Defining Sin in a Better Way: Shalom Disrupted

In this post, I want to briefly look at the issue of “sin.” It’s a word that many of us feel uncomfortable using as it has been utilized in ways that lean into legalism. With that said, it is a biblical concept so we do well not to simply throw it out.

In order to start this discussion, a brief introduction of creation and the original hope for humanity serves us as helpful. Then, we will jump into the topic of sin.

Creation and Humankind

God creates a functional universe and declares it to be “very good.”  God’s creation project is not static, but designed to flourish with humanity as God’s gardener/image bearers.  Scot McKnight points out that humanity was created as Eikons (image-bearers) to live in four harmonious relationships: to God, others, self, and creation.[1]  Anabaptist and Jewish writers refer to this harmonious, God ordained web of relationships as “shalom.”[2]  N.T. Wright says the following about the earliest humans:

In the early stories, the point was that the Creator loved the world he had made, and wanted to look after it in the best possible way.  To that end, he placed within his world a looking-after creature, a creature who would demonstrate to the creation who he, the Creator, really was, and who would set to work developing the creation and making it flourish and fulfill its purpose.  This looking-after creature (or rather, this family of creatures: the human race) would model and embody that interrelatedness, that mutual fruitful knowing, trusting and loving, which was the Creator’s intention.[3]

Defining Sin within the Context of Shalom

The powers of evil and human rebellion damaged God’s good world, disrupting shalom.  God does not give up on the creation project at this point, which demonstrates his grace toward what he has created.  Humanity walked away from shalom, from the vocation of living as God’s Eikons.  In doing so, the relationship between humanity, the rest of creation, and God, was distorted causing everything to be thrown out of balance.  This is where we find the present state of the world: out of sync with God’s creative purposes.  From this point onward, humanity would not know what it means to exist as fully human, reflecting the glory of their Creator.

Humanity continues to demonstrate their fallen-ness through perpetuating sin. Cornelius Plantinga gives the most helpful definition of sin that I’ve seen:

Sin is disruption of created harmony and then resistance to divine restoration of that harmony….God hates sin not just because it violates his law but, more substantively, because it violates shalom, because it breaks the peace, because it interferes with the way things are supposed to be. (Indeed, that is why God has laws against a good deal of sin.) God is for shalom and therefore against sin. In fact, we may safely describe evil as any spoiling of shalom, whether physically (e.g., by disease), morally, spiritually, or otherwise. Moral and spiritual evil are agential evil – that is, evil that, roughly speaking, only persons can do or have.  Agential evil thus comprises evil acts and dispositions. Sin, then, is any agential evil for which some person (or group of persons) is to blame. In short, sin is culpable shalom-breaking….

“Culpable disturbance of shalom” suggests that sin is unoriginal, that it disrupts something good and harmonious, that (like a housebreaker) it is an intruder, and that those who sin deserve reproach. To get our bearings, we need to see first that sin is one form of evil (an agential and culpable form) and that evil, in turn, is the disruption or disturbance of what God has designed….

In sum, shalom is God’s design for creation and redemption; sin is blamable human vandalism of these great realities and therefore an affront to their architect and builder.[4]*

The cross and resurrection offer freedom from the alienation between the web of relationships known as shalom. Christ’s death and resurrection offer us the opportunity into the life of sanctification – becoming more fully human – so that we can take up our mantle once again as image-bearers (ultimately consummated in the restored creation to come).

What are the benefits of approaching “sin” in this way? How does this affect our understanding of human identity? Preachers: How does this challenge the “gospel” sermons we were taught or grew up with?



[1] Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2008), 68-71 and Scot McKnight, Embracing Grace: A Gospel for All of Us (Brewster MA: Paraclete Press, 2005), 18-19.

[2] See: Bernhard Ott, God’s Shalom Project (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2004).

[3] N.T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, (San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 37.

[4] Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: a Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdman’s,1995), 5, 14, 16. *Thanks to Ted Gossard for posting this quote a couple years back.

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  • http://abnormalanabaptist.wordpress.com/ Robert Martin

    The biggest benefit I see is in that it declares a person, not as worthless and a condemned sinner, but someone who is intrinsically good but has lost their proper sense of place and relationship… there is hope for restoration of who they REALLY are. Everyone is good, everyone is proper, everyone has the potential of being in shalom… and the gospel story then becomes a story that says that Jesus makes it possible to receive shalom again and also to be shalom again.

