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Sin

For the Sumerian god, see Sin (god). For the sky god and chief deity of the Haida pantheon see Sin (Haida)[?]. Sin is also an abbreviation of Sine in mathematics.


Sin is a concept used primarily in the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) describing a transgression against the will of God, and often held to require repentance and penance; in some theologies it may also entail the risk of damnation.

Atonement describes the process through which we become reconciled to God for sins. It was a concept derived from Judaism and became a central idea of Christian theology.

Impeccability is the absence of sin.

In Hinduism and other vedic religions, the term sin is often used to describe actions that create karma.

The English word sin derives from Old English synn. The same root appears in several other Germanic languages, e.g. Old Norse synd, or German Sünde. The word may derive, ultimately, from *es-, one of the Indo-European roots that meant "to be," and is a present participle, "being." Latin, also has an old present participle of esse in the word sons, sont-, which came to mean "guilty" in Latin. The root meaning would appear to be, "it is true;" that is, "the charge has been proven." The Greek word hamartia is often translated as sin in the New Testament; it means "to miss the mark" or "to miss the target".

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Jewish views of sin

Judaism regards the violation of mitzvot (divine commandments) to be a sin. Judaism uses this term to include violations of Jewish law that are not necessarily a lapse in morality. Judaism holds it as given that all people sin at various points in their lives, and hold that God always tempers justice with mercy.

The generic Hebrew word for any kind of sin is aveira. Based on verses in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) Judaism describes three levels of sin.

  • Pesha or Mered - An intentional sin; an action committed in deliberate defiance of God;
  • Ovon - This is a sin of lust or uncontrollable emotion. It is a sin done knowingly, but not done to defy God;
  • Cheit - This is an unintentional sin.

Judaism holds that no human being is perfect, and all people have sinned many times. However a state of sin does not condemn a person to damnation; only one or two truly grievous sins lead to anything approaching the Christian idea of hell. The Biblical and rabbinic conception of God is that of a creator who tempers justice with mercy. Based on the views of Rabbeinu Tam in the Babylonian Talmud (tractate Rosh HaShanah 17b), God is said to have thirteen attributes of mercy:

  1. God is merciful before someone sins, even though God knows that a person is capable of sin.
  2. God is merciful to a sinner even after the person has sinned.
  3. God represents the power to be merciful even in areas that a human would not expect or deserve.
  4. God is compassionate, and eases the punishment of the guilty.
  5. God is gracious even to those who are not deserving.
  6. God is slow to anger.
  7. God is abundant in kindness.
  8. God is a god of truth, thus we can count on God's promises to forgive repentant sinners.
  9. God guarantees kindness to future generations, as the deeds of the righteous patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) have benefits to all their descendants.
  10. God forgives intentional sins if the sinner repents.
  11. God forgives a deliberate angering of Him if the sinner repents.
  12. God forgives sins that are committed in error.
  13. God wipes away the sins away from those who repent.

As Jews are commanded in imitatio Dei, emulating God, rabbis take these attributes into account in deciding Jewish law and its contemporary application.

Early Jewish conceptions of atonement for sin

The idea of atonement begins in the Hebrew Bible, known to Christians as the Old Testament. Rituals for atonement occurred in the Temple in Jerusalem, and were performed by the Kohanim, priests. These services included song, prayer, offerings and animal sacrifices. The rites for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, are prescribed in the book of Leviticus. The ritual of the scapegoat, sent into the wilderness to be claimed by Azazel, was a part of these observances.

A number of animal sacrifices were prescribed in the Torah (five books of Moses) to make atonement: a sin-offering for sins, and a guilt offering[?] for religious trespasses. The significance of animal sacrifice, why God commanded them, is not expanded on at length in the Torah itself, though Genesis IX:4 and Leviticus XVII suggest that blood and vitality were linked. Later prophets occasionally make statements to the effect that the hearts of the people were more important than their sacrifices.

Rabbinic Judaism's views on sin and atonement are not identical to those in the Hebrew Bible alone, but rather are based on the laws of the Bible as seen through the Jewish oral law.

Rabbinic Jewish view of atoning for sins

A classical rabbinic work, Midrash Avot de Rabbi Natan, states:

One time, when Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was walking in Jerusalem with Rabbi Yehosua, they arrived at where the Temple in Jerusalem now stood in ruins. "Woe to us" cried Rabbi Yehosua, "for this house where atonement was made for Israel's sins now lies in ruins!" Answered Rabban Yochanan, "We have another, equally important source of atonement, the practice of gemilut hasadim (loving kindness), as it is stated 'I desire loving kindness and not sacrifice'".

The Babylonian Talmud teaches that "Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Eleazar both explain that as long as the Temple stood, the altar atoned for Israel, but now, one's table atones [when the poor are invited as guests]." (Tractate Berachot, 55a.)

