Whatever Happened to Sin?

For very practical reasons, I favor letting go of sin as the umbrella description for the human problem - Marcus Borg

In an interesting series of articles, Byron Barlowe, Editor/Webmaster, Leadership University, writes: According to Barna Research Online, "Four out of every ten adults (40%) attend a church service on a typical Sunday. That figure is a significant decline from the early Nineties, when close to half of all adults were found in churches on Sunday...." Not surprisingly, attitudes toward sin seem to have changed and it has become less common--even laughable--as a topic. Do we really still believe in sin or are there psychological and emotional causes to behavior that mitigate our so-called guilt? Of course, the belief system of the atheist doesn't even allow for sin. And, if people are simply products of their environment, as behaviorists/determinists believe, then what point is there in discussing one's culpability for transgressing moral law? After all, as the relativist/Postmodern would ask, "Who's version of 'truth' or morality shall we hold people to?"

Marcus Borg in The Heart of Christianity believes that although “Disobeying God’s laws” is the most popular meaning of ‘sin’ there are other more important meanings and we should perhaps use multiple images to speak about what is wrong in our societies. For example, he indicates that some of us are blind to the needs and feelings of others, some like the Virginia Tech shooter are in exile, some in Dafur are in bondage. Many of us have closed hearts; we hunger and thirst for new houses or new cars; we are lost in our careers or in our relationships.

Borg believes that each image of sin implies a different solution. Unfortunately with the common understanding of ‘sin’ the solution becomes ‘forgiveness’. But if we’re blind, we need sight, not forgiveness. If we are enslaved, we need liberation, not forgiveness. If we have closed hearts, we need to have our hearts opened, not forgiveness for having closed hearts. Although ‘sin’ is often involved in our human condition, our sad state is not always because of our deeds. Closed hearts are a natural, inevitable result of growing up. We can be in bondage through no fault of our own. Even stronger: we cannot avoid bondage itself, exile, blindness, or developing closed hearts. The message of ‘sin and forgiveness’ doesn’t address these problems well. The use of the word ‘sin’ today usually focuses on an individual’s actions and obscures the reality of ‘social sin’ — much of human suffering and misery is due to collective sin, the political systems of our world. Borg emphasizes that we need to enrich our understanding of the condition from which we need deliverance.

Is 'sin' the best way to name things which may be wrong in the world or is the word too loaded with misunderstanding to be useful?

Posted April 21, 2007


Tom Nimick said...

I am going to reject the definitions offered in the initial comments. I think that sin is not about “law” or “rules”. Indeed it is none of things you mentioned. At its most fundamental, sin is the rejection of God, or rather asserting that I am sovereign over God in my own life. The solution is repentance, not forgiveness.

We are called to acknowledge God as God. Then that leads to seeing the world as God sees it, and treating others as God revealed in Jesus would treat them.

As far as the ills in society, there is another issue. The essence of our freedom is that our decisions are allowed to have consequences, although the act of resurrection affirms that the consequences are not ultimate. God remains sovereign and that sovereignty is expressed in redemption rather than in control.

Tom Nimick

Looking in the Distance said...

Tom writes: "Indeed it is none of things "you" mentioned."

Hi Tom: Just to correct the record - the introductory comments in this blog thread are quotes from two sources (Byron Barlowe and Marcus Borg) and do not necessarily represent the views of the blog author.

Helen Wright said...

As I understand it the Greek word ‘hamartia’ is translated as ‘sin’. Hamartia is apparently an archery term which means missing the mark or the target. If I use this for a definition of sin then it seems to fit a variety of situations which is where I think Borg is trying to go.

For example, if I know there are hungry people in Dafur and I take no action, such as writing a letter to my congressman or continually sending money to a relief charity, then I have ‘missed the mark’. If I hear racist language on TV and just turn the TV off without making my objection known directly to the TV station, I have ‘missed the mark’.

I think I agree with the underlying premise of this thread that the word “sin” has lost all utility for use in everyday conversation. It’s a bit like the word “liberal” – it gives the sense of something extreme when indeed there is nothing extreme in either of these words.

I can freely talk to my believing and non-believing friends about any topic that I feel is wrong and use the terminology ‘missing the mark’ without shutting the conversation down. Indeed many of them will agree with me on what we have missed the mark on. But if I introduce the word “sin” into the conversation communication dies away and the subject gets changed quite quickly!


James Carnaghan said...


A minor point and then my major point.

I think it is better to use the term atheist to describe people like me who are non-believing as you phrased it. That way I think it helps us to respect each others' beliefs. I am a believer but not a believer in a God. I probably believe in many of the same things that you do such as loving one's neighbour etc.

