Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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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 this category.

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.

This is 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.

Therefore, 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 Testament). 

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.

Not only 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 [1].

There are a number of objections to the doctrine of original sin:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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 that it

... 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 [2].

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 called "prejudice".

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 ... [3]

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 unlikely scenario.

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" [4]. The ordinary person may not find this helpful, given the struggle to survive and prosper that most people experience.

An important 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, if all 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 sociopath?

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 Communists?

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 the individual.

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 sin.

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 careful examination.

  • 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.
[1] The City of God, quoted by P L Quinn in A Companion to the Philosophy of Religion, Blackwell, 1999
[2] In A New Dictionary of Christian theology, SCM Press, 1983
[3] Feminist Theology, Ann Loades in The Modern Theologians, Vol. II, Ed. D F Ford, Blackwell, 1989
[4] Quoted in God, Humanity and the Cosmos, T&T Clark, 1999

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