Cornelius Plantinga Jr. lifted the title of his recent book from a tow truck driver’s speech in the film Grand Canyon, who took lectured the leader of a group of young toughs harassing his customer, who’s car had broken down. “‘Man,’ he says, ‘the world ain’t supposed to work like this. Maybe you don’t know that, but this ain’t the way it’s supposed to be. I’m supposed to be able to do my job without askin’ you if I can. And that dude is supposed to be able to wait with his car without you rippin’ him off. Everything’s supposed to be different than what it is here'” (p. 7).
Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, c. 1994), by Plantinga, a professor of theology at Calvin Theological Seminary, seeks to revive for us an awareness of sin, something which is denied by modern culture and is, more strangely, absent in much contemporary preaching. Certainly “slippage in our consciousness of sin, like most fashionable follies, may be pleasant, but it is also devastating. Self-deception about our sin is a narcotic, a tranquilizing and disorienting suppression of our spiritual central nervous system” (p. xiii). We’re dying and don’t even know it!
To accomplish his mission, Plantinga says: “I shall define sin, describe how sin corrupts what is good and how such corruption spreads, discuss the parasitic quality of sin and the ironies and pre-tenses generated by this quality, compare sin with folly and addiction, and conclude by describing a couple of classic ‘postures’ or movements of sin (attack and flight)” (pp. 5-6).
Sin, essentially, is “vandalism of shalom,” the senseless and culpable disruption of all that’s good that God has made. In a profound sense, sin is anti-creation, forever intent on denying man’s creaturely condition. While it may damage others or ourselves, sin is ultimately much more than moral failure–it is an affront to God, a prideful rejection of “objective moral truth” (p. 17) which stands rooted in His very Being. In fact: “A proud person tries to reinvent reality. He tries to redraw the borders of human behavior to suit himself, displacing God as the Lord and boundary keeper of life” (p. 125).
Still more: sin is parasitical. Here Plantinga joins Augustine, insisting sin is the privation of good. It has no being of its own but sucks away the life of its host. “Nothing about sin is its own; all its power, persistence, and plausibility are stolen goods. Sin is not really an entity but a spoiler of entities, not an organism but a leech on organisms. Sin does not build shalom; it vandalizes it. . . . . ‘Goodness,’ says C.S. Lewis, ‘is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness. And there must be something good first before it can be spoiled'” (p. 89).
As such, sin corrupts all it touches. Like AIDS it attacks our spiritual immune system. Designed to be holy, we deny our design and fail to be pure, losing our health. Our bent-to-evil stands revealed in Woody Allen’s explanation for his involvement with Mia Farrow’s young daughter, saying “‘The heart wants what it wants'” (p. 62). Wanting what we want, seeking what pleases us, we sin and add to the contagion of evil corrupting the world.
Sin’s virus is also amply evident in a quip by movie-maker Oliver Stone: “‘I don’t want integrity to block my creative growth'” (p. 28). Stone’s “creativity,” of course, includes a disregard for all antiphonal data (the documented truths he chooses to distort in films such as JFK and Nixon). Sin’s corruption, perverting God’s goods, spreads throughout our world like acid rain, leaving a far graver legacy.
Written for the general reader, but rooted in the solidly Reformed theological tradition you would expect from a Calvin Theological Seminary professor, this work is laced with up-to-date illustrations (many taken from films and novels), graced with felicitous expressions, and focused on a perennially pivotal issue, this work deserves wide-spread and thoughtful reading.
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From a somewhat different theological perspective, Ted Peters, professor of theology at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, addresses the same issue in Sin: Radical Evil in Soul and Society (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, c. 1994). To Peters, like Plantinga, “At the heart or essence of all sin is the failure to trust God. Sin is our unwillingness to acknowledge our creatureliness and dependence upon the God of grace. We pursue sin in the illusory and vain effort to establish our own lives on an independent and secure basis. . . . . In short, sin is the failure to live up to Jesus’ commandments to love God and love neighbor” (p. 8).