Now to my main point which is to agree with you on the conversation stopping effects of using the word sin (or salvation, or repentance, or born again) in a conversation with the public at large.

I once was in a group of French people who realized that I was not French and they immediately switched into English. That was very courteous and I have never forgotten it. I can't speak a word of French but I felt right at home in the conversation.

This is an example that we all should follow. For example, I think that when Christians are meeting in a group with other people who are known to be Christian it is quite appropriate for them to use Christian language and use words such as "sin". But, just like the French group, when a stranger enters the conversation such Christian language should be dropped in favor of that which is commonly employed by everyone and with which everyone is comfortable. Regrettably, some Christians do not do this and take a holier than thou approach which does not help the consideration of their points of view within the more secular segments of our society. Christians while preaching humility should not practice arrogance.

In the lead post Byron Barlow is quoted as saying that "the belief system of the atheist doesn't even allow for sin". Well he is correct in one aspect that I don't recognize or use the word "sin" but atheists do have a very strong moral code about right and wrong. I agree that the situation mentioned in Dafur is "wrong". I agree that the Virginia shooter should be understood as a person who was ill and not be vilified in death and so on.

Thus my answer to the question: "Is 'sin' the best way to name things which may be wrong in the world or is the word too loaded with misunderstanding to be useful?" is that the word is much too loaded.


Vincent Hall said...

I agree that the word “sin” has been trivialized to mean breaking God’s rules. But so has the word “salvation” which has been trivialized to mean something about individuals “going to heaven”. And the word “repentance” has been trivialized to become personal guilt.

Some random thoughts - not very well thought through I admit but anyway .....

I like the concept of “missing the mark” instead of “sin” and I would suggest that the word “healing” be used instead of “salvation” and “repentance” be replaced with something like “changing one’s direction”.

Consider this: Christians need to discourage hip-hop music – we discussed this under the nappy-headed ho thread. But Christians are never going to be taken seriously if they talk to the media as follows:

Hip-hop music is sinful and the record companies promoting it need to repent and seek salvation.

Better I think would be:

Hip-hop music misses the mark with respect to the dignity of black women and the record companies that promote it need to change direction and produce music that seeks to heal minority communities.


Derek Bell said...

I’m not sure that ‘missing the mark’ does it for me but I do agree with the general thrust of this thread that the ‘sin’ word is too loaded for use in the common vernacular.

To me ‘personal sin’ is a selfish state of mind arising from one’s wrong desires and I would also define ‘government sin’ in the same way i.e. selfish laws and policies.

I think the word ‘selfish’ or ‘selfishness’ captures the problem and could be used instead. For example one can quite easily substitute the word 'selfish' for 'sinful' in the statement - "It is sinful of this generation to pass the cost of the war in Iraq on to the next generation"

D. Bell

Peter said...

Vinny - you are correct to bring in salvation and repentance to this discussion both of which I think have also become loaded terms.

Salvation always seems to be associated with heaven and who is going to get there. I can tell you that in Ireland that appears to be the only understanding of the word. Common questions here are "Have you been saved?" or "Where will you spend eternity?" as if I or anyone else knew!

I see 'salvation' in the same way as you do. It is something to be done here and now to heal (your word) the wrongs (Jim's word)of the world as it is today. Maybe doing so has some meaning in terms of the two questions that frame the discussion here in N. Ireland - I don't know.

Jim, I think that you do not see healing wrongs in terms of paying some ticket to a comfortable place after death. The only difference between you and me is that you don't accept the possibility of an afterlife and I don't worry about what the afterlife might entail. I guess that what all of this means is that we are basically talking about the same things and we need to develop some common unloaded language to allow us to come together from whatever belief system to work on the problems that are so obvious all around us.

When we die together we will have left the earth [or just to be a little loaded - God's earth ;-)] a little better than we found it.

Take care,

Megan Zamprelli said...

Peter, I don't see why if you believe in an afterlife what you mean by saying that you don't "worry" about it.

Do you mean that you don't think about it? If so why don't you? Why hold a concept to which you give no thought? I don't get where "worry" is involved here.


Peter said...


I guess my use of the word ‘worry’ was a poor one. I did indeed mean that I don’t ‘think’ about the afterlife.

You asked why not. I guess I think about it not it terms of what it might be but it terms of what it might not be. That sounds a bit complicated but look at it this way.

Will I have my present body? I hope not since it daily becomes a bit more creaky.

Will I just have my consciousness? Perhaps, but then will it be my present consciousness with all the bad thoughts that it contains right now or some purified form of consciousness?

