The Philosophical Arguments for Mortal and Venial Sin

The following is Essay 03 of a new essay series that I am working on titled “The Mortal Sin of Protestantism: How Eve Proves the Doctrine of Venial Sin”.

In the last two essays of this essay series, not only was the doctrine of mortal and venial sin made clear, but so was the fact that nearly all Protestant denominations reject that specific doctrine. Now, while the primary point of this essay series is to argue that the Adam and Eve narrative provides a hitherto unrealized Biblical example of the distinction between mortal and venial sins, it is nevertheless the case that arguments of a philosophical, historical, and scriptural nature also exist which can be mustered in support of this doctrine. And so, in this particular essay, some of the philosophical arguments supportive of this doctrine will be considered.

Mortal Sin & a ‘Reductio Ad Absurdum’

Without mincing words, let it immediately be said that—to this author at least, and likely to many others—the idea that there would be a distinction between sins, with some leading to spiritual death and some not, is an idea that is eminently commonsensical, reasonable, and in-line with our moral intuitions. Indeed, the very commonsense, reason, and moral conscience that God gave to us seems to strongly support the idea that, as a matter of justice, there should be a fundamental difference in the ultimate level of punishment both for different types of sins and for identical sins conducted under different circumstances. For example, this author’s moral intuition tells him that there is a clear difference between a fully-functioning adult knowingly, freely, and maliciously stealing the life-savings of thousands of poor people and, say, a young teenager being peer-pressured into stealing a penny, as a tourist souvenir, from a wishing well that has a sign which tells people not to take any pennies from the well. Furthermore, that same moral intuition tells this author that whereas the former sin is extremely serious and worthy of the utmost punishment, such as damnation, the latter sin, though still a sin, is not very serious, and it is, in and of itself, most certainly not worthy of the ultimate punishment of hell. And yet both these cases involve a person taking something which does not belong to them; indeed, both the adult and the teenager are, technically, thieves. Nevertheless, it seems self-evident that, all other things being equal, one of these thefts, if not repented of, is worthy of spiritual death, whereas the other one is not.

Now, whereas the above example was merely an off-the-cuff illustration, the fact is that a more comprehensive reductio ad absurdum argument can be made to argue for the claim that it is indeed absurd, and hence of questionable rationality, to believe that there should be no difference in the ultimate punishment for different sins. And so, to illustrate the absurdity that results from denying the mortal and venial distinction between sins, consider the following thought-experiment.

Imagine that there exists a man and a woman who are not Christians—and who are thus not “saved”—but who, for the sake of argument, are nevertheless blameless in the eyes of the Lord; thus, these two individuals have never personally sinned at all during their entire lives (putting aside Original Sin for a moment). Indeed, these two individuals are, for all intents and purposes, like the blameless non-Christians and non-Jews Noah and Job (Genesis 6:9 & Job 1:1, 1:8, 2:3). Now imagine that the man, blameless and sinless till this day, comes home very tired after having had a horrible day at work. Then, upon being asked by his wife exactly how his day at work went, the man, both from fatigue and from a desire not to ruin his wife’s mood, semi-consciously and off-handedly, but still knowingly, lies and tells his wife that his day was great and that nothing at all bad happened. However, the instant after the man lies, and before he has had a chance to repent, the man drops dead from a sudden heart attack. By contrast, now imagine that the woman, also blameless and sinless till this day, is in a courtroom testifying at a murder trial. During her testimony, the woman, with full conscious consent and for no mitigating reason, suddenly decides to outright lie about what she witnessed concerning the murder. And she does this even though she is well-aware that her lie will lead to an innocent man being executed for a crime that he did not commit. Then, immediately after providing her false testimony to the court, and before she has had a chance to repent, the woman slips on the stairs leading out of the witness box, cracks her skull, and dies on the spot.

So, in the two scenarios above, both the man and the woman clearly lied, and thus both clearly sinned. Nevertheless, it is contended that reason, commonsense, and our moral intuitions scream out that it would be absurd to consider both of these sins as being equally deserving of spiritual death. Indeed, it is an affront to one’s moral sense to say that the man should be damned to hell for eternity for the type of sin that he committed; after all, while both lies merit some type of punishment, it would be rather difficult to reasonably contend that the man should be removed from God’s presence for eternity for the type of lie that he told. By contrast, our moral conscience readily accepts the fact that the woman should be damned for her sinful lie given its willfulness, severity, and consequences. Now perhaps some people do not share this author’s moral intuitions; nevertheless, it is also a safe assumption that many people do. And so, the fact that the moral intuitions of many different people (including this author) see that there should be a clear difference in the ultimate punishment for these two different sins helps to bolster the claim that our God-given faculties are pointing us towards the reasonableness and truth of the doctrine of mortal and venial sin. And lest someone argue that this alleged moral sense is questionable, it can simply be noted that the same moral sense given to us by God which, via our moral intuition, tells us that murder and rape are morally wrong, is the same moral intuition that points us towards the fact that some sins, though still sin, are not worthy of eternal damnation. Thus, until and unless there is a reason to doubt the deliverances of this moral intuition, it is quite rational to accept what it tells us, even if it seems to show the rationality of something like the doctrine of mortal and venial sin.

