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Sin and Guilt


SIN AND GUILT . The human being, as homo religiosus, is a creature that worries. This worrying is both a burden and a distinction. In the dark age of mutation to Homo sapiens, at the turning point between animality and humanity, the human intuition of the presence of the surrounding numinous tipped the balance toward humanness. As soon as this ape could stand on its feet, its glance could lift itself from the earth, the source of food, and direct itself toward the stars, that is, to a sphere highernot only spatiallythan that of the satisfaction of its bodily needs and functions. In this way humans discovered the universe and, concomitantly, the existential problem of their place in the cosmos, assigned to them by some power, for some particular reason, toward some goal. They thus invented an entire mythical universe in answer to the questions evoked by this fundamental anxiety.

Mircea Eliade has shown time and again that the central characteristic of myth is a narrative of origins. If one knows how things started and why they went awry, one finds some kind of solace, as does the patient upon learning from a physician the name of his or her disease. This reassurance is, however, partial at best: The essentials for living are the most precarious for humans among all the creatures of the earth. Reflecting on the origins of his human condition, humans came inevitably and universally to the conclusion that this present life is not what it was meant to be by the god(s) in illo tempore. In short, from being anxious, humans became unhappy, stricken with guilt feelings about an initial accident that is repeated endlessly throughout human existence and can be called "sin."

Sin and guilt, however, come in a great variety of shades, according to the various sensitivities represented by the great number of religious and philosophical feelings and systems. In this article the classification of the different approaches to the issue is of primordial importance. The article shall attempt to distribute the material from a phenomenological point of view, starting with the cosmological apprehension of humans as surrounded by taboos and continuing with the tragic conception that to live at all is a sin. In a second major section, the transition from such a naturalistic understanding to an ethical conception will be assessed. The third area of investigation concerns the Judeo-Christian tradition and its antitaboo, antideterministic, antinaturistic notion of sin as a breach of a personal covenant with God and humanity. A brief excursus discusses the very different notions of sin and guilt among the ancient Greeks. Finally, a particular case is made of Islam as another branch of the monotheistic tradition.

The Cosmological Vision

Martin Heidegger in his Sein und Zeit (1929) speaks of the "fall" of humans into the world. This is a felicitous rendering of the basic feeling that developed as soon as humans became aware of being part of the vast cosmos. From the dawn of consciousness, humans felt impotent, an unbearable condition. That is why they resorted to magic. When all rational response to reality becomes pent up and frustrated, the only alternative to passive inaction is the biological function of magic. Magic is the manipulation of occult forces in nature; it is a way of participating in cosmic functions. Here specific acts are wrought as mimesis of their archetypal models; they deal with objects that are never indifferent, although some are of common use and, so to speak, tolerated by the gods, while others are taboos, that is, reserved by the gods for themselves. Humanity's manipulation of a taboo is a dangerous business and demands ritual reparation. But it is not sensu stricto a sin, and there is here no true guilt. The violation of a taboo is often absolutely unavoidable, like everything pertaining to sexuality or the return home of the victorious warrior. Making reparation to the numinous consists in magically purging the offender through specific magical acts, sometimes through death. It is not a punishment however, for that would imply personal culpability, that is, violation of a commandment expressing a divine will. What is dreaded by the "primitive" is not offending a transcendent being but upsetting the cosmological order. Thanks to myth, the primitive knows what is taboo, and thanks to magical rites, knows what to do and how to do it: the primitive confesses and expiates.

If one follows Raffaele Pettazzoni (La confessione dei peccati, 19291936) and picks up the one conception of sin that he calls magical (in contrast to theistic), one is struck by the biological aspect of what is called sin in confessions. They tend to focus, for example, upon sexuality, but more generally, in agrarian cultures, they are clearly oriented toward a cosmobiology. The appropriate expiation transfers to another object the threat of biological evil. It is so little a matter of guilt on the part of the confessant that he lists sins that he obviously never committed. Sin, in this context, is not a personal but a material object.

One must therefore complement what has been said above about purgation of the offender with a more objective aspect of the ritual. As Robert Hertz has noted, more often than not the point is not only to purge the transgressor of the mystical substance he unduly appropriated, but to bring it back to its original focus. The personal participation in upsetting the cosmos is, of course, not ignored. But it is not the center of concern, for humanity finds itself living after a cosmic catastrophe whose "culprit" is anonymous. Death is no punishment but belongs to life structure and to world order. Everything is here determined before the anthropogony occurs. Later, when humans discovered agriculture, they applied to themselves its cyclical resurgence, the "eternal return," and so were born the initiation rites whose center is the symbolic death of the initiate followed by the symbolic return to life. Again on this score, death does not imply any consciousness of a guilt to be atoned for.

