What is sin?
What exactly is meant by the biblical concept of sin and the so-called Fall? There are very different and, sometimes contradictory, opinions within the churches and denominations. However, without a clear idea of the concept of sin, of sinning and of the sinner, the meaning and significance of the message of Jesus cannot be made clear to us, since sin and the sinner play a very central role in it.
The story of the Fall
The oldest biblical reference to what the Judeo-Christian religions call sin is found in the Old Testament story of the so-called “Fall” in which Adam and Eve eat illicitly from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Even though Jesus himself neither knew nor used the term “Fall of Man” in this way, it has become a fixed concept for Jews and Christians alike in the course of religious history.
The Old Testament myth of the Fall of Man describes the consequences of eating from the Tree of Knowledge, but these consequences were not exclusively negative. The serpent promised Eve that they would be like God and know what is good and evil if they ate the fruit from the tree. This very tempting prospect made Eve see the fruit as beautiful and edible.
The woman saw that the tree was good to eat of, that it was a delight to the eyes and tempting, because it made one wise.Genesis 3:6
This promise of the serpent was indeed fulfilled, as God himself confirmed at the end:
And God the YHWH said, Behold, the man is now become like unto us, knowing what is good and what is evil.Genesis 3:22
In addition, the negative side, which God had warned of beforehand but which the serpent denied, was fulfilled: Man became mortal.
Of every tree of the garden thou mayest eat as thou wilt: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.Genesis 2:17
The two aspects of the Fall
If one understands sin as disobedience to the divine commandment, then this double-sidedness must always be taken into account. That is, sin, the sinner or the sinful behaviour of man is not exclusively something bad, but at the same time it gives us a quality that only gods possess, namely the ability to recognise opposites:
Then the eyes of them both were opened, and they perceived that they were naked …Genesis 3:7
I have said well, “You are gods and all the children of the Most High…”Psalm 82:6
Good and evil, death and life, naked and clothed, hidden and revealed, light and dark, sick and healthy, young and old, etc. Through the faculty of knowledge, man became aware of the world of opposites that he had not perceived before but, without the ability to know, the redemptive message of Jesus could not reach us. Jesus leaves no doubt that the ability to know is the basis for man’s salvation:
But this is life eternal, that they may know you, who alone are true God, and whom you have sent, Jesus Christ.John 17,3
Woe to you, teachers of the law! For you have taken away the key of knowledge; you yourselves did not enter, and you hindered those who wanted to enter.Matthew 23:13
If sin is the reason why we can know at all, then sin has a very fundamental and elementary meaning. In fact, if we look at sin in the sense of Jesus, it becomes a necessity without which we could experience neither salvation nor redemption.
I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.Luke 5:32
It is not the healthy, the strong who need a doctor, but the sick.Matthew 9:12
Amen, I say to you: The publicans and harlots enter the kingdom of God sooner than you.Matthew 21:31
The consequences of sin
Before I go further into this thought, let me return to the question posed at the beginning: What is meant by sin in the first place? Once apart from what it has done to us and is still doing to us today, namely our mortality and our capacity for knowledge.
The term sin describes an independence and separation from God, whereby the term “God”, in the biblical sense, is to be equated with life and spirit.
The myth of the Fall describes these two phenomena. On the one hand, the act “independent” of God in the symbol of the illicit eating of the tree of knowledge. And on the other hand, the consequence of this independence, namely the “separateness” from God, which finds expression in death and dying.
If we now follow the teaching of Jesus in terms of content, the opposite of God is not permanently possible. Sin and death are temporal phenomena, which in turn are overcome by God, who is to be understood as a timeless greatness. They are overcome by God uniting in himself all separation, all that is contrary and contradictory, whereby it is abolished and all strife is pacified.
According to Jesus’s teaching, our sense of separation and separateness in this world is based on an error – the error that what we usually mean by “life” is limited and transitory. Likewise, that what we call “life” is exhausted in its external and temporally limited appearance. In contrast to this are the statements of Jesus, as well as those of many philosophers, that life is necessarily “more” than the external, limited and material:
Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?Matthew 6:25
The whole is more than the sum of its parts. Aristotle
But unto you, my friends, I say, Fear not them which kill the body, but can do nothing else unto you.Luke 12:4
In this respect, the term “sin” is not so much to be understood as a specific action or deed in itself.
This error leads us to distrust life. It also leads us to reject all undesirable events, even though they are an unalterable part of our human existence and we cannot ultimately escape them. This applies to everything that is difficult and unjust, as well as to illness, dying, suffering and death. We consider such events not worth living and therefore call them our misfortune. And since we exclude our misfortune from our lives, we will try to prevent it at all costs, even if this is to the detriment of our fellow human beings. The essence of sin, then, is not so much an evil act in itself, as the mistaken conviction in which we seek to justify evil action.
