Is It Hard to Convince People They Are Sinners?

Following up on this post about Dorothy Sayers, I read an article this morning on the CNN Religion Blog, and I made the mistake of glancing at the comment thread. This is something I almost never do because the comment threads of poorly monitored websites are typically a mess of name calling and drive-by insults. Anyway, one comment caught my attention.

A respondent said, “The problem that Christianity has is that it has to convince normal healthy people that they are fundamentally broken.”

I certainly know that most people want to deny the reality of their own brokenness and typically want to make excuses for it, but I’ve never found it particularly difficult to demonstrate the sinfulness of humanity.  Once we establish that, I don’t think it is a big jump to demonstrate the sinfulness of individuals. Of course, as in the Sayer’s quote, we would really rather find a way to put the blame on someone or something else.

So, what do you think? How hard is it to convince people of their basic brokenness?

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22 thoughts on “Is It Hard to Convince People They Are Sinners?

  1. “So, what do you think? How hard is it to convince people of their basic brokenness?”

    Depends entirely what your definition of ‘broken’ is.

    I don’t think humanity is perfect. But I also don’t accept ‘sin’ as a helpful or fundamentally real concept.

    To correct the respondent, I’d say one of the problems that Christianity has is that it tries to convince people that certain thoughts and actions (most fairly common) that aren’t demonstrably bad are bad, it blames them for them and claims to have some sort of cure for them.

    Where the issues aren’t demonstrably bad, I blame Christianity (and other religions) for saying they are. And where the issues are demonstrably bad, I see no evidence that the cure or solution for them lays solely (or at all) in Christianity.

  2. Hi NotAScientist,

    Thanks for the reply, I really am curious about what you think.
    I’m wondering what, for you, would qualify as demonstrably bad? How would we demonstrate this one way or the other?

      • After reading your initial response again, I’m understanding you to be saying that you don’t like where (some) Christians draw the line of “sin” on some issues. That’s fair enough, but I do wonder by what standard you judge if something is harmful. What does “harmful” mean to you?

        • It’s not that I don’t like it, it’s that I don’t accept it as valid. ‘Coveting’, for example, does not appear bad to me. It could lead to jealousy and jealousy can lead to harmful actions…but then it’s the actions that are the problem, not the coveting. Especially because we know someone can covet something and NOT have it lead to harmful actions, with or without the help of religion.

          I look to science and medical science to understand what harm is.

        • A few thoughts…
          1. I agree that science can generally (but not always consistently or reliably) tell us what is harmful and what is not. I happen to think that your example of coveting can be demonstrated as harmful because coveting is not simply the act of wanting more, it is the desire to have specifically what belongs to my neighbor. It isn’t just that I want a new car like my neighbor’s, I actually want his car because it is his, and I don’t want him to have it. Inwardly, it creates an unhealthy sense of dissatisfaction which robs me of joy, and a bitterness toward my neighbor that influences how I interact with him. Spiritually, it creates dissatisfaction with the provision of my God, playing on my pride, which contributes to the harm I do emotionally and spiritually to myself. Socially, if left unchecked by moral laws like “don’t kill” or “don’t steal”, coveting creates discord in communities. Christianity seeks to answer not just the outward expressions of evil, but the inner causes as well. We believe that there are things we do called “sins”, but that there is also a larger concept called “Sin” that explains the brokenness we see around us.

          2. I hear you to be saying that un-harmful = good and harmful = bad. Who says? Why does harm matter? If shooting my neighbor makes me happy, then why not? Sure, I’m doing harm to him, but if killing him brings less harm to me, then why does it matter?

          3. While harm or a lack of it can be generally demonstrated (though this is an unstable narrative by which to leads ones life), good and evil are philosophical and/or theological categories. We can’t get concepts of good/evil from science. We bring them them with us when we came to study science. How do you know good and evil exist?

          You love science. I get that, but science can’t answer the big questions of life like the where does morality come from, or what is our purpose? We have to get those somewhere else.

  3. “I certainly know that most people want to deny the reality of their own brokenness and typically want to make excuses for it, but I’ve never found it particularly difficult to demonstrate the sinfulness of humanity. Once we establish that, I don’t think it is a big jump to demonstrate the sinfulness of individuals.” – From my experience, the problem is indeed making the jump from “sinfulness of humanity” to the sinfulness of the particular individual. I agree that general human depravity is pretty easy to prove. Just look at the world. Yet, there is a difference between understanding yourself to be guilty of sins, and knowing yourself to be guilty of sin. If that make sense? I find most people will generically or generally admit they have committed sins (nobodies perfect), but they do not see themselves as a sinner. They focus on their goodness, compare themselves to others, and see themselves as basically good with occasional sins. Do they see themselves as a wretch? Not usually. So…I personally often find it hard to convince people of their basic brokenness or wretchedness. But…that may be just my experience.

