Are human beings just fine the way they are? What do you think?
Is it OK that people starve because dictators purposely withhold food to maintain power? Is child abuse “just the way it is”? Is slavery fine? Is it all right for judges to take bribes from wealthy defendants to reduce or eliminate their sentences? Is child abuse all right, since it’s so widespread?
Trying saying to your friends (or to yourself in the mirror), “Humanity is just fine just the way it is.” What is the reaction? Probably somewhere between incredulity and disgust. We all know people who fall far, far below what they ought to be. And if we’re being honest with ourselves, we have moments like that too—occasions or areas of our life we would never want other people to find out about, because they are shameful.
Somehow, deep inside, we all know that we ought to be better as a species—different—more trustworthy, more truthful, kinder, more responsible. We know we ought to be better as individuals—that’s why New Year’s resolutions are so popular. But even though we know these things, we still don’t do them. It’s almost like we can’t do them. However hard we try, we fall short.
What “Sin” Is
This gap between what we are and what we ought to be is what Christianity calls “sin.” It is a deep twistedness in our very nature that leads us to do what we know we shouldn’t do, time and time again. Or it prevents us from doing the good we know we should do—we get lazy, decide that someone else will do it, or find another excuse to slither out of our responsibilities. Even the absolute best human beings—the ones everyone else considers to be saints and heroes—will tell you that they struggle with sin too.
And every human culture finds ways to deal with this problem, ranging from animal sacrifices to penitential prayers to religious activities. This is a worldwide phenomenon. Sin makes almost everybody uncomfortable when they do it. We want to get rid of it. But we can’t.
Just live with it?
Should we just live with it, then? Say “That’s just human nature” and give up? Lots of people say we should do this. But then something really bad happens to them or to a family member—a robbery, a rape, or a murder—and even the most philosophical person is back to demanding change, refusing to put up with human sin. And they are right. Sin dehumanizes people, it takes from us the best things in our human nature—things like love, compassion, and kindness. We can’t have that. Sin needs to go. Somehow. But how?
Christians believe that the good news of Jesus is that God has found a way to deal with sin, permanently, effectively, and without causing further damage to us or our world. He did this by being born into our world himself as a human being, the man we call Jesus. Jesus is the only human being who ever lived a life that is completely whole, sane, well, and healthy, free from sin. (You can see him in action if you want—read the Gospel of Luke, available here.)
After doing everything he planned to do in his public ministry, Jesus allowed himself to be arrested, crucified, and killed. He did this on purpose, not as some tragic accident. He told his followers he was going to do it ahead of time, and that his death would break the power of sin—not just for one or two people, but for the whole human race. It would be God’s decisive move to reverse the corruption in human nature and to begin the long process of re-making us into a new, healthy humanity.
A Remade Humanity
That’s exactly what happened. Jesus died on that cross, was buried, and then rose from the dead on the third day afterward. Not only did he win the victory over sin, but he won the victory over death as well. And now he promises to share those victories with everyone who trusts in him. He has promised to remake us—to cleanse away our sin, to forgive us and re-shape us and heal us from the damage evil has done to us.
This process has already started, though it will never be totally finished in our lifetimes—which is why you’ll never meet a sinless, perfect Christian in this world. God takes his time, as much as we wish he’d do it immediately. In any of our lives there’s still a long way to go, but we ARE already experiencing the effects of what Jesus did. We DO typically find ourselves becoming people who are more wholeheartedly kind, compassionate, faithful, truthful, and joyful. And what good we manage to do, we believe is happening because the Spirit of God is working in us.
You may be saying to yourself, “Well, that doesn’t look like the Christians I know. They seem just like ordinary people. Except for X, and he’s a real jerk.”
Yes. What you are describing is very real. There are lots of people who call themselves Christian and act in ways that are completely the opposite of Christ. They are racist, they pollute, they are greedy or gossipers or make business deals that destroy the lives of the poor, and the list goes on. Their evil stinks to high heaven, and no wonder you’re put off. Other Christians hate it too.
If you see someone doing this, by all means feel free to call them on it. Ask them, “How can you call yourself a Christian and do such-and-such?” They may be Christians who have let sin take over in their lives, and your calling them on it might be what’s needed to turn them around. Or they might be plain liars and hypocrites and not believers at all, in which case it’s better for everybody if they’re unmasked.
But why aren’t Christians doing anything about the evil in their midst? Answer: We are. A lot of us are trying, every day, to put an end to the wickedness that is done in Christ’s name. You may not hear much about us—it’s not usually much of a news story, especially when compared with the news about the person who is doing the wrong. But we exist, and we’re trying. Help us out, please?