What will I do all the time? Is there any such concept of time after death? Can I even use the word “I” since if “I” am united with God in heaven how can “I” still be a separate consciousness.

And so on and so on.

The bottom line is that everything I think of that heaven ‘might be’ I can think of reasons why it ‘won’t be’ that way. So it becomes an exercise of futility and maybe that is the way that I am intended to wrestle with it.

I came here out of nothingness and I shall return to nothingness and as I see it God has taken care of everything quite satisfactorily so far so I am content not to ‘worry’ or ‘think’ about the nothingness to which I eventually shall return.

Take care,

Elizabeth Murray said...

Hi Peter – I could say the same thing that I came out of nothingness and I shall return to nothingness and as I see it 'Physics' has taken care of everything quite satisfactorily so far so I am content not to ‘worry’ or ‘think’ about the nothingness to which I shortly shall return.

What is the difference between your position as a Christian and mine as a Secular Humanist?

Reason rules!

Peter said...


The only difference is in where we stop in our points of view. You stop at physics while I feel that beyond physics is a Creator.

There are two stories of how the universe came to be here. One is a ‘big bang’ out of nothingness and physics can tell us nothing of what was before the ‘big bang’. The other story is that it was created by some ‘intelligence’ (for want of a better word) that is superior in intelligence to me as a human.

Let me explain it this way. I am more ‘conscious’ that say a horse and a horse is more ‘conscious’ than a moth. I can understand algebra, while a horse and a moth can not. Like me a horse might share feelings of companionship while a moth can not.

Now what if we look at ourselves from the perspective of the moth. If I consider myself to be the ‘moth’ then what ‘consciousness’ lies beyond mine that I can not possibly comprehend? Consciousness seems to be coming alive in the universe and humans have an infinitely small amount of it. In my thinking “God” is the ultimate, the eternal, the infinite consciousness.

So I guess my world view involves the ‘spirit’ or the ‘consciousness’ and your’s involves the ‘material’. But who is correct? I don’t know but what I do know is that the ‘consiousness’ paradigm that I work with gives me a better sense of who I am that the physical or material one.

Sorry to ramble on and I hope I didn’t totally confuse.

Take care,

Michael N. Hull said...


Your moth comment reminded me of the following quote I read in an interesting article


The quote was:

While I was sitting one night with a poet friend watching a great opera performed in a tent under arc lights, the poet took my arm and pointed silently. Far up, blundering out of the night, a huge Cecropia moth swept past from light to light over the posturings of the actors. “He doesn’t know,” my friend whispered excitedly. “He’s passing through an alien universe brightly lit but invisible to him. He’s in another play; he doesn’t see us. He doesn’t know. Maybe it’s happening right now to us.” — Loren Eiseley

We may indeed be 'moths' flying through a great play of which we know nothing.


Elizabeth Murray said...

Peter - I hope I am not getting too far off the topic track here re 'sin' but ..... you say that physics can say nothing about what came before the big bang. Also that I stop at physics but you go beyond physics to a Creator.

I would then ask you if an 'intelligence' (using your word) created the universe, who or what created the creator? Or if you stop at a Creator and not physics, what is beyond the Creator?

Reason rules!

Looking in the Distance said...

Hi Elizabeth and Peter:

As moderator of this blog I see that there is an interest in discussing questions concerning the origin of the universe etc.

I'll start a new thread on this topic in a couple of days using the book "The Case for A Creator" by Lee Strobel.

So if you want to hold off on detailed comments you can pick it up in the next thread.

Peter said...

Re a new thread on "The Case for A Creator" - great idea!

Just to answer Liz's last question ...

Liz, one only need to ask the question "what or who created that?" if the object of the question had a beginning.

If the Creator is eternal (no beginning and no end) then the question of who created the creator can not be asked.

Looking forward to continuing this discussion with you on the next thread.

Take care,

Derek Bell said...

In the link provided with the main post I read the Garry Nation article which I found to give an interesting angle on the question of ‘sin’ or ‘missing the mark’.

I disagree with about 90% of it but he did get me thinking with his ‘four divisions of fools’ where he divides people who are wronging themselves or others into four categories of fool but defines the word fool in an interesting way.

According to Nation, humanists think of ‘sin’ not it terms of ‘missing the mark’ but in terms of a "disease" or a ‘dysfunction’ model. Peoples' problems are illnesses that can be cured by the right medicine or therapy. Human problems are essentially "dysfunctions”. The very word "dysfunction" seems to suggest a mechanical difficulty, which can be fixed by an expert technician in human behavior.

