Jonathan Edwards was a prominent 18th century Calvinist minister. He is probably best remembered for a sermon entitled, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”.
Here is an excerpt:
“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment.”
It is reported that as Edwards preached his sermon, people would moan and cry out and hold on to the pillars of the church buildings because they thought the ground was going to open up and swallow them.
Edwards reflected a common view about God and God’s attitude towards sin. It’s sometimes called the “Juridical” or “Court Room” view and it goes back to around 300 A.D. to Tertullian and Augustine. But it really took hold in medieval times. The Juridical view says that human beings are, by nature, inherently evil and separated from God. Sin is willful rebellion against God and the penalty for rebellion is Hell. Worse, we are all born as rebels – sinners - and so are condemned to Hell the moment we’re born (the implication being that even babies who die go to Hell). According to this view, because of our sin, we are separated from God – He can’t stand to be around us. God is the judge in the courtroom who hands out punishment for our sin. Jesus is our advocate, who takes God’s wrath and punishment upon Himself on our behalf (sort of a “good cop/bad cop” scenario).
The juridical view reflects the cultures that it came out of, which had a low view of mankind. It also displays a strong Gnostic influence. Gnosticism grew out of Platonic dualism. In a nutshell, Gnostics believed that the material world (including mankind) was inherently evil, while the spiritual world was inherently good. Gnostic teachings were a constant problem for early Christians and many of the extant writings of early Church fathers are arguments against Gnosticism. Unfortunately, many of the early Church fathers, Augustine for example, had previously been pagan philosophers and so imported certain ideas (such as Platonic dualism) into their Christian teachings.
Much of Christianity though takes a different view about sin from the juridical one. I think the Bible too, tells a different story (or at least maybe a much more complex story). Let’s look at the first place in the Bible that sin is mentioned. It’s also the scene of the first murder in the Bible.
What do we know about these two brothers so far?
Which one appears to be more important/more favored?
“Cain” means “gotten” or “made”, as in “I made him”. Cain also means “to make things” or “to get things”. When Eve gave birth to Cain, she proclaimed “Look what I got!” or "Look what I made!" Reminds me of the scene in the movie City Slickers where Billy Crystal proclaims, "I made a cow!"
“Abel” means “vapor” or “breath”, as in “temporary” or “almost
Cain seems to be preferred. Abel seems unimportant. Culturally, Cain is the firstborn. More is said about Cain than about Abel. I think this story is really about God’s relationship with Cain.
Why did God prefer Abel’s offering over Cain’s?
Take a look at Genesis 3:17-19:
"To Adam He [God] said, "Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, 'You must not eat of it,'
"Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are and to dust you will return."
Cain’s offering came from his toil. Maybe his name is a clue here. Is he trying to make something happen? Is Cain trying to work really hard to get God to like him and bless him? Cain is working with something that God has cursed. I think what we see here with Cain is the roots of religion – trying to earn God’s acceptance by our hard work Islam, Jehovah’s Witnesses; Mormonism; in fact almost all religions do this. People outside of Christianity call Christianity a religion, but people inside Christianity know that it is a relationship. We can't earn anything. Everything we have is given to us. After all, if we could earn it, we would want to take credit for it.
God rejects Cain’s efforts and accepts Abel’s offering. Abel is the lesser. Abel is the underdog. Listen to what God says about underdogs:
“Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29so that no one may boast before him.” - 1 Cor 1:26-28
In the Cain & Abel story, God accepts the offering of the weak one over the offering of the strong one.
It occurs to me; when I minister in the jail, I’m interacting with people who have lost most of their rights and power. In jail, they are weak and the system is strong. It seems that this puts them in a special position with God. The Bible says that God chooses the weaker ones. Jesus said, “I haven’t come to save the healthy (the strong), but the sick (the weak).” I’m not making light of the crime that got them into jail, or the necessity to pay the penalty for that crime, I’m just saying, being stripped of everything puts one in a very receptive position.
Back to Genesis:
Why is Cain angry?
Maybe when you see yourself as the special one; the chosen one, its difficult when someone you think is weaker or less deserving gets the glory. Maybe Cain is jealous or maybe he feels he’s been dealt with unjustly.
Anger is Cain’s weakness. It is the sin he’s particularly vulnerable to. Look what happens next. While Cain is in the midst of his sin, God comes to him. How does God deal with Cain? “Repent ye sinner!”? No, God comes to Cain like a counselor or a doctor. God differentiates between the sin and the person. God is coaching Cain to make choices that won’t give sin power over him. God is in Cain’s corner – he’s cheering Cain on – he’s for Cain. Can you see the affection God has for Cain?
St. Hesychios wrote:
“Watchfulness is a continual fixing and halting of thought at the entrance to the heart. In this way, predatory and murderous thoughts are marked down as they approach and what they say and do is noted; and as we can see in what specious and deluding form the demons are trying to deceive the intellect. If we are conscientious in this, we can gain much experience and knowledge of spiritual warfare.”
