Not All Sins Are Equal

sin

One thing I love about the Orthodox? When it comes to Western views of hell, their mouths drop open and they just tell it like it is:

“You believe God predestines people to an eternity in hell? That’s hideous!”

“You believe a loving God would punish anybody, at any age, for any sin, with an eternal sentence of non-stop, excruciating physical torment? What kind of God do you worship?!”

Their frankness always startled me. They didn’t hem and haw and play Bible ping pong. They didn’t use the language of theological debate. They spoke from their gut. They spoke what we all want to believe about God.

And now that they mention it, yes. I suppose a God like that does sound awful.

Isn’t it weird what horrible things we will believe until somebody outside our circular reasoning says them out loud?

So my first response, when anybody says something about how all sins are equal, is to drop my jaw and ask, “Wait, seriously? You believe yelling a curse word when you stub your toe is the same as brutally murdering someone?”

I believed this too. Sometimes, when I was thinking a bit more clearly, I’d respond, “Well, no, obviously, there are different degrees of punishment and consequences here on earth, but still, the eternal consequences of sin are the same for every sin.”

To which I want to get all Orthodox on my past self and say, “You seriously believe a one-year-old’s temper tantrum is worthy of an eternity of physical torment, as worthy as someone who might brutally rape that one-year-old? That’s sick.”

Besides misrepresenting the nature of God as something more capricious and senseless than your average human judge, this sort of thinking often immobilizes Christians against true injustice or causes them to go after lesser evils as heinous…especially when it comes to sexuality.

It amazes me how some parts of the Christian community demonize consensual extramarital sex — or, heaven forbid, cleavage in church — but are unaware of, or even dismissive of, sexual assault, abuse, and rape within our communities and leaders.

The same thing goes for gays. Christians, I think, are at a loss on how to label consensual, monogamous gay relationships as “an abomination” — but it’s so much easier to call something so seemingly innocuous an abomination if all sin is equally abominable: “Bro, you’re going to hell for being gay. But don’t worry, I’m going to hell too. We all are. So don’t feel triggered or targeted. God’s sending everybody to hell for all kinds of things. Just love Jesus.”

It’s an attempt at camaraderie.

And I think that’s part of the reason why we got so comfortable saying “all sins are equal”: it doesn’t make us look like total jerks for preaching damnation to decent human beings. If all sins are equal, we can still say that the Muslim who prays five times a day, and the agnostic who pours her life out defending sex trafficking victims, and every other non-believer who demonstrates the fruit of the Spirit without the Spirit, are still going to hell, and still needing Jesus.

“I haven’t done anything too horrible either,” we Christians essentially say, “but I’m going to hell too! So I’m not judging! I’m just doing my Christian job.”

I find that line of argumentation weak, at best, and pathetic, at worst — I mean that as nicely as possible, because I know, when we say things like that, we really, truly mean well. But it still sounds weak and pathetic — a Christianese phrase that doesn’t jive with the reality of sin, people, and the nature of a loving God.

I want to end this post with this awkwardness, unresolved. It was important for me, to truly work through why I believed what I believed, to see the stark, embarrassing, offensive things I said to others.  It made a difference to stare at this doctrine of sin, hell, and God with my God-given conscience turned all the way up and that urge to reach for a prooftext turned all the way off.

(In case you’re scared of the slippery slope into heresy, I’ll say this: I do believe in an idea of hell, people’s proclivity to sin, and their need for a Savior, and I believe all of this, those ideas and this post’s criticisms, is consistent with each other and Scripture.)

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30 thoughts on “Not All Sins Are Equal

  1. Elizabeth Erazo

    Have you seen this video? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WosgwLekgn8 I don’t know why but your post reminded me of it. I think its the idea of God’s love as burning fire to those who reject Him in contrast to the typical evangelical “concious eternal torment” model that triggered it in my memory. I love watching it. I want to convert again every time I hear it.