Nation feels that the Bible takes a more realistic, moral approach to human problems where it uses the word ‘folly’. It asserts that the true crisis we face is not because of economics, or health, or politics, or education. The ultimate responsibility for social order is personal and individual. Disorder in society is a symptom of a crisis of character.

He then points out that the English word "fool" translates several Hebrew words used widely in the Old Testament for individuals who are lacking in moral character. A fool is not someone who is silly or unintelligent, but one who is unwise. The Hebrew words for fool do not all mean exactly the same thing. They have very different shades of meaning. In fact, they indicate at least four progressive stages or degrees of moral and spiritual problems.

The first degree he calls the naive fool. This is folly in its latent stage. The Hebrew word pethi (pe-THEE) comes from a root meaning to be open, spacious, and wide - an "airhead" - we're dealing with someone who is immature, who lacks the judgment and discernment that should come with experience. He is easily enticed, gullible. This makes him easy prey for those who would take advantage of him or lead him astray into virtually any kind of wrong action.

The second degree is the self-confident fool. The Hebrew term kesil (ke-SEEL) suggests someone who is full of himself. Like the simple one, he is inclined to make the wrong moral choices, but even more so. The Naive Fool might stumble into a disastrous setup. The Self-Confident Fool will swagger in, convinced that he is the master of the situation.

The third degree is the committed fool. The Hebrew 'evil (eh-VEEL) describes the full-fledged fool. He or she has decisively rejected wisdom, and has made a decisive commitment to rebellious ideas and destructive behaviors. The committed fool is at war with wisdom. He shows it in his haughty attitude to the beliefs of others.

The fourth degree is the scorner. The Hebrew luts (rhymes with "boots") is a scoffer, a contemptuous person, a mocker who scorns spiritual truth.

Much of the article I have no understanding of or agreement with but I thought the Hebrew derivations were somewhat interesting. The thing that triggered my imagination was having read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins one could see instantly into what category Nation would place Dawkins and also as someone who has enjoyed Bill Maher’s comedy at times I do wish he would refrain from ‘fourth degree’ comments such as I read here ....


D. Bell

Duncan Clemens said...

I’ve been quietly reading all of the links and your comments, all of which I have found very interesting. You each have very interesting perspectives and I learn a lot.

Frankly, I am not an expert on any aspect of theology but I think ‘missing the mark’ seems to be the best way that we should talk about ‘sin’. I like it as it is gentle and less judgmental.

Further, I agree it might be better that the word sin was dropped from our weekday language in the secular world. I see from the link to the articles that you provided in the main post, Heather Williams used this terminology in the article ‘Overhaul at Stanford’.

As she says “sin is not a very popular word around campus. Every time I use it I get uncomfortable silence from my fellow students. It is also an affront to most people I meet. Once I bring sin into the conversation, I am relegated to the "conservative Christian" category. I am seen as judgmental, intolerant, and incompatible with open-minded multiculturalism”.

She adds that in her world view, “sin is defined as "missing the mark," imperfection, or perhaps better, weakness”.

That’s an additional interesting twist on the word which I also like!

“We are weak, and, in our weakness, we sin against each other by our pride, our selfishness, our lovelessness.”

Then she goes on to point out how the dominant world view at Stanford university did not allow for moral or personal weakness.

“I am a Stanford student, everyone reminds me. Stanford -- the Harvard of the West, the Disneyland of the North -- producing hundreds of world leaders every June. Here at Stanford, we are passionate about making the world a better place, bringing all our strengths to bear in making it perfect. "You can make a difference!" "The power lies within!" These are the mottoes that we hear and by which we live our everyday lives. To need salvation is to admit defeat.”

One friend said to her, "I don't understand how someone as intelligent as you can buy into all this sin and forgiveness jargon." She replied “I don't understand how we can function in this world without it.”

I think this young woman will be able to handle herself well with whatever the future holds for her!


Helen Wright said...

While we are on the subject of religious terminology that stifles conversation in the secular world we should add the word “evangelism”!

My list now includes sin, salvation, born again, repentance, and evangelism.

Unfortunately all of these terms have become associated with negative aspects of Christian fundamentalism and those of us who are more in the moderate reformed tradition need to think carefully about how to present the more uplifting and positive facets of our belief system.


Duncan Clemens said...

Hi Helen

Good point re 'evangelism'.

So as I see it we could make the following suggested substitutions which I have picked up from reading this this and the earlier threads:

Sin ........... missing the mark
Salvation ..... healing
Born again .... taking a new path
Repentance .... turning back
Evangelism .... reaching out

Any comments?