What Prevents Someone from Heaven?

How do I get to heaven?  That is one of the most common and controversial questions.  As important as an answer to that question is, my attention is elsewhere.  My attention is on what lurks behind that question.  I’ve been fascinated with the assumption that we don’t get to heaven as we are right now.  We need to do something or have something done for us to make it to heaven.  We are not qualified as we currently are for heaven and somehow need some improvement to make it there.  This brings up the question, what is preventing us from getting into heaven as we are?  My inquiry into this question started off as just curiosity and intellectual exercise, but the more I thought the more urgent it became.

Focusing on Christianity, we find sin as the culprit that blockades us from heaven.  But even within Christianity we see nuance in what it means for sin to keep us from heaven and what sin is.  We see this through the different atonement theories, which suggests different understandings of sin and how sin keeps us from heaven.  This paper begins by analyzing the nature of sin and showing that the proper understanding of sin is to define sin as “missing the mark”.  This understanding will allow us to speak of original sin and moral sin in the same sense.  I will then go into why sin is the primary barrier that blocks us from heaven. Last, I will discuss the ramifications of what this means for us.  Understanding sin primarily as “missing the mark” has theological benefits for a consistent and fundamental understanding of sin and the basis for salvation.  It also provides us with a proper understanding of our relation to the triune God, the magnitude of Christ’s work, as well as practical applications for combating sin.

What Is Sin?

One of the most difficult things for me to do was to understand sin in a way that honors the concept of original sin and is equally applicable to personal sin.  This has been something that Christian tradition has struggled with, and in effect has made two different senses of the word sin.  The issue with this is that it makes it hard to see how original sin and personal sin both are fully and appropriately identified as sin when they are different sorts of sin.[1]  We must find a way to be committed to Romans 5:12 and Psalms 51:5, as well as Ezekiel 18:20, while still understanding sin in the same consistent manner.

In an attempt to bring these two together, I don’t want to neglect the reality that there is still a difference in some way between personal sins and original sin.  If we don’t recognize this difference, we will be stuck in the conundrum of saying that each human is somehow personally guilty for what Adam did.  How can I be guilty for a defect in humanity when the defect was caused by someone else before I even existed?[2]  Here, I think understanding sin through the lens of “missing the mark” will help us bring personal and original sin together.

Personal Sin

Describing personal sin as missing the mark is quite straight forward.  There is a target for how we are to live, and we miss it.  Also, by not constraining sin to just moral evil, but more broadly to just missing the mark, we give room to describe deficiencies of faith like idolatry and unbelief as sin.contains the conditions of our heart.  When we act without thinking in sinful ways, this is just a reflection of a sinful heart, a heart that is missing the mark.[5]  Our actions and our heart behind those actions are elements of personal sin and are scrutinized by the standards God has set for us.

Beyond individual humans missing the mark, humanity itself also misses the mark as Psalm 14:2-3 describes.  Humans are social and historical beings who are shaped by those who came before them and those who are currently around them.  This means that vices and virtues get shared between one another.  Here, sin grows from one person missing the mark, to influencing their neighbor to sin, and so on until everyone is sinning and we create a culture of sin.[6]  We see here that from sin comes more sin.[7]  Although personal sin has a way of growing into “humanity sin”, we should be careful before we consider this original sin.  Some may want to suggest that when sin is infused into society, this inherited sin, and thus original sin.  The idea is that when sin is in the structures of society, it then gets passed down to the next generation and the next generation is brought up in sin and inherits that sin.  I think this is better understood as common sin rather than original sin, since the sin is acquired more through habit than strict inheritance.[8]  Instead of tying our fallen nature to inevitable personal sin, original sin as missing the mark needs to be even more fundamental and more inherent in humans.  We need to make sense of saying that even babies are missing the mark, are in sin.

Complications with original Sin

We have seen how personal sin can clearly be understood as missing the mark and can even grow into humanity missing the mark.  But I want to resist treating the inevitability of humans committing sin as being original sin.  Besides committing a sinful act, having a sinful heart, or the inevitability of committing sin, how else can humanity miss the mark?  To me it’s important that our conception of original sin makes sense when applied to babies, for what is more innocent than a baby?  Yet, even babies need saving by Jesus. It would be strange to suggest that a baby could commit a sin or even have a sinful heart.  It is also a stretch to me to suggest that a baby is already fallen and needs saving because the baby will eventually sin.  My dilemma is that a baby can’t “commit” a sin, yet they experience death which is a result of sin, and I believe they still need saving by Jesus.[9]

Some have suggested that to understand original sin, we need to understand humanity in a more corporeal and connected sense, like understanding all of humanity as one body instead of separate individuals.  With this view, the whole body has responsibility and guilt for what a member of the body does.  From here, we would say that as the body of humanity, we bear some of the guilt of what one of our members, Adam, did.[10]  I like the way this makes us understand the connectedness of humanity.  However, it seems to suggest that I somehow bear personal guilt for sins committed by other people, but moral liability can’t be transferred from one person to another.[11]

