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Basic Christian Doctrines III: Some Approaches to Sin and Evil.

Updated: Jan 11



A Comparative Study


From the Patristic Period (From the first to the eighth centuries) to the Modern Era (fifteenth to the present), theologians, philosophers and other thinkers have struggled to give meaning to the causes of Sin and Evil. Indeed, from theologian Saint Augustine's (354-420) "Good and Bad of the Body and Soul", to French philosopher Paul Ricoeur's (1913-2005) "Paradox of the Servile Will", the desire to give expression to the Doctrine of Sin has been extensive.


This paper will touch on the topics of Sin and Evil. We will look at how thinkers have viewed Sin and Evil throughout the centuries. We will conclude with a modern approach to this Doctrine.


On the Topic of Evil


We must recognize that human sin does not occur in a wholly good world or in a paradise. There is a tragic side to our world. The flawed character of created existence extends to every human being.


Figures of existential phenomenology along with thinkers such as German philosopher Friedrich Schelling (1775-1854) and Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) describe the deep insecurity that arises out of the very nature of freedom itself. This insecurity brings about feelings of angst within the individual.


The combination of freedom and angst is a specifically human way of being fallible, which is to say, vulnerable and susceptible to Sin and Evil. Such fallibility is recognized by American theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) and Paul Tillich (1886-1965) among others. However, Fallibility does not replace sin, because fallibility is part of the primordial structure of the self which makes Faith and Unfaith (Sin) possible.


On the Topic of Sin


The classic Doctrine of Sin succeeded in portraying Sin as a reality present in human experience. Sin begins with unbelief. Sin is also perceived as:


1) the turning away from the Transcendent as well as both the refusal of finitude and dependence on the Transcendent.


2) To refuse one's proper dependence and subordination to the Transcendent is to desire oneself inordinately. There arises in the person self-centeredness and the self-seeking of pride.


3) Unbelief and pride alter the self's mode of being in the world from a life lived in communion with and dependence on the Transcendent to an inordinate desire for fine goods. Sin is not a pure seeking of evil for its own sake, but is a corrupt and selfish act of seeking genuine good without the Transcendent. Thus, Sin is not an evil substance, but a voluntary defection of humankind from the Transcendence.


Evil and Sin: Opinion of a Few Theologians


Saint Augustine of Hippo Fourth Century


Saint Augustine saw people as willing to turn from the unchangeable and common good to serving their own lustful desires. Individuals with their own self- interest become captives of their own sinful existence because they freely choose to act against God. These sinners deserve and receive a just penalty of unhappiness.


Martin Luther (1483-1546) Sixteenth Century


To Martin Luther, Evil is two-fold, one inward and the other outward. The first, which we inflict on ourselves, is Sin and the corruption of nature; the second God inflicts, which is Anger, Death, and Condemnation..


Soren Kierkegaard Nineteenth Century


Soren Kierkegaard viewed Sin as the unwillingness of the individual to be oneself before God. He also had the notion that the opposite of Sin was not Virtue.....but Faith. To Kierkegaard, Faith is the willingness of the individual to be itself before God and trust totally in God.


Friedrich Niebuhr Twentieth Century


Friedrich Niebuhr saw that individuals are seeking to be God. Their own natural sense of weakness in a corrupt world along with there own fear of being, inspires them to be ambitious with a mind to attaining ultimate power. However, ultimate power lies with God.


Austin Farrer (1904-1968)

Twentieth Century


Austin Farrer believes that God does not interfere with creation, but allows Humanity to develop according to its own skills. Humanity sins because it is free to sin. Humanity can not complain to God about Evil because humanity can prevent Sin and lesson Evil by simply embracing God.


Some Modern Views on Sin and Evil


Modern science and cosmology have brought to light the universal conditions of Evil. It lies within the realm of disease and death which date back to the emergence of humankind. This means that there has arisen a category of evil which is wider than and not reducible to human Sin and Evil. This natural Evil can not be derived from the historical fall of Adam and Eve as the Augustinian tradition sought to convey.


In the last century, we suffered through two world wars, the holocaust and the ever present danger of nuclear war. These are grim reminders that despite technological progress, evil has not disappeared from this present generation. We also face the global problems of overpopulation, environmental pollution and the depletion of natural resources.


There are people who now place the blame for our problems on the very science and technology that was originally seen as our salvation. They look at chemical warfare and genetic engineering as science out of control. So, the thinking is that instead of being pillars of progress, science and technology could turn out to be the devices of our own self-destruction.


However, it must be understood that humanity possesses the same freedom of choice that it possessed from the beginning of time and we must have Faith that we will utilize science for its good purposes. As Farrer put it, "Let man embrace the heavenly calling; let him harness the galaxies, control the traffic of the stars, and buffer celestial collisions".


END


Originally entitled Approaches to Evil and Sin: A Comparative Study was submitted to Dr. William Close as a Master of Theological Studies course requirement

511v-Basic Christian Doctrines

St. Stephen's Theological College University of Alberta Published on November 6th, 1996.

{Revised September 9th, 2023}


© Dr. Charles Warner 2023

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