Friday Fun: Can you sin on a deserted island?

Well, as you can see, I'm taking my obsession--the "Can you sin on a deserted island?" question--to the people. For some pre-weekend theological madness cast your vote! Both the question and the value of the question is up for debate. And I'm expecting to get creamed on this. Everyone thinks I'm crazy for thinking this question has any theological value.

So let me just argue my case for posterity's sake.

First, can you sin on a deserted island?

I say no. Now, undoubtedly people will say you can sin. Examples I've heard are:

You can kill yourself.
You can harm the environment.
You can lust.
You can blaspheme God.

Even if we were to accept these as sins, these examples are all a little weird and forced. I mean, I suppose you can run around cutting down trees and killing all the monkeys. Or commit suicide. Or sexually fantasize about someone not on the island. Or, finally, scream awful things at God.

But are these things sins? Probably, but I bet you could get a decent theological debate going that they are NOT sins. That is, these things, or other things you could dream up, don't seem to be prototypical sins.

Further, if you did see some of this behavior on the island I doubt your first thought would be "That is a sin." Rather, I bet you'd think that the person had lost his mind. Went crazy. And if that is so, it weakens any strong notion of sin.

But now let's imagine the critical Gedankenexperiment. Imagine that there are TWO people on the island. Can you sin with two people?

Well, now the floodgates open! We can imagine all kinds of sin: Lies, stealing, violence, murder. It all comes rolling out.

And that is my point. The whole point of the question is to make this hidden feature of our sin categories painfully obvious: Sin is a social event.

Now, on to the second question: Is this insight valuable?

I think so. I think one of the worst mistakes in lay theology is to consider sin to be a God/Human issue. The island Gedankenexperiment is trying to point out that if it is just God and You--alone--well, your sin repertoire is pretty crazed and anemic. But sin categories abound when we find ourselves in human community, when we see sin as a Human/Human issue.

This is not to say that, ultimately, our sin doesn't involve God or God's judgement. It's just to say that God's judgement isn't about a God/Human infraction but about God's wrath at Human/Human infractions.

See, I think this is what Jesus was getting at in the Sermon on the Mount. That is, before you offer your sacrifice to God (that is, before you make the mistake of thinking sin is a God/Human rift) go be first reconciled to your brother (as the real issue is a Human/Human rift), THEN come sacrifice. It's also the theme in 1 John. You can't say you love God (tout a healed God/Human bond) when you hate your brother (a Human/Human fracture). Love your brother first and then you can say you love God with authenticity.

As I see it, if you think Sin is a Condition then you are always wandering around thinking there's this rift between you and God. And that focus, in my mind, is the wrong focus. It leads to guilt, shame, and religious paranoia. Let me be even more bold: THE BIGGEST PROBLEM IN RELIGION IS THE FOCUS ON THE GOD/HUMAN RIFT. ALL THE EVILS OF RELIGION RESULT FROM THIS FOCUS.

But if we see sin properly, as Human/Human rift, then my eyes and heart are focused on the right things: Before I go to church today, is my brother offended by me?

Because if he is, well, what's the point of going to church?

Well, that's my argument. Now it's your turn. Vote. Debate (here or there). And have a merry Friday and a wonderful weekend!

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16 thoughts on “Friday Fun: Can you sin on a deserted island?”

  1. Hi,
    interesting thoughts... but I don't think that sin is a social problem in first place and that the problem with God always results from the first one. Although I would admit that obviously some sins have a more social nature.

    Just take the first commandment. It's only about God and his people. Many of the prophets mourn about the fact that Israel sinned against God while not obeying his law.

    Or let's just take a really "social example". In the parable of the lost son the son sins against his father. But when he comes back he admits that he sinned against heavens and against his father.

    So in my opinion sin has ALWAYS to do with God even it is more of a social nature.

    How would you interpret the portions of scripture I cited?


  2. Hi Mathias,
    Again, I would try to conflate the two: Sin against a person is sinning against God. I think, if you look at the whole trajectory of scripture, particularly with Jesus, it's aiming at this conflation.

    And I think we see this in Jesus's answer about the Greatest Commandments. Yes, he begins with love God, but then quickly adds love your neighbor. Again, conflation. Jesus seems, in my mind, fearful of allowing love for God to drift off from loving people. This was, in his day and in ours, the root of the problem with religion. People are so concerned about pleasing God they pass by on the other side per the parable of the Good Samaritan.

    But, as I think about it, my post seems to pit the issue as a choice. Rhetorically, I go too far. So, if I was going to aim for a better, more conflated view, I would say sin is about the Human/Human/God rift. And any attempt to force the three asunder violates the teachings of Jesus. Again, in my opinion.

  3. Just a little note for the comment discussion going on...
    I believe that any sin against man is a sin against God. I feel like you reconciled your two descriptions of sin issues in your previous comment response, but I also wanted to make clear my take on this: when you sin against your brother, you sin against God. I can agree that it takes having your brother their to be able to sin against God, but I don't think one can be separated from the other.

    A point you already made, but you know me. I just like hearing myself talk.

    Thanks for the posts, as per usual.

  4. If the true sin is against man and as a result against God... then what is the ultimate point of God placing us in this precarious position? Perhaps we are, as many speculate, part of God's experimental laboratory where we as humans are to learn virtue in order to grow closer to our personal God.

