The Extent of Punishment and Belief, Part I: What is Sin?

Over the weekend, a Christian wrote to the CADRE and explained that he was struggling with a question concerning the nature of punishment and the existence of God. He posed a series of statements which he believes to be true, and then made an argument that God should not be punishing people with hell for the crimes that they have already paid for in earthly jails. His argument was as follows:

1. One should judge the severity of an offence by the harm it does to the victims and to the society in which it was committed.

2. If the society in which the harmful act was committed judges an appropriate punishment, it should be their right, as the society that was injured, to dictate a punishment they feel is necessary and God shouldn't add/take away from that.

3. If a criminal's society therefore considers the criminal’s debt to itself for some dastardly deed paid, God should also consider it paid, as the society encompasses all those who were hurt.

4. If a penal debt is left unpaid then God should institute the appropriate punishment which would be set by the human community in which the sin was committed as payment for the debt because that is what the community that was injured would consider was just.

Just as the community considers a debt to society paid by a violent criminal after some time behind bars, so God should consider a debt paid if the criminal serves his time in society. And God should consider it paid for the same punishment the society would set.

However in Christian theology God considers sinners' debts infinite. He punishes people with exile, as clearly indicated in Jesus words an images of revelation, not just lets exile happen to people, as a natural result of sin, but exile is a punishment. As a punishment it means the sin must somehow be infinite, to
commensurate with an infinite time behind bars.

I don't buy the explanation that finite sins become infinite against an infinite God. In my book, a sin should be judged based on the harm it causes. Unless it causes God infinite harm, judging a sin infinite on the basis of God's rank seems to be distinctly unloving (also doubt that the metaphysical evil of a sin changes based on the position of the one sinned against.) Also I don't know how exactly
God is involved in people's sins. I just don't see how a sin against my brother Joe is a sin against God. God is not connected to the event except it is his law being broken. That means he should act as judge in the matter, not get personally offended.

The writer's question is very, very troubling to some people. After all, if God has given to the state the power to punish (the "sword"), then shouldn't God be satisfied with the extent of the punishment meted out by the state? Why does God need to punish us further?

While the problem is well stated, I think that Christianity offers a solution that makes good sense. It is this: the reason that people who have not found Jesus go to hell is not because they have committed crimes that have not yet been paid for by means of a jail sentence imposed by the state. The reason that people go to hell is because they are sinners who cannot get into heaven without forgiveness of their sins.

There are several steps that need to be taken in order to fully understand this answer, and I shall attempt to set them forth in this and my following posts. However, since I contend that we are separated from eternal life because of sin, I must first answer the question “what is sin?”

The Hebrew word for “sin” is “chata'” which bears several definitions, but according to the Blue Letter Bible, generally means “to miss, miss the way, go wrong, incur guilt, forfeit, purify from uncleanness.” In the Greek New Testament, the word for sin is “hamartano.” Like “chata,” “hamartano” also bears several definitions, but generally means “to be without a share in; to miss the mark; to err, be mistaken; to miss or wander from the path of uprightness and honour, to do or go wrong; to wander from the law of God, violate God's law.”

Each of these definitions shares the same idea: there is a path down which we are supposed to be traveling (perhaps, the narrow way Jesus describes in His teachings). At times, we travel off of that path and veer away from the course that we ought to be following. When we do this, we have sinned.

Note that there is no hint that the “missing” of the mark means “engage in criminal conduct.” While I am sure that engaging in criminal conduct is a subset of sin, it is not the whole of sin by any means. Rather, sin is a much broader idea that means that we have departed from the proper way. What is that proper way? Genesis 2 and 3 give us are starting point.

The idea of sin is first introduced into the Bible in the account of Adam and Eve (Genesis 2 and 3). In that account, Adam and Eve are placed in the Garden of Eden, a place where there is no sin. They are told that there is only one rule: they can eat of any tree from the Garden, but of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil they may not eat for on that day they will surely die. This Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is in the center of the Garden with the Tree of Life. While the account of Genesis does not say specifically that the trees are within sight of each other, it seems likely that since both are in the center of the garden, they are close together.

The placement of the trees presented Adam and Eve with a test of their ability to follow God. It is likely that they could see both trees at the same time. The first was the Tree of Life – a tree that stood for following God and his commandment. The second was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil – the only tree out of all of the (thousands of?) trees in the garden, they were specifically told was off limits for food. When confronted with the lies of the serpent, Eve (and apparently also Adam without any objection) chose to disobey God and eat from the tree because they thought that it would make them like God. I imagine that they stood with their backs to the Tree of Life when eating of the forbidden fruit. This was the first sin and it led to the fall of man and nature.

In case you never realized it, the tree itself was irrelevant. The tree may have been an apple tree or an orange tree – a tree that we eat of often without fear that it will somehow lead us to sin. (Personally, I think the fruit was likely a lemon or grapefruit because of the sour taste its eating left us.) The harm wasn’t in the type of fruit – it was in the eating of the fruit in violation of God’s command. That was the sin. Adam and Eve were supposed to live a life in an earthly paradise, but they chose against the good that God gave in favor of a desire to be their own gods. That is the very heart of sin.

Consequently, sin is “missing of the mark,” i.e. failing to follow the path that God would have us follow. And it is sin that leads to death. Okay, but what about the accusation that if I commit a crime against another, I have not committed a crime against God? As said by the questioner: “I just don't see how a sin against my brother Joe is a sin against God. God is not connected to the event except it is his law being broken. That means he should act as judge in the matter, not get personally offended.” How does that work into it? Stay tuned for Part II.


Joveia said…
Just a comment - in earthly society, when a criminal serves a time in prison roughly equal to the harm caused, the debt is considered paid. No forgiveness from the state or victims is necessary, as equivalent punishment has been visited on the crim. So in that respect, it is not just a matter of forgiveness of sins from the state I am questioning from God, it is that firstly, God can't institute punishment equivalent to the harm caused during the sinner's earthly life and pay the debt and therefore, that the debt can't be paid so no forgiveness is necessary.

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