    I’m not going to say too much on the post, as I think it hits on things above my pay grade ;) However, I think its a particularly pernicious thing because there’s a slight bit of truth which has been skewed. That truth, in my view, is not that one sin is equal to every other, but that *sinfulness* as a state of being, is equal. For example, you can either be “touching” or “not touching”. In one sense, all humanity is equally apart from God because we all exist as “not touching” God. However, you can either be not touching by a space of an inch and pulling others towards God or not touching by a mile and tripping every person moving closer. I do think it does encourage a bit of theological laziness, as you pointed out as well.

    I feel as if all one has to do is examine Christ’s words to those who cause His little ones to stumble to see that He looks down in particular ways against specific sins.

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    • Bailey Steger

      I do love the Orthodox view on heaven and hell, so I’m excited to watch that video. (Gosh, I sound like such an obnoxious convert. My apologies! I *promise* I appreciate other traditions too!)

      I appreciate and agree with your description of touching/not touching. I wanted to convey that sense….that yes, we all fall short, but some falls are harder and heavier than others. They create greater distance between us and God, us and our neighbor.

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  2. Jasmine Ruigrok

    There’s a Scripture I’m too lazy to find the reference to, but it talks about the Spirit coming to convict the world ‘of sin, because they believe not on Me’ [Jesus]. I believe all sin was paid for when Jesus was nailed to the cross, and the “sin” we go to hell for is the rejection of Christ. That’s it. This perspective levels the playing field when it comes to why people go to hell. It’s not because of what bad things or good things you’ve done, it’s whether you believe in Jesus for what He did on your behalf. It’s the acceptance of the bailout, not what you did that landed you in prison.

    All “sins” are the same in value, but not the same in consequence. However the only sin with an eternal consequence is whether you’ve accepted Jesus’ righteousness for your own.

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    • Bailey Steger

      I heard this explanation a few years ago and never followed up with it. Do you mind if I ask a few questions, just to pick your brain and explore that perspective? Please and thank you!

      So are you saying that our sins make us deserving of hell, but now that Christ has covered our sins, we’re *no longer* going to hell for sin but instead would go to hell for rejecting him? Or am I misunderstanding?

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      • Jasmine Ruigrok

        Yup, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Look at it this way: if we are still going to hell because of our sins, what did Christ’s death accomplish? He either paid it all, or He didn’t. So if when He said, “It is finished” He meant it, then the only “sin” we go to hell for is failure to accept the payment.

        I probably wouldn’t even go so far as to say that our sins make us deserving of hell, but more that it’s the state we were born into that we deserved hell as a default (my personal belief though is that children who die before the age of reason are saved, because they haven’t reached a place of understanding/accountability. Therefore a toddler who throws a tantrum is not destined for hell because of the tantrum, but that’s just me). We inherit sin, it’s in our human nature, it’s part of us when we are born. Which is what makes the experience of being “born again” more comprehensive. Sin indeed has consequences in life, but honestly, there’s not going to be anyone in hell who got there by anything they did, EXCEPT for the rejection of Christ. That’s my belief. :) I hope that answers your question.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Bailey Steger

        That’s really interesting! Thanks so much for following up. I love how seriously you take Christ’s atonement. I’m assuming you’re not Calvinist, correct, because in your view, Christ’s death *actually* atones for *all* sin for *everybody,* even the ones who reject his atonement?

        Come to think of it, I’ve heard something similar to what you’re saying: that if people go to hell for their sins that Christ paid for, the sin is paid for twice — which isn’t just. That fits into your view, right?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Jasmine Ruigrok

        You’re right, I’m not a Calvinist. Whilst I can appreciate the depth of Calvinistic devotion to God and their abhorrence of sin and their holy reverence for His justice, I vehemently disagree with the idea of predestination and the elect. To reiterate your comment: Christ’s death *actually* atones for *all* sin for *everybody,* even the ones who reject his atonement.

        If Christ’s death did not cover all sin, then He would need to come and die again for every new sin we committed. It’s akin to the concept of double jeapardy. For God to send people to hell for their sins, He’s unjust, because He not only judged His Son, but He judges us as well. It was either Him or us, we can’t both pay the price.

