Two contributors present brief essays in response to some
perennial questions. Each writes independently of the other. One comes
from a person closely linked to a Christian denomination. The other
comes from a person at the fringes of the traditional Church.
Do people really sin?
In the Judeo-Christian tradition the
in the Garden of Eden by Adam and Eve is cited as the beginning of
I am not sure the author intended the metaphorical story to mean that.
I have a different take.
The Eden story to me signifies
humankind�s attainment of consciousness. �Then the eyes of both (Adam
and Eve) were opened, and they
they were naked� (Genesis 3.7). Before that moment in evolutionary
history, the forerunners of modern
Homo Sapiens were incapable if sin because they had no
self-awareness of their thoughts and actions.
The definition of sin is often elusive and controversial. To simplify, I define it as
uncharitable or destructive thought and behavior toward fellow human
beings and thus toward God. Awareness or consciousness of such behavior
(conscience) evokes a sense of personal responsibility (guilt). In turn
this should result in redress or search for atonement.
To ask the question again: Do
people really sin? Need I recount the many ways in which we humans
demonstrate uncharitable and destructive behavior? It is self-evident.
Sin is a pervasive reality. Because we are conscious we cannot help it.
The crux of the matter lies in our conscious natures. Were we not
conscious, like non-sentient animals, the question would be moot.
Our bodies are equipped with
so-called proprioceptive nervous systems that survey our environment for
potential sources of damage and to maintain body integrity. For example,
a joint deprived of pain perception (as may occur in diabetes) may
sustain severe damage because trauma, normally avoided by pain, is
allowed to continue.
Similarly, our psyches, minds or
souls (whatever you want to call it) need proprioception to avoid
similar damage. Proprioception of this kind is provided by
conscience, a derivative of consciousness.
We cannot escape the crowning
feature of our nature, our consciousness. We cannot, therefore, escape
our capacity to sin. At the same time our consciousness can be the
vehicle of redress and atonement.
�If we say we have no sin we
deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us� (1 John 1.8). Our
consciousness of the meaning of the life and death of Jesus Christ
provides a way to understand and mend our sin.
If anything is fundamental to traditional
Christianity it is that human beings are inherently sinful. If this were
not the case, Jesus would have had no eternal purpose. Sin, according to
Augustine of Hippo, is �Any word, deed, or thought against the eternal
law� - and breaking the law, as we all know, demands prosecution and
punishment if peace and good order are to be maintained.
The only way of avoiding punishment is, according to the Church, to
have faith that Jesus of Nazareth paid the penalty for us by dying on
the cross. Because he did this, God treats us as though we are sinless.
We are prosecuted but not punished - even though we don�t deserve to be
let off. Unbelievers may be eternally punished for their sins, but
faith-full Christians aren�t.
If I were to speak in such terms (however much elaborated) to a
thinking Westerner I might be greeted with incomprehension. This is
because, however well-domiciled traditional teaching about sin may be,
modern understanding has moved to a new address in another country.
There are now three basic assumptions:
We humans have evolved over millions of years into our present form.
Genetic inheritance may predispose us to various weaknesses. But
because they are not our doing, we cannot be held accountable for
Our personalities are derived from our parents. We are socialised by
them and others. The basic �Who I am� is decided well before I can be
held fully accountable for my actions.
Much of what was once termed sinful behaviour is now known to be
Unfortunately, this understanding has been heretical since Pelagius
in the late fourth century. He thought that we are born sinless and that
we sin only if we do so deliberately. That is, unless we have to will to
do right we can�t have the will to do wrong. Pelagius was condemned and
The upshot of modern perceptions is that it is much harder now to lay
sin upon ourselves than it once was. Did Jones deliberately steal from
the poor - or was he driven by complex psychological and social forces
beyond his control? Was Adolf Hitler sane or mad? Did Stalin slaughter
20 million people because he was paranoid? Did Mao Tse-tung, the
greatest ever mass murderer, sin even though he never gave God a
Who is to know?
And yet it is a rare person who can convincingly maintain that he or
she is sinless. For regardless of our genes and upbringing, each of us
knows at least one occasion when we chose to do something wrong - if
only �wrong� as we define wrongness for ourselves.
The problem arises not so much in knowing that I have sinned, but in
knowing that another�s actions are sinful. Which is perhaps why Jesus
cautioned about judging others.