So you're fly fishing on some beautiful tail water (a river that flows beneath a dam), let's say below Navajo Dam on the San Juan River in New Mexico. You work your way through the waist-high mild current to a small island of sand in the middle of the river. You cast your line to some prize brown trout you see just a few yards away, and quickly get absorbed in fishing.
At about the same time you entered the river, engineers a few miles upstream released more water through the dam. Within minutes, the current becomes swifter and deeper. The island on which you stand soon becomes shallow water, but it is still a very useable lie from which to cast. So all seems well. But the waist-high water you waded through a while ago is now as deep as your body is tall. And it will only be getting deeper, and the current swifter, in the next few minutes. You are well aware of how many fishermen are swept away to their deaths in just such circumstances. But so intent are you on catching one of those prize browns, you ignore conditions.
To sin is to refuse to accept conditions. It's because we don't recognize conditions that we get ourselves into waters way over our head. Like some of the knotty theological problems we are trying to reel in.
Most of those problems touch on the justice of God, and one of the most troubling questions is: How can God punish people eternally for sins committed in a finite life? I make no claim to be able to "solve" this problem, any more than the early church theologians could "explain" how exactly Jesus could be human and divine. But it doesn't hurt to try to put this in a biblical, and, I would say, a realistic perspective. It begins by accepting conditions.
To be a human being created in God's image means to accept conditions, and one condition in particular: that we are creatures and not the Creator. The refusal to accept our condition and the striving to "be like God" (Gen. 3:5) is both the original and routine sin.
Take the usual sin: simple disobedience to God's gracious commands. God gives commands that we might enjoy the life he has given us. For example, we are told not to covet. But rather than submit to our creaturely status, we long to become command makers. We revise the commandment, as if we were gods, and actually create whole societies that encourage covetousness. I'm not convinced that capitalism requires covetousness, but it certainly knows how to exploit it. Note the recent Apple iPhone ads whose main rhetorical device is an appeal to covetousness. After showing you a bunch of cool iPhone apps, it concludes, "If you don't have an iPhone, well you don't have an iPhone."
Covetousness is in itself a refusal to accept one's material conditions. But more to the point here: any reshaping of God's gracious commands is nothing but a refusal to accept the conditions of being a creature.
There are more subtle ways we refuse to accept conditions. To be a creature in a finite existence means that some decisions and actions have irreversible consequences.
With two out, the bases loaded, the game on the line, here comes the pitch. Hit it well, and your team is world champion. Miss it, and . …
You stand at the altar and exchange vows with your love, words spoken that alter forever the course of your life.
You sit in the corporate HR office, debating whether to accept the offer. Signing it means giving up all other career options, maybe for the rest of your life.
You slip on the stairs and hit your head in a fall. You go into a coma for years.