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Wanna roll the Wheel of Sin?
Sin lies only in hurting others unnecessarily. All other "sins" are invented nonsense.
—Robert Heinlein[1]
If you are going to sin, sin against God, not the bureaucracy. God will forgive you but the bureaucracy won't.
—Hyman Rickover, admiral in the US Navy[2]
Preach to the choir
Icon religion.svg
Crux of the matter
Speak of the devil
An act of faith

In the simplest terms, sin is...

  • An abbreviation for the sine of an angle,[note 1] ratio of the length of the opposite side to the length of the hypotenuse in a right-angled triangle.
  • The wilderness/desert of Sin, a roadstop during the Book of Exodus.
  • The patron deity of the ancient city-state of Dagoth Ur.
  • The airport code for Singapore Changi International: check your luggage tag. This is the real SIN city!
  • Something the person you're talking to doesn't like and he's claiming God doesn't.
  • A guilt trip when you disagree with someone on religious matters.
  • The willful act of breaking religious and/or moral laws.
  • The innate desire to break religious and/or moral laws.
  • Perhaps, just being naughty.
  • Cardinal SinWikipedia

Origin of sin: The Biblical position[edit]

According to the Bible, sin originated when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and gained knowledge of good and evil. As punishment for this act — known as the fall from grace and the act of original sin; all humans since Adam and Eve have lived a life of suffering and sinfulness.[3] (The question of why YHWH would put this tree in the middle of the Garden of Eden, then tell Adam and Eve not to eat its fruit — like the question of how they could be expected to know it was sin when they literally didn't have an inkling of right and wrong until they ate it; is one of those "mysteries of the divine" that fundamentalists choose to gloss over.)

The Christian concept of sin is the sense of having offended a personal God. This is, of course, the same God who demanded the genocide of the AmalekitesWikipedia (including women and children), out of the blue, two centuries after they hassled the Israelites. The same God who sets aside his own "eternal" commandment not to commit murder so that Samuel could kill their helpless, captive king and complete the genocide.

Origin of sin: one humanistic explanation[edit]

What Christianity calls "sin" is really our survival instincts kicking into action. Human society does not thrive when individuals think only of their own survival while ignoring the needs of others. Therefore, society needs law codes to rein in self-centeredness. Ancient societies called the more anti-social actions "sins". They involved their God/gods in the law codes to scare people into promoting civility and rejecting selfishness.Wikipedia

To put it another way, there is objectively no such thing as "sin": it is simply a socially-evolved religious control mechanism. Some humanists would argue that there is nothing wrong with this in and of itself, as they would maintain that society needs control mechanisms to avoid descending into orgies of self-centered anarchy that destroy everyone and everything. The problem comes when people start proclaiming that their religion is better than everyone else's, or that a holy book written over a thousand years ago is still perfectly relevant to modern society, or that their religion is absolutely perfect and should be obeyed without question no matter what it says, or… you get the idea.

Mortal and venial sins[edit]

Penitent confesses his sins.

In traditional Catholic theology, mortal sins are those sins which result in eternal damnation if not repented and if possible, absolved by the sacraments before death. Venial sins are the less serious sins which do not threaten one's salvation.[4]

To be mortal, a sin must be (1) serious; (2) committed with full knowledge of its sinfulness, and of the gravity of its sinfulness; (3) committed with full consent. All three elements are necessary; the absence of any one of them will render the sin venial instead. While the first criterion, seriousness, is an objectively ascertainable matter of the nature of the act committed, the other two components are subjective factors of the mindset of the sinner. Thus, from mere knowledge of an act (e.g., abortion), we cannot say whether it is a mortal or venial sin in a particular case, only that it is potentially mortal; to know whether it actually be mortal or venial, we would need to know the mind of the sinner at the time of the sin.

While, in the Catholic view, venial sins do not immediately threaten one's salvation, they will result in temporal punishment in Purgatory after death, unless that punishment be remitted through indulgences. However, even though they do not immediately threaten one's salvation, they can lead to patterns of behaviour or character traits (vices) which can eventually lead to the commission of mortal sins.

Other Christians, especially Protestants, reject the distinction between mortal and venial sins. Protestants believe that everyone is equally damned due to original sin and all other sins are therefore just icing on the cake with regard to the damnation; however, they also believe in the concept of sola fide, by which all repented sins are forgiven through faith, even those committed after baptism. Some of the more doctrinaire Protestants, such as Calvinists, also believe that salvation, once gained, can never be lost at all (perseverance of the saints, a.k.a. "once saved always saved" or Predestination).[note 2]

The seven deadly sins[edit]

At the end of the 6th century, Pope Gregory I (in office 590–604) established the list known today as the "seven deadly sinsWikipedia". Below are illustrations of all of them from French artist Jacques Callot.

Pope Greg also defined punishments in Hell for each of the sins, because fantasizing about torturing people was a big part of Medieval Christianity. The punishments are as follows:[5]

  • Gluttons are forced to eat rats, spiders, and toads. This one doesn't sound too bad, depending on how these foods are prepared.
  • The lustful get burned with fire and brimstone.
  • The wrathful get dismembered "alive", even though you're technically dead in Hell. This one's confusing.
  • The prideful get "broken on the wheel", which is worse than it sounds.[6]
  • The greedy get boiled "alive". Again with the "alive" in Hell problem.
  • The envious get dunked in freezing water.
  • The slothful get dumped in a pit of snakes. Especially bad if you're Indiana Jones.

Sin in modern times[edit]

Although all Christian denominations have different ideas about what constitutes sin, many agree that sin can be roughly summed up as "anything we don't agree with the god we believe in has implicitly or explicitly told us not to do". Among other things considered sins by religions today are:

Sin and noetics[edit]

A number of modern Christian theologians, broadly starting with Stephen K. Moroney, think that sin can affect the human mind and its intellectual faculties. This has become a fun tool for presuppositionalists to bash atheists with: the truth of Christianity is simple — non-Christians can't believe true things because their minds have been distorted by sin.[8] (Unfalsifable? Circular? You betcha!)

If you think you're a hopeless sinner, just remember…[edit]

"For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;"[9] including the Pope, Pat Robertson, Andrew Schlafly and the other chuckleheads at Conservapedia. Why do they consider themselves superior to everyone else? Pride would be a good guess.

See also[edit]


  1. Whatever reason mathematicians have for compressing the term into three letters surely is sinful.
  2. The obvious problem with this approach is that it deprives sin of its consequences, giving Protestants free rein to be God-bothering assholes with no regard for how much pain or suffering they cause other people (if they aren't actively seeking to destroy those who are different from them). As previously mentioned, the concept of sin can be a useful counterbalance against humanity's worse instincts, and in order for that to be effective, it needs to have consequences. The "sin doesn't count when I do it, especially when I do it to filthy degenerates" attitude of predestination explains a lot about the Religious Right, especially hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan and Westboro Baptist Church. Say what you will about Catholics, but at least most of them believe that you need a really, really good reason to behave like a jerk without risking a stint in Purgatory for it, and simply being bothered by the existence of other people who aren't like you isn't good enough (though exceptions to this magnanimity do sadly exist).