Concepts of sin
An overview of many
religions' beliefs about sin
Apparently conflicting quotations on sin:
||Deuteronomy 24:16: "The fathers shall not be put to death for the
children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every
man shall be put to death for his own sin." (KJV)
||Exodus 20:5: "Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them (idols), nor
serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of
the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them
that hate me."
Although these quotes appear to be in conflict, it is possible to harmonize them -- and other apparent conflicts in the Bible.
Sin is a big topic, and an important one!
It is a key foundational concept in many religions. Sin is a major theme in
the Bible and in the religious texts of other faiths. For example:
The Mosaic Code in the Pentateuch
(the first five books in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) defines 613
behaviors that believers are expected to either adopt because they are not sinful, or avoid because they are
wicked. "248 were positive; 365
were negative." 1
Some sinful behaviors towards fellow humans are listed in second half of the Ten
Commandments. Many Christians give great weight to them. However, many Jews regard them as inadequate to give a believer a full understanding of sin and how to avoid it. They feel that the latter is the function of the other injunctions in the Mosaic Law.
||Most Jews believe that the Mosaic Code was given only to Jews (including
converts to Judaism). That is, non-Jews are exempt from the law.
Most conservative Christians believe that almost all of the Mosaic Code no
longer applies to them. It was replaced by God's grace in the New Testament. However, many hold on to the applicability of some
of the laws, like the two condemning homosexuality in Leviticus 18 and Leviticus 20 which they
Sin is implied in the Judeo-Christian Golden Rule.
Sin is implied in the analogous Ethics of Reciprocity found in almost all other religions.
deviates little from historical Christianity on matters of sin. However,
secularists and followers of present-day liberal Christianity often find their beliefs in conflict with biblical passages and traditional Christian
teachings. They find many biblical passages about sin difficult to understand or comprehend;
they violate modern religious and secular concepts of
morality and ethics.
Sin, salvation, and the afterlife as viewed by different religions:
Christianity, and other Western religions, have historically taught that most
people will spend eternity in Hell after they die:
Because of Adam and Eve's "original sin" that
all subsequent generations of humans have inherited from their ancestors before birth, and/or
||Because of their sinful acts perpetrated during their life on earth.
Different Christian religions view Salvation differently. For example:
Roman Catholicism places great emphasis on church sacraments as the
main process by which a person's sins are forgiven and one is assured to eventually attain Heaven after death.
Most conservative Protestant denominations have traditionally placed salvation from sin
firmly into the hands of the individual. She/he must repent of their
sins and trust Jesus as Lord and Savior in order to be saved from eternal punishment
in Hell after death. This
remains a major concern, within at least
the conservative wings of most Western religions; it strongly motivates many
conservative Christians to proselytize others in order to convert them to their belief systems.
Within Islam, a very few behaviors -- e.g. being a
martyr in the defense of Islam -- guarantee that a person's sins will be
forgiven and that they will achieve Paradise after
death. Some other behaviors will guarantee that they will be sent to Hell.
But, for most believers, entrance into Paradise is dependant upon their belief
in God and his messengers (Surah 57:21), and upon having committed a
preponderance of good deeds
while on earth (Surah 2:25 and Surah 4:57). Thus, Muslims are generally not at all certain of their fate after death.
Many Eastern religions view sin very differently. Sin is viewed as an error
caused by inadequate knowledge. Many teach the concept of Karma. This is the
total effect of the
good deeds and sinful behavior which each person accumulates during their
lifetime. These religions generally teach that, after death, one's soul enters a
new body in order to live a new lifetime. The nature of a person's next reincarnation, and whether they will be reincarnated into a human or animal body, will be determined by
their accrued Karma at the time of their death.
Many Newagers, Wiccans and other Neopagans have incorporated belief in Karma
into their religions. However, most
believe that the impact of sin and of good deeds only extend to a person's present lifetime.
Many Neopagans tend to define sin in terms of actual harm done by one believer
to themselves or to other people. Many believe in the Threefold Law by
which the universe functions in a way that returns any harm that a believer has done to
others, increased three times in severity. This heavily motivates them to not attempt to
harm, injure, dominate, manipulate or control others.