At this point, one can discern two variants in the treatment of the presence of evil in the world according to the cosmological view. The second variant will be reviewed below in the section on Mesopotamia. This first division may be concluded with the mention of the first variant, namely, the conception of individual life as being by itself already an offense, an injustice, an arrogance, to be atoned for. Such a view is found in geographical areas as remote from one another as Central America and Greece. According to the Maya and Aztec myth, this world is the last extant in a series of creations destroyed by cataclysms. This one endures only on account of the sacrifices of human hearts offered to the gods, who themselves made the first oblation (see K. Garbay, Historia de los Mexicanos por sus pinturas, 2d ed., Mexico City, 1973).

Thus, the most archaic form of fault is defilement, that is, "a strain or blemish that infects from without" (Ricoeur, 1967, p. 8). The focus is on the world rather than humanity, and the ethical sin is confused with the material evil, for all failure upsets the cosmological order and brings with it defilement, thus drawing between sacred and profane a dividing line that often makes no sense to modern humans. This, however, constitutes what Ricoeur calls "our oldest memory," for which the concept of retribution is central. That is why it took no less than the questioning of this foundational myth to dissociate ethical sin from physical evil and suffering.

Mesopotamian Religion

This second variant to the cosmological conception mentioned earlier is found in Mesopotamia. There for the first time, the anonymity of evil was felt intolerable. The phenomenology of evil had to find a language by which a responsible agent could be incriminated as the bearer of guilt. Two ways were open: either through demonizing powers and forces manipulating humans as pawns on a chessboard or through designating human culprits, thus making them the bearers of guilt. Both solutions are found in Mesopotamian mythologies. The former, however, is fundamental. It gives expression to the all-important human sentiment that evil was already present before the anthropogony. Before becoming guilty through participation, the human is a victim. This tragic conception found expression in the text Ludlul bel nemeqi, where the so-called Babylonian Job cannot make sense of his misfortune. Similarly, in A Dialogue about Human Misery, the so-called Babylonian Qohelet concludes that one cannot know the divine intentions. But already a Sumerian confessional says, "Whether man has acted shamefully, whether he has acted well, he knows not at all."

One is struck by the pessimism of the Mesopotamian myths. The cosmological myth Enuma elish, for example, resembles a Greek tragedy. Humanity falls into sin as it falls into existence. In the background of all Babylonian and Assyrian penitential psalms, the free will of humans is never up to the demands of the divine standards of purity: "Mankind as many as there be [commit] sin the food that belongs to God I have eaten." So people are naturally sinful, and this can be explained by a kind of generative transmission of that status. "The penalty of my father, of my grandfather, of my mother, of my grandmother, of my family, of relations through brothers and sisters, may it not come nigh me" (Langdon, 1927).

If the defilement of sin is "our oldest memory," the inexorability of sin is also very much present today, to the extent that people have maintained a dualistic view of reality. This finds expression in phylogenetic laws (Darwin), in the psychological fabric of humanity (Freud), and in societal structures (Marx). But until now the word sin has been used here only by approximation, for it is only when the fault is put in the context of a covenantal relation with God that one can speak, sensu stricto, of sin (against an expressed divine will). Here, taboos and magic have no role to play. If they are still found in the documents, they are reduced to the state of traces. This article thus turns to the next religious venture; it has been characterized by some as a process of demythologization.

The Religions of Israel

Starting with those remnants of the fault as defilement, one may observe with Ricoeur (1967, p. 70f.) the customary positive character of the stain; purity's characteristic, on the other hand, is negative. When, as in the Bible, sin becomes a breach in the living relation with God, there is conversion of the positive to the negative. Sin is "the loss of a bond, of a root, of an ontological ground" counterbalanced by the positive "fundamental symbolism of the return." One has entered another world, but not one isolated from the rest of the universe.

