P4T-#2: How might a human following an unrequested and unavoidable sin nature be held culpable?

Phil: I presume you believe the bible says we have a sin nature that is both unrequested and unavoidable. How can acting in accordance to an unrequsted and unavoidable nature be culpable?

  • Tim: While the Bible certainly does teach that all humans have a fallen nature, characterizing that as “unrequested and unavoidable” is not how I would term it. When it comes to our being born into this world, it is not something anyone can “request” (unless one believes in a conscious pre-existence of some sort, which, other than for Jesus, is not something taught in the Bible). I suppose you could say it is “unavoidable,” since we all are “sinners” in the biblical sense of the word. The issue comes down to why we even exist at all. That, of course, could go off into all sorts of other topics such as how the universe and then life arose, and finally the origin of mankind, and those are certainly worth exploring in other posts. But in order to deal with this particular question, it seems to me that we need to have as a basic premise that a Creator God exists and is responsible for our existence. I realize you are claiming that at least the kind of God portrayed in Christianity does not exist, but in order for your question to even make sense, we have to come at it from the presumption that he does. Otherwise, “culpability” would be a meaningless term if there were no God we are accountable to. So, the question then would be why God would create us with a sin nature in the first place.
    The way I look at it is that God’s reason for even creating human beings in the first place is to provide a way for creatures that truly have free will to develop that free will in such a way that the concurrent problem of evil will be conquered once and for all. That obviously needs unpacking, and so I would begin by saying that even an omnipotent God cannot force free-willed creatures to freely choose to love and obey him. Actually, there are only 5 basic options for God to choose from in creating the Universe. God’s “cosmic options” are 1) to create nothing at all; 2) to create a universe without free-willed beings (in other words, if it contains any beings at all, it only contains beings that are essentially preprogrammed “robots”); 3) to create free-willed beings but to then exterminate them once they choose evil; 4) to create free-willed beings and then just leave them alone to create their own hell; and 5) the one the Bible teaches, where God deals with the evil brought about by free-willed beings in a way that shows great care and forethought, perfect justice and unbounded mercy. Since we are here, God obviously didn’t choose any of the first three options. At such times as in the midst of the holocaust, the fourth option perhaps seemed like the one God had chosen. But from the long-term perspective, I believe that only the fifth option matches what we see revealed in nature and in human history.
    Going into the details of this would be far too involved for a short answer, but let me attempt to at least give a cursory overview. It is an issue that has been debated within the Christian camp for a long time, with various solutions being proposed to explain how God’s love and mercy fit together with his holy righteousness and justice. They range from the “double predestination” of “hyper-Calvinism” on one end to various forms of universalism on the other, the most radical of which proposes that in the end God’s love trumps all else and everyone eventually ends up in heaven. I certainly don’t pretend to have all of this worked out with certainty, and I don’t really know exactly where God draws the lines, so to speak. I simply trust him to do that with perfect justice (which relates to your second question about faith). I think the Bible is quite clear that no one deserves salvation on his or her own merit. God’s holiness requires that in order to earn our way into his favor, we have to always make the right choices 100% of the time, and no one comes even close to that. So, since we all break at least some of God’s laws through thought and deed and thus fail to reach his perfect standard, we all “deserve hell,” as it were. The gospel message, then, is that God provides a way for those willing to accept his terms for a “pardon” and receive a “free pass.” There are all sorts of related issues, such as the fate of those who haven’t heard, but we can take up those issues if you want to in future posts. At any rate, our culpability as humans is based on what we freely choose, even though in one sense, it is “predestined” that we will sin because we simply don’t have the ability to not make bad choices at least some of the time.

Phil: I could not quite distill a firm position from your response. So let me place the dynamics as they appear to me into a syllogism, and have you point out where the argument goes wrong.

  1. A human does not request his/her sin nature.
  2. A human can not avoid sinning.
  3. A human following a nature that is neither requested nor avoidable can not be held culpable.
  4. CONCLUSION: Following our unrequested and unavoidable human sin nature results in no culpability. (From 1-3)

Which of the 3 premises do you find fault with?

  • Tim: With respect to the format of your argument, it is a valid one, and so if the argument “goes wrong,” is because one or more of the premises has flaws. I think that they all can be challenged on that point, and so I’ll briefly mention where I think each is flawed.
    Premise 1. The term “sin nature” is problematic unless it is clearly defined. I suppose I should ask you to define what you mean by it, but you appear to be saying that you think the Christian position is that God punishes us for having a “sin nature” that he, in effect, created in us. If that is not what you’re trying to say, then please correct me, but to clarify where I see the problem, let me define it in my way as a starting point. I would say that it is the notion that humans have a choice between good and evil and that we will freely choose evil at least some of the time. That being the case, however, God does not punish us for our “sin nature” but for our actual sins. Thus, you could reword the first premise to be “A human does not request the ability to choose between doing good or evil actions” and then add the additional premise 1′ “Humans choose to do evil some of the time.”
    This would then become:
    1 A human does not request the ability to choose between doing good and evil actions.
    1′ Humans choose to do evil some of the time.

