Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Christian Understanding of Sin

Table of Contents
  • What is Sin?
  • Why do we Do Sin?
  • Who do Sins?
  • What is the Consequence of Sin?
  • How may we Overcome Sin?
  • How may we View Sin?
  • Conclusion

Evil is an everyday reality. We experience it all around us, and also within us. We, the humanity, has been aware of the issue of evil from the very beginning of our existence, but still we haven’t resolved it. Let us have a look at it from various angles asking several questions-- what, why, who, and how. We limit our inquiry within the Christian tradition, so we will talk about sin rather than evil. 

What is Sin?

Seeking the meaning of sin, one often goes to the original languages -- Hebrew and Greek, and derive the meaning as missing the mark, which is deviating from the ideal. The ideal of human existence is set by God as an existence united in love-- among ourselves, with God, and with the nature. This is the heavenly life Adam and Eve experienced in the Garden of Eden. It is with such life in mind that Jesus probably said loving God wholeheartedly and loving fellow beings as ourselves is the summary of the entire law. Any deviation from this ideal is sin. Expressions such as good, right and just are used to denote the ideal, and expressions like evil, mistake, misdeed, wrong, and error are used to mean deviating from the ideal.

Sin is an abstract concept, and metaphors have always been used to help us understand it. The writers of the Holy Scriptures use various metaphors to speak of sin, such as a burden (Ps 38:4, Mt 11:28), a stain (Is 1:18, Ps 51:4, Eph 5:26), a debt (Mt 18:21-35, Col 2:14), and a sickness, especially leprosy, which makes people unclean just as sin does. All these metaphors show sin as a deviation from the ideal. Someone walking straight and free without any burden is the ideal, and so walking with a burden is a deviation from the ideal. A clean cloth is the ideal, so a cloth with stain is a deviation from the ideal. Being healthy is ideal, so being sick is a deviation from the ideal.  

The breaking of ritual laws was considered sin at the time of Jesus in the Jewish community. Breaking of Sabbath and purification rules were sins. But John the Baptist and Jesus taught that moral laws have predominance over ritual laws. Moral rules are meant to keep the healthy relationships among people, between people and God, and between people and nature, and ritual rules exist only to support moral rules. Moral rules are to be strictly kept, and breaking them is sin. Jesus made it clear that if our eyes cause us to do sins, we have to throw away our eyes! (Mark 9:47).

Jesus also distinguished between visible and invisible sins. The visible acts of sin are often recognized as sins. But behind the visible acts, there are the invisible thoughts and intentions. Jesus explains how even thoughts of anger and lust are the same as murder and adultery (Matthew 5:21-48).  

Jesus saw sin as something in our control. But later Paul understood sin primarily as something that controls us, as an evil power that enslaves humankind. Paul used the metaphor of a slavemaster to speak about sin (Rom 6:6, 5:21). From being something in our control, sin thus changed to something that controls us. We may think of three ways in which this shift might have happened.
  1. Anything done repeatedly becomes a habit. The first few times an act needs the involvement of the conscious mind. But once it becomes a habit, the subconscious mind takes over, and it becomes automatic. Once your bicycle starts moving, it moves faster with an added force of its own -- its momentum. Similarly, a habit has its own momentum, whether it be good or bad. It was perhaps with this realization that sin was understood as a power that enslaves us.
  2. Someone who does a certain sin associates with others who do the same sin. Thus sin gains more force by peer pressure.
  3. There also exists a cosmic force of evil, which we cannot adequately understand or satisfactorily explain. This is perhaps an aggregation of all the forces of evil. This cosmic evil force has been called variously such as Satan or the devil. The earlier civilizations have had a better awareness and understanding of this cosmic force. 
So, when we start doing a sin, we control it, but once it becomes a habit, and once we associate with others with similar habit, it controls us. When we are in control of our action, we can break it by a mere decision. But once we lose control, and we are controlled, it is not so easy to break it.  
At Jesus’ time, Satan was believed to be ruling the world, which is evident from the Lord’s prayer. Those who do sins were believed to be obeying Satan. Jesus was presented in the gospels as a new Moses who delivers humankind from the slavery of Satan, the Pharoah who enslaves the entire humanity. When Paul speaks of sin as a powerful evil force that controls and leads us to death, sin and Satan sound synonyms. In order to counteract this evil force, we need a divine force from God, which was called grace by Paul. If sin leads us to death, grace leads us to eternal life. (Rom 5:21). 
Following the lead of Paul, Christianity placed more emphasis upon the sin that controls us, and the sin we can control was ignored. Later it was proposed that all people are born as sinners, within the evil force of sin or Satan. It was related to the slavery of Israelites in Egypt. Each and every human being is born into the grip of this evil power. No one can escape from the power of sin by his/her own efforts.  

