Sin is ignorance, said Socrates.
If people only knew the good, he felt, they would do it, and the only reason not everyone does the good is because they are uninformed.
If Socrates is right, then education is the solution. Sin exists because of lack of knowledge, and mere information will save the sinner.
But what Socrates leaves out, of course, is the notion of defiance. No concept of human culpability in his vision.
“The intellectuality of the Greeks,” muses Kierkegaard disparagingly, “was too happy, too naïve, too esthetic, too ironic, too witty—too sinful—to grasp that anyone could knowingly not do the good, or knowingly, knowing what is right, do wrong.”
And yet, though there are many who are legitimately ignorant, there are others who do knowingly do the wrong. Education does not make the difference.
So, against Socrates, Kierkegaard argues in Sickness Unto Death that sin is willed. Even if a person is ignorant, this is because he or she willed to be ignorant.
“In short,” he concludes,
the Christian teaching about sin is nothing but offensiveness toward man, charge upon charge; it is the suit that the divine as the prosecutor ventures to bring against man.
In this case, given humanity’s obvious culpability, the necessary response is not education but (following Kierkegaard’s courtroom motif) penalty.
Contra Kierkegaard and Socrates, what I find especially useful—and true, and brilliant—about the Christian doctrine of sin is that it is able to encompass both sides of this dichotomy at once: sin is ignorance, and it is defiance.
The crucified Christ requested on behalf of his tormentors that they be forgiven, “for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). In other words, ignorance.
Yet on the other hand, “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them” (Rom. 1:18-19).
So sin is defiance.
By proclaiming our ignorance and our defiance simultaneously, Christianity is able to recognize our helplessness, our “bondage” (Rom. 7:14), and our unwilled participation in sin, yet without excusing sin or denying human responsibility.
The subtlety of this biblical understanding of sin is matched only by its genius, for such a depiction of the human condition is astounding in its accuracy. We are indeed helpless, yet also (and inexplicably) willful participants in our own demise.
If the Christian diagnosis is eminently accurate, the solution proposed by Christianity is equally fitting: neither penalty nor education can finally resolve the problem of sin—penalty because it has no power to rejuvenate the heart of the sinner, and education because it is no answer to willed defiance.
The problem is a corrupted heart; hence the solution Christ offers is a fundamental one: he promises to make all those in Christ into a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17), giving them flesh hearts to replace hearts of stone, and a “new spirit within them” (Eze. 11:19-20).
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