An article advancing a better alternative to our current system of sins and punishments.
By Cristo Rey
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What are sins and punishments? Does the present concept of sins and punishments benefit us? Is there a better alternative to the current concept of sins and punishments?
The purpose of this article is to attempt to answer these questions by a consideration of the practical aspects of the subject of sins and punishments. It is the author's belief that there are currently no consistent, practical, workable, or efficient rules to defining "sins." It is the purpose of this article to suggest an alternative to the current impractical concept of sins and punishments.
What are sins and punishments?
The Ten Commandments (Ex 20:3-17) are believed by many to represent the only valid list defining what are sins. The ancient Hebrew religion was centered around a repetitive, exhaustive, and never-ending study and interpretation of the Law (Torah), as are the present day Ultra-Orthodox in Israel (De 6:1-2), to arrive at speculative answers for ways to regulate individual human behavior.
The Commandments were suited to a simpler, less educated, and less technological society. Because of their specificity, they clearly do not represent an attempt at establishing a general concept or rule that would be generally applicable regardless of context or situation.
The Commandments are deficient in scope, and limit themselves to a set of highly specific behaviors, which might have been very problematic and socially disruptive of the society for which they were specifically created, and were relevant to the times and places in which the target society found itself, i.e. a particular tribal society in transit in the wilderness.
Jesus the Christ recognized that the Commandments were no longer suitable, and had long ceased to be so for the society of His times as a practical rule to define which actions were sins, and reinterpreted them in a new, less specific way (Mt 22:36-40) . . .
To merely state, "Thou shalt not kill," (Ex 20:13) is a vague and simplistic rule, and does not guide us in a clear, unambiguous way into its intended result, our never killing (presumably another human being, although the Commandment does not specify a particular target). Human beings instinctively kill in self-defense, and yet that action is not generally considered to be a violation of this particular Commandment.
Some modern Christian commentators assure us that the more correct translation from the Hebrew is "Thou shalt not murder." However, this does not resolve the ambiguity. We might normally refrain ourselves from murdering our immediate neighbors during our lifetime, but if we consent to participating in an unjust and pre-meditated war as soldiers, we might be murdering innocents of the other nation. National secular governments can plot and carry out pre-meditated wholesale murders of another nation's innocents for their own national "interest" or "security." If we as consenting soldiers, do the actual killing, we, and our entire nation, would be in clear violation of this particular Commandment.
Clearly, the ambiguity arises from our attempts at applying a specifically-tailored set of laws, for a particular people in their specific situation and time, to other societies, situations, and times.
The Commandments are clearly not good for all peoples at all times, and there is no convincing and credible evidence that they were intended as such.
Does the present concept of sins and punishments benefit us?
The answer to this question is problematic at present. If we accept the current religious tendency to regard the Commandments as the ONLY defining instrument, then the answer is self-limiting, but as we have postulated, deficient. If we added all secular and religious relevant laws in existence at present, to attempt to regulate individual human behavior, the volumes generated would be impossible for any one human being to digest, understand clearly, let alone remember, and adhere to dutifully. The built-in ambiguities in the Commandments alone confuse the person.
The present system is highly deficient, and does not, and demonstrably has not achieved its intended goals, that of successfully guiding the individual to regulate his or her behavior to the individual's, and to the common good. Clearly, the goal of a "personal salvation" offered by some as an inducement not to sin does not seem to work either.
But, admittedly, sins do exist, as exemplified by the exhaustive and repetitive preaching on the subject to which the average Christian is subjected to during his or her lifetime. Although the congregations hear, they do not really listen, and sinning is rampant even within very devoted Christian congregations. This situation leads to a vicious circle of the need for further preaching on the subject, less listening, and more sinning, to highly predictable ends. Frequently, the preacher himself/herself ends up becoming a highly visible sinner.
The main weakness of the present system of defining sins is that the punishments for the sins defined are mostly not to be meted out during the individual sinner's lifetime. The most severe punishment threatened is that of the loss of eternal life for our supposedly immortal soul, i.e. a sort of spiritual capital punishment . . .
All of these then, the sins, the punishment, the immortality of our soul and of its possible revocation, are ambiguous, confusing, and difficult to be absorbed and believed by the average person. They would be highly debatable to a group of highly educated professionals, to say the least. It is no wonder then that people hear, but do not listen . . .
