(Rom. 5:12, 14) How can God judge all men for Adam’s sin, when it wasn’t their fault?

CLAIM: Paul writes, “Just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12). What does Paul mean by this statement? Does he mean that all people sin—just as Adam sinned? Or does he mean that we were held responsible for what Adam did in the fall?

RESPONSE: Let’s address the questions associated with this verse:

What does it mean “because all sinned”?

The Greek for “because” (eph hō) can be translated in a variety of ways. The grammar alone cannot solve this debate. Since there are so many different ways to take the preposition (eph hō), we cannot solve our interpretation based solely on grammar.[1] The NET Bible explains three major possibilities:

(1) Resultative view. Under this view, we would translate verse 12 as, “Death spread to all people with the result that all sinned.” However, this view doesn’t seem to deal adequately with the language of the text.

(2) Causal view. Under this view, we would translate verse 12 as, “Death spread to all people because all sinned.” If we hold the “causal” view,[2] this would mean that infants and the mentally handicapped could be in hell. After all, under this view, these people sinned.

Those who hold to this view fall into different camps regarding babies and the mentally handicapped: (1) God will forgive these babies or the mentally handicapped because they didn’t sin, (2) God will save babies of believing parents, or (3) God will choose the “elect” babies from eternity past to be saved.[3] Douglas Moo—an advocate of the causal view—writes, “I have personally wrestled with this emotive question especially since my niece was born with such severe handicaps that she is not expected to live long. What am I to say to her parents when she dies? What do I respond when they ask me, the ‘family theologian,’ where their daughter will spend eternity? All that is within me wants to be able to assure them that their daughter is in heaven. But I am not yet convinced Scripture gives me the right to do so. And I do not want to be a purveyor of ‘cheap comfort,’ giving home based on my emotions rather than on Scripture. I do not yet have an answer I am comfortable with.”[4]

(3) Relative view. Under this view, we would translate verse 12 as, “Death spread to all people in whom [Adam] all sinned.” We hold to this third view. Since all of humanity was “in Adam” at this time, our lives were tied up with his decision. His decision to bring death into the world necessarily affects us. There are several reasons for this interpretation:

The context supports this interpretation. It is true that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). But that is not Paul’s point here. In verse 14, Paul makes it clear that “death reigned… even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam.” So it seems that we are born into death—even if we don’t sin like Adam sinned. Moreover, in verse 19, he writes that “the many were made sinners.” This doesn’t say that we made ourselves sinners. Instead, we were made sinners by Adam’s sin.

Since Adam is a type of Christ (v.14), what could be the comparison that Paul is making? He must be saying that Adam affected the whole human race in the same way that Christ affected the whole human race. If we merely sin like Adam sinned, do we bring life like Christ brings life, too? Not at all. Instead, Christ brings life just as Adam brought death (v.15).

Furthermore, the greater context of Scripture supports this interpretation. Paul writes, “As in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22). Paul gives a similar construction in 2 Corinthians 5:14: “One died for all, therefore all died.” When Christ died, this affected all of us—whether we like it or not.

The author of Hebrews argues for Christ’s superiority over the Levitical priesthood, because Levi was “still in the body of his ancestor [Abraham]” (Heb. 7:9-10). In other words, Levi came from Abraham, and Abraham bowed to Melchizedek; therefore, Levi bowed to Melchizedek.

How can this be fair?

Under this view above, Adam’s sin affected us locationally, but it did not affect us legally. That is, we suffer the consequences of Adam’s decision, but we are not culpable for Adam’s sin. We receive Adam’s sin nature, but we do not receive the guilt for something we never did. Osborne explains, “They are guilty from two directions—the sinful nature inherited from Adam (passive sin) and their personal participation in that via their own sins (active sin).”[5]

A principle of hermeneutics is to interpret the “unclear in light of the clear.” While we did inherit a sin nature from Adam (Eph. 2:4; Ps. 51:5), we are not judged for the sins of another person. The overarching teaching of the Bible is that God will judge each person according to their own deeds (Mt. 16:27; Lk. 12:47-48; Jn. 5:29: Dan. 12:2; Rom. 2:6; Rev. 20:12; Ezek. 18:19-20; Eph. 2:3). We are affected by the sin of others (Ex. 20:5; 34:6-7; Num. 14:18; Deut. 5:9), but we are never determined to act based on their sin.

Imagine if we weren’t allowed to affect others with our decisions. This would sacrifice a large aspect of our personhood. In order to have meaning, purpose, morality, and relationships, we need to be able to have an effect on others around us. Consider Will Smith in I am Legend. He steals from apartments, destroys property, and he drives his car at high speeds through the city. This isn’t immoral, because he lives in isolation. Morality cannot be exercised in the absence of persons.[6] Therefore, in order to be moral beings, we need to be able to affect one another.

One of our worst forms of torture in the Western world is solitary confinement. Many people find it inhumane to place someone in solitary confinement for too long—even if they were a violent criminal. Being separated from personal contact is one of our most extreme tortures in the U.S. penal system. In asking for a world that insulates us from human impact like this, we are asking for a world, where humans are devoid of meaningful contact—namely, a tortured world. John Wenham writes, “It is just conceivable that a world could be made in which every man was his own Adam, in which every individual was insulated from his neighbor, unable to help him or harm him, unable to receive his help or suffer his injuries. But it would be a dull and lonely place.”[7]

Finally, we should note that we get to experience eternal life and forgiveness through Christ—something that affects us from the past. This isn’t “fair” at all, but we still accept this for ourselves anyway. Thus it seems that we are disappointed when someone’s bad decisions affect us, but not when their good decisions affect us.

[1] Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 1996. 342-343.

[2] This is what Moo calls the “inclusion” view. Douglas Moo, Romans: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 190.

[3] Douglas Moo, Romans: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 191.

[4] Douglas Moo, Romans: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 191.

[5] Osborne, Grant R. Romans. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2004. 138-139.

[6] He could still sin—in the Christian understanding—because he is still in the presence of God—a personal Being. But, the analogy is given to explain the necessity of persons for morality. Also, God is an inter-personal Being, so morality existed before the creation of humans (Jn. 17:5; 24; Eph. 1:4).

[7] Wenham, John William. The Goodness of God. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1974. 76.