Friday, May 20, 2011

Some Sins are Worse than Others

Are some sins worse than others? Or are they all the same? It seems as though many Christians would say, contrary to our strong moral intuition, that all sins are in fact the same. In relation to salvation this is clearly true. For instance, consider Romans 5:12: “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.” The idea is that any sin, no matter how “large” or “small” mankind may consider it, separates man from God. This is because sin, by definition, is a violation of the moral law of God. Therefore, proponents conclude each sin is exactly alike in the eyes of God; no sin is any better or worse than any other sin.

However, there are a few problems with this. First, it ascribes a sort of consequentialism with respect to judging the relative “rightness” or “wrongness” of an action. If some action results in being separated from God, then every action is entirely the same qualitatively. But what reason should we think that is true?

Second, it prevents any actions from being judged to be “better” or “worse” in any true sense. Between two bad options, only pragmatically can we say some action is better or worse; there is no difference between, say, raping, torturing and killing a woman and stealing a twenty-five cent piece of candy from the dollar store. This seems highly counterintuitive. Perhaps someone would complain that intuitions are sometimes found to be wrong. However, this does not mean we should think my intuitions are incorrect. Even if we found that some of my moral intuitions are incorrect, what non-question-begging reason do we have to think that this particular moral intuition is wrong?

Third, this seems to go against biblical evidence itself. Matthew records the words of Jesus, saying, “It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrha in that day of judgment, than for that city.” The context is the commissioning of the twelve by Jesus to the people of Israel.[1] The idea is that rejection of Israel’s own Messiah is worse than the actions of the Sodomites. Suppose one wished to argue that all the text states is that there are differing levels of punishment. To that I would ask: why different levels of punishment if there are not different levels of crime? We cannot say God in his wrath is condescending to our limited understanding. Even though David was a sinner and sinned every day, why did the biblical record seem to think David as an adulterer/murderer was worse than the prior David?

Finally, Jesus himself describes different sins as actually ontologically worse than others. In John 19:11, Jesus spoke to Pilate, and told him that the one who delivered him to Pilate had the “greater sin.”[2] This word for “greater” is μειζονα. This word always means “greater” or “more” in a comparative sense. This should be the final nail in the coffin. Jesus himself taught greater and lesser degrees of punishment, and greater and lesser degrees of sin. Some things really are farther away from the moral standard of God himself than other things. Yes, it is true any sin separates you from God. But it does not then follow all sins are equally bad. God gave us our moral intuitions, and we should use them.

                [1] There are plenty of other verses to support this idea, including: Matthew 11:24, Mark 6:11, and Luke 10:12.

                [2] This may refer to either Herod or Judas.

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  1. Good post. Can't tell you how many times I hear someone say, "All sins are equal in the eyes of God." That one-liner is probably second only to "No one comes to Christ through arguments!" in frequency.

  2. Great post, don't forget the "counter - positive". Are some deeds more Christ like than others? That to me is the best re - butt to sin equivocal ness

  3. Hi Kief! I'd say "God works in mysterious ways" wins the day in the frequency category lol. And while it's true for purposes of imputed sin that any sin will separate one from God and render him without hope (outside of Christ), nonetheless certain things really are worse than others! This post was not intended to make me feel better than someone else, but rather just to stay biblically faithful.

  4. Hey JoMomma. :> Yes, that is a very good point. As C.S. Lewis would say, our intuition that something X is better than something Y reveals there is an ultimate standard for that morality and X more closely conforms to it.

  5. If a believer consistently contemplatively the "what's better" option, they don't have to waste time or energy contemplating "what's worse". Either case we're never qualified to judge it for others.

  6. I think we can say, in some certain cases, which actions more closely conform to the objective moral standard than another. For instance, it is better to feed a man than to shake his hand and tell him you're praying, all things being equal and supposing the prayer offer is sincere. There's nothing wrong with praying; in fact it is good. But it is better to get involved in the person's life. It is much easier, however, to judge actions to be worse or "not as bad" as another. And I'll readily admit it's not always clear-cut.


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