Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Why are Christians Hung Up on Sin?

Hung Up on Sin

The concept of sin can be broken into two parts. Because many Christians believe God and the Bible are sources of all moral authority, they’ve proceeded to set barely conceivable and quite nearly impossible standards for what it means to sin because they believe in the metaphysical nature of sin—namely anything which is a transgression of God’s perfect law—which itself is subject to interpretation—therefore a “sin” becomes anything which the Christian sees as morally reprehensible within the religious context. Therefore the first part of sin require a metaphysical presumption on the behalf of the believer about what God’s moral law actually implies and also what constitutes a breaking or transgression of that law. However, this is obviously a stretch of the imagination, since to presume to know God’s mind is presumptuous to say the least.

The other part, the second half of sin, is the application of the metaphysical hypothesis as applied to our daily living practices. Christianity has a full theology dedicated to living in a world with sin, because they want to ensure your soul will be spared from the corruptible nature of sin, and its capacity to turn us away from God. Most Christians are told, repeatedly, by their Pastors, Priests, and Preachers that they are innately sinners! In order to safeguard yourself from the corruptibility of sin you must first be baptized, and then accept the Holy Spirit, and then allow Jesus Christ into your heart as the guarantee of salvation from sin.

The old fundamentalist rhetoric is that we are all perishing and are in need of redeeming, and the only way to wash away our sins is to accept Christ as Lord and Savior (as Jesus death on the cross was an expiation, his blood cleansed us of sin in one final atonement).[1] The least we could do is accept this loving act and pay him back in a life of devotion and worship, right? I mean, the standard fare preachcraft espouses, “Jesus death saves us by demonstrating God’s love for us. It’s because of his love that he sent his one and only begotten son to save us, to rid of us our sin, so that we could live eternally by his side!”

Ancesteral Sin is Asinine

Sunday school teachers never forget to remind children, as I once was, that we’re all born sinners because we’re paying for the crimes of Adam and Eve after all—who were beguiled by a devious talking snake—and tricked Eve into tricking Adam to disobey God—never mind that every rational adult knows that it’s just a fable. At any rate, the claim is that sin is ancestral in nature and is inherited by each consecutive generation of mankind is completely spurious. The claim completely lacks a basis for support of any kind whatsoever. Furthermore, when it comes to the Garden of Eden story, and the “fall of man,” bible literalists seem to miss the moral of the story. They’re so hung up on the notion of sin that they forget to ask themselves what the story is even about.[i]

This lame attempt to bamboozle you by assuming we’re all predestined sinners and claiming God’s love caused him to sacrifice his one and only son, because of the crimes of a dubious talking snake and two hapless children at the dawn of time, in order to free humanity from its bondage to sin, makes no more sense than the capacity of a squealing sacrificial she-goat being bled to death supposedly washes away the sins of the ancient Israelites. If you’re a Christian, it may behoove you to ask yourself in all earnestness, did Jesus seriously die for the antics of a talking snake? Before you try to answer this question though, consider the corollary question, why couldn’t an all powerful God have simply zipped the lips of that damn snake? Was the snake more powerful than God?[ii] The whole story of how sin came about is just silly—even if we are to assume it’s only meant as a metaphor—what a ridiculous metaphor it is.

In his book the Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis goes one step further by calling the religious postulation that this ancestral sin obliged the universal “fall of man” is completely erroneous. About the lamentable situation of Adam and Eve, he states, “The Fathers may sometimes say that we are punished for Adam’s sin: but they much more often say that we sinned ‘in Adam’. It may be impossible to find out what they meant by this, or we may decide that what they meant was erroneous.”[iii]

Muslims counter this absurd claim of “original sin” by informing Allah is the master of original forgiveness. Allah is all powerful, Allah does not require measly goat sacrifices as payment to appease him, he pardons who he will when he will. Something about the whole notion of sacrifice to wash away ones sins, blood sacrifice nonetheless, rings primitive and barbaric. I think Muslims have it right. If God is all powerful, why not just forgive and forget? Let bygones be bygones.

