(Note: This article is the last of a four-part series. The first three parts were edited versions of a series of questions by a reader named Rami, and my answers, in the comments section of the article, “What is the Unpardonable Sin? Am I Doomed?” The fourth part is a response to a related Spiritual Conundrum that Rami submitted to Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life.)
For Part 3, click here.
In a spiritual conundrum submitted several months before the questions and comments that the first three parts of this article are based on, a reader named Rami said:
Hi Lee, I was hoping you could talk a little about sin, forgiveness, and what God expects of us? Does God necessarily have ‘expectations’ of us? That word might imply being held to a standard of behavior, and being punished for failing to fulfill the obligation to do so. But, might it be more meaningful to say that, for example, God wants and hopes for us to love one another, rather than expects us to love one another?
The implications of that are tremendous, and would completely redefine the way I understand the idea of sin, its consequences, and forgiveness. The idea that God forgives us, for example, would imply to me the idea of us having committed some offense against God, displeased God, or failing to live up to His expectations. But maybe the only offenses we commit are against ourselves and each other, and the only forgiveness we need is from ourselves and each other.
…and maybe God does not judge, punish, or forgive, but is the One who we chose to draw nearer to or further from, with an afterlife that is the fully realized manifestation of these choices that has nothing to do with ‘judgement’…? What does Swedenborg have to say about it?
God’s forgiveness was the main topic of Parts 1 and 2 of this article. In Part 4, we’ll cover the other questions about sin, judgment, punishment, and God’s expectations of us. Of course, these are huge topics, but I’ll pack in as much as possible to point out the general lay of the land.
So fair warning: this is a densely packed post!
Here are the main points we’ll cover in Part 4:
- Sin in the Old Testament generally means doing something God has commanded us not to do. But in the New Testament, it shifts toward doing something not just that God has commanded us not to do, but that we know is wrong and against God’s will.
- Judgment is not really a matter of God condemning us for sinning or rewarding us for being faithful. Rather, it is the light of divine truth from God shining into our soul and revealing our true nature, whether that is good or evil.
- Punishment, similarly, is not something God does to us, but rather the inevitable consequences of our engaging in evil and sin.
- God does not so much have expectations of us as aspirations for us, what we can become, and the love, joy, and peace we can experience if we are willing to commit our lives to doing what it takes to achieve our best potential.
What is sin?
It’s not surprising that there’s some confusion and uncertainty among Christians about exactly what “sin” is. That’s because the Bible itself uses the term “sin” in more than one way.
Sin in the Old Testament
In the Old Testament, “sin” most commonly means doing anything that is against God’s commandments. The focus is on behavior. Even if the person doesn’t realize it’s against God’s commandments, it is still considered sin.
In fact, as prescribed in Leviticus 4:1–6:7 and Numbers 15:22–29, the “sin offerings” and “guilt offerings” commanded in the Old Testament were for “unintentional sin” (see Leviticus 4:2, 13, 22, 27; 5:15, 17; Numbers 15:22, 24–25, 27–28).
If the sin was willful and intentional, no sacrifice could atone for it. The person committing such a sin was to be exiled from the community:
But whoever acts high-handedly, whether a native or a foreigner, affronts the Lord, and shall be cut off from among the people. Because of having despised the word of the Lord and broken his commandment, such a person shall be utterly cut off and bear the guilt. (Numbers 15:30–31)
So intention was taken into account. But “sin” was defined as any action that was contrary to the Lord’s commandments, whether or not the infraction was committed knowingly and intentionally.
Having said that, the people were commanded to learn God’s commandments thoroughly, teach them to their children, and keep them front and center at all times:
Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:6–9)
So for a regular member of the community, there was no valid excuse for not knowing God’s commandments.
Sin in the New Testament
As the Old Testament narrative gives way to the New Testament, the meaning of “sin” shifts from a focus on outward behavior toward a greater focus on inward knowledge, intention, and conscience.