    • Hi Laura,

      You know, I think you’re right. I have found it difficult to get people to acknowledge their personal sin though I don’t think it’s particularly difficult to demonstrate that it exists. But these are two different things I suppose.

      Of all the objections that people have to Christianity, how close to the heart of the matter do you think this is? I mean, at the bottom of it all, is a refusal to acknowledge our own sin the real problem?

  4. ” I agree that general human depravity is pretty easy to prove. Just look at the world. ”

    You mean how we’re living longer than ever, finding cure to diseases that would have destroyed us only 50 or 100 years ago, and overwhelming support is funneled towards disaster relief from across continents and sometimes across seas?

    • A person doesn’t have to deny the good that humanity can accomplish while also acknowledging the destruction we bring upon ourselves. The fact that we still find ways to kills ourselves by the millions and use technology for destruction of all sorts is enough to show that we have what Christianity calls depravity. Depravity does not mean that we are not capable of good, it just means that we will always find a way to do evil too.

    • Hi NotAScientist! I’m not really following the discussion between you and Eric, but since you quote something I said – I just wanted to clarify what I meant.

      ”I agree that general human depravity is pretty easy to prove. Just look at the world.” I was thinking of things like: the worldwide sex slave trade of women and children – violence, tribal warfare, rape and genocide in parts of Africa – violence, rape, and crime in US cities – injustice against the poor – white collar crime – abuse – murder – war – etc. Yes, there are good things about humanity too and one can certainly point to much charity work being done. Yet…the history of humanity points to depravity. At the turn of the century before last, it was proclaimed the 20th Century would be the century of peace – and it yielded 2 world wars, mass genocide in multiple countries by ruthless dictators, invention of atomic bomb, etc.

  5. “It isn’t just that I want a new car like my neighbor’s, I actually want his car because it is his, and I don’t want him to have it.”

    Well, one, that’s a silly thought to have and indicates issues a person might have that could be addressed by a good therapist. But beyond that, unless those thoughts are acted upon, I see them as morally neutral. Thoughts harm no one. Sometimes thoughts can be a symptom, certainly. But the thoughts themselves are not harmful.

    “Spiritually, it creates dissatisfaction with the provision of my God, playing on my pride, which contributes to the harm I do emotionally and spiritually to myself. ”

    You can claim that, but I see no good evidence that anything spiritual exists. Until that can be demonstrated, I can’t take any claim of spiritual harm seriously. Sorry.

    “Socially, if left unchecked by moral laws like “don’t kill” or “don’t steal””

    Again, this goes back to my earlier point. It is the action, not the thought, that is the issue.

    “I hear you to be saying that un-harmful = good and harmful = bad.”

    Not necessarily.

    If something is beneficial, it is good. If something causes less harm (amputating a limb to prevent the spread of infection, for example), then it can also be good. It isn’t as easy as black and white.

    “Who says? ”

    The evidence. And humans, based on how we define things.

    “If shooting my neighbor makes me happy, then why not?”

    Ask your neighbor. And the police. And ask yourself if you would be okay if your neighbor shot you just because it made her feel happy. You don’t live in a vacuum.

    “Sure, I’m doing harm to him, but if killing him brings less harm to me, then why does it matter?”

    Then why does it matter to whom? It matters to your neighbor. And your neighbor’s family and friends. And the police. And probably your family and friends too, who wouldn’t enjoy having a murderer in their family. (I’m guessing.)

    “How do you know good and evil exist?”

    I don’t. I know harm and benefit exists. ‘Good’ and ‘evil’ are labels we put on things in an attempt to try and understand them.

    “I get that, but science can’t answer the big questions of life like the where does morality come from, or what is our purpose?”

    Right. Humans answer those questions. It’s just that some humans answered them and then claimed that somebody else who is supernatural told them so, at least partly as to give them additional authority.

    “A person doesn’t have to deny the good that man can accomplish while also acknowledging the destruction we bring upon ourselves.”