About changes in the concept of sin over time:
Many parts of the Bible -- particularly the Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. Old
Testament) are difficult to understand today. For example:
Some activities in the Hebrew Scriptures, and some laws among the
613 injunctions of the Mosaic Code, were accepted parts of the biblical
culture in ancient times, but are considered profoundly immoral today.
Examples are genocide; condoning human slavery; stoning non-virgin brides to death; forcing some rape victims
to marry their rapists, while executing other rape victims; treating wives as property;
etc. Of particular concern are passages that transfer
punishment for sin from the guilty person(s) to innocent person(s).|
Some activities that the Hebrew Scriptures consider serious moral or ritual sins are considered morally
neutral today. Some are even regarded as moral activities today.
Examples are the prohibitions against eating shellfish, getting a
tattoo, wearing clothing that is made of a blend of textiles, worshiping
a God or Goddess that is not recognized by the dominant religion of the
country, picking up wood on Saturday in order to keep your family from
suffering from cold, etc.|
|What is particularly distressing to many adults today are those
matters in which the culture is in a state of transition. There are
currently many "hot" religious and moral
topics which people passionately argue from opposing viewpoints.
They generally base their arguments not upon what the Bible says, but upon their interpretation of what the Bible means. Some of
the following are the highest profile unresolved conflicts at this time:|
Some consider abortion to be murder;
others consider it to be the least immoral option in some instances.
Some consider the denial of equal rights
to homosexuals and transsexuals to be profoundly immoral. Others feel that
homosexual or transsexual behavior to be abominations that should be
criminalized and/or discouraged or suppressed.
Some feel that the use of corporal
punishment to discipline children is of vital importance for the discipline
of children, and is
commanded by God. Others feel that it is an immoral form of
terrorism that seriously harms children, and often leads to serious emotional problems in
adulthood, including increased rate of alcoholism, addiction to other drugs, clinical depression and anxiety.
On a positive note, the Bible documents many instances of major painful
realignments in Jewish and Christian concept of sin. Some were sufficiently
radical to qualify as paradigm shifts. Among the most important of these were:
- The abandomnemt by Christians of Jewish dietary laws.
- The acceptance of Gentiles into the very early Christian church which was largely composed of Jews at the time.
how these shifts were handled might help us determine which side we should support in current
conflicts. At least, it may give us some tools that will help us accomodate change.
About the transferability of sin:
Most religious individuals and secularists believe that a person is
responsible for their own sinful behavior. They might point out that in a just society
if one person commits a crime, only that person is punished. The criminal's
relatives and neighbors are not blamed. Persons who happen to be of the same
nationality, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, skin color, etc. as the criminal are not
However, both the Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. Old Testament) and Christian
Scriptures (a.k.a. New Testament) contain a surprising number of passages
in which the sins of one person -- and the resultant punishment -- are transferred to others, who are innocent of
the sins. More details.
A second point of difficulty that some religious liberals and secularists
have with the Bible and traditional Christianity is determining who or what was
sinned against. Many tend to feel that the person who suffered from another's
sin is the prime victim. Lesser victims may be that person's family,
friends, and perhaps community. However, in many biblical passages, the sinner
is described as sinning against the
victim, against society in general, against the land itself, and/or against God. The
Bible relates how the earth itself can become polluted as a result of sinful
Difficulties exist also with the beliefs and rituals of Christian
denominations. Many faith groups believe that infants are born guilty of
original sin. Some faith groups believe that this sin is wiped away at the time
that an infant is baptized. The child, of course, has no control over whether they
are baptized or not; she or he has no input into the ritual. Some religious
liberals may ask how words by one person can eliminate the sins of another. Some ask how -- without any input from the child -- could the sins of one
infant be forgiven, while the sins of a child belonging to a non-believing
family are not.
Sin is definitely a fascinating topic, with many complexities to sort out.
The following information source was used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlink is not necessarily still active today.
Wayne Jackson, "Some Contrasts Between the Nature of the Mosaic System and Christianity,"Christian Courier,
2001-NOV-30, at: http://www.christiancourier.com/
Copyright © 2002 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-OCT-20
Latest update and review: 2011-JUN-06
Author: B.A. Robinson