What is sin? How exactly is it defined? Soren Kierkegaard in his book, The Sickness Unto Death, analyzes the subject in some depth and it is mainly from this book and from the Bible that I put forth the following assertions of what sin is and is not.
Sin is disobedience. In Genesis 3: 17-19, God tells Adam “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it’, cursed is the ground because of you . . . you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ ” The curse is God’s judgment upon Adam’s act of disobedience. Never mind that if it hadn’t been for Eve who handed the fruit to Adam there would be no sin or if it hadn’t been for the serpent who tempted Eve there would be no sin or maybe even if God hadn’t put that tree there in the first place we wouldn’t be dealing with the issue at all. Exactly what is the issue? Is it the tree, God putting it there, the temptation to eat forbidden fruit, or one’s own will? As one’s will looms large as the culprit, here we consider the will and the knowledge of good and evil.
When we are tempted and succumb, it’s easy to blame the object of our temptation or whoever is tempting us. God made us, both Adam and the rest of mankind, caretakers of the earth and recipients of its bounty. He gave us plants for food and for Adam specifically every tree of the garden of Eden except the one tree (Gen 2:17). What are we to make of this? That the fruit of this particular tree was in some way superlative to the fruit of the other trees? My feeling is no, the fruit was not necessarily so much better but here is where the relativity of the thing enters in. Eve looks at the tree in the same way we all initially look at things and she beholds what God created. But the tree being both beautiful to behold and its fruit (so she was told) bearing the promise of wisdom, she wants to bring it into symbolic relation to herself. Once she establishes a relation to this object, her subjective experience of it confers meaning to it, a meaning that also defines her in relation to it. Eve, like Adam, existed in God’s image and her every motion was symbolic; symbolism is always gained and imparted in relation to someone or something. So as beauty is relative and exists in the eye of the beholder, when Eve’s desire for wisdom became fixated on the fruit, the longer she looked at it the more she desired it until finally she just had to possess it, i.e., enter into symbolic relation to it. She wanted to be defined as someone who had wisdom, an attribute that God apparently had left out. God made the fruit forbidden fruit as a testament to our free will, that within man is the will by which he exists in relation to God as spirit, as a spiritual being and one who is not defined by objects. He was created in image of God but is not God; to exist in relation to God by anything but his own free will would make him more of an automation than a child of God. Sin is rooted in the will, not the intellect1, and as such it can be characterized as willful disobedience; Adam could choose to eat the fruit or not and he knew God’s command. Nor was it Eve’s intellect saying to her, “The properties of this fruit are such that, looking at it objectively, I must eat it; it will make me wise and knowing good and evil will enable me to be more like God. Does the end not justify the means?” No, it was her will prompting her, “I know God said, ‘Don’t eat it’ but I want to be wise, I want to be like God; I want what I want. I’ll eat the fruit.” Because it is rooted in the will, sin is a position, a stance2, not a neutral state of “no opinion one way or the other.” When it comes to sin, no one has no opinion; the self is manifest in the motion to obey or disobey.
What does it mean to know good and to know evil? God, being the Author of the good, knows that where free will exists so exists the possibility of disobedience. But what does it mean for man to know good and evil? Is it merely to understand what the good is? To know that disobedience is evil? No, knowledge is not an objective way of seeing the world. Knowledge is symbolism. It is essentially those things that have meaning to us and our symbolic relations to them (that give them meaning in the first place) that comprise our respective contexts. A symbolic relation to anything defines the self; whatever you are in relation to gives you meaning within a given context. You could say that Eve decided that knowing God, being in symbolic relation to God, was not enough. She wanted to know other things, to know her self in relation to them; she wanted a meaningful relation to these other things. Whatever she could know in relation to God was no longer enough to define her self and the expanded knowledge she sought was contained in the commandment “You shall not eat this fruit”. If she could obtain this forbidden knowledge, she would be like God (Gen 3:5) or so she thought and so the serpent persuaded her. Meaning is inherently biased and nothing that has meaning is neutral nor does an entity exist meaningfully in isolation, in and of itself – that is, it doesn’t exist outside of a greater context. Each and every thing that exists exists in meaningful relation to other things or in relation to God. Man “knows” his body as his self; he has a symbolic relation to the object of his own body and exists in this image. Sin is not the image but the symbolism of the image; it’s the symbolic motion of existing in image of anyone or anything but God. These other things in whose images we exist are idols. Because the Spirit, the breath, of God is the basis of our creation, to exist in image of anything else is to qualify God’s image, to remake God in image of man. If your self-image is the mental image of an object, what is God’s image? We want what we know. God is not an object but we want a relation to objects – the objects of people and things – because that’s what we know (symbolize). We want a God we can relate to in terms of physical experience, a God we can look at and touch, as Phillip said to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father and we shall be satisfied” (John 14:8). The countless divergent depictions of Christ, many if not most reflecting the artist’s own ethnic or racial background, seem to bear this out. We seek a God relevant to our personal human experience, a God who can be interpreted in terms of our society and culture. But God is God and not man. It’s the sin of symbolizing worldly images (seeing our selves in image of them) that underlies the prohibition of graven images (Ex 20:4-5; Deut 4:15-24) and even of building an altar to the Lord of hewn stones (Ex 20:25); one’s own symbolism is imparted in hewing these stones. The image of God cannot become the image of an object nor can a self created in His image be defined object-ively.
“To know” (the active tense of “knowledge”) is itself the symbolizing motion since every motion we make is to know our selves in context, to gain self-meaning. To know God is to be in spiritual relation to God although knowledge of God is something we cannot attain to of ourselves; it has to be imparted through the Holy Spirit. To know each other is to establish symbolic bonds to each other within the contexts of family and society. In a more primal sense, Adam knew Eve and she conceived. Adam, symbolizing his flesh and its biological urges, knew Eve as the physical object of his desire, not as a mere sexual object but, let’s face it, that’s part of our human experience of relating to each other. Prostitution – utilizing people as sexual objects to gratify our carnal desires – has existed almost from the dawn of history. The sexual relation is symbolized because we symbolize our flesh; whatever gratifies our biological urges gives us meaning, symbolism. Sexual relations usually have their assigned place in the greater context of our family-society-culture although we’re all aware of people who seem to gain more meaning from sexual relations than others. So knowledge is symbolism and in the setting of the Garden of Eden to know good was one thing; to know evil was another thing entirely. To eat the fruit of the tree when God commanded otherwise was not merely to comprehend that the act was wrong; it was to symbolize the disobedient motion, to imbue the willful act of disobedience with meaning, to willfully not exist in God’s image but in one’s own image defined by a relation to something else.
Sin is defined in relation to the law and is not counted apart from the law (Rom 5:13); if there is no law to transgress, there is no sin. God commanded (law) and we disobeyed (sin); thus sin is lawlessness when there exists a law to define it as such. Sin is despair3, that one’s eternal self is defined by a temporal object; despair is essentially the despair of a self having no meaning. Despair leads to negation, spiritual death. Finally, “the opposite of sin is not virtue but faith”4; “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom 14:23). In other words, the opposite of sin is not obedience to the law but relation to God. You can obey the commandments (up to a point!) and still not be in relation to God if your self is invested in other things. Fulfilling the law is a consequence of being in right relation to God, not a cause of that relation. Only Christ, himself being God, having the full symbolism (meaning) of God, can give us a right spirit in relation to God.