Theological Death Trap

Let’s not forget cause and effect. If original sin were real, and Jesus Christs died for the collective sins of mankind other theological problems arise, such as Penal Substitution Theory, in which God punishes an innocent person for the crimes of the guilty, which is an unjust act. What’s more, the Son of Man can’t technically pay for our sins on our behalf without obstructing our sense of moral responsibility. We’d never learn from out mistakes, since like a spoiled brat whose rich parents always pay their deviant son’s bail whenever he gets into too much trouble—Christ’s act of paying our bail, so to speak, would only stunt our moral growth. If sin were real, then it would be our debt to pay.

Even so, I have heard Christians argue that sin was too great a price to pay and that only the Son of God could have paid such a debt. C.S. Lewis argued this view as well, but the problem comes back to the negation of moral obligation by using an unjust method of scapegoating in order to pass the buck. Of course Christians may try and weasel their way out of the problem of Penal Substitution Theory by claiming that the atonement was an act of grace, a voluntary act of mercy on behalf of the Christ, or else the crimes were imputed to Christ, as if he were to blame. But both arguments don’t solve the problem since by grace, if Christ is considered to be truly sinless, then the inflicted punishment of crucifixion was itself an injustice, in which case grace gets equated to injustice, and this is a contradiction. Whereas imputing the crimes onto an innocent man, and punishing him, would be a blatant denial of the truth—it would amount to a case of being falsely accused and wrongfully convicted, like Rubin “The Hurricane” Carter, and furthermore it would be a complete disregard for any real justice.

One final problem arises when Christians posit that Jesus was co-eternal with the Father. If this is true (presumably) then Christ would have known beforehand that his death would be unjust and so, being one with God, he would not have died for our sins as he would be incapable of carrying out such a massive injustice. So any which way you choose to look at it Jesus’ expiation could not have been an act of grace. In actuality, it was a symbolic act of blood sacrifice which was not even necessary to begin with.

Why was the blood sacrifice unnecessary in the first place? Well, whatever sin may be, we know it is metaphysical in nature, therefore the spilling of blood could only be symbolic. Needles to say, for those living in the first century blood sacrifice was common place as it was seen as a way to appease a vengeful God by primitive bronzed aged peoples. The same primitive peoples which so often ignore the advice of their own holy books, such as that of Proverbs which says, “A soft answer turneth away wrath” (15:1). Christ’s blood sacrifice was technically just a last-ditch effort of turning away God’s unbridled wrath. Not exactly civilized—not exactly ethical either.

The same could be said of the dietary laws of the ancient Hebrews too, as kosher observance is a big deal in the Old Testament. Yet these are not the laws of an all knowing God—but of simple minded men belonging to a pre-agricultural nomadic society. If God were real he would have taught his people how to farm, how to irrigate, and how to plant and raise crops to sustain them and then the slaughter of swine, and the problem of procuring the meat without the proper means, wouldn’t have been an issue. Surely an all knowing / loving God could teach his people the science of agriculture over ill-bred herdsmanship and vegetarianism over carnivory and animal cruelty? Yet this is not the sort of God the faiths of Abraham depict. The God of Abraham, it would seem, is just as ignorant and blood thirsty as the uncivilized meat eating, animal sacrificing, herdsmen who wondered the Palestinian desert over two thousand years ago.

Another problem with “original sin” is that if it’s an inherited or “ancesteral” sin, it means God is holding us accountable for the sins of others as well! You’ve sinned, or at least your ancestors did, now worship God—not freely but by necessity. The tree of good and evil doesn’t even come into it—because it was not you or I who ate the fruit—so it’s not our fault; but you shall be punished for it none-the-less. Therefore God is being unjust by holding us accountable for crimes we did not commit. The Fall of Man, if we are to consider the fable a literal event, was not our fault. So why frame us?

