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Lost in Translation: How to Speak about Sin in a “Sinless” World

an image of a megaphone to represent the importance of speaking about sin in a sinless world.

Our Western world is Christian enough to grasp that words like sin, repentance, and redemption are technical Christian terms. But it is post-Christian enough to not understand what those words mean within the storyline of Scripture or within a Christian worldview. Many people have just enough understanding of Christianity to be allergic to it and just enough ignorance of Christianity to be able to distort it.1

As we increasingly live in post-Christian societies, amounting to “a diverse, secular, and pagan world with Christian overtones,”2 we must be conscious of the linguistic divide that separates us and how weird and foreign scriptural language can sound to outsiders. What this means is that when you quote John 3:16 or Romans 6:23, a person might hear the words you say, but their understanding of “God,” “sin,” “world,” and “faith” will not necessarily be the same as yours. You might as well as be speaking in Shakespearian auld Englishe or Klingon. It sounds foreign and perhaps a little bit freaky.

I find this to be especially the case when it comes to “sin.” Our English word to unchurched ears sounds like archaic, moralizing, religious rhetoric. As a result, trying to convince people that they are sinners and that their sin separates them from God is becoming increasingly difficult. This creates a dilemma: it is hard to proclaim the “forgiveness of sins” (Luke 24:47; Acts 2:38; Col 1:14; Eph 1:7) to people who don’t understand sin or else do not believe in it.

The meaning of sin in a post-sin world

I cannot speak for America, but certainly in the United Kingdom and Australia, the words sin and sinner are no longer an affront. They are considered moralizing religious terms. When many people hear “sin,” what they hear is “naughty but fun.” Or else, sin means sticking it to religious authority, the church, and right-wing cultural Christianity. To be a sinner is to be a rebel who refuses to heel under any authority, especially religious authority.

For example, not far from where I used to live in Brisbane, Australia, there was a highway. On one side of the highway was a strip mall with a tattoo parlor called Sin the Skin. On the other side of the highway directly opposite was another strip mall with an adult sex shop called Sinsational. I’m not making this up! Now, if I told people at these strip malls that Jesus offers them salvation from sin, they would either think I was trying to recruit them into a religious cult or else I was trying to suck some fun out of their lives.

In a post-Christian world sin is not a bad word, a shocking concept, or something one seeks naturally to avoid.

In a post-Christian world, sin is not a bad word, a shocking concept, or something one seeks naturally to avoid. It is partying hard, going with the flow, or even being true to yourself.

Conceiving of ethics without sinfulness

Do not misunderstand me. I’m not saying non-Christians have no conscience and no language for right and wrong. They most certainly do. Our post-Christian world has ways of talking about values. It’s just that the language and the concepts behind them are not biblical.

When our post-Christian world talks about right and wrong behavior, it often uses post-Christian categories. The categories are not guilt and innocence, shame and honor, impurity and cleansing, or vice and virtue. Rather, the way unchurched people—your average postmodern “none”—thinks about bad stuff is through a tripartite lens.

I aver that three main metrics for ethics in a post-Christian world are as follows:

1. Therapeutic

Pain is bad and pleasure is good. If it feels good, and as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else, it is okay. If something hurts, inhibits self-expression, or stifles desire, then it is bad.

This is why in some ethical schemes, euthanasia is permissible (because it erases pain) and why celibacy must be bad (because it restricts sexual desire). Think of the famous saying, “Eat, drink, and be merry” or the line, “Whatever turns you on.”

2. Autonomy

People are entitled to their own agency, to be captains of their own soul, and the master of their own existence. No external authority, whether government or a religious organization, should impose their values on me and my body. I have the right to pursue my dreams, my pleasures, and my relationships without anybody stopping me. You could summarize this with the mottos “Don’t tread on me” or “Get your rosaries off my ovaries.”

3. Oppression

One way postmoderns resolve ethical dilemmas is through a sharp binary of dividing people and issues into the categories of oppressor and oppressed. This has particular purchase in Marxist, post-colonial, and critical theories, but it has seeped into contemporary media and pop culture.