The traditional liturgy of the Days of Awe (the High Holy Days; i.e. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) states that prayer, repentance and tzedakah (charitable actions) are how one atones for sin.

Christian views of sin

There is a difference among Christians concerning the use of the word "sin". Protestants use it primarily for what they see as humanity's inherently sinful nature, and only secondarily to actual instances of sin. Roman Catholics by contrast reserve the word only for actual instances of sin, calling the sinful nature of humans "concupiscence". One Greek word in the New Testament that is often translated "sin" is hamartia, which literally means missing the target. Catholics distinguish between venial sin[?], which warrants only temporal punishment in Purgatory, and mortal sin[?], which warrants eternal punishment in Hell.

Original sin - Most denominations of Christianity interpret the Garden of Eden story in Genesis in terms of the fall of man. Adam and Eve's disobedience was the first sin ever committed, and their original sin (or the effects of their sin) is passed on to their descendants and is a primary reason that people must be born again and gain salvation.

In Western Christianity, sin is often viewed as a legal infraction or contract violation, and so salvation is also tends to be viewed in legal terms. In Eastern Christianity, sin is more often viewed in terms of its effects on relationships, both among people and between people and God. Consequently, salvation is viewed more in terms of reconciliation and vastly improved relationships. These two perspectives are not mutually exclusive, but merely reflect different emphases in thinking and teaching.

There also tends to be a distinction between Roman Catholic and some Protestant views of the effects of sin. Many Protestants teach that sin, including original sin, has entirely extinguished any human capacity to move in the direction of reconciliation towards God. Salvation is sola fide, by faith alone, and sola gratia[?], by grace alone, and by God's initiative alone. This view is called total depravity, and is associated with Calvinism and to some extent with Lutheranism.

Roman Catholics, by contrast, typically teach that while sin has tarnished the original goodness of humanity prior to the Fall, it has not entirely extinguished that goodness. Under this view, humans can take the initiative in reaching out towards God and seeking redemption. This view is shared by some versions of Protestantism also, including Methodism; among Protestants, at least, it is known as Arminianism. It is also logically necessary for Pascal's wager to be effective.

One theological tenet gaining currency among Protestant Evangelicals and Fundamentalists is that original sin resulted in imperfections at the genetic level. This seems to be an attempt to incorporate some findings from science into what has been called Creation science. This claim is rejected as theologically wrong by Catholics and liberal Protestants, and is widely regarded as pseudo-science by scientists.

Christian views of atonement

In Christianity, atonement refers to the redemption achieved by Jesus Christ by his crucifixion and resurrection. Its centrality means that it has been the source of much discussion and some controversy throughout Christian history. Christians begin with the proposition that the death of Jesus Christ was a similar sacrifice that relieves believers of the burden of their sins. But what was the actual meaning of Christ's death? Why did He have to die? The meaning of an event of such transcendent significance to Christians is hard to capture in any one verbal formula. But several have been ventured:

  • Origen taught that the death of Christ was a ransom paid to Satan in satisfaction of his just claim on the souls of humanity as a result of sin.

  • St. Irenaeus of Lyons taught that Christ recapitulated in Himself all the stages of life of sinful man, and that His perfect obedience substituted for Adam's disobedience.

  • St. Athanasius of Alexandria taught that Christ came to overcome death and corruption, and to remake humanity in God's image again. See On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius.

  • St. Anselm taught that Christ's death satisfied God's offended sense of justice over the sins of humanity. Also, God rewarded Christ's obedience, which built up a storehouse of merit and a treasury of grace that believers could share by their faith in Christ. Anselm's teaching is contained in his treatise Cur Deus Homo[?], which means Why God Became Human.

  • Abelard held that Christ's Passion was God suffering with His creatures in order to show the greatness of His love for them.

  • John Calvin taught that Christ, the only sinless person, volunteered to take upon Himself the penalty for the sins that should have been visited on the rest of humanity. Calvin's view is called substitutionary atonement.

  • Karl Barth taught that Christ's death manifested God's love and His hatred for sin.

The several ideas of these and many more theologians can perhaps be summed up under these rubrics:

  • Substitution: the idea that God assumed the penalty for human sins on the Cross, and volunteered punishment so that the faithful might escape it;

  • Example: the idea that Christ's death was meant as an object lesson in ideal submission to the will of God, and to show the path to eternal life[?];

  • Revelation: the idea that Christ's death was meant to reveal God's nature to us, to help us to know Him and His nature better, and to show us the coming resurrection.

  • Victory: the idea that Christ defeated Death through his death, and gave life to those in the grave.

For the Christian, full appreciation of the mystery of atonement may require a balance of all four themes.

See also: Penance; Repentance; Reconciliation; Catholic sacraments

Muslim views of Sin

Islam sees sin to be anything that harms Allah's creation or goes against the will of Allah.

Surely, there is more to be said about Islamic views of sin and atonement.

See also: God, Religion



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