Are all sins equal? Do different sins carry differing consequences? These questions have long been discussed, and answers have been suggested, perhaps none more creatively than that of Dante Alighieri in his 14th Century classic, Inferno.
In a frightening description of Hell, Dante imagined that different sins merited different levels of punishment, with the worst reserved for three particular traitors. Dante pictured the devil as having three horrible faces, and in each of the devil’s mouths there is a sinner. In the left and right mouths hang Brutus and Cassius, who murdered Julius Caesar in the Roman Senate. Brutus and Cassius appear with their heads pointed out and their feet inside the devil’s mouth. In the center mouth, lodged headfirst, with his twitching legs protruding from the devil’s mouth, is the betrayer of Jesus Christ, Judas Iscariot. The devil chews on his victims, continually, and throughout eternity, tearing the traitors to pieces, but never killing them.
Dante certainly had a vivid imagination! And though there is no biblical support for the details of his description of hell, the issues of differing consequences for various sins does find support in the Bible. The Bible shows that God does consider some sins to be worse than others. Some sin brings greater guilt than others. And some sins do us more damage than others.
First, consider the sin that Jesus calls “unforgiveable.” In Matthew 12:31-32 Jesus said, “I tell you, people will be forgiven every sin and blasphemy, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him. But whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the one to come.” Resistance to the witness of the Holy Spirit about the person and work of Jesus Christ rules out the possibility of faith and repentance. No sin is more tragic and lethal than this.
Second, consider the sin that brings death. In 1 John 5:16-17, John tells the church to pray for a brother whom you see committing a sin, but only if it is a sin that “does not bring death.” John says, “There is sin that brings death. I am not saying he should pray about that.” Commentators have long debated the nature of the sin leading to death. Quite possibly it is the same sin that Jesus referenced as the unforgiveable sin. Whether this is so, clearly the text indicates that some sin is less consequential than others (or than one other).
Third, the Scriptures often indicate that different sins bring different consequences. Moses told the Israelites that their sin in worshipping the golden calf was a “great sin,” one of the consequences of which was a plague sent by God (Ex. 32:30-35). In 2 Samuel 12:7-23 we read of the terrible consequence that David suffered after his sin with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah. The consequence included the death of his son conceived in adultery. In Luke 12:41-48 Jesus speaks of varying levels of punishment based on the level of knowledge a steward has. Jesus also said that whoever causes the downfall of a child who believes in Him, “it would be better for him if a heavy millstone were hung around his neck and he were drowned in the depths of the sea” (Mt. 18:6).
Fourth, we see in Scripture that deliberate and willful rebellion against God can bring greater levels of consequence. Romans 1:18-32 indicates an increasing level of depravity in human beings as God gives them over to the consequences of sin. In Matthew 18:15-17 Jesus says that if a brother sins against another, and he refuses the increasing levels of accountability brought by the church, that he will ultimately be treated like an unbeliever. In 1 Cor. 5 Paul said to “turn over to Satan” a particular brother who was stubborn in his sin.
Because Jesus Christ forgives and cleanses us of all our sin when we place our faith in Him and experience salvation, we are tempted to disregard our continued sin and how God might deal with it. Moreover, because all have sinned against God, and because the “wages of sin is death,” (Rom. 6:23), we sometimes fail to consider that the consequences of our sin can vary, both in this life, and in the life to come. Without Jesus Christ, all sinners are spiritually dead and eternally lost. But there are different levels of severity, and consequence, between the sin of sloth and that of mass murder. If a hungry person steals a loaf of bread, he is a sinner and a lawbreaker. But we judge, and I would suggest that God weighs the sin of a sadistic killer, differently than that of the bread thief. Clearly, throughout Scripture, God prescribed more severe consequences for certain sins.
The church is often accused of focusing on certain sins, especially sexual sins. There is validity to this accusation, I’m sure. But there is good reason for the church to warn about sexual sins, and that is because they are frequently committed, and they carry damaging consequences. In 1 Cor. 6 Paul says, “Flee from sexual immorality! ‘Every sin a person can commit is outside the body, but the person who is sexually immoral sins against his own body.’” He goes on to say, “Your body is a sanctuary of the Holy Spirit who is in you” and “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6: 18-20). In this text the Scriptures describe sexual immorality as particularly damaging because of the relationship between the believer and the Holy Spirit. Elsewhere we read of how families, marriages, and children are damaged, even destroyed, through sexual immorality. Dwelling on an immoral thought is sinful, but acting on such thought carries greater consequence, at least in this life.
Again, every person without Jesus is spiritually lost and dead in sin. But this fact does not negate the varying levels of consequences that sins carry. Scripture shows that in God’s estimate some sins do us more damage and produce more weighty consequences. We must learn to think of sin biblically. We must hate sin wholeheartedly, especially where we see it in ourselves. And, we must not succumb to the temptation that many Christians have today, of not recognizing that some sins do more damage than others. Yes, it is true, that we are all sinners. But it is also true that some sin will destroy your relationships, damage your body, and harm your witness for Christ, more than will others. Because of this, all sins are not equal.
One final thought. The reality that some sins are more damaging than others must not produce a judgmental or prideful spirit in those who have refrained from certain sins. Paul’s said, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” – and I am the worst of them” (1 Tim. 1:15). If I regard someone as “worse than me,” or “less than me,” how can I love them in unfeigned humility? I cannot. Therefore, the purpose of this essay is not to help us identify who is worse than whom. The purpose is to help us acknowledge and deal with the sin and guilt in our own lives lest it destroy us. And, a second purpose, is to keep believers from getting wobbly in the knees and winking at the kind of sin that is destroying people’s lives, even while our nation celebrates certain of these sins.