A further complicating factor is the tendency of some religions to subdivide or classify sins into degrees of sin; The most obvious example of this is some church's division of sins as either "mortal" (serious) or "venial" (less serious) sins, as in the manner of the Catholic Church. This is at the very least a highly preposterous concept. A venial sin, already so-classified by the church, can amplify itself in front of our eyes into the most mortal of sins. The actual consequences of our actions are not entirely within our control or that of the church. As an example, a casually discarded lighted cigarette can cause a fire of disastrous consequences with large losses of life and property, although the specific sin of the individual, discarding the cigarette, was unintended and slight, therefore "venial."
The present concept defining which of our actions and behaviors constitute "sins," and of their delayed punishment by dubious and debatable means, is not preventing the sinning in apocalyptic proportions which we witness today. Furthermore, the skepticism it unavoidably breeds in people undermines their faith in a rational, credible, and reliable God. A scofflaw "believer" is a bad model for others in a congregation, worse if he or she happens to be the pastor of the congregation. Allusions to the blanket promise of forgiveness of our sins in the self-sacrificial act of Jesus the Christ upon the cross only adds to the constitutional scofflaw-posture operating in most of our congregations.
The vicious circle of sinning, breeding skepticism, breeding further sinning, and on and on, threatens to perpetuate the degradation of Christianity itself, converting it into a totally unrecognizable religion by the original standards established by Jesus the Christ.
The main weaknesses of the present system of defining sins and punishments are:
1. Its heavy dependence on the Commandments, which are demonstrably not suitable for our times as the defining yardstick.
2. The vague and unconvincing promise of a punishment delayed until after this life.
3. Its lack of predictive power in guiding the individual to assess the probable consequences of his or her actions, and of their possible transformation into sinners, even unintentionally.
Is there a better alternative to the current concept of sins and punishments?
There is no need to look for a better alternative to our current concept of sins and punishments. There is a need to reshape the current concept in the original light bestowed on the subject by the Word of God. The way is provided by focusing our attention on the Spirit of the Law, of the Commandments, and of the teachings of Jesus the Christ on the subject of sin.
Jesus the Christ came not to provide us with detailed and specific guidance on any one issue, but to bring us the timeless Spirit of Understanding and Wisdom with which to resolve any one issue (Jn 6:63), regardless of times, places, and circumstances, to achieve and assure ourselves of everlasting life.
He came to set the example for this, and did not wish us to follow His individual example literally, something which is impossible for us, but to follow the Spirit of His example, the Spirit of His Life. His particular example was as limited in time, place, and circumstance, as was that of the Commandments, and if followed literally would be as unsuitable to our times as are the Commandments. He stressed repeatedly that what was important was not His life then, which He was giving up for our sakes, but the guidance which the Comforter or Holy Spirit which He would send to us would bring us after His death, resurrection, and ascension (Jn 14:16-18).
This guidance, and the example set by Christ on how He applied it in His time, place and circumstance should be our guiding Light.
Our guiding Light on any one issue in our time, place, and circumstance should always be "how would Jesus the Christ resolve this issue were He living in these times? What would be His approach? His wisdom on the matter? His judgment on the issue at hand?"
Were we to focus this Light on present difficult issues, such as late abortions, capital punishment, or homosexuality, we might see our way out of our current dilemmas about these issues.
On the issue of late abortions, I imagine without a doubt, that Jesus the Christ would oppose late abortions, as an act which interferes directly with the already expressed Will of God (i.e. the conception and uterine development of a human life). He would not consider arguments about "when human life really starts," as there are no convincing, provable, or scientific bases on which to decide the issue. The obvious fact is that at conception a human life was already started, and if not interfered with, would continue in its fulfillment, would be invoked by Him in opposition to late abortions. The act of late abortion is based on the very premise and wish to put and end to its continuity, to prevent its fulfillment, He would assert.
Difficult and problematic as it might be, I imagine that were Jesus the Christ living in our times, He would be against capital punishment. To be sure, He would not be in favor of inaction in such cases. In consideration of the modern complexities surrounding the subject, He would be in favor of more lenient ways of dealing with capital offenders. He would probably favor life imprisonment to killing them, but further, He would not abandon such individuals to senseless perpetual incarceration, and favor their reformation by the intervention of parties interested in helping in that respect.
