What is it and Why is it a Problem?
I’ll never forget the moment I held my first born. He was so tiny, clocking in at around six pounds, and I was terrified that I would somehow break him. The thing that surprised me most was the immediate sense of love and connection I felt. I had literally just met him. How could I already be so head over heels in love with this tiny human who had just entered the world? Yet here I was, willing to do anything for love, (even that).
There was another thought that hit me in that moment: my entire life I’ve been taught to believe that this little-six-pound-bundle of the greatest joy ever was born disconnected from God. The category that he, like all other humans who’ve been born, inhabited from birth is that of a totally depraved sinner, deserving of an eternity in the eternal conscious torment of hell. Yet, as I held him, staring at the miracle right in front of me, I knew that wasn’t true. He didn’t enter the world separated from God. He wasn’t a sinner, a depraved soul destined for the eternal smoking section. I’ll never forget that moment, because in it I became a dad (best gig ever), and I began to find the words for a theological shift that I was experiencing: I could no longer embrace the ideas of Original Sin and separation from God.
Sin is an ever-present problem in the Christian worldview. It’s the subject of many a sermon, and it’s the culprit that, if not appropriately repented of, will send us straight to h-e-double-hockey-sticks. The general consensus is that sin is anything that we do (sin of commission) or don’t do (sin of omission) that violates God’s standards, which are laid out in the Bible. You might even sin unawares and, in the Freewill Baptist tradition of my first decade, still end up damned. Salvation could be lost as easily and frequently as I lose my car keys. It’s a good practice not to cuss, drink, or associate with those who do, but even then, you just hope to make it through those pearly gates. The uncertainty about which destination would await me when I die (and at church we were asked often what would happen if we died that night) was terrifying, and sin was the terrorist threatening me with a conscious eternal torment in hell.
Is that definition of sin correct? Is it even Biblical? Is sin really about breaking the rules laid out in the Bible? The more I’ve engaged the Bible, the more I’ve come to understand differently both what sin is and the the danger it poses.
Most readers assume that sin enters the biblical story in Genesis chapter three, through what is commonly known as the story of “The Fall.” Fall meaning, of course, the fall from perfection, the introduction of not just sin, but Original Sin, into the story. Because Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, all human beings, so this perspective says, are born with the stain of Original Sin. This stain means separation from God and a reservation in the smoking section for the afterlife. That’s a pretty drastic and elaborate theology for a story that doesn’t mention the word sin. Yep, you read that correctly. The story of Adam and Eve and the fruit and the fig leaves doesn’t mention the word sin. Not even once. It’s also interesting to note that once they eat the forbidden fruit and their eyes are opened to their nakedness, which causes them to hid themselves, God still shows up for their evening constitutional. They aren’t actually separated from God, but they believe they are. That’s a big difference. When they hide God still enters the story, finds them, and then covers up their shame. The sense of separation was an internal experience for them, and a one sided one. Perhaps a better word for this experience might be estrangement. They were overcome with a sense of separation, they hid themselves, but God still showed up to be with them. God wasn’t pushed away from them. If anything, God was drawn to them all the more.
I can remember being a kid and doing something my parents had told me specifically not to do. The sense of shame and fear are palpable for us in those moments. What I didn’t know then, but have learned through becoming a parent myself, is that in those moments when my kids are worried and ashamed, my first impulse isn’t to move away from them. It’s actually the opposite. I just want to hold them and tell them I love them, and that whatever mess has been made we will sort it out together.
So, if sin doesn’t make it’s not-so-grand entrance in the Eden story, when does sin enter the biblical narrative? It turns out we just need to turn the page.
“Let’s go out to the field.” These are the words Cain, the oldest of Adam and Eve’s children, spoke to his younger brother Abel. The two brothers were very different. Cain was a farmer. He tilled the soil, from which (only two chapters earlier) his parents were fashioned. Abel was a shepherd. With no context we are told that each brother brought an offering to God, Cain from his crops and Abel from his flock. God’s response to the gifts is to look with favor on Abel, but not so for Cain. The text tells us that Cain became “very angry and looked resentful.”
