I saw an interview with a former Nazi that admitted to sending children into the gas chambers of Auschwitz. He said that it felt wrong to participate in taking innocent lives, but he had to remind himself that each of these children had Jewish blood running in their veins. It wasn’t their fault. It was their genetic inheritance. They would grow up and become just as much of a scourge to humanity as all the other Jews.
I think, in a way, Christians think of sin and sinners like that. Sin is something we’re born with, inherited from Adam (Rom. 5:12), something that lurks inside of us, urging us to do evil things even if we don’t want to do them (Rom. 7:20). An atheist might look at a child’s temper tantrum and think—survival instincts. A Christian might see the same tantrum and think—sin nature.
Do we all have this “thing” from birth that makes us want to do evil things? Is it a part of our DNA? In the blood? Could we find it with a microscope, or is it something spiritual? If so, where did it come from? Maybe Satan picked up the wrong harp in heaven, got infected, and started his insane war. Or maybe it was a virus inside the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Did God create sin? If so, why? If not, where did it come from?
If all people inherit a sin nature, why would God hand Moses a list on Mt. Sinai as if the people had a choice? That’s like looking at a person with yellow fever and saying, “Thou shalt not have headaches. Thou shalt not throw up. Thou shalt avoid all signs of jaundice.”
What does God expect from sinners? Righteousness?
If sin is a universal malady with only Christ as the antidote, what should we do with atheists that apparently loves their spouses, raise their children wisely, do good in their communities, care for the environment, and work hard to improve the general condition of the world? Don’t tell me these people don’t exist. Even Paul admits that unbelievers can outshine believers (Rom. 2:26).
I want to propose another way of looking at sin, one that resonates with Scripture but also makes sense of the world around us: Sin is not the addition of evil. Sin is the subtraction of God.
What did God say to Eve? “From the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die.
“The day that you eat from it.” I’ve heard people suggest that God showed grace to Eve, choosing not to act on his warning. Yes, she died, but hundreds of years later. But what if God’s promise of death actually occurred? What if, from God’s perspective, true death is spiritual death, a separation between God and man?
There is a spiritual dimension to the human being that sets it apart from the rest of creation. God “breathed his life (spirit) into Adam.” I think that when Adam and Eve “died,” they lost that spiritual connection with God. They lost God’s Spirit. This separation is expressed as Adam and Eve being forced out of a place of life and beauty, a place where they walked with God without shame. It is expressed as a veil in the tabernacle and the temple, a separation between God and man, heaven and earth.
Paul compares the death that Adam brings to the life that Christ brings. Would Paul draw a direct comparison between physical death and spiritual life? When Christians talk about redemption, they speak in two general phases: first the regeneration of our spirits, then the resurrection of our bodies. We should think about sin and death in the same terms. First spirit, then body.
Eden is not the only place we can study the Fall. In Romans 1, Paul argues that the creation chose to worship and serve other creatures rather than its Creator (:25). Think of Eve. She was told to rule over the animals, and here she is listening to the advice of a snake. Think of the golden calves of Aaron and Jeroboam. Israel worshipped a bronze serpent (II Kings 18:4). So a limited, temporal, natural creation lets go of an unlimited, eternal, spiritual Creator. What do we expect? Eternal life? To let go of God is to take hold of depravity and death.
The parables of Jesus shine the clearest light on this issue. Jesus compared the Gentiles to a son that insisted on living independent of his father, taking his inheritance early and spending it on his own pleasures and impulses. Ultimately that son ended up living on pig slop, severed from the love, attention and care of his father. There is also the lost coin that rolls away. Or the sheep that wanders off. Or a treasure that is buried in a field. Or a house of valuable goods guarded by a strong man.
From Christ’s perspective, humans left God of their own volition. They became lost, cut off from the attention and care of their “master,” and entered the care of a hostile overlord. Jesus ultimately binds this strong man (the devil) and purchases the “field” (the world) by giving everything he has (his own life) and redeeming a treasure (humanity) that doesn’t even know it’s lost (in sin).
Like the prodigal son, there was a separation between father and son, but that separation did not remake the father or the son or the inherent relationship between them. Man was still made to share life with God, and God still wants to share life with men.
Without God we are like orphaned children. We make our own way. The blind lead the blind. We determine our own truths and identities. We defend our little spaces in the world, defying anyone who tries to intrude on our health and happiness. We run in packs. Survival of the fittest. We call it the “real world.”
What tragedy cannot be traced back to an act of ignorance or fear or greed, all symptoms of spiritual insecurity? How many lives have been lost to war? How many bodies have been victimized by things like poverty or rape or processed foods or medical malpractice? How many minds have been warped by abuse or pornography or bad politics?
We live in a world of spiritual autonomy, everyone running around unplugged and untethered. This was not God’s intention. Therefore it “misses the mark.” It is not cruel to say that we live in a sinful world. It is just the sad reality of our existence, assuming we believe in a Creator that actually made something with an endgame in mind. If not, why are you reading this blog?
So what do we do with Romans 7? Paul wrote about “the sin that dwells in me,” a power that would not allow him to fulfill God’s laws. If you keep reading into Romans 8, you’ll see that Paul is not talking about a power, but a weakness. He is unable to meet God’s standards because the power is not in him, but when the Spirit is in him, he can, in a sense, “hit the mark.” Think of it as darkness and light. One is an absence. One is a presence.
Imagine if humans actually lived according to design, with God abiding in them, leading them, teaching them, empowering them. Imagine how we would feel and think and live. Imagine how different our society would be.
With God fulfilling our needs at every level, no one would try to take advantage of anyone, or use anyone, or steal from anyone, or lie or cheat or covet. We wouldn’t have to worry about where our next meal is coming from, or our next paycheck. We would have no need to hoard or hide. What could we possibly be afraid of?
We say “to err is human.” God would disagree. When he says “holy” or “righteous,” he is not imagining a street preacher with a giant Bible, he is imagining a heaven and earth that are joined as a husband to a bride (Rev. 21), a world of love and justice and peace, a world without sin.