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  Are There Degrees of Sin and Punishment?

Just how forgiving is God? This week, Duke writes “Do murderers or other super-sinners go to heaven if they are saved by Jesus? …I have a hard time believing that a murderer, the victim, and the victim’s parents can all end up in paradise together.”

The issue of sin, punishment, and forgiveness can be difficult to understand—especially in light of the scriptures. We read in James 2.10 that whoever is guilty of breaking even one point of the law is guilty of breaking all the law. For years the Church has taught this means that in the sight of God all sin is equal. And this is true…to a point, both logically and biblically. However, there is more to it than that.

First, to logic. There is a notion that God cannot abide the presence of sin in any way, shape, or form. When I was younger, I sort of thought it was like sci-fi’s matter and anti-matter theory. Put anti-matter in contact with matter and BOOM! both cease to exist. But that image fell by the wayside when I read in the book of Job about God and Satan hanging out with each other and having conversations.

On the other hand, the consequence for sin came home to me when I had children. I discovered that when one of my children “sinned” against me (i.e., when they broke the house rules), then I would be unable to trust them. It didn’t make any difference whether they broke curfew or whether they lied outright, the results were the same: they lost my trust. And that would be the same if they really got out of control (they never have), but if they pulled a knife on me, the primary consequence is that I would be unable to trust them.

The same with God. If I sin, no matter what it is that I do, the relationship I have with God is damaged—God can’t trust me. And so, in a sense, all sin carries the same consequence. Clearly, James echoes this sentiment when he implies that sin is sin is sin. 

But there is another side to it. In the eyes of the Law, not every sin is equal. In the Old Testament you could be put to death for a number of sexual deviations, for murder, for kidnapping, for being an incorrigible child, and for working on the Sabbath. On the other hand, if you ate the wrong thing, had marital relations with your menstruating wife, or drank the blood of an animal, then you were “cut off from your people,” which in many cases meant you could not enter the Tabernacle or Temple until you performed a ritual to be restored.

In our own society, our “sins” are weighted as well—it’s one thing to shoplift, it’s yet another to drink and drive. 

The question is, does God weight sin too? And if so, how?

I believe that the answer is yes, of course, God does weight sin in varying degrees. However, the weighted consequences of those “sins” are played out on this side of the hereafter. If we sin, no matter what the sin is, our relationship with God is damaged. But while this life is played out, the consequences vary with crime. Lie to your mom, she doesn’t trust you anymore. Lie to a judge, it’s called perjury and you can end up doing time. Steal a pencil, pay a fine. Cheat on a test, fail the class. Cheat on your spouse, lose your marriage. And so on.

But what of those super-sinners when it comes to our relationship with God and our residency in heaven?

Well, first off, let’s remember that King David is called “A man after God’s own heart” (Acts 13.22), and he was guilty of murder. In the New Testament we find that the apostle Paul was a collaborator in the murder of Stephen (Acts 22.20). I suspect few would assert that either of these were eternally separated from God.

So, does God forgive those who come to Christ and seek it? The overwhelming answer in the scriptures from Old through New Testaments is a resounding yes. 

But what of the victims? What if they are in heaven too? How will we handle that?

The Sadducees asked a similar question of Jesus about marriage and death in Matthew 22. They asked who a woman would be married to in heaven if she’d been married to seven different men? Jesus answered that they clearly didn’t understand about heaven, and then he went on to explain that earthly relationships have no bearing on heavenly relationships. Obviously, something’s different on the “other side.”

The Kingdom of God isn’t anything like life outside of the Kingdom. In the Kingdom there is no sin, no fears, no jealousy, no pain, no hunger, and so on (cf., Revelation 21)—and by extrapolation, no grudges either. 

Sin is a serious subject, and indeed there are differences between them. But God has made a way for all of us to get past them and back into God’s graces. Here and in the hereafter.

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