No Need to be so Literal: Sin is just a Metaphor

Ancestoral sin is obvliously fake, because as an inherited trait, reason dictates that it would have to be passed on through our DNA. And although genetics and evolutionary biology can explain humanity’s altruistic behavior, as proved by the evolutionary theorist George Price in 1970, there is no reason to suppose that sin is in anyway an inherited evil. Even Charles Darwin, a once devout believer, came to find the Christian claims absurd. In his autobiography he states, “I had gradually come by this time to see the Old Testament, from its manifestly false history of the world, with the Tower of Babel, the rainbow as a sign, etc. etc. and from its attributing to God the feelings of a revengeful tyrant, was no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindoos or the beliefs of any barbarian.”[iv]

Furthermore, a curious question arises: if we come ready made as sinners, only to have no option but to turn to God to free our perishing souls, and by necessity enter into a contract which ensures our eternal salvation—then why invent sin in the first place? Why not just skip that part, and go straight on to designing us as cogs in the worship machine? Sin accompanies with it the notion that, at the very least, we have the ability to defy God, to make the choice to reject him, using free will.[2] Free will gives us the ability to choose a different option than the preselected one. It allows us the choice of individual sovereignty over theocratic and theocentric dominion.

Cake or Death?

Free choice complicates things even further since if God was merely offering two options, one good and one bad, and knowing he’d punish us for choosing the wrong one, then such an ‘either or appeal’ smacks of sinister intent. In the back of my mind I can’t help but think of comedian Eddy Izzard’s lampooning remark, “Cake or death?” In actuality such a scenario does not denote free will at all, because ultimately there is only one rational choice.

Bizarre as it seems to a reasonable person, many don’t see that Jehovah is acting the role of an insane terrorist and is holding the loaded pistol in one hand and the cake in the other only to offer you the choice, “Would you like some cake or death?” Then before you’ve even had time to wrap your mind around the situation he immediately shoots his own son in the face! BLAM!! It’s almost as if he was daring you to doubt him. Now that you’re terrified that he’s goading you to tempt his resolve, you know that you have but only one choice, as bitter as it is, you find no other option but to muster up a nervous smile and a cheerful, “Pass me the cake, please.” Then you share a slice over the dead body of Christ—who paid for your hesitation and doubt to fess up to some ancestral obligation to write off somebody else’s sins—with his life. Indeed, the more you pause to think about how insane it really is the more convoluted the concept of original sin becomes. But whatever you do—don’t you dare say no to the God-father because he’ll hang you out to dry (or fry).

Cross the God-father and he’ll take you to the cleaners. Any trifling offense will do, such as stealing a bite of forbidden fruit, or just not believing in him enough, questioning him, speaking a blasphemy in his name, besmirching a popular prophet’s exalted name, or anything which dares to trample God’s immense pride even just a little bit is reason enough to damn people to hell. Traditionally, the monotheistic deity of Judeo-Christian religious tradition, and equally Allah of Islam, have exhibited a mobster mentality so insanely capricious that we can’t help but feel rationally inclined to question the inordinate disparity between finite offenses and infinite punishment. 

By way of this observation we can call into question the nature of a God who consigns his own creations to hell, presumably, to enjoy everlasting torment simply for the lack of belief or any other infinitesimally obscure crime such as eating a pork chop sandwich or picking up a stick on the weekend. The biblical God’s cruel hearted capriciousness is what caused Darwin to have doubts in Christianity as a whole. In his autobiography Darwin writes about his loss of faith, candidly recounting, “I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so, the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother, and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine….”[v]

As for picking up sticks on the Sabbath (a crime punishable only by death according to God’s law), we have a different dilemma. What if a blast of wind blew over a heavy tree which toppled onto your home and fell onto your hapless child? Wouldn’t it be nobler, more virtuous, and even compulsory to save your own child than to worry whether or not God would punish you for it? And if you didn’t save your child, wouldn’t you, in essence, be breaking God’s other commandment to be fruitful and rear children? Obviously, it’s a lose-lose-situation. You’re stuck in the quagmire of being damned if you do and damned if you don’t. But low and behold, knowing you’re going to betray him and sin anyway (never mind it’s a set up) the God-father offers you an out and gives you but one of two choices, eternal bliss or eternal damnation, “cake or death?”