    Certainly. And a person doesn’t have to deny the destruction we bring upon ourselves while also acknowledging that for many people, the world is a better place than it has ever been.

    • As you’ve pointed out above, there are several areas where we don’t disagree.

      You haven’t answered the basic question of why killing my neighbor is inherently wrong. Your response that I should ask other people why murder is wrong falls flat if society believes that killing my neighbor is inherently a good thing. History abounds with examples of this sort of thing.

      You are correct that we don’t live in a vacuum, but you haven’t given a good reason why I should care. You argue that murder matters to my loved ones, so it should matter to me. Again I ask, “Why?” What if my society decided that killing off my parents is a good thing because they are old and no longer productive and for the greater good of society – like cutting off a diseased limb – we should kill them? Certainly, my family would be sad, but according to our society’s worldview killing my parents is a good thing. On what moral grounds would you argue against such a thing? According to what you’ve said so far, I can’t see that you can.

      Now, here’s the thing, I think you’re probably a decent guy. I’m not one to argue that Christians are inherently better people than atheists, only that Christianity has a more sound foundation and reason for morality, both personally and collectively, than does atheism. It seems to me that if an atheist believes there is a such thing as objective morality and lives by it, then he is borrowing from theism and living inconsistently as an atheist.

      I give you the last word if you want it. I’ve got a lot to do today.

      • “Your response that I should ask other people why murder is wrong f”

        No. I didn’t tell you to ask your neighbor why murder is wrong. I told you to ask your neighbor why murdering HIM or HER was wrong. I guarantee they’ll give you some good answers, including the quite practical ‘I’ll do my best to murder you back if you try’.

        “falls flat if society believes that killing my neighbor is inherently a good thing.”

        If society actually believed that, society wouldn’t exist.

        History is full of examples of groups of people killing other groups because they were convinced the others weren’t people. Once you’re convinced that someone else is a person, it becomes less likely that you’ll want to kill them because you can relate to them.

        “but you haven’t given a good reason why I should care.”

        If living in a society where people try to help each other, live in peace and not hurt each other isn’t a good reason, I don’t know what is.

        “On what moral grounds would you argue against such a thing?”

        On my moral grounds. And the fact that I would fight anyone who would try and kill me or my family. Or you, even though I don’t know you. Because killing is harmful and permanent, and I have no desire to do to others what I don’t want to happen to me.

        I operate on some very simple and very fundamental assumptions that are backed up with experience and evidence. Living is generally preferable to dying. Pleasure is generally preferable to pain. Everything else flows from there.

        “Christianity has a more sound foundation and reason for morality”

        Sorry, but “a supernatural being that I can’t demonstrate exists told us so” is the exact opposite of solid and sound, as far as I can tell.

        “hat if an atheist believes there is a such thing as objective morality”

        I don’t know what you mean by ‘objective morality’. But I’m pretty sure neither of us have one.

        • Objective morality is simply a way of saying that we both believe there is something called good/bad that we can discern and live by. Philosophically this is called Moral Realism. Most atheists now argue that there is a such thing as objective morality, but that we don’t need God to get there. From what I can tell, this is your basic premise.

          “I told you to ask your neighbor why murdering HIM or HER was wrong. I guarantee they’ll give you some good answers, including the quite practical ‘I’ll do my best to murder you back if you try’.”

          If I deem that killing them is in my best interest, then why do I care what they think? If my reason for not killing someone is that they will try to kill me in return, then all I have to do is be stronger and guarantee that I get the job done right the first time, and your reason goes away. Again, it still doesn’t answer why killing is morally wrong.

          “History is full of examples of groups of people killing other groups because they were convinced the others weren’t people. Once you’re convinced that someone else is a person, it becomes less likely that you’ll want to kill them because you can relate to them.”

          Certainly if I relate to someone as human I will be less likely to kill them, but this is an emotional argument that works as a deterrent to killing, but doesn’t tell me why killing is wrong. I’m asking for the metaphysical grounding for why killing them would be wrong. You haven’t give me one.

          “If living in a society where people try to help each other, live in peace and not
          hurt each other isn’t a good reason, I don’t know what is.”

          You’re giving me the positive results of not killing. I can give you practical reasons why killing works out positively for me or my social group, so that gets us nowhere. Again, the metaphysical question phrased differently: Why can you as a human even conceive that there is something called good or bad?

          “Because killing is harmful and permanent, and I have no desire to do to others what I don’t want to happen to me.”

