Monday, May 21, 2012

Are All Sins Equally Bad? Are All Saints Equally Good?

Colijn de Coter,
Saint Michael Weighing Souls (detail)
(16th c.).
Protestants typically believe that all sins are equally bad, and all Saints are equally good.  For example, a Kansas middle school teacher is in hot water for writing, according to the Huffington Post, that “Being Gay Is 'The Same As Murder'.” Despite the quotation marks, the teacher didn't actually write that.  Instead, he wrote:
All this talk in the news about gay marriage recently has finally driven me to write. Gay marriage is wrong because homosexuality is wrong. The Bible clearly states it is sin. Now I do not claim it to be a sin any worse than other sins. It ranks in God's eyes the same as murder, lying, stealing, or cheating. His standards are perfect and ALL have sinned and fallen short of His glory. Sin is sin and we all deserve hell. Only those who accept Christ as Lord and daily with the help of the Spirit do their best to turn from sin will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. There aren't multiple ways to get to Heaven. There is one. To many this may seem close minded and antagonistic, but it doesn't make it any less true. Folks I am willing to admit that my depravity is just as great as anyone else's, and without Christ I'd be destined for hell, if not for the undeserved grace of God. I'm not condemning gay marriage because I hate gay people. I am doing it because those who embrace it will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. And I desire that for no one.
While he's not actually saying that being gay is the same as murder, he is saying that homosexuality “ranks in God's eyes the same” as everything from lying to murder.  In other words, every sin, from the smallest lie to the largest massacre, is equally bad.  But is that right?

Are All Sins Equally Bad?

The clearest Scriptural evidence as to the degrees of sin comes from 1 John 5:16-17,
If any one sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that.  All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal.
In other words, Scripture clearly distinguishes between two categories of sin: mortal (or deadly) sin, and venial sin, which John defines as “sin which is not mortal.” A Christian who knowingly and willingly commits a mortal sin cuts himself off from eternal life.  That's what John means by “mortal” or “deadly.”  It kills the soul. So a man who, on his deathbed, is mildly rude to a family member is not going to be treated the same way as a man who, on his deathbed, renounces his faith in Christ.  A Just Judge doesn't treat those two cases the same, and God is a Just Judge.

Look at 1 Cor. 11:29-30, in which St. Paul says of the Eucharist that “any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.  That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.”  Just as mortal sin is mortal to the soul, here again, it's primarily their souls that are weak, or ill, or dead.  But notice that we're beginning to see distinctions even within the two categories: that some sinners are objectively worse off than others.  So even within the categories of venial and mortal sins, we can distinguish between the degree and gravity of sin.

Jesus refers to sinners as “the sick” in Mark 2:17, and Himself as the Doctor.  But of course, there are different kinds and degrees of illness. Even if all of the sick need a doctor, and need healing, it's just not true that a headache and cancer are equally bad.  We see this also in Luke 7:36-50, in which Jesus compares sins to different sized debts, in the house of Simon the Pharisee:
Jean Beraud, St. Mary Magdalene in the House of Simon the Pharisee (1891)
One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house, and took his place at table.  And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was at table in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.

Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner." And Jesus answering said to him, "Simon, I have something to say to you." And he answered, "What is it, Teacher?"

"A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he forgave them both. Now which of them will love him more?"  Simon answered, "The one, I suppose, to whom he forgave more." And he said to him, "You have judged rightly." 
Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet.  You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.  Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little." And he said to her, "Your sins are forgiven."  
Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, "Who is this, who even forgives sins?" And he said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace."
So this captures two different points, each of which is very important.  First, that some sins are actually worse than others, that some sinners have offended God's Justice more egregiously than others.  But second, that everyone is in need of redemption, and everyone is offered redemption, regardless of how bad their sins are.  Protestants generally grasp the second point, but in the process, they often deny the first one.  It's a shame, because each teaching is clear from Scripture.

Are All Saints Equally Good?

The flip side to the claim that all sins are equally bad is the claim that all Saints are equally righteous in the eyes of God.  But as with the first claim, this doesn't appear to be based on anything from Scripture.  Because Scripture actually paints a rather different picture.   

When God is planning to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, He doesn't talk to Lot, who lives there.  He talks to his holier cousin, Abraham, instead, even though Abraham doesn't live in either of those cities (Gen. 18:16-33).  And Abraham intercedes on behalf of his cousin, Lot, saving him and his family. Genesis 19:29 captures this succinctly: “So when God destroyed the cities of the plain, He remembered Abraham, and He brought Lot out of the catastrophe that overthrew the cities where Lot had lived.”  So it's for the sake of Abraham that Lot is spared.

