have been served by God allowing so many people to be so senselessly mowed down? If you were God, would you have allowed these things to occur?

        And how about the bubonic plague in Catholic Europe in the 1340s? It wiped out half the population. Did God have a sufficient reason for that as well? Do you seriously believe that these events can be blamed on God’s withholding of miraculous grace from us because the first human parents were wicked in His eyes, and we ourselves are their wicked offspring? Really? What subtle and sophisticated theology or philosophy am I missing here?

      • Alan says:

        I suppose the first subtlety your missing is that God was not created in your image and does not answer to your demands. A next subtlety you appear to be in denial of is Free Will. The Holocaust was willed, as you well know, by a bunch of psychopaths voted into office by a crushed and downtrodden electorate hoping for simple salvation from their depression. Interference by God would constitute interfering with man’s free will – which appears to be something the Germans should have been doing, but God rarely does.
        Tsunamis are caused by a dynamic earth with continental drift. This dynamic earth allows for life, as without the shifting plates, nutrients would not upturned to the benefit of life, and mountains would not arise promoting the free flowing of rivers and streams. The planet would stagnate and life as we know it would end. Every victim (or their parents) of the tsunami should have known but chose to ignore the risks. They made the decision (largely at a cultural level) to live with that threat. They were condemned not by God, but their own judgment. Plagues arise out of a dynamic biosphere – something also necessary for the continuance of life. Man, in Middle Age Europe, chose to live in filthy, crowded cities causing rare diseases to become plagues. They had thousands of years of domesticated living to figure this out but chose to focus their creativity on advancing the art of war instead. City sanitation was developed in the Bronze Age, but fell out of favor time and again. Again, condemned by their own bad judgment.

      • Santi Tafarella says:


        In one thread you say “we” caused the Holocaust, but in this thread you limit the damage to psychopaths. Here’s what you say above: “The Holocaust was willed, as you well know, by a bunch of psychopaths voted into office by a crushed and downtrodden electorate hoping for simple salvation from their depression.”

        So which is it?

        And would you or anybody else, in God’s safe and heavenly position, not under danger of life and limb, or under the spell of nationalist ideology, have allowed the Holocaust to occur, or participated in it?

        As to your notion of free will, the very fact that God lets us only live to 70 or so limits our free will. So you could say, “Why didn’t God, if he prefers free will to life, give humans a greater lifespan of, say, 140 years? That would have doubled our free will.” Obviously, maximizing free will (if it is not an illusion) is not God’s highest priority.

        In other words, the same argument can be applied to the Holocaust. Why give psychopaths unlimited free will? Once a psychopath is born, why does God, who knows that person is damaged, let that person go around causing mayhem? God could have short circuited the Holocaust with very, very little limit on free will (such as by giving Hitler a heart attack when he was in prison in the 1920s, or allowing one of those who attempted assassination on him to have succeeded, or even just giving Hitler a harsher judge in the 1920s). You act as if God’s hands were tied because he values the maximizing of free will. This clearly isn’t the case because he lets people die at young ages all the time.

        As for your we-don’t-have-to-live-by-coasts argument, and those in the Middle Ages needed to be cleaner, these are ludicrous “it’s-their-fault” critiques. Everybody lives with probabilities because we don’t have better options. That God has put us in contingent situations that can go catastrophically wrong needs to be accounted for as achieving some greater good, but you have not even attempted such an account. You’ve just cast blame away from The Boss. You’re a company man, to be sure. Justifying the ways of The Boss to the employees by blaming the employees. We’re not to judge, but to be judged. I get it. The Boss’s ways are not my ways. And The Boss has the daddy chair.

        You are a good little boy, and accompanying your goodness is servile/innocent/infantile reasoning to match. “Let the little children come unto me.”