Whereas Medieval theologians identified “seven deadly sins,” Peters tracks sin down a slippery slope, “seven steps down the path to radical evil”: 1) anxiety; 2) unfaith; 3) pride; 4) concupiscence; 5) self-justification; and 6) cruelty.
“Anxiety is the fear of loss” (p. 34). Fearing failure, the future, or death, we frantically grope about, grasping at straws in the wind, clinging to astrological forecasts or stock market manipulations rather than resting comfortably in the arms of our loving heavenly Father. (With imaginative insight, C.S. Lewis, in Perelandra, portrays the desire to live on solid land, less dependent on God, as the primal temptation.) Uneasy with day-to-day dependence, wanting to steer our own course, we allow anxiety to prod us into distrust.
Unable to cope with anxiety, finding it difficult to trust, rejecting Jesus’ admonition to “not be anxious,” losing the courage to be creatures, as God designed us, we flounder in “unfaith.” Thus Luther asserted: “‘The root and source of sin is unbelief and turning away from God, just as, on the other hand, the source and root of righteousness is faith'” (p. 69).
Unwilling to trust God, we become proud, “making myself number one” (p. 86), traditionally the deadliest of the seven deadly sins. Refusing to trust God’s providential and loving power, we seek improper power–Promethean power–for ourselves, especially power over others. This Augustine identified in The City of God, saying: “Pride, too, is not the fault of him who delegates power, nor of power itself, but of the soul that is inordinately enamored of its own power, and despises the more just dominion of a higher authority” (XII,8). Such pride infects both individuals and groups, which are especially prone to seek to control others. Even self-help groups and human rights’ pressure groups, seeking to “empower” their members, easily slide into sinful pride, willing to deny the truth and destroy enemies to secure their goals.
From pride and the desire to dominate others, we slide to level four of sinful behavior: concupiscence, “lusting after what they have” (p. 123). In general, it’s “the desire to acquire, to own, to indulge, to take pleasure, to consume. it causes us to covet and disposes us to greed and avarice” (p. 125). And it’s as evident in social as individual behavior: devouring our environment as well as tarnishing our sexual relationships, indwelling our compulsive consumerism as well as our addictions to drugs and alcohol, swelling the national debt as well as maxed-out credit cards.
Just as alcoholics routinely declare “I can handle it,” denying liquor’s dominance, so we claim we’re able to control concupiscence. Thus comes stage five, self-justification, “looking good while scapegoating others” (p. 161). In Peters’ judgment, “Prejudice is so automatic that it becomes second nature. We might say that prejudice sleeps for the person of pride” (p. 170). Fueled by prejudice, waving aloft various ideological banners, we find ways to feel good about ourselves, even when we’re killing innocents of various sorts.
Ideologies, evident in Marxism and its assorted spin-offs, especially provide shelter for self-justification. “By ideology I mean an articulated belief system that aspires to offer a unified explanatory vision in answer to personal, social, political, and perhaps religious problems. An ideology typically begins by describing a crisis in a given context. Then it rewrites history to blame one or another group for precipitating the crisis. Finally, it suggests a solution that protects the interests of a favored group” (p. 173).
Thus the final stage, the deepest level, of sin is cruelty, “enjoying my neighbor’s suffering” (p. 193). Sadistic, genocidal brutality marks the end of sin’s descent, the place where we finally forfeit our claim to the name “man.” Added to the atrocities of the Nazi Holocaust and the Communist Gulag, the prevalence of brutality in our streets–and the apparently infinite hunger for “slasher” films and TV violence–suggests we’ve slipped off the last rung of the sin ladder and now simply slush about in its pit!