Sin and the wrath of God
In the context of the concept of sin, the Bible also speaks of the wrath of God, which is understood as the consequence of sin. That is, that we die is the consequence of being deceived and acting out of deception and error. The apostle Paul sums up this thought as follows:
… death is the wages of sin …Romans 6:23
In other words, dying and death are consequences of a wrong conception of what we understand by life. The Bible calls this consequence the “wrath of God”. The term “wrath of God” should not be understood in a human sense. God is not angry in the same way as a human being is angry or capricious. What is to be understood by an angry God, I would like to briefly explain here in key points:
If we equate the concept of God with the qualities and principles by which the Bible describes him, God represents truth, love, life, spirit, light, justice, eternity, mercy, compassion, etc., and if we follow the statements of Jesus, then God is not angry. If we follow the statements of Jesus, God’s wrath is based on the fact that any deviation from God’s essence causes his “wrath”. God’s wrath is therefore nothing other than the consequence of an erroneous thought or action that contradicts the timeless-eternal, i.e. the divine principles:
If God is truth, there can be no untruth in Him. If God is life, there can be no death in Him. If God is love, there can be no hatred in Him. If God is Spirit, there can be no spiritlessness in Him. If God is light of knowledge, there can be neither darkness nor ignorance in Him. If God is righteousness, there can be no unrighteousness in Him. If God is eternity and timelessness, there can be neither temporal limitation nor any limitation in him. If God is mercy, there can be no mercilessness in Him. If God is compassionate, there can be no callousness in him towards the misery of man. It follows from this:
God’s Wrath – The Consequence of Contradiction against God
Thus, in the sense of Jesus’s message, where we think or act contrary to the nature of God, we are under the wrath of God. Not because God wanted to punish us as a man punishes a man, but because God’s wrath is the consequence of a contradiction against a universal principle:
If we hold fast to deception and lies, we will be exposed as soon as we are confronted with the truth. The exposure of error and the embarrassment of our exposure is the wrath of God.
If we value the perishable more than the imperishable, we also devalue our own ideal existence. Anger and sadness in the face of the transience of our existence is the wrath of God.
If we spread unkindness and despair among our fellow human beings, our own despair in the face of experienced unkindness is God’s wrath.
If we live and act mindlessly, i.e. arbitrarily, without reason and at will, we will be confronted with mindlessness where we ourselves fall victim to arbitrariness, chance and senselessness – this is God’s wrath.
If we prevent knowledge by giving ourselves or others recipes of faith instead of insight, we will not be able to grasp the all-embracing knowledge of Jesus. Disbelief in the face of the unbelievable and bewilderment in the face of the incomprehensible is the wrath of God.
If we act unjustly towards our fellow human beings, we must remain inconsolable in the face of an injustice that happens to ourselves. The feeling of forlornness and desolation is the wrath of God.
If we regard ideal and timeless values as worthless and meaningless, we will surrender and lose everything valuable to us with the loss of external values. The despair of that which we considered valuable turns out to be worthless and meaningless, is the wrath of God.
If we see life as limited, we will find ourselves living a limited life. Our pain over the limits that existence places on us is God’s wrath.
If we act mercilessly, pitilessly and without mercy towards the errors, faults and weaknesses of our fellow human beings, we ourselves will break in the face of an unmerciful and merciless reality. This is the wrath of God.
Sin, suffering and death
If I say here that all misfortune that befalls us in this world is a consequence of our sin, people will counter that this cannot be true, since man is not always the direct cause of his misfortune. Often he is demonstrably not to blame for his misfortune. For example, in cases of force majeure or when fateful events befall him. To what extent is man’s guilt involved when he becomes a victim of force majeure or human arbitrariness?
The answer Jesus Christ gives to this question is: Sinful thinking and acting is based on man’s error about the nature of God and this error is the cause of our misery. Jesus Christ came to redeem us from this error. He redeemed us from our error in his message and through his passion on the cross. How is this possible? I said above:
Sin is the justification of evil – but a justification based on error. Now I say:
And very specifically, the justification of the sinner is based on the fact that Jesus Christ gave deep meaning to all human misery (sin, guilt, injustice, suffering and death) on the cross.
Regardless of whether it is a direct human fault or an act of God, since God is at work in all events without exception.
For in taking upon himself his passion according to God’s will, Jesus carried meaning into the meaningless, spirit into the spiritless, God into the ungodly, right into wrong, life into death. Or as the apostle Paul put it:
For God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might find in him the righteousness that is before God. 2Corinthians 5:21
Jesus knew that no one and nothing can resist the will of God and that our salvation can only be based on consenting to the will of God, even if it should mean suffering and death. For where we become one with the will of God, we also become one with God, whom all things serve. And when we have become one with God, everything serves us just as it has always served God.
