Broadly speaking, the Biblical concept of “Sin” is viewed in a legal-ish way by both people outside and within the Church. According to Meriam Webster, the modern English word “Sin” is defined as “an offense against religious or moral law.” However, this might not be the explanation of the concept. After all, in the Bible, there are several stories about people struggling with Sin before God introduces a single Moral Law. The existence of these stories could suggest that modern Christendom may have an incomplete view of what Sin is.
Sin Without Law
Nestled neatly inside the fourth chapter of Genesis is a short story about two brothers, a murderer, and a hungry beast—the story of Cain and Able, a classic tale as old as time. According to the text, Cain harbors malice against his brother Able. He allows his ill-intentioned feelings to fester and grow within him. Seeing the potential problem, God visits Cain and tells him that Sin is at his doorstep, looking to devour him. Cain refuses to listen to the warning and ends up murdering his brother.
The fact that God describes Cain’s murder as a sin is very peculiar, in light of the fact humanity had not yet received the decree “thou shalt not murder.” In fact, the book of Genesis covers thousands of years of human existence, and throughout that time, God does not provide humanity with a single moral rule. Yet, time and again, the moral failings of the people in Genesis are described as Sins.
Although we do Sin when we break God’s laws and commands, the modern definition does not fit the depiction of Sin in the first book of the Bible. So what’s going on? How is it that people can commit Sin without a list of divine commands?
Well, one idea that has proven extremely popular for about a thousand years now argues that the commandments are based upon moral principles, God wove into the very fabric of humanity.
The Natural Law
In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas wrote a book about a little idea called Natural Law Theory. Although initially received with skepticism, it quickly became one of the most influential philosophical works in Christian history. In his theory, Aquinas claimed that God created the world to function in a certain way and in accordance to certain principles. These principles are understood intuitively and can be further explored using our God-given ability to reason.
A quick example could be our need for companionship. We are social creatures designed to live in large or small communities. From that starting point, we can logically conclude that murder and theft are wrong. After all, those actions inhibit our ability to live in social groups. Aquinas believed that people can intuitively know the Natural Law and that Biblical education is not necessary to understand the fundamental principles of morality.
The Founding Fathers and Natural Law
Interestingly enough, the USA’s founding fathers agree with Aquinas on this point. According to them, the ideas that “all men are created equal” and have the rights to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” are fundamental truths that are “self-evident.” In other words, the reality of their existence can be seen by simply observing the world. No theoretical math or logical proofs required. Just look around, and you’ll see them at work in the world.
Paul and Natural Law
Paul was another proponent of this general idea, whose writing profoundly impacted the thinking of people like Aquinas.
“For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”– Romans 2:12-16
The Hebrew Word For Sin
Unlike today, when the Biblical authors chose a word to describe the concept of “Sin,” they didn’t pick one that explicitly describes religious violations. In the original Hebrew, the word we typically translate as “Sin” is “Khata,” which means to miss or fail. For example, Judges 20:16, says.
“Among all these soldiers there were seven hundred select troops who were left-handed, each of whom could sling a stone at a hair and not miss (or, “and not Khata”)”.
When we think about Sin as a failure to hit a target, God’s conversation with Cain suddenly begins to make more sense. What was Cain failing to do? What target was he missing? Well, the answer to this question can actually be found in the second chapter of Genesis.
So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” – Genesis 1:27-28
Images of God
Humanity was created to be a representation or “the image” of God on earth. In other words, we are designed to fulfill a function, to be his representative rulers.
In the ancient world, this was an extraordinary concept. Most people back in the day believed they had been made to bring creation to the gods. They gave daily or annual tributes of food to their idols in order to fulfill this role. However, the Bible has a very different perspective of our purpose; in the Biblical text, humanity is made to bring God to creation. To be his representatives here in physical reality.
Consequently, by choosing to kill his brother, Cain abandoned the target God intended him to hit and decided to aim his life down a path of his own imagination. By failing to be an accurate representation of God, he found himself lost in a place of fear and isolation, a world he was not designed to exist in.
Should We Rethink The Popular Definition of Sin?
Like Cain, we aren’t merely breaking an arbitrary or important rule when we Sin. On the contrary, when we miss the moral target, we fail to be truly human. Were like a tree that refuses to drop its leaves in the autumn. Or a stray dog with a fatal disease that makes it fearful of life-giving water. By missing the moral targets, we were created to aim towards; we become broken images, incapable of fulfilling the purpose of our creation. Consequently, we may want to rethink the popular definition of the word Sin.