A World Without Sin

Illuminated parchment, Spain,
circa AD 950-955
Since sin is a moral evil, it is necessary in the first place to determine
what is meant by evil, and in particular by moral evil.

—from The Catholic Encyclopedia

You are teaching the Garden of Eden story in your beginner’s Bible class. A student asks, innocently, “Why would any fruit be forbidden?” You laugh, but no one else is laughing. Your student wants to know what this God character has against fruit. Your student has support from the class. You are in a place where asking direct questions about the Bible is not remotely irreverent. The question does not have a comic edge. It is just a straight and simple question. And this question is packaged with similar questions. Other students might ask abruptly, “What kind of fruit? How big was the tree?”

Now you are re-reading the text in front of class, fumbling for an answer because you are not quite sure how to explain why the fruit was forbidden because you do not know why the fruit was forbidden. A flashback circles you back to when you still believed in Santa Claus. You are in a Sunday school class, in my case in a Presbyterian church in small-town South Carolina. You ask the teacher, “How did Adam and Eve’s two sons have children?”

Your teacher glares, “we don’t ask that kind of question.” You better shut up or else no juice and cookies after class. No teacher in this gone world of childhood—a world where Santa is alive and well, a world where not asking the wrong question can be redeemed for juice and cookies—no teacher has to explain the answer to a religious question that children are not supposed to ask in the first place. But in Japan you look over puzzled stares, faces innocent of Sunday school rules. They have heard little to nothing about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It strikes you in a moment of clarity how marvelous the story is—and how we from the world of people who think we know the story so well may not know the story well enough to marvel at it.

The raw material from this story prompted the exquisite sensual imagery in Renaissance paintings, in Milton’s grand epic, that were not part of our Sunday school education—the two naked people, the green world with fruit and flowing streams, and the voyeuristic voice, the God of earth and soil, who walks within his creation. Your students have not received the unwritten memo that there are certain questions about this question begging narrative that you are not supposed to ask. You are not protected from hard questions by the invisible force that protected your old Sunday school teacher. You have just been initiated to the new view, marvelous but under-explained.

You try to mutter something that sounds like an answer, and you also sense that some from your flock are starting to sense that their Bible teacher does not seem to know the Bible. You recover by saying that the story is not just about the tree or about fruit, but about the fact that when the God of the Bible makes a rule, you have to follow it, you have to do what you are told, for your own good. The voice of the story itself insists that there are questions that should not be asked. Your students stare at you blankly. You have just been taught something that you did not know you knew: the point of the story is not to ask questions. Enjoy childhood, and listen to the story and understand that it means that we should do what we were told by God. Curiosity is what got us tossed out of paradise in the beginning. You look over your students of a culture where this God of Eden has no purchase. You clear your throat and say, “In this story you have to follow the rule or else you have done something very bad in the Bible. You have sinned against God.”

Your students remain blank—a couple of them look cross as they search for sin in their electronic dictionaries. Maybe they are wondering if they will be flunked for asking questions. They have no idea what sin is, even what the word, sin, means. Of course there is the idea of right and wrong in Japan, even a Japanese word that Christian ministers use for sin or flaw, but there is no tradition of original sin, of being born into sin. You are in a modern culture with a strong economy, where public health officials smile on fruit eating, where young people are encouraged, forced, to learn things, where they are given homework assignments to get knowledge or else fail examinations and disgrace their family.

You wonder how to explain sin to your students. You are from sin central, a place where the word, sin, is used casually. But you do not know enough about sin to explain sin is to the sinless. After class you return to your office to look for a hard, clear definition of sin.

Sin is an act committed against God’s rules and laws, and there is also sin of omission, when one fails to carry out the will of God. But the first sin was provoked by the desire to be godlike, an urge for personal betterment that was curiously damned from the start, given that the two sinners were made in the image of God. But the first sin was big. This is made clear in Genesis. What is not clear is where sin came from, but it certainly got our earthly father and mother harshly evicted from paradise. No one in this class would identify with Adam as their first father. He wasn’t Japanese. Wrong passport. Sin is a moral evil according to the person who wrote the entry to the Catholic Encyclopedia. Japanese students can of course fathom morality and evil but not in relation to the idea of sin in the Bible. The words moral and evil, in relation to each other and the Bible, are in a place thousands of miles from where I stand in Tokyo. When I put these words together, they even fly over my head, no matter where I am standing. The words sin and moral and evil do not appear with each other in the King James Bible. I cannot even find the word, moral, in the King James Version, after a digital search. Is moral evil, whatever that is, really what the story of Adam and Eve is about? And what to make of being damned for eating one piece of fruit. “Sore dake?” “Only that?,” one of my students quips in Japanese.

Sin changes when you consider the whole Bible. Centuries beyond Adam and Eve, Jesus reportedly gets testy about the God of Moses’ hard-line Old Testament law that it is a sin to work on the Sabbath. Jesus’ attitude toward the authorities indicates that, along with my testy students, he might be someone who would ask, “Why would any fruit be forbidden?” Explaining sin is difficult, and it is one of the many elements in the Bible that you think you understand but do not understand. Japanese students follow rules, even stupid rules. In fact Japan may be the global leader in stupid rule making. But restrictions on fruit are out of line, even in this ruling making culture.

You have to manage the next level of student questions, those about modern Christian practices that are asked because Japanese students, following our lead, link the Bible to Christianity, not to Judaism, which produced roughly 75% of the books inside—this is another enormous issue—but to Christianity. They link the Bible to Christianity even though they do not know much about the Bible or Christianity. A student wonders, “Do modern Christians still have sin?” She pronounces sin carefully, with a long “i,” this strange, foreign word. “Yes,” you answer.

But teaching sin makes you wonder if you ever really knew what sin was, or is. You even begin to think, along with the God of Eden, that it is not a good idea to expose the knowledge of sin to the sinless. You may feel familiar with the story of Noah and the big flood, but in Japan you must explain every detail of the story in the text of the Bible. You re-read this section in Genesis carefully before class. You get through it in class without having to answer a hard question, like, “How did Noah’s grandchildren have children?” But one of your sinless students looks up from her Bible and asks,

“Do Christian people think this story is true?”
“Yes, sometimes.”
“Really?”

They view you as someone from the world of Bible belief, so letting them in on the fact that people in your world believe every word of the Flood story is like outing a family secret. No, it is not like outing a family secret; it really is outing a family secret. After the outing, you feel you have betrayed a confidence. You begin to look suspect yourself. “Many people, even devout Christians, just see the Flood as an interesting story,” you add, trying to distance yourself from the people you have informed on.

But your students do not know what a devout Christian is. You realize that you do not either and that we do not agree on what a devout Christian is in the world where many think of the Bible as a devotional guidebook. So many examples flash to mind of issues that Christians disagree on. Is suicide wrong? Is capital punishment just? Is abortion a moral evil? What is a moral evil? Is it okay to be gay? The punishment for working on the Sabbath in the Old Testament is death. Isn’t that too severe? You sum up by saying something to your Bible students that would sound insane in your hometown: “Reading the Bible is not the best way to learn about Christianity.” Then you check the hallway to see if a stray Christian has overheard you and is off to report you to the God of juice and cookies.

It is a downhill rather than an uphill struggle, teaching the Bible to the uninitiated, the biblically innocent. Beyond linking the Bible to Christianity, there are no pre-installed Christian views of the Bible in the minds of my students. This slope becomes steeper when you try to explain what we think, those of us brought up as Christians, to those who do not approach bible study under the stern binary gaze of the One God, the God of love and damnation, or under the auspices of one of the many branches of modern religion that have appropriated this God as their own.