The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Sinners vs. Human Beings

Last night I was pondering what bothered me about how some Christians talk about God “sending sinners to hell.” We reflect a lot on this forum about the hell part of this equation, but last night I was thinking about what bothers me about the sinner part.

One of the things that bothers me when people talk about “sinners” going to hell is that it reduces a wonderfully rich and particular human biography to morality. In the end nothing else matters about you–nothing–except that you are a sinner. That’s the only thing of value or of interest about you, your moral performance.

It doesn’t matter that you are a really good cook.

It doesn’t matter that you were laid off this week.

It doesn’t matter that you love to knit.

It doesn’t matter that you visited the grave of your child this morning.

It doesn’t matter that you were a great high school athlete.

It doesn’t matter that you write poetry.

It doesn’t matter that you are lonely.

It doesn’t matter that you try to conserve water.

It doesn’t matter that you are a bit of a Tolkien nerd.

It doesn’t matter that you are funny and extroverted.

It doesn’t matter that you are shy and sensitive.

It doesn’t matter that your Dad used to beat you.

It doesn’t matter that you are a widow.

It doesn’t matter that you had breakfast with a friend this morning.

It doesn’t matter that you got employee of the month.

It doesn’t matter that you love to golf.

It doesn’t matter that you hate your job.

It doesn’t matter that your marriage is struggling.

It doesn’t matter that you have been ten years sober.

It doesn’t matter you just got back from your vacation in England.

It doesn’t matter that you’ve worked hard to lose some weight.

It doesn’t matter that you struggle with depression.

It doesn’t matter that you are a woman.

It doesn’t matter that you are an immigrant.

It doesn’t matter that you are a sports nut.

It doesn’t matter that you love Jane Austin.

In the end–because we are all sinners–none of this matters. All the richness of our lives, all the things that make us human, is subtracted out. In conservative Christian theology all that matters is that you are a sinner. That’s the only thing that God ultimately cares about, values and counts.

In those theological systems who you are–as a particular and unique creation of God–really doesn’t matter. Sinners go to hell. Not Richard, Susan, Jack or Sally. Just sinners.

Interesting question. We must be more than sin. But labeling and generalizing are tools we use to dismiss people and to avoid dealing with uncomfortable things.

In her play, The Just Vengeance, Dorothy L. Sayers addresses the collective and the singular.

Each man is a universe, much more than a single quality that unites him with the group.

I’ve been wondering about the word “sin” lately. Somewhere along my journey, I started equating sin with evil–perhaps because I needed to justify sin being punished with eternal fire. Is sin the same as evil? Are humans evil? Or are they evildoers? What is “evil”, anyway?

A news anchor, yesterday, called Adam Lanza a “monster”. As much as I grieve the deaths of those children and teachers in Newton (and my recent circumstances allow me to deeply relate to those families), I also grieve the loss of the young man who did the shooting. We he a monster? How can a 20-year-old be a monster? What brought him to do what he did? He bears the image of God. Surely, he too is much more than what happened yesterday.

What if he was mentally ill? What if he thought he was sparing those children? We hear every week, if not every day, of someone who has murdered children, spouse, and/or parents before committing suicide. As twisted as it is, it seems like they are saying, “Life is too awful. I’m taking us all out of here.”

What is sin but our brokenness, our inability to be what we were created to be? If we are not more than that brokenness, why would God even bother to restore us?


Dr. Beck: Your commentary is one of the better arguements in favor of CEU I have read.

Kelikae: I agree with your ending comment about what sin is–and I believe somehow, somewhen, God will restore that young man to what He intened him to be. But please don’t be too quick to think mental illness. I have a mental illness and most of those of us who do would die ourselves before doing something like this. People stereotype us when terrible things like this happen before they even have any evidence MI was a factor. The news media is always in a hurry to speculate before the real facts are in. It might be MI, it might be psychopathy, it might be just evil. It is impossible for us to understand why this kind of thing is allowed, in any case.

I also believe Jesus is even now comforting every one of those victims.

Hey Richard, (Edit: oops, sorry, Lizabeth–I addressed the wrong person)

I did not mean to disparage people with mental illnesses. I apologize for coming across that way. There is plenty of mental illness in my own family.

