There is a prevailing in which we think about sin in the modern day, especially among Protestants. When we sin, there is some mark made against us in the registers of heaven that when God forgives through the death of Jesus, God blots out and forgets. After it is committed, sin is thought to exist in some ethereal space, some cosmic guilt that will eventually catch up with us if Jesus’ blood doesn’t cover us.
However, in light of recent research in Paul when it comes to embodiment, it seems more like to suggest that the principal concern about sin in the New Testament is how it inhabits the person, not so much some sense of a “transcendent guilt” that it brings about. In Romans 7.7-25, Paul talks about sin causing the person to sin when he heard the commandment against coveting. In v. 14, he specifically says that he is made of flesh and has been sold slavery to sin. The imagery portrayed here and throughout Romans 7 casts sin as inhabiting the body. The problem of sin is not understood in a non-bodily sense, but it is recognized as a bodily problem. Hence, Paul repeatedly describes the flesh as the source of sin in people’s lives.
However, the anthropological implications of the relationship of the body and sin has not been well developed in Protestant theology. For instance, in the 19th century, Charles Hodge explicitly reject sin as a physical evil, consider it to be associated with dualist gnosticism that regards sin as eternal and suggesting it is inconsistent with theism, disregards sin as a moral evil, and negative human responsibility.1 He later rejects “the sensuous theory,” where the lower desires of the body overcome the higher values of the spirit, associating it with Roman Catholic doctrine.2 Rather, the Protestant doctrine of sin has focused on sin as a transgressive action in relation to God’s law that demands rectifying. As a result, sin is principally as “moral” problem related to ignorance and the lack of self control, which is ultimately a “spiritual” problem in need of a “spiritual” solution.
However, if we take Paul’s connection of sin with the flesh more seriously, it would lead to the consideration of how the body and sin are related to each other. Certainly, the danger that lies here is the gnostic dualism, treating the body as the source of evil that we must be released from. This isn’t the Paul’s view of sin and the body though. Rather, it is the reverse: the body is in need of redemption from sin. Paul speaks of disciplining his body in 1 Corinthians 9.27 right before describe the sin of Israel in the wilderness in chapter 10. While he doesn’t explicitly make the connection, it seems that just as he gave an example of sin enslaved the person in their flesh in Romans 7, Paul sees his apostolic journey entailed the enslaving of his body through usage of the metaphor of exercise. This explains why Jesus’ death and resurrection is so central to Paul, as it enables the person to overcome the control of sin through death with Christ and the ultimate redemption of the body in the general resurrection.
However, the stranglehold of sin over the body is not rooted in some sort of timeless, sinful nature present at birth. Rather, in Romans 7.7-14, Paul intimates that knowledge of the commandment about not coveting lead to the proliferation of coveting, leading to the ‘resuscitation’ of sin and the death of the person. Briefly put, the continuous enactment of sin, especially the knowing enactment of such, gives power to sin over the person’s life. To that end, Paul’s picture of sin isn’t that far off from the psychological theory of habit-formation.
The advantage of this is that we can more naturally connect why Jesus’ death and resurrection is an atonement for sin: as death and resurrection occurs in the body of Jesus, so too does sin inhabit and enslave the bodies of people. Rather than having to posit some metaphysical scheme that explains why the death of Christ atones for what ultimately amounts to be a non-physical problem, the bodily atonement Christ atones for the bodily problem of sin; the reference to the body at the end of Romans 6.1-14 is explained as how the union with Christ’ death and resurrection actualizes itself among believers. The effect of this shift is to move away from atonement as primarily bearing forgiveness, but rather atonement as bringing about change and transformation in the bodily life of believers.
But at the Last Supper, doesn’t Jesus say that his blood was the blood of the covenant for the forgiveness of sin (Matthew 26.28)? Not actually. The Greek word usually translated as forgiveness, ἄφεσιν, is conventionally used in both the LXX and the NT to refer to an act of releasing. There is perhaps good reason for treating this word as release. In the description of the scape goat in LXX Leviticus 16, the goat that is released in the wilderness is said to be sent εἰς ἄφεσιν, just as Jesus’ blood is εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν. There is likely a comparison here, where Jesus is likened to the goat that is slaughtered and sin is like the goat that is released into the wilderness, away from the people.
However, the idea of “releasing of sins” sounds rather odd to our ears, because we don’t typically consider sins to be something tangible, so letting them go seems hard to metaphorically imagine. However, if it was understood that sin had an effect on the actual person, that sin somehow left a trace of itself in the person, we can begin to imagine how a “releasing of sins” could work metaphorically.
We something like that being expressed in LXX Proverbs 11.17, where a merciless person is said to destroy their body. However, we see a more explicit relationship between sin and the nature of the body come up in the Wisdom of Solomon. In Wisdom 1.4, a body is said to be indebted (κατάχρεῳ) to sin, metaphorically entail some sort of control of the body by sin. In Wisdom 8.19-20, the child who had a good soul and was good had an undefiled body.
Furthermore, when Jesus talks about impurity, Jesus says what comes out of a mouth defiles them, rather than what goes in the mouth (Matthew 15.11). Given that impurity was understood to be about the body, it would be a natural extension to suggest that Jesus understood sinful actions as somehow defiling the body, in line with how the Wisdom of Solomon consider being a good child prevents the defilement of the body. It is not out of bounds then to consider that Jesus understood sin to leave a trace of itself in the body, rather than it being simply a “spiritual” problem.
If this is the right way to read Jesus, and Paul, this leaves us at an interesting place of exploring the relationship of Christian theology and psychology, particularly when it comes to increasing recognition of the relationship of the body to the mind, including the possibility that memories are encoding not just neurally but within the body itself. We are readily aware of the relationship between the body and memory when it comes to trauma, given the particular extreme effects that trauma can have on bodily experience, but there are plenty of reasons to connect memories to our body in cause of non-trauma. In that case, we may be able to go so far as to suggest sin, both in its doing and being the ‘victim’ of interpersonal sins, leaves a trace within out bodies. While we need to careful not to confuse the ancient metaphysics of the body with the more scientific understanding of the body, or try to create an artificial “interface” between the two to “explain” the atonement in relationship to modern science,3 this is a fruitful route for exploration in my mind.