Rather than acknowledge the historical complexities and multiple factors pertaining to Israel and Palestine, LGBTI rights vs. religious freedom, the British Empire’s relationship to slavery, or immigration debates, it is easier to decry one side as an oppressor, which both begins and ends the argument. Imagine a college student yelling at a professor who belongs to the wrong political tribe, “Liar, liar, colonizer,” or someone at a protest holding a sign saying, “Whiteness is violence.”

If the above three metrics form the ethical paradigm from which many people operate, if this is their language for measuring wrong, for articulating what is good, then how do you convince them that sin affronts God and dehumanizes the person?

A cultural hermeneutic for hamartiology

Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation while hamartiology is the study of the doctrine of sin.

I want to suggest that talking about sin to a post-Christian world requires some cultural hermeneutics. You have to explain biblical concepts in a way that people in a certain culture or sub-culture can understand. The way you talk about sin to a Muslim immigrant from Sudan will be different than how you talk about it with a white upper middle-class female college student from Massachusetts.

Talking about sin to a post-Christian world requires some cultural hermeneutics.

We’re helped by the fact that the Bible itself offers us different words for sin and its consequences.3 You are probably familiar with the notion of sin as “missing the mark” (from the Hebrew חטא). But the Bible contains other terms and idioms for sin as well. A cursory glance at Romans 1–3 shows Paul describing sin among Gentiles as ignorance, idolatry, impurity, inhumanity, and immorality, and among Jews as disobedience and unfaithfulness.

Some cultures will understand sin through the lens of honor and shame, others through guilt and innocence, and others in terms of power and oppression. Often you can simply match the cultural scale of right/wrong against the appropriate biblical word and unpack it from there.

But in other contexts, one needs to be a little more creative. For example, Australians are very big on looking after their mates, being faithful to their friends, looking after their mob. You don’t “rip off” your mates or your mob. Accordingly, Peter Ko has argued that in Australia a helpful idiom is to talk of sin in terms of “ripping God off,” which is a very “Aussie” way of trying to convey the idea of sin without the cultural and religious baggage of the word itself.4

Techniques like that, I suggest, are the type of cultural hermeneutics and communication one needs in order to explain sin in a post-Christian world.

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Culture’s theological currency: evil

For all the diversities of Christian and post-Christian perspectives on sin, perhaps one word still possesses the required currency for explaining sin, even transcending political divides. That is the notion of evil.

Whereas sin has religious overtones and can sound archaic, the language of evil is recognizable and comprehensible across many subcultures. People grasp evil and have an almost instantaneous understanding of its gravity and horror. They see evil on the news. Nearly every movie has a bad guy, a villain, a monster, and an evil power lurking behind it. While people will balk at the language of sin, they will take you seriously when you talk about evil.

The challenge is to get them to think about evil not as something “over there,” found in other people, but something that infects and inhabits themselves. The evil is in me just as it is in you!

I’ve found that people are open to discussing evil. What is its nature? What makes someone evil? What is the cure for the world’s evils? This makes it easier to get around to the big question that everyone needs to ask themselves in the end: Am I evil?

Most people’s reaction to such a question is, “No, of course not. There are eight billion people on this planet I haven’t murdered, I adopted a dog from an animal shelter, I donate to the Red Cross, and I help my landlady take out her garbage.” To which I retort, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis are not the standard for evil. Evil is a lack of love, a lack of empathy, an absence of God’s goodness in us. Evil is a mixture of a hideous selfishness and an inability to love others. To which I ask them: How are you doing on that score?

I then go for a quick tour of Romans 7:7–25 about the “wretched man” who is perplexed as to how to stop himself from doing “evil.” I then add that famous quote from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago:

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?5

For people who are big on social justice but have a low view of religion, we can translate the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth into a Nietzchean idiom:

He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.6

That is to say, in your quest for a just world, if you don’t check the evil that resides in your own heart, then you risk becoming worse than the very thing you think you are fighting against! You would be surprised how many people have entertained the fantasy of just one, big, violent purge clearing the world of their enemies to create utopia on earth. A utopia achieved by gulags or guillotines!

