A Secular View of Sin

“Is there such a thing as sin?”

Those of us who have a “history” with the Church know quite a bit about this thing called “sin.” We know that God doesn’t like it and we shouldn’t do it. Depending on how strictly we were raised, we may think we not only sin but we are “sinners”—hopelessly marked by the big red letter “S.” We can never seem to escape our sinful nature. And, speaking of Nature, that’s sinful too—a “fallen” world—or so we’re told.

Keeping in mind that many religions have some variant notion of sin, my believing background and the pervasive influence of Christianity cause me to be primarily concerned with the viral nature of sin espoused by one tradition.

Attending the ordination of a minister, we heard he was now authorized to forgive sins. Apparently this refers to Jesus’ words to the disciples in John (20:23): “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” The “verse wars” among Christians reveal contradictions with this—God alone forgives sin, right? Yet the issue remains the same: what is sin, is there such a thing as sin, and if so, what can be done about it?

Someone asked me if I felt different when I “accepted Jesus” as a teen. I replied with a smile, “Oh yes. I was such a desperate sinner at thirteen!” Did I see the world in a different way because I now “knew God”? I was a teen—the world looked different every day. And I had no idea what “knowing God” meant. I was told I was a “new creation” who had received salvation that healed me and made me whole. Once again, at thirteen, I had no idea what that meant. Besides, it didn’t cure my acne.

Like every teen, I sinned all the time, painfully aware I was hurting “my new friend” Jesus every day. I began to wonder if this kept me coming back to church and the Bible teachers. The more I sinned, the more I needed “God’s reps,” “God’s refs” and the “means of grace.”

My Christian friends and I were told by adults who said they knew all about these things that sin is spelled SIN because there is a big “I” in the middle. Ego in the center (instead of God) becomes the definition of sin. We were told to keep our self—our ego—off the “throne” and let Christ take a seat. We accepted what these adults told us, and never questioned the nonsense of it.

If you weren’t brought up in this worldview, you probably won’t understand the endless circle and cycle of guilt it produces. “I’m a terrible sinner!” … “I’m saved by grace!” … “I’ve been forgiven!” … “Please forgive me!”

The way the Church handles this dizzying un-merry go-round is “confession.” As individuals or as a congregation, people say they’re sorry, ask forgiveness and the clergyperson—God’s representative—proclaims everyone forgiven. Voila! Amen! Until the next time, the next sin, which is, if we’re honest, five minutes later.

Have you ever heard: “Jesus died on the cross for the forgiveness of sins”? Of course you have. Yet, it’s always bothered me a bit. Sure, the part about God choosing to have his Son (God) killed so He (God) would forgive the people God made to be imperfect sinners, is confusing enough. Barring that conundrum, I’ve never really grasped the claim that Jesus died for our sins but we’re not forgiven until we believe that, and then we aren’t really forgiven because we’ll sin again, in five minutes.

Forgive me, but it makes no sense. The “sacrificial atonement” doesn’t; a God who needs that doesn’t; and sin doesn’t. For all the theological jargon, argued century after century, it seems to me that “sin” is merely another word for “being human.” Aren’t people actually “repenting” and “confessing” their humanity? Who’s fault is that? If you believe in the God who seems obsessed with sin—our humanity—a God who is consistently angry or disappointed with us because we’re being human (being ourselves), a deity who needs continual appeasement through confession and self-condemnation—then we might ask: What? Why?

If we’re not “good enough” and told that we can “never” be good enough because we need “grace” (undeserved favor) since we are essentially undeserving of anything good, what’s the point? What are the consequences of all this guilt and shame?

Now, in more liberal Christian circles, sin is not so personalistic; it is understood as more social and systemic. This is the reason Martin Luther King and other Christian leaders might refer to the sinfulness of systems such as endemic racism and unjust economics. In that context, this makes sense. However, it still posits a rather Grumpy God who spends his days agitated, angry and anxious to see social structures change through reform or revolution. This may be a more palatable modern deity, yet the continuation of any notion of “sin” raises the same problems of humanity’s failed, fractured and fallen nature.

I read that a professor was teaching a course on “incompleteness.” I wonder if this is a more secular way to speak of sin? Are we somehow incomplete? If we’re inadequate, missing something, does that make us bad?

Let me suggest there is no such a thing as “sin” as the major traditions have told us. But we should be prepared for major pushback because without the idea of sin a great deal of religion becomes unnecessary.

Chris Highland
2020

4 Thoughts

  1. That god can command death and evil at will and still be “good” is evidence that mans morality did not transude from god, but in spite of him (if there was one)
    If god is righteous simply because he’s creator, there is no difference between god and evil in which he would also be the author of his own immunity. God has no sin, but can be ethically wrong.
    We, on the other hand, have no choice but to be a sinners since birth, kinda voids the argument for freewill, doesn’t it? You have no choice in the matter at all but to sin, so is it still sin?

  2. Hello Chris. Insightful column and points that have racked my brain ever since I really started to study theology seriously. The atonement is sourced mythology from ancient Babylon when the King and the high priest taking a serious slap in the face for the people of the empire to appease Marduk. It was in the Spring to start the new year and was carried over to Easter by Christianity. Until the Israelites were exposed to a superior culture they had no idea of an apocalypse and atonement to prevent eternal punishment. It is no surprise after the reading the context that the first messiah mentioned in the bible is Cyrus the Great, the Babylonian King who was tolerant and released the Israelites to return home after the captivity. BTW, many stayed and never returned and their relatives were those that Mohammed called the “people of the book” a 1000 years later. Many secular Islamic scholars see so much of the Hebrew bible in the Koran. It is all assimilation.

    It has never made sense to me, among other things, that the macabre image of the spilled blood of the son of god is not powerful in a world run by the father, the creator,…to erase all the sins of the world, WITHOUT me giving cognitive assent to the historical veracity of the event. What other historical event to be real requires that we must confess to believe it to be true. Paul emphasis on belief was a counter to the philosophy driven Roman world but to say, something isn’t real if I don’t believe it, turns reality of a world outside my mind into a psychological construct only, not objective. It is total solipsism and relativity something the religions fight with ferocity.

    Again, you often stimulate my thinking from may years ago when these questions and conundrums were so confusing in my 20’s and now pop up as I am writing my book, which is autobiographically contexted.

    Marty

    1. Sure “nailed it,” Marty. It’s beyond belief that we could ever believe these beliefs. Then again, these concepts have “gone viral” in humanity for a very long time. Look forward to reading your book!

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