Have you been told that the word for “sin” literally means “missing the mark” in the original Greek? In fact, it does not.
The verb “hamartano” (αμαρτανω) was sometimes used in pre-Classical and Classical Greek to refer to missing a target. Homer uses it in the Iliad to speak of a man who failed to hit his opponent with a spear (Iliad 5.287, using the archaic form ημβροτες): “But Diomed all undismayed made answer, ‘You have missed, not hit.’” In other contexts it was used to speak of losing one’s way on a road. More generally it meant, “to do wrong, err or sin” (see Liddell, Scott and Jones, abbrev. LSJ). By the time they were writing the New Testament, the average reader would not have heard the word as “miss the mark,” unless he or she was thinking about Homer’s Iliad, written 800 years earlier.
To import the use of the word from spear throwing to theology is about as much as a leap as the following: a century ago, a poultry farmer would have typically used the word “comb” to refer to the red crest on top of the rooster’s head. Today we usually mean a hair comb. To say that sin is literally “to miss the mark” is about as useful as saying “a hair comb is literally the top of a rooster’s head.” It gives no help, and is misleading.
The Bible does not teach that sin is literally or really “missing the mark.” That is misapplying the use of the verb in one field (spear-throwing) to another field (theology). The Bible defines sin as offense against God, either through neglect or through conscious intent. This “missing the mark” viewpoint can give the idea that sinners try their very best but somehow fall short. They goofed. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth: sinners are not doing their best, even by human standards. They are doing pretty much what they want to do, which is to live for themselves and not for God.
When I was being trained in how to share my faith, I was told to take people to Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” I was instructed to ask them, “Now, haven’t you made some mistakes? Is anyone free from wrong?” Of course the correct, and easy, answer was “No, of course not, we all make mistakes.” From there we would go on to the truth that God would save us from our sin.
This is to distort the Bible’s teaching on sin. “We all make mistakes!” is what a kindly grandfather says when a 5-year-old knocks over his glass of milk. But that kind of slip-up has nothing to do with what we call “sin.” Sin is rebelling against a loving and just God, the kind of treason that would be unpardonable were it not for the cross of Christ. It is not the “oops” that is implied by this “missing the mark” exegesis.
Additional thought: the Greek language is, like astrophysics, Irish literature or cabinet-making, an area of knowledge that may be studied and mastered. Those who wish to tell others about what the Greek means should do what it takes to really get a grasp of it; a basic understanding may be attained through two years of part-time study from a qualified instructor. See also http://openoureyeslord.wordpress.com/2010/07/09/greek-a-science/
“Is sin ‘missing the mark’?” by Gary Shogren, Ph. D., Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San Jose, Costa Rica