THE CONCEPT of sin appears to be in deep crisis today. But why? What has changed? As a matter of fact, what is this idea of sin that people today find so objectionable? In answer to these questions, please consider the following quote from The Wall Street Journal:
THE idea of Original Sin—that we are all implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity—does not sit well with the modern mind. But then neither does the idea of sin itself. . . . People like Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin may have sinned, but the rest of us are victims of circumstance and maladjustment.—The Wall Street Journal.
There are two aspects to the concept—inherited sin and personal sinful behavior. The first is something we possess, whether we like it or not, while the second is something we practice. Let us take a closer look at each aspect.
Tainted by Original Sin?
The Bible states that a moral failing—the original sin—on the part of our first parents was passed on to all humanity. Consequently, all of us are born with a stain of imperfection.
All unrighteousness is sin says the Bible.—1 John 5:17.
For many churchgoers, however, the idea that all humans are innately flawed because of some remote transgression in which they took no part and for which they bear no responsibility is neither comprehensible nor acceptable. The doctrine, says Edward Oakes, a professor of theology, is met with either embarrassed silence, outright denial, or at a minimum a kind of halfhearted lip service that does not exactly deny the doctrine but has no idea how to place it inside the devout life.
One factor that makes it difficult for people to accept the concept of original sin is what the churches have taught about it. For example, at the Council of Trent (1545-1563), the church condemned anyone who denied that the newborn need to be baptized for the remission of his or her sins. If an infant died without being baptized, declared the theologians, sins with no repentance would forever bar it from the presence of God in heaven. John Calvin went so far as to teach that infants ‘bring with them their own damnation from their mother’s womb.’ Their natures, he maintained, are ‘hateful and abominable to God.’
Most people instinctively feel that newborn infants are such innocent creatures that it would be against human nature to think that these infants should suffer because of inherited sin. It is easy to see why such church teachings have driven people away from the doctrine of original sin. In fact, some church leaders could not bring themselves to condemn an unbaptized infant to hellfire. For them, its final destiny remained something of a theological dilemma. Although it never became church dogma, the traditional Catholic teaching for centuries was that the souls of unbaptized innocents would dwell in the no-man’s-land of Limbo.
Another factor that contributed to the weakening of belief in original sin was that philosophers, scientists, and theologians in the 19th century began to question whether accounts in the Bible should be accepted as historically true. For many people, Darwin’s theory of evolution has relegated the story of Adam and Eve to the realm of myth. The result of all of this is that many now consider the Bible to be more a reflection of the mentality and traditions of the writers than a divine revelation.
Where does this leave the doctrine of original sin? Obviously, if churchgoers are persuaded that Adam and Eve never existed as real people, the logical conclusion is that no original sin was ever committed. Even for those who are willing to admit that humanity is basically flawed, the concept of original sin is reduced to little more than an explanation of mankind’s imperfect nature.
So much for original sin. What, now, of the idea that personal sins—as distinct from inherited sin—also offend God?
Is This Really Sinful?
When questioned about personal sins, many think of the Ten Commandments—prohibitions against murder, infidelity, lust, premarital sex, stealing, and so on. The traditional teaching of the churches was that any who died without repenting of such sins would undergo the everlasting torments of hellfire.
For someone to be spared such a destiny, the Catholic Church requires that sins be confessed to a priest, who they claim has the power to absolve them. However, for most Catholics, the rite of confession, absolution, and penance has become a thing of the past. A recent survey reveals, for example, that more than 60 percent of Italian Catholics no longer go to confession.
It is clear that the traditional concept of personal sin and its consequences—as explained by the churches—has failed to help people to overcome the practice of sin. Many churchgoers no longer believe that all these things are wrong. Some reason, for instance, that if two adults have consensual sexual relations and no third party is injured, what is the harm?
One possible explanation for this kind of reasoning is that deep down the individuals involved are not convinced of what they have been taught about sin. Indeed, many find it hard to believe that a loving God would torment sinners forever in hellfire. And perhaps such skepticism explains, at least in part, why “sin” appears to have lost much of its seriousness. But other factors have also contributed to the loss of the sense of sin.
Rejection of Traditional Values
The events of the last few centuries have wrought tremendous changes in society and in people’s mentality. The two world wars, countless minor wars, and various genocides have left many questioning the worth of traditional values.
Does it make sense in a technologically advanced age to live by standards codified centuries ago and completely out of touch with modern realities? they ask.
Many rationalists and moralists have concluded that it does not. They believe that society needs to shake off certain moral fetters and superstitions and reach out to attain humankind’s tremendous potential through education.
This thinking has given rise to an extremely secular culture. In many European lands, few people go to church. An increasing number believe in nothing in particular, and many are openly hostile to the creeds of churches, which they consider absurd. If humans are simply the product of their environment and of natural selection, they reason, what need is there to talk about culpability for moral transgressions?
A general relaxing of morals in the Western world in the 20th century has led to, among other things, the so-called sexual revolution. Student protests, countercultural movements, and medically prescribed contraceptives have all played their part in the rejection of traditional ideas of propriety. Soon, Biblical values were upended. A new generation subscribed to a new morality and a new attitude toward sin. Some believe that, ‘the only law was the law of love’—which basically found expression in the widespread acceptance of illicit sex.
A Feel-Good Religious Culture
Commenting on the situation in the United States, Newsweek magazine candidly stated:
Many clergy, who are competing in a buyer’s market, feel they cannot afford to alienate.
They fear that if they make great moral demands on their hearers, they will lose them as parishioners. People do not want to hear that they should cultivate humility, self-discipline, and virtue or that they should heed their nagging conscience and repent of their sins. Hence, many churches are adopting what the Chicago Sun-Times called “a therapeutic, utilitarian, even narcissistic ‘all about me’ Christian message [and] leaving the gospel behind.”
The outgrowth of this type of thinking is a religious culture that defines God in its own terms, churches whose focus is, not on God and what he requires of us, but on man and what will increase his self-esteem. The sole aim is to cater to the needs of the congregation. The fruit is religion emptied of doctrine. “What fills the hole at the center, where the Christian moral code used to be?” asks The Wall Street Journal. “An ethic of conspicuous compassion, where ‘being a nice person’ excuses everything.”
Logically, the popular consensus from all of this is the attitude that any religion with a feel-good effect is just fine. Anyone adopting such a view, observes The Ghanaian Times, “can embrace any faith, so long as it makes no real moral demands—consoles but does not judge.” And the churches, in turn, are willing to accept people “exactly for who they are,” without making any moral demands on them.
The foregoing may remind Bible readers of a prophecy penned by the apostle Paul in the first century C.E. He said:
For the time is coming when [people] will not tolerate (endure) sound and wholesome instruction, but, having ears itching [for something pleasing and gratifying], they will gather to themselves one teacher after another to a considerable number, chosen to satisfy their own liking and to foster the errors they hold, And will turn aside from hearing the truth and wander off into myths and man-made fictions.—2 Timothy 4:3, 4.
When religious leaders excuse sin, deny its existence, and ‘tickle’ the ears of their congregants by telling them what they want to hear instead of what the Bible says, they are doing people a grave disservice. Such a message is false and dangerous. It represents a travesty of one of the fundamental teachings of Christianity. Sin and forgiveness occupy a central position in the good news taught by Jesus and his apostles.