Why do we Do Sin?

There have been several hypotheses regarding the origin of sin. 
1. An easy hypothesis has been suggested since ancient times by some that the world is made of both matter and spirit, of which matter is the source of evil, and spirit is the source of good. We, human beings, will escape from evil only when we escape from our body made of matter, and fly to the other world of spirit.
Although this has been a very popular and strong hypothesis, it has been rejected by the argument that the world created by the Good God cannot be evil. The hymn of Genesis chapter one is an expression of this hypothesis. Accordingly, the entire world is good, for being God’s creation.
2.A second hypothesis was suggested to resolve this problem-- the world was originally created good, but later somehow evil also became a part of it. It was suggested that at the beginning of our history, we fell down to our present state of being evil from our original state of being good. The story of Adam and Eve was suggested as an expression of this hypothesis.
Augustine of Hippo elaborated this theory further, answering various questions about sin. He accepted the story of Adam and Eve as a real historical event. He defined sin as a sexually transmitted disease, which he called original sin. Accordingly, we are born sinners. Just as it is natural for a carnivorous animal to eat meat, it is natural for human beings to do sins.
This theory seems to be the most popular in the Christian world. In order for this to be true, the story of Adam and Eve must have been a historical event. Also the question of how Adam and Eve chose evil if they were created good has not been satisfactorily answered.
3. A third hypothesis suggested that although God created us the crown of creation as conscious beings, with the ability to think and act, unlike God, we lack omniscience, which causes us to err. Adam and Eve sinned because they were not God, and their knowledge was limited. This hypothesis makes the most sense. This seems to be the implication in Jesus’ Prayer, “Forgive them, for they do not know… “ (Lk 23:34). People do sins because of their ignorance. God alone is holy-- not doing any sins-- because God knows everything.
Responding to the rules regarding eating, Jesus told his disciples that defilement doesn’t come from the outside but the inside: ‘Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander’ (Matthew 15:19). Jesus means that behind our actions and thoughts, there is our heart. The word “heart” has been interpreted as the center of our being or personality. A more sensible interpretation would be seeing the heart as our understanding or our underlying awareness, which is the basis or root of our behavior. A house is built upon its foundation, which can be of rock or of sand. Jesus used this parable to advise his disciples to build their lives upon the right understanding of life, and not upon wrong understandings as propagated by the pharisees. The basic understandings upon which we build our lives is the heart of our thoughts and actions. If we have the right understanding, we will have right thoughts and actions. It implies that wrong understanding is the cause of sins. Such lack of understanding or having wrong understanding is similar to blindness. (John 9:39-41). People in darkness need a light to see. (Matthew 4:16).
The fourth century Cappadocian father, Gregory of Nyssa, has suggested this hypothesis as shown by Metropolitan Paulos Gregorios in his doctoral work, Cosmic Man. Being the image of God, man is free. However, man needs to grow to maturity in order to make use of his freedom wisely.

Who do Sins?

The Pharisees of Jesus’ time believed that some people do sins, and others are righteous. Some people in the society were called sinners by them, and they called themselves righteous.They had in mind primarily the breaking of the ritual rules regarding Sabbath and purification. They classified people into righteous and unrighteous. 

