Between Heaven and Earth

Can Genetics or the Environment Cause Us to Commit Sin?

Michael: Last week we discussed how our genetics have major influences on our personality and attitudes. Having this knowledge may change how we perceive and experience pain and suffering. We also discussed how genetics and the environment, known as nature and nurture, also influence how we worship, participate in religion, and our outlook on the world, such as optimistic/pessimistic, good vs bad, etc. 

These ideas raised the question in my mind of the influence of our genetics and environment on the sins we commit. So, can our genetics or environment cause us to commit sins?

To answer this question, I’m not interested in light, or venial sins, white lies, the shoplifting, the envy, or pride. I’m interested in the grievous sins, the ones we consider most morally repulsive, such as murder or child abuse. For this discussion, I will omit discussing homosexuality. Not because there’s no known genetic component, but because while society accepts it, religion hasn’t done so yet and therefore it doesn’t serve the purpose for this discussion. The sins we will be discussing today are socially, morally, and religiously repugnant. 

Let’s start with pedophilia first. The most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) defines the disorder as one where “adults or adolescents 16 years of age or older have intense and recurrent sexual urges towards and fantasies about prepubescent children that they have either acted on or which cause them distress or interpersonal difficulty”. In recent years, the huge number of abused children within the catholic church and the active cover up of these incidents by church officials have shock the western world.  Other churches, however, are not immune to this, for example Jehovah’s witnesses. 

There hasn’t been much research on pedophilia, although some researchers have begun to “explore and implicate potential contributing genetic influences to the development of pedophilia.” For example, a study in John’s Hopkins looked at the families of 33 patients with pedophilia and 21 who don’t have the disorder. The study found that 10.3% of pedophilic patients had male first-degree relatives with pedophilia, while non-pedophilia had 0%. Gaffney et al. conclude that the data suggest that pedophilia is familial, and the presence of pedophilia in one member of a family increases the chance of pedophilia in other members of a family. To study the influence of genetic factors vs environmental factors, scientists usually look at monozygotic twins. In a Korean case study of a monozygotic twins, Findings showed both twins had extensive histories of sexual deviance and pedophilia. The twins had some differing experiences with environmental factors, including sexual abuse. Shim et al. suggest genetic influences and related genetic vulnerabilities appear to be more important to the causes and development of pedophilia than environmental factors, including childhood abuse. Ref:

The second sin I would like to explore is murder. Although there are some gene variants that may predispose individuals to increased aggressiveness, I would like to focus on environmental factors for this sin. The following is a quote from a book—Awe, by Dacher Keltner: 

“San Quentin is a level two prison located on the San Francisco Bay. It houses 4500 prisoners- called the men in blue- including those sentenced to execution in California. I would like to read to you two stories of how some of the inmates ended up in this prison: 

I grew up in a whorehouse. My dad was gone before I was born. My mom was hooked on crack cocaine. She was pimped out by my stepdad. My living room was always full of people partying. I started doing knuckleheaded things when I was ten -drugs, break-ins, carjackings. My stepdad gave me a gun when I was twelve. He tried to pimp out my sister. We got into a fight in our living room. I killed him.

And.. the second story is:

One day, two guys from a gang came to my cousin’s house, looking for him. He wasn’t there, so they shot his mom. She was sitting in her La-Z-Boy watching TV in front of her two-year-old son. My friend gave me a gun and said I had to get revenge. I tracked these guys down after school and shot two of them. But I got the wrong guys.” 

My question for you today is: If we accept that these our genetics and environment can cause us to commit grievous sins, are we still accountable for these sins in the eyes of God? Would that be fair?

We humans have a powerful and innate sense of fairness. In an argument, we instantaneously appeal to this deep sense we hold, despite our diversity and plead, you are not being fair to me, this is not right. I don’t deserve this!

From ChatGPT:

This concept of fairness is deeply rooted in various fields such as psychology, anthropology, and philosophy. Here are some perspectives on how humans demonstrate this sense:

Developmental Psychology: Studies in developmental psychology suggest that even infants show early signs of a sense of fairness. For example, research indicates that infants as young as 15 months old exhibit preferences for individuals who distribute resources fairly.

Cultural Universality: While expressions of fairness may be influenced by culture, there seems to be a universal aspect to the sense of fairness. Cross-cultural studies have identified commonalities in moral judgments and fairness considerations across diverse societies.

Altruism and Cooperation: Fairness is closely linked to altruism and cooperation. Humans often engage in behaviors that benefit others, and fairness plays a role in maintaining social bonds and cooperation within groups.

