Sin and sinner are words that belong to the vocabulary of religion and are primarily oriented toward God. In the final analysis even when one "sins against" someone else (Matthew 18:21; Luke 17:4), it has the effect of an offense against God (Luke 15:18, 21). In a secular society with the exception of life within religious communities the concept of "sin" is an oxymoron. Secular societies in a representative democracy function on the basis of laws, and actions are judged legal and illegal. Something illegal is "against the law" or "against the body politic"; that is, it is against the people who comprise the community with whose approval the laws are made. Something legal is "permissible," not necessarily "right."
Doing right and wrong are moral and ethical concepts; they are not legal or illegal concepts. For example, I would judge it wrong to obey immoral laws, or put another way: breaking immoral laws is ethically the right thing to do. Of course, whoever breaks even an immoral law will nevertheless suffer the consequences—even if their actions are seen as a moral act (i.e., the right thing to do). "If you do the crime, you must do the time."
An example of immoral laws, now recognized by all civilized nations, are laws regulating the purchase, sale, and ownership of slaves—that is the buying and selling of human beings as chattel (property). It may be a shocking thought today but, 200 years ago such laws were not only legal, but regarded as natural and "right."
This way of stating the situation raises the question: on what basis does one judge the morality of one's actions? Or put another way: how does one know what is right (moral) and what is wrong (immoral)? In my view an action is only right if it benefits one's fellow human being in some way, and it is wrong if it does harm to a fellow human being. Or put another way, actions done for the greater "good" of others are right and any action that brings harm to another is wrong. Hence the standard of right and wrong is how one treats a fellow human being.
What is the theory that might lead one to this principle of behavior? Oddly I have come to a humanist ethic through traditional Christianity and the Bible. It began with this concept:
If anyone says "I love God," yet hates his brother; he is a liar. For he who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. (1 John 4:20)
Of course, as it is stated, this statement reflects a narrow community ethic (i.e., love for one's fellow congregant), but the principle is broader: love for a fellow human being is made the standard for judging one's love of God. Paul's idea that "the whole law is fulfilled in one saying: you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:14) may actually go beyond the narrow limits of the saying in Hebrew Bible (Leviticus 19:18), where it refers to fellow Israelite. In Paul's thought it may achieve the ethically broader concept of love of humanity (cf. Galatians 5:13). That is to say, love for humanity meets the requirements of the Israelite law.
Clearly a saying attributed to Jesus in Q, "love your enemy" (Matthew 5:43-45; Luke 6:27-35), does exceed the narrow limits of a community ethic; the saying includes one's fellow human being—even up to and including a hated enemy whose goal it is to destroy the one aiming to love even the enemy. The saying attributed to Jesus in Matthew 25:34-45 is clearly not a community ethic, and evokes a broad humanitarian concern: one serves God by extending compassion and aid to "the least of these" in human society (Matthew 25:40, 45). In other words regular service in a soup kitchen is higher up on the scale of service to humanity than teaching Sunday school.
In many ways this ethical standard is an impossible ethic to keep when viewed on a broad scale in terms of whole companies, communities, and nations; for in acting in the best interests of some, one will inevitably injure others. For example, a major employer in a small town is faced with radically reducing the company's number of employees and drastically cutting the wages and the benefits of the remaining workers in order to keep the company from failing altogether. In this example what faces the employer is a mixed decision that will "injure" all employees, some it will ruin economically, while the economic viability of others will be compromised. In other words in a complex world often all one can do is aim for the greater good of the largest number of people, while keeping the injuries incurred by the rest as small as possible—a decision that is neither black nor white but rather a dirty shade of gray.
To judge by the blind impact of natural disasters not even God can do any better.
Missouri State University
I hear someone saying: "a trick question! Obviously, the injured party decides what offends him or her." But the problem is more complicated. The Jewish/Christian God hasn't really spoken for himself (audibly) since Old Testament/New Testament times—at least certain ancient texts claim that God once spoke for himself. In the Bible, however, others speak for God by putting words in God's mouth (so to speak). In modern times we humans are more skeptical that God speaks (or ever spoke) audibly. People hearing voices (divine or otherwise) are thought mentally unstable, and locked away.
The absence of God's audible voice is likely one (subconscious) reason that Fundamentalist and Evangelical Christians tout the Bible as "the Word of God." Without the words coming directly from God in some fashion, the message is suspect, and we humans would have no idea of what offends God.
However impermeable we may think the Bible is as a stable platform for specifying God's likes and dislikes, the fact is the Bible is permeable and porous, comprised of several layers, and includes voices other than the Divine.
The English translator of the ancient Greek or Hebrew text you read as being "from God" is another voice. Each ancient word has a range of possible translations in each literary context, and the translator chooses what seems in the translator's mind to be the best fit for a particular context. Hence what you read in English is the product of the translator's mind, experience, and personal theological views.
For example, the New International Version of the Bible, a favorite of Evangelical Christians, for Matthew 19:12 reads in part: "for some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven." The Revised Standard Version of this same verse reads: "for there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" (a eunuch is a castrated male). The translators render the text quite differently. What do you suppose it actually says?
Textual critics who prepare critical editions of the ancient texts you read also contribute to the permeability of the text. To establish the critical edition they compare all copies of manuscripts; no two of which are exactly alike. They evaluate all of the variations in the manuscripts, debate them, and then vote to decide what the text originally read. Decisions are made on the basis of the scholars' reading of the evidence, experience, expertise, personal theological views, and debating skills.
The composers of the ancient texts themselves contribute the greatest impermeability to the "inspired" text. The texts of the Bible, according to Fundamentalist and Evangelical beliefs, are "inspired" by God. The expression "inspired" is explained as meaning "God-breathed," suggesting that even though God no longer speaks audibly, the words of the Bible are imbued with the authority of God—meaning they tell us what God expects of us human beings. Of course, "inspiration," if any, competes in the mind of the original writer along with his/her experience, background, prejudices, inherited theological beliefs, etc. For example, the writer of Leviticus did not create that text in a moment of time, but its author composed it out of the earlier experiences of ancient Israel as a people. The original composition has drawn on Israelite traditions that evolved out of the life of the community.
So who decides what is offensive to God? Likely the modern religious community decides which ancient offenses should be avoided and which can be ignored. Here is a case, on point. The ancient writer in Leviticus represents God as audibly saying that it is forbidden for a male "to lie with a male as with a woman," for "it is an abomination" (Leviticus 18:22). And God likewise finds it an abomination to eat anything that comes out of the water if it does not have fins and scales (Leviticus 11:9-12); that is to say: eating shrimp or catfish is as offensive to God as homosexuality. Modern religious leaders have a lot to say about the sinfulness of homosexuality, but, so far as I am aware, they say nothing about the sinfulness of eating shrimp or catfish. Is God still offended by the eating of shrimp and catfish do you suppose?
Religious leaders are fond of reminding us that the biblical view of marriage is one man married to one woman, but God wasn't always offended by a man having multiple wives, and includes laws regulating the treatment of multiple wives in the Law Code (Deuteronomy 21:15-17). King Joash of Judah, who had two wives, was commended by the biblical writer for "doing what was right in the eyes of the Lord" (2 Chronicles 24:1-3). And other heroes in biblical history having more than one wife (viz., Jacob, Elkanah, and David) were never condemned as sinners for that reason.
While no reliable list of sins, stable and current, exists, someone is always willing to tell you what sin is. It appears, therefore, that sin is whatever we allow ourselves to be convinced is sinful.
Missouri State University