The Tragedy of the Human Condition

Christianity offers the most accurate explanation for all broken relationships by calling sin a sin. How depraved our desires have become, and how far we have fallen from the beautiful image of God! This is the tragedy of the human condition: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). If creation is normal, then the fall has made us abnormal. Traces of our original goodness still remain, to be sure, but now we are horribly corrupted by sin. As Pascal observed, there is within us both “some great principle of greatness and some great principle of wretchedness.” C. S. Lewis expresses the same truths more poetically in one of his Chronicles of Narnia, where the lion-king Aslan says to human beings, “You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve. And that is both honor enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth.”

To change the metaphor, God’s reflection in us has become distorted like a face in a carnival mirror. Such is our depravity that every part of every person is warped by sin. Sin corrupts our hearts so that we set our affections on unholy desires. It corrupts our feelings so that we are in emotional turmoil. It corrupts our wills so that we will not choose the good. Our whole nature is corrupted by sin. This is what theologians mean when they speak of “total depravity”—not that we are as sinful as we could possibly be, but that we are sinners through and through.

Sin divides our hearts and distorts our desires so that we do not love what God invites us to love. Every sin flows from some failure in our affections. Sin also corrupts our minds so that now we are unable to think God’s thoughts after him. We misunderstand, misconstrue, misinterpret, and misvalue. In our fallen nature, we are not able to comprehend the Christian worldview, let alone live by its principles. Paul said it like this: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). Because of the mind’s influence on the rest of a person’s life, the tragic results are pervasive. As the fourth-century theologian Athanasius wrote in his famous treatise On the Incarnation, fallen human beings “did not raise their gaze to the truth, but sated themselves even more with evils and sins, so that they no longer appeared rational, but from their ways of life were reckoned irrational.”

In describing the noetic effects of sin—the intellectual impact of our fallen nature—the Bible often uses images of darkness and blindness: “They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart” (Eph. 4:18); and “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4). Even what the book of nature tells us about the character of God is closed to us because of our sin (Rom. 1:18–21). As a result of the blindness that sin induces, the reasons that people have for rejecting the Christian worldview are not merely rational; they are also spiritual. Nor are people who embrace a Christian worldview entirely immune to the intellectual effects of sin. Our thinking, too, is damaged by our depravity, even when it comes to our interpretation of Scripture.

We see the effects of our sin in every area of life—the same areas of life, in fact, that we considered earlier as part of God’s creative intention for humanity. We do not honor the God who is there in our worship or give him thanks for his good creation. Instead, we seek our own glory. Rather than worshiping the creator, we worship things that he has created: “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. . . . They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:21, 25). Usually these verses are taken to refer to idolatry as it was practiced in the ancient world, with objects of silver and stone. Yet people continue to worship created things today—everything from the designer labels that drive the fashion industry to the obsessive attachment that some fans have to their favorite sports teams. “What each one honors before all else,” wrote Origen the theologian sometime during the third century, “what before all things he admires and loves, this for him is God.”

Due to the corruption of our sin, we often fail to glorify God with our physical bodies. In fact, the very parts of our bodies become instruments of unrighteousness. Nowhere is this more true than in our sexuality. Consider all the lust, self-gratification, perversion, and abuse involved in sexual sin, and then consider all the damage that is done in our lives when sexuality is used in ways contrary to God’s good design. Sexual intercourse is the covenant cement that is designed to unite one man and one woman for life. But when sex is shared with the wrong person, at the wrong time, or for the wrong purpose, the wrong things get attached. After the bodies uncouple, souls are torn apart, and the best and deepest intimacy is squandered. Although sexual promiscuity sometimes brings disease, the real danger is to relationships, including our relationship with God himself. Even the way we talk about sex—as something to “have” rather than to “give”—reveals the brokenness of this aspect of life.

Another place where we fail to glorify God is in the work of our calling. According to the curse of the fall—God’s righteous judgment against Adam’s sin (Gen. 3:17–18)—humanity still has to subdue the earth, but now labor has become a labor. The ground will only yield its fruit at the cost of sweaty toil, for the creation itself is frustrated by sin (Rom. 8:20). Now, instead of simply tending a garden, the man has to turn the wilderness into a garden. This curse of thorn and thistle is not just for farmers; it is for everyone who lives east of Eden. The factory, the boardroom, and the cubicle have become places of corruption and oppression, and we all experience the drudgery and dissatisfaction that so often come with working on the job. Like Solomon, the biblical philosopher, we sigh, “What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors?” (Eccles. 2:22 NIV).