        However God is perfectly justified to send us to hell for THE sin of rejecting the payment made on our behalf. If we reject Christ’s offering to cover our bill, we have to pay. It’s that simple.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Bailey Steger

        That does make sense! I’m curious — and I hope this doesn’t sound trollish — but in this view, how does Christ’s atonement NOT pay for the sin of rejecting Christ’s atonement for most of one’s life? For instance, if I live my life actively rebelling against and refusing Christ’s atonement but at age 70 accept Christ, how is that sin paid for? Or is it just the sin of NEVER accepting Christ’s sacrifice? Perhaps I’m making this too complicated, sorry!

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      • Jasmine Ruigrok

        Not confusing at all! It’s a worthy question. We are all born rejecting Christ until we are given opportunity to receive Him. But this is how gracious and merciful God is, that He would extend to us chance after chance to receive even after we reject Him. It’s only after we are dead, we have no more chances. Our time is up. We have to face the consequences of our ultimate choice, good or bad. Does that make sense?

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  3. Hannah

    Per your choice to end your post awkwardly, I feel that I can awkwardly tack on my own rant.

    I think a lot of clarity comes to issue when you distinguish sin from sins. Sin is one part of the brokenness of the world. Sickness, environmental issues, death, broken relationships – all are aspects of this brokenness. I think a lot of clarity comes when you realize that Jesus came to usher in the Kingdom, a world made whole, through ending sickness, resolving environmental issues, conquering death, healing broken relationships, AND forgiving and eliminating sin. We are not “going to hell” because of our sins. *Creation* falls short of his design and his glory.

    It’s a lot easier to understand that it’s not us committing the sins that separates us from God but the inadequacy of the world that we live in that breaks God’s heart. Sin is something that the church has latched onto, something that’s been easy to assess and judge. But by doing this it changes the message of the Gospel from God healing brokenness to God judging sins. Traditions and individuals like to latch on to one of these broken aspects as if Jesus came only to bring to our attention injustice, gossip, poverty, or sexuality anomalies. That’s not true. He came to restore CREATION.

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    • Bailey Steger

      YES YES YES! There are SO many aspects to the brokenness of this world, which is why Scripture talks about salvation in so many different ways — judicial, medicinal, meritorious, etc. But the bottom line is that we’re broken and we need restoration, body, mind, and soul.

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  4. Lily Collins

    I think, if you will permit me to say so, that when it comes to the equality of sins and the punishment of hell, you are missing the whole point. The point is not whether yelling a curse word after stubbing your toe or brutally murdering someone is truly the same level of “awfulness” in God’s eyes. In fact, if this were so, would it be possible to have the unforgivable sin of blaspheming the Holy Spirit that Jesus talks about in the book of Matthew? If all sins were truly “equal”, it could be argued that it is unfair of God to make one sin totally unforgivable. I believe the point of it all is that regardless of how “big” or “small” the sin is, the fact remains unchanged that we have indeed sinned. And as such, we are sinners. And sinners, no matter how many good deeds they have done in their life or how good their intentions may be, cannot be brought into the presence of an all-holy God.

    That is why Jesus needed to come and sacrifice Himself for us. It is only His blood that cleanses us from any and all sin and unrighteousness- whether it be throwing a temper tantrum or raping a child. That is what makes all of us human beings equal; we are not perfect and never will be, we have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God. So yes, the Muslim who prays five times a day and the non-believer who “demonstrates the fruit of the Spirit without the Spirit” will be going to hell, simply because they have not been covered by the blood of Jesus. It breaks God’s heart that this is so- He says that many times in His word. But He cannot go against His character, and His character cannot allow a sinful person into His holy of holies. Especially not just because you or I think that they’re “a really, really nice person.”

    And one more point: I have heard it said before by some notable Bible teacher that there might very well be different levels of hell based on the heinousness of crimes committed here on earth. I have done no study into this theory, but it’s something to think about.

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    • Bailey Steger

      I don’t think I’m misunderstanding the point; I think we just disagree. :) My article was a response to the sort of thinking you just shared. I think it matters a lot that a so-called perfect judge not dole out the same punishment, especially something as horrific as eternal physical suffering, for a two-year-old who threw a tantrum and a rapist.