    As you can see, I hope, modifying Premise 1 thusly results in absurdity, since morality is an attribute of humans that defines what it is to be human. Non-human beings, such as dogs, can’t make moral choices. So Premise 1 would end up becoming “A human does not choose to be human.” This, of course, is a tautology, since it is an impossibility for one to choose one’s own essence, because one must first exist in order to make such a choice.

    Premise 2. This would be the least problematic of your premises in my opinion, but even there, the biblical claim is that there was one human who did not sin, namely Jesus of Nazareth. So at least in theory, it is possible for a human not to sin.

    Premise 3. This statement reminds me of a similar argument against the biblical notion of God that says a loving and all-powerful God could not allow gratuitous suffering and evil. But that’s not necessarily true, since God may have a greater good in mind that justifies what appears to us as gratuitous suffering. It is at least possible that this could be true, and therefore it is not necessarily true that “a loving and all-powerful God could not allow gratuitous suffering and evil.” I believe the culpability issue is similar. If we freely choose to do what we know goes against God’s moral law (and experience tells us that we do), then God is just in considering us culpable. In other words, we are not judged for our inclination to sin but for the actual sins we do.
    If even one of the 3 flaws I am pointing out is accurate, then the concluding statement of your syllogism does not follow.

Phil: I’m sure you’ll agree that there is no sense in me defining something I don’t believe in, so I’ll let you define the biblical “sin nature” by answering the following questions.

  1. What was the “thing” passed from Adam to all humans?
    (Was it “the ability to choose between doing good and evil actions” as you suggest (unbiblically?) above? Or was it actually the propensity to do evil? Remember, Adam and Eve, before they fell, had “the ability to choose between doing good and evil actions“.)
  2. If we did not have this “thing” could we avoid sinning?
  3. Since we do have this “thing”, can we avoid sinning?
  4. Did we request this “thing”?
  5. If we cannot avoid sinning due to having this “thing”, what does it mean to say we are free not to sin?

In a side note, from your critique above of my 2nd premise, it seems you believe Jesus could have sinned. Is this true?

  • Tim: First, with regards to your side note, Jesus is obviously a special case. Christians believe that he has two natures, one human and one divine. As a human being, yes, he could have sinned. But not in his divine nature. That is, of course, a mystery none of us can fully fathom.
    Now, as to the “sin nature,” what has also been termed “original sin,” yes, we do believe that this is somehow passed down to all humans. There are all sorts of theological formulations dealing with how to best understand the human condition, but that is not important for our discussion.
    Perhaps we should let Paul speak on the issue. The NIV translation, by the way, is “sinful nature” rather than “sin nature,” which is more in line with what I think we are talking about. Anyway, in Galatians 5:13-24, Paul teaches that indulging the sinful nature is not something inherently irresistible, but something freely chosen by humans. “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law. The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
    But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.”
    Now, back to your syllogism, the point is that even if I grant your first 2 premises, the conclusion doesn’t necessarily follow. It may on the surface seem to be a reasonable conclusion to reach in that you could say, “I was born this way, and so I can’t help myself and be moral.” But how far do you think that will get you in a court of law? Again, we are not judged because of our nature, but because of our real thoughts and actions.

Phil: Your abandoning of the rules of logic in lieu of the “mystery” of Jesus is a rather troubling and very serious matter I have addressed in another post.

Now, you also stated the following.

“It may on the surface seem to be a reasonable conclusion to reach in that you could say, “I was born this way, and so I can’t help myself and be moral.” But how far do you think that will get you in a court of law?”

I want to be certain of your position here. You are invoking human courts of law as an authoritative measure of justice, is that correct?

Secondly, you had Paul speak on this issue, but none of what Paul said brougt me any closer to acertaining your position. Do you think a human can avoid sinning or not? Why or why not? I don’t care about the source of your postion; all I care about is your clearly and precisely stated conclusion. You may invoke Paul or astology or whatever you’d like. It is not important. What is important is your clear and precise statement of what you believe. I’d like to get a well-defined answer on the following question. Can any human since “the fall” live into adulthood without sinning? Why or why not?

  • Tim: The answer to your first question is simply “No, I’m not invoking human courts as a standard for God’s justice.”
    To your 2nd question: A human can choose to sin or not sin. This is a moral choice. If a human continually chooses to not sin, then they would not sin. However, all humans choose to rebel against God and thus do sin. This choice to rebel is a moral choice that each human makes of his or her own free will. Humans are judged based on the sins they actually commit and nothing more — but potentially less, as God is free to forgive those sins based on whatever standard he so chooses. The biblical answer is that the standard he has chosen is accepting his offer of unmerited grace based on what Jesus did for humanity by taking the sins of all mankind onto himself on the cross. This likewise answers your 3rd question.

