Everybody Knows There is Something Wrong With Them

Guilt, Christian Metaphysics & The Doctrine of Sin 

By Professor John DePoe (Marywood University)

July 15, 2015         Picture: Marko Manev/Behance.

This article is part of The Critique exclusive No Exit From Hell: The Philosophy Of True Detective.

“…the opposite of sin is faith … for the whole of Christianity it is one of the most decisive definitions that the opposite of sin is not virtue but faith.” – Søren Kierkegaard [1]

Sin is the topic of this essay. But what exactly is sin? Of course, there are many different senses of the word, but the present interest pertains to the Christian concept of sin. The Greek word for sin used throughout the New Testament (hamartia) literally means “missing the mark,” as in failing to hit a target. This suggests that anything is sin that falls short of an established standard. St. Augustine of Hippo (the most influential theologian in church history) defined sin as “any transgression in word, deed, or desire of the eternal law.” [2] It’s important to see that sin isn’t just violating some religious codes found in the Bible, but any moral transgression counts as sin. Jesus stressed that sin is found in the desires of one’s heart. He said looking at someone with lust entails you’re guilty of adultery and holding hatred for someone makes you guilty of murder (see Matt. 5:21-22, 27-29).

Sin is also one of the most obvious themes in True Detective. In fact, I can hardly think of a topic more fitting for True Detective than sin. This short series portrays just about every sin in the Book—murder, devil worship, drug abuse, lying, rape, foul language, bribery, adultery, drunkenness, prostitution, child abuse, gossip, and so much more. (A word of caution to those who have not seen this series: the show graphically portrays a lot of grisly evils. This show is not for everyone.)

According to the Christian worldview, humans and sin are inextricably linked, like a host and a disease. While we typically think of sin strictly in terms of being a type of action, it is much more than that. Sin is an entanglement of human nature. Sin isn’t just something humans do; sin is part of what humans are. This is part of the Christian doctrine of original sin. While there are many different interpretations of this doctrine, all Christians affirm it. The Christian view is that humans were created essentially good, but that humanity went askew in the Fall of Adam and Eve. As a result the essentially good nature of humanity is fallen or corrupt. Theologian Paul Tillich summarized the Christian view of the present human condition as “essentially good but existentially estranged.” [3] Humans are something of a paradox with an awareness of both our greatness and our brokenness.

I suspect that many people today are inclined to think that humans are not born with a sinful nature. Socrates went so far as to hold that no person ever willingly chooses what he believes is bad. [4] For many outside of Christianity, it seems that the moral failings of humans is a byproduct of external influences and circumstances, such as trying to survive with limited resources, not having a good education, or possibly a spandrel of evolutionary biology. With better resources, education, or environment, humans could change the external circumstances that are causing them to sin and live morally perfect lives on their own. In other words, there is nothing about the present state of human nature that entails human moral failure. (By the way, this view is called Pelagianism because Pelagius, a British monk, taught it. His position was officially rejected by the overwhelming consensus of Christianity at the Council of Ephesus in 431.)

Despite its unpopularity, I believe there are some good reasons to think the doctrine of original sin is true. First of all, introspecting our own minds reveals that on some level we like to do wrong things because they are wrong. St. Augustine recalls an episode from his youth in his Confessions (bk. II, ch. 4) where he and his friends stole a great load of pears from a neighbor’s tree. Why did he steal it? Was he hungry? Did they sell the pears for money? No, he did it because it was wrong. In fact, he tossed the pears to some pigs he passed by. Augustine explains his motive saying, “Our only pleasure in doing it was that it was forbidden. … The malice of the act was base and I loved it—that is to say I loved my own undoing, I loved the evil in me—not the thing for which I did the evil, simply the evil.” [5] While you may not have stolen pears, I think we can all relate to Augustine’s experience. We’ve all done something wrong because it was wrong and enjoyed doing it for that reason. That’s evidence of original sin.

Another support for the doctrine of original sin is evident in the behavior of infants. At the earliest stages of intentional human action, we find infants are selfish and cruel to one another. Anyone who has had to work in a nursery knows this. There can be many tokens of the exact same toy at hand, but two kids will savagely fight to gain possession of a particular one. Children delight in depriving the others of toys for no apparent reason other than making another suffer. Virtue must be taught to children because they already know and enjoy how to do evil. Consider Marty Hart’s daughters from True Detective. They reenact depraved events with their dolls and one of them also does so with her drawings. Why do they act this way? Is it merely a result of the external influences of society, or is it due to a natural inclination and appetite for these things? The show does not give us answers for these questions, but it invites us to explore possibilities.