      I view things differently than you: the problem isn’t that God cannot stand our sin, but that sin cannot stand our God. I find it hard to believe that a God who became incarnate and dwelt among the worst of the worst for their salvation is so untouchable that he has to run and hide at the sight of sin. He gets his hands dirty in sin. He goes to Hades itself, the ultimate end of sin. And Hades breaks open and death dies because they cannot handle God in their midst.

      God is upset at sin because it hurts *us,* his beloved creation — not because he’s ticked off that people don’t obey him. God is upset at sin because it tries to block him out, the ultimate Lifegiver. Sin is a sickness that ends in spiritual and physical death — total destruction of what God intended humankind and all of creation to be.

      Basically, I don’t believe in penal substitutionary atonement, which is why we disagree about sin and hell too. :)

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      • Allison Caylor

        I apparently do believe in penal substitutionary atonement (thanks for teaching me a new term!) although I wouldn’t describe it exactly that way. However — and please believe I’m not trying to call your salvation in to question!! — what you described as “penal substitutionary atonement” is, to me, simply the essence of the gospel.

        God is infinitely holy. We, through Adam and each person on his own, sinned against that holiness, and justice demands our punishment, infinite to measure the weight of this rejection of God through sin. But Jesus himself bore the wrath of God all on himself, and defeated death, so that perfect justice and perfect mercy bring those who believe into God’s favor.

        I know you’re quite familiar with all that gloriousness, I’m just trying to understand the difference between that understanding and what you’re describing. Do you think that any of that any part of that paragraph is false? I do firmly believe that healing a broken world, and bringing us close to his heart, are essential parts of God’s plan in salvation, but placing our punishment on Jesus so that we can become God’s children is the core of it.

        This was a very thought-provoking post indeed. Certainly all sins are not equal!! For example, Jesus specifically told certain people that on the day of judgment, it would be better for Sodom and Gomorrah than for them. Still, we’re all dead in our trespasses and sins, and we will be punished by God’s wrath unless we are safe in the sacrifice of Jesus.

        As I’ve been writing this I’ve been mostly thinking of the book of Romans, particularly chapters 1-4.

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      • Bailey Steger

        Penal substitutionary atonement — what you just described as the heart of the gospel — *is* at the heart of Western soteriology, especially Protestant. Eastern Christians, including myself, disagree that that’s the heart of the gospel. I don’t believe in original guilt (i.e., children inherit Adam and Eve’s proclivities to sin but not their guilt). Sin, in the Eastern view, is not so much breaking the law and requiring punishment, but a sickness that brings its own punishment: a life of suffering and an ultimate end in death, both spiritually and physically. Christ is the hero whose death defeats death and provides the way of salvation — the actual redemption of body, soul, and spirit in pursuit of a relationship with Christ. I don’t believe in the Protestant idea of justification, where God sees us as righteous because Christ’s blood is applied to us. I believe that God is actually interested in *making* us righteous — and we do so by imitating the life of Christ, following him in his death and suffering and love.

        There are many metaphors for salvation Scripture, and each of the three major traditions (Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox) base their traditions off those metaphors. Protestantism views salvation through a juridical/forensic metaphor, Orthodoxy through the health metaphor (salvation coming from the Latin “salvus,” meaning health). However, Orthodoxy accepts ALL the metaphors for salvation in Scripture, including atonement/expiation/sacrifice. (See this article: https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/orthodoxyandheterodoxy/2015/01/22/orthodox-christians-believe-justification-response-protestant-criticisms/.) Their definition of atonement and expiation, however, is suffering that destroys sin, not the Protestant belief of punishment. In the Orthodox view, Christ’s atonement makes a relationship with God possible because it “expiates” our sins and grants forgiveness to those who look to Christ in faith, as the Israelites looked to the serpent in the wilderness and were healed.

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      • Allison Caylor

        Interestingly, I don’t disagree with much of what you’ve said.

        “I don’t believe in the Protestant idea of justification, where God sees us as righteous because Christ’s blood is applied to us. I believe that God is actually interested in *making* us righteous — and we do so by imitating the life of Christ, following him in his death and suffering and love.”

        I would propose that these two ideas are not opposites! Indeed, I embrace both of them. God sees us as righteous because Christ’s blood is applied to us, and now he’s actually working in us through the Spirit to make us righteous — to refine our character to greater and greater righteousness on earth, and to bring us to perfection at the last day.

