(Note: This is another piece from the first draft of my recent book, Who We Were Meant to Be, but which did not make the cut into the final edition. It comes from the early chapters, in which I explored the story of the Garden of Eden and of humanity's Fall. This piece underscores the book's broad theme of recapturing the patristic vision of salvation in terms of union with God, but I worried that its critique of Western Christian conceptions of sin might open up more of a can of worms than I wanted to deal with in the book itself. So if you have questions about the material below, it might be good to read it in context with some of the other pieces I've posted over the years concerning the classic Christian view of salvation: "The Mysteries" and "The Meaning of Salvation.")
What is the fundamental problem of humanity? We in the Western Chrisitan tradition reflexively answer, “Sin! Sin is the problem, and because of sin we bear the guilt and penalty of our crimes, for which we need atonement.” All of that is true in its own way, but it’s not really the whole story that the Bible is telling about the problem of the Fall. And if we don’t understand the whole story, we end up missing the forest for the trees, and we fail to grasp the immensity of God's plan of unity for all things in him (Eph. 1:9-10).
You see, even if we include the notion of “separation from God” as part of our gospel presentation (as in, for instance, the famous “four spiritual laws” of Billy Graham), by setting sin as the linchpin of the story, we end up with a far more truncated view of salvation. The story we end up telling is about my personal, individual destiny—it’s all a question about whether I end up bearing the guilt of my sins, whether I face the penalties for those transgressions, and ultimately, where I end up spending eternity. Now, clearly, those are important considerations: it’s a matter of great significance to me where I spend eternity! But just in framing the question in this way, I’ve already made it hard for me to see the full picture of God’s salvation story, which is not limited to me (nor, really, even to humanity), and is far more about the consummation of God’s intention for his creation—a vast, communal entrance into the endless adventure of union with him—than about whether the thresholds of my eternal abode are framed with golden pavement or unquenchable fire. By framing the issue of the Fall as being fundamentally a matter of individual sins, we miss out on seeing the grand, breathtaking scope of communal and cosmic aspects of God’s salvation plan.
So let’s reset our assumptions for a moment, take the thing from the top, and try to read the story through the eyes of the early church. Our sins are part of that story, certainly, but, according to the earliest teachers of the Christian tradition, they are not so much the problem as they are a symptom of the underlying problem. If I may, I would suggest that we think about it not so much of our “sins” separating us from God, as our Sin (capital S): the human rebellion, beginning with our forebears in the garden, by which we chose to pursue our own way rather than to follow God’s grand design for us. From that Sin, we have fallen away from our intended journey of union with God, and, as a result of that, in the absence of the almighty grace with which we were always meant to be filled, our individual sins flow out, almost like symptoms from a disease. The ancient Christian tradition, particularly among the great Greek writers in the eastern heartlands of the church, were insistent that the problem of humanity was not best viewed as a problem of us committing crimes against God (though it certainly is that, in a certain sense), but rather as a disease that needs divine healing. Incidentally, this disparity between how we understand the true nature of sin is still one of the main markers of division between the Christian East and the Christian West.
Let me give you a historical analogy. We in the Christian West are often trained to think about our spiritual problem as being a matter of our sins, which we have committed against God (compounded by, and flowing from, the initial guilt of original sin). Again, that’s not untrue, but the perspective that it takes results in a rather narrow view of what’s really going on. It’s rather as if we were soldiers caught in the misery and torment of trench warfare in World War I, and we’re blaming our misery on the fact that we keep shooting bullets out of our guns. But while the shots we fire certainly are a part of what keeps that miserable war going on, our individual bullets are not really the problem. The real problem began with one shot at the beginning—one Sin—which, in World War I’s case, was the assassination of the Austrian archduke, and it resulted in the fracturing of the international order. It is that fracture that is the underlying problem. That’s the real story. Sure, my bullets are part of that story too, but more as a symptom than a cause. The real, underlying problem that has caused everything is the splintering of the peace between nations.
Now, this shouldn’t sound all that strange. We in the West are trained to put special focus on individual sins and the guilt associated with them, but we still recognize that the underlying problem is an issue of our separation from God. Even so, we still end up missing the view of some of the other marks of this story: what “union with God” means, beyond just a mansion by the crystal sea, and what it means that Christ not only saves me, but brings together all things in heaven and on earth.