The Cosmology of Romans 5–8

Paul’s Account of Evil Cosmic Forces

Abjan van Meerten
5 min readMay 1

In this article, I want to summarize Paul’s account of the cosmos — his cosmology — as it is ruled by malevolent powers in Romans 5–8. In particular, I will focus on the power of hamartia, ‘Sin’ (with a capital S) which dominates Paul’s cosmic scene. This should be distinguished from the human deed of sinning (hamartanō), which should not be configured as an autonomous act of free will, but as active participation in the evil, enslaving power of Sin. Humans sin because they are slaves of Sin, not because they choose to. They are enemies of God (5:10) because Sin has taken them prisoners of war (7:23; see below).

Before 5:12

Before Paul starts discussing Adam and Christ in 5:12, he has used the word hamartia only twice (for hamartanō, see 2:12; 3:23).

  • First, in 3:9, he configured hamartia clearly as a power, as is signaled by the preposition hypo: “All, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of (hypo) Sin.”
  • Then, in 3:20, he says that through the Torah comes “knowledge of s/Sin”. At first sight, this seems a reference to the human deed of sinning. This would then constitute the traditional (Lutheran) ‘second use’ of the Law as a ‘mirror’ of human sins. But seeing how the preceding catena of scriptural references in 3:10–18 is a demonstration of the claim of 3:9 which we just discussed, the scales tip toward sin as also referring to the power in 3:20: the Scriptures demonstrate that humans are slaves of Sin.

In 5:12–8:10

Then, between 5:12 and 8:10, Paul uses hamartia 40 (!) times, his most concentrated discussion of sin in all his letters. Most of these instances undoubtedly refer to the power of Sin. The remaining occurrences should be interpreted similarly if the context leans toward sin as power and if this interpretation does not create exegetical impossibilities.

1. Sin as Power

Firstly, Paul construes hamartia as the subject of active verbs: Sin ‘came into the cosmos’ through Adam’s trespass (5:12) and then ‘reigned as king’ (basileuō; 5:21; 6:12) and ‘ruled as master’ (kyrieuō; 6:14) over humanity. It even ‘resided’ in humans (oikeō; 7:17, 20), ‘working’ all kinds of evil in them (7:8, 13; implicitly in 7:17, 20) and ‘deceiving’ them (7:11).

In a certain sense, ‘Sin’ was the realm in which humans lived (6:1) and the power by which they were determined: they were ‘sold into slavery under the power of Sin’ (pepramenos upo hamartian; 7:14) and were therefore ‘slaves of Sin’ (douloi hamartias; 6:17, 20; cf. v. 18). They presented themselves to Sin as ‘slaves for obedience’ (6:16) and their ‘body parts as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness’ (6:19), with impurity and lawlessness functioning as synonyms for hamartia. Accordingly, the human body was a ‘body of [i.e., subject to] Sin’ (6:6). In general, this state of ‘slavery’ was associated with ‘fear’ (8:15).

Thus, humans ‘served as slaves’ (douleuein) for Sin (6:6) and the Law of Sin (7:25; see below), and ‘obeyed’ Sin and its desires (6:12; also 6:17–18). Switching metaphors, humans presented their body parts to Sin as ‘weapons of unrighteousness’ (6:13), the latter term another synonym for hamartia. Thus humans functioned as soldiers in Sin’s army and accordingly received a ‘soldier’s wage’ (6:23) from Sin.

2. Sin and Death

This brings us to the third element in Paul’s cosmic picture, besides humanity and Sin, which is death. Repeatedly, death is configured as the corollary of Sin (cf. 8:2): ‘Through Sin, death [came into the cosmos]’ (5:12). ‘Sin reigned as king in death’ (5:21). Being a slave of Sin ‘results in death’ for humans (6:16). Put differently, the ‘fruit’ of one’s actions in slavery to Sin is death (6:20). Climactically, Paul states that ‘the soldier’s wages of Sin is death’ (6:23). Accordingly, ‘the body is dead because of Sin’ (8:10).

3. Death as Power

Death (thanatos) can also function as a separate power (thus capitalised, ‘Death’): it ‘reigned as king’ (5:14, 17) in the cosmos and ‘rule[d] as master’ (6:9) over humans. Consequently, ‘many died’ (5:15; also 7:9) as the body became a ‘body of [i.e., subject to] Death’ (7:24) and a ‘mortal body’ (6:12; 8:11). Moreover, Death teamed up with the power of the ‘Flesh’ (sarx): ‘In the realm of the Flesh, the sinful passions [pathēma hamartiōn] (…) bore fruit for Death’ (7:5). Similarly, the thinking of the Flesh consists of nothing less than Death (8:6). As a result, if you live in accord with the Flesh, you will die (8:13). [2]

4. Sin and Death & the Law

The fourth element in Paul’s cosmology is the Law, which functions as an ally or instrument of Sin and Death and can therefore be called ‘the Law of Sin’ (7:23, 25; 8:2; cf. 7:2) and ‘the Law of Sin and Death’ (8:2). [1] However, as Paul clarifies in chapter 7, the Law is not Sin (7:7) and did not become Death (7:13); Sin and Death only used it for its malevolent purposes (cf. 7:13).

When people are not under the power of the Law, they are also not ruled by Sin (6:14-15) and not bound to Sin (7:1–3; cf. 7:6), because without the Law, Sin is ‘dead’ (7:8) and humans are alive (7:9), not (experientially) knowing Sin and covetousness (7:7). However, with the arrival of the Law, Sin ‘revived’ (7:9) and ‘increased’ in power (5:20), as it ‘seized a military base of operations’ (lambanō aphormēn) provided through the Law (7:8, 11).

In the hands of Sin, the Law ‘waged war against’ humans (antistrateuomai; 7:23) and ‘made [them] prisoners of war’ (aichmalōtizō; 7:23). Again, this is tied into the power of the Flesh which makes humans vulnerable for Sin (cf. 7:5, 18, 25). Moreover, the Law allowed Sin to be ‘billed’ (see 5:13), not bringing life but death (7:10), as Sin through the Law ‘killed’ (7:11) and ‘worked death’ (7:13). In this way, Sin was recognised for what it really was and became ‘sinful beyond measure’ (7:13).


[1] For a more extensive discussion of the complicated topic of the Law, see my article ‘Romans 5:12–14: The Cosmic Powers of Sin and Death, and the Role of the Law’, and my paper ‘The Voices of Torah in Paul: Cacophony or Harmony?’. In that paper, I also quickly point out the dual self that figures in Romans 7.

[2] In a future article, I will consider the power of the Flesh more extensively in light of Paul’s anthropology in Romans 5–8.



Abjan van Meerten

Thoughts on the apocalyptic theology of Paul and the universal love of God