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Sin and its Consequences
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Our theme is sin and its consequences. We shall first look at what the Old Testament tells us and then the New. Before we start however, I thought I would read a few lines from a book, which you may know exists. I wont say where I got it. The Gospels Without Myth, by Louis Evely. In his chapter on the Forgiveness of Sins he writes, Religion today is too often merely the worship of guilt, an obsession with sin and an exercise in the rubrics of repentance. It is though God took pleasure in seeing man humiliated, and in recalling to him his unworthiness. No, God is not a judge He judges no one. Its unfortunate that we have kept that ambiguous phrase in the Apostles Creed, He shall come to judge the living and the dead. The author was a priest. His writings have done incalculable damage to thousands of souls. Sometimes it is good to remind ourselves that not everyone, even those who call themselves Catholic, believe what we do.
We begin then our reflections on sin and its consequences. The Bible takes sin very seriously. Unlike so many modern writers including theologians and philosophers, the authors of Sacred Scripture consider sin the only real evil in the world, and they measure all other suffering or misfortune in their relationship to sin. Sin appears early in the history of mankind in the first chapters of Genesis, and it remains as a threat of tragic unity all through the Sacred Writings up to, and I have checked it, the closing verses of the Apocalypse.
Both testaments all but exhausts the vocabulary of Hebrew and Greek in the variety of terms they use to identify sin. Sin we are told by the Bible is a mis. It is a misfortune. It is a failure. It is an error. It is a mistake. It is a wondering. It is a straying. It is a revolt. It is rebellion. It is wickedness. It is evil. It is Godlessness. It is profanity; it is treachery; it is apostasy; it is wrongdoing; it is perversion; it is badness. It is acting guiltily. It is injustice. It is malice. I thought I should stop somewhere. I checked each one of these vocables every one is a biblical synonym for sin. So the litany of the names for sin accumulates, as in the rising crescendo to make it loud and clear that something terrible has entered the world with sin, and the retribution for sin is pain. Four monosyllables should always be associated: God, man, sin and pain. God is offended by mans sin. Gods retribution for sin is pain. This is so true that a fair subtitle for the Bible would be: The Problem of Sin and its Solution.
Unlike the religions of polytheism or the blasphemies of Manichaeism, biblical revelations teach on almost every page of the scriptures that angels and men have free wills, that they can choose to abuse their freedom and to disobey God. That their disobedience is sin and that the Divine penalty for sin is death: either as the separation of the body from the soul in time, or also the separation of the soul from God, the second death in eternity. Built into this biblical understanding of sin, as its essence, is the fact that a sinner rebels against his Creator to Whom he owes everything that he has, and without Whom he would not even exist. How this is possible for a creature to say no to its Creator, the Bible never explains. Sin is a mystery; but, the capacity for resisting the Divine Will is assumed and indeed stands as the main reason for the Incarnation, and the only adequate explanation of Christianity. Without sin Christ makes no sense, and Christmas is a pious legend.
We First Then Look at Original Sin
The sin of Adam and Eve is described in Genesis as an act of disobedience. Our first parents consciously placed themselves in opposition to God by violating his explicit precept. Good to remember where that occurs: Genesis 3:3. However, even before they committed the external sin of disobedience they had already sinned in their hearts by giving in to the devils suggestions. All sin begins inside. They wished to be as the devil promised them, quote, To be like gods knowing both good and evil. unquote. In other words, so the demon promised them, they wanted to displace God in deciding between good and evil. Their external eating of the forbidden fruit was only a manifestation of an interior refusal of dependence on God. And in this way they reversed the true relationship between man and the source of his being.
In my now many hours of conversation with Mother Teresa she tells me, Abortion is not mainly a sin of injustice against unborn children, it is mainly a crime against God. No wonder, no wonder, as people become godless they become murderers claiming the right over life and death which belongs only to the Creator.
To be stressed is that the bible describes this relationship between God and man as not only one of dependence on God, but of true friendship with God. Adam and Eve had received everything from the Lord. He wanted them to be happy. That is why God made rational creatures. Yet, in sinning they gave into the doubt of questioning Gods goodness. Inspired by the evil one they actually wondered if maybe, just maybe, God was not withholding something from them. Perhaps the devil intimated, God was afraid that they would be happy like Himself. That was the point of the devils temptation. No, he told Eve, you will not die; but, God knew that the day that you would eat of this fruit you would be like gods, knowing good and evil. unquote Genesis quoting the devil. Thus the devil perverted the very concept of God as infinite being who cannot He cannot lack anything, and His infinite love who can only give because He is in need of nothing. The devil depicted God as self-interested and concerned only with protecting Himself from His creatures.
