How Do You View Sin?
“WHY does she keep on asking for the forgiveness of our sins in prayer?” complained a housewife who was studying the Bible with one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. “It sounds as though I were a criminal.” Just like this woman, many today are not aware of their sins unless they have committed a crime.
This is especially true in the Orient, where people traditionally have no concept of inherited sin as taught in Judeo-Christian religions. (Genesis 3:1-5, 16-19; Romans 5:12) For example, Shintoists identify sin with filth that can easily be wiped away by a swing of a priest’s stick, which has paper or flax attached to its tip. In this process no repentance over what has been committed is required. Why? “Not only evil actions, but also uncontrollable natural calamities, were termed tsumi [sin],” explains Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan. Natural disasters, tsumi that are not the responsibility of men, were considered to be sins that purification rites caused to cease to exist.
This led to the thinking that any sin, even evil acts committed willfully (except criminal acts punishable by law) can be wiped away by purification rites. Under the heading “Ritual of Political Cleansing in Japan,” The New York Times referred to such a mentality and explained that politicians in Japan who have been involved in scandals consider themselves “purified” when they are reelected by the voters. Thus, no real correction is made, and similar scandals may recur.
Buddhists who believe in samsara, or rebirth, and the doctrine of Karma have a different perspective. “According to the doctrine of karman,” explains The New Encyclopædia Britannica, “good conduct brings a pleasant and happy result and creates a tendency toward similar good acts, while bad conduct brings an evil result and creates a tendency toward repeated evil actions.” In other words, sinful conduct bears bad fruitage. The teaching of Karma is tied in with the teaching of rebirth, as some Karmas are said to bear fruit in future lives far removed from the life in which the act was committed.
How does this teaching affect its believers? A Buddhist woman who sincerely believed in Karma said: “I thought it did not make sense to have to suffer for something I was born with but about which I knew nothing. I had to accept it as my destiny. Chanting sutras and trying hard to live a good life didn’t solve my problems. I became ill-tempered and discontented, always complaining.” The Buddhist teaching about the results of evil conduct left her with a feeling of worthlessness.
Confucianism, another Eastern religion, taught a different way to deal with human evil. According to Hsün-tzu, one of the three great Confucian philosophers, human nature is evil and inclined to be selfish. In order to maintain social order among men with sinful tendencies, he stressed the importance of li, which means propriety, courtesy, and the order of things. Meng-tzu, another Confucian philosopher, although expressing an opposite view of human nature, recognized the existence of social ills and, trusting the nature of men to be good, relied on self-improvement for the solution. Either way, Confucian philosophers taught the importance of education and training in order to fight sin in the world. Although their teachings agree on the necessity of li, their concept of sin and evil is very vague.—Compare Psalm 14:3; 51:5.
Fading Concept of Sin in the West
In the West, views on sin have traditionally been clear-cut, and most people have agreed that sin exists and should be avoided. However, the Western attitude toward sin is changing. Many cast aside all awareness of sin, labeling the voice of conscience a “guilt trip,” something to be avoided. More than 40 years ago, Pope Pius XII lamented: “The sin of this century is the loss of all sense of sin.” According to a survey published in the Catholic weekly Le Pèlerin, an amazing 90 percent of the population of France, where most people profess to be Roman Catholics, no longer believe in sin.
Indeed, East and West, most people now seem to be dwelling in cozy complacence without being plagued by an awareness of sin. Does that mean, however, that sin is nonexistent? Can we safely ignore it? Will sin ever disappear?