One of the points of contention between believers and skeptics has to do with the question of morality. Roughly speaking, the exchange goes something like this:
Believer: God is the source of morality. Without a belief in God one cannot have a belief in morality. Therefore skeptics are immoral. QED.
Skeptic: Nonsense! There are lots of skeptics who behave in thoroughly ethical ways. Furthermore, they mold their behavior to conform with particular ethical standards, even though those standards lack any particular theological foundation. One can clearly be a skeptic and be a moral person.
Framed in these terms (and I think that these are the terms usually employed), I think that Skeptic has the better end of the debate. I have family members, friends, and acquaintances ranging from agnostic to atheist and for the most part they are decent, ethical people. Furthermore, there are lots of thoroughly respectable ethical systems that do not rely on any belief in God per se. However, I think that this response misses a deeper and more interesting issue: The relationship between sin and ethics.
While I do think that it is possible to have ethics without God, I am skeptical that it is possible to have sin without God. Implicit in this statement, of course, is the assumption that sin and ethics are distinct concepts. The distinction lies, I think, in the concept of salvation. Ethics is a matter of correct behavior. It is a question of practical reason: What is the best way to act? Sin, on the other hand, is about the status of oneâ€™s soul before God.
If one thinks very much about the language of sin used in the scriptures, it is an odd sort of a thing. To be sure, sin is frequently discussed as little more than unethical behavior. On the other hand, we also have images of cleanliness and filth, of being stained with blood and washed clean in the blood of the Lamb. In other words, along side the concept of behavior there is some concept of sin somehow attaching itself to us and requiring some expiation. Much of our talk about the Atonement is deeply embedded in this extra-ethical language about sin.
One response is to dismiss this concept of sin as â€œlegalistic.â€? Sin seems to sound a lot like criminal liability. It is something that somehow inheres in the individual and can only be extinguished by punishment. Criminal law, however, serves social purposes of deterrence etc., and hence can be reduced to ethical and political concepts. In other words, the idea of sin as a concept independent of ethics rests of a confused importation of legal concepts.
The problem with this response is that Harold Berman has pretty clearly demonstrated that causation flows the other way. The earliest Germanic laws (from which our legal system is descended) didnâ€™t really have any concept of crime. In other words, there was no concept of injury to society as such; there was only the concept of personal injury to another. Injury gave rise to a justifiable desire for revenge, and revenge was eventually bought off with payment. Eventually a system of rules governing compensation for injury arose as a substitute for blood feuds and we had our first legal system. It was only as this system of law came under the influence of Christianity that a concept of crime â€“ that is a concept of legal wrong existing independent of injury to another and extinguishable only by punishment â€“ came into being. Thus, the concept of crime grew out of the concept of sin, rather than the other way around. (Note: the story gets more complicated once you consider the influence of the Roman law, but I think the conclusion is the same.)
Figuring out exactly what sin is, however, is difficult. A pretty common response is to say that sin is some condition of the soul, some deformation of it, if you will. If we go far enough down this road, of course, sin will collapse back into ethics, albeit a virtue-centered ethics. Alternatively, sin may collapse into psychology, as we subjectivize the soul and fragment it into the id, ego, and superego (or whatever other characters haunt contemporary psychology). As should be clear, I am sympathetic to the aertaic move and skeptical of the psychological one. However, in the end I think that I want to resist both of them to one extent or another. Neither seem to really capture the idea of sin as a burden of guilt that must be lifted (regardless of whether or not one â€œfeels guiltyâ€?).
Hence, I am left with exactly what I was hoping the trek into the familiar discussion between Believer and Skeptic would reveal: An interesting question. What is sin? How is it both similar to and different than ethics?