As my ordained idiot author claims, The lesson here is profound. Before man sinned by bodily action his spirit had first to be seduced to embrace error, that is why the foundation of the spiritual life is knowing the truth. Because all evil in the will is finally founded on error in the mind, willingly embraced. Once they had sinned, Adam and Eve radically changed. Even before they were driven from the garden or suffered the death with which they had been threatened, they shrank from familiarity with God. We are told, They hid themselves among the thorns from the face of Yahweh God. unquote. The sinner is afraid of God. He better be!
Sin also induced a rupture in human society. No sooner had he sinned than Adam withdrew and began to accuse the woman whom God has given as companion. All sinners blame others for their misdeeds. Memorize that!
The penalty was also visited on her. She was told, You shall be in your husbands power, and he shall have dominion over you. unquote Yahweh. No sooner were they driven out of Eden than the passion which sin released showed themselves in Cains murder of his brother Abel. To be exact, the next chapter of Genesis. This was followed by a flood of violence where the law of the strongest was praised in the Song of Lamech, Genesis 4:24. Where might became right as it is tragically to this day.
Nor was this all, not only did man loose ready control of his lowered state, but the devil was allowed greater freedom over the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve than he would ever of had, had our first parents not sinned. The contrast between what man was originally and what sinned did to him was startling. The Book of Wisdom has this frightening statement, I quote, God formed man to be imperishable, the image of His own nature He made him, but by the enemy of the devil, death entered the world, and they who are in his possession experience it. How powerful was the devils influence became fully evident only with the coming of Christ, the moment Christ began His public ministry the demons came out of hell realizing that their Master in the person of Jesus Christ was in the world. There was such manifestation of diabolical possession, as the world has ever known before or since. The exorcisms of the Gospels are the devils own witness to Christs divinity.
With all these devastating consequences of sin, God did not leave man without hope. Almost as soon as our first parents disobeyed God, He promised to redeem them. Speaking to the serpent He said, I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers. She will strike at your head while you strike at her heal. Unquote, Genesis 3:15. By the way that feminine gender is the correct translation. I sometimes wonder why I had to drearily study Hebrew and Greek, all I know is it helps. Known as the Protoevangelium or the First Gospel, this is the prediction of final victory by the womans offspring, who is Christ; over the offspring of the devil who are the rebels against God. And my friend, that offspring of the devil is on earth today. You better, you better believe it! So much for original sin.
The Sins of the Chosen People of God
We are still of course in the Old Testament. As early as the sixth chapter of Genesis the Bible declares that, quote, The Lord saw how great was mans wickedness on earth, and on how no desire that his heart conceived was ever anything but evil. Genesis 6:5. These quotations by the way, took years to select. They are carefully chosen. In punishing the evil doing of the offspring of Adam and Eve the Lord decided, I quote, I will wipe out from the earth the men whom I have created. And not only the men but also the beasts and the creeping things and the birds of the air for I am sorry that I made them. Unquote Yahweh: Genesis 6:7
Very early in biblical revelation only, we are told, Noah and his family remained faithful to the Lord. Then came the deluge by which, quote, The Lord wiped out every living thing on earth, all were wiped out from the earth. With only Noah and his family surviving, God made a covenant with Noah long before He made a covenant with Abraham. He made an agreement with Noah promising never again to destroy life on earth by a flood. But leave it to man, in time the descendents of Noah also fell into sin, they were punished by the confusion of tongues over what came to be called the Tower of Babel.
Finally centuries later, one of Noahs descendents, Abram, was called by the Lord to found a great nation, it would become the chosen people, Abraham was followed by Isaac, Isaac by Jacob. And the book of Genesis closes with the death of Jacob who was renamed Israel God is strong. Jacobs descendents now known as the Israelites, to coin a word, the Jacobites, were miraculously delivered from the slavery of Egypt. The Lord multiplied His wonders to set His chosen people free. On their way to the Promised Land, however, these chosen by Yahweh, the children of His predilection, time and again proved unfaithful to their God. The rest of the Old Testament, and we are just up to Exodus, the whole rest of the Exodus on through the last book of the Torah is a dreary recital of one infidelity after another.