Of course most mentally ill people would never choose the path that Adam Lenza chose. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that is wasn’t mental illness that set him on that path.


Great thoughts Richard, very true and very relevant. Thank you for sharing :slight_smile:

And Kelli, thank you for sharing from you heart. :slight_smile:

And Lizabeth, you’re right that not all people who struggle with mental illness, or even most, choose the kind of path that Adam Lanza did. There are, thankfully, only a rare few.
And I think all of us have mental or emotional problems of one kind or another, to one extent or another…
And all of us have darkness and light in us, I think… it’s just sometimes there are those who let that darkness take over completely, which is when tragedies happen, like what happened in Connecticut…
But though what people like Adam Lanza do is horrible to the extreme, I do believe that God will have mercy on them, and will drive out the darkness in them, and heal their brokenness, and that even the victimizers will be reconciled to their victims in the long run.
For true justice is not found in punishment alone, but in forgiveness and peace, in restoration and reconciliation…

Blessings to you guys :slight_smile:


PS Richard, I shared your thoughts in some Universalist groups on Facebook, with due credit, hopefully you don’t mind :wink:

Hi Lizabeth and Kelli :slight_smile:

I know both of you have been touched personally and deeply by mental health related issues in different ways– and whenever I go on site I always think of you. I’ve had some mental health problems in my life – and also worked in education with people with mental health issues. So I thought I’d put in my two pence worth here – hope i don’t bungle it or give any annoyance,

Certainly there are some specific mental health problems that can cause people to become violent if they don’t take their medication. I understand that people with paranoid schizophrenia – as a subset of schizophrenia – are prone to violence if untreated. But people with other mental health problems – for example, other types of schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder, bi-polar disorder etc - are no more likely to harm another person than anyone else – although they are more likely to harm themselves.

Regarding personality disorders – such as sociopathy – these are a different kettle of fish. People with mental health problems invariably do not have personality disorders – their ability to care, to empathise, to be ‘emotionally literate’ is not impaired by their mental health problem. Unfortunately many people who are fully functional and in positions of power and authority do have personality disorders (a Swedish survey a few years back suggested that around 10% of people in management in the UK scored worryingly high on the sociopathic indicators)

Tragic domestic cases, where a mother or father kills their children and then, as often as not, kill themselves, have been with the human race since time immemorial; there is a famous Greek Tragedy - ‘Medea’ – that explores precisely this phenomenon. I’m not sure these poor people necessarily have long term mental health problems – but certainly their sense of self – of being competent and in some measure in control of their lives seems to tragically disintegrate. The case studies I’ve read concern, for example, fathers who have lost their jobs and feel that they have shamed their children and will no longer be able to provide a future for their children; mothers who have lost confidence in being able to provide nurturing love for their children because of isolation etc.

Lizabeth – I think you are doing us all a favour by keeping the issue of mental health in our attention. Richards’ point about people being reduced to the category of sinners despite their creativity, their loving kindness, and their other virtues - and their individuality - by Conservative Christians also holds true of conservative Christian attitudes towards mental health – mental health problems are either as a result of sin or sometimes of demonic possession. The emphasis can be no blame rather than on healing and wholeness

A couple of years ago I read a book about Spiritual Healing in the writings of the Early Church Fathers which argued that they had a very sophisticated understanding of human beings and what afflicts them – they drew a distinction between those afflictions that have a physical cause – requiring medicine; those that have an emotional cause, that might require some sort of catharsis; and those that have a spiritual cause requiring a training in virtue. This seems like a hopeful and wise model for understanding those things that trouble us. The emphasis must always be on healing rather than scapegoating and condemnation. I remember reading a moving story of a Christian who suffered severe depression being much comforted by contemplating the Eastern liturgy of the Harrowing of Hell with Christ saying to imprisoned Adam – ‘Come out my image, come forth my likeness’.

It would be interesting to find out if anyone has written a liberation theology for people with mental health problems. I know it’s been done by and for people with physical disabilities who, for example, have argued that the real haling that Jesus gave to the deaf and the dumb was in touching those ‘unclean’ parts of their bodies and thereby including the again in the community. Yes I’m sure work has been done looking again at the stories of Jesus healing people of mental afflictions too (I can think of some analysis by Girard that would be useful here). Part of the fear generated by mental health problems is that we are all on some kind of spectrum with mental health issues (I know it’s a cliché – but it’s still true.

