Sin as missing the mark—NOT

December 21, 2018 § 6 Comments

I have often heard liberal Friends downplay the importance of sin by pointing out that the Greek word for sin, hamartia, means to miss the mark, a miscalculation, as in an archer missing the target. That always seemed off to me.

Then recently, while reading D. J. Conacher’s Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound: A Literary Commentary, I ran across this in a footnote (p. 43, note 19):

“Bremer Hamartia p 47 points out that there is also (ie, in addition to the uses emphasizing miscalculation of some kind) ‘widespread use of hamart-words to decry serious offenses. From Homer onwards (… Od. 13.214) they are found denoting evil deeds for which divine revenge is expected or accomplished …'”



§ 6 Responses to Sin as missing the mark—NOT

  • Gerard Guiton says:

    Hello Stephen and Friends,

    May I add to this discussion by quoting from my “What Love Can Do” (2016)?:

    1. from p. 8 (Glossary): HAMARTIA (bibl Gk):

    • to be without a share in . . .
    • to miss the mark (hamartanein)
    • to miss or wander from the path of righteousness and honour, as well as the law of God, in thought, word or deed
    • to err
    • to sin

    It is the aggregate of all such factors committed either by a single person or collectively by others. Its other translations—‘ignorance’, ‘miscalculation’, ‘error of judgment’—are equally, if not more, apposite and, I believe, realistic when applied to any era. Hamartia is mentioned 150 times in the Jesus Testament including 81 times in a variety of ways in the undisputed letters of Paul (60 times in Romans), and 27 times in 1 John.
    Today, then, whether we are knowledgeable about Jesus or have never heard of him, we can say in similar vein that because this same Caring Spirit is woven like The Way [the Kngdom of God] into the very fabric of our being, separation is impossible and any distancing carries with it the hope of reconciliation as the prodigal young man finally understood.

    (from pp. 9-10): So, what is this ‘distancing’? While it never completely separates us from Divine Love, distancing is always a consequence of what the biblical Greek calls hamartia. Hamartia describes our ignorance, what the Gospel of Thomas calls our ‘poverty’ (of spirit) and the Orthodox Church tradition calls our ‘intellectual blindness’. Ignorance is the basis of our thoughtlessness, pride, fear, anxiety, lack of trust, insecurity and violence. By succumbing to such things we ‘miss the mark’ of Love—another meaning of hamartia—only to suffer spiritual damage and confusion. The wrong that results, big or small, eventually perishes as the “Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad” assures us—‘ignorance leads to the perishable’— but not before causing damage to ourselves and perhaps to others. Jesus knew that his humiliation, torture and pending death, for example, resulted from the ignorance, the intellectual blindness, of all those responsible for the cross: they knew not what they were really doing (Lk. 23:34).

    Note how the Gospel passage does not mention ‘sin’ or that God should punish Jesus’ executioners. I believe ‘sin’, as it is generally understood today, is an unsatisfactory if outdated concept which itself ‘misses the mark’ by failing to take into account modern social scientific findings, a good example being our current understandings of the human psyche. Further, it comes with heavy spiritual, historical and cultural baggage much of which is now either inappropriate or untrue. I have met many people over the years, for instance, for whom ‘sin’ recalls painful images of the toxic god, reminds them of their Church’s manipulative practices and suggestions (e.g. ‘your sin has hurt Jesus’) or prompts memories of a theology that still sees each person as a moral object to be judged and condemned, for example with powerful alliterations—‘the stain of sin on your immortal soul’. None of this is found in the Sermons and Beatitudes.

    Hope this helps,

    Gerard Guiton (Australia YM)

  • The two definitions of hamartia you’ve listed (missing the mark and evil deeds) refer to (1) the condition of sin, and (2) its outward expression. The different use of the same word “sin” also occurs in Christian/Quaker doctrine: there’s the state of “sin,” the natural condition of unredeemed humanity, which underlies both vicious and virtuous behavior; and there’s “sin” the vicious or self-indulgent action. To be in sin is to be alienated from God, whether or not one behaves in a vicious manner.

    Liberal Quakerism has abandoned this understanding, as George rightly says: “[It] seems increasing[ly] devoted to promoting self-esteem over honest self-knowledge.” This isn’t done because they love misery but to avoid the short-term misery of seeing oneself in the light, seeing oneself as one is without God.

    There is a lack of faith in life that is exhibited in this refusal to see, a mistaken assumption that we humans are not fit for nor capable of anything better than we can scrape together singly or in tribes. It’s a lack of faith in the possibility of a right and true basis for life that the heart yearns for, and thereby evidences its aim.The light in the darkness makes itself felt in that faith, but the feeling is deadened by a refusal to endure the pain of seeing the truth of our condition. Many settle for a faulty solution, such as singing psalms and taking tobacco! “But he who endures to the end, the same shall be saved.”