      • Alan says:

        Santi: Us or psychopaths so which is it? Answer, provided by Santi (on the next thread): ‘the psychopaths, and … those complicitous after the orders went forth from Hitler’ ‘Those Complicitous’ were a bunch of otherwise ordinary humans just like us. Evil goes on every day, willed by man. More evil gets interrupted every day, also willed by man. Ludicrous is sloughing off the blame to God or the universe. Don’t want flies on your steak, put up a net! What makes you think you deserve anything yet you complain all day while languishing in a life better than any king of bygone centuries? Most mammals live five to ten years, most humans ever born have been dead by 25, and you complain of a life expectancy approaching 80.
        We put ourselves in contingent situations that oft go wrong and blame the universe for our folly.
        Santi Says: ‘That God has put us in contingent situations that can go catastrophically wrong needs to be accounted for as achieving some greater good, but you have not even attempted such an account.’ – Well, if you had bothered to read my post, you might have seen: ‘Tsunamis are caused by a dynamic earth with continental drift. This dynamic earth allows for life, as without the shifting plates, nutrients would not upturned to the benefit of life, and mountains would not arise promoting the free flowing of rivers and streams. The planet would stagnate and life as we know it would end.’
        An earth that supports life will have ‘natural disasters’. Tough love. Suck it up, and plan accordingly.
        You want to blame God ‘cause Europeans throughout the Middle Ages crapped in their streets and couldn’t be bothered to bath or clean their houses or clothes. We have all been granted free will, like it or else. Sewer systems were developed in the Bronze Age – blame God that those Europeans could not be bothered to incorporate any of the Roman civil technologies (which were still being built and operated in Byzantium next door).
        If you are unhappy with the universe we have been given (through no merit of our own), you should write a blog where you piss and moan and blame everything you don’t like on everybody else. That should fix it.
        Sorry if God is not the despot you want who dictates our lives and relieves us all of responsibilities.
        I’m not justifying anything, just pointing out the obvious.

  3. Santi Tafarella says:


    You asked why we should think it ought not to be our fate to die in the first place.

    But in such a question, what I’m hearing is this: Why would evolution evolve creatures who are maximally narcissistic, imagining themselves going on forever, absent suffering, and in a heavenly community with loved ones? And obviously on atheism a natural and simple answer presents itself: because it serves our evolutionary survival strategy. If we maximally value our ongoing existence, and the existence of our loved ones, we’ll look for ways of staying alive and comforting ourselves with thoughts of ongoing existence. If we imagine our relatives still alive after they’ve died, we reduce the sting of death, and preserve a narrative that we can go on defending. It preserves our community. It preserves our functioning.

    You don’t need an elaborate and fanciful metaphysical explanation for maximal human and community narcissism. An evolutionary-historical explanation suffices.

  4. Anonymous says:

    What I’m hearing you say as an answer, is that people have Faith, Hope and Love.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Okay, but I prefer to St. Paul’s “faith, hope, and charity,” Camus’ rebellion against the absurd, passion for the projects of now (not pie in the sky in some heavenly future), and solidarity with other beings in the same fucked situation that we are in (as beings unto death). Rebellion, passion, solidarity.

  5. Anonymous says:

    It looks to me like lack of preference for the 3 virtues is a little too weak of a description. It seems more like you want to wage an assault on them. Why the hostility?

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Solidarity sounds a tad more lefty and edgy than the archaic word “charity,” but I’m thinking of them in a close to similar fashion–as vaguely about compassion, empathy, and love.

      But you are right that I think that faith and hope are problematic. I’m more inclined to think of us as aboard a boat in open sea (akin to Stephen Crane’s short story, The Open Boat). Being adrift on an endless cosmic sea means, in Camus’ terms means: (1) Do not commit suicide. That is, choose to go on in the condition of being on that endless sea. (2) Accept reality exactly as it appears; do not pretend things are better than they are. This would exclude faith. (3) Be passionate about your projects in the present because there is no reason to hope that God or anything else will play the role of “deus ex machina” for us in the future. In other words, replace future hope with present passion. (4) Be in solidarity with those in the same tragic boat as you. In short, rebellion against the absurd, passion in projects, and solidarity with others.

      Perhaps the boat analogy is a horror to you, but that’s because you may not want to live in reality as it appears, so you switch out your confrontation with the absurd, not with rebellion against its invitation to suicide, nor with passion for your projects in the present, but with faith and hope in some future rescue. You want to fly away. I understand this sort of response. But the boat analogy is exactly what existentialists and a writer like Camus are trying to get us to come to terms with. How does one live in a world where appearances are bleak (we suffer and are beings toward death); where God and Nature do not answer to our longings; and where we’re in this floating global “boat” on a vast cosmic sea with other people? What do we do? Camus’ answer is not to commit suicide, but to rebel against that, and not to hope for a deus ex machina to bail us out, but to live in the passion of our present projects, with compassion for others. I think Camus is being honest and sensible, and that his novel, The Plague, is the model for how to get through such a life (somewhat). The question is how much honesty we want to have among those of us in the boat. Do we tell the truth, or do we build up false hopes and keep religion going so as not to alarm the children?

