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Death and Sin


There are three kinds of evil that I want to talk about: suffering, death and sin. What we fear most, most of the time, is suffering, then death, then sin exactly the opposite of what it should be.

Part one of this talk, on the subject of suffering, can be found here.



Let's talk about what Woody Allen calls the biggie – death. It can ruin your whole day. In death, you lose everything. No matter what you've acquired in life, no matter how happy you've been in life, even if you've conquered the whole world, we all know that we're going to lose it all in death. Death drains oceans away. Death drains the universe away. As Pascal says, this is the end of the world's most illustrious life: they throw a few shovelfuls of dirt over your head, and that is all, forever.

Moralists tell us how to live good lives, but moralists too, and their good lives, are destroyed by death. They must die, and their disciples. Like Rhett Butler, death just doesn't give a damn. Whether you are a saint or a cad, you must die.

Mystics show us how to live without fear of death, but they cannot show us how to live without death. They show us how to overcome fear by overcoming ordinary consciousness with its egotism, and attain instead a state of consciousness in which we no longer identify with the ego, the individual self that fears death. But mystics too must die, and so must their disciples. Whether we fear the monster or not, we are its victims, and it always wins. It doesn't give a damn whether you're a mystic or not.

Philosophers sometimes tell us to be rational about death – to accept it as inevitable, and not to add to its power over us by hating it or fearing it. But philosophers too must die, and their disciples. We can conquer the fear of death, and much of the harm that this fear of death causes in our lives, but also the good that fear causes. Isn't it good to fear wild beasts if they're really around? But we cannot conquer death.

We may have power over life, power to make it good or evil, pleasant or painful. But we have no power over death. We simply cannot conquer death. The good news of Christianity is that Christ has conquered death. What he said to the women at his empty tomb, through his angels then, he still says to us: Why do you seek the living one among the dead? I don't reside in the tomb of your thoughts or your words. You can't catch me; I'm like the Gingerbread Man. I'm not your object. My name is I Am. You're my object.

I once gave a questionnaire at Boston College to a class of twenty nuns – this was long ago, and there still were as many as twenty nuns – and I asked them to list the three greatest living men. Only one out of the twenty mentioned Jesus Christ. The other nineteen either forgot him, or forgot that he's a man as well as God, or forgot that he's alive. I think that tells you why there are no longer more than twenty nuns.


Let's talk about the third biggie, sin. Because we hear quite a bit about suffering, and we hear quite a bit about death, but we don't hear much about sin anymore. Let's have a good word for sin. Sin. Of all of our problems, sin is the worst. It's worse than death. Because sin means separation from God, and God is the only source of all good, and all life, and all joy.

The problem is not just that we're sheep wandering away from safety, foolish spoiled selfish children. Of course we're that. But we're much, much worse than that. We're not just morally weak, or morally bad. We are morally insane.

Everybody knows about Jesus, but not everybody knows about sin. Everybody knows the good news, but not many people know the bad news anymore. Yet without the bad news, the good news is meaningless. The good news is that Jesus is the saviour, but from what? If there's nothing to be saved from, he's totally irrelevant. Hey! Good news – you have been given, absolutely free, the right to a quarter of a million dollar triple bypass surgery! Aren't you thrilled? Good news! For the first time in human history, science has discovered a simple medical cure for the compulsion of funny walking like John Cleese in Monty Python. Only if we know our need do we know who Jesus is. Jesus himself said, "Those who think they are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners." He said this to the Pharisees. In other words, I'm irrelevant to you. I'm not your saviour; I didn't come for you. What more terrifying words could be spoken than these? "I never knew you."

Are Pharisees still around? Sure. They're called pop psychologists. The old Pharisees said, "I'm okay; you're not." Our new Pharisees say, "I'm okay; you're okay." Both Pharisees say "We're okay." But we're not okay. That's the first part of the good news. How awful if we were okay! There's a wonderful character in one of T. S. Eliot's plays, The Cocktail Party, Celia. She's a modern, alienated girl, and she seeks out this psychiatrist at the cocktail party and he says to her, "Why do you want psychotherapy?" and she says, "Well, I'm hoping that you can show me that I'm insane." "What? You want to be insane?" "Oh, yes. Oh, yes, that's my hope." "I don't understand." "Well, if I'm not insane, then the whole world's insane, and I couldn't live that way." Quite profound.

The religious version of that is the title of a sermon by Kierkegaard, "The Edification Implied in the Thought that as Against God We are Always in the Wrong". Wouldn't it be awful if we found out that we were right and God was wrong? I must confess that one of the questions I'm going to ask God when I get to heaven, hopefully, is why for eighty-six years you were a Yankee fan? But I think the movie Bruce Almighty finally did it for God – when he saw that hat on Jim Carrey, he said, "Enough".

Seriously, we need to appreciate the problem before we can appreciate the solution. And the problem is not simply that we are imperfect; young piglets are imperfect. Or that we're mixtures of good and evil; delicious strawberries with a few rotten spots are mixtures of good and evil. The problem is not just that we're sheep wandering away from safety, foolish spoiled selfish children. Of course we're that. But we're much, much worse than that. We're not just morally weak, or morally bad. We are morally insane.

