In the area of criminal law, we can determine which crimes are worse by the amount of punishment available. If Jane commits an act in which she could be sentenced to 10 years in prison, and Joe commits an act in which he could be sentenced to 15 years in prison, we readily exclaim that Joe’s crime is worse.
Christians act as if there is a hierarchy of sins. Some are worse than others. Some scriptures certainly intone a hierarchy of sins.
If there was a hierarchy, would God have been clearer what, exactly, it was? Or is it more likely that each author was making up their own determination as to which sins were worse than others? That, in fact, the books of the New Testament are human creations in which, not surprisingly, humans disagree as to differences in sins.
You tell me what you have done, and I can tell you where it fits in how “bad” it is under our legal system. Lied under oath? Perjury (15-year felony) is far worse than stealing a car (five-year felony). Unless there was a person in the car (Life). All of which is worse than hitting a person (93 day misdemeanor). Even if you hit them with a knife (4-year felonious assault.)
Tell me how many grams of drugs you had, or how much you stole, or what weapon (if any) you used in the robbery, or how much monetary damage you caused, and I can conveniently plug you in to where your actions fit in our criminal system.
Ah, but I have misled you. See, I can tell you what your actions mean under Michigan Law. Take one step south into Indiana or Ohio, and all of a sudden the rules change. Perhaps perjury is NOT worse than stealing a car. Perhaps the amount of drugs you have means the difference between a life sentence in prison, or a 10-year felony.
I am aware of one county in which a first-time offender of drunk driving will get probation. A county adjacent to it has a policy of 30 days in jail, even for first time offenders. Literally, depending on which side of that little sign—“County Line”--a person is observed makes a difference of 30 days in their lives!
So I can list exactly where you actions fit, and you could read another attorney’s input from another jurisdiction and receive completely contradictory information. What is terrible in my state may not be so bad in another and vice versa.
We would expect, if the books of the New Testament were inspired by the same God; a consistent system of hierarchy of sins would emerge. We understand that county to county, or state to state, or country to country we would have different laws. But we are not talking about different jurisdictions—if there is only one set of laws from one God a pattern would become evident.
Instead, we have authors all over the board as to what sins are bad, and what are not so bad. If it is merely a matter of personal preference—doesn’t the New Testament exhibit the natural human trait of differing emphasis upon morality? Nothing cohesive or divine about it at all.
The Unpardonable Sin
Jesus was tossing demons out of humans. The religious leaders accused him of being Beelzebub, or Satan. Jesus shouts out, “A-ha! All sins will be forgiven of humans. Even blasphemy will be forgiven of humans. But blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is unforgivable and is subject to eternal damnation.” (Mark 3:28-29)
The only problem is—Jesus never exactly states what the unforgivable sin is, nor why it is unforgivable. It is reasonable to view the actions, and the response of Jesus to extrapolate that it is accusing an act of God as being an act of Satan. The leaders accuse Jesus of being Satan; Jesus says “There is this thing called the unforgivable sin.” Not a stretch to connect the two. (See also Mark 3:30)
Matthew and Luke retain the same connection when recounting the story. (Although Luke places other statements between the actions. See Luke 11:15 to 12:10)
No other author speaks of this terrible crime. What is it that is so bad, even God cannot forgive? Jesus died for trillions of sins committed by billions of people, yet there is one sin, even if committed by just one person, that God says will never be covered. Commit it and you are done. Finished. Kaput.
“Uh, Jesus? I murdered someone today.”
”That’s O.K. I forgive you.”
“To be honest, I raped her first.”
“Again, you are forgiven.”
“Actually, she was not my first.”
“All covered by the cross, my son.”
“Not even my second. Or if I was really honest, even my third.”
“Yes, that is why I died for you.”
“I keep trying to not, but this desire compels me.”
”I know….Excuse me for a minute. You! Yeah, you over there! Where do you think you are going? INTO ETERNAL DAMNATION WITH YOU!....sorry ‘bout that. Where were we?”
“Wow. What did he do?”
“Oh, he thought the devil did something that I actually did. Don’t worry, though, I didn’t forgive him.”
You would think that if there was a sin out there that was so bad, so unforgivable, once you commit it that even a Hitler gets to pass you with a grin on his way to heaven, because HE didn’t do it, that Jesus would be a little more specific as to what it was. Or how to not commit it.
What if we could still do it today? What if some Christian says “The Devil is putting me through some tribulation” but they didn’t know it was actually God—did they just do the unforgivable? What if David blamed taking the census on the Devil. (1 Chron. 21:1) Actually it was God. (2 Sam. 24:1) Did he just commit the unforgivable sin?
Due to the lack of clarity, I would think most Christians would scared to ever attribute anything to Satan, for fear that it was actually God. And doomed to eternal condemnation. Like the Harry Potter villain, Satan would become “he-who-cannot-be-named.”
Funny with this terrible, terrible sin looming out there, no other author even bothers to give it a mention. Likewise, we would think the authors of Mark, Matthew and Luke would at least mention the “sin unto death” yet they must have missed it.
Sin Unto Death
1 John 5:16-17 categorizes sin into two kinds—those that lead to death and those that don’t. Is it spiritual death? Physical death? The author says that if Christians ask, God will hear and grant their petition. If a brother sees another sinning and asks, God will grant the brother life.
