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What Sin Really Is and Why Acknowledging It Offers More Reason to Live than Denying It Exists

I had an interesting conversation recently with an atheist.  Essentially, the atheist built a syllogism (with a little helpful prodding by myself) where he accepted both of the premises, and then refused to complete it.  It was pure logic–but he wouldn’t accept it.  The irony, of course, is thick.  He believes atheists are the masters of reason.  But, as I have recognized time and time again, atheists are among the most irrational people on the globe and don’t give a lick about ‘logic.’  It is a lesson for other Christian apologists out there, who think that all that is necessary is to produce a reasonable argument… reasonable arguments are not binding on the rebellious soul.  So, then what?

The problem is that it is not just about producing a reasonable argument, or winning an argument, but doing what is necessary to try to ease someone a little closer to the Kingdom.

In this instance, it was a debate on ‘sin’ that got the feathers flying.  It was evident from the beginning, of course, that this atheist didn’t have a clue about what the Bible means by ‘sin.’  To an important degree, he has himself to blame.  If he’d actually read the Bible, he wouldn’t have said the silly things he said.   But the Church hasn’t helped, either.  Over the centuries, it has persisted in the use of theological language as if people will understand it simply because people were culturally immersed in it.  But people haven’t been culturally immersed in it for 150 years or so.   The Bible describes ‘sin’ as ‘falling short’ or basically, not ‘measuring up.’  See here and here.

This appears to have been a pure revelation to my atheist friend, who clearly thought I was just making things up (“I don’t have the time or energy to deconstruct your self-serving definitions…”).

But, in a move he surely regrets, he points out the obvious, and in doing so, lays down the first premise of the logical argument:

A. “Falling short requires a standard to fall short of.”  [Direct quote by the atheist.]

He says this as though it is an objection, but of course he’s quite right.  To not ‘measure up’ necessarily implies a measure.  To not have a ‘share’ in something means that there is something to have a share in (see the links on the word for ‘sin’ above).

Here came my prodding, getting him to admit that he does not even ‘measure’ up to his own standards.  Ie, he says that it is all subjective, so if ever there came to be a case where he didn’t ‘measure up’ to his own ‘standard’ it should be as simple as changing his ‘standard’ to alleviate the pressure.  It isn’t just the standards of others that accuse us… its our own standards that testify against us.  This is important.

In this instance, I asked him if he had ever failed to live up to promises he had made, to himself, or others.  The implication here is that not keeping promises is tantamount to ‘falling short’ and he did not dispute the implication.  He accepted the premise, and acknowledge that he’d failed to keep promises:  “…definitely.”

So falls the next premise:

B. “I have fallen short.” [paraphrase of ‘definitely.’]

Do you have the courage to complete the syllogism?

It would look something like this:

C. “In my own life, therefore, I acknowledge the existence of a standard.”

Like I said in my essay, “The Limited Value of Logical Arguments“, this is still far away from belief in God.   It doesn’t necessarily tell us much about that God, even if we came to believe that the best explanation for our experience of reality is that the standard implies a God.  To me, though, to ignore it is to defy reality in a dangerous way.  Especially, when it turns out that most of the humans on the planet also acknowledge that they don’t ‘measure up.’  This requires some explanation.

My atheist’s friend’s explanation?

He refused to offer one.  Quote:  “there’s no sense looking for a proximate rational reason.”  When I asked why he would even care that he fails to keep his promises (ie, rather than merely changing his personal standard so his ‘failures’ don’t accuse him) he says, “I just do.”

While this is plainly pure stubbornness, it is at least honest.  Having had countless conversations with unbelievers, a fair number will try to obscure the fact that their position represents nothing but a sheer act of the will.  A good number, though, will, like this atheist, refuse to even try to understand what is going on, even in their own heart.  Add it to the list:  they also refuse to explain why reason is reasonable, and then they thump their chests saying they are the reasonable ones.  Well, gosh, I suppose constructing an atheistic worldview is easy when you refuse to try to explain the really interesting and provocative aspects of human existence!  (I wrote a book about this:  “The Golden Rule of Epistemology.”)

After some pushing, my atheist friend uttered the epitome of a non sequitur:

Sin is a great tool for inspiring guilt (which, entirely incidentally, benefits organised religion to a large extent) but explains precisely nothing, and if we all have it – always – then there is no possible way to demonstrate its existence (apart from word games, obviously). If it meets your needs, or anyone else’s, to believe in it then I won’t argue with you, but I’m not inclined to allow such a toxic concept to be promoted as if it were a) explanatory, b) generally useful or c) not a weapon of oppression and enrichment for cynical old churchmen who have been collecting the exculpatory donations for imaginary offences for thousands of years

And then he summarily brought the conversation to an end.