One central characteristic of the Hebrew scriptures is that they are polemical in reaction to the ways of thinking of the neighboring world. It is clear that such documents cannot be read in isolation from their environment. Taking issue, for example, with the ontological dualism present everywhere, Israel understands the profane as being in analogy with the sacred. Humans have been created in the image of God (Gn. 1:26f.). Something of the kind existed in Mesopotamia, where the king was the image of the divine, in contradistinction to all other human beings. Israel "demythologized" this notion through a process of democratization. Not the king only, but human qua human is imago Dei. The creator has granted humans creative faculties: speech, sexuality, conscience. Conscience is here no intrinsic human quality but a gift of God; it is the Hebrew lev (Ex. 35:2122, 29). It makes the individual an ethical being. For the first time, one meets a vivid consciousness of sin: Abel's blood cries out from the ground (Gn. 4:10); Joseph's brothers acknowledge their guilt (Gn. 42:21ff.); the psalmist laments "my sin is ever before me" (Ps. 51:5). Sin is now assessed within a context of interrelationship between God and man, that is, of the covenant. It is thus no longer just an ethical fault. Neither is it a juridical offense only. Being in covenant with God entails an existence in holiness; sin therefore is deviation (ʿavon ), a straying from the norms of holiness, understood as the very dynamism of life. It is a crime against God's sanctity, and it is only to be expected that it would occasion the far-ranging disturbance of life. For God's holiness and the holy human response to it keep the cosmos and humanity in shalom (peace, integrality, wholeness, sanity.) Far from the face of God, there can be only disease and catastrophe (Lv. 26:1ff.; Dt. 28:1ff.).

Thus is the notion of sin oriented toward a liturgical understanding. To the microcosmic concentration of the liturgy in the Temple of Jerusalem corresponds the macrocosmic liturgy of the world with humans at its center. This, which is especially true of the Priestly source, is also fundamental for Yahvism in general (Is. 6:3, 6:5). Pushed to the extreme, sin becomes a peshaʾ, that is, an apostasy, an abandonment of rectitude, of justice, of fidelityin brief, of Torah. Thus there is in the Bible no theory of sinfulness, but, very practically, there are sins, a thousand and one ways to go astray from an existence whose whole raison d'être is to be holy. Here the realism is such that sins corrupt the whole "heart," which therefore must be replaced by a pure heart, and not only on the individual level but, eschatologically and actually, on the communal level when all Israel is made "new," "whole," "holy."

Thus, for Israel, since humanity is created coresponsible for the governance of creation and indeed is high priest in the cosmic temple (Gn. l:26ff. and the whole literary Priestly "layer" in the Pentateuch), it is also ultimately responsible for the presence of evil in the universe and in history. The known world is a perverted "garden" where even the generative and the creative powers of humans are twisted in their process and their aim, and diverted from their natural bliss. In sorrow are people to produce their food amid a plantation that is the reverse of the one of Eden, as it is full of thorns and thistles. Ultimately everyone returns, not to "paradise," but to dust (Gn. 3:1619).

That deviation is the product of both the human "heart" (internal) and an external power, personified in Genesis 3 as the "serpent," which is an evil spirit according to other texts. There is between the two a correspondence. The serpent's discourse is immediately intelligible to humans, evoking in them favorable echoes. For humanity is inclined to do evil (Gn. 6:5). Later this inclination is conceptualized in the Apocrypha and rabbinism as the yetser ha-raʿ (4 Esd. 7:118, 2 Bar. 40:42f.). Thus there is present here a trace of a tragic anthropology, insisting upon the passivity and the alienation of humanity. The point these texts want to make is that by birth, the status of humanity is to be separated from God. Before any human act, sin is already there. It follows from this that the divine covenant is a gracious gift, undeserved and productive of a second birth, the birth of a "circumcised" life (i. e., marked by the intimate relationship with God).

As, however, the yetser ha-raʿ is no radical evil but a permanent temptation, there is here no servum arbitrium or original sin in the sense of an inherited corrupt nature. Sin is a kind of second nature in humans (Jer. 13:23); it is human obstinacy to alienate oneself. Ezekiel speaks of the human niddah (impurity), and Paul, later, uses the Greek term hamartia in the singular.

From the pragmatic concern with sins one has now passed to the reflective elaboration of a theory of sin that underscores humanity's congenital weakness. Humans are "flesh"; they are born sinners (Ps. 51:7). They are capable of only relative justice (Is. 51:1). Sinning has become an attitude connatural to humans, a permanent blemish (Is. 6:5). This realism leads the New Testament to the conclusion that the world is ruled by evil (Rom. 3:9, Col. 1:13, 1 Jn. 5:19), because humans have enthroned it.

