Is Sin a Hardware Problem, a Software Problem, or Both?

One skill all educators need to cultivate is the ability to segue from where a conversation may be to where you need it to go. In my Sunday school class last Sunday, we were up to Romans 7, and the casual conversation before we began was about a computer in the church that had stopped working (the motherboard had gone bad).

As the conversation progressed, I saw an opportunity to segue, by putting the interpretation of Paul’s terminology in the way I did in the title of this post: is sin a hardware problem, a software problem, or both?

Christian thinking about this topic in relation both to the Bible and the perspectives of contemporary biology is notoriously fuzzy and vague. Many Christians in fact talk about sin as a problem inherited from parents, as though it were something genetic. I’ve even heard people suggest that this was the reason for the virginal conception: sin is passed on by the father. Obviously this viewpoint is an attempt by women to associate sin with the Y chromosome, which they lack, and thus assert their own impeccability.

At any rate, few people when pressed on the details are eager to maintain a viewpoint of this sort. But the very fact that it exists at all is an indication of something important: many modern Christians are aware of the need to relate their traditional views to contemporary science, but don’t know how.

What Paul referred to as the “flesh” and the NIV renders “the sinful nature” is easily misunderstood, and even if understood in a manner that Paul intended, may well need to be rethought or even abandoned in light of the progress we have made in understanding our own natures.

Nevertheless, I doubt that anyone would find themselves thoroughly unable to relate to the experience Paul describes in chapter 7 of Romans – of finding ourselves believing something is right and yet doing something else, or believing something is wrong or unhelpful and doing it anyway. And however secularized, most people find they cannot do without classic terminology such as “evil” as a way of describing at least some of the things that human beings do some of the time. And so even if one thinks about the categories in very different ways, the human predicament traditionally referred to by terms such as “sin” does not evaporate with our progress in understanding human biology, psychology and morality.

One key aspect of the matter that seems crucial to change among Christians is the tendency to depict natural instincts as inherently sinful. Even some ancient rabbis recognized that what they referred to as “the evil impulse” was not something inherently evil in and of itself, but in fact a set of instincts and drives without which we could not survive, but which, if allowed to dominate and control us, get us into trouble.

There, of course, we arrive at the heart of the matter: we have instincts the following of which would not be “evil” or “sinful”  in any meaningful sense were it not for the fact that we human beings have the capacity to reflect on our actions and their effect on others. And that development should not be downplayed or dismissed. It is part of what makes us human. Ignoring either the biological impulses that we share with other higher organisms on this planet, or our distinctive (although probably not entirely unique) ability to choose not to follow them and to contemplate what effect our actions may have in the future, are having in the present, or did have in the past, would be to deny part of who we are.

The way some Christians talk about sex, for instance, makes it sound as though the hormones that flow through us were placed there by Satan. I doubt that many Christians would be happy to go that far, when pressed. But what often results in Christian thinking is a contradiction between the assertion that God made human beings good and a very negative view of some things that are part of our biological inheritance. And what also results is often either the demonization of one’s own instincts or a very negative view of one’s own nature. Surely neither is healthy.

By bringing evolutionary biology into the picture, we can actually hope to make progress in thinking more clearly and in more appropriate ways about some of these topics. We an understand that the impulses the following of which we may regret are “hard-wired” into us by evolution for a good reason: our own survival. Yet we can also as a result understand how those instincts often might move us towards self-destruction in our contemporary way of life, in which an endless supply of goodies made with refined sugars hijack instincts that evolved to cope with scarcity, so as to make us not only fat but sick and eventually dead. That “sin” leads to death is perhaps not a notion we need to discard entirely.

Statistics show that scare tactics used by Christians to try to keep young people from having sex are not in fact effective. I wonder whether explaining in a scientifically-informed way about these matters, and about ways in which one human impulse – the sex drive – has the potential, left unchecked by other considerations, to lead one to act in ways that can be at odds with other human impulses, such as the desire to genuinely connect with one other person, and to experience the intimacy that fidelity makes possible.

Thinking of “the sinful nature” or “the flesh” in a manner that is uninformed by our understanding of biology and psychology is problematic. But I wonder how often people simply rebel against any idea of restraint because they consider it quaint, old fashioned, or perhaps permanently tainted by the legacy of certain forms of religiosity.

When it comes to the tensions between the various facets of our human existence, I wonder how many things Christians open to input from the natural sciences could agree on with other perspectives.

Let me conclude by returning to Paul. His language of “flesh” and “soul,” however much it may be used in conversation with Greek thought, still seems to be fundamentally Jewish in character. These do not seem to be, for Paul, separate substances from which human beings are composed, one of which is excellent and one of which is base, crude and defective. “Body” and “mind” are all aspects of human existence, what we today would call a psychosomatic unity. The desire to do what is right, and the temptation to do what is wrong, connect across such divisions, and today we know that the mind is intrinsically connected with things that go on in the brain – which is part of our bodies, despite our tendency to talk as though things were otherwise. Whether we use older terms like “sin” or not, I think we all find what we are persuaded that we ought to do to be at odds with other deep-seated impulses within us.

Perhaps Paul’s thought is neither as incomprehensible nor as irrelevant from the perspective today’s thinking as might be assumed.

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  • Bob MacDonald

    Like the mechanistic model of the 19th century, the computer or even systems models of the 20th century are only an approximation to the complexity of the human. Software will do what its creators made it do and with whatever inadequacies they put into it that fail to address the full problem space in which it operates. This is not ‘sin’ in the sense of violating another being. If the software could blame its creator it would say – well extend my capacity in this area – you didn’t take into account this type of problem. (That has some application.)

