You are a sinner. You deserve the wrath of God. After you die, you will meet God face to face and because of your sin he will throw you into the pit of hell for all eternity. But repent of your sin and believe the gospel and instead he will cast your sin away from you, as far as east is from west.
Or so said the street preacher in the centre of town at the weekend (yes, our old friend Dale McAlpine; he who suffers excessively from religion-virus).
I’m not a sinner. And neither, dear reader, are you. Sometimes in my life I’ve behaved badly, it’s true. I’ve hurt other people, though usually unintentionally, and I’ve been thoughtless. I’ve been unappreciative of loved ones and haven’t done enough for others. I’ve said things I shouldn’t and have occasionally lost my temper. I’ve even had sex when it wasn’t for making babies.
Maybe you’ve done similar things and, like me, have transgressed the moral law (which is entirely of human making) in all of these minor ways. Others have transgressed it, and the societal laws it gives rise to, in far worse ways, by deliberately hurting or abusing others, raping and murdering.
But still neither they nor us are sinners. Whether we have behaved reprehensibly or only a little thoughtlessly, we are still not sinners. We are human and we behave as humans behave; as evolved apes our developed brains jostle with animal natures, and we act as our distinct environments have taught us. ‘Sin’, on the other hand, is a distinctly religious concept, a component of a fantasy perspective of life with no purchase outside of its religious context. The problem with it is, however, that it has intruded for the best part of a two thousand years into reality, into life as it is lived by most people most of the time, and we’ve grown used to it. We give it credence when it’s talked about or preached from pulpit or soap box. But it is a meaningless concept.
The word for sin that is used most frequently in the New Testament (221 times) is ‘hamartia’, an archery term meaning ‘to miss the mark’. It means not being as good as we could be; not coming up to God’s standard: ‘for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,’ as old wingnut Paul puts it in Romans 3.23. And this is the secondary – some would say primary – application of the idea of sin; it denotes our separation from God. The thinking behind this idea goes as follows: there must be a reason God always seems so distant, remote, far away, elusive and absent from us. And because he’s God and so wouldn’t behave in such a cold-hearted way if we didn’t deserve it, it can only be our fault. His distance, therefore, can only be because of sin, our failure to behave and be, from the moment of our birth, as he would want us to. Yes, sin really is God’s kryptonite and, according to Christian doctrine, Jesus came to be the lead lining that blocks its rays.
But this is an unnecessarily convoluted way to account for the perceived divine distance. It is much better explained by God’s existential and literal absence. It’s not our fault he’s so far away – or rather it is, but not because we sin. In our childish need to have someone out there who both explained everything and cared for us, we made him up. We anthropomorphised an insentient, indifferent universe, which could only ever lead to a God who felt distant and remote.
So, as Dale was recommending on Saturday, free yourself from ‘sin’. Recognise that you don’t fall short of the glory of God, because no such thing exists, and that you behave as you do because you’re human. And then you will be free indeed.