It's difficult for us to conceive of the rational process that led St. Paul to write that the sin of Adam brought condemnation on all who came after. To us, the source of the doctrine of original sin is obvious – the story in Genesis of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit.
But while lots of learned rabbis before Paul were well aware of that story, the Jewish faith has no notion of original sin and the Old Testament gives little attention to the question of how evil came into the world.
For the Jew, this is not a problem. Yes, there is evil in the world, but redemption is still available through the covenant.
But for the Christian the question is, If the Law is enough, why did God send his only Son to become human, suffer and die for us? What was the need for this?
The need, St. Paul saw clearly, is that humanity is drowning in sin and cannot be saved by obeying the Law. Our situation is so dire that we cannot be saved by our own efforts. In fact, trying harder makes things worse. It inflates our egos, thus turning us away from God, rather than toward him.
Christ came, suffered and died because God is the only hope. God is the only one who can save us. It is only if God-become-human atones for our sins and if we throw ourselves upon his mercy, that we have any hope for salvation.
Scripture scholar James Dunn, along with many others, says Paul's emphasis on sin represents a "doleful analysis of the human condition."
When Paul wrote "one man's trespass led to condemnation for all" (Romans 5.18), he was not putting a happy face on our prospects. But he is expressing what can only be described as a fundamental Christian teaching. And, when we look realistically at our world, we need to come to grips with the human propensity to sin.
"We cannot tamper with the revelation of original sin without undermining the mystery of Christ," states the Catechism of the Catholic Church. "After the first sin, the world is virtually inundated by sin" (nn. 388, 401).
There is no halfway point. We have the second Adam – Jesus Christ – because the sin of the first Adam was such a colossal train wreck for humanity.
No one, not a single person, is perfect. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3.23). This is not because we lack good intentions, but because we are slaves to sin.
The point of saying this, however, is not to turn us into neurotic bundles of guilt. It is to turn us toward the joyful freedom of life in Christ.
"Paul's primary interest is not in the sin of Adam but in the superabundant grace of Christ," writes Father Raymond Brown. Christ's saving action leads us to fullness of life, "something harder to observe than human sinfulness."
If we want that life, we need to face sin squarely in the face. We need to recognize in ourselves as Paul did, "I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do" (Romans 7.19).
The choice we face is either hardness of heart or repentance. In commenting on Paul's letter to the Romans, Father Raniero Cantamalessa says, "As long as man keeps his sin hidden and refuses to acknowledge it, it consumes and saddens him; but when he decides to confess it to God he again experiences peace and happiness."
Paul was a man of strong convictions. He was also a man of joy. His joy came from realizing that obeying the Law was not the road to happiness. The "best" that such obedience can give is a spirit of self-righteousness.
The true follower of Christ is not self-righteous, but self-convicting. He or she acknowledges his or her sins and strong inclination to sin and sin some more. But in acknowledging sin, one also acknowledges one's utter dependence on God for salvation.
Sin is the path to death; faith and love are the path to hope and life.
Of course, we do not know the exact thought process that led to Paul's insight into the sin of Adam. But we can see that Paul was a most astute observer of, not only humanity's propensity for sin, but also of the theological importance of sin.
He also saw so much more clearly than others that fullness of life comes by living in union with the second Adam and turning one's back on the ways of the first Adam.