Sin is…

November 17, 2008 at 3:14 pm 9 comments

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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Original sin: This story resonates

9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Ched  |  November 17, 2008 at 11:49 pm

    Good thoughts on the way virtue ethics remains insufficient without a robust view of sin.

    This makes me thankful that “while we were still sinners [ignorant/defiant], Christ died for us.”

    Reply
  • 2. vtudor  |  November 20, 2008 at 3:10 pm

    If by ignorance you mean that one who sins is ignorant of the truth then I think I agree (for though Lucifer had the Truth when he sinned, he chose to ignore it). But I think in the case of the people who crucified Jesus, their actions constituted serious defiance of God and Jesus is actually praying that they might be forgiven because of their ignorance. So wrong can still be done in ignorance, especially willful ignorance, but I hesitate to say that sin is ignorance, because Jesus sought to forgive his persecutors because of their ignorance. Sin must be intentional, I think.

    But I’m not dogmatic about these opinions…

    Reply
  • 3. Jamie  |  November 20, 2008 at 4:05 pm

    Ched: Thanks.

    vtudor: Surely you would agree that not all sin is willful, and not all ignorance is willed, right? I mean, we are born fallen, which means we are born ignorant. We can’t help that.

    Secondly, I would agree that certain of the crucifiers were willfully ignorant. However, some of them might not have chosen their ignorance. They were just doing their jobs.

    For example, what about the centurion who confessed faith at the foot of the cross? He might have been genuinely ignorant, and then made his confession as soon as he became aware of the truth.

    Reply
  • 4. Fletch  |  May 26, 2009 at 3:13 am

    Agreeing with your synopsis of ignorance and willfullness in sin, how would you express factoring in immediate pain, despiration and duress?

    Reply
  • 5. Ched Jr.  |  November 2, 2009 at 3:06 pm

    hmmmm……very interesting. I don’t think you guys know anything you are talking about. Find something better to do with your time,losers.

    Reply
  • 6. Kashif Shahzada  |  December 27, 2009 at 8:39 am

    Interesting post….please also comment on Muslims relationship with their parents:
    http://kashifshahzada.wordpress.com/2009/12/19/status-of-parents/

    Reply
  • 7. Paul Thompson  |  July 17, 2011 at 11:15 am

    Dear Jamie, I happened to come across your blog page while searching some quotes by Socrates on sin, I want to thank you for your insightful post, I found it very insightful. May the Lord bless you in your studies.

    Regards

    Paul

    Reply
  • 8. rafayah  |  July 12, 2014 at 2:17 am

    So sin is ignorant defiance. I think sin is a mindset: a way of thinking. I don’t think sin is organic or substancial inside our spirits. Agustine invented the notion of original sin. I believe a human’s mind is born in mental darkness, that is sin is a mental disease, a corrupted mind program integrated in man’s mind. It is all mental, not a spirit or substance, or force, or enery or enslaving power as many Christian teachers teach.

    Reply
  • 9. rafayah  |  July 12, 2014 at 2:20 am

    Sin is overcome by Divine Education: Revelation which makes us conscious of spiritual Truth

    Reply

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Profile

profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

Email me: jamie.kiley@gmail.com

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