Sin is a Three Letter Word
Question from a reader:
What is “sin” in Progressive Christianity? Do you believe in sin still?
Do I still believe in sin? I sure do!
One of my favorite Bible-nerd questions to ask people is, “When is sin first mentioned in the narrative of the Bible?” There is always, inevitably, a pause. The answer seems so obvious that the question seems to be a trick, and it is.
The general assumption is that sin enters the story in Genesis chapter 3, when the first humans eat the forbidden fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. That’s the moment when their eyes are opened and they realize that they are naked. It’s this realization that sends them scrambling for a fig leaf and a place to hide when they hear the sound of God arriving for their evening stroll.
Here’s the interesting thing: the word sin never occurs in Genesis 3. It’s not there. The act of eating the fruit isn’t labeled as sin. In fact, so much of the narrative we (Christians) have crafted from this story—the idea of Original Sin, that God is too holy to be near sinners, etc—just isn’t in there at all. The first humans eat the forbidden fruit, they hide, and yet, God shows up to be with them. But that’s a thread to follow for another post.
If sin doesn’t appear in Genesis 3, then when does it make its unfortunate entrance into the story of the Bible? Just one chapter later, in Genesis 4. The story is likely familiar: it’s the account of Cain killing his brother, Abel.
In the story, the two brothers offer sacrifice to God, Cain from his crops and Abel from his flock. For some reason, we aren’t told why, Abel’s sacrifice was acceptable to God, but Cain’s was not. This rejection made Cain angry and resentful. Then God comes to Cain and says…
“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)
A couple of things to notice:
Sin officially enters the story with this warning from God about what Cain’s anger and resentment will produce if they aren’t tended to.
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. People often ask questions about what is or isn’t a sin, or we talk about sins, plural. But sin enters the story as something that is singular. It’s not a sin or sins; its sin.
To understand what sin might mean, notice what happens next…
Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” When they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. (Genesis 4:8, CEB)
That line, “Let’s go out into the field,” gives away what comes next, doesn’t it? Imagine this as a scene in a movie. We totally see it coming. Picture Cain with one arm behind his back, perhaps holding a hoe or a rock, and inviting his brother to take a walk. We’d be shouting at the screen, “Don’t do it, Abel! It’s a trap!”
But our warnings go unheard.
Two brothers make the journey to the field, and only one comes back.
It seems sin, here, is connected to violence. Sin wants to master Cain, and with the slaying of his brother, sin gets what it wants. From there human violence only escalates, creating the context for the story of Noah and the Great Flood:
God said to Noah, “The end has come for all creatures, since they have filled the earth with violence. (Genesis 6:13, CEB)
Just two chapters later, the spiral of violence that began with Cain’s murder of Abel has become a flood that is threatening all human life.
Genesis 3 doesn’t mention sin, but it does play a role in creating the context for sin. The meaning of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil has long been debated and discussed. What does that tree represent? Perhaps it’s meant to stand for the human desire to play God, to judge others, which puts us in the place of deciding who is good and who is evil, sometimes even who lives and who dies. No wonder Adam and Eve cover themselves once they eat the fruit; they are afraid to be vulnerable because the other may judge them unfavorably. In that sense Genesis 3 is a preamble to sin, which is the outcome of choosing to judge others.
Finally, why does it matter that sin is singular? We focus so much on what we call sins. We play whack-a-mole with all these things we place in the sins category, but that never gets to the root of the problem. Sin, singular is the trunk from which all that other stuff emerges. Sin, singular, is systemic dehumanization. It’s playing judge, jury, and executioner for others, and all that comes from the belief that the people around us are ours to define and use as we wish.
The wages of sin are quite literally death, aren’t they?
Which is why Jesus’s work, centered on non-violence, compassion, and the re-humanizing of those whom culture and empire had left dehumanized and traumatized, was actually dealing with the problem of sin. Our sin—our choosing of dehumanization and violence—were very much responsible for Jesus’s death. Jesus died, not for our sins, but because of sin. He died, not to pay for our sins so God could accept us, but in his death he exposed sin’s bankruptcy.
It turns out sin is a three, not a four, letter word.
As a Progressive Christian I see sin—the systemic dehumanization of others—as a core issue of concern. It’s why I believe working for justice is a central part of what it means to take Jesus seriously. We can spend all of our time and energy obsessed with sins, plural, but until we work to dismantle sin, singular, it’s just a game of whack-a-mole that makes us feel superior to others, which ultimately perpetuates and strengthens the grip of sin, singular.