Tag Archives: sin

Sin: A Theology of Death

Why do people die?” It’s a question all must inevitably confront, and, if we are to live without paralyzing anxiety, a question all must paradoxically embrace and transcend. To pretend to know the answer to this question of why anything exists then ceases to exist is to perpetuate our enslavement to what Peter Enns calls ‘the sin of certainty.’ Obviously, we can never know why we die, only that we do in fact die. However, to ask this unanswerable question is crucial in learning to live beyond it. For all its virtue, the Christian Church has largely failed to accept this notion. Christianity has historically attempted to solve the mystery of our dying by conflating sin and death—just look at the theology of substitutionary atonement. This is largely rooted in particular Christologies that embrace the doctrine of original sin to a dehumanizing extreme. It’s crucial, then, that this outdated paradigm for understanding our finitude be deconstructed and provided with a more expansive alternative.

In confronting the absurdity of our questions we begin to wake up to better questions. To ask, “Why is there something instead of nothing?” is a sort of prerequisite to ask the more pressing question: “What do I do with this one life I’ve been given?” In the same way, to ask, “Was Jesus truly the Son of God, the Messiah that the ancient Jews eagerly awaited?” is to discover the deeper and more imminent question that Amma the Hugging Saint most profoundly posed: “The question is not if there is a God, but if there is suffering.” In learning to ask the latter, one can devote themselves to alleviate the sorrows of the world without needing to answer an impossible question about the divine nature of Jesus. As Chris Stedman, assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, writes, “The ability to act selflessly for others transcends religion.” What he points out is that activism is not contingent on belief. Sure, it informs the way we act in the world, but it doesn’t presuppose our ability to act. That notion is just used to trap non-theists in religious prejudice. Secular humanists arrive at this basic notion more naturally than even the most progressive Christians do. Faith is clearly learning to live without knowing, and until the Church embraces that, it will continue to perpetuate damaging theologies that attempt to provide firm answers to the fundamental mysteries and tragedies of life.

The question, “Why do people die?” is not a question of imminent significance—a better question might be, “We’re all going to die, so what do we do in light of this?” Unlike the former question, this is one that can indeed be answered because it doesn’t hinge on objective truth. Here, we could explore the infinite responses to this simple question from the diverse perspectives of every world religion and nonreligious philosophy, and they would all be subjectively right for the sheer reason that there is no singular “right” answer. But for our purposes, we turn to the Christian perspective as a starting place.

Paul famously said, “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23 NRSV), but let’s ponder that for a moment. Is death actually related to human sin? If so, the implicit corollary is that sin is somehow related to deaths that are not clearly related to human sinfulness (e.g., the death of an infant or the assassination of Gandhi). What’s clear is that people need to have the ubiquity of human suffering acknowledged theologically, and perhaps this is in large part why the doctrine of original sin exists in the first place. But the Church would do well to tread carefully here because such sin-based Christianity is so concerned with explaining suffering through original sin that often it forces the justification of such suffering. Stanley Hauerwas thoroughly explains why this is problematic: “If we try to attribute these terrible results to God’s secret providence, that cannot help but make God at best a tyrant and at worst a cosmic torturer. What we must finally do in the face of… suffering…is to show the patience that does not try to discern any ‘purpose’ behind suffering, but without in any way caring less for [ourselves and others].” [3] Death is tragic, but it’s not a result of sin. That’s a crucial distinction. If this isn’t recognized, the Church is in real danger of disenfranchising those who suffer against their own will and lose the people they most dearly love. We will, in short, explicitly or covertly blame them for their adversities. It’s of incredible importance, then, that death is acknowledged as a phenomenon built into creation, but not synonymous with sin.

So what’s the alternative? How can Christianity inform the way we live in light of our death? What does Christianity have to offer us as finite creatures on a tiny rock of finite resources hurtling around an inhospitable void? It is, in its stark simplicity, Christ. Of course, for some, Christ has been so minimized that those seeking a more expansive worldview have rejected him entirely. Often one of the negative consequences of the doctrine of original sin is violent atonement theologies that are often used to say one’s suffering can be redemptive. This is dangerous and bad theology. Jesus’ act of redemption was a once-and-for-all act and none of us are called to replicate that in our suffering. The search for meaning-making out of suffering is an important one, but it is never appropriate from a third party perspective to impose upon another person a redemptive value to their suffering.

What the Church of the twenty first century needs is to move away an a priori reading of reality and reconceive of a cosmic Christ. Most of religion is ideological; it operates from a top-down model of God that is stuck in the pre-Copernican cosmology of a three-tiered universe. But what if Jesus came to enhance our humanity, to point us to a larger reality of God, and not as a one-time phenomenon, but as a manifestation of the Word (the “cosmic Christ”) that has always been right there in front of us waiting to be seen? This would enable us to see God in the ordinary and to honor God in “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40 NRSV). Jesus could become, for us, the doorway to perceive everything as shot through with the glory of God, to see that every bush is burning and always has been. Teilhard de Chardin said, “Everything that rises must converge,”[4] meaning that greater consciousness and greater evolution is always a step towards greater unity. This Jesus transforms our psyche, expands our consciousness, and invites us to draw closer to one another, to be more deeply and fully human, not to atone for some unforgivable, inherited sinfulness. Until we conceive of this cosmic Christ, Christians will continue to conflate sin with death, sin with disability, sin with miscarriage, sin with chronic illness, and sin, quite frankly, with life, thereby perpetuating the disenfranchisement of those who so painfully endure suffering against their own volition. 

[1] This is a phrase that Peter Enns coins in his book The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs (New York: HarperCollins, 2016). It is used to describe the evangelical tendency to retain theological certitude at all costs when the Spirit may be inviting us, through our questions and doubts, into a richer faith with greater spiritual depth. Insisting upon the order that we were fed in the earliest stages of our faith journeys makes us love order; it does not make us love Jesus.  
[2] Chris Stedman. Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious (Boston: Beacon Press, 2012), 109.
[3] Stanley Hauerwas. God, Medicine, and Suffering. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 89.
[4] From Teilhard’s essay “Omega Point” in which he lays out his theory of cosmogenesis, or evolution of the world. For Teilhard, the universe is in a state of progression in which human consciousness and evolution will ultimately converge, reaching its cosmic apex with the Omega Point, the Logos that was revealed through Christ. Some argue that his cosmogenesis errs dangerously close to transhumanism and the idea that prioritizing longevity of life through biotechnology is the real source of our salvation, but this is taking his theory to an extreme. Teilhard articulates a panentheistic reality in which Christ “comes again” whenever we are able to perceive the spiritual through the material world.