Q & R: Sin?

Here’s the question:

I am a senior (69yr.) who in the past year left a 44 year long marriage after much turmoil. My ex-husband and I “became” Christians in our thirties after much searching. We got caught up in the middle of Charismania in the late 70’s and finally settled in to a traditional evangelical church that taught all the traditional stuff. The problems arose when things that were supposed to be felt, experienced or known just didn’t fall into place even after much prayer and fasting and memorizing, etc., etc.. One of my kids has anquished all his life over the absence of god in his life, the sense that god doesn’t hear him, that he is abandoned. My ex’s answer was always to simply trust and believe – the “right” belief, mind you. Well, this kid is know 40 and has not found peace yet. I was trying to explain to him where I have shifted in my thinking about God. Recent books in the last two years that have helped immensely are The Great Emergence (Phyllis Tickle) The Heart of Christianity (Marcus Borg), The Jesus Wars (Philip Jenkins) Dream of the Earth (Thomas Berry) and The Universe is a Green Dragon (Brian Swimme). I’m in the middle of contemplating all the many sides of thought that the above books contain. And I mustn’t omit telling you that I had read several of your books before even any of the above and I believe Generous Orthodoxy really gave me the courage to examine my beliefs. Since then I have read all your books, even a couple out loud to my sister as we travelled between Florida and Canada.
After a Skype call with my son, he sent me this question. although I will answer it I would really appreciate your thoughts/comments.

“My question for you regarding our talk, is where does Sin fall in your viewpoint now? What does it mean to you? I get this impression from what you explained to me is that it seems that when you take out Jesus’ divinity and the whole reasoning from that christian perspective, what is the point of even caring whether there IS a God and to even give this God a second thought. Just live life and die eventually. So in a sense, one can indulge all their desires as much as they want and not have to worry about facing “judgement” after death. So if “Sin” doesn’t really exist, then there is nothing to be judged for and so why care at all about ANY God whatsoever?

I don’t think I’m explaining myself well here.

Here’s the R:

Thanks for sharing your story and for relaying your son’s question. There are so many over 50-ish folks who are right where you are … and so many people where your son is too.
First, I should say that I wouldn’t “take out Jesus’ divinity,” nor would I say that “sin” doesn’t exist, nor would I say that there is no judgment after death. As I explained in A New Kind of Christianity, and as I explain even more energetically in my upcoming book (Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?), I don’t think the way forward is taking out or throwing away deeply held Christian beliefs. Rather, I think we need better understandings of those beliefs. We need what I call in my upcoming book reformulations of key Christian doctrines, so they can be held more enthusiastically and confidently than ever. That’s such a huge subject … but I’ll leave it at that for now.
Second, your son seems to be saying something like this: If there is no hell to pay for sinning, why does faith even matter? If Christianity isn’t a solution to “the sin problem,” what good is it? If we don’t have to fear God, why even believe in God?
This understanding is, in my view, a classic double bind. Seeing Christianity as an escape-from-hell plan makes it highly problematic for many people – including, I imagine, your son. Yet the question is framed in such a way that there’s no reason for Christian faith unless it is such a plan. So … at the risk of sounding terribly simplistic, let me respond in three ways.
1. What if Jesus spoke the truth? What if Jesus was right? If we believe Jesus was right – in what he taught us about God, about life, about love, about peace, about everything – then we’d be unwise not to want to live in light of it.
2. What if love is the point? If I really believe that, then I want to become the most loving person I can, and if I believe that Jesus knows a lot more about that than I do, then following him becomes an eminently sensible thing to do.
3. What if grace is real? If I believe that God is truly gracious, why would I want to live ungraciously? If I believe God is good, and if I believe that goodness is the whole point and meaning of the universe, why would I want to oppose goodness?
To put it bluntly, your son’s question suggests that the only valid reason for being a Christian is fear … fear of being punished by a vindictive God.
But for Jesus, pursuing God, the gospel, grace, and goodness are like a treasure hunt (I’m thinking of his parables here). It’s a search for good and wonderful things. A far better motivator, I’d say, than fear!
This seems to obvious to me, but I know to someone who has been raised in a certain kind of theological bubble, it’s not obvious at all … which explains, I think, what Jesus meant about becoming like a little child and repenting (or rethinking everything). We all have a lot of unlearning to do!
You and your son are in my prayers today, and I know many who read this blog will add their amen’s as well.