While not entirely abandoning the Old Testament definition of sin as behavior that is against God’s commandments, in the New Testament sin is redefined to take into account the knowledge and intentions behind the behavior. For example in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus said:
The slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating. From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded. (Luke 12:47–48)
Here Jesus uses the example of a master and a slave—a very common relationship in those days. The slave who knew what his master wanted, but didn’t do it, will receive a much more severe beating, Jesus points out, than the one who didn’t know. So the awareness on the part of the person who commits the wrong action is critical to determining how serious that action is.
And even more specifically, in the Gospel of John:
Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” (John 9:41)
In other words, people who are not aware that a particular action is wrong (those who are “blind”) are not sinners if they do it. But people who are aware that an action is wrong and do it anyway are sinners.
And the apostle Paul concludes a speech in Romans 2:1–16—about how our good or evil actions will determine whether we will receive wrath and fury (meaning damnation) or eternal life—with these words:
When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all. (Romans 2:14–16, italics added)
In other words, people who do not have a clear and specific knowledge of God’s commandments will be judged, not so much by their actions themselves as by whether their actions were in accordance with or contrary to their conscience—which, as Paul says, will accuse or excuse them on their day of judgment.
So in the New Testament, the definition of “sin” shifts from being purely a matter of behavior to being a matter of behavior that is in accordance with or contrary to our conscience—meaning our knowledge and belief about what is good and right and about what God expects of us.
Evil is evil because it is harmful
Of course, our behavior still matters.
Even if we have no intention of doing any harm, if we do things that are wrong and harmful they still cause damage to others and to ourselves. We do have an obligation to learn what’s right and wrong, as expressed in the quote from Deuteronomy 6:6–9 above.
That’s because evil is evil because it is harmful.
God is not some capricious autocrat who makes arbitrary rules just to please the ol’ Divine Ego.
When God gives us a commandment, it’s because God knows that if we violate that commandment, it will hurt people.
God’s purpose in giving us commandments is always to provide for our wellbeing, and never merely for God’s glory. When the Bible tells us to stand in awe of God’s glory, its purpose is to make sure that we pay attention to what God is telling us for our own good.
We should understand, though, that many of the commandments in the Bible are specific to the type of culture in which they were given. For example, in Bible times a divorced woman was a social pariah, and was often driven into prostitution just to survive. Because of this harsh cultural situation, the laws about divorce given in the Bible were very strict. In New Testament times, Jesus made the divorce laws even stricter than those of the Old Testament in order to protect women against the whims of capricious husbands.
However, in present-day cultures in which no such terrible stigma is attached to divorce, and divorced women (and men, of course) can go on to live good lives, the laws need not be so strict. (For related articles, see: “God Hates Divorce” vs. “Do Not Be Unfaithful to the Wife of Your Youth” and: Is there a Biblical Basis for Wives Divorcing their Physically Abusive Husbands?)
Back to the main point, God’s commandments are all about steering us away from harm and destruction, and moving us toward what is good and constructive for us, both individually and as a society.
Sin, then, is doing things that cause harm, and especially intentionally doing things that cause harm. Such things are against God’s commandments precisely because they cause harm.
When we sin, we sin against God
One more point about sin.
While we can commit offenses against our fellow human beings, when we sin, we are sinning against God.
That’s because God, and not other human beings, is the source of all truth and justice, and of every commandment about what we should and shouldn’t do.
I know—human beings also make laws. And we do have to obey the laws of the land, or risk the consequences from human police, courts, and governments. But ultimately, all human laws are just or unjust based on whether or not they are in accordance with God’s laws.
And though human laws are binding upon our behavior here on earth, God’s laws are spiritual laws. They are binding not just on our behavior, but on our eternal soul. In the spiritual world, all laws are God’s laws. There, the angels simply articulate and carry out God’s laws.