From Solzhenitsyn and Nietzsche, we can ask: Do you feel the same struggle within yourself? What are you really capable of? What evil do you harbor in your own heart? As Jesus himself warned, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” (Matt 15:19 NIV). When you warn people that evil is not something that only exists in other people, but is already in them, then the cries, “Deliver us from evil” (Matt 6:13) and “Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me” (Rom 7:21), start to make more sense.

God’s plan to put the world to right is a plan to heal the world of evil. The cross is about rescue from evil—even our own evil.

From there, we can more easily explain that God’s plan to put the world to right is a plan to heal the world of evil. The cross is about rescue from evil and reconciliation to God. The cross is God’s solution to environmental vandalism, war, greed, injustice, and cosmic evil—even our own evil. Evil offends God because it ruins the beauty of his creation. It rebels against his holiness and love. Evil mars us into malevolence by its selfish seduction.

We feel the need to fear the evil that lurks even in our own hearts. Who can save us from it?

How to preach sin to a post-sin world

There are different ways of understanding sin. Tom McCall writes that sin is

whatever is opposed to God’s will, as that will reflects God’s holy character and as that will is expressed by God’s commands. Sin is fundamentally opposed to nature and reason, and it is ultimately opposed to God.7

That’s a sufficient definition; elsewhere I’ve argued:

The root of sin is the worship of the self in place of the worship of God. Sin breeds self-made men and women who love to worship their creator—themselves. Sinners want to be free of God’s word, his will, his worship, and his world. Sin turns humanity into treasonous tyrants committed to any form of terror to gratify their lusts or to secure their own power. Sinners want a theocracy where they are the “theo.” Sin, in the end, is a form of cosmic treason. Sin is the foolish effort at deicide and the even more foolish belief in self-deification. It amounts to a pathetic attempt at a coup d’état against the Lord of the cosmos.8

You do well to conduct a few word studies about sin from your Bible and then delve into a bit of hamartiology. But where the rubber hits the road is when you have to explain the biblical sense of sin to a post-Christian audience. To do that, you need to move from biblical exegesis to cultural hermeneutics.

Ransack the worldview of the people you are talking to and find something that corresponds to the biblical notions of sin. Maybe that notion is shame, contamination, ripping someone off, injustice, or tyranny. Whatever it is, use it to translate biblical concepts of sin into images, idioms, and ideas that people can understand. Or else find something that transcends cultures, like the concept of evil: something that people can latch onto and something that provides a doorway into the biblical story of creation, fall, and redemption.

The call remains to “Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16 NIV; emphasis added). We must lead people to worship the Lord Jesus “who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age” (Gal 1:4 NIV; emphasis added).

Brand, Miryam T. Evil Within and Without: The Source of Sin and Its Nature as Portrayed in Second Temple Literature. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013.

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  1. The validity of this point will depend on who you talk to. Christian literacy varies depending on age (Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, Zillennials), location (Bible Belt vs. Coastal Cites), previous exposure to religious sub-cultures (Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Ex-vangelical, Nones, never-churched, spiritual-but-not-religious), and political persuasion (progressive, conservative, or libertarian).
  2. Katherine Sonderegger, “Holy Scripture as Sacred Ground,” in The Task of Dogmatics: Explorations in Theological Method, eds. O. D. Crisp and F. Sanders (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 133.
  3. R.C. Cover and E. P. Sanders, “Sin, Sinners,” The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, ed. D. N. Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1996), 6:31–47.
  4. I owe this point to Peter Ko, “Ways to Explain Sin,” The Gospel Coalition Australia, March 3, 2016. https://australia.thegospelcoalition.org/article/four-ways-to-explain-sin.
  5. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 168.
  6. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, trans. Helen Zimmern (Edinburgh, UK: T. N. Foulis, 1909), 146.
  7. Tom McCall, Against God and Nature: The Doctrine of Sin (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 21.
  8. Michael F. Bird, Evangelical Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2020), 769–70.
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Michael F. Bird

Michael F. Bird (PhD University of Queensland) is Deputy Principal at Ridley College, Melbourne, Australia. He is an Anglican priest and the author of over 30 books about the New Testament and Theology.

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Written by Michael F. Bird