Rust Cohle understands how humans work. That’s why he’s such a great detective and interrogator. When asked about how he’s able to obtain so many confessions, he explains, “Everybody knows there’s something wrong with them—they just don’t know what it is. Everybody wants confession, everyone wants some cathartic narrative. . . . Everybody’s guilty.” Cohle’s methods of interrogation are really no different than the message of the preacher at the revival. Interestingly, Cohle has nothing but disgust for the preacher’s methods. “The ontological fallacy of expecting a light at the end of the tunnel,” Cohle explains, “well, that’s what the preacher sells, same as a shrink.” Both Cohle and the preacher get people to confess to their wrongdoings with the promise that doing so will release them from their guilt. Cohle knows that people are aware on some level that they are messed up, and they are looking for a way to make things right. Perhaps the salient difference is that Cohle doesn’t really believe there is a way to mend the brokenness people feel as a result of sin, whereas the preacher does.

Yet, the Christian view of humanity is not one of complete depravity and evil. There is greatness in humans too. Humans possess amazing capacities for intelligence, social endeavors, and moral awareness. It is only because humans have these great-making features that we can know of our sinfulness. The French mathematician, scientist, and philosopher, Blaise Pascal, summed this up well when he wrote, “Man’s greatness comes from knowing he is wretched: a tree does not know it is wretched. Thus it is wretched to know that one is wretched, but there is greatness in knowing one is wretched.” [6] There’s the rub. Humans great enough to know there’s something wrong with them, but they’re not great enough to be perfect. This awareness of their moral shortcomings creates feelings uneasiness or guilt. This is also probably why Cohle says, “People incapable of guilt usually do have a good time.” Feelings of guilt are a reminder that they fall short of God’s standard and they are morally at odds with the Judge of the universe. No guilt, no awareness that there’s something wrong with oneself.

Marty Hart regularly illustrates the contradictory mess that humans are as a result of being both great and wretched. On the one hand, he is a moral failure and hypocrite. Although he cheats on his wife and jealously pursues another woman, he genuinely cares about his marriage as evidenced by his devastatation when his wife leaves him. Marty criticizes Cohle for not being a Christian, but it is hard to see how Hart’s own actions live up to any Christian ideals. On the other hand, Hart is deeply moved by many of the injustices he witnesses. For instance, he is outraged that a “bunny ranch” is employing an underage girl, and he gives her money to “do something else” with her life. (Interestingly, Cohle asks—as if with prescience—whether this money is a down payment for a future encounter.) It is Marty’s moral outrage that leads him to shoot Reggie Ledoux. Marty is far from perfect, but he isn’t completely clueless about morality either.

Metaphysically sin creates an infinite barrier that separates God and man. If left unresolved, this separation lasts eternally. That’s what theologians call hell. True Detective has very little to say about hell. The closest thing that comes to mind is in episode 4 when the Iron Crusaders are raiding the drug house in the projects, and once things start to go bad you hear several people shout, “We’re all going to hell!” I doubt they meant it in the theologians’ sense. Nonetheless it represents a sense of hopelessness and despair as a result of one’s own doing, which is a fitting way to describe hell.

At this point, many people think that there is something terribly unfair about the Christian worldview. Humans start out with original sin that inevitably results in everyone having sin, which in turn incurs the consequences of hell. It looks like a rigged game. Moreover, why does sin have such drastic consequences? After all, nobody sins infinitely, so why should the punishment be infinite?

These are good questions, which cannot be adequately answered here, but I’ll offer some suggestive responses. The moral integrity of the Christian worldview can be upheld, I believe, because the doctrine of original sin does not entail that any person sins against his or her own will. The unfair allegation gains traction largely because it is thought that humans’ wills are coerced or controlled through original sin (which I agree would be unjust). The real teaching of doctrine, however, maintains that humans still sin by their own volition, not through some coercion. What, then, of the eternal consequences for finite sins? One line of response suggests that it is due to our failure to grasp the nature of God that the punishment for sin is perceived to be disproportionate. To sin against God is to wrong an infinite being; it’s an affront to the standard of perfection. When you rebel against your Maker, it’s an infinitely serious offense. A second line of response is that the consequences of sin may be infinite if the sinner is perpetually sinning. It’s like a person writing his own biography where it takes him a year to write about one day in his life. [7] While each day is only a finite addition to his writing, it adds more work than he is able to finish, and he irretrievably falls behind. Likewise, as long as the damned are continuously sinning, the punishment for sin could “pile up” effectively making the punishment last forever.

