Sin: A sceptic’s guide

Why write (or read) about sin? If ever there were a secular swear word, sin would be it. From the Google Ngram below it is evident that except for a short revival during the WWII, the word is falling into disuse:


But I have a pet theory that all ideas about God, rightly understood, are liberating rather than oppressive. Everyone has a personal theology: even atheists believe certain things about God. And those aspects which anger you or that you find ridiculous are usually the beacons of your own unexplored theological territory. The idea of sin is a classic example of this phenomenon. Few things are more misunderstood and more offensive. Paradoxically, though, our post-enlightenment attempt to deny it has not helped: “violence”, “pain” and “anger” are not going away[1], and I think it is better to face the beast head-on than to pretend that it isn’t there.

anger,violence,pain ngram


A popular but slightly hazy definition of sin is: “Cornelius Plantinga[2] says that sin is the culpable disruption of Shalom”, which is a phrase popularised by the iconoclast preacher Rob Bell. Shalom is the Hebrew term for an all-encompassing, almost metaphysical peace and wholeness where God is present. While no Christian would deny that sin disrupts Shalom, the effect of sin (disrupting Shalom) is confused with its essence, which makes me wary. Shalom is often defined as that which makes me feel good and doesn’t hurt other people to the best of our knowledge. What it comes down to in the end is our personal perception of a given act. It’s all we have as far as ethics go, but we must admit that we would not want everyone to do what is right in their own eyes (the Biblical definition of chaos, by the way). If you ask any criminal whether he is “breaking Shalom”, he would probably deny it. We all have our reasons.

A hot-button example: homosexuality. The argument goes like this: If sin is the culpable breaking of Shalom, and I see no Shalom being broken by a homosexual lifestyle, then a homosexual lifestyle can’t be sin, even though the Bible seems to say so. Regardless of how pro-homosexuality you are, you must admit that this is a flawed argument within the Christian worldview. Rather, Christians should locate the debate around the interpretation of the texts.

The second popular Christian definition of sin is hamartia[3]: a Greek archery term for “missing the mark”. The way it is then fleshed out is to talk about it as if it is a “non-culpable lack of moral skill”. However, if you read those verses in context you find the perpetrators of hamartia miss the mark in the same way that a murderer misses the mark. The failure is not only a lack of goodness (the historical Roman Catholic view), but the presence of evil.[4]


Sin as disobedience

In our context, it is helpful to view sin as a willful disobedience to God.[5] If God is goodness itself, and only commands good things, then of course disobedience would disrupt Shalom as well. But suppose God commands someone to not eat lettuce for reasons unknown to us. Lettuce is a good thing, and eating it doesn’t seem like it would disrupt Shalom. Would it still be sin? It would. The command may be arbitrary to us, but the breaking of it would not be. Being limited in our insight, wisdom, and knowledge, we might not grasp its full significance. Another example would be keeping Sabbath: resting once a week.[6] An arbitrary or at least highly debatable thing to us, but God seems to take it very seriously.

Some pictures

Why is disobedience itself such a big deal? On a utilitarian level, as we have said, God knows well and loves well, and that what seems like arbitrary commands to us may prove different with an omniscient perspective. So it would be beneficial for us to listen to someone wiser. But there may be compelling metaphysical reasons as well.

Sin really is a big deal because of who we are as creatures, and who God is as creator. There is a difference of roles as a result of a difference of identities. Sin is relational not just in the way I have relationships with people, but also in the way that the earth has a relationship with the sun. Being selfish and disobedient to God is like earth trying to get the sun to revolve around it. Orbiting something else sounds terrible to our individualistic, post-modern ears, and philosophers do say many fine things about power plays and constraints. But none would dare suggest that we knock the earth from its orbit for the sake of our ‘freedom’. Yet this is what sin does on a metaphysical level: it is us denying our orbit around God. Things are off kilter, and can we not feel it? The delicate dance between man, nature and God is broken.

Furthermore, we do not sin primarily against each other, but against God as creator.[7] Christians believe that every human being carries the divine signature – the Imago Dei. We are image-bearers of God. If you sin against someone, it is like defacing God’s artwork. A wrong has been committed against the artwork, but even more so against the Artist. This is why God, and not just the artwork, needs to forgive us when we break Shalom. We could also see it like this: humans are God’s standard bearers. Sinning against the standard-bearer insults him, but more than that, insults the king whom he represents.

Christians also view God as the supreme legislator. If a good governor brings about legislation, it would be wrong for a citizen to break that law even if no-one is hurt. If a father tells a child to do something and the child asks why, s/he is not looking for obedience but agreement. Similarly, the state does not require its citizens’ agreement with its laws, but their obedience.

Sin is also highly addictive. We are addicted to selfishness in a way that we can’t cure ourselves. We may still be God’s children, and he does love us and forgive us, but we are addicts. Eventually the addiction will consume us if we don’t get help.

Sin is moral cancer, and you don’t just forgive cancer. You deal with it.

Sin vs. Jesus

Christian military metaphors can be misleading, but in some sense God is commander-in-chief, and he has given orders. Disobeying orders is insubordination. But the commander-in-chief also showed up and served on the front lines. Jesus on the cross is God personally dealing with sin. He has jumped on the grenade to save his soldiers. And who would not serve under that kind of a commander?

That is why “faith” is such a big deal and an integral part of Christian thinking about sin and the human predicament. Faith means trusting God for what he did, and living under his rule. It is essentially the opposite of disobedience, pride and selfishness. And where he rules and this happens, is heaven.[8] So if that is done here on earth, heaven also breaks in here. The “kingdom of God” (Jesus’ favourite topic) is God’s reign coming here, where you are, with whom you are. Right now. That is the true, eternal, Shalom kind of life, where God rules unselfishly and bids us to do the same.


[1] We can add a host of statistical caveats here: correlation does not imply causation, and maybe we talk about violence more because we are more sensitive to it today and are actually referring to nonviolence. So although I do take the result with a pinch of salt, I think the point is defensible.

[2] Cornelius Plantinga is the president of Calvin College, and wrote a book called Not the way it’s supposed to be: a breviary of sin. Glittering Vices by Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung is also highly recommended.

[3] Hamartia is one of the eight words relating to sin in the New Testament. Hamartology is the study of the idea of sin.

[4] The idea of sin as privatio boni – corruption of the good – goes back to Augustine and is not just a Roman Catholic idea. It refers to how sin and evil are always parasitizing the good and needs the good to exist: a completely moth-eaten garment is just a hanger in the closet. But sin is not only a negation of the good in the same way that rebellion is not just the denial of an authority or lying is not just non-truth.

[5] 1 John 3:4 “Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness” where anomia literally means “the negation of law”. One could go deeper still: the root of this has historically been thought of as pride, selfishness and desire. Think of Adam, Eve, and the apple: desire, selfishness, pride: sin.

[6] You could argue that disobedience disrupts the heaven-earth Shalom, and that might be true. But this is redefining Shalom away from what was originally meant.

[7] Psalm 51:4 “Against you, you only, have I sinned”, although this doesn’t exclude sinning against people as in Matthew 18:15 “If your brother sins against you”. Cf. 1 John 4:20 “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.”

[8] Jesus taught his disciples to pray: “Our father… let your kingdom come and your will be done here as in heaven…” Matthew 6.

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