Steiner didn’t talk about sin a lot. Some of his followers say that he created a new spiritual vision that transcends such polarities as virtue/sin and good/evil. That is not quite correct, however. “Sin,” for Steiner, certainly exists. Generally, it involves retardation or moving in the wrong evolutionary direction, down into material existence and, perhaps, all the way down into a subhuman condition. Steiner taught that sin is good for us, in one sense — we need to be tempted into material existence so that we may freely choose to move back up into spirituality. Still, sin and evil do exist, and they are quite nasty.
Here’s a nice overview, emphasizing the upbeat:
"The background of the concepts of Sin, Original Sin, and Grace, is infinitely more profound than is generally imagined. The reason why this deep background is not perceived at the present time is that the real profundities of nearly all the traditional religions — this applies, to a greater or less extent, to nearly all of them in the form in which they now exist — have been more or less obliterated. The tenets of these religions seldom contain anything even remotely comparable with what lies behind these concepts of Sin, Original Sin and Grace. For what lies behind them is actually the whole evolution of the human race.
"...In the last stage of transition [during human evolution], when man was on the point of receiving his ego, there came the Luciferic influence [the effect of Lucifer]. In that epoch of his evolution man was not the being he is today, but neither is he to be identified with the animals. Lucifer approached him ... This temptation by Lucifer occurred at the time when man was actually at the point of receiving his ego ... Who then, in the real sense, was the sinner? Not man as an ego-endowed being. Through Lucifer, man became a sinner with one part of his being — the part with which, properly speaking, he can no longer be a sinner today, for now he has his ego. At that time, therefore, he sinned with his astral body ... The consequence of the astral body having incurred guilt before man became an ego-endowed being has been that in each successive incarnation he sank more deeply into the physical world.
"...[O]ur conception of the Original Sin must differ from that of other sins of ordinary life which are to be attributed entirely to ourselves: we must think of Original Sin as a destiny of man, as something that had inevitably to be imposed upon us by the World Order, because this World Order was obliged to lead us downwards — not in order to worsen us but in order to awaken in us the forces wherewith again to work our way upwards. We must therefore conceive of this Fall as something that has been woven into human destiny for the sake of the freeing of mankind. We could never have become free beings had we not been thrust downwards; we should have been tied to the strings of a World Order which we should have been obliged to follow blindly. What we have to do is to work our own way upwards again." — Rudolf Steiner, “The Concepts of Original Sin and Grace” (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1960), a lecture, GA 127.
[Rudolf Steiner Press, 1960.]
Note that in the above quotation, Steiner speaks of the great “original” sin but he also speaks of “sins of ordinary life.” There is plenty of sin in the world, according to Steiner.
The “World Order” has a baleful ring, but Steiner meant nothing demonic — just the opposite, really. He meant the hierarchical structure and plan of the gods.
There is a problem for Steiner in all this. Sin is conscious, guilty misbehavior — we choose to do wrong and therefore deserve punishment. Our karma involves this punishment: We pay, in our next life, for the sins we commit in this life. But Jesus taught of forgiveness. How can we be forgiven if we must receive our karmic penalty? Can karma be set aside? The solution, Steiner says, is that we will receive our punishment, since this is good for us. But the “objective” consequence of our sin — the effect on the universe as a whole — will be blotted out, “forgiven” by Christ, so that the universe as a whole will not be harmed.
"Here, certainly, a difficulty may easily arise, especially for the anthroposophical world-view. To approach this difficulty we need only look at the opposition between the concept of guilt and sin and the concept of Karma.
"...[T]hrough Karma, objective justice is fulfilled. Here we must clearly understand that a man is certainly subject to his Karma; he has to make karmic compensation for unjust deeds ... When we grasp the true meaning of human freedom, we can have no wish that a sin should be so forgiven us that we would no longer need to pay it off in our Karma. For example, a man who puts out the eyes of another is more imperfect that one who does not, and in his later Karma it must come to pass that he does a correspondingly good deed, for only then will he be inwardly again the man he was before he committed the sin. So if we rightly consider the nature of man, we cannot suppose that when a man has put out the eyes of another it will be forgiven him, and that Karma will be in some way adjusted. Hence there is rightness in the fact that we are not excused a farthing of our Karma, but must pay our debts in full.
"...But something else comes in. The guilt, the sins, with which we are laden are not merely our own affair; they are an objective cosmic fact which means something for the universe also ... If we have, let us say, put out someone's eyes in a present incarnation, and then in the next incarnation we do something that makes compensation for this act, yet for the objective course of the universe the fact will remain that so many hundred years ago we put out someone's eyes.
