The term ‘sinner’ is ridiculed today as medieval at best and psychologically damaging at worst. Understood correctly, however, the biblical theme of the ‘fallenness’ of humanity is one of the most realistic and nourishing of concepts. I am glad to know I am a sinner.
Recently, the Sydney Morning Herald opened an article against religion in schools with an awful anecdote about parents being woken in the night by their 6-year-old child weeping and repeating, “I am a sinner, daddy, I am a sinner”. Naturally, the parents were horrified and, upon learning that this was the brainwashing work of the ‘Scripture teacher’, they took their son out of the program.
The great German philosopher and atheist Friedrich Nietzsche had a similar disgust toward the Christian concept of sin. Reflecting on the faith of the great mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal, Nietzsche lamented the “deplorable example” of Christianity’s “depraving of Pascal” who “believed his reason had been depraved by original sin while it had only been depraved by his Christianity”.
Pascal himself was almost rapturous in his description of our shared sinful state. “What sort of freak then, is man!,” he wrote in his famous Pensées. “How novel, monstrous, how chaotic, how paradoxical, how prodigious! Judge of all things, feeble earthworm, repository of truth, sink of doubt and error, glory and refuse of the universe!”
Pascal gets the biblical picture just right. Christianity has always taught that humanity is both “judge of all things” and “refuse of the universe”, at the same time immeasurably valuable and yet deeply flawed. Indeed, the two concepts are intimately connected. It is precisely because of humanity’s lofty status in creation that our conduct—how we exercise our high calling—takes on supreme significance. If you diminish something already worthless, it is hardly worth noting. If you debase the ‘glory’ of the created order, it is a cosmic scandal.
The point the young boy didn’t grasp—or, more likely, which the Scripture teacher failed to emphasise—is that his status as a ‘sinner’ is inextricably linked to his inestimable value as a creature made in the image of God, loved by the Creator in an irrevocable way.
Viewed this way, the Christian doctrine of humanity’s ‘Fall’, and not the modern secular myth of our intrinsic goodness, can inspire realism and provide the basis for genuine self-esteem.
The secular, ‘evolutionary’ view of society looks at advances in medicine and technology and extrapolates from these to the unwarranted conclusion that humanity is ‘progressing’, inching toward ethical refinement. It is an improbable and oppressive doctrine! British intellectual Terry Eagleton decries the “dewy-eyed” optimism and “mindless progressivism” of contemporary secularism. “The true antirealists,” he writes, “are those like the scientist Richard Dawkins, with his staggeringly complacent belief that we are all becoming kinder and more civilised.”
Though an unbeliever himself, Professor Eagleton admits to feeling attracted to the traditional doctrine of sin. It has explanatory power. It allows men and women to be honest with themselves. It inspires us to take ourselves seriously, just as God does.
And I would add, moreover, that knowing we are truly ‘sinners’ allows us to find our esteem as creatures not in our capacities and performances—which are mixed at best—but in the elevated status the Creator has lovingly bestowed upon us.
John Dickson is Founding Director of the Centre for Public Christianity.