Is There A Sin That Is Worse Than All Others, According To The Bible?

An all-knowing, all-powerful god would by definition be beyond mortal comprehension. To concede such informs an entire school of theology — apophasis — that stretches back to ancient Greek conceptions of the divine. But to admit that God is unknowable leaves some believers struggling to understand how best to follow their faith. In the Christian tradition, this admission carries some heavy implications on the matter of sin.

The Ten Commandments may be the most famous statement of principles from the Bible, but there are many more prohibitions and warnings throughout the Old and New Testaments. True Discipleship lists 124 sins as mentioned in the latter division. And how to weigh and judge sin is a contentious matter among and within the Christian denominations. It's one of the many points where the Bible offers contradictory guidance. James 2:10 (via Bible Gateway) says quite plainly, "For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it." Yet Jesus himself spoke of degrees of sin in the Gospel of John.

The question of whether there is a greatest sin and how to judge sin — whether there's a "worst" one or not — has spawned various schools of thought. Here are a few takes on the weighing of sin in various interpretations from the Bible.

The 'all sin is equal' argument

James 2:10 has often been quoted by those who count all sin as equal, and put into full context, that message only seems reinforced: "For he who said, 'You shall not commit adultery,' also said, 'You shall not murder.' If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker." 

The Sermon on the Mount has also been referenced to support this conception of sin — Jesus drew no line between lust and adultery there. But the idea that all sin is equal in God's eyes has been sharply rebuked by many priests, pastors, and theologians. Randy Alcorn of Eternal Perspective Ministries declares it unfounded by scripture, and even those who argue that all sin is equal tend to heavily qualify that statement. One such qualification was made by the Youth Pastor Theologian blog, which describes all sins as equally wrong, but not equally bad. In other words, all might be an affront against God, but not all carry the same consequences or demand the same repentance. And even James 2 puts an asterisk on its stance with the observation that "judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment."

Mortal versus venial sins

Views on sin and the severity of sin are among the many matters separating Protestants from Catholics. Catholic theology developed the notion of a mortal sin being distinct from a venial sin — the former representing a willful, free, and egregious evil that violates God's law and the latter being a lesser offense, possibly done without full knowledge or consent to wrongdoing. Venial sins are considered wounding to one's relationship with God, and it is recommended that Catholics regularly share them in confession, but they don't destroy one's tie to God or deny a Catholic the chance to receive sacraments. A mortal sin is severe enough to demand the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, and one who dies in a state of mortal sin will be condemned to hell.

While some Protestant denominations recognize degrees of sin, the Protestant movement rejected the mortal-venial distinction. Per The Gospel Coalition, whatever degrees of wrongdoing there are, all sin is technically mortal and relieved through faith in Christ. And it is within Protestantism that some denominations have held to the notion of all sins being equal. John Calvin held to such a position, arguing that the concept of mortal and venial sins was not founded by scripture, and some evangelical churches hold it still.

Seven deadly sins

Proverbs 6 names seven things that God is supposed to abhor above all else: "haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that ... rush into evil, and a false witness." The book is mum on just what mortal man should do with someone guilty of one of these seven sins, though this passage has been used to support the idea of there being degrees of sin.

The seven actions named in Proverbs don't correspond exactly with the seven deadly sins, a concept first developed around 220 A.D. by Tertullian of Carthage. But seven has long been a significant number in magic and religion, and the idea that there are seven particular sins set apart has exerted a powerful pull over the centuries. The Catholic list of seven deadly sins in its modern form — pride, envy, wrath, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust — was crafted by Pope Gregory I. In Catholic theology, they constitute another class of sins: capital sins, so called because they are considered the source from which mortal and venial sins derive. In themselves, the seven traits might not constitute sins — Thomas Aquinas preferred to think of them as vices — but they are considered grave and particularly dangerous for breeding all other wrongdoing.

Sins of the flesh

To some Christians, the greatest sins — or at least those with the worst earthly consequences for the sinner — are those of the flesh. In support of this idea, they point to 1 Corinthians 6:18: " Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body." In other words, while all sin leaves a mark on the soul, sexual sin damages the soul's earthly vessel. This is not necessarily a warning against venereal disease. Those who single out sexual sin connect sexual activity within biblically prescribed boundaries to religious devotion. In particular, they argue that deviance from those boundaries leads to the fraying of religious and social bonds.

Of course, the idea that sex outside of marriage carries equal or greater weight as a sin than the likes of murder is a hard sell for many. Some have tried to equate the two in the sense that unfaithfulness in sex harms others as well as oneself, just as murder does, and that sexual deviance can lead to murder. But a Pew Research Survey Center survey found that 57% of U.S. Christians were accepting of sex outside marriage for committed relationships, and half were fine with casual sex. And some Christian leaders, Pope Francis among them, have put less stress on sexual sin than others.

Blasphemy against the spirit

The first four of the Ten Commandments don't address murder, theft, familial relationships, or sexuality. They address how man must see and worship God — that there are no others, that no idols shall be made, that the name of God shall not be taken in vain, and that the Sabbath must be observed. This emphasis on God's due has fueled atheist critiques of the Bible and the commandments' relevance as a guide to moral behavior. And it has confused even some believers, who fear that a fit of swearing featuring God's name, for example, pushes them over the line into blasphemy against the spirit — the one act that, per Matthew 12, Jesus named as beyond forgiveness.

But blasphemy of the spirit does not reference a fleeting violation of the Third Commandment. In Matthew, Jesus was refuting the Pharisees' accusations of violating the Sabbath and fighting demons with demons. In that context, Professor Kenneth Berding of Biola University said Jesus was speaking of blasphemy as a fundamental state, not a word or action. Berding described blasphemy of the spirit as a persistent, willful rejection of God and the promise of redemption through Jesus. It can be thought of as an unforgivable sin because, by definition, it refuses the option of forgiveness — and, also by definition, anyone who worries about committing such blasphemy can't have been guilty of it.