Phil: If you are not invoking human courts as a standard for god’s justice, why would you invoke the action of human courts in a discussion about god’s justice? Is it possible that justice does not belong to god to define as he wills, but that humans can assess various definitions of god by assessing whether they behave justly according to human notions of justice? Is this what you meant to do my invoking human courts of justice?
Now, I see that you clearly state that humans have free will not to sin. Yet, I think you also believe that no human has ever lived life sinless. Is this correct? Does the fact that 7 billion humans have all sinned inform your position in any way? What would it mean to say dogs have free will not to bark, yet all of them have barked? Why is there not, say, a 50/50 split between sinners and sinless, rather than a 0:7,000,000,000 ratio? Do you believe that Adam’s fall made it impossible for us not to sin? If not, what exactly did Adam’s fall impart to us? Why is not each human not born with the same form of freewill Adam had before his fall, rather than receiving an unrequested sin nature that makes refraining from sin so impossible that the ratio of sinless is 0:7,000,000,000. What is this unavoidable tendency to sin that defeats free will? And if free will is defeated to this degree, why call it free will?

    • Tim: The mention of human courts was as an analogy. If there are any “standards” involved, it’s the other way around. Our sense of justice is in some sense a reflection of God’s justice, which I believe is a part of the “image of God” in each human being. As for human free will, you seem to be using the term “free will” as some entity that is the opposite of “sin,” and that our predisposition to sin “defeats” free will. I think this is confused. “Sin,” in the biblical sense of the word, is a matter of orientation with respect to our Creator. Thus, it’s opposite is obedience to his will. The Greek term translated as “sin” in English has the connotation of “missing the mark,” and thus means our orientation is “off the mark.”
      Likewise, your rhetorical question, “What would it mean to say dogs have free will not to bark, yet all of them have barked?” also shows a misunderstanding of “free will.” Dogs and other non-human animals do not possess free will in the moral sense, as they are not moral agents. I am using the term “free will” in that sense alone. It is true, of course, that our free will is limited (I can’t “freely choose” to disobey the laws of physics, for instance, which is a non-moral category.) Nevertheless, I can freely choose to disobey the moral laws of God, and I often end up doing that. Even if I chose the righteous path 99.9% of the time (I’m not even close), that other .1% would still make me a “sinner,” which is why the ratio is “0:7,000,000,000,” as you say. How to characterize exactly what that “thing” passed down to us from Adam and Eve is has been a topic of philosophical discussion for centuries. I like to think of it as basic selfishness, which we see in its purest form in a newborn baby. A baby might be considered “sinless” in the sense of not having consciously broken a moral law of God, but her world basically revolves around her mouth (and the other end). She is focused on her needs alone, and this is only natural, as we all begin that way. Nevertheless, she is not judged on the basis of that natural predisposition to selfishness and all that that entails as she matures, but only on her willful acts that are counter to God’s will.

    Phil: When you invoke human courts as an example of justice, you can’t simply say “Behold, human courts reflect God’s justice, therefore my invoking of human justice is an argument for God’s justice”, then when human justice does not map your god’s justice say “Behold, human courts are not legitimate reflections of God’s justice.” You’ll have to take a single stance; either accept that your invoking of human courts says something about divine justice, or stop invoking human courts as a defense of divine justice. You can’t have it both ways and say that humans courts reflect divine justice…except when it doesn’t.
    On free will, you are correct in understanding my position as follows.
If we have an unavoidable and unrequested predisposition to sin, then we have no free will over sin. What is it about this that is puzzling to you?
And if your god claims that we are deserving of eternal torment for unavoidably following our unrequested predisposition to sin, then your god has clearly been demonstrated to be unjust.
Can any human avoid sinning? Did any human request their sin nature?
If both answers are “no”, then your trust is in an unjust god.
You can’t have a “just” god imposing moral requirements on beings he knows will fail due to a disposition they have neither requested nor can avoid, much less have a “just” god that becomes so wrathful over their unavoidable failings that he can’t seem to find any other punishment other than eternal torment. Justice is not something that your god can redefine to mean nearly the opposite of how humans define justice. We first stand back from any presuppositional trust in a god to assess whether that god is indeed just. We know what justice is. If a man comes to you and tells you that he has been torturing his children in the basement, then claims that he has “genuine love” for his children, you don’t adjust your definition of “love” to accommodate such actions. That man is a liar.
If someone claims to have a god damning to eternal torment humans for following a sin nature that is unrequested and unavoidable, you do not adjust your definition of “justice”. You instead reject their particular god as incorrigibly incoherent, and are rationally free to dismiss such a god out of hand.
First accepting a god that then redefines justice and love into a perversion of how we understand justice and love is getting it backwards. You first assess, prior to trusting such a god, whether the claims of justice and love effusing from such a god reflect notions of justice and love as they are commonly understood. If a god can redefine the terms of a language to mean their opposite, the claims that such a god is “just” or “loving” lose any meaning.
    Imagine another unjust god other than your own that tortures the innocent, yet claims to be just. Now imagine a child taught to believe in such a god, then subsequently taught that their god is mysterious, and can define “justice” in a way that is in stark contrast to the human notion of justice. You’ve enslaved that child’s mind with a circular argument. Don’t you agree?

