Tag Archives: death

Can Sin Really Be That Bad?

In the previous post (“Why We Really Need a Savior”), I defined sin as a condition of the will in which we assert ourselves against our Creator. We prefer our own judgment about what is good and bad, possible and impossible, and wise and unwise to God’s judgment about these things. In sin, we reject our place in God’s creation and put ourselves in the place of the Creator. We try to reorder creation so that it centers on us and serves our private interests.

According to the Christian message, God acted in Jesus Christ to save us from sin. This message is called “the gospel” or the good news. But do we hear it as good news? Aren’t believers as well as nonbelievers tempted to ask, “What about sin is so bad that we should want to be saved from it?” Whatever its motivation,  this is a good question and deserves a good answer.

Sin Attempts the Impossible

The first step toward grasping the badness of sin is understanding that the sinful will and the act of sin attempt to do the impossible. God is the Creator, and we are God’s creatures. A creature cannot make itself the Creator by an act of will or imagination. God gave creation existence, order, purpose, and destiny. We cannot change it. By preferring  our own private wishes above God’s will for us, we won’t change our nature. But we can divide ourselves by superimposing an imaginary image of ourselves over the person God created. In our image of ourselves we become alienated from our true nature and destiny.

Likewise, our attempts to make creation fit our preferences and go according to our wishes cannot defeat God’s plan. God is the Lord, and God sustains the order he created. We too are creatures in God’s created order and we have no power that God does not give us. We can do nothing God does not permit. Attempting to defeat God’s will aims at the impossible.

Sin Destroys the Self and Implies Death

If you try to do the impossible, you will fail. And this failure is destructive. When we imagine taking God’s place as the Creator and Lord of creation, we entertain a false image of ourselves. And what is appealing about that image is a lie, an impossibility. We imagine attaining a greater abundance of pleasures, a feeling of power, dignity, security, and many other good things. In reality, however, we cut ourselves off from the Creator who is the source of everything good. God freely gives us life and power, the dignity of being in his image, and the security of his care. Since we are not the Creator, we cannot supply these things for ourselves. Apart from God we are nothing. Sin implies only death and destruction. If God cooperated with our sin, if he gave us what we say we want, he would stop giving us life and all good things. We would die. More than that, God would forget us, and we would never have been.

But God does not cooperate with our sin! He keeps giving us life and all that sustains it. And this gracious act has a double effect. God wills to save us from our foolish, absurd, and self-destructive wish. But God’s gracious preservation—for the sake of our future salvation—also sustains us in our self-contradictory condition. And this condition is painful in two ways. First, we experience division, self-alienation and frustration within ourselves. Our true nature and destiny keep coming into our consciousness reminding us that we are not what we should be. We cannot seem to remake ourselves to our liking, and this is a source of great unhappiness. We bounce back and forth between pride and shame, both of which are attempts to escape from what we are or what we think we are.

However, the greatest suffering we endure is felt hardly at all, except as a huge emptiness. Something very important is missing. Since we have cut ourselves off from God, we do not have fellowship with God. What an infinite loss! We give up the Source of all good, true, and beautiful things and leave home for the “far country” in search for something better. We lose confidence in our worth and our sense of place in the world fades. Since we possess a dim awareness that we are empty and powerless, we can never feel secure and in control.

In this case, as we can see clearly, sin is its own punishment. There is no need for God to add any suffering to the suffering we inflict on ourselves. Indeed, in view of his love for us manifested in Jesus, God protects us from receiving the full consequences of our own choices. And the merciful suffering we endure may awaken us to the truth and motivate us to turn toward home and begin to seek God.

Sinful Acts Cause the Sinner and the Whole World to Suffer

Our sinful wills drive us to endeavor to force creation conform to our selfish wishes. Whatever its nature, every act expresses the will of the actor. A sinful act attempts to express the sinful will of the actor. The sinfulness in the sinful act is the will to substitute the private wishes of the sinner for God’s will. But there is a sense in which no sinful act can succeed in achieving its true aim, because we cannot defeat God’s will.

Suppose I wish to take your money or your car. Or perhaps I want to diminish your sense of self-worth by cursing you or lying about you. Of course, these acts are possible. Thefts, murders, lies, and all sorts of other sins occur in the world, and they have destructive effects. And they are forbidden according to God’s law. But they do not defeat God’s will and replace it with the sinner’s sinful will. The sinner intends to take God’s place as the sovereign over the course of the future. This cannot happen. God works out his sovereign will whatever creatures do; God can work through natural causes, through chance events, through free human actions, and even through sinful acts. God negates the sinful imagination that inspired the sin and defeats the sinful intention in the act. It comes to nothing. It fails utterly because it is impossible. But God uses the physical motion and results of the act for his own purposes. “God works all things for the good of those who love him…” (Romans 8:28).