But like Bertrand Russell, I too, “…really do not think that a person with a proper degree of kindliness in his nature would have put fears and terrors of that sort into the world.”[vi] Least of all an all loving God—since a God who loved us would not be so needlessly cruel. It seems to me the concept of sin is rather convoluted precisely because it’s simply not a matter of black and white, “good vs. evil.” When questions of morality are at stake, such as ethical conduct and behavior, or what it means to be good or bad at all, there is a full gray scale to be considered. And to make it a black and white issue about the choice between obedience and rebellion, sin and salvation, cake or death, is simply to offer a false dichotomy and is an unfair ultimatum. 

The Problem with Original Sin

Knowing that we can discern that original sin is an unfair ultimatum and by reason we can reveal it to be a false dichotomy raises the obvious concern: could the initial status of original sin even be allowed for by an omniscient and benevolent God? The answer is clearly no. Even if, as many theologians have attempted to argued, God wanted to allow sin as a means to teach us moral responsibility—or to bring about a greater good by allowing a small evil—such a capacity would be abscent in an all loving God to begin with. And since a loving God could not possibly have allowed for the sequence of events leading to original sin in the first place, we know that the only way to allow for such a theory is to posit a God which is not entirely loving, and which may be altogether capricious or malevotlent.

Introducing free will in order to get over the hump of the rest of the theological problems which arise, by supposing it was in our choosing to obey the self rather than obey God which spurred forth the initial act of defiance, e.g. original sin, does not save God from being crule as it presupposes there could only be two choices—a right one and a wrong one—cake or death—and again we come back to the problem of it being an unfair ultimatuam. The idea of original sin, for all intents and purposes, is impossible if an all loving God does exist. In fact, it is a faulty premise which only complicates matters because it does the opposite, working against the theist’s claims, by proving that God is not loving but ominous. I think C.S. Lewis was right to hint at the fact that the concept of original sin might be erroneous, because, quite frankly, it is.

My question would be why are Christians still hung up on this sin business anyway? I’ll tell you why, basically because it is exactly that—a business scheme. It’s the salvation racket. Without the idea of sin, they’d have nothing to bargain with. Without the promise of heaven they’d have nothing to entice you with. Max Weber’s elective affinity[vii] does apply, because without a system of revenue the Church would have no choice but to shut down its business practice. In this case the system is a barter system—where the value is not placed on currency but the worth of your soul. If you agree to give it over to the Christ, trade your soul for their promise that the Church will keep you sin free and keep your soul safe in a lock box for you when the Final Judgement arrives, so that when that time comes and God checks your credit, you’ll be covered and will be able to cash out and get the sweet lot in Heaven.

Without the threat of punishment, torture, and everlasting pain in an imaginary hell, however, the Christian oligarchy would have nothing to blackmail you with—and the scheme fails. But for it to work, they first must to sell you the concept of sin. As the Jewel song says, “In order to believe in forgiveness, you must first believe in sin.” If you buy into that, the rest is easy. 

The Born-Again Experience

In order for the person of faith to feel vindicated in believing what they do, they have to be part of a community of believers, since if they were the only person of faith on the planet there would be no mass religious movements or religious institutions. Thus maintaining the level of faith among God believers is the utmost interest of the Church organization. After all, the Church cannot survive without any followers.

Evangelical Christianity teaches that everyone is born into sin, and in the mind of the believer this causes a pressing feeling of insufficiency, self- deficiency, even helplessness, but then they are offered salvation and their crippling shame doesn’t matter anymore. Now they can turn to God, and in the denial of the self they can say the “sinner’s prayer” ask for forgiveness, accept Jesus, and be “saved” thus be transformed into a born-again Christian! They can gain acceptance into a community of believers.

As a consequence of believing in the literal nature of sin, however, the born-again believer can only view their brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, friends, and acquaintances they meet on the street as people who are perishing and are in dire need of “saving.” Therefore evangelism, missionary work, discipleship and converting others (i.e. convincing people of the benefits of joining the club) become necessary in reinforcing and maintaining the faith. The Evangelical system is set up like a pyramid scheme, that way the born-agains can spend all their energy prosylatizing while the priestly elite can sit around and write sermons. And this notion that one needs to save others strengthens his faith by making him feel like the power of God is working through him. Even if he doesn’t succeed he can still consider it a victory for the lessons he learned in how to better go about converting the next person he runs into. Coincidentally this also breeds fanaticism—which is prominent within Evangelical movements—in turn lending to the revivalism which spurs on the growth of Christian Evangelism and is probably why it has been so successful.