But John the Baptist and Jesus, who asserted the predominance of moral rules, claimed that all people do sins. Once when someone addressed Jesus, Good Master, Jesus used this opportunity to teach this important lesson. He said, “No one is good except God” (Mark 10:18). Once when the Pharisees brought a woman before Jesus to be killed for adultery, Jesus asked someone without any sin to cast the first stone. The implication was that God alone is without sin, and so no human being has the right to judge another human being. Paul affirms this idea when he says that God alone is just or righteous, and all human beings are unrighteous (Romans 3). All people do sins because it is human to err. 

When the idea of sin as a power spread, accompanied by the belief in original sin, it was believed that Adam and Eve were created without sin, but once they sinned, they were under the power of sin, and became sinners. According to this belief, all people since Adam and Eve are born into the world as sinners, with a few exceptions. Jesus, as the incarnation of God, was born sinless. As Jesus needed a woman to be born into the world, perhaps his mother was also without sin. Most of the traditional Christians claim that baptism delivers people from the power of sin, and so those who are baptised are no more sinners. The protestant Christians who stress the experience of being born again also claim that they are no more sinners after this experience. Thus in effect, Christianity distinguishes between sinners and non-sinners just as the pharisees did in the time of Jesus.

Today’s Christianity, while retaining its understanding of sin as a power that enslaves us, needs to regain the understanding of Jesus when he said, No one is good except God.

What is the Consequence of Sin?

It is generally agreed that sin results in death. Paul speaks metaphorically that the wages of sin is death. Sin is like a master, and death is like the wages it gives. God warns in the Garden of Eden that “You shall die the day you eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil”.

Although there is general agreement across Christianity that death is the consequence of sin, there is no agreement regarding what is meant by death. Some people ascribe a literal meaning to death, but some others ascribe a metaphorical meaning.

The story of Adam and Eve is the basis upon which the Christian understanding of the consequence of sin rests. Originally it was understood metaphorically, but later it was understood literally. Metaphorically understood, it is a parable that teaches some important lessons about human life, but literally understood, it is a historical event.

Metaphorically understood, the parable of Adam and Eve is the story of humanity, and of every individual human being. It tells us how we can live a heavenly life with God, or a hell-like life away from God. The tree of life represents the heavenly life with God. In order to enjoy this heavenly life, all we need to do is to avoid eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If we eat from this latter tree, our heavenly life comes to an end, which is death. This death is not the literal death that ends our life on the earth. Adam and Eve continue to live; they don’t die a literal death. But their heavenly life consisting of love, joy, and peace comes to en end. 

Eating from the tree of good and evil may mean claiming to have the ultimate knowledge of good evil. God alone has ultimate knowledge, and human beings or even human race as a whole can never possess the ultimate knowledge. Claiming to have ultimate knowledge of what is good and what is evil, we also claim to be righteous. That is exactly what Adam and Eve do. They justify themselves and place the blame of God. They had the option to say sorry to God, and mend the broken relationship. Thus this parable gives us an explanation of why we live a hell-like life in our world, and it gives us a pointer as to how we may reverse this situation. 

However, a literal understanding of the story gained popularity down through the centuries. Accordingly, Adam and Eve were believed to be the very first historical human couple from whom the entire human race emerged. The creation of the world was calculated by Bishop Ussher to have taken place exactly in BC 4004. Adam and Eve were created without sin, but when they disobeyed God, they became sinners, and they fell from the original state. God, as a judge, pronounced capital punishment for their crime -- death. Originally they were supposed to live for ever, but because of the sin of the first couple, we became mortal. The entire humanity has inherited mortality from them. 
The western fathers like Augustine have held a literal understanding of the story of Adam and Eve, and the western Christendom, including Roman Catholics and Protestant churches, has followed suit. The Eastern Greek fathers also have held a literal understanding, but with certain modifications. They argued that nature, the creation of God, cannot be evil, and so no one is born with an evil nature. Although they did not take the story of Adam and Eve so literally as the western fathers, they also believed that a fall happened to humanity at the beginning of human history. Gregory of Nyssa argued that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was good, for it was a creation of God. But it was not good for Eve to choose to eat it in her situation. It was an act of will to gratify her own selfish desires, which is what sin is. As a result of sin, death happens. Not an immediate death, but a sentence of death. The Eastern Greek fathers also took the meaning of death literally. While the west believes that we have inherited both sin and death from Adam and Eve, the Greek East believes that we have inherited only the death, and not sin.

