Benjamin L. Corey

Benjamin L. Corey

BLC is an author, speaker, scholar, and global traveler, who holds graduate degrees in Theology & Intercultural Studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and received his doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller. He is the author of Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus, and Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith.

God Can’t Be In The Presence of Sin? (And Other Crap About God We Mindlessly Repeat)

Growing up evangelical, you’ve probably heard this answer to the question, “Why did Jesus have to die on the cross?”

“Well, Johnny or Susie, it’s because God can’t be in the presence of sin.”

They will often go on to explain how sin is so intolerable to God, that he can’t be anywhere near it. To be able to pull close to God, somehow we must be completely free and cleansed of sin first. It’s also why we’re often told that we can’t go to heaven if our sins have not been forgiven: because– here it is again– God can’t be in the presence of sin. One website describes it this way, which is quite similar to the answer I received growing up:

“[T]he God of the Bible requires cleansing for the purpose of relationship, because He wants to be with us. Much like a parent welcoming home a child after a summer’s day at the park—a child who is probably hot, sweaty and dirty—God wants us to be clean because He wants to enjoy our company. Our impurity is not something God permits in His presence. And so, He says to us much the same thing a parent would say to that child—go wash up before you come to the table to eat because I want a person who is clean at my table.”

(Side note: I don’t need my kids to shower before I’m willing to be close to them, so this is messed up on multiple levels.)

This notion that God cannot be in the presence of sin is a classic case of what I have come to call “generational theology.” Generational theology encompasses a host of things we believe and repeat without ever deeply questioning them. They get passed on to generation to generation not because they’re true, but because that’s what our well-meaning but uninformed Sunday School teacher, grandparents, or parents taught us. Reader’s digest version: Generational theology is crap we believe about God and mindlessly repeat without even thinking about whether or not it’s true.

But let me be clear: The idea that God cannot be in the presence of sin is unbiblical nonsense.

Where did this belief come from? My best guess is that it comes from Habakkuk 1:13 where the prophet writes, “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil.” What people miss, however, is the rest of the passage. As soon as he writes this he essentially goes on to ask, “So why do you do it all the time????” It’s as if he’s questioning and trying to work out his own understanding of God– he’s trying to develop his theology, but like most of us, doesn’t have it all worked out cleanly. On one hand, he believes God cannot look upon evil. On the other, he recognize that he does it. Thus, he’s trying to work out tension in his beliefs.

However, the complete narrative of Scripture answers his question and proves this generational theology to be misguided and false: When people say it’s impossible for God to be in the presence of sin, such a statement is totally false.

Just think about the biblical narrative for a minute…

The Bible only has two chapters before sin becomes part of the deal. The Adam and Eve figures sin, become ashamed, and flee from God. They hide from God’s presence because of sin, but God doesn’t– God’s response is to pull close to them, to clothe them, and to help them feel restored. The Bible opens not with God fleeing from the presence of sin, but running to be present in it.

Then, of course, there is the rest of the Old Testament narrative which is a long story of Israel trying to get to know God. And, good grief, do they commit a lot of sins along the way. Their relationship with God is a rocky one– at times he allows them to go off into captivity, at one point God gets pissed and says he’s divorcing them (but yet he keeps hanging around), and then he sends a bunch of prophets to tell them how much they need to change.

God repeatedly shows Israel that while he certainly doesn’t like sin, he doesn’t have to run away every time he sees it.

And then, of course, there’s the ultimate evidence that God is not afraid to be in the presence of sin: Jesus himself.

To hold the belief that God cannot be in the presence of sin, one would have to first deny trinitarian theology and the divinity of Jesus– there’s no legitimate way around that.

One of the reasons Jesus was so unpopular with the religious elite was because of his preference to build his inner circle with those considered the worst, most unclean sinners of society. Jesus took this so far that the Bible tells us during his ministry he had the public reputation of being an alcoholic (Matthew 11:19, Luke 7:34). In fact, one of the nicknames Jesus eared was Friend of Sinners.

Thus, if it is impossible for God to be in the presence of sin, it is not possible that Jesus was God-incarnate– because Jesus spent the majority of his time in the presence of sin.

In fact, the New Testament goes on to say that Jesus actually became sin on our behalf– that’s about as an extreme opposite statement as the premise that God can’t be near sin.

On this one you’ll have to pick between believing in the divinity of Jesus, or believing what your childhood pastor told you about God’s inability or refusal to be in the presence of sin– because you can’t have both.

Does God like or approve of sin? Of course not. But is sin some magical kryptonite where God is blinded and has to run the other way?

Not at all.

The fact that when God became flesh he became know as the “Friend of Sinners” should be enough to remind us of this truth. God doesn’t run from us in the midst of our flaws and brokenness, or even our sin. Instead, God is a friend who sits down beside us and offers to help us get our shit back together.

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Benjamin L. Corey

Benjamin L. Corey

BLC is an author, speaker, scholar, and global traveler, who holds graduate degrees in Theology & Intercultural Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and earned his doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller.

He is the author of Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, and Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus.

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15 Responses

  1. Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I’ve really enjoyed browsing your blog posts. In any case I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!

  2. God does not tolerate sin. He is in the presence of sin all the time. Satan stands before God right now, accusing us to Him. (That’s why Satan s callled the great accuser)

    1. actually, satan does not stand in front of god right now. satan and his followers were cast out of heaven .