The late great Eric Hoffer had this to say on proselytizing:

The missionary zeal seems rather an expression of some deep misgiving, some pressing feeling of insufficiency at the center. Proselytizing is more a passionate search for something not yet found than a desire to bestow upon the world something we already have. It is a search for final and irrefutable demonstration that our absolute truth is indeed the one and only truth. The proselytizing fanatic strengthens his own faith by converting others.[viii]

            Evangelical Christianity relies on the doctrine of original sin as the mechanism to convert others, but in order to be born-again you must first debase yourself and grovel like an abject slave, and in losing faith in yourself place all faith in God and be saved. Evangelical Christaintiy says sin is stronger than you—but I say bullocks. Nobody has ever proved the metaphysical claim of sin to be anything more than a metaphysical supposition. Still, that hasn’t stopped religious fanatics from using it as a tool for proselytization.

Sin or no sin, metaphysical claims notwithstanding, even if you do consider yourself a sinner, odds are, if you are a mentally healthy individual then you are almost certainly doing more good than bad each day. So what causes us to be weak and to do bad things you wonder? Suffice to say, we’re not perfect! We’re each of us fallible, imperfect, and prone to make mistakes. Apparently some more than others, depending on our circumstances, how we were raised, cultural upbringing, economics, our individual temperament, and numerous other conditions and factors. Our so called “sinful” natures are just one of the stamps of our lowly animal imperfection—our biological weakness as mere primates—welcome to the human race!

[1] This is known as moral influence theory.
[2] See: Free Will and the Dilemma of Determinism.

[i] Most Christians believe the Garden of Eden fable to be a tale of obedience to God and a metaphor to explain the emergence of sin. But this is an apologetic reading of the text which seeks to find a rationalization for the theological riddle of the problem of evil. Christians often overlook the fact that the story of Adam and Eve is a coming of age fable which represents the necessity to grow up and become wise and responsible individuals independent from our parents. Modern Chrisitian exegesis seems to be bound to the fundamentalist tendency to constantly harmonize the Bible, and diminish the discrepancies which arise from the conflict of metaphisyca assumptions, and at the same time seems to represent an undying wish for security by remaining under the care and provision of a supreme parental figure.

The Sunday school version of the story makes it appear that the human specieis is forever begging a heavenly father to let us back into his home after he’s disowned us—and the message to always heed one’s parents and obey them, or face the consequences and punishment, is taught to small children to frighten them into honoring their parents. But like any parent concerned with our futures, God shues us from the nest forcing us to have to learn to fly on our own—all part of growing pains. Granted you can read the story both ways, it seems odd to me that Christians so desperately want to be dependent upon God and seek to revert into the infantile children in the garden—the message they project into their reading of the story—when all the mythical imagery, i.e. trees of knowledge and animal guides, suggests the opposite—it’s an enlightenment fable which has nothing to do with obedience toward God or metaphysical assumptions about the nature of sin.

[ii] Some have claimed the snake was actually Satan in disguise. To the contrary, the Bible never says this, nor is such an inference supported anywhere in the scriptures, thus the claim is discernibly false.
[iii] C.S. Lewis, Problem of Pain, p.64

[iv] Barlow Nora, The Autobiography of Darwin Charles, 1809-1882, WW Norton & Company, New Yoerk 1958, p. 85

[v] Ibid. p. 87

[vi] From “Why I am not a Christian,” The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell, p.594.  Allen & Unwin, 1961.

[vii] Elective affinity is a term used by Weber to describe the match between aspects of Protestantism and those of the ethos of capitalism. The one provides the soil in which the other can flourish.

[viii] Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (New York: Harper & Row, 1951), p. 108.

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