        I suppose the key of my difference with you is that I believe sin is in essence something we DO, as a race and individually, not something bad that has happened to us; so in saving us, Christ dies in. our. place, not only to defeat sin and death (although he did that, for sure!!).

        Thank you so much for the detailed reply. :)

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  5. Rebekah

    The Bible talks about people having greater rewards in heaven, depending on what they endured on earth. So I could see there could be differing punishments in hell, though I haven’t seen biblical evidence for it.

    I believe God cannot stand sin, the Bible is pretty clear on that to me. The reason Jesus could live on earth was because he was totally God AND totally man. It doesn’t make much logical sense. But Jesus being totally God and totally man isn’t logical anyway…

    There’s so much about God that we in our human minds can’t understand. “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men,” 1 Corinthians 1:25a Which is why I believe all sins are equal in God’s eyes even though it doesn’t make logical human sense.

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    • Bailey Steger

      It’s interesting that you say that, because I don’t see much Scriptural evidence that hell is a punishment inflicted by God. It seems to be more of a natural extension of the fallen state. Have you done much study on hell itself? I’d love to hear what your study has been. I read “Erasing Hell” by Francis Chan a million years ago and have listened to some podcasts with Preston Sprinkle and John Walton discussing the NT and OT view of hell, respectively. It’s been eye-opening to me to see how much that’s ASSUMED about hell by your everyday pastor and layperson doesn’t have as much Biblical basis as I thought — not enough to make our view of hell a hill to die on. At least, that’s my experience when studying it.

      And ohhh, that’s such a can of worms, believing when it doesn’t make logical sense. So many mixed feelings on it, yes? Because obviously we’re dealing with a God beyond our comprehension, beyond our reason, beyond us in every way — and it’s dangerous to discount that. But also, it just kills me to think that if something just grates against our souls, our God-given, made-in-the-image-of-God souls, that maybe that *isn’t* an indicator of who God is too. It’s just hard for me to believe that God’s perfect justice looks the complete opposite of how he commands humans to interact and how Jesus behaved on earth, you know? Yeah. I don’t know. Thanks for engaging on this tough issue!

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      • A.C. Caylor

        I totally agree about how difficult it is to know when to reject a teaching because it’s illogical, and when to realize it’s beyond our comprehension and that’s okay.

        The verse that helps me the most is the one that calls man’s heart “deceitful and desperately wicked.” God’s truth can feel wrong, just because of how deeply wrong our natures are through sin. That’s why it’s so important to me (and all of us of the reformed ideology) to be able to cling to what God actually says in print. We can’t rely on our hearts to know what is true — they’re deceitful, too often led by our flesh. I realize this isn’t your belief, so it’s not my intention to argue, just to add a thought.

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      • Bailey Steger

        No, I completely agree that God’s truth can feel wrong and that falsehood can feel right. (That’s why people believe horrible things like God sending babies to hell or patriarchy. ;)) Discerning truth is an extremely tricky business made difficult when our hearts, our experiences, our upbringing, our sociology, and our perspectives are so limited and broken by sin.

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      • Rebekah

        I have not done much study on hell, and I agree that it’s not a hill I want to die on! I think we can agree that it is a horrible place and there’s nothing worse. We just want everyone to know that if they trust in Jesus, they will go to the best place they can be!

        Oh, yes, the logic thing is tricky. Because God gave us logical minds for a reason!

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      • Bailey Steger

        I was just curious to see if your research brought up any points I hadn’t considered — hopefully it didn’t come across as me snottily implying that *I’d* done research and *you* hadn’t. :| But yes, hallelujah, we can ALL agree that being in full communion with God, in his presence, is what we long for everyone, and that anything besides that is hell indeed.

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  6. Daniel Abbott

    Sometime during the night between July 16 and 17, 1999, John F. Kennedy, Jr. died when the plane he was piloting crashed.

    The National Transportation Safety Board’s official investigation concluded that Kennedy had suffered spatial disorientation which led to the fatal crash.