Sin is a spiritual thing. In its most developed and truest definition, it is when we intentionally do what we know is wrong. In other words, sinning isn’t just a matter of the outward behavior that we humans can judge and punish. Rather, it is an inner attitude of mind and heart in which we willfully violate our conscience by acting contrary to what we know is good and right according to God’s laws.
So although we can commit offenses and crimes against the human laws that regulate our behavior here on earth, when we sin, that is a spiritual action in violation of God’s commandments and laws—all of which are meant to keep us from doing harm, and to lead us toward doing good.
The example of David and Bathsheba
As a Biblical example, consider king David’s actions in arranging for Bathsheba’s husband to be killed in battle in order to cover up David’s adultery with Bathsheba. If you’re not familiar with the story, you can read it in 2 Samuel 11:1-12:25.
In the story, David breaks a whole slew of God’s commandments, chief among them being “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14) and “You shall not kill” (Exodus 20:13). In the process, he does deadly harm to a good and innocent man: Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah the Hittite, whom he causes to be killed in battle. He also makes an adulteress out of Bathsheba, and their first son dies as a result of the adultery. Further, he does great damage to his reputation and standing as the king of Israel, and to the people’s ability to respect him in that role.
Clearly, in this story David committed many offenses against his fellow human beings, and caused great harm to them.
And yet in Psalm 51, written in response to David’s adultery with Bathsheba, we read these words:
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgment.
(Psalm 51:1–4, italics added)
How could David, the traditional author of this Psalm, say to God, “Against you, you alone, have I sinned” when he had obviously done serious harm to his fellow human beings?
Because it was God’s laws that he had broken, and God is the one to whom we must ultimately answer spiritually for our behavior.
God’s laws are designed to keep us from harming ourselves and others. When we knowingly and intentionally break God’s laws, we commit crimes and offenses against our fellow human beings, but we commit sins against God.
We’ve spent a long time on sin. Now we’ll move on to somewhat briefer considerations of judgment, punishment, and God’s expectations of us.
God’s judgment is seeing things in the light of divine truth
Here on earth, many things are not what they appear to be. And more to the point, many people are not who they appear to be.
Every day the news brings us stories of “fine, upstanding citizens” who are disgraced when a dark side of their character is revealed as their secret illegal and immoral actions are brought to light. These people had projected an image of themselves as moral and upright people when they were secretly anything but.
And then there are times when some “lowlife” is shown to be a fine, thoughtful, and caring person, such as in this story: Invest in Kindness: Reap a 5,000% Return!
As the old saying goes, you can’t judge a book by its cover. Especially in this mixed-up world.
One way of picturing God’s judgment is the classic scene of God sitting on a throne in heaven on Judgment Day, elevating some people to heaven and condemning others to hell based on their actions. See, for example Jesus’ story of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31–46. Although Jesus uses human metaphors of kings and thrones, those metaphors do have a specific message: God will judge us according to our character and our actions.
How does God’s judgment work?
But exactly how does God do this? Is God really like a human king sitting on a throne in the Great Hall of some stupendous castle in heaven? Surely an infinite, omniscient, and omnipotent God has better things to do!
Jesus spoke in parables. His story of God judging on his glorious throne is no exception. By using this human imagery he was pointing to spiritual realities. God “on his throne” means God ruling over the “kingdoms” of heaven and earth based on divine truth.
We could spend a lot of time teasing this all out, but that’s not necessary for our purposes today. Instead, here’s a thumbnail sketch of how Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) describes the process of judgment:
- For each of us, judgment is a process that begins as soon as we die.
- When we first arrive in the spiritual world, we live exactly as we had lived before here on earth.
- But as our life unfolds in the spiritual world, the outward image of ourselves that we project to others is gradually stripped away, and our true, inner character comes to light.
- By the time this process is complete, everything we say and do outwardly expresses exactly what we actually think and feel within ourselves.
