Plantinga’s “Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be”

About: this paper was delivered to Dr. Libby Vincent at Fuller Theological Seminary during my first year for the first quarter of systematic theology.

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What do we know about sin?  The Bible tells us about sin, so why is it that many people attempt to describe sin outside of the biblical terms already set before us?  Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., wrote a book, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: a breviary of sin, in which he attempts to resurface what was once a most serious treatment of sin (1996, ix).  Unfortunately, Plantinga predominately resorts to describing sin in terms that fall outside the biblical vocabulary.  Indeed, Plantinga’s treatment of sin is an experiential-conceptual summarization of sin and is far from having a solid biblical foundation, because it is based primarily on modern-day case studies and vocabularies of sin with seemingly few biblical references.  Of course, there are times when Plantinga intertwines biblical texts with modern-day ideas of sin, but for the majority of his book the Bible is sparsely referenced.  Before we analyze the book, we ought to gain a familiarity with Plantinga and his treatment of sin.

An Analysis of Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be

A Book Review

Plantinga begins his book with a broad definition of sin–the vandalizing of shalom.  For him, shalom represents the way things really ought to be in life (1996, 10).  However, he decides to define sin more explicitly.  First, he defines what qualifies something as a sin: “any act–any thought, desire, emotion, word, or deed–or its particular absence, that displeases God and deserves blame” (1996, 10).  Second, he defines sin in criteriological terms: “such instances of both act and disposition” (1996, 13).  Basically, for Plantinga, sin is the disturbance of shalom–wholeness, justice, and peace (1996, 10, 14), and from here the rest of the book can be quickly summed up, for the rest of the chapters rest on this definition of sin.

Plantinga describes sin as the corrupting of spiritual hygiene in the second chapter.  Specifically, he argues that sin is the corruption of shalom, which is brought about in the fact that human nature is despoiled (1996, 31, 32).  This leads into the next chapter, which talks about sin as the perversion, pollution, and disintegration of shalom (1996, 39).  Plantinga seeks to demonstrate that perversion leads to pollution, which leads to disintegration, and all of which is brought about by corruption (1996, 47).  Thus far, sin is at its most basic level a disturbance of shalom, which leads to spiritual corruption (an attack of the spirit, which breaks it down so that it becomes vulnerable for more sins), which leads to perversion (being twisted), which leads to pollution (spiritual uncleanness, which weakens through addition and division), which leads to disintegration (the breaking down of structural integrity at the personal and social levels; it is a spiritual deterioration), which leads to death.  Plantinga continues in the next chapter to show this progression of corruption.

On the one hand, sin despoils, but on the other, it generates (Plantinga 1996, 53).  Plantinga writes that “sin is both fatal and fertile” (1996, 54).  In other words, according to Plantinga, sin is like cancer, which “kills because it reproduces” (1996, 55).  Not only that, but it repeats its own history (1996, 58).  However, we might not know why, and we might not know why people sin for that matter, but we see the pattern of historical repetition, and such is the progress of corruption–it continues on throughout time.  In other words, corruption takes its toll in every generation.  This is not enough description for Plantinga, however, who turns to a new descriptor of sin in the next chapter.

Plantinga describes sin as a parasite next.  Basically, for Plantinga, sin piggy-backs on good and sucks the life right out of it so as to gain life for itself.  Plantinga writes that it is a “fearfully powerful spoiler of the good” (1996, 88), which shows that good is the original and evil is nothing more than the derivative (1996, 89).  Beyond this, however, in the next chapter, Plantinga describes sin as masquerading around in disguise of good (1996, 98).  Sin is therefore a self-deception, “a shadowy phenomenon by which we pull the wool over some part of our own psyche,” so as to “forget that certain things are wrong and that we have done them” (1996, 105).  Therefore, it is a corrupted consciousness (note the progression of corruption here).  At this point, Plantinga has described sin in several different non-biblical terms, and now his focus will turn to the qualification of sin as folly.