Very interesting.  Me thinks the lady protests too much…

His comments clearly have nothing whatsoever to do with the argument to that point and they certainly don’t miraculously rescue him from the implications of his own argument.  Maybe, if the conversation had not already come to a close, I would have turned him back around on the argument.  (This blog post serves as that, but…)

But, I think here we find, finally, some of his first, real objections.  They don’t at all follow logically from anything.   They are not rational, they are guttural.  And don’t they all concede the point he is warring against?  Why get all bent out of shape about anyone ‘inspiring guilt’ if this were not bad in some way?  Who cares if it is a ‘weapon of oppression’?  Sounds like a wonderful Darwinian innovation, to me!  But apparently to engage in ‘oppression’ is to ‘not measure up.’  He wants to find people guilty while denying the existence of any standard they could be measured up against.

Typical.  Insane.  Irrational.

But, to a certain degree, understandable.

Because, of course, ‘sin’ has been used as a way to ‘inspire guilt’ and it has been used as a way to finance the construction of big buildings and pad the wallets of ‘cynical old churchmen.’  But when I say it, it is cogent, because in the first place I accept the existence of a standard and in the second place, I recognize that it is indeed ‘explanatory’ as it explains and predicts that humans have always been ‘sick’ and will continue to be ‘sick.’  The concept of ‘sickness’ is another thing that implies a ‘standard,’ that of ‘health.’  And there we find a pragmatic implication–only if one is sick do they seek out a doctor.

Although, being sick does not mean that there are doctors.

But if we are sick and there are no doctors or no Doctor who can treat our condition… we are SOL, aren’t we?

The problem is that it is not a ‘toxic concept’ but rather a regularly observed aspect of the human condition, which, if true (and all evidence is that it is) means that we should not be surprised in the slightest when people act in ways that disgust us, or when I act such that I disgust myself (happens all the time).  We could explain how my friend’s observations are not particularly insightful–Martin Luther made almost the exact same arguments hundreds of years ago, and he made those arguments because… wait for it… he actually read the Bible.  But, this Easter season, I think the better thing to do is double-down on the stark ramifications based on really appreciating that we are ‘sick.’

There seems to me to be no question, I mean, not really, that we have ‘fallen short’ or ‘do not measure up’ or ‘are sick.’  This is a reality that we all live with, regardless of whether or not you want to acknowledge it or be curious enough to seek out a “proximate rational reason.” Certainly, whether or not we acknowledge this reality informs our politics and our life’s work.   But also, whether or not we think there is a Doctor.

And who, ultimately, we conclude is that Doctor.

In my experience, atheists do not stay atheists for long, even if they don’t become Christians.  Why?  Atheism is a pathetic explanatory system, which ‘succeeds,’ as I have said, by refusing to explain the truly interesting things.  And one of the things that Atheism cannot explain is why people feel like they are ‘sick.’  Atheism is like a ‘gate way’ drug, which first convinces people that they don’t need a God, but when the ‘high’ goes away, reveals the fact that they still needed something.

That thing can be, yes, drugs and alcohol, and just as often sex.  But it can be any of the varieties of pantheism, paganism, New Ageism, and Eastern philosophies, like Buddhism.  (I actually have another friend who is an atheist, but aligns himself with Buddhism.)  For those who stay atheists against their better instincts, it is not uncommon to find hedonists or nihilists.  But the one thing they all have in common, in my experience, is that they are all very, very, depressed.

I mean, when they really think about it, they are depressed.  Hedonism, of course, is the attempt to try NOT thinking about it.  But it doesn’t take much conversation to go beyond even that subterfuge.  The reason they are depressed is because none of these things ultimately offers any hope for Hope.  Not for other people, you see, but for themselves.

It is all well and good to try to focus on the ‘sins’ of others (eg, “cynical old churchmen”) and condemn the world for being ‘sick’ its quite another to come to grips with the fact that not all guilt is ‘inspired’ or ‘manufactured.’  When we are honest with ourselves, we know very well that much of our guilt is completely legit.  “Organised religion” does not ‘benefit’ because they have invented something entirely new, but that they offer an answer to something people already know is real in their own lives.  Importantly, though, if the ‘answer’ is accurate, we can expect that even those who bring word about the ‘cure’ will themselves bear signs of being sick.  Thus, it is absurd to expect that those who preach the reality of sin are not themselves sinless.  Uh, that’s the point.

