I have heard Christians say as a matter of fact that “God sees all sin as the same.” Often, there can be some humility in this sentiment, since I know that my own sins might be different from another person’s, but that does not somehow make me less worse compared to them. The statement about “all sin” can be helpful to guard us against imagining that somehow my sins are more excusable than another person’s. The statement is intended to block me from congratulating myself for not having committed the sins that others do, since my own sins are also very bad, if only different in expression. Despite the good intentions of this statement, a bad effect is to make it seem that God doesn’t really understand sin as varied levels of harm or take the differences among sins seriously in judgment (and punishment).
A helpful corrective is the sentence offered by Cornelius Plantinga: “All sin is equally wrong, but not all sin is equally bad.” The affirmation and denial are needed to tell both (1) that every sin is criminal and serious before God, and (2) that some sins are more serious than others. As with many well-intentioned but misleading theological slogans, Christians distort the biblical teaching about sin by repeating only the affirmation “All sin is equally wrong” while forgetting to add the denial that marks real differences of severity among particular sins.
Christians commonly affirm that all sin is the same to God, probably an idea that is echo of two statements by Jesus in Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28. In a shock to our sense of justice, Jesus equates internal hatred with the external act of murder, and he equates internal lust with the external act of adultery. It might seem that Jesus means to say these evil acts are the same to God. Instead, Jesus means to identify the internal acts as also sinful; external behaviors are not the only realm of sin. He is not heightening the standards of righteousness that were given in the Torah, but pressing to the whole person capable of sin inside and out. People should have understood that the seemingly harmless movement of darker internal desires and plots are also in the realm of active evil. Both lust and hatred are failures to love one’s neighbor, even if these acts occur in the heart, but the heart is the main thing that drives all outward action (Matthew 15:19) and God will reveal it in the judgment (Hebrews 4:12). Restricting one’s outward behavior is not enough, since the desire to harm others or to use them for self-gratification is also criminal before God. To say they are also criminal does not mean they are the same to God, as if God did not recognize differences of severity among sins.
Depending on how the equation of different types of sins is intended, the statement that all sin is the same is both accurate and misleading. If we take the intended meaning of all sin is the same to God to mean as Plantinga has phrased it, “All sin is equally wrong,” then we have accuracy about the seriousness of any sin as making the sinner guilty of punishment in Hell. For example, a lie about his taxes makes Jorge deserving of Hell; the murder of twenty people makes Bjorn deserving of Hell. Since the punishment for sin is Hell, any sin is sufficient to condemn a person to Hell. All sin is so bad that God’s response to all sin is the same: Hell. Why? Because all sin is always a crime against God, which makes every sin an act of treason against the Creator. God’s status as attacked by all sins measures the severity of every sin as immense. Hell-to-pay is justice for sin against God, but even this does not mean that sins are the same in their severity. The New Testament is clear that God’s justice against sinners will be commensurate to their crimes, the so-called doctrine of degrees of punishments. All the condemned will be in the same location of Hell, but their experience in that place will differ according to God’s retribution for their actual crimes (Luke 12:47-48; Romans 12:14; 2 Thessalonians 1:6). This is God’s perfect justice to deal with sins particularly, according to individual severity, instead of as a class with no differences among lying, murder, cruelty, etc.
The statement of equation about sins is helpful to check us against the tendency to relativize the badness of our wrongs by comparison to others’ sins. Non-Christians typically put themselves in the category of “I’ve never murdered anyone” to minimize their lies and other wrongs by comparison to people who have done worse than they. These comparisons are meaningless but conveniently self-righteous as leverage to somehow lessen the seriousness of what we have done. For that purpose of marking all sin in the realm of evil, the equation statement all sin is the same to God in the sense of “all sin is equally wrong” serves a good purpose.
The inaccurate side of the equation statement is amended by Plantinga’s second phrase with the needed denial, “but not all sin is equally bad.” Were it the case that God weighed no difference between murder and hatred, or lust and adultery, then it would seem that God did not understand the harmfulness of sins very well. Human society recognizes some factors that can distinguish the guilt of similar crimes; does God not also see with this clarity of justice? Are not some sins really worse than others, even in God’s view?
The biblical teaching about sin and justice tells that several factors modify the severity of particular sins. For example, if one person kills another, we can think of at least four different ways that intention and circumstances would modify the guilt of the one who killed another.
- Joe killed Mike by shooting him in the back with a gun, having plotted to do so for a week.
- Sue killed Andrew by neglecting to stop her car fast enough, and her car hit Andrew while he was walking across the street.
- James killed George with a hammer blow to the skull when George broke into James’s house and threatened to shoot him with a pistol.
- Henry killed Sam as an enemy soldier in a battle between two naval ships.
We can add one case that mimics one of the biblical statements.
- Annie wished Ashley was dead, and hoped that disaster would strike her.
Children attempt to minimize their culpability for some damage they have caused by saying, “I didn’t mean to! It was an accident!” Of course, they are right, since intentionality does intensify the wrongness of a harm or crime, both morally and in the American criminal justice system. Society distinguishes clearly between involuntary manslaughter and murder, assigning differing levels of guilt and sentencing.
Accordingly, cases 1) and 5) above fit the contrast of Jesus’ statement, while 2) is unintentional, and so carrying less guilt. The factors of self-defense at home and in war among soldiers for 3) and 4) also mitigate the level of bloodguilt for the same act of all the cases of killing another person.
God does see sin differently according to levels of severity as according to intentionality, the degree of harm, the knowledge a person had with regard to God’s moral requirements, and the status of the person attacked. Some sins really are worse than others—not all equally bad, in Plantinga’s phrase—and God sees them that way also.
God made provision for Israel through sacrifices to cover sins that were done unintentionally or through ignorance. That a sacrifice had to be offered shows God’s view that guilt was incurred even when the act was an accident. By contrast, sins committed with intention could not be covered by sacrifice. The factor of intention makes it a worse sin than the same act committed accidentally or ignorantly.
Degrees of Severity—Ezekiel 8:6-15
The prophet is shown evil acts of people in Israel, and then God says he will show him greater (worse) abominations.
Knowledge of a Person—Luke 12:47-48
Two slaves are judged by the returning master according to what they each knew, even though they each did what was wrong.
Status of the Person Attacked—Genesis 9:5-6
God specified reparations for the death of an animal, but murder incurred capital punishment because of the high status of all human beings who are the image of God.
Evil is complicated. We do not like to think about it. God has made it clear that many factors affect the moral severity of evil actions, similar to human justice systems. The analysis of sin in this way, following the Bible, is not to minimize any cases of evil but to take it as seriously as God does. All sin is destructive, but individual sins are not equally severe.
- Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 21.