What St. Hesychios is saying is that we need to track the thoughts coming into our head. A jealous thought, for example, if allowed in and left to fester, can plant a seed which can grow into anger and then hatred and then murder. As followers of Jesus, we have the Holy Spirit to instruct us and point out dangerous thoughts, and we have His power to overcome, but we also have to train ourselves to take authority over the sin that crouches at the doorway of our heart.
God knows that if Cain allows the anger to have a place in his heart, it will take root and the end result will be Abel’s murder and Cain’s banishment. God doesn’t want either to happen, but it’s ultimately Cain’s decision. How can God let bad things happen? Because of love, which requires free-will. God created us to have authentic relationship with Him. But true, authentic relationship must be based on free-will. Someone can’t honestly love you if it’s forced or commanded – it must be given freely. So in order to have a true, loving relationship with us, God gave us the freedom to reject Him.
Unlike Jonathan Edwards, with his “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, I believe that God is for us. We are created in God’s image, and that makes us good and valuable. But we’re also weak and broken and we sin – we miss the mark. The word translated as “sin” in the Bible actually means “to miss the mark” (picture an archer shooting at a target but the arrow falls short).
Sin is our failure to be what God created us to be.
Did you know that almost all religions and philosophies and social sciences (such as psychiatry) agree that there is something fundamentally wrong with the human condition; that humans are not as they should be? Each religion, philosophy, social science offers an idea of what the problem is and proposes a solution, but they all agree that something is wrong.
The Bible, of course, calls that something “sin”.
It’s a common teaching in Christianity to say that the essence of sin is pride and selfishness, but I don’t think that covers it. In some cases that's true, but oftentimes people sin because they hate themselves and think they’re worthless. I think the real root of sin is that we don’t trust God and we distance ourselves from Him. We don’t trust that He’s really good and that He really loves us and wants good things for us. But God reaches out to us, not to hold us over the fires of Hell, but to lead us closer to Him. And when we trust Him we find our reason for existence and our purpose in life, and that brings peace.
God created us to have relationship with Him. He wants us to be with Him. He wants us to trust Him. Jesus said He came to show us what the Father is like. And what did Jesus say? Follow me, learn from me, trust me. What was Jesus like?
Back to Genesis:
Cain has committed pre-meditated murder. In most states, Cain would receive the death penalty for what he has done. What makes Cain’s crime even worse is that Abel was not just an innocent man, he was a righteous man. But even after the murder, God remains open to Cain. In fact, who initiates the conversation here? God goes to Cain and invites Cain to interact. Cain tries to cover up what he’s done, which is a pretty common response (David did the same thing when he conspired to have Uriel murdered to cover up his adultery with Bathsheba).
Sin begets more sin.
Have you ever experienced anything like this? Have to been about to sin, or in the midst of sin or just sinned and God comes to you? Sometimes it's in a very subtle way, such as distracting or interrupting us when we were about to do something bad. Sometimes its doing something really kind for us when we’ve been really bad and know we don’t deserve it. I think God comes to us often, but often we don’t recognize Him.
What is God like in the story of Cain? Is He angry? Is He a God of wrath?
It seems that as Cain’s actions got worse and worse, God was more and more present. Romans 5:20 says “Where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” The deeper we are in sin, the more we need God. And He is there, if we'll let Him in.
Cain still suffered the consequences of his actions. He was sentenced to banishment for his crime, but notice that when God describes Cain’s curse to him, its more like a natural result than a punishment from God. In fact, God puts a mark of protection on Cain.
The story ends with Cain going away from the presence of God (not with God turning His back on Cain). Cain still belongs to God, even though he has distanced himself from God. God is still watching over Cain. Another problem with sin is that it makes us want to get away from God – to hide, to deny. But God wants us and loves us, even though we miss the mark.
God treats sin like a sickness that has infected the whole world. He coaches us and cheers for us to overcome it; to make right choices. He is right there with us in the midst of the struggle.
Another factor about sin--our failure to be what God intends for us to be--is that it is compounded by the fact that our world is saturated by sin due to the choices of individuals past and present. All of the choices and actions of individuals interact with one-another and reverberate across generations, to create entire systems and structures of sin. Sin has a ripple effect. It has a halflife, like radiation. The moment we are born we are immersed into sin, which limits even further our ability to make fully free choices and act authentically towards God and one- another. We are born into sin. As a result, we stumble through life lost and blind. I don’t believe God is about punishing us for it so much as He's about saving us from it. This is where Jesus comes in. He is the light of the world. He is the way and the truth. As we follow Him, He heals us. He shows us who we really are – the focus of God's eternal love. He teaches us to trust. He shows us the way through this sin-soaked world. And when we stumble and fall and miss the mark, He’s right there with us, just as He was with Cain.
This essay was heavily influenced by two books (besides, of course the Bible):
Missing the Mark, by Mark Biddle
Reading the Bible with the Damned, by Bob Ekblad