As the saying goes, “We are but beggars telling other beggars where they can find bread.”

The atheist insists that we aren’t even hungry, but it doesn’t fly.

In light of this post, we may say, “We are but sick people telling other sick people where they can find a Doctor.”

But it draws a stark contrast, too.  What will the atheist say?  What hope can they give?  When they are counseling a depressed person, what can they offer?  Pharmaceuticals?  Platitudes?  If a man is on the ledge of a bridge, poised to jump to his death, what can the atheist offer as a reason for living?  I am not merely being facetious here, although its true that people don’t often turn to suicide in response to their awareness of their ‘sickness’ but its nonetheless on the table.  See Camus, reacting to the implications of his worldview:

“There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that.”

Suicide is a very real problem in our society, and one of the things that victims almost always have in common is that they’ve lost all hope.  No one, in their view, really understands their predicament, and there is no hope that their predicament will change.   Try to tell them they shouldn’t kill themselves while also telling them that they are nothing but bags of puss and dirt, meat machines, as it were.  What do you expect?  Ideas have consequences.

But in at least three separate occasions (that I am aware of) talking with people ‘on the ledge’, I have been honored to have been the instrument through which an acknowledgement of one’s real predicament was spoken to, and the good news that there is a Doctor who can heal us was argued, and those people live to this day.  Ideas have consequences.  But this isn’t an ‘idea’ so much as affirming that what people are experiencing is real.

In a sense, then, I find comments like “If it meets your needs, or anyone else’s” to be arrogant and repulsive, as if the fact that we need hope to survive is mere wishful thinking.  We need food to survive, too, but it is neither manipulative to recognize this fact, or wishful thinking to presume that if there is a need, it likely means there is something out there designed to fulfill that need.  Moreover, insinuating that it is not “generally useful” seems like the kind of thing you say when you don’t normally work with broken people.   Christians who take their faith seriously interact with such people all the time.  (And they count themselves as broken, too, and often in need of a reminder about the Hope.)

Here again is a concept with an implication.  “Falling short” implies a standard.  Sickness implies a standard of ‘health.’  ‘Broken’ implies a correct, functional state.   ‘Hungry’ implies a deviation from ‘well fed.’

The whole world cries out that this life is incomplete.  That something doesn’t add up.  That we see through a dark glass.  Whatever turn of phrase you want to give it, it all falls under the framework of what Christians call ‘sin.’  And everyone in the world acknowledges that this is real, and most feel it needs to be grappled with.  They try to do something about it.

But only Christianity says this:  “You are indeed broken, and there is in fact nothing YOU can do about it.  But there is One who aims to do everything about it.  If you’ll let Him.”

That is only an assertion.  A false comfort indeed, if in fact the One did not do anything about it.   As Paul put it:

And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

Note that Paul is leaving it has a hypothetical possibility that Christ has not been raised, but taking it for granted that people would nonetheless still recognize that they are ‘in their sins’ even if there was no Doctor.

Fortunately, there is good news:  Jesus did exist, he did die, and he did rise from the grave.  Those inadequacies that haunt you?  Real.  They aren’t imagined.  They aren’t ‘manufactured.’  You can’t medicate them away.  If you are reading this today, a few days before Easter, I would invite you to think seriously about your own condition and think seriously about the differing explanations and recommendations that exist.   Not all of them will admit what you know in your heart to be true about your own heart, but there is one, Christianity, that not only does, but insists that the evidence is such that Jesus really did rise from the dead to save you from your ‘sins.’

Not in imagination, but in the objective world.

The same account that explains why you are sick (and you know you are sick, you don’t have to be told) tells you where you can find Healing.

At minimum, its worth looking into, before you check out.  No?

Maybe drop the chip on your shoulder, first, though.  After all, what have you got to lose, really?  If atheism is right:

our minds are the product of a material brain. We are literally soulless machines made of meat, honed by millions of years of ruthless, pitiless evolution. And so is everyone else. When we die, there is no paradise, no hell, not even a grim gray afterlife of darkness and regret…we are just gone. Everyone who has ever lived has or will simply end, and become nonexistent.

If I’m right, we’ll live forever.  And in living forever, it won’t be in our current, broken, state.

(In that article, note again the willful lack of curiosity:  “I simply do not worry about what will happen after I’m dead.”  It’s not that the topic is uninteresting or that there aren’t good leads to explore, its just that they refuse to think about it.)


1 comment

  1. I thought your comments on the only philosophical question were excellent. I will be chewing on and sharing that idea for a while.

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