Social Norms: Social norms often reflect shared values of fairness. Violations of these norms, such as cheating or unfair treatment, can lead to social sanctions, emphasizing the importance of fairness in maintaining social order.

Our justice system is fundamentally built on the principles of fairness, justice, and the rule of law. The idea is to ensure that individuals are treated equitably and that legal processes are just and unbiased.

In this class, we are not interested in the justice system per se. We are interested in the spiritual domain. But perhaps one of the problems that faces us believers is that religions tend to apply the same principles of fairness and morality to judge good and evil; What is sinful; and what will send you to hell. This is because the religious definition of sin is essentially a moral definition. Sin is described in the Bible as transgression of the law of God (1 John 3:4) and rebellion against God (Deuteronomy 9:7; Joshua 1:18). A Christian definition could be that sin is anything you say, do, or think that goes against what God wants. The way we have been conditioned to think of sin is in terms of committing an act. Similar to how I have discussed the sins of pedophilia and murder today. It could also be the failure of committing an act, such as failing to help someone in need. All of these still leave sin in the moral domain, something derived and enforced by HUMANS, not God. 

It is interesting that one of the words for sin in the New Testament is the Greek word amartia (ἁμαρτία, from ἁμαρτάνειν). It was first used to describe archers whose arrows missed the target. Dr. Weaver has implied previously that we can miss the mark about God by having the wrong idea or understanding of His Grace. This definition of sin has a lesser emphasis on committing an act, but rather emphasizes holding a certain attitude that’s different than that of God. While sin as an act is a moral definition of sin, sin defined as “missing the mark” has no moral attributes or implications. It leaves the moral sphere, and all its messiness and complications, behind.  It instead focuses on an inner picture of God as the God of Grace. This is a spiritual domain, has no dealings with human conceptions of what is sinful and what is moral. 

The question we have today is this: if the grievous sins we commit can be traced to our genetics or environment, is it fair for God to judge us for them? Is it fair for us to judge others for them? Can a different definition of sin than the one we are accustomed to help us resolve these questions? 

C-J: I’ve often thought that what we label as sin represents a break in a relationship, and this fracture doesn’t occur instantaneously. That’s why the idea of God walking in the garden with Adam and Eve is so crucial. When we discipline a child, or guide them to understand why the answer was “no,” they often don’t perceive it as fair. Your question seems to address the idea that actions have far-reaching consequences, not just immediate ones. For example, if you choose to take someone’s life or become a habitual liar, you begin to question the very nature of truth itself. It becomes a moving target.

The title “The Anatomy of the Fall” really captivated me. If I remove parts of my body, my function becomes compromised. Similarly, if sin represents a breakaway from God, then we can’t function as intended, which is to be in constant communion with God. This leads to questions like: Did God fail? Or was this separation necessary for us to recognize our essential connection to God’s grace and wisdom? Your summary echoes this point—God is about grace and growing wisdom, yet we often see it as a matter of judgment.

People might question the fairness of life circumstances: “I was born into a house of ill repute while someone else was born with a silver spoon in their mouth.” But I believe the “anatomy of the fall” involves the assumption that the construct we call reality is, in fact, real. In truth, it’s more about a state of consciousness or awareness than it is about genetics. The key is how attuned we are to what God intended for humanity’s creation, which acts as a reflection, much like an image in a mirror.

Donald: I’ve noticed that no-one has explicitly mentioned, or at least referenced, that the rules governing a community are the same as those governing society. We have the Constitution and civil laws, and then we have God’s laws. Both sets of laws are required to prevent chaos, whether or not we agree with them. Society keeps adding laws, but fundamentally, God’s laws are not numerous. What’s crucial is for society to establish a set of rules that everyone agrees to live by, in order to maintain functional cohesion.

Unfortunately, in another class I participate in, discussing politics is off-limits, and rightly so, as it can cause friction among participants. The same goes for sports and doctrine—those are the three unspoken rules. However, today we seem to be touching on what constitutes a society, what creates a community, and the danger of trying to establish societal values without a moral compass. So maybe I should leave it at that, but I do think we should tread carefully when entering the realm of politics, given its current volatility.

One last thing: the two cases described are difficult for me to comprehend, yet I know they’re real. It’s striking that when I wake up in a warm house, in a comfortable bed, leading a good life, many others don’t start their day that way. Is that fair?