          If killing you results in no harm to me because I was stronger and can get away with it, then why is it wrong? Aside from the practical reasons which I’ve addressed, saying that it is harmful is not helpful without telling how you even know why it matters fundamentally if I harm another. The fact that killing is permanent has no bearing on its morality.

          The second part of your answer sounds a lot like, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12, NIV84) 😉

          From my perspective, if there is a such thing as objective morality, we must appeal to something/one beyond ourselves because all other explanations fall short. If in fact there is a God, then we would do well to listen when he instructs us about right/wrong or healthy/harmful.

          I promised to give you the last word, and I mean it this time. Go in peace.

  6. “If my reason for not killing someone is that they will try to kill me in return, then all I have to do is be stronger and guarantee that I get the job done right the first time, and your reason goes away. ”

    If that is your only reason, then you are correct.

    Most…I’d say at least 90% of people in the world, if not more…have more than that reason.

    “Again, it still doesn’t answer why killing is morally wrong.”

    Sure it does. You just keep asking ‘well, what if I disagree with you?’ And the answer to that question is ‘you’d be the reason we still have police’.

    ” I’m asking for the metaphysical grounding for why killing them would be wrong. You haven’t give me one.”

    Sorry, I don’t concern myself with the metaphysical, because (like the spiritual), I see no good evidence it exists beyond human concepts. I concern myself with the real and the physical and the emotional and the practical.

    “I can give you practical reasons why killing works out positively for me or my social group, so that gets us nowhere. ”

    Go for it. I don’t think you can.

    I think you can give short term practical reasons, but nothing long term. And if it isn’t long term, then it isn’t really practical.

    “If killing you results in no harm to me because I was stronger and can get away with it, then why is it wrong?”

    Because it harmed me, I didn’t want you to do it, and I said so.

    You might not view it as wrong. But I do. And my family does. And my friends do. And the police do.

    Scary, isn’t it? But a fact of humanity.

    ““So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.””

    Yeah. And that sounds a lot like philosophy that predates Christianity.

    Not everything written in the Bible is original to it. And not everything written there is a bad idea.

    “If in fact there is a God, then we would do well to listen when he instructs us about right/wrong or healthy/harmful.”

    So, you don’t have objective morality. You have ‘might makes right’ and ‘the strongest guy makes the rules’.

    I don’t particularly care about having the last word.

    If you have responses, make them. If not, so be it. It’s your blog.

  7. On topic, in my years of experience, it is nearly impossible to convince adults they are sinners, unless they have already reached bottom, had a traumatic experience, or are actually searching to fill the emptiness in their lives. This is assuming that your definition of “convincing adults they are sinners” means realizing one is spiritually bankrupt, and that they are on the precipice of having faith. Otherwise, all rational people understand they are sinners, at least in a carnal sense. (Children and elderly, on the other hand, can grasp that concept much easier).

    On the rest of the thread, science is not wisdom. Application of sound science can be. One of science’s basic laws (Law of Entropy), in and of itself, displays man’s inherent sinfulness…disorder is bad and left unto itself, man and this earth will perish. Scientist’s own rigid procedure (The Scientific Method), cannot, never has, and never will, be used to disprove the existence of God, prove evolution, and so on.

    • Good to hear from you Dave. I think you’re right. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I agree that it really is extremely difficult to convince adults of their sinfulness unless they are, like you said, ready to hear it. I still don’t think it is particularly difficult to demonstrate the reality of Sin, and the presence of personal sin, but getting people to accept that reality is an entirely different matter.

      So, here’s my follow-up question that I’ve been wrestling with lately: is all the debate, doubt, and aversion to Christianity at some level just a matter of not wanting to admit we are sinful beings?

  8. Hi Eric!
    It seems to me like you partially answered your own question – not wanting to admit we are sinful beings. Pride is probably a factor in there. I think even mature Christians can have problems admitting we’ve sinned, or are still sinning.

    The aversion to Christianity seems to have so many facets. The everyday spiritual warfare going on that we tend to overlook. Moral relativism and existentialism in our society – that are prevalent earlier in this thread – have been interwoven into western culture beyond repair – IMHO.

    To me, it seems to have gotten much harder to present The Gospel/witness, than it was just 15-20 years ago. Maybe it’s just me – I’m not sure. Now, it’s sometimes feels like people need to be scared of the end of the world (Dec 21), having a really terrible time, or near death, to be receptive. Is that just me?

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