Help Wanted: The Theology of Sin and Death

I've been kicking around a series I'd like to start on this blog, a series aimed at another book I'd like to write.

The idea is to link theological understandings of the relationship between death and sin with the psychological literature building up around works like Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death. Basically, I want to use theology and psychology to analyze the way death anxiety is implicated in human sinfulness.

The psychological side of this I can handle. And I also have a few good modern theological sources regarding the relationship between death and sin (e.g., Stringfellow, Arthur McGill, Bultmann, McCord Adams).

However, I'd like to go back further in time with this. So I'd like to ask for some help.

First, I've read in a couple of places that the Greek Orthodox tradition has some rich analysis on the relationship between sin and death. From what I understand the Orthodox invert the order of the causal association between sin and death found with Protestants. That is, Protestants see sin leading to death. Sin is the cause and death is the effect. My understanding is that the Greek Orthodox often flip this, seeing death as the cause of sin. Death here is the cause and sin is the effect. That is the argument that I want to make. So I'd like to read more about the Orthodox take on this. What Orthodox writers, living or dead, should I be reading to get up to speed on this?

Second, I've heard that Augustine talks about the relation of timor mortis (the fear of death) to faith but I'm having trouble locating where, in his vast works, he takes up this subject. More, are there any contemporary works that examine timor mortis in Augustine's thought?

Finally, beyond ancient sources are there other modern theological works that analyze the relationship between death and sin?

My goal would be to trace a line of thought from ancient sources through contemporary theology to modern psychological research. The biblical passage I'm building around is Hebrews 2.14-15 (the bold part is what I'm keying in on):

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.

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40 thoughts on “Help Wanted: The Theology of Sin and Death”

  1. I don't think the Orthodox flip the cause/effect of sin and death. I've mostly heard Athanasius's view (from "On the Incarnation", Section 5):

    "...turning from eternal things to things corruptible, by counsel of the devil, they had become the cause of their own corruption in death"


    "When this happened, men began to die, and corruption ran riot among them and held sway over them to an even more than natural degree, because it was the penalty of which God had forewarned them for transgressing the commandment"

    God is life, sin is separation from life, the Incarnation is the re-integration of our lives with that of the Godhead.

  2. What I've heard about the Orthodox position is that, yes, the first sin caused death (expulsion from the Garden). That is the "traditional" order. But then, outside of the Garden, the reality of death has caused much of the resultant sin. Which is the reversed order. So what we inherit from the Fall is less original sin, than the reality of death: a death-riddled condition which causes us to become selfish and, ultimately, violent.

    I'm looking for any theological work that makes these moves.

  3. I don't think that theologians are concerned about the pscyhological health of their subjects. They are more interested in defining the terms of God, whether that be in "Who HE IS" or "WHAT HE IS ABOUT" and ""WHY THIS IS THE TRUE WAY".

    Whenever we set out terms like this, we create something that limits describing 'Life" within human experience. This is why I think the Humanities are a better way to approach life because the humanities affirm LIFE and can be enjoyed in the present.

    While I have had my fill of "Incarnation" language, which when historicized makes claims on human life. This is not the way to develop human choices as to value, because "God" becomes the only value! And it paints "God" as a tyrannt.

  4. Why not acknowledge one's self-interestedness and acknowledgement of limited life (instead of seeking to run away from it) and negotiate when one comes to a "table set before them"? Isn't this how we in the West have understood good business ethics?

    Otherwise, I think we promote and further man's attempt to decieve himself about his self-centeredness, and create an atmosphere where those that "buy the story" are duped at the hands of those that know the story to be only "a story"! This has been the history of the world. And I don't think selfishness should be ended with "stories", but with reality therapy about accepting and owning that life is a struggle against/with others. It is a competitive market out there and we might as well wake up and "smell the roses"!

  5. Yes, I would say that your take on the Orthodox understanding is correct -- at least from my own poor understanding. Moreover, the powers (embodied by Satan, but encompassing the worldly powers) are seen as using the power of death to rule us. I would hesitate to make a book recommendation myself. Though not an academician, I know Fr. Stephen Freeman is widely read and responds to email. The same is true of Frederica Mathewes-Green. On the academic side, I would recommend asking Dr. Bradley Nassif and/or Fr. Thomas Hopko. I think any recommendations, ancient and modern, any of the above might make would probably be better suited to your goal than mine would probably be. I think it would be worth asking, anyway.