It seems that the Syriac Christianity differed from both the Latin West and the Greek East in their understanding of sin and death. The understanding of the Syriac Christianity can be found primarily in the Syriac Liturgy composed by the Syrian fathers like Mor Ephrem and Mor Balai. Syriac Christianity seems to understand the story of Adam and Eve as a parable and not as a historical event. So it understands death metaphorically. It does not believe in original sin. It does not believe in a fall.    

However, unfortunately, the Syriac Christianity is a tiny oasis in the midst of a mighty desert, which holds a literal understanding of what death means, with the implication that originally we were created to live for ever, but because of our sins, we became mortals. This understanding needs correction. We read in the Bible that God alone is immortal (I Tim 6:16), and that God alone is the source of life (John 5:26). So no created being can be as immortal as God. Anything with birth must have death too. Death as a consequence of sin is to be understood metaphorically as the end of a heavenly life, a life of love, joy, and peace. In the passion week prayers and songs, the Syriac fathers affirm that Jesus killed death by his death. The death he died was literal death, but the death he killed was metaphorical death, the same death that Adam and Eve died in the Garden of Eden.

How may we Overcome Sin?

Overcoming sin and its consequence, death, is called salvation in Christianity. Depending on whether we have a literal or metaphorical understanding, we can have two different understandings of salvation. 

With a metaphorical understanding of death, salvation is regaining heavenly life of love, joy, and peace that Adam and Eve lost in the Garden of Eden. We need to realize that we are not God, and so it is natural for us to do sins in our daily life. Living a sinless life cannot be our goal. On the other hand, we need to turn our focus from sins to living a life of love. For that we need to know that God alone is holy, and it is human to err. Absence of this knowledge is the cause of all the issues. If we know that it is human to err, we will forgive others, and also seek forgiveness from others, and thus we can make our earth a heaven. Perhaps this is what Isaiah learned when he had the vision of Seraphim praising God Holy, Holy, Holy. 

Jesus called for repentance, which is a change of heart, a change of the underlying awareness. Once we do a sin, then we have to do everything in our power to mend the broken relationships. We have to apologize for our sin, and also we have to forgive the sins of others. With baptism, a symbolic bath, we will be cleaned from the dirt of sin, and will be placed in the company of similar people, the church. Instead of the power of sin, we will be led by grace, the divine power. 

Although sin becomes a force that controls us, we can’t use it as an excuse to remain under sin. We need to take responsibility to come out of sin’s control, and bring it under our control. If we are forced by a habit, we need to takes steps to break that habit. If we have peer pressure, we need to take steps to dissociate from them. In order to deal with the cosmic force of evil, we need to seek the help and support of the divine force from God, our creator.

With a literal understanding of death, salvation is regaining immortality. We need to be liberated from the power of sin. Only someone outside the power of sin can save us from the power of sin. God became a sinless man to liberate us from the power of sin. If we request Jesus, he will liberate us from sin, and we will be born again, and our names will be written in the book of life, and we will go to heaven when we die. At the return of Jesus, we will resurrect with an immortal body. Those who do not request Jesus will remain in the power of sin, and they will go to hell when they die. If this is true, what about all the people who lived before Jesus, and all those people who live and die without hearing about Jesus? No satisfactory answer has been given to this question.

Unfortunately, the majority of the Christian world has a literal understanding of death, and salvation is the same as regaining immortality for them. If Christianity can regain the metaphorical understanding of death, it can understand salvation as regaining heavenly life with love, joy and peace.  

How may we View Sin? 

It is possible to have a positive or negative approach toward sin. Let us try to understand it with a parable:

There were two teachers teaching language in a school. On the first day they both gave a writing assignment to their first graders-- write a paragraph about your home and family. They wrote, and the teacher collected their work.

One teacher marked every single mistake on their paper with a red pen, and graded their work according to the number of mistakes. The next day, the teacher returned to each student their work explaining how they performed. The teacher hoped that the next time they would write with fewer mistakes, and eventually they would write with no mistakes at all.