    Spatial disorientation occurs, when our “God given” inner ear deceives us into believing things about where we are that are simply not true.

    If our physical systems for judging our position in the physical world can be deceived, then it is also possible for our “God given” conscience to deceive us in a similar manner. It is highly ill advised to ignore the “God given” instruments and rely solely on our conscience to guide us right.

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    • Bailey Steger

      I completely agree. But that begs the question — Scripture requires interpretation, which requires the use of our easily deceived logic and reason. Scripture is not obvious or easy to interpret, which is why we must use *all* of our God-given abilities — our conscience, our reason, the church, etc. — to correctly interpret Scripture and understand God’s heart.

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      • Daniel Abbott

        That is a question. (I haven’t thought much on this, so this is kind of random.)

        Does Scripture require interpretation? Other than the interpretation given by Scripture of Scripture.

        The Bible most certainly needs to be understood. But does that entail a necessity to explain the understanding?

        I don’t know that it does.

        But if it does, we have an infallible interpreter in God.

        I have found this post and discussions fascinating. I have a lot of reading and thinking about it, still to do.

        I am always interested in your thoughts. Regardless of whether I understand them. Probably, especially, when I don’t understand them. ?

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  7. Allison Caylor

    “You believe God predestines people to an eternity in hell? That’s hideous!”

    Romans 9:11-24. I don’t really know how to pick out just a few verses from that beautiful tapestry that is the book of Romans — I’m trying to reference a couple of chapters before and after that passage, I suppose, because the context is so broad (and so awesome). But essentially: “‘Jacob I loved, Esau I hated’… he has mercy on whomever he wills, and hardens whomever he wills…. who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” Could you share how this doesn’t answer the question above for you?

    I know I’ve dumped a lot of thoughts onto this post, but it’s such a weighty topic (and so, so important). Thank you for being brave enough to delve into it.

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    • Bailey Steger

      No, thank you for bringing this up! I was staunchly Calvinist for most of my life because of this passage. Even when many Calvinists around me shied away from double predestination (the idea that God elects *and* God damns purely because he wants to), I affirmed double predestination as the only position that made sense of Romans 9.

      If you want a more in-depth discussion on the interpretation I accept of Romans 9, check out this article: http://www.insearchoftruth.org/articles/romans_9.html

      Essentially, this passage is not talking about individual salvation. It’s in the context of Paul’s lament over Israel — that is, it’s about Israel (the descendants of Jacob) and Esau (the Gentiles). It’s discussing the alleged unfairness that God would judge Israel, whom he loved, while showing mercy to Gentiles, whom he hated. To that Paul says, “God has mercy on whomever he wills. Deal with it.”

      This passage closely parallels Jeremiah 18 and borrows its imagery, and I think it’s crucial to understand that passage to understand Romans 9. Paul was steeped in OT teaching, after all, and both he and Jeremiah are lamenting Israel’s downfall using the imagery of clay vessels. The tl;dr of Jeremiah 18 is that if a vessel repents, God will show mercy. If a vessel rebels, God will harden it. God as the potter fashions vessels according to their natural end and desires. That’s Jeremiah 18. (We see this with Pharaoh, for instance. Many times Scripture says God hardened his heart. Many times it says Pharaoh hardened his heart. Both are true.)

      In Romans 9, he’s anticipating Jewish complaints about the idea that God has rejected Israel and elected Gentiles. A Jewish person might complain, “It’s not fair that God’s hardening Israel! He promised to show mercy to us!” And Paul is essentially saying, since he just explained that it’s Israel’s own fault for being hardened, “Don’t talk back to God about his dealings with Israel and with Gentiles.” Then he continues on explaining why God might want to show mercy to the former vessels of wrath, etc.

      That would be my response to a Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9. :)

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      • Allison Caylor

        Thank you for the explanation! I definitely learned something new. In every conversation I’ve had before on Romans 9, it’s been people who were either 5-pointers or who weren’t sure what to say about it. What you’re saying makes a whole lot of sense. In fact, I think that’s an awesome and completely valid interpretation of the passage, even though I don’t put aside the belief that Paul is speaking literally as well as symbolically in describing God’s plans for Jacob and Esau.

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