Did sin exist before the law?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

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Question:: Was Cane killing Abel a sin at the time?

Answer: The short answer is yes — Cain sinned when he killed Abel — and there are two reasons I can say this with confidence. First, God plain old called the act a sin. Second, he put a curse on Cain for committing it. See the passage below.

“If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” “I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.”
(Genesis 4:7–11, NIV, emphases mine)

Now, you did not qualify your question beyond “at that time” … so I’m not sure what you are looking for. (So, please write back if this answer does not satisfy your query.) Were you wondering if it was a sin in the legal sense? I ask because this killing — the first post-Edenic “sin” recorded in the Bible — occurred many centuries before God gave the law to Moses. As such, I can see where you might question whether or not this was a sin legally since there were no “laws” to break!

Well, here’s the thing: there were laws to break. True… they were not written down before Moses. But sin had been a constant factor since before the time of Adam. Furthermore, it will continue with the same power and position until Christ comes back. What has changed is our knowledge of sin, not the essence of sin. The law gives us different perspectives on sin, but it did not introduce an ontological change.

Imagine that you are driving a high-performance car in a normal city — normal except that this one had no posted speed limits and no laws against speeding. I’ll bet that you wouldn’t just drive around at full speed. That would feel irresponsible… and I think you would self-regulate. This means that even though you could drive 80 mph in a cul-de-sac, drive by a school at 110 mph or drive through a crowd of pedestrians at 50 mph, you wouldn’t.

But let’s say one day you decided to drive like that. You wouldn’t be doing anything “illegal” — not by reason of speed. You would by reason of prudence, however… because you would be driving as to endanger other people. This is why, in virtually every city and town, people have taken behavior that is known to be reckless (read sinful) and taken what is obviously sinful behavior and have made it illegal.

Please note that that kind of driving was always reckless. It was always the wrong thing to do. But at some point in time — and for the good of society as a whole — virtually every jurisdiction has declared such behavior to be illegal. Sin works the same way. Evil and unwise behaviors were always sins. But the beginning of human history was not the right time for God to erect a sign to that effect. Then one day, it was the right time — and now we have the law!

The missing piece here is why God did this… and answering the “why” questions about God is very often speculative. But here’s my spin: The Bible says that we were made in his image (Genesis 1:26); it also tells us that he’s a holy God (Revelation 4:8). This explains why we yearn for holiness… why we have a sense of what we “ought”— and ought not — to do (Romans 2:14-15). That “ought” business is at the heart of your question.

From the time God breathed the unique soulishness that made us volitional and self-aware beings (Genesis 2:7), sin existed (Ephesians 1:4). How this played out in time is merely the details… it’s the story of us sinning. Adam sinned, everyone else sinned, God gave us the law… and we all became lawyers.

A lot of what we know about the law comes from the Apostle Paul; he said that the law acted to make sin “exceedingly sinful” (Romans 7:13). I see this as saying that the law took something that was already true and made it emphatic… and the truth is that sin was sin. He also called the law our schoolmaster (Galatians 3:24-25). Now that we are in the Age of Grace — a place where we can no longer be condemned (Romans 8:1) — we should look back to the law with affectionate reverence because it helped to bring us where we are today.

Sin has journeyed alongside humankind through all of our history, and that will continue through the end of this age. What the law did was give us different perspectives on sin. Some of humankind looked forward to the unarticulated law, some lived within it — and today, we look back at it. But just as looking at the Statue of Liberty from a ship, from an airplane or a rooftop gives us different perspectives but does not change the statue's essence, so it is with the law and sin. It doesn’t matter where we are in relation to the law, the essence of sin is the same.

Fortunately, the reign of sin has an official terminus. One of the things that Jesus is going to do in the eschaton is to dispatch sin and its effects. When this happens, God will forget our sins totally… and I’m thinking we will too.

“No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Jeremiah 31:34, NIV)

“Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death.”
(Revelation 20:14, NIV)

I have one more idea about why you might be asking this question; it has to do with God “overlooking” our ignorance. God “gets it” that people throughout all time did not have a clear picture of him and what he wanted from them. But now we do… and we had better attend to that knowledge! The apostle Paul talked about this issue when he was in Athens. I’ll include his dialogue below and then discuss it.

“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” (Acts 17:29–30, NIV, emphasis mine)

God overlooks unavoidable ignorance, but he doesn’t overlook sin. Why not? Because ignorance does not make the sin go away. But God is reasonable. He has addressed sin throughout the ages through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 7:27). Furthermore, God holds people responsible for the light they have — and not the light they do not have or cannot obtain (John 14:26; 16:8; Romans 1:18-20; 2:14-15).

Our friends at Reasonable Faith Ministries have put together a short video about what happens to people who have never heard of Christ. This is well worth the few minutes it takes to watch. To view that video, click here.

God bless you.

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article — consider doing so at the following link: 20201116 Cain killed Abel before the law was given, so was it a sin?).

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