Variable-Rate Iniquity

The sins of some men are obvious, reaching the place of judgment ahead of them; the sins of others trail behind them. (1 Timothy 5:24)

Apparently sins come in different speeds. Not only are there venial and mortal sins, there seem to be fast and slow ones too. Great. Now I need to keep track of how serious my sins are and monitor their velocity. This is getting way complicated.

Okay. Let’s try to think this through. According to Paul—as if he’s going to give us any real help—the obvious sins are the faster ones. So first we’ve got to figure out exactly what obvious sins are, which, obviously, Paul doesn’t exactly make obvious. One good possibility is that obvious sins are simply the ones that are self-evident, like cutting in line at an old folks home, strolling naked through a shopping mall, or eating the last piece of pizza. This would make them easier for God to spot and he could then more quickly record them. If they were harder to determine, like, say, an act of insincere altruism, God may have to think about it longer to decide if the altruism cancelled out the insincerity, and, if so, if that cancelled the act itself or only reduced the amount of credit to be awarded. You can see how difficult an analysis of sin might be, and God, being somewhat of a perfectionist about things, would want to take his time to make sure he didn’t screw something up he’d have to retract later, risking an embarrassing situation at the “place of judgment” where he probably hopes to impress everybody.

Then, again, if God knows everything, then all sins should be obvious to him. And if all sins are obvious, then all sins would be equally fast. This would make Paul’s statement meaningless, something Paul himself would not appreciate us saying. So if God is God, then Paul is wacko. But if Paul is right—as all Biblical inerrancy Nazis would insist—then either God has problems spotting some sins (which I’m kind of hoping for) or “obvious” applies in some other way that’s not obvious. As Inigo Montoya says to Vizzini in the The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

However, if we look at this whole thing from a theoretical physics perspective rather than a theological one, we make more progress. Applying Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle (which says you cannot know both the speed and position of an elementary particle), if we know what an obvious sin is, then we cannot know its speed. If we want to talk about a sin’s speed, we have to forget whether it’s an obvious one or not, which means there is a definite uncertainty built into the discussion. I can do that.

But this leads us to the most intriguing part of Paul’s theory. Not only do sins have velocity, they are governed by the theory of relativity. Apparently, some sins are slower than the person who commits them: they “trail behind” to the place of judgment. That means a person who commits a slower sin reaches the place of judgment before the sin is accounted for. Until the sin catches up, he cannot be judged for it. God will have to wait until the sin finally shows up in order to judge the guy for it. This may be what Peter meant when he said that God will “hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment.” The slower the sin, the longer the wait.

On the other hand, some sins are so fast that they arrive at the place of judgment before the one who commits them does. As far as judgment is concerned, these sins are actually faster than the sinner. Like subatomic particles that travel at light speed, these hyper-fast sins defy the limits of time and space, triggering judgment before the sinner arrives for judgment. We could also think of this strange phenomenon as theological “action at a distance.” This might help us understand the troubling issue of Judas who, according to Jesus, was “doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled.” If our theory of sin speed is correct, then Judas’ sin was so damn fast it traveled backward in time allowing the prophets to predict his notorious betrayal more than 500 years before he actually committed it! Voilá, theological physics at its finest.

Wow. Sometimes I even impress myself.


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