Here is a spiritual conundrum posed by a reader named Joe:
I’m looking for doctrinal statements that deal with the human physical fragility and its source. Is human fragility (sickness, disease, etc.) a consequence of original sin? Is human fragility a consequence of the curse to the ground. (ie. The ground is cursed, we grow food from the ground, we eat cursed ground food and we eat animals that eat cursed-ground food, we therefore are processing cursed-ground foods and we get sick and have diseases). I hope you get my drift and may have some helpful insight or direct me to a reliable resource. Thank you for your time and I really appreciate your message “Curses or Consequences…”
Wow! Great question, Joe!
And since it’s such a huge question, I’ll give you the short version first:
Like human beings themselves, human fragility, sickness, and disease is a result of a highly complex interaction of many physical and spiritual causes, both individual and societal, from the past, the present, and (strange as it may seem) even the future.
If a person is sick—especially if it is a serious illness—there is no single, simple cause, nor is there a single, simple solution. All sickness and disease is systemic. Even if it may appear to affect only one part of the body, in fact it both affects and is affected by the entire body, mind, and spirit of the person who is sick.
It also both affects and is affected by the person’s physical, social, and spiritual environment. We humans are social creatures embedded in a human environment. We are also biological creatures embedded in a physical environment. Our physical and spiritual environments have a profound effect on our sickness and health.
Because of this highly complex source of human frailty, sickness, and disease, we both do and do not bear responsibility for our own weakness and disease as individuals. By taking responsibility for what we can take responsibility for, we can indeed improve our physical and mental health.
And yet, there will always be factors beyond our control influencing us. Even if we were to live a near-perfect life and lifestyle, we could still suffer from human frailties and diseases because of the rather toxic physical and spiritual environment in which we live. Being sick is not something to beat ourselves up about. It does not necessarily mean that we are bad people or that we are being punished for our sins.
But it does mean that we have work to do, both individually and as a society.
Now for the long version, including responses to your specific doctrinal and Bible-based questions.
Is human fragility a consequence of original sin?
There’s no way to sugar coat this, so I’m just going to state it bluntly:
There is no such thing as original sin.
Original sin is the traditional Christian doctrine that because Adam sinned by disobeying God and eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, all human beings are born guilty of sin, and are therefore destined for hell from birth.
Contrary to popular belief, the doctrine of original sin is not taught in the Bible. In fact, the Bible specifically denies that children inherit guilt for their parents’ sin. The Bible passages that are usually quoted in support of original sin have been misunderstood, and in some cases badly mistranslated.
Original sin will be the subject of a future article all its own, and we’ll look at those Bible passages then. For now, let’s look at just one Bible passage:
The word of the Lord came to me: What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die. (Ezekiel 18:1–4)
Do yourself a favor and read the rest of Ezekiel 18. It provides clear examples showing that children are condemned or exonerated based on their own behavior, not on their parents’ behavior.
Adam’s sin is not the source of all human sin, but the prototype.
Saying that we are all sinful because Adam sinned is like saying that all Toyota Corollas are Toyota Corollas because the original prototype was a Toyota Corolla. No, each Corolla is a Corolla because the assembly line workers build each new Corolla based on the plan of the original prototype. If they used a different plan, it would be a different car.
In the very same way, according to the Bible, we are not guilty of the sin of Adam! It is only when we ourselves sin, thus following the prototype or pattern of Adam, that we are guilty of sin.
Hereditary evil: the example of physical health and disease
Though we do not inherit sin from Adam, or from our parents and grandparents, we do inherit evil—or more accurately, tendencies toward evil. And this does have a direct impact on human frailty, sickness, and disease.
We can understand this a little more clearly if we look at our hereditary tendencies toward various diseases.
Granted, many babies are born with already developed hereditary diseases such as cystic fibrosis, Down syndrome, and sickle-cell disease. We can only hope that future advances will make it possible for us to treat these diseases genetically or by other means before their symptoms develop in the womb.
However, for the more common diseases linked to heredity, such as cancer and heart disease, the genes involved cause a tendency toward that particular disease. That tendency may be stronger or weaker for different people. And the person with that tendency may or may not develop the actual disease, depending on various environmental and lifestyle factors.
In general, people who live a healthful lifestyle and live in a healthful environment are less likely to develop the symptoms of the diseases they are predisposed toward by their heredity. Or, if they do develop the disease, it is likely to be a milder case, and to develop later in life than if they lived an unhealthful lifestyle, and in an unhealthful environment.
In other words, even if we have a genetic predisposition toward a particular illness such as cancer or heart disease, if we take care of our health and avoid doing things that are known to contribute to these diseases, such as smoking and eating a lot of fatty foods, we can increase our odds of living a long, productive, and happy life.
Hereditary evil and our spiritual health and disease
In the very same way, each of us inherits tendencies toward particular spiritual diseases—traditionally called “evils” or “sins”—from our parents, grandparents, and so on:
- Some families are steeped in pride, arrogance, and a belief that all other people are inferior to themselves.
- Some have a history of violence and abuse as a way of controlling others’ behavior.
