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Sin: Infection or Infraction?

[Again, June 2003]

Often in conversations with Christians of other traditions I find myself explaining the Orthodox view of sin. For most Western Christians, sin is a matter of doing bad things, which create a debt to God, and which somebody has to pay off. They believe that Jesus paid the debt for our sins on the Cross-paid the Father, that is, so we would not longer bear the penalty. The central argument between Protestants and Catholics has to do with whether "Jesus paid it all" (as Protestants would say) or whether, even though the Cross is sufficient, humans are still obligated (as Catholics would say) to add their own sacrifices as well.

Orthodox, of course, have a completely different understanding of Christ’s saving work. We hold to the view of the early church, that "God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself." Our sins made us captives of Death, and God in Christ went into Hades to set us free. The penalty of sin is not a debt we owe the Father; it is the soul-death that is the immediate and inevitable consequence of sin. We need healing and rescue, not someone to step in and square the bill. The early Christians always saw the Father pursuing and loving every sinner, doing everything to bring us back, not waiting with arms folded for a debt to be paid. When the Prodigal Son came home, the Father didn’t say, "I’d love to take you back, but who’s going to pay this Visa bill?"

This was the common view for the first thousand years of Christianity, until Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury at the time of the Great Schism, offered an alternative view. Anselm believed that God could not merely forgive us, because our sins constituted an objective wrong in the universe. It could not be made right without payment. No human could pay such a huge debt, but Jesus’ blood was more than sufficient to pay it, which gave Jesus a "claim" on God the Father. "If the Son chose to make over the claim He had on God to man, could the Father justly forbid Him doing so, or refuse to man what the Son willed to give him?"

We would say that Western Christians, Protestant and Catholic, have mixed up two Scriptural concepts: "sacrifice/offering" and "ransom/payment." Jesus couldn’t have paid the "ransom" for our sins to the Father; you pay a ransom to a kidnapper, and the Father wasn’t holding us hostage. No, it was the Evil One who had captured us, due to our voluntary involvement in sin. It cost Jesus his blood to enter Hades and set us free. That’s the payment, or ransom, but it obviously isn’t paid *to* the Father. Yet it is a sacrifice or offering to the Father, as a brave soldier might offer a dangerous act of courage to his beloved General.

If I haven’t lost you yet, I’d like to take this one step further. As I said, I often have this conversation with other Christians, and make the point that sin is not infraction, but infection; sin makes us sick. The Christian life is one of healing and restoration; its not merely about paying a debt.

It recently occurred to me that this difference between Western and Eastern Christianity explains something else I hadn’t noticed till now: that Orthodoxy doesn’t spend a lot of time worrying about the problem of evil. The question of why bad things happen is a major one in the West; it seems to refute the assertion that God is good and loves us. If he’s all powerful and loves us completely, why does he let bad things happen? I expect that this lingering image of a God who is reluctant to forgive, waiting to be paid, feeds a suspicion that maybe he *doesn’t* really love us.

I think the Orthodox view of sin as illness, rather than rule-breaking, answers this. There is evil in the world because of the pollution of our sins. Our selfishness and cruelty don’t merely hurt those around us, but contribute to setting the world off-balance, out of tune. It has a corporate nature. Anyone can observe that life isn’t fair; bad things happen to "good" people. But even good people contribute some sin to the mix, and we all suffer the consequences of the world’s mutual sin.

The radio humorist Garrison Keillor used an image for this that has always remained in my mind. He told a story about a man considering adultery, who contemplated how one act of betrayal can unbalance an entire community: "I saw that we all depend on each other. I saw that although I thought my sins could be secret, that they would be no more secret than an earthquake. All these houses and all these families, my infidelity will somehow shake them. It will pollute the drinking water. It will make noxious gases come out of the ventilators in the elementary school. When we scream in senseless anger, blocks away a little girl we do not know spills a bowl of gravy all over a white tablecloth."

What we Orthodox keep in mind, and Western Christians often forget, is the presence of the Evil One. In Anselm’s theory of the Atonement, there’s no Devil. The whole transaction is between us, the Father, and Jesus (and when the Devil is ignored, he has a field day). But Orthodox know who our true enemy is, and we cling to the Lord Jesus as our deliverer. When we see evil in the world, we know immediately that "an enemy has done this" (Matthew 13:28). We’re not surprised that life is unfair and that "good" people suffer; when we see innocent suffering, we know that our own sins helped cause it, by helping to unbalance the world and make a climate of injustice possible. The Evil One loves to see the innocent suffer, and the fact that such events grieve and trouble us delights him all the more. This is in fact one of the ways we bear the burden of our sins: that we must feel the wrenching pain of seeing innocence suffer, and know that we helped make it happen. Western Christians, on the other hand, who see sin as a private debt between an individual and God, and who forget the presence of the Evil One, can’t figure out how God could let an innocent person suffer, and are left with the chilly thought of questioning the goodness of God.

"Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Romans 7:24-25). We do not trust in our own strength to get out of this mess, but rely entirely on the power of Jesus Christ, who has "trampled down death by death." Day by day growing in grace, we can contribute to the world’s healing, by forgiving our enemies, loving those who hate us, and overcoming evil with good. The first place it needs to be overcome, we know, is in our hearts.


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