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Concepts of sin

An overview of many religions' beliefs about sin

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Apparently conflicting quotations on sin:

bullet 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)
bullet 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.

About sin:

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:

bullet 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

bullet 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.

bullet 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.

bullet 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 quote often.

bullet Sin is implied in the Judeo-Christian Golden Rule.

bullet Sin is implied in the analogous Ethics of Reciprocity found in almost all other religions.

Conservative Christianity 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:

bullet Because of Adam and Eve's "original sin" that all subsequent generations of humans have inherited from their ancestors before birth, and/or

bullet Because of their sinful acts perpetrated during their life on earth.

Different Christian religions view Salvation differently. For example:

bullet 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.

bullet 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:

bullet 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).

bullet 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.

bullet 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:

bullet Some consider abortion to be murder; others consider it to be the least immoral option in some instances.

bullet 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.

bullet 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.

Studying 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.


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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 blamed.

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 behavior.

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.


Site navigation:

 Home > Christianity > Christian history... > Beliefs > Sin > here

or: Home > Spirituality > Sin > here

or: Home > Religious information > Sin > here

Reference used:

The following information source was used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlink is not necessarily still active today.
  1. 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

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