Sin is not only a fault before God, it is also an act wronging one's neighbor. David claims that he did not sin against King Saul (1 Sm. 19:4; 24:12); in return, Saul would be committing a sin against David in attempting to kill him, something Saul acknowledges later (1 Sm. 26:21). Time and again the prophets, in particular, equate the one aspect of humanity's sin with the other. No one denounces more forcefully than Amos social ills as sins against humans and against God. When, later, Jesus is asked which is the greatest commandment, he replies by equating the commitment to love God with that to love one's neighbor, i.e., one's fellow human beings (Mt. 22:3640; cf. Dt. 6:5, Lv. 19:18).

Sin entails the curse. A classic description of the latter is found in Deuteronomy 28 (cf. Lv. 26). As Johannes Pedersen writes, "Sin breeds the curse, and the curse breeds sin" (1959, vol. 1, p. 441). "The sinner is charged with a curse, for the curse is a dissolution which takes place in the soul of the sinner" (ibid., p. 437). This is why there is an intimate relation between sin and disease or other misfortunes. In the first case as in the second, one "is stricken in the soul" (1 Kgs. 8:38). Human-made evil includes military defeat, drought, famine, and so forth (8:3340). There are thus three possible causes of illness: one's own sin, the curse of others, or the sinfulness of humanity in general (cf., Ps. 32:1ff., 38:3ff., etc.; Sir. 38:115).

The Israelites did not distinguish between performance and performer, sin and sinner. Sin is the doing of the sinner; the sinner sins. There cannot be a judgment of the deed that would not be a judgment of the doer. Beyond illness and disease, death is the ultimate punishment of sin. But death is not just the final accident ending human existence. As has been seen, sin is the dissolution of the soul; life is torn apart by sin (Dt. 27:1526). It is really the presence of death in the midst of life, and suffering is its foretaste. As Paul is later to proclaim, "death is the wages of sin" (Rom. 6:23).

Being phenomenologically a movement of radical reform within Judaism, one deeply influenced by apocalypticism, early Christianity crystallized the notion of sinfulness into a state of universal corruption (Mt. 7:11). In contrast to the rabbis, Paul emphasized the unavoidability of sin. It is due to Adam's "fall" (Rom. 5:12ff.), on the one hand, and to an equation made between weakness of the flesh and its antagonism to God (Rom. 8:3, "the flesh of sin"), on the other. Moreover the law has brought human sinfulness to a paroxysm, for the law makes sin real and sanctionable (Rom. 4:15). It is this very paroxysm that expresses itself in the crucifixion of the just par excellence, its total reversal by the grace of God making Christ's death atone for humankind's sins. Paul writes, "Christ died for our sin" (1 Cor. 15:3), and further, "Christ was innocent of sin, and yet for our sake God made him one with the sinfulness of men, so that in him we might be made one with the goodness of God himself" (2 Cor. 5:21). Thus "in Christ" (a favorite expression of Paul) it has become possible to lead a saintly life, which as was seen above is, according to the Hebrew Bible, the goal of creation. In summary, the final answer to humanity's guilt, according to the New Testament, is given by the death of Christ which overcomes the human state of sin and guilt and thereby inaugurates the kingdom of God on earth.

The Greeks

For the sixth-century philosopher Anaximander, being itself is already evil. One finds in Greece other echoes of such pessimism. Tragedy is, after all, a Greek invention. According to this conception of existence, humanity's fault (not sin) is a blindness sent by the gods, a fatal error that the Greeks called hamartia. In Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, the hero says, "In me personally you would not find a fault [hamartias] to reproach me with to having thus committed these crimes against myself and against my kin" (ll. 967f.). One may observe that Oedipus is the ambivalent symbol of crime and excusable fault. For Aristotle, hamartia is the terrible and tragic fault made by distinguished individuals, by heroes. He insists on their nobility. In sum, there is more fascination in Greece with hero worship than with hamartology. As E. R. Dodds has shown, in the Greek tradition one is dealing more with a "shame culture" than with real guilt. The Homeric hero "loses face"; his public reputation (timē ) means everything to him. Although with time there occurred a moralization process whereby shame became guilt, the ground for feeling guilty remained murky. It is tied with hubris; still, the sixth-century poet Theognis says, "No man is responsible for his own ruin or his own success: of both these things the gods are the givers. No man can perform an action and know whether its outcome will be good or bad" (ll. 133136). So, despite the protest of the fifth-century philosopher Heraclitus that "character is destiny" (frag. 119), one's daemon was in general more important, for an ancient Greek, than one's character.