C-J: The list you provided is intriguing, and I’ll focus on the word “politics,” whose root is “policy.” Policies are often born from economic considerations, because a thriving society or community depends on good services. The means by which these resources are obtained can range from a house of ill repute to a corrupt corporation. Politics is complex with many unknowns, which makes the concept of the “anatomy of the fall” so relevant to my current thinking. Often, we don’t realize that we’re sinning when a seed of thought is first planted in our subconscious—be it from a movie scene, a sentence in a book, or an overheard conversation. Like you said, you’ve never experienced those two scenarios you mentioned, but they sound terrible because they’re so foreign to your context.

This brings us to the anatomy of humanity’s fall. When Cain killed Abel, they were still essentially the same people who had left the Garden of Eden. A seed of “that’s not fair” had been planted in the subconscious, a theme we see recurring. We fail to recognize that we’re all interwoven in a complex tapestry of relationships, a web that extends from God through nature to humanity. Paul talks about guarding your heart and your thoughts. It’s about knowing your vulnerabilities and working to change them—not by your own will, but by surrendering them to God. God is in the business of transformation and restoration.

Our holy book as Christians is replete with examples of individuals who either adhered to or disregarded their metaphorical “guard rails.” Community shouldn’t ostracize; it should surround those who are spiritually immature or incapable of leadership in prayer. In God’s law, the Ten Commandments can be found at the core of every law ever created, including those being formulated today. They serve to protect and clarify who is responsible for their relationship with God. God is ever-present, but do we acknowledge and submit to that presence?

Questions arise: Do I want to surrender to people who are as flawed as I am? How do I know what they’re thinking? Can I trust them with my money? Who are they to tell me how to live my life? We all want to be our authentic selves, to dress as we please, to speak on any subject we choose. But God makes it clear: Yes, you can do all that, but there’s a higher price to pay. It’s not a fall from grace, but a fall from relationship.

Sharon: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head; the core premise of this whole discussion is about relationships. What were the parameters for protecting the relationship for that child who is harmed, or that person who is murdered? God’s model for us, and Christ’s model of grace, is unconditional love. However, we also have societal boundaries that establish norms, particularly when there are victims involved. Those victims still have a sense of relational accountability to society. Without that, we’d descend into total chaos and anarchy, reliving scenarios like Sodom and Gomorrah in our modern culture.

“Is that fair?” is the preeminent question Michael raised. Well, no, it’s not fair. But is it fair that someone dies of cancer at 42, or that a child is hit by a car while playing in the street? Again, we don’t have God’s divine knowledge, only our human perspective. As a social worker, I’ve witnessed terrible human atrocities, and none of it was fair. Most arose from either genetic predispositions or environmental abuse experienced as children.

We are living in a fallen state, in sin, but we still need social accountability in our relationships with one another. Otherwise, we don’t have a society; we have anarchy. Michael, you’ve done an amazing job with your thesis. It’s not a simple discussion; it’s very complex. Should we blame the victim? Should we extend grace to someone in jail for murder? Yes, we should extend grace. But should there be societal consequences for certain choices? Absolutely.

We know that many people with genetic predispositions or who grew up in abusive homes don’t commit heinous acts because they’re aware of the societal consequences. What, then, is our role as believers? To reach out and share God’s grace with them, certainly, but we also need to hold them accountable. Without that accountability, we don’t truly have a society.

Michael: The point I’d like to emphasize is that while this may raise questions about the justice system, that’s not my primary focus here. Murder, for instance, is a matter for the justice system, deserving of punishment. Religion often mirrors this system and adds the concept of sin on top of it. However, I’m curious: does this conflation of legal and religious judgement distort our understanding of what constitutes a sin? If that’s the case, how can we confidently declare something as sinful?

Sharon: I believe that sin, understood as a break in relationships, occurs any time we hurt one another, severing that unique tie that God has privileged us with. From this perspective, sin isn’t merely an act; it’s a failure to mirror God’s grace to each other. If we genuinely extend God’s unconditional love to one another, I think we’ll avoid harming each other—be it through major or minor sins. Because when we do hurt each other, whether socially, emotionally, or physically, we have a responsibility to reflect God’s love in a world that’s already filled with pain. Just look around; even within this group, if we were to share our experiences from the past week, we’d find that we’ve all been hurt in some way.

So, the goal should be to build and repair relationships. And this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t love perpetrators unconditionally with God’s love. We are obliged to do so. Christ’s sacrifice is for them just as much as it is for me, even with my minor sins like my love for food. We all have our sins and challenges, but letting Christ live through us, especially to “the least of these,” is crucial. It’s all about relationships. I’m not sure if this addresses what you were asking, Michael, but please feel free to continue the discussion.