"...Christ has taken upon Himself the objective debt ... This distinction must be kept clearly in mind: karmic justice remains, but Christ intervenes in the effects of the guilt in the spiritual world. He takes over the debt into His kingdom and bears it further. Christ is that Being who, because He is of another kingdom, is able to blot out in the world our debts and our sins, taking them upon Himself." — Rudolf Steiner, CHRIST AND THE HUMAN SOUL (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1972), lecture 3, GA 155.
Steiner was good at ironing out these sorts of problems. He made the contradictions in his thought disappear or at least seem to disappear.
Be that as it may, our focus at the moment is on the existence of the concepts of sin and evil in his doctrines. They are present. Steiner took them seriously (if we can consider any of his teachings serious).
Sin is a result of personal defects.
"[I]mportant for man's life in the community that his etheric body should harmonize with the etheric bodies of those with whom he has to associate. If he cannot make this adjustment it is impossible for him to live with them: difficulties arise and he is rejected by the community, he becomes an outcast. The task of man's etheric body therefore is to adjust itself to the etheric bodies of others. The astral body determines man's individual tendencies; it must live in such a way that the individual does not commit personal sins. Personal sins are the consequences of errors on the part of the astral body, are in effect defects of the astral body. Failure to achieve harmony with the community is the consequence of defects of the etheric body. In the esoteric teachings of Christianity the correct term for the defects of the etheric body was 'debt', that which disturbs harmonious relationship with others. A defect of the astral body, a defect which stems from individuation was called in Christian esotericism 'succumbing to temptation'. It is the impulses, passions and desires of the astral body which lead man into temptation. The astral body errs through its own inner defects. In this way Christian esotericism distinguished between 'debt' and yielding to temptation." — Rudolf Steiner, THE STRUCTURE OF THE LORD'S PRAYER (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1971), a lecture, GA 97.
Steiner taught that sin is not a simple matter of breaking divine laws, such as the Ten Commandments. The Commandments, he said, are not really prohibitions so much as instructional tools for our spiritual egos. We now live in Kali Yuga, the Dark Age, when it just so happens that we cannot all clairvoyantly see that Steiner was right about everything.
But this will change in the future, when we get past the “Outer Law” such as is found in the Bible. When our egos make enough progress, we will no longer need the Bible and its Commandments — we will see the Truth for ourselves and formulate our own apprehension of good action. This means following Christ, not in the sense of believing in Him, but in the sense of using him as our model, our Prototype: We will become like Him.
"The Ten Commandments give instructions for the education of the ego. This was the preparation by means of which the ego was to learn in its most inward being how to give itself the impulse after having descended into Kali-Yuga, into the age of darkness. At first man was to be given the Law from above. The Law of one's own ego could however, only become what it was to be, when that ego takes into itself the great Prototype of Golgotha, saying: ‘If I take into my soul such thinking as was thought by the Being Who offered Himself in sacrifice on Golgotha, — if I take into myself such feelings as were felt by the Being Who offered Himself as sacrifice on Golgotha, — if I take into myself such willing as was willed by the Being Who offered Himself in sacrifice on Golgotha, then will my being come to a decision within itself to develop increasingly a likeness to God, it will then no longer have to follow the Outer Law, the Ten Commandments, but an inner impulse, its own Law.’" — Rudolf Steiner, THE CHRIST IMPULSE AND THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE EGO-CONSCIOUSNESS (Anthroposophical Publishing Co., 1926), lecture 3, GA 116.
For the present — in the “post-Atlantean age” — the tendency toward evil is in all of us. This is, perhaps surprisingly, good. Our evolution requires us to incorporate all manner of powers into ourselves to master and transmute them. We need death and evil in order to overcome them, as it were. We will “receive” the power of death into ourselves
pretty soon, and then on Jupiter, Venus, and Vulcan we will make additional progress.
"Since the beginning of the fifth post-Atlantean period, evil inclinations — tendencies to evil — are subconsciously present in all men. Nay, the very entry of man into the fifth Post-Atlantean age — which is the age of modern civilisation — consists in his receiving into himself the tendencies to evil. Radically, but none the less truly, spoken, this may be stated: He who crosses the threshold into the spiritual world will undergo the following experience: There is no crime in all the world, but that every single human being, inasmuch as he belongs to the fifth Post-Atlantean age, has in his subconsciousness the inclination towards it — I say again, the inclination. Whether in one case or another the inclination to evil leads to an external evil action depends on quite other circumstances than on the inclination itself. You see, my dear friends, if one is obliged in our time to tell humanity the plain unvarnished truth, the truths one has to tell are by no means comfortable.