I can imagine that Jesus the Christ would consider that Homosexuals are sons and daughters of God, and are capable of harboring love for each other, and wherever there is love, there God is, and He Blesses it. He would consider that those Homosexuals who wish to marry in the Church are expressing their desires and intentions of a spiritual commitment to love each other, and are expressing a desire to responsibly and legally live together in the sanctity of Matrimony. Given these present circumstances, Jesus the Christ would not be opposed to this. I imagine that were He living in our times, He would be a rebellious pastor, officiating in Gay marriage ceremonies. To be sure, He would not hesitate to consider both Homosexual and Heterosexual promiscuity a sin, and Homosexual marriages as the encouragement of a conduct and condition away from that sin. I imagine He would not see same-sex marriages to be a threat to heterosexual marriages, but rather that the loss of love in the latter would be their greatest threat.
With this in mind, in order to bring about an efficient, workable definition of sins and punishments, we must focus attention on the Principle or Spirit behind the concept of sins:
Sins are actions which when we engage in them bring us, and/or others, harmful and disastrous consequences in this life . . .
The concept of sins follows, at its most basic level from the fundamental physical law of "cause and effect," which must have been enacted by God, if we accept that He is the Creator of the Universe. As applied in the context of all living creatures, including ourselves, it is translated as "action and consequence," and to us spiritually, as the biblical "sowing and reaping."
By this law, there is no such thing as an action without a consequence or consequences . . . Inconsequential is an impossibility in the present Universe. There is no such thing as an inconsequential action, by the most basic of physical or Divine laws. We can reshape the current concept of sins and punishments to dispense with the traditional anxiety-causing connotations of the word "sin," and instead focus the attention on the fundamental law of "action and consequence."
If we teach our children that all of our actions always have consequences, and further that our behavior must be based on sane and wise actions to achieve the best consequences and benefits in our lives, and dispense with the guilt-ridden message of a finite list of "sins," our children would be best guided in life . . .
The emphasis then does not need to be on the actions which we call "sins," but rather on desirable consequences . . .
We can never anticipate for them a full listing of what actions might turn out under unpredictable circumstances to be "sins." This is the basic weakness in the original Commandments. We can however, teach them to concentrate as their goal on consequences which will guarantee the integrity, security, and wholeness of their lives, without harming themselves or others. We can teach them to concentrate and deliberate on "choosing" desirable consequences, compatible with an integral, sane, secure, safe, and wise life.
The concept of "action and consequence" is a better alternative to the guilt-inducing, but ineffectual current system of "sins and punishments," and yet it represents but a reshaping of the current system into a more pro-active, guilt-free, and positive presentation . . .
Food for thought
Jesus the Christ summarized and simplified the commandments and the teachings of the prophets as all being based on the love of God, and of others as ourselves. On this love "hang all the law and the prophets," He said (Mt 22:40).
If we teach our children that these two simple loving actions as intentions will have desirable consequences, we can dispense with the present self-defeating and guilt-inducing, but ineffectual system of "sins and punishments."
God is not a Mafia "Don," ready to mete out punishments, standing on a hilltop with a handful of lighting bolts, trying to spot even minor sinners to zap into compliance.
God does not judge anyone . . .
Given than He was ALL GOD and ALL MAN within the same individual, then clearly, "all judgment" is not given to the Divine side of Jesus (God in Him), but to the Human part in Him, otherwise, this message would be a contradiction.
To believe or state otherwise is equivalent to saying that Jesus the Christ was a LIAR.
Human beings are the ONLY ones with a desire for judgment and vengeance, NOT GOD . . .
Clearly, then, ALL of God's supposed "Judgments" in the Old Testament (be the Judgments of Adam and Eve, Sodom and Gomorrah, etc.) did not in fact occurred.
By the statement quoted above, to believe or state otherwise is equivalent to saying that Jesus the Christ was a LIAR.
We should not present to our children a punishing, vengeful God, but a God as a source of love and guidance to benefit our existence and guarantee our integrity and life. To today's more enlightened budding minds, a hell-fire-and-damnation preacher is a turn-off, and ineffectual at best. We should all strive to get closer to a loving God, not strive to hide from a punishing one. To present our children with a distorted image of God is to deny them the teachings of Jesus the Christ (Mk 10:14).
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