|A PLAIN GUIDE TO
Two conduits operate between Christians and others. The first is
emotional, of intuition. People are attracted and repelled by what they
feel about Christians. The other conduit is rational, of the head.
Reactions to Jesus result from thinking things through. Neither conduit
is exclusively right. But in the longer run, whatever is not properly
conceived must fail. At present, Christian teachings about sin fall into
A common opinion nowadays is that Christianity
is dying. Many say that it no longer speaks to ordinary people, that its
concepts and teachings don't ring true to the modern ear.
plainly a reasonable conclusion to draw in Europe and Britain. It applies
less certainly to the United States and Canada. But in Africa and several
parts of Asia it is definitely not true. There the Church in its many
forms is in a phase of rapid growth.
What is it about the West which may
not apply to Africa?
Many answers have been proposed to this question.
Here I want to focus on just one, albeit an answer so fundamental that it
has merged into the background of contemporary debates. And because it
can't easily be seen amongst more florid and quick-growing issues, it is
seldom focused upon.
My suggestion is that the Church in the West has
failed to develop for the modern age a persuasive teaching about sin.
Because the reality of sin is central to Christian doctrine, the person of
Jesus consequently becomes less and less credible.
The logic of
traditional Christianity is rock-solid. Its premise is that everyone,
without exception, is sinful. That is, sin is both inevitable and
necessary. It is impossible for sinful people to share in the eternal
purity and goodness of God. Only God can forgive sin. God has achieved
just this through the life, death and resurrection from the dead of Jesus
the Messiah (the Christ). Anyone who turns away from sin and accepts the
salvation freely offered by Jesus is acceptable to God.
unless you and I first accept that we are sinful, there is no ultimate
point to Jesus. He becomes merely a prophetic figure whose life and words
transfigured many parts of the world.
But exactly what is sin? How are
you and I to know when we're sinning?
It should be possible at this
point to examine the Bible and come up with an answer. I could indeed do
just this, perhaps pointing out that the concept of sin in the New
Testament is much the same as that in the Hebrew Bible (the Old
Augustine of Hippo (354-430) certainly took sin seriously,
as his Confessions
demonstrates. Using the Bible as his authority, he defined sin as
... any word or deed or thought against the eternal law.
His definition summarises the Bible's teaching well. The eternal law
referred to by Augustine was given by God to Moses at some point in the
far past. The Hebrew people have preserved this law - known as the Ten
Commandments - since then. The Church has now taken over this task. It
teaches that the eternal law remains valid, though it has been
superceded but not cancelled by the law of love (Mark 12.28-33).
However, there has been relatively little development over the
centuries of this concept of sin.
One of the characteristics of
today's secular world is that most people have little or no knowledge of
the past, particularly the distant past.
This is not to say that they
are not curious about it, witness many successful television and radio
programs with historical themes. But it is to say that people tend not to
think of the past as coterminous with authority. In other words, many
think that we can learn from the past, but that our decisions about life
should be made on grounds other than historical precedent.
I think this
indicates the possibility that not only don't most people know what God's
"eternal law" is, but even if they did know they would wonder why they
should live by it. This is primarily because in the West laws derive from
a social contract. This contract is not eternal but constantly shifting.
Law may have long-lasting elements but it is continually being reshaped
according to circumstance and need.
Law for many today is man-made,
not God-made. For this reason, I think it's not helpful to talk about
"law" in connection to sin. It works better if sin is thought of as
actions which transgress the rules God says we should live by.
do we all break the eternal rules, said Augustine, but we are "infected"
by sin whether or not we like it. He had picked up from the letters of
Paul the idea that humanity at large is fatally corrupted by the rebellion
of Adam and Eve. Augustine puts the doctrine of original sin, as it is
called, like this:
... when the first couple were punished by the judgement of God,
the whole human race, which was to become Adam's posterity through the
first woman, was present in the first man .