Plato adopts the opinion of Socrates that "no one sins willingly," for wrongdoing is an error of judgment. No one who knows what is good (which is also happiness), would choose not to imitate it. Ananke (necessity) exists, but it operates within the kind of life freely chosen by the soul. "He who chooses is responsible, not God" (Republic 10.617e). The only sin is to shift from the voluntary to the involuntary. When this is avoided, the soul can be assimilated to God by contemplating the world of the Forms, which is divine and well ordered. By imitating such a world the soul becomes divine and well ordered as well.

Aristotle takes issue with Socrates' optimism that no one sins voluntarily. For, in the first place, people are responsible for the way they figure out what is good for them. Second, once a goal is set, human reflection decides what are the appropriate means to reach it, and the means selected makes one guilty or innocent. The human soul disposes of a power of choice (proairesis ); it is the root of liberty, but the passions can overcome intellection. There is indeed a guilty lack of knowledge, which, for an alcoholic, for instance, is self-inflicted. Euripides has Medea say, "I do realize how terrible is the crime I am about, but passion overrules my resolutions, passion that causes most of the misery in the world" (Medea 10781080). Happiness, however, is submission to intellection (nous ), that is, to what is most divine in humans. There is a veritable rational determinism concerning the ends of such submission. To obey nous assures contact with the immortal. But there is no notion here of sin in the sense of a breach in a personal relationship with God. For God is a Thought thinking itself and is totally indifferent to humanity and the world.

The Stoa puts the emphasis on individual autonomy within a human communion (koinonia, philia, oikeiosis) whose cement is Reason which permeates the whole. In the second century ce, Marcus Aurelius wrote:

All things are implicated with one another, and the bond is holy; and there is hardly anything unconnected with any other thing. For things have been coordinated, and they combine to form the same universe [order]. For there is one universe made up of all things, and one God who pervades all things, and one substance, and one law, one common reason in all intelligent animals, and one truth; if indeed there is also one perfection for all animals which are of the same stock and participate in the same reason. (Meditations 7.9)

Here universal laws are identical with divine laws, so that human life is conceived by the Stoic thinker Epictetus (c. 55c. 135) as a divine service (huperesia or diakonia ). The ideal is to live according to nature, for the world order is totally rational and anything that happens must therefore be accepted. Providence is another name for necessity. Sin is error, the violation of the cosmic laws.

Finally, a more clearly religious solution is proposed by Orphism. In Orphic thought, the root of evil is the body; it is a prison for the soul. The soul is punished in the body for earlier sins. If these sins are not expiated during one incarnation, the soul transmigrates to another body. This doctrine of reincarnation provided an elegant solution to the moral dilemma of divine justice and human suffering. The way to purify the soul of sin is to emancipate the individual from group solidarity and its corollary, vicarious suffering for another's fault. The goal is to escape from the wheel of deaths and rebirths through rituals that bring katharsis, that is, a cleansing from the old taint of carnality.

The Christian Church

This article will deal hereall too briefly, to be surewith three Christian theologians chosen for their towering stature in the history of the Eastern and the Western churches and for their lasting influence on Christian thinking and philosophy until the present day. Irenaeus (c. 120202), with whom this discussion shall start for reasons of chronology, has a conception of humanity before the Fall that Augustine found himself incapable of sharing. For Irenaeus, the time before the Fall is that of Adam's immaturity. He has been created in the "image of God" but is still to be brought to the stage of the "likeness of God." The Fall delayed the process of maturation, but on the other hand, it also marked a kind of human weaning from the parental God. Only a relatively independent being can enter a meaningful relationship with the creator. Human history consists of the vicissitudes of that relationship. It would however end in total failure were it not for the incarnation. Christ is his father's manifestation (manifestatio, phanerōsis), thus making God visible. To see God in Christ is the way for humans to be divinized. God came down to humans, and humans climb up to God.

When turning to Origen (c. 185c. 254), one finds humanity at the crossroads of two diverging theologies: the theology of Justin and Clement, "Greek" and indifferent to the role of the flesh, and the theology of Irenaeus, deeply biblical and christological. In On First Principles (Peri archōn), there is no mention of an original sin committed by Adam. Rather Origen emphasizes the fall of souls. These are preexisting pure spirits that strayed from their creator and fell into human bodies. They are in pilgrimage back to God. This process of salvation is also a process of restoration, of mending, of putting the world back in order. This is possible because there is between God and the world a kinship the trace of which in humans is the nous. There is here no autonomous existence of darkness. Evil is simply a turning away from God.