But we know that to those who love God all things serve for the best…Romans 8:28
Our timeless existence is based on this becoming one.
They become God where a human being is willing to take upon himself even such events according to the will of God that hinder or harm him. This human being came to us in Jesus Christ. He showed us this way of becoming one with God as the only possibility and he himself walked it in his passion so that we too can now walk it.
Simon Peter said to Jesus: Lord, where are you going? Jesus answered him, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now, but you will follow me later.John 13: 34
And where I am going you know, and the way you also know.John 14: 4
If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.Luke 9: 23
In his passion, Jesus showed that God works all things for “one” reason only, namely to bring forth himself (life and spirit). And by accepting his message of the cross and taking on our misery as Jesus took on and accepted it, we have overcome error. That momentous error that God cannot be found in sin (injustice, suffering and death) and cannot work in it. But God can now be found through Jesus Christ wherever we longingly seek him. This is also a fundamental and central basic statement of his teaching:
And I say also unto you, Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.Luke 11: 9
Through the Crucified we come to the realisation that God works in all events without exception, as long as we trustingly seek Him in them. Through this faith we are redeemed and through this trust in God we also become able to forgive fundamentally. In the Passion of Jesus we recognise that even unjust, sorrowful, regrettable and evil events are no longer to our detriment, but that God is present in all events without exception. The sentence of the apostle Paul applies here:
For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor things high, nor things low, nor any other creature, will be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.Romans 8:38-39
The good aspect of sin
Above I have explained that the reason and cause for our ability to know is sin, further that without sin, the salvation of God in Jesus Christ could not reach us at all.
We experience the negative side of sin where our thoughts and actions are based on error and deception. Error and deception are the false foundation of life on which nothing lasting can be built, from which nothing good grows, as Jesus expresses in the parables of building on sand (Matthew 7:24) and of the rotten tree (Matthew 7:17). Thus error and deception are also the true cause of our human bondage, as Jesus points out:
Insofar as you hold to my teaching, you are truly my disciples and will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ Then they said to him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been anyone’s servant; why then do you say, ‘You shall be set free’? Jesus answered and said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you: Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin.John 8:32-34
The positive aspect of sin is that God (Spirit) is able to give meaning and significance to sin.
This is in no way to relativise or gloss over injustice, suffering and death. Our human misery undoubtedly consists in the fact that injustice, suffering and death happen to us. But the greater misery, from which we must break and die without consolation, is based on the error that what man suffers in this world is ultimately pointless and happens in vain – that man therefore suffers entirely in vain.
Therefore, I have told you that you will die in your sins; for if you do not believe that I am He, you will die in your sins.John 8:24
Jesus Christ came so that all suffering and dying might have meaning, so that it might cease to be in vain. Just as in nature no suffering and death happens without meaning and significance. This meaning is God. For just as Christ recognised the will of God in all the evil and unrighteousness done to him, so we too are called to seek the will of God in all the evil we encounter and cling to. For the will of God can only happen and work on us where we recognise it as such and consent to it. If, however, the will of God is done contrary to our will, because it imposes injustice, suffering and death upon us, then we are separated from God and cannot live, for God is life par excellence. But if the will of God is done in us and with us, we will also be comforted when we are exposed to injustice, suffering and death.
But I tell you the truth, it is good for you that I go. For if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you: but if I go away, I will send him unto you.John 16:7
This is the divine principle that God’s will is undivided: where it happens, all denial, all resistance and all opposition also ends. In our consent to God’s will we become one with God and God becomes one with us. God does not quench the spirit!
The righteousness of the sinner
A righteous sinner is that person who is aware of his human weaknesses. The righteous sinner knows that it is not possible to get rid of human weaknesses by one’s own strength. The righteous sinner lives in the understanding that man is fallible, weak and mortal, and therefore recognises everything weak and sinful as a necessary part of his human reality that must be taken upon himself. But why is this so? The answer to this question is:
Just as Jesus willingly took upon himself his bodily weakness and the evil that was done to him in order to do good, we too should take upon ourselves our own weakness in his spirit in order to do good. It is precisely in this that the weak shows its strength, that it is able to take upon itself the cross of sin in order to bring forth the good.
Thus also the false is recognised only in truth, the lack in infirmity, the negation in affirmation. So then the good shines in the evil, the true in the false, the having in the infirmity [ … ] the light shines in the darkness; for virtue shines and appears in adversities and contrasts, power is perfected in weakness. Only out of adversity comes perfection. As Saint Paul says: “virtue is perfected in weakness”.Meister Eckhart
Through Jesus Christ all things have fundamentally changed. That which previously prevented us from coming to God, namely sin, now serves us to find the way to God.