  6. Anonymous says:

    Hmm. I can understand why someone who thinks there is no God would think that his perception of reality is the true perception and how this would lead to despair. I can also understand how the same person would choose to pursue a passion even though it is meaningless (like re-arranging chairs on the Titanic) just to keep busy and not think about what is to come. I can also understand why a person would seek companionship to keep from being lonely….we are wired to be social.

    But I’m interested in exactly what is one rebelling is against? It seems that Camus has concluded that our lot is ultimately despair, so to distract himself from it, he recommends avoiding the conclusions by work, companionship and when that doesn’t work, loudly complaining (or rebelling?). I don’t really see this as accepting reality, but avoiding it.

    • Santi Tafarella says:


      Camus is rebelling against the invitation to suicide that one receives (as it were) from the cosmos after realizing that neither God nor Nature care for what humans are caught up in.

      It’s a view of the world grounded in pessimism. Do you still want to live if you’re not, like Oedipus, going to pluck out your eyes to reality? Recall that Camus is philosophizing in the 1940s and 50s, a time of historical extremity. First the Nazis had overrun his country, then the world had to absorb the meaning of the Holocaust, rapid technological progress, the Bomb, etc.

      Camus is trying to philosophize without blinders; to be realistic. There’s no evidence that God or Nature cares for human beings, or will function as deus ex machinas to save us. What do we then do? We are left upon our own resources. We can’t hope for future “saving,” so we better find some inner values in the present to sustain present projects, and Camus suggests both aesthetics and compassion for those in the same fucked situation as you (rebellion, freedom, passion, solidarity).

      This formula is deeply unsatisfying, obviously, for anyone who wants the human condition transcended by living in eternity in heaven with God. But WWII and the Holocaust pretty much obliterated this for Camus, I think. Camus was also tempered by getting TB at 17. Life makes no sense. The suffering in it is gratuitous. God and Nature don’t appear to care in the least. Now what?

      What do you suggest in place of Camus’ pessimistic realism?

  7. Anonymous says:

    Sorry, but if there is no hope, then why should “we better find some inner values in the present to sustain present projects”? All projects are pointless if you are intellectually honest and believe that existence is pointless.

    Just trying to understand the argument. As I mentioned, this solution just appears to keep yourself busy so you can distract yourself from reality.

    • Santi Tafarella says:


      What if we’re generous with both positions?

      If so, we might say the following: hope functions, via the imagination, in the same manner as a project in the present.

      In other words, if we’re beings unto death, and the hopeful person knows this as well as the pessimistic person who focuses on present activities, then both are living in reality. They’re switching the deck chairs on the Titanic with different comforting strategies, but they’re doing so in the full consciousness of their fucked situation.

      One is optimistic about things being better in the future (she has a messianic hope, for example, or believes in heaven); one is pessimistic, focusing on present projects (aesthetics, solidarity etc.). One is thinking that a deus ex machina will save them out of a bleak situation; one is thinking such a deus ex machina will never come, but both are living out their lives with the same estimate of the appearances (things look bad). They’re both living in the awareness of reality, but drawing different estimates of the future.

      The one not living in reality is the one who engages in present projects or sustains hopes by simply denying that things are as bad as they are. Such a person is utterly confident in the truth of their position–they just know they see it right. They’re 100% certain they’re “in the know.” They deny death and regard the gratuitous degree of suffering that exists as not even really a problem at all (or they have a ready and pat answer for it, such as that God is good, therefore the suffering is for the highest good.) They are, in short, akin to Dr. Pangloss in Candide, engaging in cognitive dissonance.

      What Camus would not endorse is cognitive dissonance. And I would hope that the thoughtful theist would also not endorse this, but philosophize in the light of the cross (“My God, why have you forsaken me?”), not the resurrection (displaying “ta da!” triumphalism, claiming to pull, as it were, a rabbit out of the hat). We don’t know, things look bad, and I: (a) leap toward hope without the least assurance; or (b) do my best with my present resources. Put another way, (a) God (or Nature) isn’t speaking, but I can’t live without connection to him (or Nature), so I’m moving toward God (or Nature) as if he (or Nature) loves me and connects to me; or (b) God and Nature aren’t speaking, but I rebel against suicide, and do the best I can in my present circumstances of existence.