Plantinga shows that “not all folly is sin, but all sin is folly” (1996, 121).  We know this to be truth because not all follies disturb shalom (1996, 119).  Furthermore, sin is the best example of folly (1996, 121).  In the next chapter, however, Plantinga argues that while not every addiction is sin, there are addictions that are sin (1996, 129).  In such cases, addiction is also folly, but more than that, it is really all about idolatry (1996, 148).  Moving on, Plantinga addresses the methods of sin–attack and flight.

Sin can be actively aggressive.  Plantinga calls this active aggressiveness “attack.”  It is an assault on humanity, as is made self-evident in lying, which Plantinga demonstrates how it leads to envying, which leads to coveting, which leads to anger, and all of which stems out of pride (1996, 155-67).  However, sin is not solely actively aggressive.  It is also passively aggressive.  Plantinga calls this side of the aggression of sin “flight.”  Flight is really for Plantinga an evasion of moral responsibility (1996, 180).  Plantinga demonstrates that evasion is practiced in agency, conforming, conniving, leaving town (abandoning), specializing (performing), minimizing, going limp, cocooning and amusing ourselves to death (1996, 176-93).  Specifically, flight from shalom is not fulfilling one’s responsibility in finding one’s role in the “building of shalom” (1996, 197).

So there we have it–sin is the disruption and vandalizing of shalom, whether intentionally or unintentionally, through corruption and the effects of corruption, actively or passively, throughout all generations, for which we are held accountable to and will be judged accordingly.  Now that we have a good grasp of the content of the book, we can now analyze Plantinga’s treatment of sin.

A Book Analysis

Plantinga resorts to an experiential-conceptual summarization of sin as opposed to bliblical exegesis of particular passages to describe sin, nor does he use popular biblical terms to describe sin, like transgression or iniquity.  Although his vocabulary and case studies are helpful, for the most part they simply do not do a very good job of getting the biblical ideas of sin across.  In order to come to a solid understanding of a biblical idea, we have to come to understand it in its biblical context and terms.  Therefore, because Plantinga failed to address the concept of sin in its biblical settings through exegesis, his descriptions, metaphors and terms are insufficient to serve his purpose–to bring out a lost awareness of sin.  In other words, sin is a biblical idea, and in order to fully understand that biblical idea it will take biblical terms and examples to come to a complete awareness of it.  Because we barely received any of this biblically grounded description from Plantinga, his description falls short.  His concept of sin as a parasite is a case-in-point.

Plantinga sought to demonstrate sin as a parasite in the fifth chapter.  He wrote that evilness appears alongside good, and this is because the two are intertwined and grow out of each other (1996, 80).  The question that arises is whether or not sin and evil are a created thing, a descriptor of something, or something else entirely.  What comes to mind is James 4:17, which redefines our concept of sin to be that it is an unfulfilled good.  The idea is that it is a depraved or despoiled good.  In fact, Plantinga addresses this with the words of C. S. Lewis near the end of this chapter.  While Plantinga writes, “[S]in is a parasite, an uninvited guest that keeps tapping its host for sustenance,” Lewis says that sin is only “spoiled goodness,” and Augustine says that evil does not exist except that it is a privation of good (1996, 89).  In the insufficiency of his modern terminology, we see some inconsistency.

Plantinga’s analogy is saying that sin is its own being apart from good and it leeches onto good to find life, but Lewis and Augustine are saying that sin is not its own being and that it is a corrupted good.  In other words, for Lewis and Augustine, sin is an issue of degrees on the goodness scale, which differs from Plantinga in whom sin is an actual force that thrives off of sucking the life out of goodness.  The problem is that Plantinga tries to use Lewis and Augustine to support his idea that sin is a parasite, when in reality they do nothing of the sort.  If this is wrong and Plantinga would disagree with this assessment, then it is his own fault, because he did not otherwise make his point clear enough in his book, as it really does point to a contradiction or inconsistency in the different descriptions of sin.  But despite this seemingly apparent contradiction, we do not see biblical terminology, rather case studies and modern-day vocabulary, which further substantiate the insufficiency of his treatment of sin.