  • http://sipech.wordpress.com/ Sipech

    For some time I’ve been thinking of “sin” primarily as a noun which describes a state of being and secondarily as a verb whose action embodies that state of being. i.e. “we sin (verb) because we are in a state of sin (noun)” rather than “we sin (verb) which puts us into a state of sin (noun)”. Regarding it is a disrupted shalom would appear to be a rephrasing of this idea. It also seems to fit in better with a christian reworking of the Jewish idea of exile, whereby the gospel is seen as a return from exile, a restoration of shalom.

  • http://dkmz.net/ Timothy Troutner

    The biggest problem I think is how this definition fits within an evolutionary framework. If, as many Christians believe, the universe existed for a long time with death and disruption of shalom, then we need to think of sin before mankind existed, and we need to think of sin not as the distortion of something which previously existed, but non-conformity to what God wants to exist – the restored cosmos, which is to come in the future.

    • http://youtube.com/user/BowmanFarm Brian Bowman

      > this definition fits within an evolutionary framework

      I like how Mennonite theologian Ched Myers reconciles the Genesis mythology of “Original Sin” to the significant findings paleoanthropology has discovered in the last 70 years. He argues that the Neolithic Revolution—which Jared Diamond defines as The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race—was The Fall.

      Ched Myers (2005) The Fall & Anarcho-Primitivism and the Bible. Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature. Edited by Bron Taylor. NY: Continuum.

      • Ken Steckert

        Thanks for the link to Ched Myers. Have you read his book “Binding the Strong Man”? If so, what are thoughts on it?

        • http://youtube.com/user/BowmanFarm Brian Bowman

          Mr. Steckert, I should, I’ve heard that it is good. I did read Myers’ tract on the Parable of the Talents, and it is the only exegesis of that parable I’ve encountered that makes any logical sense—unless Jesus was a JP Morgan Chase bankster shill. ;)

    • http://youtube.com/user/BowmanFarm Brian Bowman

      > the restored cosmos

      That would be nice!

      It’s what I’m trying to do with my farm, by rejecting traditional agriculture, mimicking nature as best I can within the confines of our cultural rules in NW Ohio, and restoring the fertility of the soil.

      But continued degradation of the environment compels me to concede that St. Carlin’s eschatology is probably the most likely: The planet will be here for a long, long, long time after we’re gone, and it will heal itself, it will cleanse itself, ’cause that’s what it does.

      “The death of the spirit is the price of progress.” ~Eric Voegelin (2000) Modernity Without Restraint. University of Missouri, p.195.

  • Y. A. Warren

    I see no problem with approaching sin this way. In fact, this is probably the best pieces on the issue i have seen.

    The problem that I have is with the continued blood sacrifice redemption piece being all about Jesus’ last few days on earth. I understand that great shows of suffering, dying and resurrection were very popular back in the days of Jesus, as they are now.

    This completed overshadows the centuries of preparation the Jewish family that gave birth to Jesus gave in their blood, sweat, and tears to becoming ready for this honor. It also denies the years of careful training Jesus subjected himself to in order to be a rabbi of the New Testament. The sacrifices of his parents, and his life on earth are the true body and blood that is given to show us a new way of Shalom “on earth as it is in heaven.”

    Living in the footsteps of Jesus is the true body and blood sacrifice of each of us, who are brothers and sisters to Jesus, in The Holy Spirit. Heaven begins here, in this life, if we let it.

  • David Westfall

    I see this as a good definition because it helps us get at the question of how Jesus’ incarnation actually engages with the problem of sin in order to resolve it. Though Jesus was never guilty of any “culpable shalom-breaking,” he participated fully in our “vandalized” condition in the flesh, such that his death and resurrection actually deal with and resolve the problem of sin in creatively existence. Only if we recognize that will our talk of his taking our place and receiving our judgment cease to be anything but petty and arbitrary. Jesus saves us because he offers our vandalized condition up to God’s judgment, a judgment revealed both at the cross and at the tomb – both in the excluding of sin and the restoring of new life. The cross doesn’t legally condition an arbitrary god into being merciful – it actually resolves the objective evil that binds the world.