The curse of the fall extends to the family, where husbands and wives fight to gain the upper hand (Gen. 3:19), and where the woman is afflicted in her unique calling as wife and mother (Gen. 3:16). Men also suffer in their unique calling as husbands and fathers, of course, but God announces a curse to Eve—a curse that refers to the physical pains of childbirth and to much more besides. It refers to childbearing in general and thus to all the frustrations associated with motherhood in a fallen world, including not getting married, not having children, and the heartaches of raising and sometimes losing children. Taken together, the curses that men and women must endure mean that the two most basic tasks of any generation—namely, making a living and raising children—are only fulfilled through suffering.

We also see the effects of sin in our neglect of the environment. Given what the Bible says about how God is revealed in his creation, such neglect is virtually a blasphemy. Rather than sharing what God has given to us and using it for his redemptive project, we squander his resources by using them for our own purposes and pleasures. We abuse creation by making bad use of good things. The consequences of these sins, which may linger for generations, go far beyond the human race to affect the world around us. Creation retains “vestiges of the glory of God that shine through the corruption of the universe blighted by sin.” Nevertheless, the creation groans under the weight of human sin, suffering futility until it is released from its bondage by the second coming of the Son of God (Rom. 8:19–22).

We see the further effects of sin whenever science and technology are developed in destructive ways that lead to death instead of life (such as coming up with deadlier weapons), or in dehumanizing ways that treat people more like machines than like persons (such as the harvesting of human embryos for scientific research). The Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper summarizes the problem well: “Sin is what lures and tempts people to place science outside of a relationship with God, thereby stealing science from God, and ultimately turning science against God.” To give one notable example, when the first computer flickered to life in 1950—the machine called MANIAC—its first job was to carry out the calculations necessary to build the hydrogen bomb. Considering the bomb’s exponential increase in deadly force led one historian to conclude that the computer was “conceived in sin.”

We also see the effects of sin in music and the arts, where today a tragic loss of sacred beauty produces absurdity, irrationality, and even cruelty. The problem here is not with artists being honest about the human condition, which is part of telling the truth. Artists with integrity necessarily wrestle with the ugly and uncomfortable implications of our sinful condition. The problem is with artists who glory in depravity. We even see the corruption of sin in our play. Think of all the cheating in amateur and professional sports through the use of performance-enhancing drugs—the corruption of competition. Or else consider the way that Americans labor at their leisure, devoting as much energy and expense into entertaining themselves as they put into engaging in productive work that benefits other people.

These examples show the suffering that sin has brought into the world. They also display the clarity that the doctrine of the fall brings to all our suffering. Now we can see why things have gone so badly wrong. Every serious worldview admits that there is something wrong, attempts a diagnosis, and prescribes a cure. But Christianity explains the misery and apparent meaninglessness of our existence better than anything else. The reason we do all the wrong things we do is that we do not have a right relationship with God. This explains why people hold back from making commitments and then break the commitments they make. It explains the power of our addictions and the pervasiveness of cheating in academia. It explains why the average worker has to do more and more for less and less. It explains why families are devastated by divorce and neighbors are squabbling over the fence that separates their properties. It explains why church leaders get caught up in sexual and financial scandals. It even explains the tedium of domestic chores such as washing the dishes and doing the laundry.

The doctrine of sin also explains the greater evils of the wider world, as depravity works its way into the structures of society. The doctrine of sin explains our constant disappointment with the government, which always seems to be part of the problem, not just the solution. It explains why abortion has become virtually the sacrament of postmodern bioethics. It explains why slavery remains a worldwide scourge through human trafficking, especially for the sex trade. It explains why killers attack schoolchildren with automatic weapons. It explains why the forces of darkness gather in urban communities. It explains why street children are living in the sewers of Mongolia, the subways of Romania, the slums of Mexico City, and the garbage dumps of Calcutta. The doctrine of sin explains the famine and disease that afflict large parts of Asia and Africa. It explains the endless and seemingly intractable hostility in the Middle East and the persecution of the worldwide church. We should not be surprised by all this suffering. Sin is not only personal but also communal, and thus its influence is pervasive.

