16 years ago, I wrote this in my journal:
I think one reason I’ve repeated the same little sins over and over is because when I repent of those “little” sins I don’t have the same deep abhorrence far them as I do for “big” sins. It was one thing to stop smoking pot and looking at porn. Those things are horrible! But how do I stop from ever getting angry, or having a bad attitude, or overeating?
I try resisting those things and I’ve done better lately, but I still fail at times. I want to stop committing those sins for good, but I just don’t hate them the way I hate the big sins. I often forget that even the smallest sin is worthy of eternal punishment.
— August 3rd, 1999
Dear Former Self,
“Even the smallest sin is worthy of eternal punishment.” That sentence highlights one of the many reasons I hate Christian morality. Fundamentalists believe that in the afterlife, God cannot be in the presence of sinners unless they’ve accepted Jesus’s payment for those sins. Even if it’s just one little sin.
Think about what this means: Imagine there was once a man who lived a perfect life (not Jesus). A regular working-class American who never did anything wrong. He never cursed, stole, lied, lusted, or committed any sins whatsoever. He loved his family and did all he could to help the poor and unfortunate. Since he never committed a sin, he technically didn’t need Jesus’s help.
That is, until the day he received a terminal cancer diagnosis. Because of this, he felt cheated. After all, he lived a good life, he never committed a sin, he didn’t deserve to die of cancer before his time. So in a moment of frustration he yelled, “Goddamnit!”
And thus his fate was sealed. Because he broke the fourth commandment, he was now just an evil sinner like everyone else. And because of that, God waited until he died then threw him into a lake of fire where he’s been screaming in agony ever since.
Is this what you really believe? That even the kindest, most charitable man who ever lived deserves the same punishment as, say, Hitler? And you call that justice? The idea that everyone is equally guilty in the eyes of God is not only perverse, it has real-world consequences.
First, it causes Christians to view even the best atheists as evil and even the worst Christians as good. I know you like to tell non-believers, “I’m not perfect, just forgiven,” but to them it sounds like, “I’m not perfect, but I’m still better than you are.” Whether you admit it or not, that’s what you think deep down, that you’re better because you were wise and humble enough to accept Christ’s gift.
And you tend to apply this idea to other people as well. To you, a kind atheist is evil compared to an asshole pastor. Even if that pastor cheats on his wife and embezzles donations in order to buy drugs, as long as he apologizes to his family and congregation, he’s okay in your book. On the other hand, the atheist who never cheated on his wife or stole anything in his life is still “wicked” and a “lover of the flesh.”
It’s the worst double standard imaginable, and it’s all based on the idea that as long as you believe the right things, you are a better person and will be rewarded with eternal happiness. No matter what else you’ve done. Again I ask, you call that justice?
Rewarding people with either eternal Heaven or punishing them with eternal Hell based on whether they happen to believe in one subset of one religious tradition is not justice. In fact, it’s downright criminal.
There’s a second consequence of the idea that everyone is equally guilty in the eyes of God: It gives people the impression that there are no gradations to sin. Although most Christians will acknowledge that some sins are worse than others, many of them (especially fundamentalists like yourself) believe all sins are equally evil. They think lust is as bad as adultery (Matthew 5:27-28), or that hatred is as bad as murder (1 John 3:15).
The idea that there are no gradations to sin is a dangerous one. When people believe all sins are just as bad, it makes it easier for them to commit bigger sins. For example, a Christian might think, “Well, I’m already looking at porn, why not go ahead and cheat on my wife?” They’re essentially saying, “I already broke the seal, so I may as well enjoy myself.”
All the countless stories of Christian leaders who ended up in a downward spiral of affairs and drugs seem to begin that way. They start with one little “sin” and go off the deep end. If only these people understood how morality actually works: It’s only wrong if it hurts someone.
But let’s get back to your petty little problems. You’re never going to completely stop committing these so-called sins you’re worried about. You know why? Because you’re a human being. Sometimes you’re going to lose your temper, and sometimes you’re going to eat a little too much. It happens. You can improve these things with time, but there’s no need to feel guilty.
— Matt, August 3rd, 2015
This is part of an ongoing series called Letters to My Former Self.