The textbook definition of sin is doing something that you know to be wrong. And yet, as has been frequently noted in fiction, villains (almost) never think to themselves, “Gee, I’m doing something wrong now.” We each live out narratives in which we star as the protagonist. We are the heroes of our own stories.
How can we reconcile these two notions: first, that sin requires a knowledge that what we are doing is wrong and second, that no one really believes what they are doing is wrong at the time that they do it?
I’m going to rely once again on Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s On Killing. (As I’ve written about before, his work has had quite an impact on me.) The primary thesis of his work is that human beings have a strong aversion towards killing other human beings, and that as a result most combat soldiers will not willingly take the life of their enemy even when their lives and their comrades lives depend on it.
Clearly the army that figures out how to overcome this inhibition will have a tremendous advantage over foes that have not. (Grossman suggests that several smaller wars in the 20th century reflected this imbalance, including the Falklands War.) Modern militaries have stumbled onto psychological practices such as operant conditioning to create automatic reflexes that will override the innate inhibition and render combat forces frighteningly effective. Soldiers trained in such techniques still require a host of supporting infrastructure to prevent serious psychological trauma, however, as their inhibitions kick in after-the-fact with horror at their trained reactions. A failure of such infrastructure led to widespread post-traumatic stress disorder in Vietnam Veterans after their return home.
But there’s a simpler route to highly aggressive fighting forces: atrocity. If you can successfully compel young, impressionable soldiers to commit horrible acts of violence against prisoners and non-combatants, you create a drastic tension between their innate reluctance to kill and their innate drive to preserve a heroic self-narrative. In these cases, many soldiers will react to their own participation in atrocity by furiously suppressing their sense of empathy with their enemy (a practice that is significantly easier if the enemy shares common ethnic or religious traits which the soldier does not). Having thus mutilated their own psyches and amputated their sense of empathy, these soldiers are subsequently much more prone to killing enemy combatants, rendering the army more effective in the short run. (Grossman argues that in the long run this a self-defeating strategy because it also increases the fighting spirit of the opposing forces who have both righteous anger and an assurance that surrender is not an option on their side.)
Taking this act of atrocity to be a template for sin, it is apparent that the initial act of sin–the killing of unarmed noncombatants–is not necessarily the most important element of the process. The atrocity is facilitated by a host of psychological factors that have been operating on the young soldier, forces like in-group cohesion, propaganda, obedience to authority, and of course the threat of harm. Grossman tells the story of a young German soldier who was ordered to execute civilians, refused, and was promptly executed himself. It’s astonishing, he says, that with the weight of all these factors some individual still find the will to resist even at the cost of their own lives. Such individuals are rare, however, and in the vast majority of cases once the orders for atrocity have been enacted most soldiers go along with it.
I’m not saying that we should not view that act itself as sinful, but as experiments like Milgram’s and Zimbardo’s both show, the difference between abuser and ordinary citizen is primarily one of circumstance. Circumstance does not seem like a terribly good indicator of moral stature. If Bob and Tom have the same character, but Bob engages in atrocity because his unit was ordered to do so and Tom doesn’t because his unit wasn’t (but would have made the same decisions), how much difference is there, really, between the two? This is why a focus on the event of sin can be misleading and counter-productive.
What’s more important, I believe, is to consider that happens after the event has taken place. Atrocity works (to the extent that it does at all) because most soldiers attempt to preserve their sanity and/or heroic inner-narrative by redefining their values. Explicitly: they dehumanize those that they have killed to preserve their self-image. This is the real problem, because the commission of the atrocity itself may be mitigated by a host of factors, but responding to it by embracing it after the fact internalizes and affirms the warped values implicit in the original atrocity and does so without any compulsion other than preservation of ego.
This is why it made sense for King Lamoni to speak of giving up his sins as though that were some kind of sacrifice. The sacrifice comes from abandoning psychological insulation against the reality of our deeds and making ourselves vulnerable to feeling the disconnect between what is truly good and beautiful and the deficient moral reality we have crafted for ourselves.
Thus the consequence of sin–which is the embrace of wrong acts after the fact rather than the wrong act itself–is creating a private universe of painful immorality. That, in a word, is Hell: we each create our own by our actions and the values that they enact. Consider again the case of the soldier who has committed atrocities and then internalized their logic: in dehumanizing his adversary and overriding the fundamental empathy of our species he has spiritually mutilated himself in a horrible fashion. It’s a vision captured vividly in fiction by J. K. Rowling’s final depiction of the defeated Tom Riddle. After shredding his own soul in the commission of murders, there’s barely enough left to recognize him as a human being anymore.
What, then, is Heaven? Heaven is a flight back to a world of perfectly harmonious morality. Who has made that world? Christ, alone, has come down and lived in the same conditions in which we each find ourselves, and yet affirmed throughout his entire life the proper ranking of values. He created His own Heaven, in which He is free to dwell with His Father. (If there is an objectively correct moral framework, than any person who creates a perfect instance of it finds themselves in a populous Heaven with everyone else who has done so.)
The purpose of the atonement, then, is to invite us to abandon our own own self-constructed dungeons and escape into the world He has created. To do so, we must first be willing to abandon our own sins, which is to say our own narrative and defensive fantasies. We must be willing to submit ourselves to Christ’s–which is to say God’s–moral universe.
In any case, shifting the emphasis on sin away from the sinful events themselves and towards an examination on the moral character and desires of sinners in reaction to their own behavior will clearly have an impact on our conception of the atonement, but that’s a different topic for a different day.