Worldviews themselves are part of the problem. Whether it is Communism’s elimination of the human soul, Hinduism’s denial of human dignity to the lower castes, or Islam’s belief that evil is grounded in the character of God, worldviews have consequences—in these examples, to the detriment of human flourishing.

The same is true of modern secularism. As missiologist David Bosch has explained, this influential worldview elevates human reason over religious faith, treats creation as a closed system of natural causality, regards knowledge as fact based and therefore value free, assigns religion to the realm of personal opinion rather than objective truth, and prioritizes individual liberty over community life. This way of seeing the world has had pervasively harmful effects on Western culture and the wider world. It has problematized moral instruction for higher education, removed religion from the public square, and made personal autonomy a higher goal than the common good.

Nor are Christians immune from these kinds of criticisms. To be consistent, our doctrine of sin needs to confess our own depravity. This includes all the ways that we fail to live up to the high standards of the character of Jesus Christ, all the ways we adapt to the world’s way of thinking, and all the ways we use the Christian worldview as a weapon of cultural warfare. Having the right view of the world is not the only thing that matters. What really counts is living in love. But sadly, as Christians we do more than believe in sin; we also practice it.

The Wages of Sin

There is more. There is also mortality, because the wages of sin, finally, is death (Rom. 6:23). Death was the penalty that God first threatened for disobedience in the garden of Eden: “When you eat from it you will certainly die” (Gen. 2:17 NIV). Now we are mortal; having sinned in Adam, we also die in Adam (1 Cor. 15:21–22). We are dead spiritually—dead in our trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1). One day soon we will die physically, not simply because death is a part of life in the natural universe but also because God stands in judgment against our sin. Our inescapable mortality is the irrefutable demonstration that we are sinners who seek our own ungodly glory. Nothing is more un-godlike than death, which strips away every last pretension to deity. Here is the futility of our condition: we will end up right back where we started. Rather than subduing the earth, we will be subdued by it, for dust we are, and to the dust we will return (Gen. 3:19).

For those who die without Christ, there will be a second death, infinitely and eternally more terrible than the first (Rev. 20:14–15). As a holy judge, God will display his wrath against sin. Though it offends the sensibilities of the secular mind, the doctrine of hell as a place of endless torment and eternal separation from God is a plain biblical truth that was taught more by Jesus than anyone else in the pages of Scripture (e.g., Matt. 5:22; 10:28; Luke 12:5; 15:22–23). Sin leads to death, and after that, to judgment.

If the best explanation for the beauty of humanity is the biblical doctrine of creation, then the best explanation for the tragedy of humanity is the biblical doctrine of sin. As he wrestles with the mystery of our humanity, the Princeton theologian Daniel Migliore writes that “we are rational and irrational, civilized and savage, capable of deep friendship and murderous hostility, free and in bondage, the pinnacle of creation and its greatest danger. We are Rembrandt and Hitler, Mozart and Stalin, Antigone and Lady Macbeth, Ruth and Jezebel.” What accounts best for our divided hearts is our fall from created innocence to sinful corruption. “This is the source and explanation of all that is wrong with man and the world he inhabits,” wrote Philip Edgcumbe Hughes: “It is the sickness unto death from which man in his fallenness inescapably suffers.” Separated from God by our sin, we do not love him, worship him, obey him, or serve him as we should. Such is the depth of our fall that sin has become the pervasive and perverse condition of every human enterprise.

It all seems to be lost: the family, the church, the city, and the society that God intended—the science and technology, the law and the politics, the business and the arts. The world is the way it is, and we are the way we are, because we have fallen into sin. As a result, the heart of humanity has a deep and painful longing to return to paradise. Happiness is not only our hope, wrote G. K. Chesterton, “but also in some strange manner a memory; we are all kings in exile.” As Joni Mitchell set our longing to music in her 1969 song “Woodstock”:

We are stardust

We are golden

And we’ve got to get ourselves

Back to the garden.

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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