Sin exists. That much should be obvious. We see it manifested in the world all around us; we see evidence of it within ourselves as well. Violence and hatred go virtually unchecked. Selfishness and pride run amok in so much of what we do and in so many of the decisions we make. Anger and frustration so often lurk beneath the surface, just waiting for the right circumstances to call them up. And storms and diseases frequently wreak havoc on our lives and our livelihoods. These things we all know to be part and parcel of the world in which we live. The question is, why? Why are they part of our reality? Where did they come from? Better yet, if these things are all manifestations of sin, the real question we must answer is, where did sin come from?
The problem gets more complicated, however. If God created everything in the universe and declared it to be “very good” (Gen. 1:31), and if sin is, at its root, not good—i.e., it is unrighteousness and ungodliness, as I argued in my last article—then God couldn’t have created it. But if God didn’t create it, then where did sin come from? Has it always existed? Is it some kind of cosmic opposite to God? Or is there some “sinful” being that is responsible for bringing it into the world and sustaining its influence in every generation down through the ages? And, if that is true, then where did this being come from? These are just some of the things that we will be exploring in this article. Let’s start “in the beginning” with what happened at creation.
Sin didn’t need to be created
If, as I argued in my last article, sin is ungodliness or unrighteousness or, even, lawlessness, then this means that sin is not a substance that needs to be created in order for it to exist. It is an attitude or a posture—an anti-God attitude or posture—that leads in turn to anti-God thoughts, words, and deeds. Sin is the privation or absence of godliness or righteousness or lawfulness, much in the same way that darkness is the privation or absence of light. God didn’t need to create ungodliness; it already existed as an “opposite” to His own character and will.
In addition to the passages I cited in my last article, Titus 2:11-14 clearly supports this line of reasoning. Significantly, according to the apostle Paul, we are told in these verses that Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness” (v. 14). Sin is necessarily, therefore, the opposite of law-keeping; it is the privation or absence of lawfulness. And because God’s character and will are the only bases for the law, this means that sin is nothing more or less than ungodliness. Paul confirms this interpretation by placing “lawlessness” in v. 14 in parallel with “ungodliness” in vv. 11-12. The work of Christ not only redeems us from our lawlessness; it also transforms us more and more to reflect God’s character and will over the course of our lives.
This, in turn, confirms that sin didn’t need to be created. It is the privation or absence of God, His character, and His will. All that is needed for it to come into existence is for creatures to exist who have the ability to choose to embrace God/godliness or to reject it. Therefore, when God created the angels with the ability to choose “for God” or “not for Him,” sin—which is simply ungodliness—became a distinct possibility for the first time in the history of the universe.
Sin has an army of advocates
What is only a distinct possibility, however, becomes a reality when one of the angels God created actually chooses to reject godliness and to lead other angels to follow suit in rebelling against God’s authority (2 Pet. 2:4; Jude 6). This angel is given the name “Satan” or “the devil” in the Bible (Rev. 12:9) and is variously described as “the prince of demons” (Matt. 12:24), the “ancient serpent” from the Garden of Eden, “the deceiver of the whole world” (Rev. 12:9), and “the prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2). As a result of this rebellion, Satan is “thrown down” to earth from heaven, along with all those who followed his lead (Rev. 12:7, 9; 2 Pet. 2:4; Jude 6). Together, they devote themselves to making war against God’s people on earth until the last day when Jesus returns in power and glory (Rev. 12:17; Matt. 8:28-29).
John 8:44 and 1 John 3:8 both suggest that Satan is the first creature to choose ungodliness in the history of the world and, when he did, he actualized sin out of the realm of the merely possible. But, what is more, he initiated a campaign to persuade as many others—angels and, then later, humans—to follow him in choosing ungodliness. That is why he is also referred to as the “tempter” (Matt. 4:3), the “accuser” (Rev. 12:10), and “the father of lies” (John 8:44). Even now, he and his compatriots are “prowl[ing] around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8).
While Satan may not have created sin, he is most certainly responsible for actualizing it by way of his decision to choose ungodliness and lawlessness. Since there is no possibility of salvation for any of the angels (Hebrews 1:14-2:18), this decision is permanent. For as long as the present world endures, Satan and his demons are only and always ambassadors of ungodliness. Knowing that their time is limited, they devote themselves, while they can, to championing the cause of sin in every generation. They are an army of advocates who seek to wage war on its behalf. And, although they didn’t create it, they certainly give themselves with every fiber of their being to seeing it proliferated in the world at large.
Sin is something we are and something we do
Satan’s battle strategy finds its initial outlet in his well-known encounter in the Garden of Eden with the first two human beings created by God (see Gen. 3:1ff). Taking the form of a serpent—a creature that John Calvin says is particularly suited for his nefarious purposes—Satan gains access to Adam and Eve in the garden and persuades them to follow him in embracing ungodliness, unrighteousness, and lawlessness (see my article Where Did Satan Come From? that was published by The Gospel Coalition a few years ago). As a result of their decision to reject God and His will, they and all their descendants are made subject to physical and spiritual death and consigned to live at enmity with God, with the rest of creation, and with themselves. Every single human being is born into the world with this enmity already in his or her heart and mind. That is why no one has to teach a newborn to lie, cheat, steal, or even to be apathetic toward God. The necessary ungodliness is already within each of us to do all of these things and far more, long before we actually do any of them.
What this means is that sin isn’t just something we do; it is also something we are. The result of Adam and Eve’s first sin is that we are all born in a “natural” condition or posture of ungodliness. As St. Augustine once said so long ago, the seeds of every sin are in each of our hearts from birth. The apostle Paul puts it this way:
None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes (Rom. 3:10-18).
What is the take away from all this?
Quite simply, the take away from all of this is that sin is not something that needed to be created in order to exist. It became a possibility when God created the angels who were capable of choosing godliness or ungodliness, and it was actualized when one of those angels chose the latter over the former. This angel, along with his army of demons who joined him in rebelling against God, are responsible for promoting and proliferating sin in every generation. And, under their influence, sin has become the natural bent of every human being’s heart, mind, will, and affections.
There is, therefore, no ground for any of us to boast or to look down our noses at others. We are all sinners, and we all sin. The one who lies is a sinner, just as the one who murders. Satan and his horde of fallen angels would like nothing better than to keep us enslaved to our sins, biting and devouring ourselves and the world around us. But praise God, from whom all blessings flow: the Lord has provided a way out. Before we get to that, however, we need to spend some time exploring why it is that we all aren’t as bad as we possibly could be.