Such sinfulness, Peters says, can be understood only in the light of “blasphemy: destruction of the inner soul.” Blasphemy breaks the bond between “the name of God and the grace of God” (p. 217). At its worst, blasphemy denies God’s holiness, deflects His grace, disparages His character. Such is “radical evil” because “it vitiates goodness at the roots” (p. 219). After a thorough discussion of “satanism,” much of which he discounts, Peters declares “Satan is present when we hear the call to shed innocent blood” (p. 257).
This is a profound, penetrating study, more searching and satisfying, in some ways, than Plantinga’s work, though both works are admirably done. Attuned to a wealth of contemporary sociological and psychological data, rooted in a solidly orthodox theological discipline, Peter’s Sin, as Lewis B. Smedes says, is a “superb study of radical evil, soaked to the skin in Bible and theology,” which “tells us just about everything we need to know about the evil that so satanically bedevils both our cloaked souls and our naked society.”
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Reading Peters and Plantinga, both theologians, I was prodded to read a book I’ve had for years but failed to peruse: Karl Menninger’s Whatever Became of Sin? (New York: Hawthorn Books, c. 1973). One of the most distinguished psychologists of his generation, Menninger identified the lack of conviction for sin as the unacknowledged but actual source of many modern ills.
After citing a variety of expert opinions as to what’s wrong with the world, Menninger wondered: “In all the laments and reproaches made by our seers and prophets, one misses any mention of ‘sin’–a word which used to be a veritable watchword of prophets. It was a word once in everyone’s mind, but now rarely if ever heard. Does that mean that no sin is involved in our troubles–sin with an ‘I’ in the middle? Is no one any longer guilty of anything?” (p. 13). Even clergymen seemed reticent to call sin sin! Along with no-fault divorce there seems to have developed a no-fault theology! Indicative of this shift is the fact that past presidents such as Lincoln called the nation to prayer, acknowledging that “‘It is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon” (p. 14). In 1953, President Eisenhower quoted this statement of Lincoln’s, but not since 1953 has an American president used the word “sin” regarding the nation. Rather, we’re routinely assured by our politicians that we’re good people, living in a good country. Sin’s simply not a word acceptable in civic circles!
Nor has it standing in social science. Criminals are labeled “sick,” victimized by their society. When JFK was killed, many blamed a “sick society” rather than Lee Harvey Oswald. Menninger’s forebodings seem confirmed when jurors in the Menendez case decided the boys had good reason to murder their parents because they had been abused in the past. Individuals are not held accountable for their behavior. What’s needed is “the revival or reassertion of personal responsibility of all human acts, good and bad” (p. 178).
What’s further needed, Menninger insists, is the restoration of the word “sin” to its rightful place, especially in church, for “the clergyman cannot minimize sin and maintain his proper role in our culture. If he, or we ourselves, ‘say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us’ (I John 1:8). We need him as our umpire to direct us, to accuse us, to reproach us, to exhort us, to intercede for us, to shrive us. Failure to do so is his sin” (p. 198).
He cites a long, illuminating passage from Paul Tillich: “‘There is a mysterious fact about the great words of our religious tradition; they cannot be replaced. All attempts to make substitutions–including those I have tried myself–have failed . . . they have led to shallow and impotent talk.
“‘There are no substitutes for words like “sin” and “grace.” But there is a way of rediscovering their meaning, the same way that leads us down into the depth of our human existence. In that depth these words were conceived; and there they gained power for all ages; there they must be found again by each generation, and by each of us for himself'” (p. 47).
Prophets have routinely assailed both individual and corporate pride, calling men to transcend love of self by loving God and man. One way to recover the essential truth of human sinfulness is to revive a prophetic condemnation of the seven deadly sins. Thus Menninger focuses on pride, the desire to supplant God and Lord of life. “‘Every man would like to be God,’ wrote Bertrand Russell, ‘if it were possible; some few find it difficult to admit the impossibility'” (p. 135).