However then the author says, “Hey, but if the brother is committing one of those death sins, don’t bother praying. Won’t do any good.”
I would think it would be pretty important, for both the person committing it, and the person praying for it, to at least know what the heck the author is talking about. Is Murder a sin that leads to death? Unbelief? Lying? Oh, sure, pretty clear that it is a waste of time praying for someone that committed the unpardonable sin (only we don’t know if they had). They are eternal toast already. Are there more sins Christians can stop praying for?
Can Christians stop bothering to pray for a whole list of sins, as long as they are labeled a “sin that leads to death”? Or is it more likely that the author of Mark created an unpardonable sin, and the author of 1 John created a “sin that leads to death” in an attempt to create a hierarchy of sins. Only neither seems to want to clarify what it is.
If we are to be held to this standard, a little clarity would have been nice.
(Probably time for my side note. I can hear persons chomping at the bit to claim “Ignorance of the Law is no Excuse.” Do you know why we say that? Because if we allowed “I didn’t know the law” as an exoneration of committing an act. all criminals would use it as an excuse, and we could never convict anyone of anything.
It is not that the justice system holds that there is no obligation to inform the public of the law. Far from it. It is recognition that, as humans, we cannot determine what another person actually knows, and whether they are lying about knowing the law. It becomes easier to draw a bright line, and not allow it as an excuse.
And even then it can be used an excuse on occasion. Do you see all those posted Speed Limit Signs? Most jurisdictions require notice of a speed limit, prior to imposing a ticket. Imagine if we truly implemented “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.” We could remove every speed limit sign, and write tickets left and right, claiming it was the driver’s responsibility to known the speed limit dropped from 45 m.p.h. to 25 m.p.h. upon passing Brown Rd.
In our present situation, why would God want to “hide” his law? Why would the concept of “Ignorance of God’s law is no excuse” ever come up? Humans are unable to determine what another person “knows.” God could. Humans may not effectively be able to communicate the state of the law. God could.
When I see an apologist use the platitude of “Ignorance of the law is no excuse” in talking about God’s judgment, I suspect they do not understand the underlying principle of the statement. God CAN determine what a human knows and God CAN accurately communicate the law. Imposing human limitations on God is—well—human.
On with the show.)
We would think that the author of 1 John might also mention if internal or external sins are the ones that lead to death. But he didn’t.
Inside – Outside
Paul (who never talks of sins of death or unforgivable sins) also categorizes sin into two categories—outside the body and inside the body. 1 Cor. 6:18 All sexual immoral sins he claims are against one’s own body, but all other sins are outside the body.
We are left with a grand assertive statement and no explanation. And 2 millenniums later people are still debating over what that means. Are jealousy, bitterness, and anger sins “outside” the body? Sure, they can be exhibited by external actions, but lust (internal) can also be exhibited by external (adultery).
Although Paul does not explicitly state it as such, he seems to hold sexually immoral sins as worse, by implication. Yet it is not as bad as a sin that “leads to death.” Paul, at least, thinks sexually immoral sins are repairable. And they are certainly not eternally condemnable.
In trying to line up these various books, we end up with a mess. Of all the sins, we have one that is unforgivable. Of the rest, some lead to death, some don’t. Of those that don’t, some are inside, some are outside. Yet the unforgivable sin could be inside, yet it is not sexually immoral. As sex seems to be such a large concentration of sins, what is it that is worse, committed outside the body that leads to death?
Or, if we want to align Paul with sins that lead to death, he does give a list of actions that “deserve” death in Romans 1:32. If a child tells you they disobeyed their parents (Rom. 1:30) must you tell them they committed a sin that leads to death? But not to worry, it was not the unforgivable sin. They will die, but not be under eternal condemnation. That will make for a fun Sunday School class!
Paul gives a list of who will not inherit the kingdom of God in Gal. 5:19-21. The author of Revelations gives a different list in Rev. 21:8. Paul has qualified his list with “…and the like” so it would be appropriate to presume the ones in Revelation should be included. In other words, each list adds to the other, and is not intended to be exclusive.
Many Christians seem to be under the false impression that only non-believers will be denied heaven. Revelation only includes non-belief as one of many groups of people that will not be there. If that list is not exhaustive, and we must include Galatians 5, there will be very few, if any, in heaven.
Both lists include murderers. Certainly Murder must be somewhere up there, close to unforgivable, and near “leads to death.” Yet the author of Matthew records that Jesus holds a person who is unjustifiably angry, or calls another “Fool” is equally at fault as Murder! (Matt. 5:21-22) Unjustifiable anger must also be right up there. ‘Course Jesus also seems to think internal lust is as bad as external adultery, so luckily we have Paul to straighten Jesus out of that thought. (Mt. 5:28)
In the end, there is no real way to determine what sin is worse than any other. Yet the authors provide different claims of what sin is of greater degree of punishment than another. As we read the different books, any attempt to align the assertions becomes hopelessly tangled.
Rather than one God with one rule of conduct, we have many authors all vying for what bothers them the most as being the “worse” sin.
What is more likely? That the Bible is a cohesive description of the rule of conduct as prescribed by one God? Or that it is a compilation of various human authors, and their various opinions resulting in a not surprising variety of hierarchies of sin.