The second teacher marked each piece of information the students had written, and graded accordingly. The teacher did not care for their mistakes, nor did he count them.

The first teacher had a negative approach, but the second one had a positive approach. In the first teacher’s class, the focus was on avoiding mistakes, and so the students were always scared of making mistakes. As a result, their writing level did not improve at all. They were always made feel guilty of their mistakes. But in the second teacher’s class the focus was on communicating more and more ideas, and so they were encouraged to write more and more. As a result they improved in their writing level. They slowly learned to avoid the mistakes.

Although both teachers knew their subject matter well, you would say that the second teacher was a better teacher.

Now let me explain the meaning of this parable in the context of the topic of this study. Imagine that the world is a classroom, and we are here to learn some lessons. Also imagine that God is our teacher. Like which of the above two teachers would God be? Jesus taught that God is like the second teacher-- with a positive attitude. Like a father, God helps us to grow. God does not care to mark every sins we do in red ink. But later, the popular Christian God became more like the first teacher -- with a negative attitude, marking in red every mistake we do.

In relation to this we may see the two interpretations of how death happens as a consequence of sin. God said to Adam and Eve, “The day you eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall die” (Gen 2:17). We have already seen the two interpretations of death-- literal and metaphorical. Those who believe it literally as a historical incident also believe that death was given to humankind as a punishment for their sin. However, if death is seen metaphorically as the end of the heavenly life they enjoyed, it naturally happens as a result of sin. God merely informs them that their bad actions will have bad consequences. It is like the parents warning their son that careless driving might lead to death.  


We have made a quick survey of how the idea of sin has evolved in Christianity. Jesus placed emphasis upon the sin we can control. But soon afterward, the emphasis shifted to the sin that controls us, and the sin that we can control was ignored and forgotten. Today we need to bring back the emphasis given by Jesus,  and the sin that we can control needs to be the focus of our attention. It does not mean that we need to ignore the sin that controls us. We need to give due importance to that as well.

We also noticed that we in the modern times lack the ability of our pre-modern ancestors to use and understand metaphorical language. Such an inability characteristic of such learned people like Nicodemus, who couldn’t understand what it meant to be born again, has become the norm of our times. Unless we gain the ability to understand metaphorical language, the story of Adam and Eve won’t make much sense to us, and we will miss the key terms like death and salvation.
We have also seen how badly we need to develop a positive attitude toward sin. We need to realize that it is human to err, and thus gain the willingness to forgive and to seek forgiveness.



Anonymous said...

Really appreciate the pains you have taken to understand the finer aspects of sinfulness and your views about adopting a positive attitude towards affirmative action towards life and freedom from sin.

While I am no theologian to comment on whether a literal view or a metaphorical view is correct, I am in agreement on the point that being sinful by nature should not paralyze us from trying to reach up higher towards being perfect (St. Matthew 5:48).

Without fighting the fears within, we will never be able to effectively fight Satan in the world around us.

In Christ,

John Jacob

Robyn Mckeon said...

I can only say that I agree with all that I read. I particularly believe that death was not meant to be taken in a literal sense. I used to hate the bible and still think that some of it is not what Jesus wanted to say, but the parables and metaphors made sense to me now. I also admit that I did not have time to read every single word, but I intend to when I get time. I am a fast reader though and read enough to understand. I will certainly study it well later. Thank you again.
Robyn McKeon, Penrith, New South Wales, Australia

Peter Ross said...

Sin seems an old fashioned word to some but you can discern through the bible that it means the 'conscious act of the will to do wrong'. That is it is a deliberate wrong and conscious choice. Iniquity though is the unconscious acts of wrong we do. Example is selfishness and pride which overtake us and cause us to do wrong without deliberate conscious intention. There could be a longer list of iniquities which are general human faults. So we have to distinguish between sin and iniquities which abound. The concept of original sin is in error and nobody is born in sin, though nobody is born perfect either, or in a perfect world. There is much more to be answered in your thesis, but it is rather lengthy so I'll leave you with those thoughts for now as I have learned them.
Peter Ross