C-J: I think where we often go wrong is in the approach to punishment—for example, “You committed murder, and therefore you will die, with me as your executioner.” We feel that this kind of extreme action is justified because we don’t want such individuals mingling with the public. The punishment must be severe enough to serve as a lesson to society: “If you do this, this will happen to you,” or “We will lock you away, allowing you only one hour out of your cell per day.”

When I look at people who are truly damaged, even the smallest act of kindness can spark a glimmer of respect. I’ve encountered people working on restoring a house, many of whom have a legal history. Yet when I engage with them respectfully, calling them “sir” and thanking them for their work, they reciprocate that respect. However, I never forget that, if desperate enough, they might not hesitate to harm me.

Understanding humanity in its fallen state, we have to acknowledge that we are capable of terrible things. Some of this is hardwired, some is genetic, and some is environmental. Yet, we still have a choice, particularly if we are guided by faith. While some might avoid making eye contact with such individuals, respecting them as people, regardless of their history, often yields kindness in return.

But it’s challenging for society to adopt this perspective. There’s big money involved in the criminal justice system, and that economic motive can’t be ignored. We tend to gloss over this uncomfortable fact. Historically, society has often dealt harshly with imperfections—punishing women in particular, or even killing children deemed ‘flawed’ by throwing them off cliffs or burying them alive. We’ve wiped out entire tribal communities on the basis of ignorance, power, and wealth, claiming it was warranted because we were somehow ‘better qualified.’

This is not God’s narrative, and we are repeatedly warned against it in both the Old and New Testaments. While some of these accounts may have been modified or sanitized over time, we still encounter similar issues today. The people described in the Bible are very much alive in our current society, and that should give us pause.

Donald: I had the privilege of teaching for 20 years, and the first day of each class was always exciting. I got to meet new students, and they began to get to know me. What was particularly special was that I didn’t know their backgrounds as they walked through the door; this gave me the unique opportunity to treat everyone equally, which was my responsibility as a professor. Over my two decades of teaching, with 50 kids in three classes each year, I made it my challenge to continue treating them all equally as I got to know them better. Building lifelong relationships with many of them has been a great privilege. So that’s my first point.

My second point delves into human curiosity: why do we want to “look over the fence”? Why are we drawn to movies that feature violence, sexuality, or profane language? What is it in us that wants to explore the darker aspects of life, even when we don’t participate in them ourselves? This question fascinates me.

Lastly, let’s talk about personality, something Sharon touched upon last week. In tough or impossible circumstances, some people manage to survive while others succumb. The structure of the church or other organizations sometimes provides a stepping stone for certain personalities. Why do we join programs like Weight Watchers, for instance? There are people who are born into difficult situations but manage to “jump the fence” and escape. Unfortunately, a high percentage simply go along with their circumstances because it’s all they know.

So those are my three points. I’m not sure if they directly answer what you, Michael, have asked us to discuss, but your question certainly sparked these thoughts in me.

Janelin: I recently had dinner with some colleagues, and we focused on the topic of postpartum depression and its treatment. Hearing about cases of postpartum psychosis on the news, where mothers harm their children, always shocks me. Sitting there, I realized that these women are experiencing something that’s literally happening in their brains; they’re in a state of psychosis. This is not their normal behavior. My heart goes out to them.

When we talk about the legal system and the necessity of maintaining order, I struggle with categorizing such actions under the label of “sin.” As a mother, I can imagine how terrifying it would be if something in your brain just flipped. Is it fair to call it a sin when it’s actually a mental illness? Unfortunately, our legal system doesn’t always have the mechanisms to deal with these kinds of situations properly.

So, I find it challenging to reconcile what is considered a sin from a Christian perspective with what is deemed illegal. This topic has really gotten me thinking about the differences between legal judgment and moral or religious judgment.

Sharon: But for the grace of God, there go I. Now, I’m wondering if that statement really is good. I’ve never thought about it before this discussion today.

C-J: I think the idea Donald brought up—about why people “look over the fence” even when they know the consequences—relates to humanity’s exploration of its own weaknesses. People often don’t want others to see how they cope with their flaws or how they perceive themselves within a community or society. It’s a constant gauge of, “Am I safe or not?” that can change depending on the day or situation.

When it comes to mothers who harm their children due to mental health issues, I think that’s connected to our fight-or-flight instinct. Depending on my stress level on a given day, even the demands of my pets can become overwhelming. It’s like that Chinese water torture, drip by drip, until I just want to either turn off the faucet or walk away. It comes down to survival.

