What is the worst sin? Instead of absorbing the angry answers that come with tribalism, let’s bring the question to Jesus.
The story is told of two brothers who were notorious scoundrels. When one brother died, the other bribed the preacher: He would write the preacher a check with multiple zeroes if the preacher, during the funeral, would call his brother a saint. The preacher thought hard about it, and then, when the funeral came, he stood and started the eulogy this way: “This man was not a good man. If you knew him, you knew that he was mean, he cheated people, he drank too much, and he did all sorts of unspeakable things.” He paused. “But compared to his brother, this man was a saint.”
While Protestants and Catholics debate how a person arrives at sainthood, contemporary culture offers the easy button: You can attain sainthood simply by comparing sins in a way that makes you look saintly by comparison. Oh, so I’m a hypocrite because I’m a Christian who voted for an adulterer? At least I didn’t vote for the candidate that thinks it’s a moral thing to dismember unborn babies. From the other side: Oh, so I’m a bad person for voting for the pro-choice guy? At least I give a rip about poor people and I stand up for women’s rights. Sainthood for me via scandalizing you.
“Central to these debates is a massive theological question: What is the worst sin?”
Central to these debates is a massive theological question: What is the worst sin? Or, more commonly, when examining two sins: Which sin is worse than the other? And, yes, these questions are very theological. The Greek word translated “sin” in the New Testament is hamartia, which means to miss the mark. Missing the mark assumes humanity has been given a target, and there’s no objective bullseye without a birdseye view from above. Everybody’s got a thousand opinions when it comes to answering these theology questions and they’re ready to fight for them, whether they’ve thought them through theologically or not.
A Couple Quick, Easy, and Wrong Answers
So, what is the worst sin? Which sins are worse than others? One gut-level, go-to way of answering is to go tribal. The worst sins are the ones that come from the other side. To some, the most destructive sins have to do with the perversion of sex, the breakdown of the family, the killing of the unborn, and the erosion of religious freedom. Yet, to others, the real sins are the other side’s judgmentalism in matters of sex, smugness when it comes to family, privilege when it comes to status and race, and egotism when it comes to other religions. In our own way, we’ve all got binoculars out, peering down the road, trying to figure out what we’ve got to do to prevent the end of civilization. Yet binoculars can also serve as blinders, especially if we’re more interested in self-preservation than God’s revelation.
What is the worst sin? “Binoculars can also serve as blinders, especially if we’re more interested in self-preservation than God’s revelation.”
Consulting tribal headquarters will mean we get predictable answers, but, again, this is a theological, not tribal, question. Does God have anything to say about what sins are the worst?
Another easy answer that feels right but is wrong is to answer simply that all sins are the same in God’s eyes. God sees a sin as a sin as a sin. Sure, there’s a little truth here: Romans 1-3 shows us conclusively that we all have a major sin problem and need Jesus, and James 2:10-11 explains that we’re all lawbreakers before God even if we break just one of his laws (which is only theoretical, since James also says in 3:2 that “we all stumble in many ways”). But the idea that all sins are the same in God’s eyes is simply not true (see the next paragraph), and even if the idea can be used to keep us humble (“I’m just as bad as a Jeffrey Dahmer.”), it’s also used to make morality mushy (“Hey, get off my back. You’re a sinner too, so stop trying to call me out.”).
Contenders for Worst Sin
The plain fact is, the Bible presents some sins as worse than others. Some are described as downright damnable. The following are some strong contenders for the worst of the worst kinds of sin: From Proverbs 6:16-19, we learn that God detests arrogance, deception, murder, and false accusations, as well as hearts quick to rush into evil actions, minds bent on devising evil plans, and voices skilled in turning people against each other. Of these, arrogance might be said to edge out the others for first place, as a prideful heart has long been recognized as the sin which fuels all the others (Gen. 3:5-6).
What is the worst sin? “A prideful heart has long been recognized as the sin which fuels all the others.”
Then, from Matthew 12:31, we learn that there’s a sin that won’t be forgiven: the blasphemy against the Spirit, which context suggests has to do with a persistent refusal to acknowledge Jesus (12:24-29). Another fact worth mentioning is that, in the “vice lists” throughout the New Testament, sexual immorality often heads the list (1 Cor. 6:9; Gal. 5:19; Col. 3:5; 1 Peter 4:3), as well as functioning as Paul’s Exhibit A for godless cultures (Rom. 1:24-27). It’s also the case that persistent faithlessness by God’s people in the Old Testament—just like the persistent unbelief of people repeatedly exposed to Jesus in the New Testament—tends to tee people up to receive God’s harshest wrath (e.g., Luke 10:13).
We do well to learn these truths so we can grow to hate what God hates (Pr. 8:13; Rom. 12:9). But lists of sins aren’t the only place we learn how to spot and sidestep the worst of them. Another important place to explore is the life of Jesus. What is it that makes Jesus sad? What is it that makes Jesus mad? We learn much about the worst sins from the falling tears and flying tables we see in Jesus’ life.
What is the worst sin? “We learn much about the worst sins from the falling tears and flying tables we see in Jesus’ life.”
Falling Tears and Flying Tables
As for falling tears, there are two times in the Gospels we read about Jesus weeping: at the sight of a heartbroken family and at the sight of a hardhearted city. As for the first instance, he saw the family of his friend Lazarus grieving his death, and Jesus broke down and wept right along with them (John 11:33, 35). As for the second, Jesus wept over a city, Jerusalem, that was rejecting him. This city would crucify him, and Jesus ached because of their persistent unbelief and because of the destruction he knew was coming against them within a few decades (Luke 19:41).
These tears give me permission to grieve across party lines. When I see anybody hurting—a death in the family of the politician whose platform strikes me as insane at best, a tragic church backstory of a gay person, a scary diagnosis for a skeptic of Christianity—I don’t say, “Not my people, not my problem.” No, in that moment, I’m invited to be the Samaritan who happens upon the beat-up Jew on the side of the road. Jesus’ falling tears pour shame on my tribalism.
What is the worst sin? “Jesus’ falling tears pour shame on my tribalism.”
As for flying tables, Jesus seems to reserve his angriest times for when insiders don’t care about outsiders and so they end up callously and cruelly adding layers to people’s lostness. Insiders can do this by turning the temple from a place where outsiders meet God (1 Kings 8:43) to a place where insiders make money (Matt. 21:12). So Jesus throws tables. Insiders can do this by caring more about winning a religious debate on what you can and can’t do on Sabbath than about noticing some guy’s deformed hand (Mark 3:5). So Jesus gets angry and heals the hand out of compassion for the man as well as anger toward the leaders. If Jesus’ tears pour shame on my tribalism, his anger sets it aflame and burns it to the ground.
“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people“ (Rom. 1:18). In the final estimation, we’re all in huge trouble without Jesus. That’s why, whatever level of badness I see in the people around me, for me to add layers of lostness between them and Jesus would be the worst thing I could ever do to them.