Thoughts of a former evangelical Christian

Sin Explains Everything

In Christianity as Tribalism: Initiation on April 16, 2010 at 3:14 am

            Sin is the central and all-reducing theme of Christianity, the prominent plotline of almost every Biblical story, and the theological scaffolding that holds the Christian worldview together.  Sin explains the beginning (the Fall) and the end (the coming Judgment) of history.  Likewise, sin explains each perons’s beginning (conceived in sin and with Adam’s sin nature) and end (physical death and spiritual death). 

            Sin also frames every interaction between God and Man.  Sin is the reason for the most dramatic divine interventions in the Bible, from the many Old Testament narratives of God’s wrath and vengeance to the Incarnation and Death of Christ to the Apocalypse of John (the Book of Revelation). 

            Sin also purportedly explains God’s absence from, and the suffering in, the world.  Sin is what separates and alienates mankind from God.   Sin even explains the natural disasters and tragedies suffered by humanity.  Natural evil is, at best, the result of “the Fall” — under the curse of which creation still groans — or, at worst, God’s divinely intended punishment for sin. 

            Sin also defines one’s eternal destiny.   A person’s status as being (lovingly?) created in God’s image and likeness — and you would think that would mean God would cherish us all — is utterly eclipsed by even the slightest sin.  Christianity teaches that apart from Christ’s atoning work, even the slightest sin utterly condemns and makes one worthy of eternal conscious torment.  Sin is so terrible to Christian theology that God could not have simply forgiven us of our sins.  Rather, to placate God’s wrath, a ransom of blood had to be paid, and by no less than a perfect God-man.  And only by believing in Jesus’s divine nature and atoning work — that is, only be joining and belonging to a creedal tribe called Christianity — can one escape such judgment.

            But relief doesn’t come simply from surrendering to Christianity’s creedal demands.  The Book of Romans presents a narrative of life as a constant, agonizing struggle with sin. It’s a terrible thing; it separates you from God; it demands the shedding of blood for its remission; and even after you get saved, you struggle (”Oh what wretched man I am….”) with it.   The only way to mature as a sanctified Christian is to keep warring with that sinful nature, crucifying it again, over and over.  Yet no Christian can ever succeed – short of actual physical death – in crucifying it once and for all (1 John 1:8).

            So, from conception (we were each conceived in sin) to death (the consequence of sin), life’s whole narrative, its purpose, its meaning, and its ultimate fate is found in original bondage to, elusive freedom from (by identifying with and crucifying the sinful self with Christ), and continuing struggle with sin.

            The obsession of Biblical theology and evangelical culture is on sin: much on the believer’s own sin; and even moreso on the sins of the surrounding culture.  And when it comes to sin, the Bible is least concerned with one’s sins against other people.  The greatest sins are sins against God, sins against authority, the sins of the flesh, and sins of the thought life. 

            This deeply authoritarian obsession with sin forcefully frames the Christian’s view of God, himself/herself, and all of humanity.  And what — as forthcoming posts will show — a melancholy obsession that is.

            But diminish sin in any signficant way (e.g., by more narrowly defining sin as violations of another’s intrinsic dignity), and the scaffolding on which the Christian worldview (and all of its theology) is based collapses.

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  1. “But diminish sin in any signficant way (e.g., by more narrowly defining sin as violations of another’s intrinsic dignity), and the scaffolding on which the Christian worldview (and all of its theology) is based collapses.”

    Hmmm….I’m only a Catholic (raised Roman, now practising Episcopalian), so I don’t have great command of the Bible, and I’ve never been inclined toward reasoning out a coherent philosophical framework of faith. Well, not since I was in high school, anyway, and the result was to put me off faith for years. But I have to quarrel with your statement. Does Christianity really collapse without the traditional punishing, self-hating, authoritarian view of sin? No doubt because I come from a sacramental tradition, I imagine the central purpose of Jesus’s incarnation was to bring us closer to God, especially (though certainly not only) by giving us the Eucharist. I don’t believe that God demanded Jesus’s death as some kind of payment for our sins. The simplest answer to why Jesus had to die is the realistic historical answer, that he was a threat to the establishment and he was killed by humans for human reasons. But I would also throw out there the idea that maybe Jesus’s death had the purpose of proving God’s love for us, by proving that even if we as humans do the most horrible thing imaginable — murdering God’s incarnate self — God still does not reject us. Like the way parents allow our young children to hit and kick us, and never hit them back (although we teach them that they need to stop), because we love them and we would much rather endure pain from them than hurt them. If humanity’s killing of Jesus does not stop God from loving us, nothing will.

    I also think the concept of sin changes radically when it is divorced from the idea of punishment and hell. I have a problem with the notion of eternal damnation, but I don’t have a problem with acknowledging that everyone who reaches the age of reason is pretty certain to fall short, over and over, of how we should really live. Call it sin or something else, but we all need to work every day on living better. The fact that we are so imperfect does not have to be a damaging idea that harms our dignity if it is not tied to a threat of hell. The word “sin” is tainted by so many of those hurtful meanings that maybe it is useless for most people now. But I’ve always remembered hearing sin defined somewhere as separation from God. I don’t think it has to be self-loathing or harmful to our dignity if we recognize that we need to reach out to God in order to bridge that separation, and that God reaches out to us. This is consistent with Jesus’s two great commandments: that first we have to love God and reach out to God; and that second we have to love others as we love ourselves (which implies a love of self). You can narrow the definition of sin to those times when we fail to love God, ourselves, and others. So-called “sins” such as refusing to blindly obey authority, or failing to follow Victorian ideas of sexual morality, can be eliminated without any harm to the real values of Christianity as far as I can see.

    I’m sure many logical objections could be made to what I’ve just said. As I mentioned, I haven’t worked out a comprehensive system of thinking about this, and I don’t intend to. A wise teacher told me, “Faith does not equal knowledge. Faith equals uncertainty.” I didn’t understand that at age 14, but I’m OK with it now.

  2. Liza,

    Thank you for your well-thought-out comments. The cosmological view you present of God is so much more welcoming and affirming (and appealing) than the one presented so forcefully in so much of the Biblical text.

    I have looked into liberal denominations, but most of them still affirm and revere the Bible — not as literally inerrant — but as their central sacred authoritative text.

    As long as the very authoritarian text is held sacred, a liberal theology can only be sustained (in my opinion) if it is mediated through theologians and pastors and priests who contradict or moderate its harsh teachings.

    But inevitably, people — like my Mom — will long for something more direct, read the Bible for themselves, and discover that they hadn’t been told the whole story.

    This is why even in liberal churches and denominations, the laity tends to be more conservative than the pastorate. The laity keeps going back to the text.

    As for me, I don’t feel honest calling myself a Christian if I don’t accept the doctrine of atonement. I don’t have a problem with those that do; I just can’t do it myself.

    There is so much poisonous theology wrapped up in the Biblical text that I am compelled to demote it from a sacred status altogether.

    Thanks again,
    Eric

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