|Colijn de Coter,
Saint Michael Weighing Souls (detail)
Protestants typically believe that all sins are equally bad, and all Saints are equally good. For example, a Kansas middle school teacher is in hot water for writing, according to the Huffington Post, that “Being Gay Is ‘The Same As Murder’.” Despite the quotation marks, the teacher didn’t actually write that. Instead, he wrote:
All this talk in the news about gay marriage recently has finally driven me to write. Gay marriage is wrong because homosexuality is wrong. The Bible clearly states it is sin. Now I do not claim it to be a sin any worse than other sins. It ranks in God’s eyes the same as murder, lying, stealing, or cheating. His standards are perfect and ALL have sinned and fallen short of His glory. Sin is sin and we all deserve hell. Only those who accept Christ as Lord and daily with the help of the Spirit do their best to turn from sin will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. There aren’t multiple ways to get to Heaven. There is one. To many this may seem close minded and antagonistic, but it doesn’t make it any less true. Folks I am willing to admit that my depravity is just as great as anyone else’s, and without Christ I’d be destined for hell, if not for the undeserved grace of God. I’m not condemning gay marriage because I hate gay people. I am doing it because those who embrace it will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. And I desire that for no one.
While he’s not actually saying that being gay is the same as murder, he is saying that homosexuality “ranks in God’s eyes the same” as everything from lying to murder. In other words, every sin, from the smallest lie to the largest massacre, is equally bad. But is that right?
The clearest Scriptural evidence as to the degrees of sin comes from 1 John 5:16-17,
If any one sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal.
In other words, Scripture clearly distinguishes between two categories of sin: mortal (or deadly) sin, and venial sin, which John defines as “sin which is not mortal.” A Christian who knowingly and willingly commits a mortal sin cuts himself off from eternal life. That’s what John means by “mortal” or “deadly.” It kills the soul. So a man who, on his deathbed, is mildly rude to a family member is not going to be treated the same way as a man who, on his deathbed, renounces his faith in Christ. A Just Judge doesn’t treat those two cases the same, and God is a Just Judge.
Look at 1 Cor. 11:29-30, in which St. Paul says of the Eucharist that “any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” Just as mortal sin is mortal to the soul, here again, it’s primarily their souls that are weak, or ill, or dead. But notice that we’re beginning to see distinctions even within the two categories: that some sinners are objectively worse off than others. So even within the categories of venial and mortal sins, we can distinguish between the degree and gravity of sin.
Jesus refers to sinners as “the sick” in Mark 2:17, and Himself as the Doctor. But of course, there are different kinds and degrees of illness. Even if all of the sick need a doctor, and need healing, it’s just not true that a headache and cancer are equally bad. We see this also in Luke 7:36-50, in which Jesus compares sins to different sized debts, in the house of Simon the Pharisee:
Jean Beraud, St. Mary Magdalene in the House of Simon the Pharisee (1891)
One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house, and took his place at table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “What is it, Teacher?”“A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he forgave them both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, to whom he forgave more.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.”
Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
And Jesus rather frequently speaks about which of His followers are the greatest. For example, in Luke 9:48, He says, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For he who is least among you all—he is the greatest.” And in Luke 22:26 says that, “the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.” And shortly after this, He says to His Apostles (Lk. 22:28-30):
You are those who have stood by Me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as My Father conferred one on Me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in My Kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
Now, Jesus doesn’t give all of us that authority in Heaven, but just the Apostles who were with Him in His trials. And indeed, the image of Heaven given in Scripture is much more hierarchical than anything Protestants tend to describe. There are various ranks of angelic beings (angels, archangels, principalities, powers, virtues, dominions, thrones, cherubim, and seraphim) lists in Scripture, and rankings even among the Saints. For example, Revelation 14:3 refers to a song that can only be sung by the 144,000 redeemed, a subgroup of the saved who are honored in a special way (see Rev. 14:1-5).
So clearly, both in Heaven and on Earth, the Saints are not merely interchangeable parts. Some have more power and authority. This is one of the reasons why Scripture prescribes intercessory prayer (see 1 Tim. 2:1): because we want those holier than ourselves interceding for us.
This is admittedly a bit of an overview for what should be a basic point: some sins are worse than others, and some Saints are holier than others. This point strikes me as so basic and intuitive that the burden should really be on the one who denies it. Where in Scripture do we ever hear that murder is no worse than, say, lying?