The word probably shocks you, and seems exaggerated and unrealistic – and that's part of our insanity, by the way: denial – so I shall now try to convince you from your own experience that you are insane. And I think if you are honest with yourself you will not be able to deny the facts that I am about to remind you of. Even though perhaps no-one has ever told you these facts before, unless you may have read the Bible, or the writings of the saints. Very probably, you've never heard them from your pulpit, because your parish priest or minister probably desperately wants to be your friend, and fears offending you.

You know – we all know; there are some things we can't not know – you all know that there are two roads. There is good, and there is evil. There is the straight, and there is the crooked. There is the narrow, and there is the broad. There is Straight Street, and there is Broadway. You know that every day in life is full of big and little choices between those two roads, beginning with your very first conscious thought as you wake up in the morning. You know very well what lies down those two roads. You know that not just by faith, and not just by reason, but by experience, for you have walked down both roads many, many times, and you have always found the same living quarters there.

You do not have to believe – you know – the peacelessness and the joylessness and the regret and the shame, and above all the hiding and the self-deception and the self-loathing that lies down one road. And you know who it is that you never meet on that road, who you abandon on that road. Sin means not just doing no-nos, but not doing God. Sin is a No not just to the law, but to the Lawgiver, who is love, who is the gift of self that is secret of joy.

And you also know with equal certainty and from the same experiential source that deep peace and joy and satisfaction, and even self-esteem, that meets you down the other road. And who you always meet there, who gives these gifts, and yet you repeatedly choose Broadway over Straight Street, many, many times. You prefer misery to joy. You are insane. Welcome to the human race; that's original sin.

You know, as surely as you know the pain of a hangover or a headache, that every time you worship the creature instead of the creator, every time you give your deepest heart and love and hope to any other god but God, this false god always cracks and crumbles into dust – always. You know that the pleasures this false god gives are only temporary, and that even when they come, they spoil all other pleasures, like a drug destroying the enjoyment of other food.

And you also know, as surely as you know a hot bath or a cold shower, what happens whenever you give your whole heart and life to God – all creatures light up with the light of the true Son. When you worship the creature, the lights of all creatures turn to darkness. When you worship the creator, all creatures flame out with beauty. You know that. And yet you find it terribly difficult to obey the first commandment of sanity – to love the Lord God with all your heart. How much more insane could you possibly be? What is more insane than preferring misery to joy? Point one, then: we are all insane. That's my First Noble Truth.

And you also know with equal certainty and from the same experiential source that deep peace and joy and satisfaction, and even self-esteem, that meets you down the other road.

Point two: Why? What is the cause? If we find the cause, we may hope to find the cure. Psychologically, I think it's easy to find the cause of sin. Just watch how good and evil appear to you when you sin, and how they appear to you when you don't. When you sin, the evil is more concretely present to your mind than the good. The evil is some forbidden pleasure, some indulgence of a lust or a greed or a fear that seems as real as bodily food. Good, on the other hand, seems remote and abstract, like a rosy cloud on the horizon, an ideal, a value, a law, a lifestyle, a pattern.

The solution, then, psychologically, is for evil to become abstract, or for good to become concrete. But evil does not by itself become abstract. The devil does not withdraw to a distance voluntarily. However, good does become concrete. That event Christians call the incarnation. Divine goodness became a concrete flesh and blood human being named Jesus. And because he is divine, he is still present now, here. God never disappears; God is presence – that's his name: I Am: I present myself as a present to you in the present, now. So if God is on the cross, we can love the cross, because we love God wherever he is. And that transforms the meaning of suffering. And death.

Read part 1 of this talk here.
Read part 2 of this talk here.
Read part 3 of this talk here.



Peter Kreeft. "The Dark Side." transcribed from talk given for Socrates in the City (May 4, 2005).

This talk based on ideas contained in Peter Kreeft's book Making Sense Out of Suffering.

This article is reprinted with permission from Peter Kreeft.

The Greek philosopher Socrates famously said that "the unexamined life is not worth living." Taking this as a starting point, Eric Metaxas thought it would be valuable to create a forum that might encourage busy and successful professionals in thinking about the bigger questions in life. Thus Socrates In The City: Conversations on the Examined Life was born.

Every month or so Socrates In The City sponsors an event in which people can begin a dialogue on "Life, God, and other small topics" by hearing a notable thinker and writer. These events are meant to be both thought-provoking and entertaining, because nowhere is it written that finding answers to life's biggest questions shouldn't be exciting and even, perhaps, fun.

The Author

kreeft1kreeftPeter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College.  He is the author of many books (over forty and counting) including: Ancient PhilosophersMedieval PhilosophersModern PhilosophersContemporary Philosophers, Forty Reasons I Am a Catholic, Doors in the Walls of the World: Signs of Transcendence in the Human Story, Forty Reasons I Am a CatholicYou Can Understand the Bible, How to Be Holy: First Steps in Becoming a Saint, Fundamentals of the Faith,  The Philosophy of Jesus, The Journey: A Spiritual Roadmap for Modern Pilgrims, Prayer: The Great Conversation: Straight Answers to Tough Questions About Prayer,  Love Is Stronger Than Death, Philosophy 101 by Socrates: An Introduction to Philosophy Via Plato's Apology, A Pocket Guide to the Meaning of Life, Prayer for Beginnersand Before I Go: Letters to Our Children About What Really Matters. Peter Kreeft in on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2011 Peter Kreeft
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