Defense of Original Sin

I want to suggest that original sin is missing the mark in sense that our nature, our being, our existence, misses the mark for what we were created to be.  God didn’t create us for destruction, but for immortality through participation with the divine.[12]  But Adam turned away from God and instead turned his focus toward self-centeredness and cut himself off from the eternal Word which is the source of life.  Now humanity is doomed to death from its lack of participation with that which is life.[13]  This turn from God and inward focus on self has separated us from the fount of life and is the privation of original justice, the grace that kept us in participation with the triune God.  Since humans are creatures that assume the likeness of their parents[14], the offspring of Adam assumed his new nature that was separated from God.  All humans after Adam have inherited this privation of grace from Adam.[15]  We were meant to continue to pass down original justice to our children as it was a part of our nature to be in participation with the divine.  But when we turn from contemplation of God toward self-centeredness, we lost this grace and this privation of grace became a part of the human nature that gets passed to the next generation.[16]  In this way, each human is born in a state that is not in participation with God, and thus doomed to death.  This is what original sin should be understood as.  It is being born not in participation with God.  It is sin because our being, our existence is missing the mark. From our birth we are in a wrong state of being, since we were created to be communing with God.

Basis For Universal Need of Salvation

If sin is properly understood as missing the mark as argued above, then it allows us to see the depths of sin’s invasion in this world.  Sin is not just a breach of duty or a wrongful act, it relates to our beliefs and is a state of wrong being.  Therefore, it is sin which prevents us from heaven.  We are no longer in the state we were meant to be, our being is missing the mark and thus we are in a sinful state.  This missing the mark is what we need saving from, even babies.  It is important to be clear that I am not saying that it is our humanity itself that puts us in wrong being, but rather it is the corruption of humanity which has put us in wrong being.  Thus, it is not our humanity that prevents us from heaven, but sin which has defiled our humanity and pulled our humanity away from what we were created to be.

This issue is something we can’t fix ourselves.  We need God to reach down and orient us in the correct way.[17]  Our salvation starts with us being saved from sin, both original and personal, and the bondage that ensues from sin.[18]  But salvation is more than being saved from sin and the bondage of sin.  We are saved for communion with God, to enter uninterrupted participation with the Eternal One.[19]  Now, of course there are many different beliefs about the nature of salvation and who gets saved.  Salvation theories range anywhere from a select group of people to all people, and from only one religion with salvific power to all religions having salvific power.[20]  The important part here is that there’s a recognition of humanity needing saving.  Even if people can’t agree on the details of salvation, we can agree that humanity needs saving to enter heaven.  And I argue it is sin that is preventing us from heaven and is the cause for our need of a savior.

Implications of sin as “missing the mark”

  1. Theological Implications

Theologically, understanding sin as fundamentally missing the mark, has allowed me to have a robust and strong belief in original sin.  Before writing this paper, I was quite comfortable saying I didn’t think original sin was a thing.  I only understood original sin as this guilt that was on me because of the action of a different person.  I couldn’t understand how I could be held responsible and guilty for the actions of Adam.  My rejection of original sin did cause tension with some biblical verses, but I figured there must be a different way to understand those verses as not relating to original sin.  However, after studying sin and looking at sin as missing the mark, I can say that original sin understood in this context makes a lot of sense.  It doesn’t just give me peace theologically to defend such a deep and old traditional belief, but it allows me to be more honest with the Bible and take it at face value.

A clear ramification of bringing original sin and personal sin together under the concept of “missing the mark” is that sin is completely unavoidable.  It pays homage to the biblical motif that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God in a real way.  Thus, everyone, no matter how young or old, is prevented from heaven because of sin.  This makes Christ’s work on the cross more powerful because he has defeated not just sin resulting from actions or heart conditions, but sin that was ingrained in the nature of our existence!  This should give us more reason to honor Christ and be in awe of his power and what he did for us.  It should result in daily prayers of thanksgiving and gratitude followed by praise and worship for our salvation from death and decay.  It should provide us with a real sense of hope for joy because we know we are no longer controlled by sin and death and we are now connected to the source of life.

When we understand that sin involves our very nature of missing the mark, and is causing our separation from God, it also makes Christ’s work applicable to all people.  Every single human is suffering from and engaged in this sin.  Not even a morally perfect human, if there could ever be one, could escape having their being miss the mark and not fall prey to original sin.  And this privation of grace is something we can’t fix on our own.  Since the grace came from God, only God can restore that for us.  We can’t reach him on our own but need him to bring us to him.  Thus, everyone is in desperate need of a savior, and this truly makes Christ the savior of all humanity.   This solidifies and strengthens our dependence on God.  Only he can overcome our sin and help us to stop missing the mark.  Thus, it is only God who can bring us to heaven by the work of Christ through the Spirit.  This should elicit a constant and fervent pursuit of God.  God is our only hope of experiencing life and only he can fix us.