And I’m sure Paul’s acceptance of his ‘thorn in the flesh’ (whatever this was) would have to play a part in any such Liberation theology. Mental health problems are a tow edged sword – they can though acceptance become a route to wholeness even if they are never fully healed in this life (again it is a cliché – but the wound can become the source of wholeness). I think of the many people who have used their mental suffering as a source of creativity and of comfort for others. I have heard that more than 70% of the greatest poets in the English language were almost certainly people with bi-polar (and thus able to communicate the exaltations and the dark nights of life with especial clarity and intensity).
Regarding the massacre in the school – yes I’ve seen interviews on the TV with people from the NRA already saying that this s a mental heath issue and not a gun control issue. From my perspective – as an outsider– it seems to be very much a gun control issue and a structural sin issue too.




Thanks for your thoughts. I want to say again that I am sorry if I hurt anyone with my comments about mental health. I am willing to delete the post or those comments if it would help.

I don’t have a medical understanding of the difference between mental health issues and personality disorders, though I have heard that they are not grouped together. I see the brain as one more organ of the body. There was a time when physical deformity was seen as a spiritual thing, but we have come to accept it as a flaw in the genetics or in the growth process. A child with a heart defect or missing fingers is very reasonably given much care and love. But because the brain is so inexplicably (at least for me) wrapped up with our will and conscience, a child or adult with a “deformity” of the brain is not given the same kind of sympathetic response and often faces much rejection because we don’t know how to respond to the resulting behaviors.

There are so many ways to damage the brain. We are exposed to all sort of chemicals, we don’t drink enough water, we eat unhealthy foods, we spend increasing amounts of time in front of screens that flicker at high speeds. Our children think it is fun to inhale marker fumes or helium from balloons, not caring what it might do to their brain cells. We’ve seen that some of the children coming out of orphanages in the former Soviet Union have deeply damaged psyches. Less extreme abuse is also damaging. And then there are just the basic affects of being fallen and living in a fallen world with other fallen creatures.

I don’t know how human will or evil enter the picture or what control we have over them. What makes a sociopath a sociopath or a psychopath a psychopath? How does someone “develop” borderline personality? I know so many people who are on anti-depressants. Many of the families I know have at least one child with a diagnosed or suspected mental “issue” of some sort. Twice in this past week I was with friends who were very very close to either the victim or the perpetrator of a murder-suicide. My friends mentioned these things before the event in Connecticut. It seems to me like we hear of a new incident every week. Someone in China just killed 20 children with a knife. Last week was Oregon. The week before, Casper, Wyoming (bow & arrow and knife).

So many questions. I’m not expecting anyone here to have the answers, but if you do, or if you at least have thoughts on all this, I’d love to hear from you. Gosh, how far off have we gotten from Richard’s original post?

Something is drastically wrong, and I’m having a hard time anymore holding it against individual humans. This is the kind of stuff that is forcing me to look into universalism; I just can’t see how God can hold any of this against us. My brain just won’t go there anymore. Maybe the things that have happened in my life this year have finally just cracked my psyche.

Dear Kelli – there is no way that I think anything you’ve written is offensive. Your intention – by using the word ‘mental health problem’ – was simply to suggest that that a person was not completely in control of their actions and therefore not to be damned by our moral judgement.

I’m not an expert in these matters – but I guess this conversation is highlighting that we can make useful distinctions between mental health problems and personality disorders (and between both of these and learning difficulties too). From what I know the distinction between mental health problems and personality disorders is that the former has a clear bio-chemical basis and the sates of distress are temporary/periodic, where as the latter are deeply ingrained, longstanding and habitual personality traits that either isolate a person or make the n some way anti-social and destructive towards others (people with personality disorders often suffer from mental health problems too – but only a minority of people with mental health problems also suffer from personality disorders).But you are right, just because personality disorders do not have a clearly definable bio-chemical basis at the moment doesn’t mean that they do not also have a bio-chemical basis – and I’m sure genetics must be making discoveries in his field.

