Editor’s Note: How does one communicate about sin and the fall, fully and truly, without resorting to seminary jargon? Here’s my attempt at framing it for the new Christian worldview chapter of Understanding the Times:
Things function best according to design. If we ignore God’s design for eating, our bodies function poorly. If we ignore creation’s balance, we overharvest and choke the life out of the earth. Ignoring design breaks faith with the designer. The theological term for this is sin. Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. defines sin as “not only the breaking of law but also the breaking of a covenant with one’s savior. Sin is the smearing of a relationship, the grieving of one’s divine parent and benefactor, a betrayal of the partner to whom one is joined by a holy bond.” 1
Genesis 3:6 narrates the horrifying way our first parents ate of the forbidden Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, intentionally breaking their relationship with God in order to pursue their own good, their own delight, and their own wisdom. Disobedience broke all of the key relationships in their lives. In shame they hid from God they had previously communed with. Their unity with one another dissolved into squabbling and blame. The fruitfulness of nature at their touch was replaced with pain and frustration.
Death mercifully came to Adam and Eve, but not before long life gave them a front row seat to the shriveling consequences wrought by their vandalism of the Tree of Good and Evil. Saint Augustine used the Latin phrase incurvatus in se, to describe the grisly way sin curves in on itself. Martin Luther explained:
Our nature, by the corruption of the first sin being so deeply curved in on itself (incurvatus in se) that it not only bends the best gifts of God towards itself and enjoys them, as is plain in the works-righteous and hypocrites, or rather even uses God himself in order to attain these gifts, but it also fails to realize that it so wickedly, curvedly, and viciously seeks all things, even God, for its own sake. 2
As we pursue everything for our own sakes, our perception of reality grows ever more at odds with what actually exists. We imagine ourselves to be free and beautiful, but in actuality we grow more hunched, pinched and sickly each passing day. Try as we might to ignore the effects of sin in our lives, reality has a way of knocking on the back door when we refuse to meet it in the front.
Sin reaches its full measure in blame. When we see sin as something others do to us, when we judge ourselves by our good intentions and impute bad motives to others, when we treat as evil that which prevents us from getting our way, we are witnessing the metastasizing of sin in our lives. Only one outcome is possible: “…sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:15, ESV).
Sin is not just out there; it is in here. It affects structures as well as persons — whole communities, indeed whole nations, fall in its wake. Sin never heals; it only corrupts. Sin attacks our humanity; frenzied, we cannibalize the humanity of others. The spiral is downward, always, and endless. We tremble at the destination but refuse to change course; we are addicts, dressing up like gods, wrecking relationships, sadistically bruising that which is fragile. The morning light finds us bloated and bleary, tearfully swearing, “Never again.” But self-destruction is our bent. Some bleed out through disastrous lifestyle choices; others suffocate on haughtiness and contempt. We all die.
In the midst of this tragedy we still hold a certain grace in common. We bear God’s image yet. We help people and are helped by them. Crops grow. Sunsets remain beautiful. But we are thoroughly fallen with a fallenness as vast as our created nature; nothing is unaffected by it. Worse, we are absolutely fallen; nothing we can do for ourselves will fix it.
If the Christian story is true, we are badly in need of rescue. Who will help us?