  4. Good article and so true. If God cannot look upon sin, then He has to remain separate and apart from the human race. Yet the bible as a whole shows that God loves us and provided restoration to fellowship with Him. Jesus hung out with all the wrong people according to the religious leaders of his day. Now he calls us to do the same. Love God and love others. The others being people in general, not just those you agree with or see as fellow christian believers.

  5. Excellent, Ben…thanks so much for this needed corrective to how so many of us were raised to think. But I think of it even more simply (though, admittedly less biblically). If I, with my imperfect human love, can completely love and want to be in the presence of my son even if he’s “in sin”, how much more can God’s perfect love overcome my own “sin”!

  6. Whaaaat? Habakkuk is NOT saying “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil.”…“So why do you do it all the time????”!!! Habakkuk is saying, “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil.”…”Therefore we have to be obedient in sacrifice, continuously and painfully rebuked, but these other people don’t” and then goes on to explain it is because they go around as if they have no ruler. Sort of a jealousy thing from Habakkuk…”why do we suffer while they prosper” kind of thing. Which is explained in God’s Word that He only rebukes those that are His. We do the same thing now, ‘why do they have so many nice things? Why are they so successful in their job’, etc., etc.

    Jesus being God and Man…both…fully, and that is your proof that God can be in the presence of sin? Because Christ became sin? “Christ was not guilty, and could not be made guilty; but he was treated as if he were guilty” -Spurgeon. The dynamic of Jesus being flesh and God is completely incomprehensible to us in that it violates everything we know of God, being in presence of sin just being one of them. God can’t change, God can’t deny Himself, etc. You can only reconcile that if you accept the fact that, while He is God, He is also man. Not understand it, just accept it.

    There are PLENTY of passages that show God cannot be in the presence of sin. What in the world do you think is meant by the continuous reference to light vs. darkness? How many rooms have you walked into and turned on the light, and still found darkness?

    I’m completely lost at your point here…what are you saying…”Jesus didn’t need to die, we’re fine”…?

    1. Oh, one other thing…Jesus died for our sins and if you don’t accept that you will be eternally separate from God, because of your sin. And that is what is called “Biblical Theology” whether you like it or not.

  7. I appreciate you being thoughtful and trying to dig deeper on stuff like this. However, I disagree with the content of this post. Although I think I might actually agree with the first part of its title. It’s erroneous to say that God can’t be around sin. However, it is true that sin can’t be around God. It’s not as if the sin poses some threat to God that makes Him jump at the thought of it. It’s that God’s holiness poses a great and terrible threat to sin. This is why God often creates distance between Himself and people – so that He doesn’t destroy them because of their sin. So, God doesn’t run from sin because he’s afraid. He creates distance between Himself and His people so that they might be able to continue to live. It’s best to think of God as a fire and sin as paper or something. If it comes to close, it gets scorched up. This is better than your kryptonite illustration that puts God in a position of weakness.

    It’s why when Uzzah tries to catch the ark of the covenant in 2 Samuel 6:7, he is killed.

    It’s why Moses is only allowed to see the “back” of God’s glory in Exodus 33:18-20. “Because no one can see [God] and live.”

    It’s why although God did come find and care for Adam and Eve in their time of sin, He also banished them from the Garden (Genesis 3:23) and no longer walked with them as He did in the Garden from what we read.

    This is ALSO in part why the cross worked. Because Jesus taking all sin from believers and onto Himself in His holiness obliterated that sin and guilt so that He would not have to do that same to us. It’s not gone and no longer needs to be dealt with.

    This is also why the temple’s holy of holies was not open for access to all believers freely until the minute the work on the cross was accomplished and why the Holy Spirit didn’t indwell believers until after the ascension. Because it was after Jesus had completed the work of the Gospel that sin was dealt with and that believers no longer carried that guilt with them. Then, God could allow us to have full access to Him without being destroyed because of the flammable sin we brought before Him.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts, OP.

  8. Excellent Job. This can easily be understood. First off, sin doesn’t mean what people think it means. It simply means you are lacking something. That “something” can be knowledge, understanding, love, health, etc. Adam didn’t literally eat fruit from a tree and send the world into chaos. The trees are metaphors or analogies for something else; and to understand what those represent one must understand Hebrew, but for the sake of argument let’s pretend he deliberately disobeyed and ate fruit. God came looking for Adam while Adam hid himself. If God couldn’t be around sin why did he go looking for Adam after he supposedly sinned? The first time the word sin is used in the bible is after Adam leaves the garden and Cain kills his brother. Even in the presence of that “sin” God protected Cain. Abraham sinned when he killed the kings and God was with him afterwards. David, Saul, Solomon, every king, Moses, Joshua, Jacob, the list goes on. The NT gospel is all about God loving you as you are.

    The concept that man is separated from God is not Hebraic or biblical. That ideology began under Greek philosophy. It’s pagan and not godly.

  9. It only confirms that God himself makes for a terrible eyewitness.

    Police: “so which direction did the 6’5 tall, olive tanned man, wearing a balaclava run off to after robbing the bank?”

    God: “I ain’t seen nothin’ ’cause I’m everywhere BUT not everywhere ya know!?”

    GENESIS 3:9
    -and they hid from the Lord (Adam and Eve) God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the Lord God called to the man…………………………………..“Where are you?”

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