I’ve read a number of Richard’s posts and I’m sure he will have plenty of good and clear things to say about your questions (for example I’ve seen him discussing moral luck, compatibilsim etc with great clarity).
As far as I’m concerned the issues you raise suggest that –

  • Our theoretical religious thinking on these issues – theodicy and soteriology – should be centred on healing rather than condemnation
  • Social and criminal policy should give more weight to harm prevention rather than punishment

However this is a very complex debate – there are no easy answers in my view (unless we take the premillienialist line that the world is going to the dogs anyway and there is little we can do to promote human flourishing in such circumstances – which I see as a counsel of despair and a dereliction of our Christian duty of care).

I think it is refreshing to see issues of determinism and freedom talked about in terms of the problems of suffering we face in the here and now - rather than in the more abstract categories of escahtology and soteriolgy that mroe often frame the deabte on this site :slight_smile:

Over and out - and blessings


Yes, I wholeheartedly agree with these thoughts:


Hi Kelli –

Just a quickie -

A lot of the problem that Richard outlines above has to do with our particular concept of ‘sin’ in my view. Yes we are all sinners – but to some this means we are al criminals under a just death sentence; to others this means that we are all broken and in need of healing, we are all captives in need of liberation (I place myself in the second camp). It also has to do with our view of fallen human nature – to some this means that we are totally depraved, to others this means that we are weakened but we are still made in the image of God (again I’d place myself in the second camp). I guess I have become a Christian humanist in my orientation – like many Christians through the ages from diverse traditions.

I think that as well as theology we also need anthropology to fully comprehend the mystery of our faith. Any tradition that simply harps on about human depravity is missing something about the incarnation. Christ came that we might have abundant life. God becoming man in a certain sense raised the dignity of our human nature and personhood.

I’ve never seen a thread here about virtue ethics – but it is a subject that fascinates me. What traits of character do we need to develop to become fully human? What balance do we need between different traits of character to act well in different situations? I’m sure that virtue ethics can be fruitfully related to any discussion of human flourishing – for those mental states that are harmful because of their extreme nature can be neutralised by being compensated for by the development of necessary virtues (for example, a person with mental health problems needs to develop virtues of prudence and self watchfulness in order to live well).

In my personal faith journey away from total depravity thinking I was much helped by the Quaker emphasis on ‘that of God in every person’ (The Quaker take on the Prologue to John’s Gospel) and the virtue of ‘hang a sense of the conditions of different people and being able to speak to their conditions’ (the Quaker take on the Pauline notion of being all things to all men). Also the Christina humanists motto – I am a human being therefore nothing human is alien to me’ has also been an inspiration.

I wonder if the seeming increase in mental health problems does not have a lot to do with the way that human society is often organised for other reasons than the promotion of human flourishing – especially regarding work and expectations of success. I also wonder if there is a connection between how society is organised and our concept of sin and human dignity.

Blessings my new friend


Thanks Kelikae: I tend to be a bit hyperaware on this issue just because those of us with MI are stereotyped so easily and its generally the first possible cause mentioned in a tragedy like this. Today’s info on my MSNBC news page says they still have no real knowledge of what was going on with this guy.

Its my understanding that the personality disorders, referred to as Boarderline Personality Disorder, result from reactions to life that frequently but not always involve abuse. People afflicted with these problems often have extreme difficulty interacting with other people because their own personalities are not “solid”. Their reactions are not consistant and they generally take offense easily. They also tend to attract people who take advantage of them when they become desperate for human contact. There are now some treatments available but generally speaking treatment involves talk therapy, not medication.

Psychopaths are people like Ted Bundy, altho not all psychopaths are that extreme. Some MRI research suggests that these people are without activity in the parts of the brain that constitute conscience and empathy. There is no treatment.

And boy, are we off topic.

Richard: I think God does have regard for each individual he creates—thats why he sent Jesus. I also think that is why Jesus said we must become as little children to enter Heaven, we will be who we are but openly and ever so much more

I also think there are at least two ways to become a CU, one way is to be convinced of the truth in an almost “scientific” methodology of reading the Bible and other texts of the universal Christian church. The other is to feel a conviction from the Holy Spirit of just how much God loves His creation. Naturally, some of us do both and there are probably more ways.