This process takes place because the longer we live in the spiritual world, the more the light of divine truth shines on us, revealing what we are truly like inside.
Yes, in a sense God does judge us to heaven or hell. But God does not do this like some earthly king or queen who listens to the evidence and then decides whether the defendant will be exonerated or condemned. Rather, God shines the light of God’s truth on each one of us. That truth dissolves and strips away any masks that we may have put on during our earthly lifetime, exposing our inner soul and revealing our true character.
So God’s judgment is a matter of showing who we truly are inside by making our real character clearly visible both to ourselves (if we’ve been deceiving ourselves) and to everyone around us.
And according to Swedenborg, once that judgment has been completed, we voluntarily go either to heaven or to hell based on the character we have chosen and developed within ourselves during our lifetime here on earth.
For more on this process of judgment, see: What Happens To Us When We Die?
In short, God’s judgment reveals who we truly are. But we are the ones who choose to be that person, and we are therefore the ones who choose either heaven or hell for ourselves.
To use Rami’s words, our situation in the afterlife “is the fully realized manifestation of these choices,” and God’s judgment involves God shining the light of divine truth on us, making it clear to everyone, including ourselves, exactly what we have chosen.
Punishment is the inevitable consequence of evil and sin
The Bible commonly speaks of God rewarding the good and righteous with eternal life, and condemning the evil and sinful to eternal punishment, as in the story of the judgment of the nations in Matthew 25:31–46 referred to earlier. And for those of us who believe this is going to happen literally as described in the Bible, it has the salutary effect of putting us on notice that we’d better get our lives in order or there will be serious consequences!
And in fact, if we continue to live selfish, greedy, evil, and sinful lives, there will be serious consequences.
Remember how I said earlier that evil is evil because it causes harm? And that God commands us not to do it because God doesn’t want us to get hurt?
Well . . . evil is evil because it causes harm!
If we engage in evil, it will cause harm, both to other people and to ourselves.
And if we willfully choose to live a life of greed, self-absorption, grasping for power, and taking revenge on those who cross us, it will cause eternal harm to our soul, and plunge us into an afterlife that involves much suffering and pain.
But it won’t be God who punishes us. Instead, it will be our own evil actions that bring punishment upon ourselves. As expressed in Psalm 34:21:
Evil brings death to the wicked.
Not God. Evil itself.
Evil involves rejecting God’s love and protection
How does this happen?
Here on earth, we see it happening all the time.
Jesus said, “All who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). In other words, violent people tend to die violent deaths when their enemies retaliate against them, or they die in shootouts with the police. Every day the news brings us stories of people who have engaged in dishonest, criminal, and violent behavior reaping the consequences of their actions.
The same principle applies in the spiritual world. But there it operates far more reliably and systemically than it does here on earth. In the spiritual world, no one can evade the consequences of his or her actions.
Evil is evil not only because it causes harm, but also because it is a rejection of God’s love, wisdom, power, and protection. God would love to protect even the evil spirits in hell from the consequences of their own actions. But God cannot do so.
Because when people willfully engage in evil and destructive actions, they are actively rejecting God’s love and protection.
God loves even the evil spirits in hell, and would dearly love to save them from their pain and suffering. But they hate God, and they bitterly resent any intrusion by God into their lives. God therefore respects their wishes, and does not intervene—at least, not until things get totally out of hand, and some intervention is necessary in order to prevent the destruction from going too far, and causing greater damage than the original evil actions warranted.
In short, because God respects our right to decide for ourselves how we will live, the best God can do for people who have chosen to live in hell is to limit their pain and punishment to something proportional to the particular types of evil actions that they have chosen to engage in.
In hell, the punishment always fits the crime.
Evil punishes itself—and one another
What actually happens in hell, Swedenborg says, is not that God punishes the evil spirits there, but rather that they punish one another. In fact, they love to inflict pain and suffering upon one another. That’s what being evil is all about, isn’t it?
