Occasionally I meet someone who tells me that the problem of sin is a problem created by Christians so they can solve the problem!
No less a Christian than Saint Paul points out that sometimes a law will cause me (for the first time!) to have the problem described. Certainly one problem with many a Christian school is that their rules might be the first time that many ever considered the “sinful” nature of a thing. I once was confronted with the sinful nature of Orwell’s 1984 and for the first time as an adult saw it is a sexy book. Why? The person showed me all the naughty bits highlighted and taken out of context. Until then, I had thought of it as an effective anti-communist dystopia.
Though rules or religious beliefs might create some of the problem of sin, I am not at all persuaded it causes all of it. I see no evidence (for example) that cultures where children were raised in official atheism produced “guilt free” societies. The current Kim of Korea was sent to officially atheistic schools and the result has not been promising. He may or may not feel guilty but the rest of us are pretty sure he should.
There is a term for a person who feels no guilt for anything: sociopath. We are going to feel guilt and so what to do about it? First, everyone but the sociopath agrees that offending other people entails repentance and restitution. Second, almost all Americans agree that offending us collectively by evil will require repentance and restitution (“paying your debt to society”). I am even fairly confident that my atheist friends would agree that one can offend “nature” by (for example) throwing battery acid into the ocean for fun. Again, such a person better repent and make restitution.
Certainly it is true that if God does not exist, then you cannot offend Him but God does exist. But what if God does exist and has opinions about morality? Given God’s omniscience and (by definition) absolute goodness, those opinions would matter. If we offend God, good luck demanding to live with Him forever. Eternity is coming (if Christian theism is true) and God has no reason to invite our moral stench against Him into our house.
Only God can forgive our offense against God. The good news is that He did so by coming and experiencing our wretchedness. He understood it fully by experiencing it totally and so learned what it was to be separated from the good, the truth, and beauty. God became man so that God could forgive man.
Like most humans I had a sense of God from youth. When I wanted to forget God, I could not. This is what it is but dealing with falling short of the loveliness I sensed in this God mattered to me. I have rejected many ideas my parents gave me but was not an idea: it fit reality. I could get mad at it (look how mad many anti-theists are!) but that did not help. I was guilty and mad. I could get ignore it but then I was ignoring reality and philosophy taught me never to ignore reality.
And so we come to the story in the New Testament of a man who knew he was wretched. He knew this because he was lamed and guilty. The two things did not go together but in combination produced a burning desire in him to see Jesus and get well. Here is the story from Mark 2: 1-12:
2 When he (Jesus) returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. 2 So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. 3 Then some people[a] came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. 4 And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. 5 When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” 6 Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, 7 “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 8 At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? 9 Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? 10 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— 11 “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” 12 And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”
Jesus started by forgiving His sins. This set off those so narrow religiously they could see through the eye of a needle with both eyes. Jesus made a good point. The smarmy televangelist can “forgive sins” and if careful avoids saying “stand up and walk” because the first is hard to verify and the second is easy. The ultimate grifter can forgive sins and say “Rise up and walk” but not stay in town for long.
A man might totter off his matt for second but picking it up and walking home and staying healed is harder.
Jesus did both. He left the man spiritually and physically healed and nobody had ever seen anything like this.
Mostly we do not either because we are not Jesus. We are not God in flesh and so cannot heal the sin and the sickness that impacts body and soul. We can patch together the soul using psychology (good!) and the body with medicine (good!) but the deeper healing is beyond us. When I stand next to a dying friend I want eternal healing of body and soul. Even the paralytic did not get that yet. He walked but he still had to die. He was forgiven but within the day you can be sure he offended total goodness, absolute truth, and piercing beauty.
This is depressing if it were not for the fact that Jesus is in process of healing us. Our bodies will come last after death when we are finally born into glory. Our souls come first (as they should!) as we are declared forgiven while we are still guilty. The transformation over time of the person we are that will be completed on the other side lasts our entire lives.
Far from creating a “new” problem for me (or others) only Christianity acknowledges that:
I have a sense of a great Other.
I know that great Other is much greater than I am.
I know that I have failed my own standards and any reasonable standards for goodness, truth, and beauty.
I know that this beloved Other would be offended by my failure. I cannot ignore this failure or fix it.
Christianity shows me the solution and accounts for all of this truth while providing time for moral growth.
Jesus knows I am tired, sick, and sinful: body and soul. The healing Jesus gives me now is just a foretaste of the awesomeness to come. He has healed me, is healing me, and will fully heal me.