God Can’t Look Upon Sin? Who Says?

God Can’t Look Upon Sin? Who Says? October 11, 2018
Courtesy of Pixabay

There is this idea floating around Christianity that says God is too holy to look upon sin. It is typically espoused by Calvinists, but it goes well beyond that system of thought: indeed, it has infected nearly every corner of Protestantism, and in the process has done great harm, both psychologically and theologically.

First off, to say that God the Father is too holy to look upon sin is, to my mind, to say that Jesus Christ is not God. No Christian would deny Jesus’ divinity outright—at least no Christian I know would do this—so how could they say that God can’t look upon sin when Jesus explicitly did? Is Jesus not the icon of the Father? Is Jesus not God in human form? From the get-go, Jesus stared sin straight in the face and, if we take the gospels seriously, defeated it; so why is the Father somehow so vastly dissimilar to Jesus when it comes to sin?

I mean, do we not learn anything from the Passion narrative? Just prior to going to the cross for the sins of the Christians—nay, the world—Jesus confronts sin and stares it dead in the eye. Actually, he does more than that. He washes the feet of the one—Judas—who is about to sell him out to the Romans. We typically think of Judas as the worst sinner of all—we love to scapegoat, don’t we?—so why is it that Jesus doesn’t turn his face from Judas? Why, instead, does he include him until the end, even going so far as to bath his dusty-ass feet? Because God isn’t afraid of sin, that’s why. God isn’t too holy to look upon it. In fact, as Jesus shows us, God is too holy to not look upon it.

Case in point: The Cross, the pinnacle moment of Jesus’ life. Here is where Jesus shows us the extent to which God’s love will go. He shows us just how willing God is to look upon the worst of our sins, absorb them, and forgive them. From atop the cross, Jesus—God—gets a bird’s eye view of the world (both figuratively and somewhat literally). And what does he do with this view? Luke 23:34 tells us: He offers forgiveness to all those sinful people who put him there. Who, exactly, are these people? Well, if we take Christian tradition at all seriously, it’s everyone. Everyone is guilty. Everyone is sinful. And everyone is, in spite of this, known by God and offered forgiveness. Indeed, their sins are met, face to face, by God-incarnate, and forever erased from the books, so to speak.

Honestly, how can we say that God both forgives sins and is too holy to look upon them? That makes zero sense to me. How can we say that our sins are done away with unless they are actually met by the one who does away with them? We can’t have it both ways: that God can’t look upon sin and that God also forgives sin. Either God can look upon sin and then forgives sin, or he can’t look upon sin and thus can’t offer real forgiveness. To forgive something is to meet it head on with grace and mercy.

This detrimental view that God can’t look upon sin goes beyond the theological, however. When we take on this view, we tend to shun those whom we call “sinful.” After all, it is pretty obvious that our theology infects our sociology and anthropology. In other words, we tend to act like the God or gods we believe in. Suffice it to say that if we think God can’t look upon sin, we tend to act accordingly: we judge the so-called sinful and turn away from them. Just ask the LGBTQ+ community. When it comes to these folks, we typically call them sinful and then either kick them out of our churches or, worse yet, out of our very homes. It’s strikingly sad, to be perfectly honest with you, and I’m ashamed that we do such things.

That is why this is yet another view that needs to get erased from our doctrine of God. God is the one who goes looking for the sinners; we are the ones who hide in shame. Is this point not clearly made in Genesis 3? When Adam and Eve “sin,” are they not the ones who hide and is God not the one who comes searching for them? I know you know the answer. Further, in the Prodigal Son story, is the father not the one who comes running down the lane to greet his sinful son? Assuredly, he is. That’s the point: God is like the father in the story. God comes running to us, even when we’ve completely gone off the rails.

We should be thankful that God is not like we typically say. God is good and in spite of us not being so good, in spite of our sin, he always comes seeking after us. He’s not afraid of our sin. He’s not somehow so small that he can’t deal with it either. So, let’s stop projecting our fear and shame onto the divine, and instead, start allowing God to be God. Trust me, God can handle things, even sin.


Matthew J. Distefano is the author of 4 books and co-hosts the Heretic Happy Hour (iTunes and PodBean). He lives in Chico, Ca with his wife and daughter. You can read more about the author here.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • TinnyWhistler

    It only makes sense if you believe that Jesus is somewhat more separate from God than most Trinity theology teaches. I’ve been told over and over that it’s against God’s “nature” to look upon sin. That’s the can’t: in his nature. However, “nature” is precisely what is common among the trinity! One Nature, three Persons! If you want to separate out what a particular Person of God “won’t” do, fine go ahead. I don’t care. But I don’t know how you’d argue that what God can or “can’t” do isn’t tied to Nature, and thus must be common among all three.

