Sin

Sin is the violation of a divine law. It is conditional upon three elements:

 

1)      Divine law, which can only be decreed by a divine being.  Violation of manmade laws is simply crime.

2)      An intelligent being capable of comprehending the divine law.  Humans and angels are capable of sin.  A carnivorous animal is not guilty of sin, far less an inanimate rock that falls and causes a catastrophic landslide.

3)      Freedom to obey or disobey the divine law.  All religions and philosophies agree that personal responsibility requires the exercise of freewill. A victim of rape cannot be held guilty of fornication or adultery.

 

 A world without God is, by definition, a world without sin. Atheists can commit crimes but are free of sin.  It is also possible to believe in a God who creates and exists but does not decree laws. This form of religion would be sinless.

Sin requires a God who decrees divine laws, and can enforce them.  This is where the question of sin becomes tricky. If God is sufficiently powerful to detect all sin and punish it, why would that God not be able to prevent sin?  This is a very old question which has produce puzzling answers.

 

The Bible begins with the existence of animals and sinless human beings. They are sinless because they are innocent and righteous, but also because they inhabit a world devoid of divine law. Then God tells the man that he is absolutely free except for one divine law, a single fruit is decreed forbidden. The fruit is left hanging until Genesis chapter three. A talking serpent enters the garden with the express intent of convincing the man and woman to sample the forbidden fruit, therefore breaking divine law and committing sin.

 

The Early Church believed in freewill. God could certainly have prevented the serpent from tempting the humans and misleading them with half truths. God could have intervened at any time to prevent the forbidden fruit from being eaten. If the serpent represents fallen Satan, God could have prevented the prior rebellion. However, a world without freedom would not be a ‘good’ world. Good exists only as a choice, alongside evil. The story of Eden can be read as an allegory about good, evil, temptation, freedom of choice, capitulation, responsibility and consequence.  After understanding the consequence of their actions would Adam and Eve still choose the forbidden fruit? If their suffering has made them wiser, then human choice and divine patience have proved their worth. Interpreted this way, Eden provides many lessons about the meaning of life.  

 

Few of the writings that have come down to us from the Early Church contain commentaries on Eden, with the exception of the apocryphal Revelation of Moses which devotes several pages to the final days of Adam and Eve.  As God expelled the rebellious couple from Eden he promised that if they would refrain from evil thereafter they would be resurrected to paradise and eternal life. Adam and Eve repented of their rebellion and God had compassion upon them and their children. At the end of the narrative, they fall asleep in death until the day of resurrection when Adam is promised he will sit on the throne of ‘him that deceived thee.’ The lessons of Eden have been learned and paradise will be restored by divine grace.

 

Augustine interpreted the Story of Eden very differently. He had two principle missions in life. The first was to absolve God of all responsibility for evil in the universe.  Augustine’s God could not have created the conditions that would cause the humans to sin; that would make God responsible. Augustine’s God is omniscient and omnipotent yet fails to foresee or prevent rebellion in Eden. This is, to say the least, a paradox.

 

Augustine’s second goal was to force the mass conversion of Pagans, while incurring minimal bloodshed.  In this he was wildly successful. But the cost was terrible.  Augustine created a new religion that replaced personal sin with original sin, and transformative power with sacramental ritual. He converted a religion of love and freedom into a state controlled theocracy that used brute force to impose conversion and enforce orthodoxy. Augustine replaced simple faith with the rite of baptism which comforted inveterate sinners with the assurance that a death bed baptism would wash the slate clean. He replaced freedom and personal responsibility with predestination.

 

Augustine’s thoughts about predestination are an impenetrable paradox even to his greatest admirers.  Augustine gave God full glory for all that is good, beautiful and holy, but absolved him entirely of all sin, suffering and evil.  Adam was created perfectly good. God gave Adam everything he needed to live in paradise for all eternity. Man alone was responsible for the rebellion.  Augustine used the same logic to describe predestined salvation and damnation.  God is responsible for those he chooses to save but not for those he chooses to leave in perdition. Even John Calvin, in most ways more Augustinian than Augustine, had to admit this was impossible. God is responsible for neither or both, and so Calvin embraced the far more brutal, but logical, theology of double predestination.

 

To absolve God from all evil, Augustine attributed all suffering, evil and death to man’s rebellion.  It was much easier in Augustine’s age to state the paradise had existed in deathless perfection until Adam’s fall.  Who wanted to quibble over details of events that had occurred in antiquity? Who could prove or disprove such ancient stories?  Those closest to the era, the ancient Israelites, would have had a better idea.  Ultimately God alone knew, and whatever God had revealed to the writers of sacred scripture was the only reliable witness. 

 

Augustine’s interpretation of the Fall of Man created a new world filled with evil and death.  The first man, Adam, had been perfect in his body, mind and spirit but the descendants of Adam were perverse and depraved in every way. They were so filled with evil that unless they were washed clean but the waters of baptism, they must be eternally punished for their sin.  Augustine’s new religion was focussed almost entirely on original sin, rather than personal sin. Even unbaptized babies must be excluded from both the Kingdom of heaven and eternal life. It was a powerful weapon for the mass conversion of pagans.

 

The Catholic Church modified the extremes of Augustine’s Gospel of Wrath. Unbaptrized babies were transferred to limbo. 

Original sin was retained but personal sin, confession, repentance and purgation were elevated to a science. Sin was subdivided into categories and degrees.  Mortal sin was the worst; a person dying tainted with mortal sin could not be saved by any amount or prayer or repentance. Venial sin could be purged by sacraments in this life and, after death, by purgatory.  Critics of the Catholic sacramental system argue that it encourages sinners to confess and do penance rather than cease and desist.

 

The Protestant Reformation retained most of Augustine’s theology and amplified his paradoxes. Protestants are not saved because they are good, worthy, or even trying to be good and worthy, but because God has chosen them at random, as objects of unmerited grace. Meanwhile untold multitudes of others have not been chosen; they remain objects of wrath.  Calvin could not explain the mystery so he attributed it to ‘God’s own pleasure.’  Calvin’s God saved a few sinners unconditionally. Salvation was irresistible and could not be lost. Once saved, always saved. It was a sweet deal that caused some Calvinists to luxuriate in their sinfulness with impunity, but there was a catch. It was impossible to know for certain who was saved. Righteous behaviour was not a guarantee of salvation – and certainly not a ‘cause’ of salvation – but it was a useful indicator of who was truly saved and in the process of being transformed by God’s grace. For Calvinists, sin was every bit the cause of guilt and anxiety it had been for Catholics, but without the relief of confession and absolution. 

 

Modern Charismatics are not overly concerned by sin. They do their best to live righteous lives and trust that God will forgive the rest. Charismatics have few concerns about the stain of sin that will remain upon them at death.  Somehow, God will both forgive sin and remove it permanently so that they may be lifted directly to heaven. This is a happy solution to an age-old source of guilt and grief. 

 

Charismatics are divided over the fate of non-Christians. Those who remain indoctrinated by Augustine and Calvin insist that not a single non-Christian will be spared eternal torment. Why?  Without Christ there is no salvation!   Those with universalist tendencies would like to think that all good people, from all races and nations, will be welcome in heaven. This is another happy solution to an age-old source of guilt and grief. 

 

 

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