Few Christian things are more misunderstood or weaponized than the idea of sin. What is simple rebellion against God out of awareness of good and bad possibilities became polluted and misapplied by the fourth century CE. And many people or institutions today will gladly determine which behaviors are sinful. But what is sin? Was there an ‘original sin?’ How did religion distort a simple understanding of it and its cure? We’ll explore the answers in this first of two articles.
What is sin? Simply put, based on the original language and biblical contexts, it’s rebellion—intentionally missing a mark. What mark? God’s righteousness (His standard). Miss it but correct course, and [spiritually] live. Miss it repeatedly, and self-imposed permanent separation from God awaits (e.g., Galatians 5:19-21).
Was there an ‘original’ sin? Yes, but perhaps not like you’ve learned. Augustine was responsible for our Western understanding of ‘original sin.’ For him, the first sin was Adam’s rebellion in the garden, and its perpetual curse must be transmitted through sexual intercourse. His theory involved mistranslating and, therefore, misinterpreting the biblical Greek of Romans 5:12. The problem? Instead of consequences occurring BECAUSE of Adam’s rebellion, the misinterpretation prompted Augustine to teach that a perpetual sex-reproduced sin curse started THROUGH Adam. The truth about sin and its origin is simpler, however.
The original sin wasn’t human but spiritual. Lucifer (aka Satan) rebelled (sinned) against God and lost his heavenly position. He tempted Eve to sin; she tempted Adam. They rebelled against God’s instructions by eating from the ‘tree of all knowledge’ (Genesis 3:1-7). As a result, humans lost access to the Tree of Life and, therefore, suffer physical death (Genesis 3:22-24). Because we no longer live and walk with God as the first humans did before their rebellion, we also suffer spiritual separation from Him that requires resolution. The enlightenment gleaned by Adam and Eve remains available to be abused by choice.
How has religion distorted sin and its cure? The only remedy for Augustine’s original sin was, and is, baptism—even for infants. For many, the unbaptized are hell-bound, even from birth. For others, sin isn’t a manifestation of a heart or mind issue but actions themselves, regardless of intention: “Don’t drink; don’t smoke; don’t dance; don’t play cards . . .” Some religious leaders will tell you that sin and hell are nonexistent. And others will insist that you’ll go to hell if you don’t say or do something after each ‘sin.’ All these ‘miss the mark.’
In summary, sin is rebellion against God. The first was by a spiritual being, and sin by humans followed. We continue to rebel against God because of enlightenment and choice. In the following article, we’ll conclude by exploring the cure for the initial human rebellion that separated us from God and the ongoing sins that ail us.
Blessings and peace,
Dr. Ron Braley, MDiv, DMin.