It is thus with no surprise that one finds Origen focusing upon Christ's work rather than on his person. Christ is the great educator who brings humanity from deficiency to perfection. The goal (teleiōsis ) is the perfection of human nature by the Logos, the divinization of humanity. The means is obedience to God, which Christ teaches by his word and by his death: "The Son made himself obedient unto death to teach obedience to those who could reach salvation only by way of obedience." Salvation is apokatastasis pantōn (a restitution of all things and a definite achievement). Even Satan will be saved. But until the eschaton, the movement of drawing near to God is endless. All has been revealed; but all is to be discovered. Christ has come; but he ceaselessly comes.

The church father Augustine (354430) is without rival as regards the theology of the West. Augustine inaugurates a "new type of discourse, that of onto-theology," says Ricoeur. The question unde malum would be legitimate only if evil were substantial, as the Manichaeans teach. But it is not so. Already Basil of Caesarea (330379) had stated that there is no ontological reality to evil (Hexaemeron 2.5). Augustine follows suit and says that the problem is rather unde malum faciamus, stressing more forcefully still that evil is no substance, no creature. All creatures participate in being and are therefore good. It is only through his free choice that humans bring sin from potential to real, from nothingness to an act. Evil is negative. It is amissio boni or privatio boni. It is a deficiency of the created that makes freedom possible and hence human history.

Augustine had the opportunity to underscore this theologoumenon of the gratuitousness of God's grace in his polemics against Pelagius (fl. c. 400418). This British monk taught that humanity can reach perfection in holiness by the practice of virtues and asceticism. Humans therefore bear the sole guilt for their sins, as they are endowed with free will. "If sin is innate, it is not voluntary, if it is voluntary, it is not innate." Pelagius of course chooses the second proposition. Children are in the situation of Adam before the Fall. Some of them imitate Adam; others become perfectly washed of all sin.

In response to Pelagius, Augustine considerably hardened his stance. He developed the "original sin" theory (inaugurated by Cyprian, 200258, and by Ambrose, c. 330397) and stated that all humans are born sinful and guilty, meriting eternal damnation. With the Fall, the human spirit has been victimized by the rebellion of the body, which should have been its servant. (By contrast, the animal, although under the dictum of nature, is not guilty, because it has no reason, no spirit.) Originally nature was natura sana, but it has become natura vitiata. This explains why sin is transmitted from one generation to another, making sin as unavoidable as life itself. This inherent nothingness in humans impairs their liberty. Evil is an act; it has an existential character and can be described as a defectus, an aversio a Deo, conversio ad creaturas (Against Secundinus the Manichaean 17). For this, which is a perversion, God is not responsible. He is responsible for the musical instrument, not for its discord.

Augustine's theories are not exempt from ambiguities. They have remained so in the church for sixteen centuries (Tresmontant, 1961, p. 611). For the freedom and the culpability of humans is on the other hand predestined by God. Augustine developed the doctrine of double predestination, which had such a powerful impact on Calvin and on so many Christian theologians. The seminal transmission of sin and guilt was Augustine's way of counterbalancing the culpability of the individual. Humanity finds evil already present before actualizing it itself. But the fact that perverted nature is inherited considerably relativizes humanity's ultimate responsibility, for Augustine attributed to evil a quasi-nature through a continuous contingency.


In the Qurʾān, sin is essentially pride and opposition to God. The model of such misbehavior is given by Iblīs (Satan), who refused to prostrate himself before Adam. Human sin is minimized to the level of a weakness that has become a kind of habit: "the heart is prone to evil" (12:53). In fact, the original mistake of Adam proved beneficial for humanity, for through this mistake the world became populated and God worshiped by a great number of people. Besides, the forgiveness of sin is within easy reach for all (57:28 and passim). Repentance does not require atonement, and the pilgrim on the ājj to Mecca returns home as innocent as a newborn child. Prophets and saints are delivered in this life from moral and physical evils. Believers are further delivered from eternal punishment. However, good works as well as faith are necessary for salvation.

The power of God stands at the center of Muslim faith. That power is such that it can even be arbitrary. For example, God commands reprehensible acts from Muammad. The Qurʾān (35:9) declares that God leads astray those he chooses (cf. 42:12, 40:36). If God willed, everyone in the land would believe. But God does not impose his will on humans so that they may be responsible for themselves (10:99f., 18:28). This does not detract from the fact that all has been decreed beforehand by God, including humanity's failings.

