Think about the word "sin." What do you think of? A stain? Some black, ethereal substance? A "negative" field of energy? Throughout history, humans have struggled with defining this difficult concept to align with and elucidate religious and social notions of right and wrong, good and evil, morality and ethics.

In Christian theology, sin occupies a primal and primary importance. The Scriptures speak of sin as that which has given rise to the "fall" of humanity, it is that which brings death, and it is that which is responsible for severing the divine/human relationship.

But what, exactly, is sin? I propose that it is, in fact, "nothing." Let me explain.

Christians believe that the creative act of God is exhaustively characterized as "good." That is, there is nothing that exists which was not created out of the good pleasure and will of God. (Now philosophers can, of course, argue about whether this designation of "goodness" can be applied to that which is created, but that is another post). However, Christians also believe that God's will is opposed to that which is sinful: in fact, one could describe sin as that which is antithetical to the will (and, necessarily, to the being) of God. How is it that these seemingly contradictory statements can be held together?
Quick to the response, many will reply that, easily explained, God did not create sin. Rather, they will assert, sin was created out of the wickedness of the hearts of humans at enmity with God. Fair enough. However, this answer does not suffice, for if all things, without exception, came into existence through the good will and pleasure of God, how is it possible that the creation of sin out of the wickedness of the human heart cannot be reductively traced to the very same will of God which has proclaimed all creation "good?"

If no answer is forthcoming from the interlocutors, the conclusion must be that God has, in fact, created sin, for sin could not arise from the wickedness of the human heart, save for its ultimate and primal location in the will and creative power of God. This conclusion being reached, one must further acknowledge that the seeming displeasure of God at the existence of sin must be disingenuous, for God has supposedly proclaimed the creation good. If God despises the creation of sin, the only possible conclusion is that God 1.) was not talking about all of creation when proclaiming it "good" (which begs the question of what else might not be "good" therein) or 2.) sin is actually a part of the good creation, and the divine opposition to it is based upon the caprice of the divine will, rather than upon something intrinsic to sin's fundamental ontology (which conclusion raises disturbing questions about the propriety of God condemning that which God has created good and only later labeled damnable).

At first glance, the detractor will scoff at these conclusions. After all, surely there are clever philosophical rebuttals that will escape the need to locate the existence of sin within the goodness and holiness of the will and being of very God. Yet the potential rebuttal is hardly perspicuous nor obvious. After all, if sin belongs to creation, whether by direct decree of the Godhead, or by its subsequent creation out of the human heart, the causal and logical nexus of its existence remains the divine will. That is, as nothing exists which has not been created by God (for only God is self-existent), all that exists must be necessarily located within the will and divine purpose of the Godhead. And if one resorts to refusing the identification of the will and creative work of God with the existence of sin, one must delve into even deeper realms of philosophical absurdity by positing the eternal existence of sin over and against the existence of God, resurrecting a form of Manicheanism denounced by centuries of Christian thinkers.

The only way out of this philosophical quagmire, then, is to deny the existence of sin.

Let me say it again, just for dramatic effect: Sin does not exist.

To many, such a phrase is enough to warrant the charge of blasphemy. These would question, how can one possibly assert that sin does not exist? Is not the world an evil, deadly place? Do people not kill, rape and destroy one another? These are all powerful statements, and will be answered in turn. However, for the time being, let me explain my position.

Interestingly enough, throughout the majority of Christian history, sin has been defined as lacking existence. From Athanasius, to Augustine, to Aquinas, sin has been defined rather as a "tendency towards non-existence." Athanasius speaks quite powerfully on this point in Contra Gentes. Here, he extensively describes the predicament of human persons as a separation from the knowledge of God. Because of this severing of divine/human relationships, humans now exist in an annihilating fashion, existentially hurtling away from the creative and existence-sustaining life of God toward non-existence and existential dissolution. To Athanasius, it is not as if humans have traded one ontologically identifiable mode of being for distinctly identifiable other. Rather, the mode of being is identical, only the one which is severed from the life of God is diminishing, moving swiftly from existence to nothingness, from being to non-being. The life of sin, then, is one which is characterized by privation of the existence-sustaining life of God, an existence which bares the remnants of the full-existence of divine life, but one which is ever deprived of ontological support and subsistence.

Now it is important to note that when this "privation" is spoken of, it is not to be taken in substantial way. That is, sin is not envisioned as an ontologically identifiable "substance" which, through whatever ontological power it may have at its disposal, is creating the privation of the goodness of God–such a conclusion would only reinforce the considerations noted earlier about the location of the sin in the will of God. In light of the previous paragraph, the "non-existence" toward which sinful humanity is proceeding is not a state of being that attains reality. Quite to the contrary, sin is itself the privation. This is an important consideration, for it prevents one from thinking of sin substantivally. I am not saying that one can hold up "goodness" and "sin", like apples and oranges, and compare them. Such a notion would reinforce the charge of Manicheanism asserted above. Rather, sin is simply the lessening, the undoing of the creative work of God. It is not something that asserts itself over and against the goodness of God, creating a lessening or undoing of God's will. Rather, it is the very lessening and undoing of the will of God, defined only as the absence of that which God and God's creation are. The non-being being spoken of is not some "state" in which one finds themselves over and against the state of "being." Rather, it is the lack of being, the negation of that which God has created (reality).

But notice what has happened here. If sin is spoken of not as something which possesses ontological and substantival reality, but rather as that which is the lessening and undoing of the same, we cannot speak of "goodness" and "sin" in the same way. Such would be–very literally–just like comparing existence and non-existence. The latter, as a comparison to the former, is absurd, for the latter exists only as a linguistic and metaphorical negator of the first. A major benefit has also accrued from these ruminations, however. If sin has no ontological existence, there remains no further need to speculate about the possibility of sin having divine origin. After all, to question whether or not God has created sin in light of what has been said would be like asking whether
has created that which does not exist. Such is an absurd question–we have overcome the problem outlined at the beginning of this post.

What remains, however, is a larger conceptual problem of how we are to speak of sin in relation to God, creation, and humanity. I would suggest that although this line of thinking allows us to easily answer the now-psuedo problem of God and sin, more difficult conceptual issues await further investigation, an investigation that will require some conclusions which–at first glance–will seem antithetical to historic Christian thought. However, I am confident that if they are honestly pursued with an open mind and a suspension of an all-too-easy materialist view of sin, the conclusions will be vindicated as entirely orthodox and closely in line with the stream of historic Christian thought.
These conclusions I will pursue in my next post.