Even though God uses sinful acts for his good purposes, they still cause great suffering. They cause suffering in those to whom they are directed. Murders cut short the lives of those they target and cause deep grief in those left behind. Out of the sinful condition of the will—which itself implies death and nothingness—come actual death and destruction, pain and suffering, loneliness and heartache, war and hatred. Just as the sinful act arises out of the sinner’s internal misery and death, it returns to plague the sinner once more. When sinners externalize the sin festering in their hearts, they are made that much more aware of their miserable condition and this awareness compounds their misery. The anger, condemnation, and scorn of others fall on them, making them even more aware of their unworthiness and ugliness. The human community seeks revenge. Hatred excites hatred. Violence provokes violence. And the isolation and selfishness expressed in sin finds itself rewarded with exile. Sin is its own punishment.

“What about sin is so bad that we should want to be saved from it?”

Answer: the nature of sin is absurdity, death, emptiness, wretchedness, isolation, despair, and destruction.

And that is why the gospel of Jesus Christ is such good news!

The Real “Problem of Evil” is Not How to Understand it but How to Escape it!

In this fortieth essay in my series on “Is Christianity True?” we continue to consider the challenge to Christian belief that arises from our experience of evil.  In the three previous essays devoted to this challenge, I claimed that the argument from evil to atheism fails rather dramatically and that what we call evil is disorder and conflict rather than an actual concrete thing or force. Today I want to build on this foundation.

The two main contemporary forms of the argument from evil are the “logical argument” and the “evidential argument.” The logical argument contends that the classical divine attributes of omnipotence, perfect goodness and omniscience are logically at odds with the proposition that evil exists. If God were omnipotent, God could prevent all evil. If God were perfectly good, God would want to prevent all evil. And if God were omniscient, God would know every instance of evil and how to prevent it. But evil exists. Therefore God is either omnipotent but not perfectly good or perfectly good but not omnipotent.

Such Christian philosophers as Alvin Plantinga have argued that the logical argument is not as logically impassable as it seems to be. Even if God could prevent all evil, he could have a morally sufficient reason for allowing some evil. Suppose that a world containing free beings, even if those beings can do evil as well as good, is a greater good than a world without instances of evil but also without freedom. And suppose further that God cannot create this better world without allowing the possibility for evil to occur, since a creature’s act cannot be both free and determined at the same time. Hence asserting the three classical attributes is not logically inconsistent with the admission that evil occurs.

The evidential argument from evil gives up the idea of a logical contradiction between the three classical attributes and the admission that evil occurs. Admitting that God might have a good reason for allowing some evil, the advocates of the evidential argument contend that there is too much horrendous evil  in the world for any greater good to justify God for allowing it. In my view this argument is much harder to make and refute. The reason is simple: it attempts to quantify how much evil could justify any possible good outcome. We have no perspective from which to make this judgment and no scale on which to weigh present evil against future good. The debate goes nowhere and turns quickly into an appeal to emotion and an attack on the character of the believer.

It is important to note that neither of these arguments (logical or evidential), even if you accept them, concludes to atheism. They merely point to an alleged contradiction or difficulty in the classical doctrine of God. And it should be obvious that our inability to articulate a perfectly coherent doctrine of God should not count as strong evidence for the nonexistence of God. Such a demand would be considered ridiculous in almost any other area of science or philosophy. If you have other compelling reasons for believing in God or affirming the classical doctrine of God, the challenge of the problem of evil need not defeat this belief even if you cannot resolve the difficulties completely.

For Christianity, the present tension created by sin, suffering and death cannot be resolved by rational arguments that attempt to balance accounts between good and evil. The resolution will occur in the future resurrection and redemption of creation and is grasped in the present only by faith in God through Jesus Christ. The Bible gives no rigorous rational account of the origin of evil or why God allows it. True, sin, suffering and death are roughly associated with freedom (Gen 3 and Rom 5:12-21), and sometimes suffering is said to produce good things in the long run (Rom 5:1-5; Heb 12:7-11; and James 1:2-4). But for the most part, New Testament authors take our existential situation for granted and focus on the salvation achieved by Jesus Christ in the cross and resurrection, they encourage living in the present in the faith, hope and love given by the Holy Spirit and they look to the future resurrection and judgment to correct all wrongs and make all things new.

For Christian theology, the most pressing problem of evil is not the disturbing question of why God allows suffering. It is existential fact that we are sinners, unable to clear our consciences or change our behavior, and that we are dying along with the whole creation. The cross is the ground and hope for forgiveness and deliverance from sin, and the resurrection is the ground and hope for death’s defeat and life’s eternal triumph. When the real problem of evil is finally dealt with the question of why God allowed suffering will be forgotten.