I believe that without defined boundaries and a supportive community where we can be completely authentic, it’s hard to change these ingrained patterns. How can we rewrite our own narratives without a framework or diagnosis from something like the DSM-5? How can we do this without being hindered by fear, guilt, or shame?

We aren’t born as finished products; we’re born with potential. And I believe it’s through God’s grace that we find our path. The most critical period is during childhood, when individuals are most vulnerable and malleable. It’s devastating to hear a five-year-old say that they expect to be in jail or dead by 21. That’s a narrative that urgently needs changing.

Reinhard: The way I see it, both genetics and environment play a role in human behavior, including violent actions and crimes. Society, as part of the environment, significantly influences these behaviors. If we look at the Bible, particularly during the time of Moses when moral law was given by God, it forms the basis of duty and prudence in every free country today. While these laws are generally applied, there are specific instances, like killing sprees, that defy easy categorization.

Personal experiences, upbringing, and family influences shape our actions. When God gave us free will, it didn’t include a mandate for violence or wicked acts. Genetic factors, perhaps mediated by hormones, can also contribute to erratic behavior. For example, postpartum depression can cause some women to act in ways they normally wouldn’t, sometimes even harming their babies.

In ancient times, God provided Cities of Refuge and laws like “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Today, we have a legal system to handle such matters. However, the complexity of human behavior, influenced by genetics, hormones, and clinical depression, challenges our legal and ethical frameworks.

As people who understand the law and believe in God, we generally exercise control and take measures in all we do. While many people live moral lives influenced by religious principles, others might not have the same guidance. We can offer counsel, and perhaps testing, to those exhibiting unusual behavior. But the issue is too complex, and the world is too big for us to control everyone.

In the past, God has punished entire populations for their wickedness. God has His own laws and prerogatives. For us, we can only advise and guide those around us, relying on the grace of God. Some people in prison repent and even become community leaders upon release.

Our responsibility within our community is to share the love of God and try to restrain bad behavior as much as we can. The most we can do is pray for divine intervention and let the Holy Spirit work. The challenges presented by human behavior in general society require a separate discussion, but for matters beyond our control, prayer remains our best option.

David: I’m quite taken with the Greek definition of sin as “missing the mark.” In many of our discussions in the Western tradition, the focus often shifts to intervention; in other words, we feel the need to guide and direct, as if shooting arrows to lead people. This is quite contrary to Taoist philosophy, which suggests that if you don’t shoot the arrow—if you “Do Nothing” (無爲)—you won’t miss the mark. The idea is to go with the flow.

In discussing what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God, matters like law and justice are Caesar’s domain. We create and uphold systems of justice and law, and as Jesus said, let Caesar handle that. What belongs to God is what’s inside you as an individual, and by extension, what’s inside the society you belong to. That intrinsic goodness has always existed, as seen in societies like Indonesia, which thrived for hundreds of thousands of years before Islam arrived. China, too, has done well without adhering to a significant global religion; even Buddhism doesn’t fit neatly into Western definitions of religion, as it doesn’t conceptualize deities in the same way.

Returning to the concept of sin as “missing the mark,” the idea is that we’re bound to miss whenever we shoot the arrow. Jesus reiterated this, stating that he who is without sin should cast the first stone. In a spiritual sense, when we miss the mark while serving Caesar, that’s one thing. But when we do it knowingly, when God’s inner voice tells us it’s wrong, that’s another matter entirely. Whether we’re genetically predisposed or environmentally influenced to commit acts considered sinful, the ultimate judgment lies in the individual’s own spirituality and their relationship with God.

Michael: I’m not sure what’s happening next week, but when I was contemplating this topic, it was precisely that transition—Jesus’s command, “Do not judge.” Because it seems that whenever we judge, it becomes the measure we use for judgment. This is what Jesus was pointing out. What I find so challenging, and it’s very difficult, is that judgment is almost automatic. It’s inherently human and easy to make. So, is it even possible not to judge? How can Jesus say “Do not judge” when it seems like one of the most automatic human responses?

C-J: But there’s a difference between judgment and discernment. Judgment leads to conviction or forgiveness, whereas discernment is simply an awareness of potential danger so you can avoid it. With discernment, you haven’t crossed that line. But with judgment, you’re saying, “She shouldn’t have done that.” Do you see the difference? Your face is telling me you don’t, really.

* * *

Leave a Reply