- Some are driven by greed and a desire to be wealthier and more powerful than everyone else in society.
- Some exude a pervasive sense of their own worthlessness and the futility of even trying to be anything more than the dregs of society.
The list of social and spiritual evils that run in families like hereditary diseases could go on and on. No family is free of them. Each of us is predisposed toward certain ways of being, shall we say, less than fully human.
However, like a genetic predisposition toward cancer or heart disease, the social and spiritual evils that we “inherit” from our parents are not necessarily a death sentence. That’s because we humans are even more free to determine our own course spiritually than we are physically.
Physically, we can decide to break away from the unhealthful lifestyle we may have been brought up with, and live in a more healthful way. We may not be able to repair all the damage done by our earlier unhealthful habits and environment, but we can move in a better direction, and enjoy the benefits of better health.
Spiritually, there are powerful tools of repentance and rebirth by which we can leave behind our old, destructive ways of living and begin a whole new life, transmuting our past evils into shadows stretching behind us. We will notice those shadows less and less as we travel forward on our spiritual journey and experience the warmth and light of God’s love and wisdom in our life—and share that warmth and light with our fellow travelers here on earth.
Heredity as a source of human frailty, sickness, and disease
To sum up:
When we talk about (non-existent) “original sin” or (tendencies toward) evil inherited from parents and ancestors, we’re talking about the same thing spiritually as scientists and physicians are talking about physically when they speak of genetic diseases.
In both cases, tendencies toward evil that we inherit from our parents can be a powerful influence toward physical or spiritual frailty, sickness, and disease. If we live in a sloppy, unhealthful way and immerse ourselves in toxic environments, we are likely to suffer and die from the same physical and spiritual diseases as our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents did.
However, the power is also in our hands to break the chain of sickness and evil that stretches back through the generations before us. There is a wealth of information available about how to live in more healthful ways physically, mentally, and emotionally. There is also a wealth of information about how we can turn the tide in our lives spiritually, and begin an upward journey toward spiritual enlightenment, love, and service—which together are the true meaning of heavenly joy.
Is human fragility a consequence of the curse on the ground?
The “original sin” question is the spiritual parallel of the scientific concept of genetic sources of human fragility, sickness, and disease.
Now we turn to the spiritual parallel of environmental sources of human fragility, sickness, and disease.
In Genesis 3:17–19 we read:
Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, saying, “You may not eat of it,” cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you will eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it will bring forth for you; and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you will eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you will return.
As I mentioned in the article “Curses or Consequences: Did God Really Curse Adam and Eve?” this story is not really about a curse on the ground at all. Rather, it is about how when we turn away from God and decide we want to do things our own way rather than God’s way, our life becomes a daily struggle as we learn things the hard way, through painful trial and error.
However, we can also read the story in a quasi-literal way as telling the story of how sickness and disease enters human life when we depart from the physical lifestyle for which God created us, thus vitiating both our environment and our physical health.
Humans have fallen away from God’s design
In the article “What are the Roles of Men and Women toward Each Other and in Society?” I explored how the first three chapters of Genesis chronicle the fall of humankind from God’s original creation of men and women as equal partners to our fallen state in which man rules over woman. Similarly, the first several chapters of the Bible chronicle a fall of humankind from a simple lifestyle and a clean diet close to nature to one in which we are no longer living and eating in the way we were originally designed to do.
Here are three key steps along the way:
- God originally gives humans as food “every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit” (Genesis 1:29).
- After Adam and Eve disobeyed God, instead of foraging for plants and fruits, humans had to till the ground through hard labor, and God said, “You shall eat the plants of the field” (Genesis 3:18)—meaning grains that had to be harvested, threshed, milled, and cooked.
- After humankind became so corrupt that God destroyed all but Noah and his family in a great flood, God said, “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything” (Genesis 9:3). This was when humans first began eating meat in the Bible story.
Of course, these stories in the early chapters of Genesis were never meant to be taken literally, and the Bible was not written as a guide to diet and lifestyle.
Still, the overall message is clear: Just as every animal has its proper food and lifestyle for which it is adapted, God created the human organism to live and thrive on a particular diet and lifestyle close to nature, for which the human digestive system and overall physique is best adapted. There is huge debate over just what diet and lifestyle humans are best adapted to. However, I think it is safe to say that the closer our foods are to their natural state, the more healthful they are.
We humans have certainly fallen away from our original state of eating simple, natural foods and living a healthy, vigorous lifestyle, to an unnatural diet in which we eat whatever pleases our jaded palate and misuse and abuse our bodies in many ways. And in a sense, this is part and parcel of the “curse on the ground.” Because we have departed from the natural lifestyle for which our bodies and minds are adapted, we have brought fragility, sickness, and disease upon ourselves.
Unfortunately, this departure from natural living is not an individual thing, but a widespread cultural and societal thing. And just as we abuse our bodies in so many ways, in the process of living our unnatural lifestyle we abuse our environment in many ways, resulting in food, water, and air of poor quality, containing many toxins.