    • Tim: Phil, you obviously think that the biblical God is unfair, if indeed he exists according to the caricature you’ve developed. I am not entirely unsympathetic to that feeling, as life is often unfair — or at least it seems that way to we feeble-minded humans within our very limited perspective. This is particularly so on a personal level, since we tend to focus on the times when we didn’t get the good things we felt we deserved while easily overlooking the bad things we really did deserve but didn’t receive. Likewise, there are times when all of us wonder about God’s goodness, when it seems that he allows evil men to reign free and cause untold suffering to innocent people. All of this, of course, comes right back to the problem of evil and suffering, which is undoubtedly the most difficult reality for a theist to account for.
      Nevertheless, I see several major issues with your formulation, and so I would like to ask you a few questions. As an atheist, how do you account for the problem of evil and suffering? Do you believe that there are objective moral values? You say, “We know what justice is,” which would seem to imply that you do. Well, then, in what do you ground them?
      I’m sure that you are aware of the “moral argument” for God’s existence, which in syllogistic form could be stated as follows. Premise 1: Objective moral laws exist. (All people recognize that some things are intrinsically morally wrong.) Premise 2: The existence of objective moral laws requires a lawgiver. Conclusion: God exists. How do you propose to get around this argument? After all, if you are going to claim that the biblical God is incoherent because he goes against “notions of justice and love as they are commonly understood,” then you are implying that there is some standard of justice that the biblical God has violated. So where did that standard come from? If the moral argument is valid, as I believe it is, your characterization would imply that there must be some “lawgiving deity” above the biblical God to have established a standard of justice that the biblical God has violated.
      You obviously don’t want to go there, and so it would seem that the only option you are left with is having to commit to a nebulous “emergent” property we humans have developed on our own. Correct me if I am misrepresenting your position here, but in other posts on this website, you have appealed to human consciousness being an “emergent” property as well (and even the universe itself in effect being an “emergent phenomenon” not requiring at least the equivalent of the biblical God to bring it into being). I maintain, however, that “emergence” — whether it be of the universe as a whole, life from non-life, a conscious mind from non-mind or objective, universal moral values from the amoral — is a non-explanation. It is a copout that is entirely equivalent to the “god of the gaps” kind of argument that theists are often accused of (and, indeed, have been guilty of at times in the past).
      If we humans evolved according to a Darwinian model of survival of the fittest, then behaviors such as altruism and notions of any universal moral values go against the grain, as it were, and have no reasonable explanation within that framework. Ad hoc “just so” stories have been imagined to explain all such “emergent” phenomena, but they are all without any real data to back them up.
      I may not be able to fully comprehend how God’s justice and holiness can be compatible with his love and mercy, but for Christians, we can see how the cross of Christ brings them together. It’s true that there is a great mystery there, but it’s no more “mysterious” than “emergence” is in the atheistic paradigm. But the Christian “mystery” comports well with the facts of science and history. The atheist “mystery” does not.

    Phil: Tim, only one of your new questions above directly relates to my question in the title of this post, and I’ll respond to that below. If you would like to introduce other questions for me to respond to (and I strongly encourage it), please do so in new posts. However, nothing in your paragraph above answers the initial question in this post. You seem to be now merely trying to make my position equivalent to yours in terms of their degree of “mystery”. I am claiming that your “mystery” is logically incoherent, and that emergence, though mysterious, is grounded completely in a material substrate we do understand. There is a vast difference between logical incoherence and a logically coherent yet puzzling fact. And your attempt to make all world views equally “mysterious” in some sort of salvaging of your own position obviously fails if you hold that your position is rational.

    You asked how I define “justice”. Justice is having an equality between the degree of the offense, the degree of free will to avoid offending, and the degree of the suffering the punishment inflicts. (Degree of Free Will * Degree of Offense = Degree of Punishment) For the question of this post, the degree of the offense is zero since we cannot avoid our unrequested sin nature. The degree of our free will is calculated to be 0:7,000,000,000+ in this case. Therefore a just god cannot inflict any punishment at all on humans who (according to the bible) have no actual free will to avoid offending that god.

    • Tim:

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