What is Sin?
When I hear Christians talk about sin these days, I admit, I find myself baffled. I suppose this is because, while I am still a Christian in many ways, I don’t think about life in terms of what is sinful and what isn’t. I don’t believe in an Atonement, a miraculous sacrifice made by a half-God (or full God) for the redemption of all mankind. I don’t experience God as someone who can cleanse me of my mistakes and allow me to move forward because He paid the price for them. Rather, I carry my mistakes with me and remember them because they are part of me and the lessons I have learned. I’m not sure I believe I as an individual or our country or any group I’m part of can be freed from the consequences of our sins simply because we ask to be or because we want to be. Cultures continue to pay for the sins of their ancestors because we continue to benefit from those sins (and also to suffer for them) and all we can do is try to be better.
But this isn’t the way that I once thought. And I know that talking this way both baffles and offends those who truly believe in the miraculous gift of the Atonement by Jesus Christ. When I say I don’t believe in sin, let me clarify here that I am not saying that I think I don’t make mistakes. I believe that I make mistakes. I believe that everyone makes mistakes. But I don’t believe in a special category of mistakes that I would call “sins,” either because of their gravity or because of the foreknowledge that some have of how grave these mistakes are.
It’s true that I don’t believe in “Satan” as either a real force or person in the world. I don’t believe in demons. I only believe in people. I don’t really believe in “evil,” either, except as a way to talk about very, very terrible mistakes. I don’t believe that some people are “evil” and that other people are “good.” I don’t believe in a categorical difference between me and the worst person on death row. I believe that they made a human mistake, and that it is a mistake that I could have made, in different circumstances than the ones I am currently in.
I believe that some people are given certain capacities by virtue of their genetics and their environment and that those shape those people into ones who do the actions they do, both good and bad. I believe that all of us are some combination of good and bad (whatever those abstract ideas are). I believe that from someone else’s point of view, often the things we think of as good are bad, and vice versa (this became very clear to me when I saw post-Mormons suddenly switch all values to their opposites and swear to them as fervently as any Mormon would swear to not take a drink of coffee).
Do I believe in free will? Maybe. I believe that we make choices. I also believe that we think we make more choices than we actually make. I believe that we lie to ourselves frequently and that we often have no idea why we do what we do. Usually, we do the things we do because we want to do them, in the sense that it is easier for us to do them and because we get some benefit out of them. I also believe that we try very hard to cover up our own selfishness (especially in the name of charity and religion and kindness). This doesn’t mean that I think that we can never do good things for other people or that we can’t change for the better. It just means that I think it’s rare that this happens — and that this is one of the few miracles I believe in.
When we show real love for other people, that is a miracle. When we try to sit with other people and listen to them, truly listen and accept that their experience is different from ours — that is a miracle. That is change. That is goodness. That is the opposite of “sin,” if I still believe in anything like sin. But even then, we will go back to who we were before. We will go back to making mistakes. We will always make mistakes, because that is what it means to be human. We can never truly be lifted outside of our own framework. And frankly, the more we believe we can be, the more likely we are to make even worse mistakes.
I also don’t believe that “sins” that are of a religious nature are worse than other categories of mistakes. I don’t believe that offending God (or offending those who believe in a certain iteration of God) is worse than offending my neighbor, or my child, or anyone else. It’s not that I don’t believe in God, though perhaps my idea of God would cause other believers to say I don’t count as a believer. It’s also not that I don’t believe in an after-life or heaven (though it’s true that I don’t believe in those things). It’s that I believe our primary responsibility when considering mistakes is to build the kingdom of heaven here and now, among those people who are around us, wherever we are, whoever they are. What that means to me is trying to do a better job of understanding those people, seeing the world from their point of view, and loving them in the way that they would try to teach me to love them.