Metaphors of Sin
A metaphor relates an aspect of the unfamiliar to the familiar, thus emphasizing it. A metaphor should not be over-extended to relate to the other aspects of the unfamiliar. Also a metaphor should never be understood literally. When Paul related sin to a contagious illness that spread to all humanity from Adam, he couldn’t anticipate that the succeeding generations would take it literally. Paul only wanted to present a thought as clearly as he could, comparing Jesus with Adam. Adam represents the humanity that follows the wide highway of dishonesty toward destruction, but Jesus, the new Adam, represents the humanity that chooses the narrow path of honesty toward life.
In ancient times people performed sacrifices in hopes of gaining forgiveness for their sins. Paul compared Jesus to a lamb that willingly became a sacrifice. Later generations built up a mountain of beliefs upon this metaphor. Other metaphors such as God as a judge decreeing capital punishment to human beings were put together with this mountain of beliefs, and created the doctrine known as justification by faith. According to this, God’s wrath decrees death to the sinner, and God’s love sends the only begotten son to die as a sacrifice so that the sinners who believe that Jesus died for their sins will be saved from the wrath of God! What a circumlocutory way!!!
According to the doctrine of original sin, human beings were originally sinless. The moment Adam disobeyed God and ate the forbidden fruit, man became sinner, and the sin spread to all humanity like a contagious disease. Thus children are born sinners due to the sin of Adam. Since the time of that incident in the Garden of Eden, only one human being was born sinless –Jesus. Some people even believe that the original sin of Adam and Eve was their sexual relationship (the apple they ate), and Jesus was born sinless because of his virgin birth. Augustine and the other fathers of the western Christendom were the ones responsible for the further growth of this idea of original sin. Gregory of Nyssa and the other Cappadocian fathers of the eastern Christendom, the contemporaries of Augustine, deviated from Augustine in their idea of sin. According to them, it was not the sin of Adam that spread to all, but only the consequences of his sin.
Sin is commonly understood as breaking the norms of what is ideal and right according to a particular culture or religious group. Hence what is sin for one culture may not be so for another one. What is sin for one religious group may not be so for another one. Moreover, this is a superficial understanding of sin based on criteria such as the observance of certain rituals and the following of certain rules. Also this is a very negative understanding of sin that keeps people in the bondage of sin, and in constant strife with each other.
Sin, according to Jesus, is the deviation from the ultimate ideal, and is universally applicable in all places and situations. This ideal is God, which is beyond all human cultures and religions. God is the ideal being, and any human being less than the perfection of God is a sinner. The kingdom of God is the ideal world because the will of God is done there. Our world won’t come anywhere near the ideal until the will of all the people fully conform to the will of God. Jesus asked us to wish and pray for our world to become the Kingdom of God.
Although we are all sinners, we can choose to be either honest sinners or dishonest sinners. Honesty lets us openly admit our sins, and reconcile with God. This way of looking at sin is a positive and uplifting understanding that lets us grow higher and higher toward the perfection of God. It also keeps us from looking down on our fellow beings.
Finally, let us come back to the questions about the basic nature of humanity, with which we began. Being the creation of the good God, humanity is basically good, and always has been. As humans, we have always had the nature to err. This fallible nature is the greatest privilege and opportunity and advantage of humanity. We continue to grow to the perfection of God because of this nature.
God saw his creation as good after each day’s creation. The stars in the sky and the plants on the earth were good in God’s eyes because they function perfectly according to God’s will. After the creation of mankind, God saw his creation not just good, but very good. Humanity with its fallible (sinful) nature still appears very good in God’s eyes because humanity does not simply obey God’s will automatically as stars and plants do, but learns to willingly obey God’s will. With the freedom to obey or disobey God, we are still God’s children!