Can we define sin as “that which causes death”?

In the spring of 2010, I bought a Spanish language theology book, El Principio Misericordia (The Mercy Principle) by Jon Sobrino, at the bookstore of the Universidad de Centroamerica (UCA) in San Salvador. I’ve been reading it off and on for the past three years, and I finally finished it in my most recent trip to the Dominican Republic (my Spanish reading tends to happen when I’m actively thinking in Spanish). So I’ve decided to do a series exploring some of the concepts Sobrino introduces in his book. This first post has to do with his definition of sin.

Sobrino offers the following definition of sin (in my imperfect translation into English):

Sin is “that which causes death.” Sin is what caused the death of the Son of God, and sin is what keeps causing the deaths of the sons and daughters of God. You could believe or not believe in God, but the thing you cannot doubt is that there is sin, because there is death. 17

First of all, even though Sobrino doesn’t proof-text himself the way that some evangelicals are accustomed, he’s basically restating what Paul writes in Romans 5:12: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin… so death spread to all because all have sinned.”

I’ve had some debate with a reader in the context of my recent sermon on the Garden of Eden regarding the question of whether Paul’s use of thanatos (death) in this context refers to physical mortality in a literal sense or some sort of spiritual “death” or decay. I don’t want to be too quick to say that all the intricacies of biological decay are literally and only the product of sin, because the physical death of plant life that happens in my compost pile every moment is integral to the life that God provides in the new plants that are nourished by this compost. Without sin, would there be no compost? If we imagine a perfect, sinless created order in which there are no natural life cycles, what we’re imagining is a non-physical world in which plants no longer need the nitrogen of other rotting plants to grow. So I’m not sure what to do with that.

In any case, I don’t think Sobrino is trying to say that only actions which directly cause death are sinful. Murder isn’t the only sin. I interpret Sobrino to mean that sin is any action that contributes to a culture of death, even if it is one of a billion indirect contributing factors (e.g. The lust of men addicted to pornography creates a market for sex trafficking which involves physical abuse that has led to death). Most other sins contribute to a culture of death in a less obvious and seemingly miniscule way (e.g. A thousand stressed-out, anxious drivers who are greedy with their time and angry at other drivers for existing create a flow of traffic that is unsafe and results in a fatal accident that isn’t entirely the fault of any of the parties directly involved).

Sobrino’s definition of sin only makes sense if we recognize that none of our actions happen in an individualist vacuum; they are always interconnected with other peoples’ actions. We create synergies and traffic jams and mobs and echo chambers and blogospheres. Avoiding sin is not just a matter of avoiding the “Thou shalt not’s” in the Bible. They are indispensable guides to creating a harmonious social order, but they do not anticipate all the possible ways that we can contribute to a culture of death.

Now the other aspect of this is that under Sobrino’s definition, systems can sin. In our increasingly mechanized world, many of the forces that cause people to starve and lose their homes and die from treatable illnesses are impersonal powers and principalities for which no single person is entirely culpable. Sobrino argues that many of the same impersonal forces that cause death for two thirds of the world are the basis for the privilege and convenience of those of us who are affluent (which includes anyone who has the resources to read this blog post). So when the privileged choose to ignore the fruit of these powers and principalities which is easy for us to do, we are participating in their sin by our inaction even if we aren’t actively violating a “Thou shalt not” from the Bible.

Many privileged Christians get defensive at this point, but the whole point of our justification through Jesus’ cross is to eliminate our defensiveness, so that when we learn about the ways that we are contributing to the suffering of others even without actively willing it, we can change our actions accordingly. Obviously, there are a number of problems in the world that we legitimately can’t do anything about, but Sobrino would challenge us to make the problems that the poor face our problems before we throw up our hands and shrug them off.

So what do you think about this definition of sin? Does it seem valid to you? What alternative would you propose if not?


9 thoughts on “Can we define sin as “that which causes death”?