    Either way, fascinating post... leads to quite a bit of thought. Specifically related to the idea that when we sin as Christians we often focus our repentance to our God rather than the human whom we have committed the sin against.


  5. George,
    Great point! How Ivory Tower is this whole discussion? Very much! I agree that this is a bit of theological silliness. So, let's have some fun with theological speculation. Might it enhance our creativity? Wouldn't the Stooges just love this!?

    And yet, I would hope that the aim of the question--to get people to take the social aspects of sin more seriously--has some practicality.

  6. Sara,
    I think you last point is very important. What would happen if Christians spent all of the energy they focusing on trying to "get right" with God and poured that into reconciliation with the people around them? Might Christians begin to look, well, more Christian if they did this? Yes, they would. I say, because it's Friday, let’s quit apologizing to God and apologize to the co-worker you were rude to today! If we want to truly be good with God let's start there!

  7. I voted that sin is possible on a deserted Island, but also think that sin is primarily a social event. Even if I am alone on the Island, the Island is still part of the world. Therefore if I damage my environment I am still damaging everyone else's environment. If I promote lust habits in my life if I ever get off the Island this will damage my relationships with others. Each person's actions and thoughts have significance.

    As John Donne said: "No man is an Island"...even if (s)he's ON an Island.

  8. Jonathan,

    I almost quoted from Donne. He is one of my poetic mentors.


    I don't think the discussion is at all silly. Whimsical but not silly. The fact that we are discussing the matter is proof of how individualistic the North American notions of sin and sinning are. Not so in the ancient world: e.g. Oedipus Rex and Romans and I Corinthians.


    George C.

  9. I can think of a quote off hand that makes this topic not so whimsical but in line with what Jesus said.

    Matthew 25 speaks of what we do to others being the same as doing it to Christ. It also talks about those who think they are obeying God really aren't in that they didn't feed the hungry, cloth the naked and visit those in prison.

    The greatest commandment is love. That means loving your neighbor because when you love your neighbor (as above) you love God.

    Another good question related inversely to this is, can you obey the letter of the law and yet sin?
    Can you live in an Ivory Tower, close to God, above the common folk below and know the scriptures inside and out and yet miss the whole point? I think that doing the "work of God" to the exclusion of any real acts of love just brings us back to Jesus' rebuke in Matthew 25.

    Richard, I like what you have to say.

    Rick T.

  10. Andrea,
    Yes, I do think the thought experiment can swing too far the other way, but I like that because it exposes some assumptions. As you note, keeping sin conflated with God & Man is the proper resting place.

    I agree. Yes, theoretically, a person could exploit the environment, but practically I have a hard time imagining that happening. Environmental exploitation is fueled by consumerism and consumerism is fueled by the ego needs for conspicuous consumption, a social phenomenon. I just don't think a single person would become consumeristic. Concerning lust, if we tweak the thought experiment and imagine that the person has always been on the island, never exposed to people before, then I think it puts away that concern. Lust requires society.

    I agree that we have a sort of social relationship with God. But it is a highly unusual one. First, most of the sins in life involve some notion of harm. God, being omnipotent, can't be harmed. We can offend God, but can't harm him. Thus, most of our robust notions of sin--hurting people, failing to offer aid as in the Good Samaritan, stealing--just can emerge in the God/Human interaction. Second, from a relational perspective God is often just not around. People surround me constantly, offering plenty of morally complicated social interactions. But God? God is often absent, at least experientially so. Recall the recent revelations about Mother Teresa. Apparently, for 40 years she experienced God as absent. So, although you can call that a "relationship," it changes things a bit if one party is just not there.

    When do you think that individualistic move--my spiritual life is between me and God--emerged? Was it at the Reformation? Or is it an American thing, a fusion of America with Protestantism?

    Can you obey the letter of the law and yet sin? That's a great question. We can imagine the person on the island who could, if they elected, sail back to society. Are they culpable if they remain on the island (e.g., the monastery, the ivory tower, their gated community, their small clique of Christian friends)? Very interesting...

  11. Richard,

    Extremely interesting question. How do you reconcile your thoughts with Jesus in Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:27-28)?

    "You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart."

    It appears that lust, a private/internal matter is equal to adultery, a social matter.

  12. Yeah, people are obviously able to come up with sins for your lone islander to perform.

    But I agree with you, I think: the interesting observations are, first, the way the potential for sin seems to explode when the number of people increases from 1 to 2, and second, how the potential doesn't change significantly for increasing values of n.

  13. When I think of sin being more prevalent via society rather than solitude, I think sin by omission. But if I consider God as a part of that society my theology falls apart.

  14. Don't suppose anyone will see this as I have just "discovered" this blog and so am going through bits that catch my interest, but writing this will help me expose my instincts to reason, so:

    I'm going to go to the extreme of your opposite and say that you could ONLY and CONTINUALLY sin on a desert island. We are created to exist and develop and be fulfilled and learn and act etc, etc in community with others. It's not that sin is primarily social, it's that right living is social and a state of sin is caused by the negation of or failure to do right living. Once you take away community we can no longer live as we were meant to and we must necessarily fail to live right. It might not seem fair on the individual according to a narrow sense of justice, but it's not fair on a kid who's taught that domestic violence is acceptable from an early age, or [insert other example] either. The failure to develop as God intends still prevents us from interacting with God as we otherwise could do, and this is to some extent a separation from God.

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