  6. I've never heard anyone say that death "causes" sin... but because of sin, creation is no longer fundamentally connected to the source of life. And because of this, people tend to sin more. So in this fallen state, death has us bound in a way that makes us more likely to sin (but doesn't force us to). Orthodox have a very high view of Mary, sometimes even calling her "sinless" (with varying definitions of sinless). But where the Catholics say she was immaculately conceived to exempt her from some kind of sin trap, the Orthodox don't need any such device because we aren't forced to sin, it's just that we tend to do so on our own accord... This may help you:

    "Death has caused a change in the way we relate to God, to one another and to the world. Our lives are dominated by the struggle to survive... Thus, set adrift by death, we are alienated from God, from others and also from our true selves. The Lord Jesus speaks to this saying, “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it, and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it”. Salvation is a transformation from the tragic state of alienation and autonomy that ends in death into a state of communion with God and one another that ends in eternal life.

    There are lots of citations in there that may lead you to what you are looking for.

  7. It's on my reading list so I can't say for sure but since this book deals with theosis I imagine it will deal with the problem:

  8. That is the "story line" of "eternal life". And the message is nothing new. It is salvation for "God" and 'His purposes" of reconciliiation "of the world".
    It is spiritualized language that inhabits the political realm. Politics and organizations, such as the Church, function under "normal conditions" of survival. Therefore, the Church lives off its benevolent, just as you suggest "scriptures" commend, that one MUST loose their life to "find it"! That is asking one to trust human institutions, and "God" above human institutions!....Reason, history and experience all teach me not to think there is any "special truth, revelation, or understanding". Life works according to the principles of survival, reistance, negotiation, and yes, even death.

    I want to own my life, for ONCE in my life. I've given too much time and energy to spiritual things. The real world and the real truths that rule the world are what we find in the political realm, the academic disciplines and the human experience. Hopefully, the academic disciplines don't find spirituality a means to exploit, which I find sometimes to be the case, as humans are curious to discover and know about the human situation.

  9. qb's just wondering how, and why, you would preemptively decide which argument you "want to make" before having read the relevant material?



  10. ...which leads us, in nice logical fashion, to the following conclusion: insofar it was the Jewish YHWH who condemned us to death (cf. Gen. 3), it was that same YHWH who "caused much of the resultant sin."

    The endgame here is Jehovah as the author and perfecter of sin. Right?



  11. It's mainly about literature review. I don't need any supporting sources to make the argument I'm going to make. But I doubt what I'm going to say is original. I'd hate to say "X is this wholly new way of thinking about the relationship between sin and death!" to have someone say, "Hey genius, you're aware that Augustine said this on page 17 of The City of God, right?"

  12. Phrased another way, why did God put that tree in the Garden knowing full well what was going to happen?

    I don't know.

    But that's not what I'm going to be focusing on. Genesis 1-2 is a story, among other things, about the origin of death. How we inherit a mortal condition from the Fall. That's the starting point: The Fall is more about this inheritance of death than some inner taint of "Original Sin." Or, rather, the taint of Original Sin, it's "mark" on us, is the mortal condition.

    And again, I can't have been the first to have framed the issues this way. I'm not that smart.

  13. From my perspective, the tree in the Garden was a simple mechanism for choice: it presented the opportunity to obey God or to reject Him. Without the tree (or some other opportunity to depart from God), the freely-chosen, voluntary love so valued by Christianity would have been absent.

  14. I don't know if I agree. Adam and Eve had plenty of choices and opportunities to sin without the tree.

    I mean, couldn't they hit a monkey on the head with a stick?

  15. you might want to look at marjorie hewitt suchocki 'the fall to violence, original sin in relational theology'-1994. Her first chapter teases out some of the traditional views of the fall (augustine,kant, niebuhr, tillich). miroslav volf 'after our likeness: the church as the image of the trinity' 1998. brings a rich orthodox understanding to his writings. if you're looking for unique- john wesley brought together both greek orthodox (therapeutic redemption) and western emphasis in creation and humans created in perfection. see randy maddox 'responsible grace-john wesley's practical theology' 1994.