And Jesus rather frequently speaks about which of His followers are the greatest.  For example, in Luke 9:48, He says, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For he who is least among you all—he is the greatest.”  And in Luke 22:26 says that, “the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.” And shortly after this, He says to His Apostles (Lk. 22:28-30):
You are those who have stood by Me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as My Father conferred one on Me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in My Kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
Now, Jesus doesn't give all of us that authority in Heaven, but just the Apostles who were with Him in His trials.  And indeed, the image of Heaven given in Scripture is much more hierarchical than anything Protestants tend to describe.  There are various ranks of angelic beings (angels, archangels, principalities, powers, virtues, dominions, thrones, cherubim, and seraphim) lists in Scripture, and rankings even among the Saints.  For example, Revelation 14:3 refers to a song that can only be sung by the 144,000 redeemed, a subgroup of the saved who are honored in a special way (see Rev. 14:1-5).

So clearly, both in Heaven and on Earth, the Saints are not merely interchangeable parts.  Some have more power and authority.  This is one of the reasons why Scripture prescribes intercessory prayer (see 1 Tim. 2:1): because we want those holier than ourselves interceding for us.

Conclusion

This is admittedly a bit of an overview for what should be a basic point: some sins are worse than others, and some Saints are holier than others.  This point strikes me as so basic and intuitive that the burden should really be on the one who denies it.  Where in Scripture do we ever hear that murder is no worse than, say, lying?

18 comments:

  1. Matthew 5:21-22 does come to mind.

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    1. You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; 26 truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny.

      To me it seems very clear, "liable to judgment" "Liable to council" and "Liable to the hell of fire." makes a case for different distinctions for different sins. The later half (which you didn't quote) is about reconciling yourself to your brother (ie confession and asking for forgiveness). And this is important before offering anything to God.

      BTW it's as Joe points out, there is no mention of lying. The sins are killing, anger, insulting, and cursing. No mention of lying.

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    2. Though he does mention lying and murder elsewhere:
      "You belong to your father the devil and you willingly carry out your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in truth, because there is no truth in him. When he tells a lie, he speaks in character, because he is a liar and the father of lies."

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    3. I thought about Matthew 5:21-22, and about Romans 3:23. But neither of those passages actually say that all sins are viewed as equally bad in God's eyes, do they? If anything, as Deltaflute notes, it appears that in Matthew 5:21-22, Christ is actually distinguishing the punishments due these sins, while emphasizing that they're all sinful. So that passage strikes me as evidence against the "all sins are equal" hypothesis.

      Is that it on Biblical evidence in favor of the theory? Or are there some passages we're missing?

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    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    5. Sorry, I noticed an error in grammar.

      Deltaflute & Joe, with all due respect, you are creating distinctions where the Lord did not. The point of the passage is that we are being called to a higher morality in the new Covenant, one that is as dependent on our intention as is it is our outward actions. Very plainly put, that. Saying some mortal sins are worse than others is like saying some dead people are deader than others. Silly talk.

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  2. Joe, I read the parable in the house of the pharisee I read it as the Lord is comparing quantities of debt, not quality- so a person who had committed 500 mortal sins who is forgiven will love the Lord more than the one who has had 50 mortal sins forgiven. If we die with one unforgiven mortal sin on our soul we are condemned and it doesn't matter what form that sin takes.

    If there is any distinction or "ranking" of mortal sins then this belongs to the Lord, this is not something fit for mortal man to determine.

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    1. That includes ranking them all on a level and saying there is no distinction.

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    2. It’s true that even a single mortal sin will keep us out of Heaven. But that doesn’t mean that all sin (or even all mortal sin) is equally bad. Plenty of folks, from Dante to St. Thomas Aquinas, categorize and rank sins by their gravity. Dante expressly ties the gravity to the level of severity of punishment in Hell.

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  3. The error underlying this “all sins are equally bad” view seems to be that it’s man-centric. It appears to be premised off of two unstated presuppositions:
    1) The gravity of sin should be measured by how badly we’re punished in response to it; and
    2) The punishment for one mortal sin is the same as for one hundred (damnation).

    The first of these presuppositions is clearly wrong. Mortal sin isn’t wrong simply because it keeps us out of Heaven. Rather, mortal sin keeps us out of Heaven because it’s wrong. In this light, it’s sensible to address the reality that one mortal sin may be worse than another. For example, both fornication and rape are mortal sins. But that doesn’t mean that sleeping with your girlfriend and raping your girlfriend are equally bad.

    Furthermore, when a person already in mortal sin commits another mortal sin, true damage is done, and he further offends God’s Justice – even if the man’s punishment does not increase.

    But that gets us right to the second point: is it true that man’s punishment does not increase? Perhaps. But plenty of Catholic authors, like Dante, would challenge this. Just as the greatest Saints have an increased capacity to enjoy Heaven, it stands to reason that the worst sinners experience the agonies of Hell more intensely. Certainly, Luke 12:47-48 is consistent with this idea. So where does this idea come from, that the joys of Heaven and the pains of Hell are experienced the same by all souls?

    Does Revelation depict everyone in Heaven as interchangeable, or are there certain souls in places of higher honor?