See Also

Confession of Sins; Evil; Magic.


Mircea Eliade's A History of Religious Ideas, 3 vols. (Chicago, 19781986), has become an instant classic. Its synthesis of religious thought and the extent of its bibliographic data are without parallel elsewhere. From a philosophical and phenomenological point of view, Paul Ricoeur has written two remarkable books, The Symbolism of Evil (Boston, 1967) and The Conflict of Interpretations (Evanston, Ill., 1974). He is also the author of a study on Augustine, which, although as yet unpublished, I have used here with his permission.

On ancient Near Eastern religions, the irreplaceable Ancient Near Eastern Texts relating to the Old Testament, 3d ed., edited by J. B. Pritchard (Princeton, 1969), needs no commendation. It is an inexhaustible source of reliable, often firsthand, information. Stephen Langdon's Babylonian Penitential Psalms (Paris, 1927) remains the indispensable book on that question. Although in need of updating, the admirable synthesis of Israel's psyche and culture by Johannes Pedersen, Israel: Its Life and Culture, 2 vols. (19261947; reprint, Oxford, 1959), remains unmatched, except, on the institutions, by Roland de Vaux's Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions, 2d ed. (London, 1965). One should add to these two works the excellent systematic studies of Old Testament theology by Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, 2 vols. (Philadelphia, 19611967), and by Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, 2 vols. (New York, 19621965).

There are many monographs on "sin and guilt" according to the Jewish and Christian understanding, written in several languages. Few of them, however, have the scope and soberness of expression of the French collective work Théologie du péché (Tournai, 1960), by Philippe Delhaye et al. Here one finds invaluable information on the notion of sin in "primitive" religions, in the Bible, among the Greeks, in Roman Catholic theology, and to a lesser extent in Eastern Christianity and Protestantism. On Protestantism, one should, of course, turn to Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics, vol. 3.1, The Doctrine of Creation (New York, 1958), and to Paul Tillich's Systematic Theology, vol. 2, Existence and the Christ (Chicago, 1960). Another synoptic treatment of sin in the history of religions is provided by the collective work Man and His Salvation, edited by Eric J. Sharpe and John R. Hinnells (Totowa, N. J., 1973), which explores aspects of Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, early Christianity, Jewish Hasidism, Zoroastrianism, and so on.

The French theologian A.-M. Dubarle has written extensively on the problem of sin in the Bible and in church doctrine. Especially deserving notice here is his Le péché originel: Perspectives théologiques (Paris, 1983). Claude Tresmontant, another French theologian, gives an excellent presentation of the problem of creation and anthropology from the origins of Christianity to the time of Augustine in La métaphysique du christianisme (Paris, 1961), which is particularly important for its treatment of Origen and Augustine. Pierre Nautin's Origène, sa vie et son œuvre (Paris, 1977) reconstructs with great care Origen's biography and the tenets of his thinking.

The best treatment of Greek thought about sin and guilt is E. R. Dodds's The Greeks and the Irrational (Berkeley, Calif., 1951), especially his chapter on shame. On the Buddhist conception of sin, offense, and illusion, Henri de Lubac's Aspects of Buddhism (New York, 1963) has the merit of being a reliable translation for Western readers of Eastern concepts that are not easily understood by noninitiates.

New Sources

Blocher, Henri. Original Sin: Illuminating the Riddle. New Studies in Biblical Theology. Downers Grove, Ill., 2001.

Buruma, Ian. The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan. New York, 1995.

Carrasco, Davíd. "Uttered from the Heart: Guilty Rhetoric among the Aztecs." History of Religions 39 (August 1999): 131.

Connor, Peter. Georges Bataille and the Mysticism of Guilt. Baltimore, Md., 2000.

Delumeau, Jean. Eric Nicholson, trans. Sin and Fear: the Emergence of the Western Guilt Culture, 13th18th Centuries. New York, 1991.

Enright, Robert and Joanna North, eds. Exploring Forgiveness. Madison, Wisc., 1998.

Tavuchis, Nicholas. Mea Culpa: A Sociology of Apology and Recrimination. Stanford, 1991.

West, Angela. Deadly Innocence: Feminist Theology and the Mythology of Sin. New York, 1995.

AndrÉ LaCocque (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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