The Israelites grumble against Moses and Aaron for bringing them out of the land of Egypt as we sat by our fleshpots and ate our fill of bread. Leave it to Gods creatures even His most beloved. True to their nature, human beings are prone to sin. When Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving from the Lord the Law that Israel was to obey, Moses is conversing with God! What do the Israelites do? It is past belief! He comes down from the mountain, Moses, and what does he find? He found that Aaron, oh no not Aaron, Aaron allowed himself to be prevailed upon by the Jews to make a golden calf, and there they were. Moses, fresh from conversing with Yahweh, finds these stupid Israelites adoring a golden calf. This so angered the Lord that He threatened, as He said, To consume them. Moses pleaded, begged, Lord I know these people have hard hearts. I know they are wicked. I know they are rebellious, but have mercy on them. Still on their way to the Promised Land the Israelites complained against Moses, because, you just cannot please human beings. First they complained that they did not have the fleshpots of Egypt. Then the Lord works miracles. Sends them manna and they complain, We see nothing more than manna. Oh no! The Lord was angry with His people, and we are told, quote Struck them with a mighty plague.
Before we go on let me remind you, the wickedness of our modern Israelites, to speak of our own fellow American citizens, will not go unpunished, let me repeat, the days are numbered. God is not mocked. And by now one Divine communication after another in which the Mother of God appears and the Church approves are communications, warning repent, do penance, otherwise, not I say this, but Christ says it, You will all likewise perish. And we are only in the book of Numbers, still one of the five first books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, one deluge of sin after another.
On the eve of entering the Promised Land, which he was never to see, Moses told the people what the Lord had instructed him to say. I forbear quoting the entire text. It is Deuteronomy 30:15-20. Just before he was called into eternity, Moses one last time pleaded with his people. I leave before you life and death, choose life and you will be happy. God will reward you beyond your fondest dreams, if you obey Him. But God will punish you beyond your worst nightmares if you disobey Him. But, as the subsequence history of Israel shows the chosen people were almost habitually wavering between fidelity to Yahweh and estrangement from Him. Prophet after prophet was sent to warn them and urge them to mend their ways, and the warnings of the prophets all came true. So they repented temporarily, and after awhile disloyalty again, and again just retribution from the Lord. All of this is preliminary to the Incarnation.
No wonder Saint Ignatius tells his sons, When giving the spiritual exercises, portray symbolically the Holy Trinity looking down upon the earth. And seeing such wickedness, cruelty, lechery, debauchery, hatred that Father, Son and Holy Spirit enter into council and decide that the Second Person should come down among wicked men. So that having rejected the prophets and put them to death the world might listen to God in human form telling His creatures to repent.
Whatever else the prophets of Israel teach us, and they teach us much, it is a lesson that sin is the only obstacle to Gods plan for the people whom He chose, past tense, and chooses, present tense, to be His own. More than once the Israelites are told that the sins of the nation are the reason for the misfortunes of the nation. Know, Isaiah proclaimed, the hand of Yahweh is not too short to save, nor His ear too deaf to hear, but your iniquities have dug an abyss between you and your God. unquote Isaiah; chapter 50:1-2. Moreover and most importantly as we close, the prophets make it very clear that the inherent malice of sin is not so many other things that follow in the wake of sin, that the essence of sins is it offends God. Of course, God being All Perfect cannot be personally harmed, but sin is contrary to the Divine Will. It is offensive to the Lord and it does injury to the sinner whom God wants to be happy. What ever else you remember from what I hope will not be dreary hours of my speaking to you, try not to forget the only happy people are those who serve God. The only unhappy people, even in this life are sinners.
As the prophets viewed sin it was rebelling against God Who understandably was not indifferent to mans disobedience to his Creator. If the sinner rejects Gods laws, God in turn will demand repentance. Which means a conversion from sin. Im wasting good New Mexico air, unless as the fruit of whatever I share with you, you will look into your hearts and humbly tell God Lord be merciful to me a sinner. Whatever else is plain from Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezechiel, it is that Gods mercy never dispenses man from returning to God. The same free will that we have abused in sinning we must use to repent. We must want to return. Dear Jesus, You came into the world to save us from sin Your very name, Jesus, means Savior. Give us the grace to see where and how and how deeply we have offended against Your love. Then dear Savior give us the strength to be more generous than we would ever have been had we not sinned, because having been so merciful to us in the past we promise to be more than ever generous to You in the future.
New Testament Understanding of Sin
Our present reflections are on Jesus and sinners. In order to bring out the full meaning of the New Testament understanding of sin, I think it would be wise to distinguish between what the first three Evangelists tell us about our Lord and sinners, and then St. John. There is quite a difference between Matthew, Mark and Luke on the one hand, and John on the other in their respective description of Jesus and sinners. Matthew, Mark and Luke stress the fact that God became man in order to save sinners. And the Savior frequently exercises His merciful love toward sinners who entered His public ministry. In fact, it is in Matthews Gospel as we know that the angel told Joseph that he was to name the child, to be born of Mary, Jesus, because He would save His people from their sins. John on the other hand, while of course recognizing Christs mercy, rather, emphasizes the conflict between the sinful powers of darkness and the Divine Word Who became flesh and dwelt among us. You might the emphasis in the Synoptic Gospels is on Christs relationship to individual sinners. Where as in John, it is the mighty God Who became man and with Whom there will be conflict to the very end of time between the powers of darkness and the followers of Christ.