Then God speaks directly to Cain:
The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why do you look so resentful? If you do the right thing, won’t you be accepted? But if you don’t do the right thing, sin will be waiting at the door ready to strike! It will entice you, but you must rule over it.” (Genesis 4:6-7, CEB)
Etymologically, the Hebrew word for sin here is derived from the root chata, meaning “to miss the mark.” The image of sin being used is that of snake coiled up, ready to strike. Or perhaps the image of a cat that is hunkered down, ready to pounce on an unsuspecting mouse. Sin, in this first mention is singular, not plural. It’s also likely to pounce because Cain is angry and resentful.
After this warning from the God, Cain extends the invitation to his younger brother. “Let’s go out to the field.” We, the readers, wish we could warn Abel. We see where this is going, and it nowhere good.
When they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.
The first murder has occurred, but it surely isn’t the last. The blood of Abel, God says, cries out for justice. Cain will be banished. Instead of farming the land he will become a nomad, moving to the east of Eden. Cain’s fear is that his nomadic life will lead him to become the victim of another’s violence. Instead, God promises Cain that he will be marked for protection, and that anyone who kills him will be paid back seven times. The cycle of violence grows.
A few verses later we meet a descendant of Cain, named Lamech. We meet Lamech in a song he sings to his wives:
Lamech said to his wives,
“Adah and Zillah, listen to my voice;
wives of Lamech, pay attention to my words:
I killed a man for wounding me,
a boy for striking me;
so Cain will be paid back seven times
and Lamech seventy-seven times.”
The spiral of violence grows larger and larger, threatening all of creation. A couple of chapters later, we find the story of Noah and the Flood. As a result God decides to purge creation of all living things. Notice the two reasons:
The LORD saw that humanity had become thoroughly evil on the earth and that every idea their minds thought up was always completely evil.
In God’s sight, the earth had become corrupt and was filled with violence. God saw that the earth was corrupt, because all creatures behaved corruptly on the earth.
When we reach the Flood Narrative human violence has become a deluge threatening to sweep away everything. It seems from the perspective of the writers of the Bible, humanity’s Original Sin isn’t eating the forbidden fruit and running about naked. Humanity’s Original Sin is our obsession with and glorification of violence. Unfortunately, we haven’t healed the pandemic of violence that threatens the survival of life on earth.
In my home state of Kentucky this preoccupation with violence was recently on full display at the state capital. In protest of gun reform bills that are unfortunately destined to die in the legislative process, pro-gun activists went into the Capital, outfitted in tactical gear and carrying AR-15s. When I saw the pictures online my first reaction was that the people in those pictures, dressed for war, carrying their weapons, they don’t look like secure, balanced, or courageous people. Actually, they look really afraid, and they want to instill that same fear into others.
Healing our Original Sin will not happen overnight. It will not be easy. It will require courage and conviction and a deep seated, embodied hope. It will also ask us to love our enemies in radical ways.
In Matthew 18, Simon Peter, one of Jesus’s disciples, asks a question about forgiveness. He asks how many times he has to forgive a brother or sister who sins against him. Up to seven times, he magnanimously wondered. Jesus’s response must have been jarring. “Not just seven times,” Jesus responded, “but rather as many as seventy-seven times.” Which, as you may have noticed, is a call back to Lamech, the descendant of Cain, who killed a man for “wounding him.” Lamech then proclaims, “[S]o Cain will be paid back seven times and Lamech seventy-seven times.” Jesus is calling his disciples, then and now, to move beyond the cycle of retaliation, revenge, and violence. The path of Lamech leads to a catastrophic torrent that threatens the very fabric of creation. The path of Jesus leads to healing and restorative justice.
Which will we choose?