  16. Great ideas here, Richard! I think another key text on this topic is Rom. 5:12. For living Eastern Orthodox scholars I'd check John Meyendorrf's classic Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends & Doctrinal Themes (New York: Fordham University Press, 1979). Myendorrf treats the Eastern view of original sin on page 144; see especially footnote 22 of ch. 11.

    I'd also look at how John Zizioulas views human death in his Being as Communion (especially first chapter) and recent Communion and Otherness. Zizioulas draws upon Maximus the Confessor--MC's views are relevant too. Paul McPartlan discusses modern relevance of the Eastern view in the opening of an article entitled "The Eucharist as the Basis for Ecclesiology" in Antiphon 6:2 (2001), 12-19. In the NAB College Study Bible, there is an Introductory Essay to Genesis by James Brenneman that mentions Genesis 3 as a Fall to Violence. Lastly, the Anabaptist view of Christ bringing a gospel of peace and overcoming the problem of Cain should be related to this too - I think the first few chapters of Yoder's He Came Preaching Peace might be good for this.

    I've not read about timor mortis in Augustine but it sounds fascinating. Hope this something here might be of helpf!!


  17. Hi Richard, I'd recommend Panyiotis Nellas "Deification in Christ" SVS Press. If you can't find a copy (they were pretty rare a while back), I'll be glad to lend you mine. He has an extensive treatment of the fall and death and its effect on humanity. A passage 99% of Protestants will get wrong if you ask them to quote it is I Cor. 15:56. It actually says, "The sting of death is sin (not the sting of sin is death...), and the victory God gives us is in the context of I Cor. 15, is over death, not sin. Thanks for exploring "the other side". :)

  18. "...This is not the way to develop human choices as to value, because "God" becomes the only value! And it paints "God" as a tyrannt...."

    with anything current,in theology,your better than that,

    and guess what a "narrative position" dissolves "most all your issues"
    also puts a christian more along the lines of The Healthy Personality: Readings (Ed: Abraham H. Maslow & Hung-Min Chiang) NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1969.

    anyway "HI Angie" HOW YOU DOOIN...


  19. I'LL stick my ignorant hand in that fan rich...
    getting to know good and evil as god knew, didn't make them not believe in god.
    just separated from his presence.
    of coarse being that they no longer had access to the fruit of the tree of physical death
    then the story of vindication (god created every thing good with the faith hope and love) through faithfulness the narrative that god is good to his word and his word was good... and in vindication that love is responsible according to the ability to perceive good,through faithfulness.
    were Adam and eve faithful to god? what was able said to be in HEB.
    did snake get his head crushed because of unfaithfulness (disobedience)
    to his ability to know god...clear rebellion

  20. say

    ever look at this word in conjunction with a new covenant :
    eph.2:15 when he nullified29 in his flesh the law of commandments in decrees. He did this to create in himself one new man out of two, thus making peace,

    then how this would apply ...
    1st.cor5:11 to those willfuly unfaithful/disobedient

    5:11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who calls himself a Christian who is sexually immoral, or greedy, or an idolater, or verbally abusive, or a drunkard, or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person. 5:12 For what do I have to do with judging those outside? Are you not to judge those inside? 5:13 But God will judge those outside. Remove the evil person from among you.

    29tn Or “rendered inoperative.” This is a difficult text to translate because it is not easy to find an English term which communicates well the essence of the author’s meaning, especially since legal terminology is involved. Many other translations use the term “abolish” (so NRSV, NASB, NIV), but this term implies complete destruction which is not the author’s meaning here. The verb καταργέω (katargew) can readily have the meaning “to cause someth. to lose its power or effectiveness” (BDAG 525 s.v. 2, where this passage is listed), and this meaning fits quite naturally here within the author’s legal mindset. A proper English term which communicates this well is “nullify” since this word carries the denotation of “making something legally null and void.” This is not, however, a common English word. An alternate term like “rendered inoperative [or ineffective]” is also accurate but fairly inelegant. For this reason, the translation retains the term “nullify”; it is the best choice of the available options, despite its problems.

  21. Amazon actually has Deification in Christ in stock. Go figure. It looks very good for what I'm going to be doing. Thanks!

  22. There are copies of Byzantine Theology in town for me to check out. I have Being and Communion but wouldn't have thought to check there. Thanks!

  23. I'd been looking for a good book on the doctrine of deification. And the reviews say this is the best book out there. Score.