First then the Synoptics. From the opening chapter of Matthew, as we just noted, it is clear why God became man. He became man in order to save His people from their sins; Mt. 1:20-21. As Christ grew to manhood in His first preaching in Capharnaum, Jesus, Matthew relates, began proclaiming the theme and Matthew quotes the Savior, Reform your lives the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Mt. 4:17. Christs lengthy Sermon on the Mount is mainly a series of injunctions on practicing virtue and avoiding sin. From then on the Savior not only exhorted His followers to repent, but more then once He forgave sinners, provided they were truly sorry. Remember that dramatic episode when the people saw the room all crowded, no doubt they were flowing out the doors, and they had a paralytic who of course wanted to be healed, no possibility of getting in through the crowd. Simple, climbed on the roof, made a hole in the roof, and then the people made way, otherwise the paralyzed man would have descended on their heads. Christs first words to the paralytic who was unceremoniously dropped in front of Jesus, Have courage Christ told him, Son, your sins are forgiven. Needless to say the paralytic realized he was a sinner, but thats not why he came down the roof. The scribes, always cooperative, between themselves they said, Why does this man talk this way? He commits blasphemy. Who can forgive sins but God alone." Get that alone. Jesus didnt have to overhear what they were saying. He knew their thoughts. So He asked them, Im not sure He began by saying, Gentlemen, Which is easier to say to the paralytic; your sins are forgiven or to say stand up, pick up your mat and walk again. That you may know that the Son of Man has authority on Earth to forgive sin, He turned to the paralyzed man, I command you, stand up, pick up your mat and go home. Matthew says, The man stood and picked up his mat and went outside in the sight of everyone. A paralytic shoving his way out of a room, no wonder then, the onlookers were amazed and gave praise to God while saying, We have never seen anything like this. unquote. Mt. 9:1-8.
The tragedy was that for all the miracles that Christ worked and all the wisdom that He spoke He was not accepted by the very people who had seen and heard most of His wonders and preaching. There is no more pathetic passage in scripture then the five verses in Matthews Gospel where the Son of God reproaches the impenitent towns who rejected Him. Woe to you Capharnaum. It will go easier with Sodom and Gommorah then with you. Then Christ recounted how the prophets of old in preaching penance to their people, were finally listened to. But His own chosen people would not listen to their God. That sin, a creature standing up to the Creator, from then on we are told, Christs public ministry took on a different view. Oh, He continued proclaiming the truth and insisting that He was speaking only what the Father from eternity had shared with His Son. But, from the eleventh chapter of Matthew on, Christ began to make the sad comparison between two kinds of people. Those who had sinned but acknowledged the wrongdoing and received what Christ was teaching with an open heart, and those who remained steeped in their sins and closed their minds to the word of salvation. Given these facts the passion and death of Christ becomes inevitable. Having so often rebuked the Scribes and Pharisees for their stubborn sinful blindness, telling them they were sinning against the Holy Spirit by their refusal to acknowledge their pride calling them an evil generation, sons of the devil, blind men leading the blind. What would you expect? Either they would convert, which they refused to do or they would plot the death of the ones who were their consciences, and told them they were in sin. There is no hatred more cruel, no treachery more demonic than that of an unrepentant sinner. Thirty-seven years in the priesthood have taught me many things none more clearly then that.
We are still on the Synoptic Gospels. One thing especially stands out in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, God is portrayed as indeed merciful beyond human reckoning. On the cross Christ could say about those who crucified Him Father forgive them, they do not know what they are doing. But, and what an awful but this is, this same merciful God is just. And if sinners will not repent, and that will not is not mere future tense. If sinners voluntarily, deliberately, stubbornly refuse to repent, divine retribution follows inexorably. Whatever else the Synoptics teach us, they teach us it is the same Jesus Who said, Come to me all you who labor and are heavily burdened and I will refresh you. Who also said, He will say depart from me you condemned into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels. Both are quotations from Christ; it is the same God. The difference between the merciful God Who forgives and the just God Who punishes, the difference is our own free will. We have the key to unlock the mercy of God. So much for the Synoptics.
