Sickness Unto Death and the Continuance of Sin in Despair

Written by on December 19th, 2013. Subject: Philosophy. Filed in Ethics, about Kierkegaard Sickness Unto Death Christianity

|||Kierkegaard, Søren. The Sickness Unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983.|||

Søren Kierkegaard Sin is: before God, or with the conception of God, in despair not to will to be oneself, or in despair to will to be oneself. Thus, sin is intensified weakness or intensified defiance: sin is the intensification of despair. The emphasis is on before God, or with a conception of God; it is the conception of God that makes sin dialectically, ethically, and religiousy what lawyers call “aggrivated” despair. p. 77.

After having explained the various ways in which despair can manifest itself in a person, Søren Kierkegaard attempts to show in the second part how exactly that despair is a sin. In fact, he begins immediately with the definition of sin as “before God, or with the conception of God, in despair not to will to be oneself, or in despair to will to be oneself.”1 He qualifies this statement as meaning more specifically, “sin is the intensification of despair.”2 It is precisely because we fail to recognize ourselves in relation to God that we not only despair, but fail to properly humble ourselves before God. It is this mis-relation–either supposing ourselves too weak, or supposing ourselves too strong that leads to despair, which leads to sin. Kierkegaard explains that this definition of sin “embraces every imaginable and every actual form of sin.”3

Kiekegaard makes these claims ultimately by a re-working of what he calls the pagan assumption that the opposite of sin is virtue; he asserts that instead the opposite of sin is faith. It is precisely by falling out of faith that we begin to sin–and the only way which we do not sin is by being faithful. Kiekegaard claims that it is only through the sin/faith antithesis that the possibility of offense can occur. He also claims that it is only through this possibility of offense that Christianity embraces the reality of the individual: “that as an individual human being a person is directly before God and… a person’s sin should be of concern to God.”4

The next step one must take is to further disassociate the christian conception of sin from the socratic form of sin. For Socrates, and by extension paganism, sin is merely ignorance. The argument goes that all men desire to do good and it is only through a misunderstanding of what good is that one is bad. For Kiekegaard however, the definition of sin as ignorance denies that “sin presupposes itself.”5 He explains that, “if the Socratic definition [of sin] is sound, then there is no sin at all.”6 In the end the different definitions of sin–the Greek and the Christian–stem from the Greek assumption that one cannot knowingly do wrong. Sin is precisely that defiance not to understand, “sin is not a matter of a person’s not having understood what is right but of his being unwilling to understand it, of his not willing what is right.”7 But Kiekegaard wants us to recognize what was fundamentally good with socratic thought: “Socratic ignorance was a kind of fear and worship of God.”8 Because Christianity depends on faith it must be Socratic “God fearing ignorance which by means of ignorance guards faith against speculation.”9

Next Kiekegaard explains that sin is a continuous state: “sin is a position that on its own develops an increasingly established continuity.”10 Because sin is the opposite of faith “particular sins are not the continuance of sin but the expression from the continuance of sin.”11 That is, we know we are in a state of sin because of particular sins, but because sin is the opposite of faith having despair means one is continually without faith – and therefore continually in sin.

Kiekegaard explains that there are two ways in which we continue in our sin: despairing over our sin, despairing of the forgiveness of sins and declaring the untruth of Christianity. When we despair over our sin we are attempting “to survive by sinking even deeper”12 into sin. He claims that despair over sin is not movement toward the good, but actually a movement away from it: “distress clearly indicates a movement away from God, a secret selfishness and pride.”13 What one ought to have done was to acknowledge ones weakness by humbling himself before God, for it was only through faith in God that one does not relapse into what one despaired of doing.

To despair of the forgiveness of sins is an offense. It is an offense precisely because it fails to recognize ones self in relation to God. We must recognize that the despair of the forgiveness of sins is either the defiance so that we are not willing to be the sinners we are and therefore believe we are not in need of forgiveness, or weakness so that we understand ourselves to be sinners but cannot believe that we can be forgiven. Both in a way deny who God truly is: that we are ourselves before God–sinners–and that God is God before us–capable of being God and forgiving sins. The denial of Christianity is despair and sin because it too refuses to acknowledge the reality presumed by Christianity: that we are ourselves in relation to God.

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B. R. Mullikin is the founder of NetCrit. He also is an Editor for The Lost Country, and has many other literary and academic projects.

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  1. p. 78. 

  2. ibid 

  3. p. 82. 

  4. p. 83. 

  5. p. 89. 

  6. ibid 

  7. p. 95. 

  8. p. 99. 

  9. ibid 

  10. p. 106. 

  11. ibid 

  12. p. 110. 

  13. p. 112.