Make no mistake, this is a book about sin. It is about the hideous nature of sin, the way it corrupts, destroys, and slowly sucks the life out of people. It is not the kind of thing most people want to talk about these days. Sin has been replaced with “dysfunction”, “addiction”, “syndrome” and a host of other terms that remove any responsibility from us, all in a vain effort to alleviate our guilt and shame. Plantinga pulls no punches when he discusses the nature of sin and the motivators behind it.
Crucial to Plantinga’s approach is a biblical understanding of Shalom, or Peace. When talking about Shalom, he dreams, along with the writers of the Bible, of a time when true peace would reign. Shalom is more than an absence of war, rather it is the presence of so much that is good and desirable; “a new age in which human crookedness would be straightened out, rough places made plain. The foolish would be made wise and the wise, humble. They dreamed of a time when deserts would flower, the mountains would run with wine, weeping would cease, and people would go to sleep without weapons in their laps”. pg 9
Sin destroys peace. It destroys the Shalom between God and man and within humanity. According to Plantinga, sin is not just the breaking of some arbitrary law. It is the breaking of a covenant relationship with our creator and a breaking of relationship with our fellow human beings. “Sin is a culpable and personal affront to a personal God” pg 13 For people who chafe against rules for rules sake and want to claim that we should have the freedom to do what we want as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone, this definition of sin should cause them pause. In a very real way at least two someones are alway hurt by our rebellion, us and God. We violate and vandalize the peace we have with God when we sin.
Among the many ways Plantinga talks about sin, perhaps the two that most took hold of me were sin as a parasite and sin as self-swindling. As a parasite sin has no life of its own. It must attach itself to me in order to feed itself. In the process it slowly sucks the life out of me. It is a tick that you don’t even acknowledge until it has begun to bury its head under your skin and chew its way deeper into you. You can remove the visible part on the surface but risk leaving the head inside to continue its damage. The picture of sin as a self-swindler brings out how easily we fool ourselves into thinking this will be something good, something harmless, something meaningless. In the end we find that the swindler has raided our personal accounts and walked off with everything leaving us destitute and guilty of self-destruction.
As harsh as this book may sound it is in fact a very encouraging book. Not in the sense that you will walk away from it filled with delight, but rather you will walk away from it with courage and conviction. There is something about the way Plantinga portrays sin with such honesty and visceral clarity that is actually refreshing. I had the feeling that finally someone was talking sense about sin and even though it was painful to see myself in so many of his examples, there was hope in the honesty. The way sin has been mostly dealt with in our day is to down play its impact, try to convince us that it is not as serious as we think it is and to just relax. Yet I feel that most of us, if we are honest, have long had a sense that as Plantinga says, this is Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be. Something is seriously wrong and we are being told, don’t worry you will be fine. It’s like going to a doctor because you have this nagging sense that something is desperately wrong with your heart, you can feel it, sense it, it pains you. You go to the doctor, he does a less than cursory exam and says, “Oh you’re fine, don’t worry about it. Everyone has this”. It bugs you and nags you for years until one day another doctor looks at you and says, “This is serious. You have a condition that could kill you at any moment. That anxiety you have been experiencing is well placed. We need to correct this now”. As hard as it would be to hear that doctor’s diagnosis there would be a sense of relief that finally you have someone being honest with you about the deadly nature of your disease. That is exactly what Plantinga does. And like any good doctor he provides a treatment, through Christ, to deal with that sin and bring true Shalom into your life.
At under 200 pages and with the honor of being the 1996 Christianity Today Book of the Year, there is no excuse for not reading this book.