The Bible is a sin sandwich. The first two chapters match the final two chapters, presenting humanity in an idyllic, almost fable-like garden environment. That’s the bread. But the 1,185 chapters in between are all about this thing called sin, and the efforts of God and man (and a God-man) to get rid of it.
Yeah, I know. Sin is an archery term. It means missing the mark, failing to hit God’s bullseye. But what is it? Is it an actual thing? Is it the absence of a thing? How does it work?
Imagine trying to beat cancer with no clear definition of what cancer is or how it works. Imagine asking the doctors, but only getting vague, hesitant, contradictory answers before being diverted to more pleasant topics like feeling good in the midst of the disease, and hopeful words about an eventual healing.
One might assume that there is a clear definition of sin in Scripture, considering the story arc, but you might be surprised. Let me give you three ways of looking at this issue. At the end, I want you to vote on which perspective is the most convincing. And maybe tell me why.
Sin is not a thing. Sin is disobedience, pure and simple.
To one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin. James 4:17
Think about Eve. God gave her a choice—two trees. Eat one, don’t eat the other. The serpent came, reasoned with her, and she made the wrong choice. She sinned.
Eve—that perfect, sinless, pre-Fall creation of God—sinned. So did the serpent, which was actually not a serpent at all, but an angel that had lived in the presence of God. Neither of them had taken a bite of some soul-destroying piece of magic fruit. Yet both of them sinned when they chose to disobey God.
Look at the contrast between the people that God destroyed in Genesis 6, people that always resisted him, and the person that God chose in Genesis 12 to start his redemption program, a man that left all his securities behind just because God asked him to.
Abram believed the Lord, and He credited it to him as righteousness. Gen. 15:6
How many times do we see God pleading with people through his prophets, or even his own Son? Would God even send prophets if people actually had no choice, drunk with wickedness ever since Eve sunk her teeth into that rotten fruit?
If people do not have a genuine choice to obey God’s commands without God actually coming inside of them and making them obey (as many Christians believe) then the flood was divine mass murder, the Mosaic Law was a needless cruelty, the death of the prophets was a waste, the accolades toward people of faith are insincere, and Judgment Day is a pre-scripted farce.
While it seems reasonable to stop here, accepting that we all need to take responsibility for our own choices, the Bible won’t let us. There is another perspective that is impossible to ignore. I call it the “Venom” approach, because it reminds me of Spiderman 3 when that black goo comes from outer space and makes Peter Parker act all crazy.
Take it from Paul in these excerpts from Romans 7:
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.
I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
“Nice one,” says the sarcastic skeptic. “Way to sidestep your responsibility, Paul, blaming all of your bad choices on ‘the sin living in me,’ whatever that means.”
But there does seem to be some sort of thing added to the human experience after the Fall. Look what God says to Cain in Genesis 4:7: If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door. It desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”
Sin is . . . crouching? It has desires? How about Satan is crouching at the door? That makes more sense. Notice how Cain’s own choice is a part of God’s expectation, but there is more to the equation. There is sin.
So what the heck is it? Did some residue from Eve’s fruit seep into our DNA, infecting us from birth?
Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. Psalm 51:5
Before Eve at the fruit, God gave her an interesting warning: From the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die. Gen. 2:17
The day you eat from it? That day. Not 900+ years later.
Apparently, Eve’s sin resulted in something that God called “death,” though, as the serpent promised, she didn’t die, at least not physically. I find this especially interesting, considering Jesus, the de-curser of the Bible, claims that he came in order to give life (John 10:10).
Paul links sin with death, and contrasts that sin and death directly with the life and righteousness that Christ came to bring (Rom. 5). If we talk about Eve’s death as physical, and Christ’s life as spiritual, we’re being nonsensical and missing Paul’s point.
What does it mean to die spiritually? Well, ask a light bulb. If the electricity is coming through, the bulb is alive. If not, it is dead, at least for a while.
What if the source of our depravity is not the presence of some wicked, impersonal force (one that apparently skips over certain compassionate, well-meaning unbelievers, like, say, Gandhi)? What if the source of our depravity is a lack of God in our lives?
I recognize that the Bible presents sin in all three ways, suggesting some kind of combination. But I’m not offering that option. I think it’s good to be forced to choose one over the others, forcing us to think through what we believe, trying to find the bottom lines.
I believe that, based on imagery like the veil tearing in the temple, or Christ revealing himself as a ladder between heaven and earth, that we are talking about a separation at the Fall, a separation that Christ came to repair by sending us the Holy Spirit.
Like children that rejected their own parents, humanity was left alone with their knowledge of good and evil, trading the Holy Spirit for a Jiminy Cricket. This profound lack of divine security and guidance would naturally lead to error. If humans were designed for God, how could they be content with anything less? How could any other love satisfy? How could they not feel a sense of need and insecurity in the deep, unexplored places of their souls?
These needs and insecurities could easily be described as internal monsters, infecting our thoughts and motivations, influencing our choices. But the root of the problem is still a subtraction, not an addition.
So much more to say, but I’m already past my word count.
What do you have to say? What’s your vote?