    Sin itself is best defined I think as a broken relationship. It’s not an act but a failure in the actor to consider impact on the other. 

    If God is, then God knows (psalm 139:1 – tada!) If God knows, then the implication is that no act, thought, or feeling is escaped from God’s knowledge.  The examination is complete – psalm 139 has ‘examine me’ as a frame beginning and ending the psalm.  Nothing is excluded but no ‘teaching’ can be followed by the one who is examined without engagement with the giver of the instruction who alone completes the one who learns. ‘I am your reward’, or in the words of psalm 18, ‘Yhwh will turn to me’ (vs 18-21 Hebrew).

    This has a great deal to do with all sexual thought and behaviour, as Paul points out e.g. 1 Cor 6, etc in his teaching of the body as temple of the Spirit. We have, as Paul also points out, the record of the gift to Israel to learn from particularly for us in the psalms, and the Song, and in all aspects of the given Scriptures.  Sex is not to be identified with ‘the flesh’ of Paul’s thought. Equally well, the ‘law’ in some renderings of nomos in the NT cannot be just a rule to follow. We are invited to follow Jesus, and the engagement with this Beloved is not silent – so we are to listen also – in full engagement, exactly as the psalmist is fully engaged with Yhwh Elohim.

    To follow up the computer analogy, we have hardware and software, firmware, jellyware, that is fully capable of such listening, response, and love. We can call for help. We can say thank-you. We can say sorry. We can be rebooted and reprogrammed – taught – by the Spirit, through the resurrected life that is in the Anointed. This is called the obedience of faith in both testaments and it will result in gifts and beauty that are otherwise unknown without such engagement.

    Our reprogramming should result in a greater awareness of the full problem space in which we find ourselves. So reprogramming is not installing a previous version – say medieval, or classical, or even ’50s version – of a program.  We could not run these programs today, just like 16 bit programs will not run on a 64 bit computer. The security components are not compatible. So it is not a matter of some literal reading of rigid language dictated from the long dead source who only speaks in dead letters. Such a letter would not be a love letter.  The Spirit is life giving.

  • Anonymous

    “Sin” is a Church term that is useful to “program” individuals to conform into their particular “end”. The Church can do this with various means of “authority” (Magisterium, denominational or biblical).

    Humans are self seeking, this is what promotes motivation, productivity, ambition, interests, etc. But, the Church would label this as “idolatry”  IF it happened to not fall in line with their particular “vision”. All organizations have agendas, this is not a problem either, and these organizations wouldn’t like to be labelled “selfish” for seeking to promote their particular “end”.

    This is why is is important to allow individuals to choose when and where their interests will lie and if they will associate with a particular vision within a particular organization. 

  • Anonymous

    But, it is most imperative for such organizations to be forthright in what these particular visions are about, and not just generalized organizational vision. Otherwise, there is no transparency, which is a good indication that corrupt or dominating power is at the helm of such a “vision”.

  • Anonymous

    Sex is about human desire which is also of “human interest”. I just hate the emphasis in which it is held within Christian communities. Sex is a biological means to procreation and expression.

    Sex education should be a nonchalant attitude where kids are  informed, but not encouraged inadvertedly by such hypervigilence or hyperhysteria!

  • Anonymous

    The Body is not evil, like the Reformers taught, and destroyed many art works! The body is beautiful as the Greeks taught and formed many artistic expressons with it!

    Whatever one chooses to do with one’s own body in vocation is a matter of personal choice and value, as to life and liberty.

    And ‘sin’ or “idolatry’ is not a “useful term” in America today, because of our belief in liberty as an ultimate value and autonomy as the right of choice. Both of these are protected in our Constitution and are values within our society!

    “Sin” in the political sense is breaking the law, which is lying, cheating, and stealing. Our laws are more definitive as to what is considered “crime” and what is of value locally as to marital rights, divorce, etc. Therefore, the Church, if it continues to exist will “set itself apart” by stipulating a more definitive “boundary” around community. These will define the “in group” and exclude “the out group”, as all groups must.

  • Pär Stenberg

    cool story bro

  • Anonymous

    Our nation is one such “community” which defines its Sovereignty by it laws. This defines it “apart” from other countries and limits “outsiders” the rights and priviledges of “citizens” (at least that was what was intended).

  • james Harrison

    Surely the concept of sin implies something more than defect or error. In the absence of the idea of a perfect judge, it doesn’t make much sense to get neurotic about the failings of an animal or a machine. The steering in my car has a tendency to pull to the right, but nobody considers that a sin, I expect. 

    As far as I’m concerned “sin” is simply defect considered from the perspective of human vanity. Absent the colossal egotism implied by the notion of the image of god, why romanticize our shortcomings and make them glamorous instead of what they generally are, which is to say, merely stupid? Seems to me even Martin Luther had a pretty good understanding about this, though these days I guess it is left to us atheists to point it out.  

  • Robert

    The idea that sin is passed on genetically goes back to the Fathers. It originated with Tertullian, and was responsible for Cyprian’s – and more famously Augustine’s – appalling idea that as only baptism can wash away the stain of original sin, a newborn baby dying unbaptised goes straight to hell. The idea was – right up to the 19th Century – that the woman incubated the man’s seed, so she didn’t contribute to anything essential. Original sin was passed down in the same way as eye colour or any other physical characteristic, so we were literally born in sin.

  • James F. McGrath

    @160ba3ab72f0e821857f3c6c8ac6b497:disqus , without disagreeing with your point about the history of theology, I’d like to suggest that describing the viewpoint of the Fathers as “genetic” is anachronistic. And so the question I posed in this post remains: how might it be necessary to rethink such traditional theological stances in light of knowledge that we have – such as about genes and DNA – that was not available to the Fathers?