I often struggle when people speak of their “sins.” Indeed, it is not unusual to be asked, “Is ___ a sin?” The question always makes me feel like a lawyer.
Imagine that, instead of a doctor, you have a lawyer whom you consult for your medical problems. You are having trouble breathing. You’re short of breath and occasionally you cough up blood. You go to your doctor (lawyer) and he examines you. He doesn’t listen to your chest, take x-rays or do a scan. Instead, he asks you some careful questions.
“Have you ever smoked?”
“No,” You answer.
“Have you ever been exposed to asbestos?”
“No,” you reply again. His questions continue in a similar manner.
“Have you always tried to take good care of your health, eaten correctly, and exercised?”
“Yes,” you say.
“Well, then,” he concludes. “I see no problem here.”
“But I can barely breathe and sometimes I cough up blood.”
“Well, clearly it’s not your fault, so I wouldn’t worry too much about it. But how’s that bunion we discussed last time? Have you become truly sorry for buying those cheap shoes?”
Sin is not a legal problem because God is not a lawyer (and neither is a priest if he knows his business). Sin is a death problem. It’s far more like a disease than anything else. St. Athanasius offers this important observation in one of the most central texts in all of patristic thought:
But men, having turned from the contemplation of God to evil of their own devising, had come inevitably under the law of death. Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion. For the transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again according to their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again. The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good. By nature, of course, man is mortal, since he was made from nothing; but he bears also the Likeness of Him Who is, and if he preserves that Likeness through constant contemplation, then his nature is deprived of its power and he remains incorrupt. So is it affirmed in Wisdom: “The keeping of His laws is the assurance of incorruption.” (On the Incarnation, 1.4).
Though the words, “law,” “transgression,” “commandment,” are used in this passage, they do not govern its meaning. Instead, Athanasius gives them a different understanding. As many of the Fathers would do following him, St. Athanasius equates existence with goodness. God is the only truly existing One. Created in His likeness, we are created with a view towards eternal life. When we broke communion with God through sin, we let loose a principle of “corruption” (literally “rot”) in our lives. Sin is thus given the meaning of death and corruption, a movement towards non-existence, a return to the dust from which we were made.
That process of death and corruption is not a punishment—it is a consequence. God does not say, “In the day you eat of it, I will kill you.” He warns, “You will surely die.” Athanasius again:
But since the will of man could turn either way, God secured this grace that He had given by making it conditional from the first upon two things—namely, a law and a place. He set them in His own paradise, and laid upon them a single prohibition. If they guarded the grace and retained the loveliness of their original innocence, then the life of paradise should be theirs, without sorrow, pain or care, and after it the assurance of immortality in heaven. But if they went astray and became vile, throwing away their birthright of beauty, then they would come under the natural law of death and live no longer in paradise, but, dying outside of it, continue in death and in corruption. This is what Holy Scripture tells us, proclaiming the command of God, “Of every tree that is in the garden thou shalt surely eat, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil ye shall not eat, but in the day that ye do eat, ye shall surely die.”
“Ye shall surely die”—not just die only, but remain in the state of death and of corruption. (On the Incarnation, 1.3).
Again, the text here uses the term “law,” but his sense of it is not of a rule that is broken, but of a principle at work. Indeed, the translator uses the term “natural law,” though the Greek actually says, “the death which is according to nature.” Sometimes translators insert unnecessary confusion by the forensic mentality that has so governed Western Christian thought.
What should be noted is the interior of Athanasius’ thought. For many, the very hint of law would drive them towards the notion of rules broken and punishment incurred. As such, none of the language of death, corruption, being, non-existence, would be necessary or even come to mind. But the force of everything Athanasius is saying is predicated on ontology—the question of being. The “mechanics” of sin are understood in terms of being and the loss of communion bringing about a fall towards non-being. There is simply no use of the imagery common to forensic thought.
So, you go to your doctor and say, “I can’t breathe well and I’m coughing up blood.” He runs scans and tests, comes back and says, “You have cancer. I’ll need to operate and do some other things.” And you complain, “But I never smoked! I was never around asbestos! I took care of myself, ate well and exercised.” So the doctor says, “Well, then. Legally you shouldn’t have cancer, but you do. And if I don’t treat you, you’ll die.”
This is the true atonement. Being made one (at-one-ment) with the Living God, we have life, not according to reward, nor according to the law, but according to the God/Man who took our dying nature upon Himself and endured death. Trampling down death, He rose again that all who are united to Him might trample down death and rise as well.