On the Christian worldview, it’s not all bad news. Yes, we are sinners, we know it, and we deserve punishment for our sins. However, the Gospel (in Greek, “gospel” literally means “good news”) is that this sin and its punishment have a solution. Cohle presents the antithesis of the Christian when he says, “There’s no such thing as forgiveness. People just have short memories.” This cynicism implies there’s no absolution for the guilt incurred through their wrongdoings; mercifully they forget and the guilt subsides. The good news of Christianity is that forgiveness is possible, not because of anything humans have done, but because of the work God has done. To quote Pascal again, “Man is not worthy of God but he is not incapable of being made worthy. It is unworthy of God to unite himself to wretched man, but it is not unworthy of God to raise him out of his wretchedness.” [8]

Of course, in Christianity the possibility of forgiveness comes through the atoning death of Jesus on the cross. Early in the series, Marty suspects Cohle is a Christian because he has a crucifix hanging in his apartment. To his surprise Cohle denies being a Christian, and tells him the crucifix is part of a meditation exercise. “I contemplate the moment in the garden,” explains Cohle, “the idea of allowing your own crucifixion.” Why is this the subject of Cohle’s meditation? My own view is that he is challenged by the idea that someone would voluntarily submit to pain, humiliation, and death who knows he is innocent and who has the power to avoid it. His suffering and death were entirely for others; He had nothing to gain for Himself. Cohle is trying to fathom Jesus’ state of mind when he accepts the path of the cross. Why would anyone do this? The answer is found in the Christian concept of grace. Grace is receiving a gift that one does not deserve. The motive is selfless love. This is the sense in which the Gospel is beyond human reason, and it is the only way to fix the problem of sin. God freely chose to become incarnate and accept undeserved suffering and death so that humans could have forgiveness for their sins (Rom. 5:7-10). That’s Cohle’s meditation exercise.

Finally, let’s revisit Cohle’s objection that the Christian solution to sin commits the “ontological fallacy.” What he means by this is that it is based on wishful thinking—you want something to be true so you believe it is true. The objection Cohle is raising sounds a lot like what Ludwig Feuerbach, Sigmund Freud, and Karl Marx have said about religion in general. Doesn’t the Christian doctrine of grace sound too good to be true? How do we know that this isn’t a trick of human psychology? Aren’t there better, naturalistic explanations for the origins of this belief?

To see whether Christianity is guilty of the ontological fallacy, it is instructive to observe that our natural desires have real objects that satisfy them. We naturally possess desires like hunger and thirst, which arise when there is a need for food or drink. It would be strange if we experienced hunger and thirst, but there was no food or water. Likewise, as a result of sin we feel guilty and broken. Nothing on earth seems to fix this. If we conclude that the desire for the fix is a psychological delusion, that would be most unusual since all of our other desires have something in reality that satisfies them. C. S. Lewis writes in his chapter on “Hope” in Mere Christianity that:

“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing”. [9]

The Christian worldview is committed to the reality of sin and grace. My hope is that this essay has produced some contemplative thought on these themes that connect with ideas from True Detective even if I have not fully persuaded you of their coherence or truth.

Footnotes & References

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death, <http://www.naturalthinker.net/trl/texts/Kierkegaard,Soren/TheSicknessUntoDeath.pdf>, pp. 92-93.

[2] St. Augustine, Against Faustus, trans. R. Stothert in A Select Library of the Nicene and Ante-Nicene Church Fathers of the Christian Church, vol. 4, ed. Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), p. 285 [bk. 22, ch. 27].

[3] Paul Tillich, quoted in Roger E. Olson, The Mosaic of Christian Belief (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2002), p. 207.

[4] This idea is found throughout Plato’s writings. See, for example, Plato, Protagoras, 358d. Socrates held that people who do will to do bad things must do so out of ignorance.

[5] Augustine, Confessions, trans. F. J. Sheed (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993), p. 27.

[6] Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. A. J. Krailsheimer, rev. ed. (New York: Penguin, 1995), p. 29.

[7] This is an adaptation of the Tristram Shandy paradox. Philosophers of math wonder if someone wrote their biography at this had an infinite amount of time, would they be able to finish their autobiography? There are reasons to answer both yes and no.

[8] Ibid, p. 74.

[9] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, reprint ed. (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001), pp. 136-137.

John DePoe
John DePoe
John DePoe is an assistant professor of philosophy at Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He teaches and writes about epistemology, metaphysics, and philosophy of religion. Some of his most recent work explores philosophical topics related to the mind-body problem, the teleological argument for the existence of God, and whether naturalism is self-refuting.
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  • Wow, just stumbled upon this article through a Google search on sin in metaphysics and I found it really helpful and clearly expressive of these essential Christian themes. The way certain things were said answered to some thoughts I’ve had about how to express these ideas. I appreciate the work!

“How many newsworthy issues, which should have been the rightful domain of philosophy, have been usurped in recent years by religion, law, and psychology?”

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