  • Greg Robie says:

    Sounds like a both/and to me, Stephen. The female gendered brain would tend to see a mark missed (a hormonal shift informed psyche’s experience), and, for the testosterone informed male gendered brain, a word/concept that denotes the risk of a major f-up! Who is ‘right’: a definition of power-over.

    Power-with: a [present] oxymoron! … in my experience. 😉

    sNAILmALEnotHAIL …but pace’n myself

    life is for learning so all my failures must mean that I’m wicked smart


  • Ellis Hein says:

    While the words may be Greek, at least in the book of John, the concepts are Hebrew. So when the writer stated, “And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness could not overpower it” I find it much more illuminating to look at that phrase in a Hebrew understanding. (Not that I have any expertise in these matters.) The Greek word rendered “darkness” means obscurity, literally dark. The Hebrew word used in the passages of Isaiah describing the coming Messiah we render “darkness” means misery, destruction, death, ignorance, sorrow, and wickedness. Thus when Isaiah wrote: “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined” (Isaiah 9:2) he is writing about those who have walked in misery, destruction, death, ignorance, sorrow, and wickedness. The “great light” is that light that will bring them out of misery, destruction, death, ignorance, sorrow, and wickedness.

    If I take this understanding to other passages such as John’s “This is the judgment, that the light is come into the world and men loved the darkness, because their deeds were evil” I feel like I begin to have a grasp of the seriousness of “sin”. It is one thing to shoot an arrow at a target and a cross breeze come through to deflect my arrow to the right or left. It is something entirely other to love misery, destruction, death, ignorance, sorrow, and wickedness. Jesus told the Pharisees, “I am the light of the world. He that follows me shall not walk in darkness but have the light of life.” (John 8:12) And in his first epistle, John stated that the one who walks in the light has no occasion of stumbling. There are no cross breezes, not even Wyoming winds, that can blow away the light of Christ to cause those who love the light to walk in darkness.

    I am fairly certain, Steve, that these are not new ideas to you. If you were to write more on these subjects, I would be interested to read it.

  • I remember reading that argument in a book by Alan Watts over 40 years ago. I think that it, like others of his, well, misses the mark: it pretends that a word’s full complement of meanings can be reduced to its (reconstructed) etymological source. But by the time the biblical writers used it, hamartia’s senses had long included — as Bremer notes — a fatal character flaw, as in Greek tragedy, as well as moral evil.

    Liberal Quakerism seems increasing devoted to promoting self-esteem over honest self-knowledge. As John notes, while the consciousness of sin can bring self-loathing (which can be a needed catalyst), repression can lead to self-righteous projection — as well as acceptance of unrealistic assertions of the innate goodness of all human beings (as if the light doesn’t shine in the darkness) and resultant unintentionally harmful stances. (I’m reminded of Henry Cadbury’s advice to the Jews of Germany that being nicer to Nazis would solve the problem.) Although our thinking is very different in some ways, nonetheless I often wonder as John does: what am I doing here? The group mindset and vocal ministry that would lead us to be, as he put it, “out of touch with the reality of our own condition” is painful to sit with on Sundays. But the tradition is too rich to abandon.

  • How grateful I am to see these words, Steve! The idea of Friends winking at the concept of sin as if it were “merely” missing the mark makes me wonder what I’m doing in today’s Religious Society of Friends (and in ancient warfare, missing the mark often meant that your mark killed you, so it was nothing to wink at even when the Bible was being written). Sin is what makes us loathe ourselves. And because most of us can’t bear the burden of self-loathing, we scapegoat others. As we do so, we dumb ourselves down in other ways, most notably in being out of touch with the God who loves us, out of touch with the feelings of others, who become mere things to us, and out of touch with the reality of our own condition, which is ignorance, suffering, constant danger, and mortality. We can see the results all around us.
    Just the other day, as I sat down in an unprogrammed meeting for worship, I was struck by the unfathomable goodness, faithfulness, and love of Jesus, as I realized that, as He endured His slow death on the cross, He must have made every effort to remain at prayer for the salvation of the world, which meant God’s forgiveness and joyous acceptance of every sinner, past, present, and future, that would fully repent of his or her sins. How would I know that? First, because it’s consistent with His recorded teachings. Second, because if anyone had an accomplished yogin’s powers of one-pointed concentration, it was Jesus of Nazareth, and He, of all people, would have known that muttering obscenities over His agonizing pain, or trembling in terror of death, or feeling embarrassment over His nakedness, would be a scattering of precious attention that He could ill afford during the last hours available in which He could pray for the world’s salvation. Third, because He loved us with His whole heart. What wondrous love is this, O my soul?

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