For the mathematical function, see sine.
Sin is a failure to conform to the standard of morality, or the state of the world that results from such failure.
- 1 Meaning of sin
- 2 Differing views of sin
- 3 Summary
- 4 Further reading
- 5 References
Meaning of sin
The root meaning of the English word sin is actually, "He is guilty as charged." This in turn implies that the person committing the offense knew, or ought to have known, that his act would be an offense before he committed it. This word actually captures the meaning that many religious traditions ascribe to sin.
The Greek word used in the original New Testament and translated "sin" in English is ἁμαρτία (hamartia) (whence hamartoma a malformation of cells that are within their usual place in the body). This word captures the Christian meaning of sin much better. Hamartia means missing a target. Thus sin does not require bad intentions, but might result from a misunderstanding. This is not to say that the consequences are any less dire, however. It does mean that sin need not be intentional; it can be a knowing (but not intentional), reckless, or negligent act.
Required: a moral context
Sin, which is a moral failure, cannot exist in the absence of a code of morality.
This is not to say that sin requires a context of divinity. The context in which sin ceases to have meaning is not atheism per se but rather amoralism -- the doctrine that says that no person may properly define what is moral for another, because no two people will ever value the same thing to the same degree, or value the same collection of things by the same rank structure.
Whether any man ever lives without some form of moral code--even if that code is, "I denounce as sin any disagreement with myself or any attempt to stand in my way"--is debatable. Nevertheless, without some form of moral context, sin has no meaning.
Differing views of sin
In Judaism, and certainly in ancient practice, the preferred method of atonement for sin was blood sacrifice. The Book of Leviticus prescribed multiple animal sacrifices for atonement for various types of sin. But by far the most important atonement--on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur)--was made by the high priest of the Hebrew people (originally Aaron, brother of Moses). This involved making a blood sacrifice, entering the Holy of Holies (in Latin, sanctum sanctorum), and sprinkling some of the blood from the sacrifice on the Ark of the Covenant.
Animal sacrifice has not been part of Jewish practice since the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by the future Emperor Titus in 70 AD. But the Old Testament did not imply that animal sacrifice was the sole necessary measure for reconciliation. Simple repentance and prayer sufficed numerous times in Bible history.
Today, though animal sacrifices are no longer observed, Jews do observe Yom Kippur and other festivals related to repentance and reconciliation. But a movement now exists to attempt to regain exclusive control of the Temple Mount area in Jerusalem, rebuild the Temple, and resume the burnt offerings, sin offerings, and guilt offerings prescribed in the Torah.
In traditional Jewish thought, sin may be balanced by the good deeds one performs throughout life; the image of scales weighing one's life are prominent in folklore, similar to other ancient Middle Eastern religions such as ancient Egypt.
See also: Seven Deadly Sins
Roman Catholic doctrine distinguishes original sin, or the sin of Adam, from personal sins, which require individual reconciliation with God. A personal sin may be mortal (a particularly grave matter that the perpetrator commits by deliberate intent) or venial (a less grave matter that could result from a misunderstanding). The RCC distinction is: Mortal sins cut a person off from the grace of God; venial sins do not, but still injure one's relationship to God. A mortal sin is defined in the Roman Catholic church as being any transgression (a) regarding a grave matter, (b) which was premeditated and (c) committed with full knowledge of its sinful nature. A venial sin is defined as any sin which does not fulfil all three conditions for a mortal sin.
The one mortal sin that, to a Catholic, would be unforgivable (because its successful commission leaves no opportunity for reconciliation later), is suicide. Beyond that, a person may receive reconciliation for a mortal sin by making confession to a priest and receiving the ceremony of absolution. One can reconcile from a venial sin by the sacrament of reconciliation, or by receiving communion, or Holy Eucharist.
Roman Catholic doctrine historically included two other controversial holdings. One is purgatory, a place where the soul must be held to "purge" him of all traces of sin before he can gain entry to heaven. Redemption from purgatory allegedly required the payment of a monetary fee by the deceased's relatives to the Church. The other is the indulgence, a fee paid to the church by the perpetrator in advance. Indulgences have not been sold for centuries, and recently Pope Benedict XVI issued an encyclical casting doubt on the entire concept of purgatory.
The Eastern Orthodox Church teaches that the Virgin Mary was born with Original Sin but that she was cleansed of this sin at the time of the Annunciation. The Church also teaches that by free will she did not commit any actual sin.
This doctrine, called Marianism, is not universally held by all Catholics, however.
The Anglican Communion, essentially the breakaway church of the United Kingdom, retains the Roman Catholic tradition of confession and absolution of sin. But instead of an individual process, confession in Anglican churches is a group activity, and absolution is pronounced by a minister to the entire church-going group. Purgatory and indulgences have no place in Anglican doctrine.
Eastern and Oriental Orthodox
In the Eastern Orthodox Church there are no "categories" of sin as found in the Christian West. In the pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic catechism, sins were categorized as "mortal" and "venial." These categories do not exist in the Orthodox Church.
