I have heard it preached from too many pulpits. Well-meaning preachers, who have never really taken the time to reflect on the analogy properly, depict Jesus on the cross as the bridge spanning an impassable chasm between us and God. Alternatively, we are at the bottom of a ladder, trying to attain God’s impossible standards of holiness (the top of the ladder) through our own good works, but sin means that the rungs are missing and we can’t get there. The picture is always the same: because we are bad, God can’t be with us. He wants to, of course, but cosmic law prevents it. Fortunately, Jesus acts as a sort of divine lawyer, who finds a loophole in the cosmic justice system and everything works out in the end. I am being flippant, of course, but I need to in order to emphasise just how nonsensical the line of thinking is.
For a while now I have advocated that John Calvin’s way of thinking about sin, which to a large degree informs contemporary Protestant doctrine on the matter, is flawed. Calvin associates sin with behaviour, and consequently constructs a picture of the cross that sees Jesus as being punished for our bad behaviour. The wrath of God, in Calvinistic theology, then, is directed towards our bad behaviour. It is not a way of thinking that I am comfortable with. It constructs a picture of God that is inconsistent with the core concept of grace, around which all Christian theology is structured.
I say it is inconsistent because the idea of love seems conspicuously absent from such a relational model, where a prescribed mode of behaviour on the part of one party is a prerequisite for that party being deemed acceptable and lovable by the other. That is not love. I don’t believe that it is Biblical either. If Calvin was correct, we could rewrite what I think is a key Biblical text, John 3:16, as: “For God so despised the world that He gave His only Son…”. It is clear, though, from the fact that the Scripture says that “God demonstrated his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8) that our relationship with God was never dependent on behaviour. The Calvinist doctrine that somehow our sinfulness makes it impossible for God to have a relationship with us is dangerously heretical.
I believe that God’s preoccupation with sin has nothing to do with our behaviour and everything to do with the way our behaviour influences our quality of life. Our human and very limited understanding of love would suggest this: when you truly and deeply love another, you want them to be fulfilled; you want them to find peace and joy; you are more concerned with their state of being than with their actions. I care less about my son’s actions themselves than I care about how those actions shape his life experience. For instance, if he throws a tantrum, it is not the inappropriate expression of frustration that concerns me; rather, I understand that if he is not taught to express anger properly, he will alienate people and will struggle to form meaningful relationships – a fundamental building block of fulfilment in life. If that is true for us, with a limited understanding of love, how much purer would that motivation be in a being who was love? I am convinced that God did not intend the law to be a set of standards to be met, but guidelines for a more fulfilling life.
Numerous Biblical commentators have pointed out that all of the Ten Commandments are relational in nature. They speak either to how we ought to relate to God or to how we ought to relate to one another. That is why Jesus can summarise them into one command: to love (Matthew 22:36-40). Their primary purpose is to inform how we ought to relate, not how we ought to behave. The Law recognises that we are relational beings, deriving our deepest fulfilment from the ways that we interact with others. When we steal, commit adultery, kill, betray, or lie, we damage our relationships with others, and our lives – and theirs – are diminished in the process. Similarly, when we do not have a proper relationship with God, on whom all quality of life is dependent, because He is the author of it, our quality of life is diminished. Thus the problem with sin – the breaking of these commandments – is not so much that we have broken the Law and must be punished, but that we have irreparably damaged the relationships on which our truest fulfilment depend. By sinning, we fundamentally and irreversibly alter the way others see us, the way we come to see ourselves, and the ways in which we construct our own and others’ identities. Sin reshapes the world. The problem of sin is not a behavioural one, but an ontological one.
As an educator, maybe I am more sensitive to this than is warranted, but my question would be this: if humanity was required to meet a certain prescribed standard, why were those standards not made explicit from the beginning? If God was so concerned that we behave in certain ways, why did He not say so up front? In fact, after Adam and Eve sin initially, it is hundreds, if not thousands of years – depending on your interpretation of the Genesis timeline – until God gives Moses the Law in Exodus 20. If humanity is supposed to adhere to certain specific legal requirements, is it not grossly unfair to provide those requirements only centuries after compliance is demanded? In short, yes. If the purpose of the law was to conform human behaviour to a norm that God would deem an acceptable minimum in order to enter into relationship with us, then he has been terribly unfair. Abraham and Isaac and Joseph and Noah, all of the people who existed prior to the exodus from Egypt would have had to try to be righteous or face destruction, without knowing what being righteous entailed.