Plantinga filled his book with all sorts of modern-day case studies of sin, which demonstrate how human nature has been infiltrated by sin.  Murder stories, abuse stories, a Yale University psychology study, and other perverse cases were told to demonstrate and substantiate his points about sin.  Although they were good in demonstrating the perversion of human nature, they really did not do a great job in bringing home the biblical concept of sin as a whole.  Something was missing; that something was solid biblical support.  Scriptural texts specifically, yet sparsely, addressed (not merely referenced in footnotes) in his book are used in such a way that he is making the texts conform to the points that he wants to make.  Unfortunately, this makes his points stand on a shaky foundation.  Mentioning Scripture in passing or quoting a few words of a passage without yielding its context hardly constitutes the necessary Scriptural support for making one’s claims.  In fact, Plantinga makes his claims first and then gives Scriptural support for those claims second.  If he really wanted to do a good job of resurfacing the seriousness of sin, then maybe he should have allowed the biblical text to speak for itself, then bridged the gap between the biblical audience and today’s audience, and then finally applied the basic theological principles of that text into today’s cultural context.  Plantinga’s method, as is evident in this book, starts by applying his concepts of sin, which he forcefully places into the biblical text, in today’s context first, neglecting to bridge the gap between the two cultures, and then partially quotes a Scripture, generally speaking.  Indeed, his concepts of sin are structured on a shaky foundation of Scripture that is very insufficient for the task.

If Plantinga would have done some exegesis of James 2 and 4:17, Romans 3, and 1 John 1, he could have made some of the main points that he did, but would have been more Scripturally grounded, for the ideas of sin as corrupted and neglected good, that all have this corruption, and all are self-deceived are inherent in these texts.  Plantinga’s experiential-conceptual summarization of sin is un-biblically founded, and even his biblical descriptions and references are found wanting, which is the largest failure of his book, as seen in his description of sin as a parasite.

Plantinga failed to address key passages of the Bible, and he also failed in allowing other things in his book to distract the reader.  His abundant comma splices detract from the impact of his sentences, his vocabulary choices at times detract from the value of some of the concepts, and his use of long segments on a particular point are seemingly drawn-out and boring.  Perhaps he uses grammar rules unfamiliar to this reader, and perhaps the vocabulary of this reader must be broadened, but at least if Plantinga had done some exegesis in place of giving lengthy and drawn-out segments of insufficient descriptions of sin, he would have had better support for his arguments.


Plantinga did a good job in giving modern-day examples and case studies of sin.  Sin is a present-day reality just as much as it is a biblical one.  His book will serve pastors well in giving practical examples and concepts of sin in our cultural context today.  However, it will not serve pastors well in the sense that it does not do good or any exegesis, so the pastor must work that out on his or her own and may find that the results differ from Plantinga’s experiential-conceptual descriptions of sin.  In addition, we really cannot fault Plantinga for not doing any exegesis in the sense that it was not his intention to do so.  However, in order to come to terms with a biblical idea, one must dive into the Bible to gain a firm grasp of that idea.  Plantinga failed to do so in his book, and therefore it is only fair to say that he has only skimmed the surface of the whole concept of sin, and he has not fully submerged into Scripture to resurface our awareness of sin but merely dipped his feet in.  His treatment of sin abandoned biblical terms, concepts and theological principles regarding sin for modern-day examples and terminology.  His treatment was good, but it was not great, and it was definitely insufficient for the job at hand.  Overall, I disagree with Plantinga’s hamartiology as a whole because of his methodology and terminology, and ultimately, even though I agree in certain areas with him, I reject his assessment as being an inadequate one that clearly falls short of the Bible’s treatment of sin.

Reference List

Plantinga, Cornelius, Jr. 1996. Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: a breviary of sin. Grand Rapids,

Michigan and Leicester, England: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company and

Apollos, 1995.  Reprint, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company and Apollos (page

references are to the reprint edition).