Orthodoxy believes that, while everyone bears the consequences of the first sin, the foremost of which is death, only Adam and Eve are guilty of that sin. Roman Catholicism teaches that everyone bears not only the consequence, but also the guilt, of that sin.
The Orthodox churches, including Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox, differ little from Judaism in their holding of what sin is and how to reconcile it--except that animal sacrifices have never been part of Orthodox tradition.
In 1517, Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation. In his famous "95 theses" he asserted the doctrine of Sola Scriptura--literally, "by Scripture only." Luther rejected out-of-hand most of the various categories of sin, and the elaborate rituals that attended its so-called reconciliation.
Sin, according to Luther, is any failure to observe God's commandments or other Godly precepts that one may determine from the New Testament. Reconciliation from sin was a private matter between God and any of His followers. A priest was not required, because that would imply that a human being, of whatever office, could stand in the place of God.
Salvation was strictly by faith and strictly by grace. Luther drew directly on the letters of Paul that addressed this very subject.
The Baptist Tradition
The Baptists would generally agree with Luther. Like him, Baptists hold that sin is an act or omission that displeases God, and the state of being that the perpetrator falls into, and remains in until he has confessed this sin.
Baptist churches do not tend to engage in corporate, collective confessions. Rather, Baptist practice depends heavily on Matthew 18:15-20 (KJV), which prescribes this procedure for the handling of sin that gives offense to a fellow believer:
- The aggrieved person, or the minister if the aggrieved person has asked him to, tries to encourage the perpetrator to repent. Repentance (Greek metanoia) means a change of mind, or a change of heart.
- Failing that, whoever tried to talk to the perpetrator the first time, tries a second time and brings a witness.
- If this still does not bring repentance, and a cessation of the behavior, then and only then does the matter come before the entire church. The minister lays out the case, and puts the matter to a vote as to whether the offender ought to be allowed to remain in fellowship.
Not all Baptist churches practice this discipline, however. In such environments, sin is a matter between the offender and God (and the person or persons to whom the offender might have given offense). Some observers suggest that churches suffer when they fail to practice discipline as they should.
- Main Article: Sin (Fundamentalism)
The above article is a comprehensive theory of sin, and its effects on the offender, on mankind as a whole, and on the entire world.
Islam recognizes five gradations of sin, in order of severity:
- Wickedness and depravity.
- Ascribing a partner to God. Thus this one special instance of blasphemy is held worse than any other sin a man can commit.
In Islam, permanent reconciliation cannot come in life. Instead, at death, a person has his "good deeds" measured against his "bad deeds" (sins). If the good outweighs the bad, then the person must walk a tightrope over a lake of fire in order to cross into heaven. Islam, however, offers one important exception: any person who dies in the course of an act that advances the Muslim faith gains automatic entry into heaven, regardless of any prior sins he has committed. The usual, and some Muslims (particularly the Wahabbi sect) say the only, context for such a death is jihad, literally holy war. Furthermore, jihad is a physical war against non-adherents to Islam.
Other Muslims will say that jihad is not physical at all, but refers instead to a personal struggle that every Muslim must engage in continually against sin and the temptations thereto.
Still others state that two forms of Jihad are known:
- The greater Jihad, which is the internal struggle within a person against sin.
- The lesser Jihad, physical war against the infidel.
Those who make that distinction state that what they call the "lesser jihad" is practiced only by fanatical holders to Islam. A fanatic is one who holds to a set of beliefs uncritically--that is, without being willing to judge them. Since the World Trade Center incident, a number of Muslims have begun a critical analysis of Muslim doctrine (both verbal and written) and the place of Islam in the civilized world. Whether those voices can find sufficent logical support in the written texts that define Islam is debatable.
Totalitarian authorities and their apologists have their concept of sin as well: it is anything that works against the government, or tries to thwart its goals. This is true even in a regime that is explicitly atheistic in world view. Reconciliation generally requires recantation.
Environmentalism also has a standard of value: the good of the planet as a wild system. Anything that harms the earth or makes it less wild is sinful in this system. The controversy surrounding global warming is, at root, a controversy about environmentalism as a source of moral values, and the allegation that humans in general, and/or some humans in particular, have transgressed against the environmentalist moral standard.
Some religious and philosophical traditions consider sin to be a deliberate act; others say that it can be merely a mistake. Some say that reconciliation for sin requires a certain work; others that reconciliation is by the grace of God (or, for some, a cult leader), and still others (most notably the Objectivists) say that reconciliation is not required, except perhaps to any particular affronted person.
Atheists typically lack a concept of sin, and may even ridicule it. More generally, amoral individuals deny that sin exists, because sin presupposes a moral code that someone might breach.
- Bretzke, James T. A Morally Complex World: Engaging Contemporary Moral Theology (2004) excerpt and text search
- Connolly, Hugh. Sin (2002) 168pp very brief history of sin in Christian theology; 120pp
- Paulson, Ronald. Sin and Evil: Moral Values in Literature(2007) 403pp.; focus on Swift, Dickens, Hawthorne, Melville, James, Conrad, Faulkner, Greene, and Vonnegut