      Camus is radically alienated, perhaps more so than any other “existentialist” thinker. (Perhaps this is what makes Camus not an existentialist thinker. Things simply do not hold together for Camus. Camus feels to me more comfortably in line with Rorty than Sartre. No single vision is going to hold Camus’ choices together. He builds upon the ruins without imagining that he’s making a new system from his choices.)

  8. Anonymous says:

    I’m really only trying to understand what you describe as “Camus’ pessimistic realism”.
    If everything is meaningless, then why does it matter if we choose to commit suicide or not? It has the exact same value as choosing Cheerios for breakfast or not….right? Why make believe that there is actually value in something when you know there isn’t?

    Do you think Camus is really presenting us with a “deus ex machine” that saves us from despair by bestowing on us some sort of meaning in our lives?

    • Santi Tafarella says:


      How thinly veiled is nihilism beneath your religion! You’re saying that if God and the immortal soul do not exist, one may as well care about nothing. I think that’s a surrender to nihilism. You exist now and can value yourself, others, and your projects. You can be better than God and Nature–who, apparently like you, see everything as undifferentiated shit.

      There is no valuing from the outside. The valuing is from the inside. Making your own values important.

      You’ve misunderstood Camus if you think he is looking for salvation from despair outside of himself. Read the exchange in The Plague between Rieux and Tarrou on God and atheism for Camus’ basic position. In that portion of The Plague (about 100 pages in), Rieux says that there are people, and they are suffering, and they need help. “The immediate task is to cure them. I am defending them the best I can.” The larger meaning is not his focus. That they’ll die some other way than plague later in their lives does not stop Rieux from valuing and helping them now.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Actually, I’m not asserting anything. I’m trying to understand what you’re telling me.

    “How does one live in a world where appearances are bleak (we suffer and are beings toward death); where God and Nature do not answer to our longings; and where we’re in this floating global “boat” on a vast cosmic sea with other people? What do we do?”

    This sounds to me as if you (or Camus) are asserting that this is our lot and it is reasonable to be in despair. Otherwise why would one even consider suicide….happy people don’t think about it. This is what I’m taking as your basic starting point as your belief of what reality is.

    “You’ve misunderstood Camus if you think he is looking for salvation from despair outside of himself.”

    Is he telling us that the “deus ex machine” comes from within then?

    • Santi Tafarella says:


      That’s an odd way of putting it (the deus ex machina within). But that’s fine. Values arrive from within (though no long term salvation).

      In any case, yes, I think that contemplating Nature and God’s indifference to us, and the annihilation of our projects by time, is an invitation to despair and suicide, and these are rational (understandable) responses to our absurd situation.

      But it’s not the only rational way to respond to existence. There are ways to make meaning that rebel against the invitation to despair and suicide. Art, others, projects, etc.

      But maybe you think the only rational move absent God is despair and suicide. I don’t agree. But every person lacking confidence in God’s existence has to decide that question for themselves.

      I think that the younger, wealthier, and healthier that you are, the easier it is to find things that vitally occupy your time.

      It also helps to be living in the 21st century. 700 years ago, there wasn’t much prospect for a happy life in the present, or for things to get better decade over decade (in terms of finances, security, and the prospects for one’s offspring).

      Camus and the other existentialists were becoming popular precisely at a moment when people were absorbing and processing trauma (the experience of two world wars, the Bomb, and knowledge of the Holocaust), even as their prospects for personal prosperity were on the rise. There’s a luxury element to contemporary atheism/secularism. You have to be pessimistic about God’s existence in the light of absurd trauma and optimistic about your own ability to make of what’s left of your life something satisfying.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I agree that contemporary prosperity plays a major role in today’s atheism and secularism.

    As you say 700 years ago the black plague was killing off a huge percentage of Europe….a much larger percentage than the Holocaust. Yet faith flourished.

    Today people have luxury unimagined in those days, yet as you say, we are prone to despair.

    A paradox.

    When you’re young, rich and healthy, it’s a bummer to think that you should be restrained in anything you want and a bummer to think it will all come to an end….maybe even despair. After all how can I live a full life without my iPhone?

    When the end is near or you have few means (or you understand that you can’t take it with you), then you tend look at things a bit differently if you are thoughtful.

    Contemporary western man falls into the first category, while western man of the middle ages falls into the second category.

  11. Pingback: Jesus, Justice, and why Atheists can’t talk about it. | Right Wing Nuts and Bolts

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