  1. Morgan, I like the general notion that ‘sin causes death’ (however delayed or intricate its path), though I think the Apostle had a physical model in mind. But your point about the compost pile is not trivial. I have long been bothered by the theological tendency to blame every natural calamity—including animal predation—on Adam’s Fall, which was essentially willful disobedience. That all the rest of “nature” should be “punished” for Adam’s sin (even if ‘Adam’ is understood archetypically) strains our concept of justice. On this view, ALL aggressive behavior is evil, not just human aggression—even though we don’t hold animals morally culpable for their actions. Thus, the ‘restored paradise’ (Eden) is depicted as one in which “the lion will lie down with the lamb” and (presumably) vegetarianism will again be the norm. While this view appears to be “biblical”, the problem I have is: A world in which present biological systems are COMPLETELY devoid of predation is incomprehensible—unless that pacifist picture applies only to the “higher” mammals (like big cats). Imagine, if you can, a world in which birds did not eat worms, jelly fish did not eat their prey, frogs did not eat insects, snakes did not eat rodents, ant-eaters did not eat ants, big fish did not eat little fish, and so forth. Is it even ‘biologically possible’ for God to create such a natural order?
    Furthermore, those who hold that the Fall had such universal consequences for Nature often use that doctrine—coupled with their eschatological vision as replacement, rather than restoration, of the present ordere—often use that doctrine as a “cop-out” or excuse for failing to care for the PRESENT creation, thereby undermining environmentalism).

    • “Those who hold that the Fall had such universal consequences for Nature often use that doctrine—coupled with their eschatological vision as replacement, rather than restoration, of the present ordere—often use that doctrine as a “cop-out” or excuse for failing to care for the PRESENT creation, thereby undermining environmentalism).” Exactly.

  2. This is an interesting approach, but doesn’t it create an impossible empirical problem. How do you trace all the causes of death or the culture of death? If I decide to stop doing an action because it leads to death through an intricate web of causes and effects that I cannot clearly see, how do I know that the new actions I start taking don’t also lead to death?

    What if the death causing systems also create or sustain life? Do we end up with a kind of utilitarianism?

    • Those are valid questions. I think what Sobrino is trying to tackle is the problem of living in a world in which most oppression occurs as the result of impersonal forces that are impossible to attribute to individual actors. Also the problem of separating intent from result. Is God less displeased with suffering that occurs as the result of seemingly automated forces as opposed to willed harm that happens between individuals? Furthermore, does the overlap of agency when a large-scale social problem is a contributing factor in a personal sin like domestic violence mean that effectively I’m sinning with the guy who beats his wife partly because he’s getting crushed at work in the economic system I’m helping to create?

      I think the progressive error is to say that you’re “doing something” to address the injustice in the world just by talking about it and putting it on a sign and taking it to a march in DC. The harder thing is to figure out how to live our lives differently, create alternative economic systems that are life-giving, etc. Thank God we can think about this under an umbrella of grace. If Matthew 25 was the standard and there were no cross, we would be in deep trouble.

  3. Didn’t Paul say ‘the wages of sin are death’? I know that some will say that it means that God punishes those who sin with death (or actually with hell for some reason not derived from the text) but I would think that it simply means that sin just leads to nothing but death and destruction. So a definition of sin as ‘that which causes’ (leads to) death, instead of leading towards God, the only Source of Life (which would be salvation) seems quite logical to me…

  4. Just as in your analysis of the Garden of Eden, Sobrino’s definition makes sense if there are two types of death. This is certainly a mystery to meditate upon, if one is concerned with tying everything together. To address this from a completely different perspective, psychotherapists describe healthy people as feeling primarily love and saying ‘yes’ to life. People who are trapped in suffering, they describe as feeling primarily fear and saying ‘no’ to life. I beg pardon for slight inaccuracies. Maybe someone more knowledgeable in psychotherapy could offer corrections. In my experience, psychotherapy is a valid path to innocence. It has deepened my understanding and appreciation for the Gospel.

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