Eight-year-old Aryanna Schneeberg was playing in her backyard when she was struck in the back with an arrow. A neighbor was attempting to shoot a squirrel, but his weapon missed its intended target and instead penetrated the child’s lung, spleen, stomach, and liver. She bears the scars that come with surviving such an injury. We ought to think of Aryanna every time we hear a preacher explaining the Greek word for sin, hamartia, as “missing the mark.”
Like most pulpit clichés, this one points to something that’s partly right. The problem, though, is that most Western Christians’ imaginations, shaped by Robin Hood, exceed their actual experience with archery. We think of a bucolic setting where we are shooting our arrows toward a target on a bale of hay. The metaphor is almost comforting: We see ourselves not as criminals or rebels but as being off our game now and then. We reach into our quiver for one more chance to get it right.
That’s not how the Bible describes sin. The Bible says sin is lawlessness (1 John 3:4). When it categorizes sins, it consistently does so in terms that imply both perpetrators and victims: enmity, dissension, oppression of orphans and widows, adultery, covetousness.
In that light, sin is less like target practice on some isolated piece of countryside and more like loosing arrows on a city sidewalk in the midst of a pressing crowd. All around us are bodies, writhing or dead, struck down by our errant arrows.
In a sermon on sin, a preacher might also quote the Puritan John Owen: “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.” That’s true too. And yet it doesn’t quite say enough: Our sin might also be killing those around us. “The wages of sin is death,” the Bible tells us (Rom. 6:23). That death might not simply be one’s own, but also one’s neighbors.
The Book of Revelation is a circular letter to very different churches. Some of those congregations were actively persecuted by Rome, and some were comfortable with and capitulated to Rome. The particular sins and temptations differ, but the promise is the same: God will judge. The rest of the book shows how that judgment falls on the world, depicted as Babylon. But it starts with the church. And the question for God’s people is whether we will be a preview of Babylon or the New Jerusalem.
One reason the Apocalypse seems so foreign to so many is the often-cryptic imagery—a beast emerges from the sea, a prostitute sits on seven hills (13:1; 17:9). Yet at its most mysterious, does this book not describe the dilemmas faced by all of us right now?
Rome—the city of seven hills—is at the time the opulent, rich, idolatrous city that rides on a monstrous, powerful beast—a vast, subjugating empire. The beast controls with fear of suffering. The prostitute controls with seductions of luxury and comfort. The beast says, Join with me and I will give you access to power. The prostitute says, Join with me and I will give you access to pleasure. Behind all of that, though, is a counterfeit. The beast is an attempted mimicry of the Lamb who is wounded, overcomes, and marks out a people for himself. Babylon is a distortion of the kingdom of God.
It is not just literal empires that can become beastly. Ministries can too. We can think we are pointing to the Lamb when we are just replaying the ways of the beast. We can think we are serving the kingdom when we are really just building Babylons that will fall in a single hour (Rev. 17:12).
What we should identify and uproot is not just one single idol—sexual iconoclasm or white supremacy or Christian nationalism or religious syncretism or just old-fashioned envy, rivalry, and greed—but all of them. We should not divide ourselves between those who justify certain “personal” sins and those who justify certain “social” sins.
Do we really believe that our sin really hurts people? Do we believe that our ministries can, and have, really hurt people? If so, let’s remember what makes us “evangelical” in the first place. We are those who say to the world, and to ourselves, not simply “Believe the Good News” but “Repent and believe the Good News.”
God is a God of grace, a God who forgives us sinners through the blood of his Son. But he is also a God of judgment—one who can tell the difference between Jerusalem and Babylon, between a lamb and a beast. In this time of unveilings, we should listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches, even when our metaphors miss the mark.
Ted Olsen is executive editor at CT.
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