"...If the forces of death did not exist in the Universe, man would not be able to evolve the Spiritual Soul [our highest soul nature], he would not be able to receive, — as he must receive, in the further course of his earthly evolution — the forces of the Spirit-Self [Manas, the transformed astral body], Life-Spirit [Budhi, the transformed etheric body],and Spirit-Man [Atma, the transformed physical body],. Man must pass through the Spiritual Soul if he wishes to absorb in his own way the forces of Spirit-Self, Life-Spirit and Spirit-Man. To this end he must completely unite the forces of death with his own being during the course of the fifth Post-Atlantean age, that is to say, by the middle of the third millennium A.D. And he can do so. But he cannot unite the forces of evil with his being in the same way. I say again not in the same way. The forces of evil are so ordered in the great Universe in the Cosmos that man will be able to receive them into his evolution only during the Jupiter period, even as he now receives the forces of death.
"...All these forces, however, will reside more in the inner realm of the soul; for their full development, the Jupiter, Venus and Vulcan periods of evolution will have to follow." — Rudolf Steiner, “Evil and the Future of Man” (THE GOLDEN BLADE, 1985), GA 185.
When we get past the need for commandments, we will move past the possibility of sin, in a sense. In an ultimate sense, the good gods are able to bring virtue out of evil. Evil will be defeated. But evil does exist, and there are evil gods who wish to spread evil. The victory of the good is almost assured, but not absolutely. The good gods and the evil gods
contend, and their fate — the fate of everything — hangs in the balance.
"Our gaze, which must of course be full of understanding for human karma, is now deflected from the destiny of men to the destiny of gods. For when we contemplate the horrors of war, the guilt and ugliness of war in their connection with death-dealing elemental catastrophes, we are watching the battle waged by the good gods against the evil gods — in two directions evil [i.e., Lucifer and Ahriman]. We gaze beyond the life of men into the life of gods, beholding the life of gods as the background of human life ... [T]he destiny of men lies embedded in the destiny of the gods ... [T]he gods yearn for what they have to take in hand for men while their own battle is being waged ... One who had attained Initiation into the Mysteries...came to know the nether gods and the upper gods, the Ahrimanic gods and the Luciferic gods. The good gods, [and the bad gods:] the Ahrimanic and the Luciferic gods. The good gods work in the field of equilibrium ... To what end does calamity exist in the world? To the end that the gods may transmute it into well-being ... I must take the hand of the gods." — Rudolf Steiner, KARMIC RELATIONSHIPS, Vol. 2 (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1974), lecture 16, GA 236.
Our only real hope is to follow Steiner, or so Steiner said. We need the “knowledge” he offers us in Anthropo-sophy — human knowledge, human wisdom.
"[T]hinking is oriented on the physical plane; feeling is no longer confined to the physical plane but by its very nature is connected to the spiritual plane as well. Feeling really has a connection with all the spiritual beings who must be considered real. So that if a person with inadequate concepts sinks into his or her feeling life, he or she comes into collision with the gods — if you like to put it that way — but also with the evil gods. And all these collisions occur because the person entered this realm without any reliable means of knowledge. Entering the feeling life without adequate means of knowledge is unavoidable when there is more going on in the sphere of feeling than in that of ordinary reason. In the sphere of feelings, human beings cannot liberate themselves from their connection with the spiritual world. When they free themselves in the realm of the intellect in this materialistic age, they enter the world of feeling with inadequate concepts and consequently must become ill.
"What then is the only remedy to really restore people to health? They must be guided to concepts that reach out to include the world of feelings; that is to say, modern people must again be told of the spiritual world in the most comprehensive sense." — Rudolf Steiner, PSYCHOANALYSIS AND SPIRITUAL PSYCHOLOGY (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1990), lecture 2, GA 178.
- Compilation and commentary by Roger Rawlings
The seven deadly sins.
[Michel Liénard, FANTASTIC ORNAMENT (Dover Publications, 2006), plate 23.]
Steiner acknowledged that catechisms have their uses, as in providing knowledge of the seven deadly sins.
[See, e.g., KARMIC RELATIONSHIPS, Vol. 3 (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1977) p. 82.]
But higher truths, he taught, transcend catechisms.
“No particular strength is required to repeat from some catechism ...
People do not muster the courage today to penetrate to the wisdom of the gods.”
[THE FESTIVALS AND THEIR MEANING (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1996), p. 187.]
This failure can be of particular significance in the crucial matter of sin.
"Now on each planet there are also Spirits who have remained behind in evolution, they have remained stationary and not wished to progress. You will recognise a law from this: If the most outstanding fall and commit the 'great sin' of not advancing with evolution, then they become the very worst of all. The noble sense of liberty has been reversed into wickedness, into its opposite. Those are the Spirits of Temptation, and they must be taken gravely into account; they lead to the evil side of egoism, even today they are still in our environment, these evil Spirits of Saturn. All that is bad draws its power from these Spirits." — Rudolf Steiner, THEOSOPHY OF THE ROSICRUCIAN (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1966), lecture 9, GA 99.