“But what exactly do you think sin is
I was disputing with a Jehovah’s Witness at the time.
I had just made some observation (borrowed from Athanasius, I think) about the magnitude of the sin of the world, and he responded with the awkward
question which I’ve just quoted
Not having an immediate answer ready, I backed out of that line of argument.
This was a few decades ago, but I haven’t allowed myself to forget the importance of the question.
Clearly, any attempt to tackle the problem of sin has to begin by defining the problem of sin, trying to understand its nature.
So that’s the approach I’ve been adopting in my own threads on the subject.
Part 1; The problem
The tree of what knowledge?
Of course the Biblical explanation of sin is rooted in the story of the events in Eden.
The introduction of sin is dramatized as the act of taking the fruit of “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil”.
The key to understanding this episode is to grasp the real meaning of that label.
It is not about “knowing that good and evil exist”.
Adam and Eve already knew there was a difference between right and wrong, because they had been told that “eating from this tree” was something
they should not do.
So I argued that “knowing good and evil”, taking good and evil side by side, means knowing the boundary line between them.
In principle, it is God’s place to define the difference between good and evil.
Therefore they “became like God”, usurping his place, when they took to making their own decisions on the subject, acting independently.
The act of “taking the fruit” illustrates the point.
When they assessed the fruit as “good for food, a delight to the eyes, and to be desired to make one wise”, they were already disregarding God’s
judgement on the fruit as “not-to-be-touched”.
That makes the taking of the fruit a very fitting symbol of the act of claiming independent judgement.
Their judgement about the right thing to do was detached from God’s will.
With the inevitable result that it would be different from
That’s what “sin” means.
The human will is out of alignment with the will of God.
Did they eat from the tree of life?
With knowledge comes death?
I also wrote two threads about the other tree, the Tree of Life, which was deliberately placed at the centre
of the garden.
This implies, I believe, that Adam and Eve were intended to eat from that tree, and that they were, in fact, eating from that tree as long as they
remained in the garden.
It represents direct access to the Life which comes from God.
The second thread was considering in what sense they died, in accordance with God’s warning, when they were expelled from the garden, and their
access to the Tree of Life was interrupted.
The writer’s intention would have been to offer an explanation of the fact that people die, since that was the outcome of the story.
So the meaning of the statement has to be that outside the garden they became vulnerable
The human race began to experience death, from that moment onwards.
Incidentally, my explanation of the story is not necessarily locked in to a literal interpretation of the Genesis account.
It can be accommodated to a more modern understanding of human origins, as a gradual process of development
Original Sin re-visited
The concept of Original Sin has become problematic in the modern world.
Yet there is no getting away from the fact that something
has gone wrong with the human race.
The world we see around us tells us that something is not right, and the kind of things that are wrong have been wrong all through human history.
The current state of the world is clearly the result of a long succession of wrong human choices.
The story of Adam and Eve is one way of explaining why that happens.
I have suggested that the act of disobedience described in the story represents our disposition towards independent action.
This constitutes the “falling away” from God’s will, which takes us away from him and isolates us from him.
Then “Original Sin” would refer to the fact that all of us are born into that state of alienation from God’s will, prone to making wrong
decisions based on our private understanding of the difference between good and evil.
In short, “human will out of alignment with the will of God”.
The story of Cain and Babel
This can be illustrated through later events; in the way that individuals, setting their own wills against the will of God, also set them against
others (Cain), and in the way that corporate bodies set their wills not only against God (Babel) but against other corporate bodies and against
The lesson of our blood-stained human history seems to be that this clash of wills is at the heart of everything that has always been wrong with the
The two floods of Genesis
So there now exists a problem which has two key elements.
On the one hand, the presence of “sin” in the world.
The human race has taken itself out of alignment with God’s will.
On the other hand, the premise which runs through the Bible is that God cannot be reconciled with sin. In the long-term, they are incompatible, and
God’s will has to prevail.
Looking for a solution to that dilemma is the central theme of the rest of the Bible.
One simple and clear-cut answer is to remove sin from the world by removing humanity from the world.
That was supposed to be the effect of the great Flood in Genesis.
“The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil
So the Lord said; I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the earth” (Genesis ch6 vv5-7).
But this operation stumbled over the fact that God did not ultimately want
to remove humanity from the world.
For that reason, he allowed Noah to save himself and his family.
In a pattern which becomes familiar in the Old Testament, he threatens the ultimate recourse and then draws back.
So the logic of the situation forces the adoption of a different approach.
If sin is to be removed from the world without removing humanity from the world, then humanity must, in some way, be detached from sin.
That brings in the second “flood” of Genesis.
I refer to the “flood” of Abraham’s children, which establishes God’s people in the world.
The function of God’s people is to prepare the ground for detaching the human race from their involvement with sin, re-aligning them with God’s
will, and making it possible to restore the broken relationship between God and man.
[Continuing in second post]