    I think this comes out of Jesus asking why God’d forsaken Him. The line goes: Jesus took upon the sins of the world, was crucified, and claimed that God forsook him. Either Jesus was lying or mistaken (unlikely if Jesus is God) or God actually forsook him. Thus, if God forsook even Christ on the cross because of that sin Jesus took upon himself, it must be the sin that’s the important thing here, the thing keeping God from being there.

    Just don’t ask questions about how John would have been allowed by the Roman guards to get close enough to the execution cross of a state prisoner to hear all that. It’s a mystery!

  • God forsook him? Yes, Jesus quotes Psalm 22, but, given that everyone would have known that Psalm and the way it ends (namely that God doesn’t forsake the psalter) and the fact that it’s kinda hard to quote Scripture when you’re dying from asphyxiation, I think we can easily conclude that God didn’t actually forsake Jesus and that Jesus wasn’t wrong to quote the first part of Psalm 22.

  • TinnyWhistler

    “it’s kinda hard to quote Scripture when you’re dying from asphyxiation”
    Dilemma: Is it hard enough to quote scripture while asphyxiating that John’s claim of Jesus saying this “in a loud voice” doesn’t pass the sniff test?

    Anyway, this is just the reasoning I was given for the whole “turn away” thing.

  • Can you unpack that for me?

  • SkyknightXi

    The idea seems to stem from the first part of Habakkuk 1:13. King James Version goes: “Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity”. Thing is, that isn’t even the whole verse. The whole thing is “Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity: wherefore lookest thou upon them that deal treacherously, and holdest thy tongue when the wicked devoureth the man that is more righteous than he?”.

    In other words, Habakkuk is upset that someone whose very essence means he shouldn’t have to look upon wickedness without smiting it, is doing precisely that! The Message is more blunt:

    But you can’t be serious!
    You can’t condone evil!
    So why don’t you do something about this?
    Why are you silent now?
    This outrage! Evil men swallow up the righteous
    and you stand around and watch!

    Habakkuk 2 onwards is Yhvh’s promise that he’s not going to let this go on forever, in any case. I can understand why Habakkuk is so upset that nothing’s being done at that very moment, though.

  • While Evangelicals often say that “a text without a context is a pretext”, their theology often bases things on ripped out of context verses.

  • A while back, a Twitter follower shared this video comparing the Orthodox and penal substitutionary views of atonement:

    While I was not raised Calvinist, I *was* raised Fundamentalist. (Pentecostal, to be precise; Calvinism is not big among Pentecostals, who lean Arminian.) Still, the view that God can’t look upon sin is there as well.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    What is repeatedly a theme in the Bible, however, is that sin can’t look upon God. I would say it is perfectly true that sin creates an impassable barrier between man and God, but the problem is at our end, not God’s. Jesus breaches the barrier we create against God, not any barrier God creates against us.

  • The Mouse Avenger

    This is the kind of article that everyone–Christian & otherwise–should read. 🙂

  • TinnyWhistler

    It’s generally accepted that asphyxiation is how crucifixion actually kills. It’s pretty hard to talk while one is dying of asphyxiation since by definition you don’t have the air to do so. It’s harder to talk loudly. John says that when Jesus cried out to God he did so in a loud voice. Setting aside the question of whether it was likely that friends and family were allowed to be close to the cross, would Jesus have physically been able to shout *anything*

    Is it generally accepted that Jesus somehow managed to muster up the leg strength and lung capacity the horrific day he’d had to shout physically or is it assumed that he managed it through supernatural means?

  • Oh, I don’t take everything literally. All the gospel writers had theological points they wanted to make, and made them even if they had to fudge the events a bit.

  • David

    The writer should at least quote and engage Habakkuk 1: 3 “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?”.

  • John Gills

    Cannot look upon sin? So, how else, then, does one explain the flood?

  • Jocelyn Newton

    I am from the LGBTQ community and also a former member of a very exclusive and fundamental sect of Christianity. I was contemplating similar thoughts just the other day. Jesus didn’t push His chair back and refuse to eat with Judas. He didn’t demand Judas “to be put out of fellowship.” Judas, considered to be the worst sinner possible for betraying Jesus, yet Jesus dipped His hand into the same bowl and at the same time as Judas. So how is it that CHRISTIANS think it’s their responsibility to put away from the Lord’s Table LGBTQ people? Jesus invites people to remember Him in His death. Isn’t it OUR responsibility to make sure our hearts are pure before God and remember His Son in His death as HE requested that we do? Just wondering.

  • Kate Johnson

    God’s behavior has never been determined or controlled by our behavior. That’s ludicrous on it’s face. God’s faithfulness is perfect.