What Is The Worst Sin in Christianity
One of the greatest heartbreaks I suffer as a Catholic is reading others who believe the words of those who claim they are outside the reach of God’s salvation. They hear that they are irredeemable and many no longer care to think otherwise.
They listen to Christians including Catholics show or speak Bible verses that condemn certain behaviors. They internalize these words and become angry at the Christian community or just outright shut them out. Saint John Vianney, I think would be incensed that people condemn others in this way. The reason is the teaching is often partial and, therefore, not fully correct.
Strangely enough, few of those who condemn others speak of the worst sin in the Bible and it is common in Christianity.
In order to understand the worst sin, you need to look at how God reacts when it is committed. Then the next step is to root it out in our own lives.
The centrality of the Babylonian Exile in Jewish history
One of the most significant events in Jewish history is the Babylonian Exile. Historians often divide the pre-Christian Jewish History based on that event as we Americans divide our history at the Civil War.
The history of the Jews centers around their life on the land that God gave to Abraham millennia ago as we read in the book of Genesis. This is the same promised land that Moses led the Jews back to in the Exodus event, although he never entered it.
After the death of King David and the rise of his son Solomon, there became serious political divisions in the Hebrew nation on the Promised Land. This led to two Kingdoms: Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Whenever the people were unfaithful to God they risked castigation by Him after many warnings to repent of their sins. The most severe form happened in the eighth century when, after repeated warnings to repent spoken by the prophets, the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel and essentially ended its political sovereignty. It did not to exist again until 1948 seventy two years ago at this writing.
The southern kingdom of Judah remained and it is from the name of this nation that we have the word Jews.
As Israel’s unfaithfulness was so great to lead to its permanent demise, so were the Jews warned that theirs which was not as severe as Israel’s in the Eighth Century would lead to the same if they did not repent of their ways.
The focus in both cases is the greatest sin in the Bible. We can read of all kinds of sins in the book of Leviticus but no offense is greater than idolatry. This is why it is proscribed by the first commandment. God teaches the Hebrews that he alone is God and there were to be no others before him among his people. Idolatry meant absorbing pagan practices into your life including trusting false gods for your future and even human sacrifice. As much as we do not understand it today, pagan cultures commonly practiced human sacrifice until the golden age of the Roman Empire. It was practiced in the Americas until the sixteen hundreds.
The often cited first chapter of Romans which many describe as a proscription against homosexuality is in fact actually against idolatry. St. Paul explains it leads to moral breakdown and then civil breakdown. He also defines sin within the context of idolatry, particularly greed. If we consider idolatry the greatest sin and greed a form of idolatry, we can see why Paul would recognize the love of money as the root of all evil. (1 Timothy 6:10)
The punishment for idolatry
The Jews in Judah returned to their practice of idolatry in full in the seventh century before the birth of Christ and the prophets came to tell them to return to faithfulness to their God. In Ezekiel, there is a scene where God shows the prophet what is happening in the inner chambers of the temple. Ezekiel saw the Levites (priests) worshipping pagan gods secretly while publicly leading liturgical celebrations to YHWH. God explains to Ezekiel that they think he does not know what is happening. However, they can hide nothing from him.
Their unfaithfulness, Ezekiel warns, as do the other prophets at the time, will lead them to be castigated by the Lord. The greatest punishment that the Lord gives is their removal from the land.
In 567 BC the Babylonians led by King Nebuchadnezzar conquered Judah. They destroyed the temple and took political, cultural and spiritual leaders captive into exile. Their brutality is not that much dissimilar to that of ISIS today.
The Jews had to live under the pagan Babylonian empire. Their land is lost, the temple is rubble and their culture is forbidden except what they can express as captives in the Babylonian empire.
You will return to your land by God’s hand
Immediately, God’s message changes that they will one day return to their land. The Babylonians will be conquered and the Jews will have learned that God is the one God.
For four decades, the Jews waited for that very day to happen in the greatest hope. We can see hints of the same punishment God inflicts on the freed Egyptian slaves when he leaves them roaming in the desert for forty years until the generation that turned back to their old unfaithful ways died and a new generation came into existence that would return to God and enter the Promised Land.
Along comes King Cyrus the Persian whom God uses to make good on his promise to the new generation of Jews in Babylon. He who had a reputation of being a benevolent emperor, unlike Nebuchadnezzar, conquers Babylon and returns the Jews to their land. He also helps them rebuild the temple which they fully restored in 515 BC.
Cyrus comes across as a Moses figure. Like Moses he was to die as a child, but his mother smuggled him to the country side where he was raised by shepherds. He returns as a liberator of his people and those who were subject to the Babylonian empire which included far many more societies than the Jews.1
The Jews return to the Promised Land free from the Babylonian Empire and their previous practice of idolatry in all its forms.
Greatest manifestation today of the worst sin
Today, the greatest manifestation of idolatry in Christianity is lukewarmness. It is the only sin that Jesus says makes him vomit. St. Jean (aka John) Vianney saw it as a great source of evil and believed the most worldly of persons who rejects Christ completely and lives a totally hedonistic lifestyle has a greater chance of entering Heaven than does the lukewarm Christian2. The reason is that the former can ultimately seek him, the latter sees no need, thinking he or she is already close enough to God. Such a person is self-deceived.
There is no greater sin in the Bible than idolatry and it is one that needs always addressing within the Christian community.
1 Frye, Richard N. Cyrus the Great, King of Persia, Encyclopedia Brittanica
2 Vianney, Jean St., Eighteen Sunday after Pentecost: Lukewarmness, Sermons of the Curé of Ars 2014, 1996 Keeping It Catholic
Photo credit: Anthony Huan, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons