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What is Sin?

Contrary to popular understanding, sin does not consist of a catalogue of "bad behavior," rather it is a state of being; it is a condition of alienation from God, the ground of our being. Sin involves alienation from other people as well as the world in which we live. Sin is the condition of estrangement from the source of life itself. The great insight of Christianity is that all humans are born into a state of sin; we are separated from God merely in the process of becoming separate individuals driven by our own ego needs.

This inevitable situation is aggravated by a culture that encourages greed and self-indulgence, among other harmful attitudes. Racism, warfare, social structures that reinforce privilege, discrimination, and neglect of the poor are symptoms of this alienation. Overcoming this estrangement is part of life's fundamental purpose.

Unfortunately in popular Christian understanding the word sin is more often treated as an adjective or label. For example, having sex outside of marriage is labeled as a "sin" in an effort to control such behavior. Likewise using certain words, or behaving in ways that are not approved by those interested in enforcing conventional morality .... this is called "sinful." Using the word "sin" in this way robs it of theological depth as well as any utility in advancing real understanding of the human condition.

When most people use the word "sin" what they really mean is "behavior that I personally believe is morally wrong." Thus, it is a means of criticizing others rather than being an important step along the road to self understanding; "sin" thus becomes a word that divides one group of people from another rather than bringing them together in a deeper relationship with God. In other words, the word "sin" is often used in "sinful" ways to further alienate rather than to increase understanding of or to build the beloved community which, in the teaching of Jesus, is one of the chief ends and purposes of life.

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.