Add to pride the sins of lust, gluttony, anger, sloth, envy, and avarice, and you flesh out a finely-honed portrait of our species. A Menninger surveys the scene, rightly understanding the deadly sins enables one to live rightly, for “the wages of sin really are death” (p. 172). Ironically, “sin is the only hopeful view,” for only assumed responsibilities and acknowledged failures enable one to live with dignity. As Hobart Mowrer said: “‘So long as a person lives under the shadow of real, unacknowledged, and expiated guilt, he . . . will continue to hate himself and to suffer the inevitable consequences of self-hatred. But the moment he . . . begins to accept his guilt and his sinfulness, the possibility of radial reformation opens up; and . . . a new freedom of self-respect and peace” (p. 195).
Menninger claims no theological expertise, but his insights convey deep theological truth, as worth musing over as it was two decades ago, when Whatever Became of Sin? was written.
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Another psychological treatise worth reading is People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil (New York: Simon and Schuster, c. 1983) by M. Scott Peck. I consider it in many ways a profounder work than his perennial best-seller The Road Less Traveled. In his psychiatric work, Peck encountered people who must be considered “evil.” Yet in his psychiatric training he received no knowledge or techniques needed to address it.
Having come to an acknowledged (if perhaps often less than orthodox) faith in Jesus Christ at the age of 43, after beginning work on this book, he discovered much truth about the power of evil and found ways to confront it. And he believes evil people need to be scientifically studied in order to understand them and their devastating influence in the world. We’ll never eliminate evil, but we may well mitigate its power. As J.R.R. Tolkien said, “It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule’ (The Return of the King, p. 190).
Numerous case histories provide data for Peck’s work. In his early years, still operating within the parameters drawn by his medical and psychiatric schooling, he treated an adolescent boy full of loathing and self-destructive tendencies. His older brother had committed suicide, and he seemed driven in the same direction. Amazingly, Peck discovered, the boy’s parents had given him, as a Christmas present, the rifle his brother had used to kill himself! Analyzing the parents, Peck found a couple devoutly committed to appearing good in the community, hard-working and conventionally upright. In fact, the parents had failed to love their boys, maintained an utterly devious facade of parental concern, and inflicted evil on their children. Somehow Peck recognized the parents’ destructive influence and managed to relocate the boy in a relative’s home, where he came back to health.
In such cases, Peck began to see the evil indwelling persons, finding that one must distinguish “between evil and ordinary sin. It is not their sins per se that characterize evil people, rather it is the subtlety and persistence and consistency of their sins. This is because the cent-ral defect of the evil is not the sin but the refusal to acknowledge it” (p. 69). Truly evil people are not usually “designated criminals.” Peck has worked with prison inmates and rarely found them utterly evil. That label applies more often to “solid citizens,” externally clean folks whose “‘crimes’ are so subtle and covert that they cannot clearly be designated as crimes” (p. 69). They are the play-actors, the hypocrites, the “people of the lie.” Peck says, “The words ‘image,’ ‘appearance,’ and ‘outwardly’ are crucial to understanding the morality of the evil. While they seem to lack any motivation to be good, they intensely desire to appear good. Their ‘goodness’ is all on the level of pretense. It is, in effect, a lie” (p. 75).
People of the lie at times come under the total control of the Father of Lies, Satan. “I now know Satan is real,” Peck says. “I have met it” (p. 183). He has witnessed several exorcisms, and those experiences confirm an ancient teaching of the Christian Church: Satan can take possession of persons who open themselves to him (or “it” as Peck prefers). In response to prayer, God will exorcise Satan from the human heart.
People of the Lie illustrates and confirms an abiding Christian truth: men and women are fallen, are in touch with the evil one, can become utterly evil in their hypocrisy and separation from God. Drawing upon his psychiatric study and ability to carefully analyze patients, he gives us contemporary data and insights into truth which are fundamental to the Christian faith. As followers of the One crucified by evil, we can never forget or evade the powerful presence of evil in all of us, especially in those who pretend to be free of it.