Or they love to steal from one another. Or they love to engage in verbal and emotional abuse against one another. Or they love to engage in whatever their twisted pleasure happens to be—which always involves harm to others, and even to themselves.
So hell, as Swedenborg describes it, is like nations and governments continually wracked with intrigue, infighting, and revolution. Or it is like thieves continually stealing from one another. Or it is like couples constantly fighting in their homes as each strives to dominate and control the other. The list goes on and on.
In every case, it is the evil spirits themselves who inflict pain and punishment on one another whenever they see an opportunity. And that opportunity comes when others commit evil and destructive actions, rejecting protection from God and the angels, and opening themselves up to retaliation.
For more on this sad and sorry scene, see: Is There Really a Hell? What is it Like?
In short: punishment is not something God metes out, arbitrarily or otherwise, to those who engage in evil. Rather, punishment is the inevitable pain and torment that results from our own evil actions.
What does God expect of us?
But let’s end on a happier note.
What does God expect of us?
To answer this question, we need to understand that the only thing God feels for us is love. And God’s love is a desire to give us happiness and joy.
Yes, technically God does have other feelings toward us, such as happiness at our happiness, joy at our joy, and sorrow at our pain. But all of these are simply different forms of God’s love.
This also means that God does not feel anything towards us that conflicts with love—even if it may seem otherwise to us. For example, although the Bible talks about God’s wrath, “the wrath of God” is actually just what God’s love looks like to people who are fighting against God’s love. (See: What is the Wrath of God? Why was the Old Testament God so Angry, yet Jesus was so Peaceful?)
So God is never upset with us, never disappointed in us, never annoyed with us, never displeased with us, and so on. Sometimes it may look to us as if God feels these things toward us. And sometimes we need to think that God is angry and upset with us so that we’ll shape up and quit being such stubborn boneheads. But the reality is that God only ever feels love and concern for us, and for our happiness and wellbeing.
So when we talk about God’s “expectations” of us, it’s not like the expectations of parents who want their children to grow up to be doctors and lawyers, and are disappointed when they become auto mechanics, construction workers, and retail store clerks instead.
God is happy with our achievements
What God really has for us is aspirations. God sees what we can become. And God wants us to achieve that, not out of some sense of pride that could be hurt, but because God knows that when we reach our fullest potential as human beings, we also achieve our greatest happiness and joy.
What about when we fall short of our greatest potential? Is God disappointed in us?
Yes, God is aware that we could have achieved more if we had wanted to. But instead of being disappointed at what we haven’t achieved, God shares with us the joy and satisfaction of what we have achieved. God doesn’t worry about what we might have accomplished, but rather takes pleasure in what we are accomplishing with our lives.
Being an auto mechanic, a construction worker, or a retail clerk is a good thing. These are good and useful jobs. And if we enjoy helping and serving other people as we do our work, God is happy that we have found something that we enjoy doing while being of service to our fellow human beings.
In other words, whatever we achieve with our life, if it gives us happiness and satisfaction, and it is our way of showing love for our fellow human beings—however humble it may be—it gives God joy, and God enjoys our life with us.
Here, then, is a general principle to walk away with:
God gives us exactly as much joy and happiness as we are able to receive based on our choices and our actions. Any less, and God would be stingy. Any more, and we could not bear it.
So heaven, like hell, is the fully realized manifestation of our choices, not because we provide anything for ourselves, but because God loves us, and in heaven God can give us every bit of light and love that we open up our soul to receive.
This article is a response to a spiritual conundrum submitted by a reader.
For further reading:
- God is Love . . . And That Makes All the Difference in the World
- What Happens To Us When We Die?
- Who Are the Angels and How Do They Live?
- What is the Wrath of God? Why was the Old Testament God so Angry, yet Jesus was so Peaceful?
- Is There Really a Hell? What is it Like?
- Heaven, Regeneration, and the Meaning of Life on Earth