St. John. From his opening prologue St. John the Evangelist depicts the coming of Christ as the advent of light into a world steeped in darkness and the shadow of death. He says I quote, The light has come into the world and men have loved the darkness better than the light because their works were evil. John 3:19. Sinners by definition are opposed to the truth. Why? Because they dread it, they fear that their works will be made known. Quote John, Whoever does evil hates the light. How often over the years I have consoled myself, for example; it is almost ten years now that several television stations in Chicago have been trying to engage a debate, they call it dialogue, between yours truly and the notorious Hans Küng. Hans Küng hates the light. He has consistently refused, he knows hes a charlatan pretending to be a Catholic.
What John is telling us is that sinners willfully blind refuse to recognize evil when they see it. So that Christ can say to them, If you are blind, hear these words, if you were blind you would be without sin, but you say we see your sin remains. There is a pathetic logic in the sinners twisted thinking. They realize down deep in their hearts that what they are doing is wrong, but if they admit it, even to themselves, that their conduct is sinful, they would have to repent. Which means that they would have to surrender their will to God. Instead they persist in their wickedness and allow their wills to close their minds to the truth. Some of these statements took me twenty years to put together. Ive seen it and it is a terrifying sight to behold: willful, unrepentant sin.
St. John makes it plain that such deliberate self-blinding is a result of demonic influence. Sin in such people is at the service of the devil. Says John quoting Christ, Whoever commits sin is the slave of sin. And as the followers of Christ are sons of God by adoption; so sinners are sons of the devil, who Christ says, Who was a sinner from the beginning. In fact John again tells us it was to destroy the work of the devil that the Son of God came into the world. All the sin in the world today is the result of the devils successful temptation of our first parents and successful seduction of sinners ever since. Two sins, we are told by St. John, are especially the work of the devil; namely murder and lying. Satan we told, and I quote, From the beginning was a killer and he has not established the truth because there was no truth in him. When he tells his lies, he draws them from his own substance, because he is a liar and the father of lies. John 8:44.
So the devil is a liar, but the devil is also a killer. It was he who brought death into the world. And then by inspiring Cain to kill his brother Abel opened the door to all murderers ever since. The devil became the arch killer when he inspired Judas to betray his Master. Christ has just told the astonished apostles, remember, the last supper, One of you will betray me. John the same one who records the fact, leaned over to the Master and asked Him, Lord who is he? Christ answered, The one to whom I give the bit of food I dip into the dish. Then Jesus dipped the morsel and passed it on to Judas. Said John, Immediately after, Satan entered his heart. So prominent is this understanding of sin in St. John that he records the sweeping accusation leveled by Christ against the Jews who conspired to destroy Him. You want to kill me. He told them, I Who speak the truth that I heard from God. You do the work of your father and you wish to fulfill your fathers desires. Their father, Christ made it clear, was the devil.
One more Johannine insight deserves to be shed. So intent is the devil on destruction, that if he could he would destroy God Himself. No other explanation of Christs crucifixion is ultimately coherent. Remember when Christ was to begin His public ministry? He was three times assailed by the devil in the desert. That was the beginning. And all through His public life Christ was, on the left and on the right, driving the devil out of possessed persons. Through these possessed persons the demon spoke with undisguised hatred of the divine exorcist. But the devil never gave up. At the last supper, as we just saw, Satan finally conquered. He possessed Judas, who under demonic control, Christs own apostle betrayed his Master.
God as God is the immortal One. No one can kill God. But God became man and allowed Himself to be killed at the instigation of the devil. Every murderer, before and after Christ, including the millions of unborn children every year, every murderer symbolizes more than most people realize. These homicides are all attempted Deicides. Where the real object of hatred is not the human victim but God. If the devil or his human agents were able, they would do away with God. How dare He tell us, sinners exclaim, how dare God tell us what to do or what not to do; we will not serve, away with Him, away with Him, crucify Him, Crucify Him. We might therefore justly rephrase Pilots cowardly question to the frenzied Jews. Shall I crucify your king? He could well have asked, Shall I crucify your God? And they would answer, We have no God except ourselves. To read even a single page of a mad man like Nietzsche, whose demonic hatred of God has by now infected whole nations, is to recognize what Christ really meant when He told us that the devil is a murderer. We close with a prayer.
Lord Jesus, you are the loving God Who came into the world to save sinners. But we believe You are also the almighty God. Who, if sinners do not repent, punish even for all eternity those who love themselves more than You. What we most want, Dear Jesus, is the grace to love You more than ourselves even if the price You demand is the sacrifice of what we most love on earth. Jesus, mighty God, have mercy on us sinners.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
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