  24. Thanks Scott. I'll shoot them some e-mails. Plus, some good blogs to follow!

  25. I like your project idea very well. Especially basing in in the Hebrews verse. I also think Romans 5: 12ff is key. I would recommend the section on Salvation in David Bentley Hart's The Beauty of the Infinite for a contemporary take on the Eastern view. I also recommend McGill. I think Girard shares the assumptions you are working with. I look forward to your work

  26. In the references I found Romanides' The Ancestral Sin which seems to be exactly what I'm looking for. Thanks!

  27. You might also want to look at Kierkegaard's The Sickness Unto Death, which identifies despair as sin and traces despair from awareness of our mortal, finite nature.

  28. I guess "Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die" might be a good place to start. Death and sin.....Go for it!

  29. Hi Richard,

    I highly recommend James Alison's "Living in the End Times" on this topic, if you haven't read it already.

    Here's a quote:

    "Jesus was able to conduct his life in a way that was not moved by death. [...] it was not a reality which marked his imagination since his imagination was entirely fixed on the creative and living presence of God who knows not death. [...] A poor parallel might be the way in which someone arriving from an Islamic country, in which there is no alcohol to buy or to consume, is able to perceive something which we scarcely realise: the degree to which our whole society and its social life depend on the dangerous drug. Only those from outside can perceive that clearly. Only those who have not received their identity from a culture that is bound in by death can see clearly the way in which the whole culture is wrapped around by death. It is in this sense that Jesus was able to understand with perfect clarity the way that human culture, including the culture in which he lived, is produced by, and runs toward, death."

    Let me know if you decide to read it!


  30. It might be an unlikely source but John Piper came out with a book, "Future Grace" and he has an entire chapter of how the fear of death holds us captive to sin. Thought it might be helpful to have an example of how even protestant theologians agree (at least to a point) of how the fear of death leads us to sin. Another good reference might be "Death and the Afterlife" by Robert Morey. It's a little older (pub. 1984) but he has some really good summaries of the arguments between death and sin and some great sources to both the pros and the cons.

  31. Did you know there is nothing in the Bible that says Jesus carried the cross for even one step? Mary Magdalene was never identified as a prostitute, Delilah did not cut Samson's hair, Elijah was not taken by a chariot of fire, and the disciples were not in an upper room on the day of Pentecost! I know, I couldn't believe it either, until we found this book, "The Bible I Thought I Knew". It must have about a hundred of these kind of facts you can look up and verify for yourself, way cool.

  32. Mortality is the centerpiece of Tillich's existential estrangement: that we are not what we wish we were. Sin as missing the mark, falling short, is a consequence of our limitations ("finitude"). He explicitly addresses the relationship of self-estrangement to psychoanalysis in several places, which I would note, except that you can Google for the info and get a better list than I can give by memory... My guess is that you'll want to put Tillich's view under your belt before going too far.

  33. I've heard the idea that death leads to sin on a message board I used to frequent. The poster wasn't (as far as I know) Orthodox. Basically what I understood is that the knowledge of death leads to a kind of fearful, maybe even psychotic grasping at life, a desperateness to grab as much life as one can, or anger and despair at knowing that ultimately all is futile.

  34. .........and I posted all that in the wrong thread too. Looks like I quit the wrong week to quit drinking.

  35. "In the East: The primary consequence of Original Sin is death. The reality of death causes people to desire that which can distract them from the reality of their impending death. Hence, people turn to sex, money, and power as a way to forget about death. In this way, death leads to sin. "

  36. Richard, as I look back at the quote from Hebrews, an alternative reading of it keeps hitting me. I don't think it is the correct reading in context, but it harmonizes with the Gospel message. The phrase "and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death" could also describe the Pharisees who were trapped into the religious ritual of attempted total compliance with the law.

  37. I am late to this discussion, but you might find Gregory of Nyssa's On the Soul and Resurrection interesting in this regard. It is a platonic-style dialogue between Gregory and his sister, Macrina, on her death bed. They talk some about grief and fear of death. Good secondary sources on this text and topic are J. Warren Smith's Passion and Paradise and Wessel, S. "Memory and Individuality in Gregory of Nyssa's Dialogus de anima et resurrectione," Journal of Early Christian Studies 18.3 (2010): 369-392. Good luck--this is something I'd like to read!

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