It is an important point, because if we get the assessment parameters only after we have been assessed, then the assessment is unfair. If something is introduced that is vital in terms of clarifying the expectations of candidate performance in the assessment only after the assessment has started, then those who have already completed the assessment are disadvantaged. It means that the assessment was not planned properly: the assessor only thought to clarify key requirements after the test had begun. I must conclude that if sin is related to a set of required behavioural standards as introduced in the Law, then God is not omnipotent and omniscient, and therefore not God. Assuming that God is omnipotent and omniscient, as he is described in the creed, I must conclude then that sin and behavioural standards are not linked in the way we have traditionally been taught.
I am forced, then, to investigate alternative ways of thinking about sin. If we assume that Adam and Eve sinned, that this fundamentally changed things in some way, and that this displeased God, and we exclude the possibility that God’s displeasure was related to behaviour per se, then one possibility – the one I am currently working through – is that the problematic aspects of sin are related to the consequences of the actions, rather than the actions themselves, and that when the Law is given it is not given in order to prevent sin, but in order to manage its effects. Because the Law is revealed to us so far into humanity’s existence, I must assume that it has absolutely no bearing on the viability of our relationship with God, and that the effects of sin are fundamentally unaltered by the revelation of the Law. The relationship between sin and the law, therefore, cannot be properly understood through an assessment paradigm of passing and failing, and being punished for getting it wrong.
Instead, I would argue that sin’s importance is related to its impact, not to the actions in and of themselves. The problem with sinful actions is that they cause trust to be broken. They cause hurt and disharmony, leading to a reduction in quality of life and a dysfunctional society. I think the reason that sin distresses God is that it causes us to suffer. It must have other consequences too. If we are spiritual beings with a soul, which would – it is only logical – operate in spiritual dimensions that we – who are so inextricably bound to the physical – could never begin to comprehend, then I am sure that sin would damage things there too. And we would be powerless to try to address the problem.
To take the assessment analogy a bit further, we were doomed to fail from the outset. Beings who are free to make choices, but who operate from a severely limited perspective, as all humans do, are always going to make choices that will end up in others’ being hurt, simply because – no matter how good our intentions – our desires and those of others will not always be in alignment. Even with perfect motivations, we would sometimes make bad choices because we do not have access to all pertinent facts when making a decision, are incapable of foreseeing all eventualities, or reconciling contradictory needs of all the individuals affected. Sin, in a relational being with free will, is inevitable. God would have known this, but He created us anyway. To punish people for making bad choices, when they could – be virtue of the limitations with which they had been created – not have done otherwise, would be unjust. So if I trust that God is loving, I must assume that the ultimate aims behind creating us in the first place justify the suffering that sin causes, and that we – had we a perfect understanding of the situation – would agree (else creating us would not be an act of love). I can thus also infer that His reactions to sin are not punitive (how can you fairly punish somebody for doing something they had not been told was wrong, and over which they had no real control?). Rather, the Law is given in order that the effects of sin do not completely overwhelm us, that some semblance of the life He intends for us can be maintained while His plan to restore us to fullness of life continues.
Now I am not saying that this idea is without its flaws. I recognise that it will have a hard time getting around certain Biblical verses. But I also know that the way I have been taught to think about sin is illogical, and more than that, it is dangerous, which is why I cannot persist in it. Current theology around the concept of sin causes people to become Pharisaic in their attitudes towards others, whom they judge to be more sinful. It has resulted in so many people not being able to see God’s grace, because they are distracted by the loveless hypocrisy of the church. It means that vast numbers of Christians have become repulsively bigoted, obsessed with eliminating homosexuality, or paranoid about what acceptable art is. In short, the way we currently think about sin hugely devalues life and ought to be rejected.
Look at the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) again. It is Jesus’ allegorical tale about how sin divides us from God. There is no hint in that story that the father cannot relate to the son because of his sin, nor that the son needs to return in order to avoid punishment. There is no mention of the father setting impossibly high standards that he meets on behalf of the son because the son can never do so himself. It is the story of two young men (yes, I said two. The older brother – whom, I might remind you, remains in the father’s house throughout – is as blind as the younger) who are so self-obsessed that they lose sight of what really matters, and they suffer as a result. It is a story of a father who simply loves. It is a story about relationships, not rules. I long for the day when our theology catches up with Jesus’.