Now, an opponent of this reductio argument could either embrace the absurdity of the scenario or simply reject the claim that it is absurd. However, upon reflection, both of these defenses are problematic. After all, on the one hand, it clearly does seem absurd to claim that the man in our aforementioned thought-experiment would literally be deserving of eternal damnation for the type of sin that he committed, and so it is hard to reject the absurdity of this claim. And yet, on the other hand, embracing such an absurdity does violence to our rationality and our moral intuition; consequently, such a solution is in tension with the very minds and moral instincts that God gave us to think through these issues. And so, both embracing the absurdity or rejecting the absurdity appears to be a weak response to this thought-experiment. And while it might be objected that this thought-experiment is extreme and contrived, that is actually the point, for it is precisely such extreme examples which can best demonstrate whether our principles and doctrines are absurd or not. Furthermore, note that this is but one scenario amongst many that could be imagined, and so, if this example is somehow deemed too objectionable, then many others could be offered (such as, for example, the wishing well scenario at the start of this section). Thus, in the end, a good philosophical case can be made that the best way to avoid outcomes which are perceived as absurd to our rational faculties and our moral intuitions, is to embrace something like the doctrine of mortal and venial sin.

An Analogy to our Present Reality

While the above argument uses a reductio format to make its point, it is also possible to argue analogically for the reasonableness and commonsensical nature of dividing sin into something like mortal and venial categories. For example, note that in Western systems of law, especially in the Anglo-American tradition, it is widely recognized that crimes are divided into two categories, with one category involving serious crimes which deserve serious punishment (like prison), whereas lesser crimes deserve both different levels of punishment and different methods of dealing with them. In the United States, this is the difference between ‘misdemeanor offences’ and ‘felony offences’, whereas in other Western countries, such as Canada, the distinction is between ‘summary offences’ and ‘indictable offences’. So even Western courts—unavoidably influenced by Christianity—recognize that due to the circumstances in which a crime occurs, the same type of offence (assault, for example) can and should be handled and punished in a remarkably different manner. However, although instructive, this analogy to misdemeanor and felony offences is not ideal, and as such, it is worth considering a different analogy that better articulates the point being made here.

Think, for example, of a person who is driving his car on the highway and is weaving through traffic at 40 miles per hour in a 30 mile per hour zone. The person is trying to get home quickly because his child, who is sitting in the backseat, has been screaming incessantly for the last hour and needs a certain medicine, which is at the person’s home. Note that the day is sunny and clear. Furthermore, the driving conditions are good and there is little traffic on the road. Nevertheless, if stopped by the police, such an individual would likely receive a small speeding ticket, and such a ticket would be warranted given the traffic laws that the person agreed to follow by driving on the road. However, no Western police force would arrest the person for this minor speeding infraction, as such a punishment would be completely disproportionate with the crime. And note that we can see that being issued with a small fine in such an instance is not an affront to our moral intuitions or to commonsense (leaving aside, of course, the larger issue of the morality of traffic laws in general); however, it would be an affront to our moral intuitions and to commonsense if that same person was indeed arrested and thrown in jail for years simply because he was driving slightly over the speed limit in such conditions. But now let us change the scenario. Now imagine that the driver in question was merely joy-riding and he was tearing through traffic at 180 miles per hour in a 20 mile per hour school zone. At the same time, the road conditions are poor, visibility is low, and there is a lot of vehicle and foot traffic on the road. Now, in this case, the police would indeed arrest such an individual for dangerous driving and then seek to throw that person in prison, at least for some period of time. And few people would deem it unreasonable or immoral if that driver was indeed arrested, convicted, and served at least a few days in prison for his crime. But now note that in both cases, the driver’s illegal action was ultimately the same: namely, speeding. And yet, it is the various conditions under which the speeding occurs which dictates whether, in reality, the police will merely issue the driver a ticket or arrest the driver and charge him criminally. Furthermore, it is also reasonable and morally sound to hold that these two different speeding infractions do not warrant the same punishment at all, which is precisely why, in real-life, the police do not treat them in the same way. Indeed, it is intuitively obvious to our Christian-influenced sensibilities in the West that it would be wholly immoral to throw a person in prison for a minor bit of speeding. At the same time, it is also intuitively obvious to those same sensibilities that it would be wholly immoral to merely give a ticket to the utterly reckless driver; rather, the conditions surrounding that driver’s speeding offence warrant an arrest and a criminal charge. So, the point is that even in daily life, and in our own Western and Christian-influenced legal systems, we realize that the conditions and circumstances surrounding an offence can drastically change not just the length of punishment that a person should receive, but also the kind of punishment that the specific offence warrants. Indeed, in one case, a person deserves to lose their freedom and go to jail; in the other case, only a minor monetary fine is warranted.

But now the analogical connection with mortal and venial sin should be apparent. If we can see that in our own judicial system it is both just and moral for the circumstances surrounding an infraction to dictate whether that infraction warrants the freedom-removing punishment of jail or not, then, in the same way, we can see that it is both just and moral for the circumstances surrounding a certain sin to dictate whether that sin warrants the punishment of spiritual death or not. Thus, the fact that our own systems of justice—systems of justice which were influenced by Christianity and also established using the very faculties that God gave us—recognize the need and inherent justice for such differences in the kinds of punishment that certain offences receive, and the fact that we also intuit the positive moral nature of such differences, is at least something which should give the opponent of the doctrine of mortal and venial sin pause.

And so, the long and short of it is this: philosophy, in the form of both analogical arguments and absurdity arguments, can help to demonstrate that there is something commonsensical and intuitive about dividing sins into categories like mortal sins and venial sins. Furthermore, our God-given faculties and moral intuition can perceive the reasonableness of such a division. However, even with all this said, it is acknowledged that for Protestants, philosophical arguments are not their ultimate authority. Indeed, for Protestants, scripture is their final authority. Consequently, it must be realized that the point of this essay is not to convince a Protestant of the soundness of the doctrine of mortal and venial sin merely through philosophical argumentation; rather, the point is to demonstrate that our God-given rational and moral faculties, and the way that we operate in real-life, support the idea that there should be a distinction in the kind of punishment that different offences receive. And demonstrating this is no small thing, especially since that very fact should make Protestants more open to the possibility that the doctrine of mortal and venial sins is true.

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