Is Sin Real?
“The first thing is for you to decide whether you believe there is such a thing as sin.”
It was a few decades ago, and I was meeting for the first time with this priest for spiritual direction. And his question confounded me. Of course, I thought, there is such a thing as sin!
But he went on to say that, in effect, many clergy act as if there is no sin. There are misunderstandings, perhaps; missed opportunities; and various actions carried out in ignorance. But there is nothing that is simply wrong, and there is no one who would choose the wrong just because it is wrong.
“So, Victor, do you think sin is real?”
When I first read Augustine’s Confessions—it was at St. John’s College—I was excited to discover his argument that evil is a lack of being, an absence where there ought to be a something. Evil isn’t a thing in itself, but is parasitic upon good.
You might think that if evil is an absence, then it is unreal. But there can be awfully real absences. Think of a bridge that has a hole in it. If you drive into that hole, you have driven right into the absence of the bridge—an absence that will have very real consequences for you.
Sin is the deliberate turning away from a good that one ought to choose. It will be the choice of something else that is also good but a lesser good, chosen only by turning one’s back on a greater good. In a robbery, a thief chooses money (a good thing) rather than choosing to have peaceful relations with other people (a better thing than money). My spiritual director wanted to know if I thought this was possible. Could one deliberately choose to do something harmful to another person? Or would any such choice be, at bottom, a mistake, a misapprehension of what is really good?
I’m being too abstract. The question of sin is this: Can people choose to do bad things, to bring about harm to others,deliberately?
And the question is: Am I capable of choosing to harm others deliberately? Not merely out of tiredness, or weariness, or a misunderstanding of a situation, but deliberately, knowingly: Is it possible for me to do the things I ought not to do, and not to do the things I ought to do?
It strikes me as very hard to own up to this, to say that sin is real and indeed is a reality in my own life. And at the same time, it seems that Christian faith calls us to say precisely this. Although all sin is parasitic upon good, sin is nonetheless real.
If sin is real, it must be opposed. Augustine saw that war, and forceful police action, is sometimes something we must do out of our love for the victims of evil deeds. Sin, if it is real, really hurts people. So in response we may need to stand up, to name it truthfully, and to oppose it.
Around the same time I first read Augustine, I also read C. S. Lewis’s Perelandra. It is a story of new, intelligent, and thus far innocent life, coming to be on the planet Venus. An evil man has gone there to corrupt the first person. Another man from earth has been sent there, it turns out, to thwart him. He gradually realizes that there are no arguments that will be sufficient; that the evil man will not stop for anything, will twist words interminably, and so forth. Finally, the second man comes to the dread realization that he will have to use force to oppose the wicked man, lest this pristine, new creation fall into the same corruption of earth.
Here is another difficult corollary, and yet also true: If sin is real, then there are times when it must be opposed, and there is no guarantee that any of us will be exempt from that exterior struggle (any more than we are exempt from the interior struggle).
Out & About. This Sunday, July 8, I’m to preach at the Episcopal Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, 6525 Inwood Rd., Dallas. The services are at 8 and 10 a.m. Then at 11:30 I’ll speak on “Love, Caring, Death, and God.”