If you ever attended a Christian school or grew up in a Christian household, you were likely taught that abstinence is the best approach to maintaining a healthy relationship. Sex, as its is often taught in these contexts, is sacred and only meant to be experienced within the bounds of marriage. This is how God’s intention is interpreted as written in the Bible. If you were less fortunate, this message may have been accompanied by intense warnings of the potential dangers and tragedies that could befall you should you ever dare to have sex outside of these boundaries.
However, these views are not widespread. Many modern-day Christians have a more liberal approach, downplaying the severity of extramarital sex—with some even claiming it isn’t a sin. According to recent news, the current Pope—Pope Francis—counts himself amongst these. Speaking at a press conference on the topic after an archbishop was caught having a consensual affair with a woman and subsequently resigned, the Pope claimed that this was a sin “but not one of the gravest”.
The media response to these claims was both exaggerated and expected—to the point where it is important to clarify his statements before we dive too deeply into their validity. Pope Francis was specifically referring to one instance of a consensual relationship between an Archbishop sworn to abstinence and a woman. While translations of his words may differ in how severe these particular sins were painted, it’s important to note that he still claimed the archbishop’s actions are sinful. More importantly, while many commenters were quick to point out the perceived hypocrisy of the leader of a church with historical sexual abuse issues making these claims, it is clear that his comments do not include criminal and non-consensual relationships at the center of those claims. The Pope is on record condemning those behaviours—though the problem is far from resolved.
When stripped back from the hyperbole and spin of the media coverage, the Pope’s statement relies on one core idea worth interrogating: some sins are worse than others.
Is this really the case?
What is sin?
Before we can tackle the topic of whether there are different levels of sin, it’s important to clarify what we mean when we speak about sin. So, what is it? At its simplest level, sin is any action we take which goes against the laws and commandments put forward by God (1 John 3:4). Sin is a rebellion against God and His design for us and the world. The first sin (or original sin) occurred in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve chose to disobey God’s commands, and instead sought knowledge that they were lead to believe would make them God’s equal.
Sin is at the root of all pain and suffering in this world. God created humankind with the freedom of choice, including the choice of whether we follow Him. It is this choice that can lead to sin, and by extension pain and suffering—and can often be inevitable when we stray from his principles of love, compassion and kindness.
Most notably, the Bible outlines clear and damning consequences for committing sin. As Romans 6:23 states, “the wages of sin is death.” It doesn’t state that the wages of some sins is death, and while for others it’s a light punishment. All sin, no matter what, leads to the same consequence. So that’s it right? The Pope’s statement is wrong, isn’t it?
The impacts of sin
On one hand, it’s undeniable that all sin leads to an equal outcome. But to assume that this means all sins are entirely equal is false logic. It’s like attempting to build data based on results rather than interpreting results from data. All sin has the same result when it comes to ultimate judgement—death and separation from God. But sin is not something which only matters in the end times; on the contrary—sin has repercussions in the here and now that must be considered when we talk about it.
As an example, let’s go back to the difference between two types of sexual sin discussed in the wake of the Pope’s comments: the affair the Pope claimed was “not that serious” and the sexual abuse that the Catholic church has been involved in. The former was a non-sexual relationship between two consenting adults, with much of the repercussions and impact being limited to how it affects the two involved. In contrast, many of the child sexual abuse cases were non-consensual actions which took away the agency and God-given freedom of choice from those who were often not old enough to comprehend the full extent of what was happening. The impact has caused long term damage to victims, and has sent shockwaves through entire communities—including victim’s friends and family. These sins have clearly caused greater harm.
How about a more extreme example? Telling a small lie to a family member is something that many would hardly consider a sin—there is even arguments to be made that it is sometimes the moral thing to do. But what about lying under oath in the trial of a potential murderer to sway the verdict and prevent true justice from being found? Many would argue this is in a different category to the little white lies we sometimes tell. While all of them are examples of straying from God’s plan—and therefore they are all sin—the different sins have measurably different ramifications. The ramifications of some sins can be far more wide reaching than others—and not in a positive way.
Still not convinced? Fair enough. How about instead of using my examples, we use one from a more authoritative example on the matter: Jesus Christ.
The unforgivable sin
Did you know that Jesus draws distinctions between different types of sins? It’s true. In Mark 3:29, Jesus states: “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”
But wait, isn’t that a contradiction of the idea that while all sin is punishable by death, to repent from sin and follow Christ provides eternal life instead? How can a sin be so bad that it is unforgivable? Doesn’t that go against the concept of all sins being equal?
You’d think so, but it isn’t.
Confused? Let me explain.
What’s happening here is actually the same as what we have been previously discussing, though on an entirely different scale. Christ is highlighting that the consequences and impacts of sin are not all equal—though in His words here, He is pointing out their difference in terms of spiritual impact.
See, the unforgivable sin does not specifically refer to acts so heinous that they cannot be forgiven—instead it refers to a choice. To “blaspheme against the Holy Spirit” is to actively reject God’s grace and embrace sin instead. In doing so, the sinner rejects a connection to God, who created and maintains all life. And once that connection has been rejected, nothing can be done to reverse it. The Bible positions the conflict between God and sin as a choice. In this way, the unforgivable sin is not to fail to choose a side—it is to choose the side which fights against God’s law and commit intentional sin as a result. Once someone has declared Him their enemy—and truly believes it—there is nothing God can do to forgive them. And if you’re worried that this might be you, don’t be. It’s often said that if you harbour concern over having committed the unforgivable sin, it means you haven’t—to be concerned indicates that you still care about God’s perspective of you, something those who side against Him are unlikely to do.
Was the pope right?
So, to recap—all sins are the same in their severity in God’s eyes and in their ultimate punishment, but the effects of their impact can vary wildly. This holds true for both the ripples they cause in the real world, and the spiritual implications.
With this in mind, we can return to the Pope’s comments and the controversy they caused. While some have labelled them hypocritical, and others heretical, we can see that what they really do is point towards a truth which has been laid out in the Bible for centuries: all sin may be equal, but the impacts of individual sins are not.
Ultimately though, one thing is clear: no matter what the sin is, or what its impacts may be, there is only one way to attain true salvation.
Ryan Stanton is an Editorial Assistant for Signs of the Times and a PhD student at the University of Sydney. He might not believe in the Pope like Catholics do, but on this issue he notes that they have a point.