I can't remember the exact year that Americans outgrew the idea of sin. I know it all happened in the wake of the three Karls: Karl Marx, Carl Jung, and Carl Sagan. They may not have impacted many Christians, but there is little doubt about the sway these three Karls hold on Western thought.

Karl Marx enlarged sociology, but just when it got big enough to include everybody, he threw God out. Fortunately, the empire he inspired hasn't been doing so well lately. Carl Jung enlarged psychology to the point that it seemed a reasonable kingdom. But once he understood the fascinating size of the human psyche, he, too, gave God the boot.

And the late Carl Sagan pushed back the edges of the universe, until it was bigger than PBS. But just when he had created plenty of room to study God, he bid God adieu and left us knocking about in an empty universe. According to Sagan, human beings were all alone. Yet, with the skillful use of fang and claw, we became the very finest creatures pond-slime and sunlight could produce.

Marx threw God out of government systems.

Jung threw God out of the human mind.

Sagan finally got Him clear out of the universe.

Once God was gone, we could, of course, proceed with sin. It was an old-fashioned idea anyway, said Jung's most recent disciples. They pointed out that the idea of sin tended to produce bad conscience, induce guilt, and taint Protestant sermons with negativity.

Carl Jung's disciples, Thomas Harris and Eric Berne, popularized the little pop-psych jingle, "I'm OK, you're OK." Now that sin is gone, everybody's OK. I'm OK as an evangelist, but then the unevangelized are OK, too. Jesus is OK. God is OK. O.J. is OK. The devil himself is OK, if he says so. Sin no longer exists!

But now that sin is gone, I must confess I miss it. One rarely hears much of it in church. John Blanchard says that it's been a hundred years since any scholar has written a scholarly treatise on hell. It seems at least that long since I've heard any kind of sermon on sin. Sunday by Sunday I'm given reasons for "accepting Christ." These all focus on my becoming more successful, realizing my full potential, having more fun, finding meaning, or getting my own T-shirt so I can look like the rest of the church softball team.

Evangelists remind us that before you can get people saved, you must first get them lost. The sin we used to believe in was most helpful in getting that done. But, because sin no longer exists, it's harder to convince moral relativists that they have a real need for God. Moral relativism, sans sin, is a wonderful thing. To proclaim yourself righteous, all you have to do is compare yourself to someone who is more wicked. The key to blessing your own goodness lies simply in proclaiming yourself "OK."

But there was a fourth Karl for whom the Evangelical world may honestly offer thanks: the late Karl Menninger. This Karl, even in the face of widespread psychological challenges, believed in sin. Why should that be so applauded? Well, first of all, it's honest. Secondly, he took a courageous stand against the three Karls who came before him.

Karl Menninger, perhaps the last of the great secular psychologists, could see the error of Jung's disciples. For me, at least, he made the name Karl fashionable again. He asked, in the title of what may be his greatest book, Whatever Became of Sin? He missed sin, too, not because he wanted to evangelize but because he understood that without it, something fundamentally honest about the human condition has been abandoned. He believed you couldn't practice good medicine, until you understood that sin was at the bottom of the basic human sickness. Menninger said that to say "I'm OK, you're OK," in the face of human sin, was to flit through life like a blue bird on a dung heap.

But alas, in our post-modern age, both Menninger and sin are gone, and the devil has greatly complicated evangelism by removing the need for forgiveness. Since Menninger's futile attempt to stanch pop psychology, must Christians now amend Romans 3:23 from "All have sinned" to "so what?"

Seeing that sin is so "yesteryear," I'd quit preaching it myself, except that several times a day I pass a cross. Looking up into the face of Christ, I become convinced that the world is not OK. I'm not OK. You're not OK. The entire fountain filled with blood reminds us that sin is perhaps most damning when nobody believes it exists.

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  • Calvin Miller