This is not something we as individuals can easily or entirely escape from. Yes, perhaps a few of us are hardy and dedicated enough to move to remote areas of unspoiled wilderness and live off the land. But most of us live in cities and towns whose air and water quality may not be the best; and we buy food in the grocery store which, due to the methods used to grow it, contains nowhere near the nutritional value that it would have if it were grown using more natural methods.
Thankfully, more and more people are becoming aware of these issues, and society is moving ever so slowly toward more natural foods and lifestyles, and toward a cleaner environment. As we make progress in these areas, our physical and mental health will improve along with the improvement in the quality of the air, water, and food that sustain and nourish our bodies.
In short, though individually we can have some positive effect on how our physical environment helps or hurts our health, reversing the “curse on the ground” is something that we humans must do together as a society.
Our spiritual environment
The same is true of the spiritual environment in which we live, and its effect on our physical, mental, and spiritual health.
When we humans are driven by selfishness, greed, and a desire for power and pleasure, we create a spiritual environment rife with the evils of anger, jealousy, revenge, and a general desire to gain pleasure through the pain and misery of others.
- The “rat race” that many people live in is not part of God’s plan; it is what we humans do to one another when power and profit are our primary motives instead of love for God and love for our fellow human beings.
- The ugliness and destruction of war, crime, and exploitation of others that blights so much of humanity is also a result of the spiritual evils of selfishness and greed.
- The atmosphere of conflict, jealousy, shame, and disrespect that reigns in all too many households and neighborhoods is yet another result of a lack of spiritual sensitivity and maturity.
These and many other toxic spiritual and social environments take a heavy toll on us physically, mentally, and emotionally. And like our physical environment, though we may have some ability to move to a better human environment, sometimes we get trapped in situations and communities that are major sources of human fragility, sickness, and disease. When this is the case, we may have to fight an exhausting rearguard battle against forces beyond our control that are dragging us down physically and spiritually.
The sources of human fragility, sickness, and disease—and their solutions
Of course, even this much only scratches the surface in examining all the forces that tend to tear us humans down both inwardly and outwardly.
If we put all of these forces together, we can see that there is no single, simple source of human fragility, sickness, and disease.
- Some sources are physical, others are mental and spiritual.
- Some sources are individual, others collective.
- Some sources are in the past, others in the present.
- Some sources are from our family, others from our own actions.
- Some sources we can control, others are beyond our control.
As individuals, we can eliminate some of these sources of physical and spiritual sickness. For example, we have more or less ability to:
- Improve our diet and lifestyle,
- Move from less healthful to more healthful physical environments,
- Leave behind destructive social environments for more constructive friendships and associations, and
- Commit ourselves to a process of spiritual renewal, rebirth, and growth.
For some other sources, we will rise or fall with the overall level of the human society in which we live.
About the only general statement we can make is that beyond purely physical causes of human suffering such as hurricanes and earthquakes, the common denominator is that the more we humans depart from God’s command to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves, the more we create a toxic heredity and environment that causes fragility, sickness, disease, and early death.
The corollary to this is that the more progress we humans make in aligning ourselves and our society with God’s natural and spiritual plan for humanity, the more we will overcome human fragility, sickness, and disease.
How the future affects and is affected by our sickness and health
When we experience disease and misfortune, we may question whether our life is simply cursed, and even whether there is any sense or purpose to life at all. Why do we humans suffer so much? What is the point? And how could God allow such terrible suffering?
It helps to understand that as much as God has compassion for us in any present suffering we may be enduring, God looks at our lives from an eternal perspective. In overseeing our lives, God’s greatest goal is to give us happiness and joy in our eternal future.
For that reason, God often allows sickness and suffering in the present if God sees that this will “soften us up” and make us more likely to turn our lives over to God and live our lives with compassion for our fellow human beings. If we have suffered ourselves, we are more likely to be moved to ease the sufferings of others—and grow spiritually in the process.
As counterintuitive as it may seem, under God’s providence our future happiness may be a higher cause for our present disease and discomfort. It’s not that God causes sickness and suffering. But God allows us to experience sickness and suffering when God knows that it is a necessary step on our path toward eternal spiritual health.
Overcoming human fragility, sickness, and disease
Another way of looking at it is that while human fragility, sickness, and disease are the results of all sorts of physical and spiritual evils, they can also be the cause of our working to overcome the very evils that are their source.
- When we realize that our bad diet, our addictions to alcohol and drugs, and our unhealthful lifestyle is destroying our health, we may finally move toward a more healthful lifestyle, and break our addictions.
- When we truly see and experience the destruction of war, we may work to bring about more peaceful ways of resolving conflicts in order to make war a thing of the past.
- When we see the lives destroyed by domestic abuse and neighborhood violence, we may organize people to combat and overcome these blights on our communities.
- When we see the many lives claimed by diseases whose causes are well-known, we may work to eliminate from our society the causes of those diseases.
In short, the more we experience and recognize the many sources of human fragility, sickness, and disease, the more we can take the power into our hands to overcome them. No matter how many sources there may be for our weakness and suffering, God gives us the means to overcome them over time if we will only set our hearts, our minds, and our hands to the task.
This article is a response to a spiritual conundrum submitted by a reader.