Sinners in the hands of a ____ God

In the next few posts, I’ll be discussing my views on sin and God’s reaction to it. But first it’s necessary to define it. When we talk about sin, what do we mean?

Can “sin” be defined as a mistake or error in judgment? That is what politicians admit to when they perpetrate white-collar crimes, cheat on their wives, or whatever they’re trying to admit to without getting crucified for. This doesn’t seem to be quite adequate: misappropriating funds for personal gain or violating your spouse’s trust are hardly “whoopsie” moments — there’s some sort of moral or ethical violation going on. And killing someone because they ran in front of your vehicle is certainly not a violation of morality, so intentionality is obviously an important component. I think “a consciously undertaken moral violation” is probably a safe working definition for a sin for the purposes of these posts.

Note, of course, that to be complete we’d have to then define “moral”, but I think Christians generally agree that there are certain moral absolutes, and Christians are my intended audience here. Also notice that this definition focuses on individual sinful acts, but I will have more to say about sin as our fallen state later.

The more interesting question is God’s relationship to our consciously undertaken violations of morality, such as lying, cheating, stealing, committing adultery, murder, etc. Which of the following do you find yourself resonating with the most?

  1. God’s objection: God hates sin because it is a challenge to His position of supremacy over the universe. God takes great personal offense at sin.
    • God’s disposition toward sinners: Sinners are primarily competitors to God needing to be brought under subjection to His lordship.
    • The sinner’s predicament: Because the sinner’s will is corrupt, he stands in danger of God’s wrath intended to restore the hierarchy of Creator to creation. Most of all, he needs a miraculous way to submit to God.
    • God’s response: Rebellion is a slap in the face of Almighty God. God responds to these slaps in the face according to His nature and relationship with the sinner: specifically, His anger is only mitigated by consideration of the sinner’s submission to Himself through Christ. As Scot McKnight recently put it, “Sin is about usurping, and for us Christians that usurping takes on a powerful christological shape in the NT: it’s about Jesus, it’s about following him. When we choose not to follow Jesus, we choose to become usurpers.”
  2. God’s objection: God hates sin because it is a transgression against justice. God sees sin chiefly as a legal offense.
    • God’s disposition toward sinners: Sinners are primarily criminals deserving punishment.
    • The sinner’s predicament: Because the sinner’s will is corrupt, he stands in danger of God’s wrath, which is necessary to satisfy justice. Most of all, he needs acquittal; penal substitution will accomplish this.
    • God’s response: God’s response to sin, whether in punishment or in mercy, is necessitated and determined by an intolerable dissatisfaction that results from the violation of a moral code of justice. Jesus’ atonement was God’s way of satisfying that code of justice so that His loving and merciful nature could be satisfied. As John Frye recently put it, “[If] God is just, he will pay back trouble. This isn’t ugly, sinful, fitful vengeance. God is just and will pay back.”
  3. God’s objection: God hates sin because it is a destructive force that interferes with His loving intentions toward us.
    • God’s disposition toward sinners: Sinners are primarily those in need of God’s healing; He is only truly satisfied when the will that commits sin has been repaired.
    • The sinner’s predicament: Because the sinner’s will is damaged (although not entirely corrupt), the sinner stands in need of rescue.
    • God’s response: Sin is both the effect and the cause of a will bent toward immorality. Acts of willful immoral behavior are not imputed to the sinner as a property of the one who commits the act, but as symptoms of a misguided will, which is then warped further by sin. God desires to heal the impulses that would reject Him.

These are certainly not airtight categories, and in fact many of us assume more than one of them on different occasions; for instance, some would say that rebellion (#1) needs to be punished primarily because it is a violation of justice (#2). Indeed, #1 and #2 are much more compatible with one another than either are with #3. Be that as it may, I list them as I have because they are broadly three different and conceivably independent explanations for what accounts for God’s reaction to sin that drive other differences in our theology.

Options #1 and #2 both show the warped will as an integral aspect of the person, and God will not change the person. (But more on that in another post.) When God creates people, He either allows or mandates that their wills become so warped as to choose other than the perfect good; He is then obliged to allow their corrupt wills to rein supreme, even though it means their destruction.

Notice that this holds true regardless of the possible libertarian free will defense, in which people say that God wouldn’t want to violate our free will in order to save us: if our free wills are such that choosing evil seems like a good option, there is something wrong with either our wills or our reasoning capacities, and God is responsible for both. When His creation falls prey to the self-destructive wills He provided them, God (a) may, (b) must, or (c) is glad to (depending on your theology) wash His hands of the affair, granting “Thy will be done.”

C. S. Lewis’s contention that God permits the unrepentant to leave Him behind for eternity to be self-satisfied apart from Himself assumes that issues of the will are issues that God has no intent to remedy; but God cannot be let off the hook as easily as Lewis would have liked. If we “choose” hell, it’s only because God set the deck against us. (And might I add that if he’d read his claimed master George MacDonald even a little more closely, he’d have noticed this fatal flaw.)

If, as the Orthodox have always proclaimed, sin is sickness of the soul eating away at the children of God and a corrupt will is an aberration, God’s behavior in the “sinners choose hell” explanation is directly equivalent to your watching idly as a mentally ill person deliberately walks up to and disturbs a rattlesnake, followed by your shaking your head sadly at their poor choice and the fact that they will soon die of poison. “It’s a shame, but it was her decision.” If there is a perfect, absolute good – which few Christians would deny – then without their Creator’s miraculous intervention humans are either incapable of recognizing it or incapable of choosing it. Neither can be credibly blamed on the sinner. God must assume responsibility; at least supralapsarians are consistent here.

For me, the only explanation is that God intends to heal all because the sin is the root problem, not the sinner. Sin is not just what we do but where we live, how we think, what we allow to influence us, and not all of that is as conscious or avoidable as individual sin acts; indeed, if “original sin” or “ancestral sin” mean anything, it’s that the sinner is always first a victim of his own fallen estate. The more damaged the will, the more He’ll feel responsible for repairing it: the further the lost sheep strays, the more necessary He’ll find it to leave the ninety-nine. So yeah, I’m a universalist, for this and other reasons. But that’s not the only reason I’m writing this.

In fact, I’m convinced that focusing on the end has the danger of extending our scope too far to be of practical good in the immediate; as I’ll argue in an upcoming post, the cancer of sin and the disorder of the fallen will cannot simply be shrugged off and assumed to be wiped away without consequence in the distant future of cheap Nirvana.


This is Part 1 of a series. Here are the other posts:

Part 2: God’s Awful Mistake

Part 3: Is righteousness underrated by liberal Christians?

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