There are a lot of popular ideas in our Christian culture that get passed off as Scripture or sound Bibley enough to have an air of credibility. Some are so subtle that they scarcely raise an eyebrow of even those who are moderately biblically literate. One example of “Scripture citation” that I hope most Christians will recognize as bogus is Jack Black’s character in the Nickelodeon movie, Nacho Libre, when he tells his orphans that, “The Bible says ‘not to wrestle your neighbor.’” In case you were wondering, the Bible doesn’t say that. However, as an interpretation of biblical principles, maybe Nacho the Luchador isn’t too far from the truth. After all, it wouldn’t really honor Jesus to perch on the top of your fence post and drop an atomic-elbow on your unsuspecting neighbor when he or she emerges to collect the morning paper. Technically speaking, the Bible does not say that we shouldn’t wrestle our neighbors, but certainly its meaning could include this as a practical application of the text, and we probably shouldn’t get too upset with Nacho’s adaptation. There is no real reason for us to tear our clothes or gnash our teeth because he has “taken away or added to Scripture” here.
Be that as it may, there are instances of interpretive license that have worked their way into Christian culture that could be troublesome, even without intending it. The phrase that I have in mind with this blog entry is the Scripture-like saying that, “All sin is equal in the eyes of God.” I hear Christians say this from time to time, and usually no one questions it or asks for a Bible reference. Somehow it has just worked its way into our subculture. There are variations of the phrase out there as well, but as far as I can tell, this pithy saying is found nowhere in the Bible. During a brief Google search with the query, “Is all sin the same,” I hit a link http://www.openbible.info/topics/is_all_sin_the_same which listed a variety of Bible verses that allegedly addressed the issue. How some of these connected with the topic left me scratching my head (verses like 1 Cor 6.19), but others, like Romans 3.23 (“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”) and James 2.10 (“For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” NRSV) were a little more relevant. Nevertheless, I couldn’t find any text that teaches all sins are of equal (negative) value. If a reader of this post knows a verse or two that does, I invite them to share it here. I don’t think it exists, so until then, I’m left to puzzle over the verses like those mentioned above.
To be fair, passages like James 2.10 and Romans 3.23 indicate that all sins are equal only in the sense of the ultimate consequence that they yield: separation from God. Part of the biblical understanding of God is that he is absolutely perfect in moral character and as a result cannot simply ignore the lesser moral integrity of his creatures if the two parties are to be in good relationship. Hence, all it takes for humans to be separated from God is one sin, great or small, heinous or comparatively harmless. On a long enough timeline this results in humans’ eternal separation from God (hell) and we would all undoubtedly head that way unless something drastic changed.
This is a pretty bad deal for us imperfect humans who, unless we die as infants, can’t seem to avoid sin completely. The whole thing seems terribly unfair. Thankfully, God hasn’t abandoned us to wallow in the predicament and has sent his Son to be our perfection for us. There are a lot of Christian theories about how Jesus’ death and resurrection solves this problem, but those are beyond the scope of this present article. All we really need to know is that it worked. Jesus is sufficient to cover all our separation from himself/ God. This truncated review of our universal need for salvation is the necessary groundwork for understanding how the phrase “All sins are equal in the eyes of God,” probably emerged into our weird Christian subculture. So where is the problem?
The issue that I take with the phrase is that, at least in my Christian experience, it is rarely an entry point for discussing why people need Jesus. More often than not, the phrase is used by well-meaning Christians to bully other believers into dealing with issues that those believers don’t think are that pressing. This can be both good and bad (good for getting a person to address a chronically ignored sin in their life, but bad for overstating the case). Either way, I am hesitant for the mere fact that the “verse” isn’t a Bible verse at all and can be used to manipulate those we drop it on.
Similarly, I have witnessed anti-Christian voices using this non-Bible verse to mock Christians who want to combat things like alcoholism and abortion but don’t feel particularly troubled by a careless word or being unfriendly on an internet discussion board. One of the chief criticisms that non-Christians levy against us Christians is that we are hypocritical. This can be very appropriate (as sinners we are indeed hypocrites and deserve to be called-out for it), but not on the basis of the non-biblical idea that all sins are equal. If God truly saw all sins as equal, and mass murder was no different from going 56 miles per hour in a 55 zone, then Christians would indeed be inconsistent fools for rallying to stop homicidal maniacs while not batting an eye at every other “little” sin. While we don’t get to be selective about which sins we should resist, it makes no sense for Christians to say that all sins are equal, especially when we consider the varying amount of pain and damage they inflict. It would be similarly nutty for Christians to invest as much blood, sweat, resources and tears into preventing people from going 1MPH over the limit as they did in shutting down child sex trafficking. It does not compute.
The world is equally quick to pick up on the apparent incongruity when Christians assert all sins to be the same, and I argue that they perceive this (even if unconsciously) because of humanity’s God-image bearing status. Part of what I understand “being created in God’s image” to mean is that humans, collectively, are moral and thereby morally-responsible creatures. This is a tremendous responsibility and part of what separates humans from the rest of God’s creatures. At its core is God’s own perfect character and hence, his own standard of right and wrong, good and evil. As such, there is a baseline, non-culturally dependent component of human morality that each of us has solely because God has created us “in his image.” This is why, in general, fully developed humans don’t need to be taught that it is wrong to torture babies or push old people down the stairs, etc. We just know it.
While our reflection of God’s character is certainly not crystal clear, neither is it completely absent. It seems to me that when people, Christian or otherwise, question the truthfulness of “all sins being equal in the eyes of God,” they do so because somewhere in their psyche they know it misses the mark. What troubles us when we hear this non-verse is that it impinges God’s character. Are we really to believe that intentionally kicking a cat is of the same moral weight or seriousness as planning and carrying out mass murder or genocide? I don’t believe a perfect and just God can affirm this. Thankfully he doesn’t.
I leave it up to readers to do whatever they want to with this exploration of the phrase in question. I am not going to set up an organization devoted to eliminating this Bibley-sounding expression from our Christian culture, but I will ask that my fellow sisters and brothers in Christ refrain from repeating it and possibly that, the next time they hear another believer blurp it out, they ask them precisely what they mean and where exactly it is in the Bible. I suspect that they won’t know it isn’t in there, and our asking might well help them to do a bit of reflection and better Bible study. We can’t go wrong with that.
Thanks for reading me.