    I.X.,

    Joe

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  4. Protestants (among whom I numbered myself for 28 years) quote one verse which seems to imply that all sins are equal: James 2:10:

    For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. 11 For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker. (NIV)

    I was taught in numerous Bible studies that this meant one couldn't 'rank' sins: the image often used was that of failing an exam like the driving test. It didn't matter whether one messed up on one element of the test or a dozen - one had still failed. (Admittedly it always worried me that this seemed to equate pinching some paper-clips from work and being a multi-murderer.)

    I hope this helps in your witness to evangelicals. ('Witness', of course, being a left-over term from my evangelical days...)

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  5. Hum, Denzinger's might help.

    From the "Errors of Michael Dubey"
    1020 20. No sin is venial by its own nature, but every sin deserves eternal punishment.
    1025 25. All works of infidels are sins, and the virtues of philosophers are vices.
    1027 27. Free will, without the help of God's grace, has only power for sin.
    1035 35. Every action which a sinner, or a slave of sin performs is a sin.
    1050 50. Bad desires, to which reason does not consent, and which man unwillingly suffers, are prohibited by the precept: "Thou shalt not covet"
    ...
    1080 These opinions have been carefully considered and examined before us; although some of them could be maintained in some way, yet in the strict and proper sense intended by those asserting them, we condemn them respectively as heretical, erroneous, suspect, rash, scandalous, and as giving offense to pious ears.

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  6. Useful. But...six errors, five classifications - is there another one?

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  7. Sue - actually, there's a very large list of errors (http://www.catecheticsonline.com/SourcesofDogma11.php), the 'respectively' doesn't mean a one-to-one mapping. In retrospect, I should have included a link.

    You're right, though: it is often problematic to determine what items are which class. The sum for these sorts of lists are that they 'ought not be taught'.

    That said, something like 1020 is reflected properly in Anselm's tract on the subject, and you could say the single line is a bit of a summary - but taken in a vacuum (instead of with the rest of Anselm's material), it is 'suspect, rash, scandalous, and giving offense to pious ears'.

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  8. The problem with "this sin is worse than that sin" is that it sets people up to sin further by allowing them to justify and minimize what they do (which I know they are going to do anyway) and there is also the danger of people being uncharitable in judging others (which I know they are going to do anyway). "I may engage in extra-marital sex, but at least I don't engage in homosexual sex" (and they have this view even if they participate in anal or oral sex with their partner) or "That person is bad because they are homosexual".

    I do see a distinction between "all mortal sins are equal in their effect" and "some mortal sins carry a stronger punishment than others", but in the final analysis damned for eternity is damned for eternity.

    Of course all of the answers will be revealed in the fullness of time.

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    1. George,

      I agree with you that an over-emphasis on the degrees and gravity of sin can lead folks to consider their sins "not that bad," comparatively. But there are a lot of parts of the faith that can be distorted or emphasized in an inappropriate way. That doesn't change the fact these parts of the faith are still true.

      I.X.,

      Joe

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  9. I've always wondered about this part of the verse: "There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that." What does he mean by the second half? It seems like he's saying you shouldn't pray about mortal sins.. but that can't be right.

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  10. A real distinction that arises from this debate is one of justification. Although not overtly, the Catholic perspective seems to contain tones of man-centric reasoning, rationing, and justifying. We're essentially claiming that if we're good enough, then we get in, or at least we receive more perfect love and enjoyment of our eternal father. This seems to disregard, or at least gloss over the very important fact that in Jesus, we are made perfect, he is our substitution. We are seen as holy in the sight of the Father because he is holy. He is our sin offering, our justification, and our covering. And, being made perfect in love, we are ushered into the presence of the Father, the tangible and holy Love that knows no limits, keeps no record of wrongs. The kind of love that, in 1st John, is said to drive out fear - because fear has to do with punishment. There is no punishment in love, there is no withholding of God's consuming love. It is a fire, that when released, will entirely consume. It will hold no account. There is no record of wrongs kept in the assumption of this holy and entirely beyond-human, supernatural love.

    The passage cited in Matthew seems to me to be a statement of equivocation more than anything. If, in fact, it is a price sheet for the cost of sins, it seems slightly skewed to held liable to judgement for murder and for anger, but then be liable to the fires of hell for calling someone a fool. Judgement seems to indicate the potential for pardon or justification. Being handed over to the fires of hell seems significantly more terrible and terminal. It feels strange to weigh the insult of calling someone a fool as more deadly of a sin than murder, in my estimation.

    None of this is to say that the Protestant perspective is entirely on target either. The very real distinction between sins, often ignored by Protestants, is important because; yes, although we are held outside of God's good graces at even the slightest offense without the Godsend of Jesus' perfect and complete covering, we are impacted very differently by the different degrees of sin. This seems more an issue of sanctification (the process of coming more fully into the real and present awareness and experience of God's Spirit in this life) rather than justification which, in Jesus, is eternally complete, slate cleaned before the author of Life and Love, no record of past offenses kept, no matter how insignificant or grievous - they are thrown as far as the east is from the west.

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