There are a number of objections to the doctrine of original sin:
If a person is to be held accountable for anything, he or she
must first have freely performed an act or thought a thought which is
against the eternal rules. This free choice is essential to
accountability for sin. If this is the case, then original sin doesn't
make sense, since it is not the result of our free choice.
What we know today about the transmission of characteristics
from generation to generation doesn't allow the kind of inheritance
apparently suggested by the doctrine. It's nearly impossible for most
people to think of a newborn child as sinful. Genes just don't carry
that sort of information. They give us big noses and dictate our
intellectual potentials. But they don't transmit sin.
Some propose that sin is transmitted through our upbringing in
a corrupt society. But if that's the case, we still can't be held
accountable. Everyone is formed and shaped by the culture they are
brought up in. Many - if not all of us - are to a very large extent
unable to escape that framework. If, for example, I am brought up in a
racist society by a racist church ("racist" being a word applied by
those who have been brought up differently) it may be incorrect to
call me sinful in this respect. And if I am brought up in a wealthy
society, can I truly be blamed for that? It may be said that as a rich
person I'm exploiting other nations and the environment. But isn't
that merely another point of view?
So if the kite of original sin can't be made to fly except in the
very best of conditions, if at all, in what sense can particular actions
(including thoughts) be called sinful?
A classic way of regarding
sin, much used in nineteenth century Europe, is an appeal to something
called "conscience". This is a complex capacity which guides and monitors
us to evaluate and choose right actions. L R Rambo writes of conscience
... is not the sole guide to moral life: rather, informed by
scripture, nurtured by grace, inspired by the Holy Spirit, and enacted
in love for others, [it] serves as a flexible and fallible evaluator
of one's own actions in the light of one's understanding of God's will
In other words, conscience doesn't provide the criteria against which
to establish what is sinful and what isn't. It is a set of rules we have
internalised from our parents, our families and our societies. We may
choose to live by those rules - but there is no intrinsic reason why
they should apply to anyone else. Applying them willy-nilly is usually
As these traditional criteria have begun to
fade over the past two or three centuries, the issue of sin has been
tackled many times.
Some feminist writers have suggested that the
traditional idea of sin as rebellion against God's will is an essentially
male idea. Females tend to think of sin as actions which devalue the
person. What was once
... thought to be human experience was in fact male experience, so
theology was impoverished, and led to support for prevailing
[negative] definitions of women ... 
The theologian Rudolf Bultmann suggested that sin derives from an
inauthentic life in which we seek self-reliance and fail to realise that
we must depend on and trust in God.
In so-called liberation
theology, sin is thought of as vesting primarily in social structures.
They distort the world we live in because we are all ultimately controlled
by those social structures. Sin is not the distortion of a merely private
relationship with God. It is much bigger and more basic than that. It is
mediated by a corrupt social order. Presumably, therefore, sin would be
eradicated if a perfect social system were to be created - a rather
Another stream of thought locates sin in some
sort of existential disruption or fragmentation. We act sinfully because
we are "estranged from [our] essence", according to the theologian Paul
Tillich. Through that estrangement comes alienation from ourselves and
from others. Our lives become unbalanced. The deep sense of guilt,
loneliness and meaninglessness which results from alienation is what we
call "sin". The concept of sin is, according to Tillich, a religious
symbol for our individual responsibility in creating this alienated state.
Yet another attempt to understand sin might be called the "ecological"
model. According to this, our world is to be understood as a total system
of which humanity is a part. It's our function to nurture and safeguard
this system. Insofar as we exploit and damage the natural world, we are
all sinful. Sally McFague writes that "... like it or not, [we are] the
guardians and caretakers of our tiny planet" .
The ordinary person may not find this helpful, given the struggle to
survive and prosper that most people experience.
variation of this model is one which places "life" at the centre of
meaning. The central purpose of life, according to this, is life itself.
(Which is another way of saying that the question "What is life?" doesn't
make sense.) That is, we are all bound to do what creates and preserves
life on our planet. Actions which promote life are good; those which
inhibit or destroy life are bad. This has the considerable merit of
focusing us on both ourselves and outside ourselves at the same time.