2. Practical Implications

Lastly, just like anything in this world, when you properly understand it you know how to properly engage with it.  Properly understanding sin allows us to properly respond and combat against sin.  When examining our actions, beliefs, and nature, understanding sin as missing the mark gives us something to push back against.  When it comes to actions, we can begin to investigate what should be the target of our actions and work to reorient all our actions that are missing the mark towards the target God has for us.  The same goes for our beliefs and our heart.  If we want to avoid sin, we need to avoid missing the mark and this requires understanding of what the target should be for our heart and beliefs and work to reorient ourselves towards those things.  Obviously, the reorientation only comes through the work of Christ in us by the Holy Spirit, but we are participants in this and must understand where it is God is trying to reorient us.  Lastly for our nature, it drives home the point again that our very being needs to be reoriented into communion and relationship with God, and as we’ve seen that is something only God can do for us.

Conclusion

In conclusion sin is best understood when seen as missing the mark.  This concept has the broadest reach over the nature of sin and helps us make sense of all the different facets of sin and manifestations of sin.  It allows us to have a strong sense of the utter depravity of humanity without God and the complete dependence on God to restore us and bring us to his presence.  Sin is very complicated and has much nuance so a paper this size could never exhaustively describe sin, but I think I have brought light to a very fundamental, if not the fundamental nature of sin.  And in paying close attention to the nature and pervasiveness of sin, it is clear that it is sin that prevents us from heaven.  But thank God that Christ is has defeated sin and made a way for us in heaven by redeeming humanity through the entire incarnation event.[21]

[1] Couenhoven, Jesse. “What sin is: a differential analysis.” Modern Theology 25, no. 4 (October 2009): 563-587. ATLASerials, Religion Collection, EBSCOhost. 565.

[2] OTTO, SEAN A. “FELIX CULPA: THE DOCTRINE OF ORIGINAL SIN AS DOCTRINE OF HOPE IN AQUINAS’S SUMMA CONTRA GENTILES.” Heythrop Journal 50, no. 5 (September 2009): 781-792. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost. 785

[3] Couenhove, “What is Sin”, 567

[4] Highfield, Ron. “The Freedom to Say ‘No’? Karl Rahner’s Doctrine of Sin.” Theological Studies 56, no. 3 (September 1995): 485-505. ATLASerials, Religion Collection, EBSCOhost. 485.

[5] Couenhove, “What is Sin”, 580

[6] Wyman, Walter E Jr. “Rethinking the Christian Doctrine of Sin: Ernst Troeltsch and the German Protestant Liberal Tradition.” Zeitschrift Für Neuere Theologiegeschichte 1, no. 2 (1994): 226-250. ATLASerials, Religion Collection, EBSCOhost. 245

[7] Plantiga, Richard J. et al. “An Introduction to Christian Theology.” Cambridge: University Press; 2010. 196

[8] Wyman, “Rethinking Sin”, 239

[9] OTTO, “SUMMA CONTRA GENTILES.”  787

[10] Ibid. 785.

[11] Couenhove, “What is Sin”, 575

[12] Morgan, Jonathan. 2016. “Soteriological Coherence in Athanasius’s Contra Gentes-De Incarnatione.” The Evangelical Quarterly 88, no. 2: 99-110. ATLA Religion Database, EBSCOhost. 104

[13] Ibid. 105

[14] OTTO, “SUMMA CONTRA GENTILES.”  782

[15] Matthews, Pia. “Illness, Disease, and Sin: the Connection between Genetics and Spirituality – A Response.” Christian Bioethics: Non-Ecumenical Studies In Medical Morality 13, no. 1 (January 2007): 91-104. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost. 99

[16] OTTO, “SUMMA CONTRA GENTILES.”  788

[17] Ibid. 789.

[18] Tracy, David W. “The Christian understanding of salvation-liberation.” Buddhist-Christian Studies 7, (1987): 129-138. ATLA Religion Database, EBSCOhost. 135

[19] Pinnock, Clark H. “Flame of Love.” Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1996. 151.

[20] Vainio, Olli-Pekka. 2016. “Salvation and religious diversity: Christian perspectives.” Religion Compass 10, no. 2: 27-34. ATLA Religion Database, EBSCOhost. 28.

[21] Madden, Joshua E. “‘I Go To Prepare a Place For You’: The Ascension of Christ as Cause of Salvation.” New Blackfriars 97, no. 1070 (July 2016): 420-431. ATLA Religion Database, EBSCOhost.

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