Imagine that twin brothers are both feeling suicidal. Walter decides to end his life by putting a bullet through his brain. Wilber, on the other hand, decides to end his life by taking as many people with him as he can, detonating all the C-4 stuffed in his trunk during stand-still rush hour traffic.
Are these two actions equal? In one sense, yes. Each act was equally successful at taking the life of each man. If the unit of measurement is “percentage dead,” you could say that each form of suicide was equally effective.
However, in another sense, the two actions are not remotely equal because they weren’t equally destructive. Walter’s bullet-eating took precisely one life, whereas Wilber’s suicide-bombing took the lives of countless innocent bystanders. So if the unit of measurement is “number of people killed,” Wilbur’s C-4 attack was far worse an act.
How do Christians measure sin? In a recent article for Vox, Todd VanDerWerff asserts that Christians (which he later clarified as shorthand for “conservative Evangelical Christians”) have only one method of measuring sin, that unit of measurement being “percentage condemned.”
Seeking to explain why conservative Christians keep comparing Trump’s leaked tape to Beyoncé lyrics, VanDerWerff states, “In the eyes of God, whether you’re murdering someone or telling a white lie is roughly equivalent, because both are sinful…This makes the whole conservative Christian philosophy uniquely susceptible to slippery slope arguments. If a sin is a sin is a sin, saying the word ‘p—-’ is on a direct line with assaulting someone.”
All Sins Merit Hell, Not All Hurt People Equally
Do Christians actually think this way, though? Not quite. It is certainly true that all sins are equal when measured according to the “percentage condemned” scale. James 2:10 famously states “for whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.”
However, James’ point comes within a certain context—that context being a chapter-long rant against those who think ignoring the poor and needy is perfectly fine as long as you don’t murder them. This is similar to the point Jesus makes in the Beatitudes when he states, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”
With each of these statements, Christ and his brother are saying to the self-righteous, “God doesn’t require you to be a little holier than the worst guy you know to be saved. He requires you to be as holy as he is. So if you think you’ve earned eternal life because you haven’t committed an enormous sin, you’re wrong. Committing even the smallest of sins will leave you 100 percent condemned, and you and the murderers will equally need of God’s forgiveness.”
However, the Bible also teaches that “percentage condemned” is not the only way God weighs sin. There are other units of measurement, one of which is “how much does this sin anger God.” According to the Law of Moses, for example, God hates violence, as he makes clear when he says you’ll have to get an eye gouged out if you half-blind your neighbor. But God hates blasphemy more, as he makes clear a few verses earlier when he requires death for those guilty of despising his name.
God also measures sin according to the harm it brings to your neighbor. A man who seduces a virgin certainly needs forgiveness, but his temporal punishment is not severe since he can restore the woman’s honor by marrying her. Seducing a woman who is already married, however, has a far more irreparable effect on her husband and society at large, which is why God required death for those guilty of adultery.
Remember Mortal Versus Venial Sins?
The New Testament also gives us examples of God viewing certain sins to be worse than others. Both Pontius Pilate and Caiaphas needed forgiveness for the parts they played in Christ’s crucifixion. But Jesus says to the Roman prefect, “he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin” because wanting to kill the messiah out of hardened unbelief is worse than agreeing to crucify him out of ignorance.
Likewise, Christian theologians have drawn distinctions between sins for centuries. Mortal sin, according to the catechism of the Catholic Church, “destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law.” Venial sin, on the other hand, “allows charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it.” In other words, bigger, more destructive sins like murder require the sacrament of reconciliation in order for you to be saved, while smaller sins like a twinge of anger don’t.
Lutherans keep these categories but define them a bit differently, focusing less on the gravity of the sin and more on the condition of the heart. According to Martin Chemnitz, mortal sins are deliberate transgressions born from an unbelieving heart that rejoices in them while venial sins are those we didn’t intend and which we immediately repent of.
While it’s true that all sins are equal in the sense that every sin renders us in need of Christ’s forgiveness, Christians have never asserted that all sins are equal in all circumstances, as we recognize the numerous ways the Scriptures teach us to measure sin. So VanDerWerff is wrong to assert that Christians view murder as morally indistinguishable from telling a white lie.
Christians Are Pointing Out Your Hypocrisy
VanDerWerff is also off-base with his accusation that conservative Christians find Donald Trump’s recently leaked comments about forcing himself on women to be no worse than filthy rap lyrics precisely because we believe all sins are equal. When conservative Christians reference other manifestations of filth in pop culture, they’re not doing this because their theology compels them to believe that sexual assault is no worse than dirty words. Rather, they’re doing this because they don’t believe Donald Trump was actually describing sexual assault.
They interpret his words as nothing more than filthy locker room banter, and they’re highlighting the hypocrisy of those who shriek “What does this teach our children” in one breath and “Beyoncé is a great role model for our daughters” as Queen Bey fills the ears of their offspring with the occasional outburst of filthy lyrics.
Likewise, if Trump’s words are just words, it’s still disgusting to hear him try to impress the guys with the claim that women will let you grope them if you’re rich and famous. But it’s rather difficult to bear the outrage of a world that devoured 120 million copies of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” a book that might as well have been titled “Women Will Let You Sex-Torture Them If You’re Rich and Handsome.”
For the record, I strongly disagree with those who interpret Trump’s words so charitably, if it’s possible for “charitable” to mean “he’s just a pervert, not a rapist.” I also believe political tribalism is the key factor guiding their casual dismissal of the matter, tribalism that men of faith should know isn’t justified just because those on the Left did it first (although I’m not surprised that numerous evangelicals have fallen into this mindset). After all, this isn’t the first time that political fears have led God’s people to make unwise political alliances.
But I’m also quite confident that, when thinking clearly, none of my fellow conservative Christians would compare Trump’s words to other filthy speech if they believed he were guilty of something more heinous, namely sexual assault. The reason they wouldn’t do that is because, according to the Bible, every sin isn’t the same.
God hates blasphemy more than violence. Suicide bombing is more harmful to your neighbor than eating a bullet. Sexual assault is worse than crude joking. Not all sins are equal, even as we’re all equally in need of Jesus and his forgiveness.