At first sight, it would seem relatively easy to identify pro-life and
anti-life behaviours. A second look exposes difficulties. What if another
group starts attempting to destroy my group? Why should the life of my
group be counted more valuable than the life of the other group? Further,
life without exception is good, can I in good conscience destroy it when
it takes on the form of a mosquito, or a deadly bacterium, or a vicious
Perhaps more common in our times is the suggestion that
sin is in some sense to be equated with ignorance. It's regarded as a sort
of hangover from a more superstitious age. According to this view, once we
know how things work - including society and the natural world - we'll be
able to avoid making the kind of mistakes people used to call "sinful".
Most people alive today would question that this improvement either has
happened, or is likely to come about.
Churches which today emphasise
sin as breaking God's rules are bound to prosper. The concept they teach
is simple. Sin is breaking God's rules about how to live a holy life.
Rules of behaviour are relatively easy to formulate and police.
Furthermore, the idea that a divine person has potentially put things
right with God is comforting.
But which rules are God's rules? Those
common in the West? Or the norms of African societies? Or perhaps the
rules of life promoted by Hindus, or Buddhists - or perhaps by dedicated
There lies the big question, wriggling and twisting
despite our best attempts to answer it.
One response to the
formulation of a satisfactory doctrine of sin remains to be considered. It
might be called a "relativist" response.
More and more people are
proposing that the only way to understand sin is to recognise that we
choose our own rules. They might say that there is no such thing as an
absolute rule of right living. Each of us has to identify for ourselves by
which rules we're going to live our lives. Those in India will choose from
a multitude of options. In the West, a person's choice is likely to have
considerable Christian overtones - even though the social climate is more
humanist and secular than in the past.
This escape route from the
problem of sin is much more common than the average Christian likes to
admit. Especially in the West, it's a route taken by many through the
complexities of modern morality.
The outcome is often that
"anything goes" within the constraints of the social contract we call "the
law of the land". We can do what we like, as long as we don't break that
law - that is, as long as we don't get caught. Perhaps liberal societies
might be wise to recognise that a possible result of this idea of sin may
be ever-tighter state control of the individual. This is usually called a
"totalitarian" response, meaning the "total" precedence of the social over
Perhaps a new concept of sin will emerge through
theological debate. Who knows? But until it does, the Church is likely to
seek refuge from contemporary questioning by merely reiterating ancient
doctrines of sin.
Meanwhile, sin as a hard reality of life is
unlikely to go away. Most of us recognise that we fail to attain whatever
standards of goodness we choose for ourselves. Most often we fail because
of some personal weakness, or because we are socially conditioned to fail.
These instances are worrying in themselves - but we probably can't rightly
be held to account for them.
Of much greater concern are the
occasions when we do wrong knowingly, in full consciousness that we are
transgressing. Very few of us can truly say that we have never done
this kind of wrong. This, it seems to me, is what can justly be called
If I were to guess criteria for sinful behaviour, the following
might hold promise:
The past contains vast reservoirs of experience. We would be
silly to ignore what others over the ages have found to work for
them. Behavioural rules such as the Ten Commandments are worth
But they will not easily stand elevation to absolutes, either in
theory or in practice. Indeed, it seems that absolute criteria for
sinful behaviour may be impossible in our multi-cultural world.
The criterion of the value of life in an ecological setting seems
fruitful - not so much as a standard, but rather as a context for
some sort of concept of sin for now and the future. How that is to
be worked out is far from clear at present.
Only time will tell. But it seems to me that Christians of all
persuasions would do well to rethink their ideas of sin.
 The City of God, quoted by P L Quinn in A
Companion to the Philosophy of Religion, Blackwell, 1999
 In A New Dictionary of Christian theology, SCM Press, 1983
 Feminist Theology, Ann Loades in The Modern Theologians,
Vol. II, Ed. D F Ford, Blackwell, 1989
 Quoted in God, Humanity and the Cosmos, T&T Clark, 1999