Sin may be defined as:

  • An act of thought or deed against the law of God (a sin of commission)
  • A failure to act in accordance with God's laws (a sin of omission).

Human beings and sin

According to the writer of Genesis (the first book of the Old Testament of the Bible), the first sinful act committed by humans was the disobedience of Adam and Eve who, by eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge against the command of God, lost their innocence and were expelled from the Garden of Eden (see Big ideas: Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, ‘Second Adam'; Creation, creativity, image of God).

Sistine chapel fresco of Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of EdenTo this first, or original sin, the writer of Genesis ascribes the fact that all humans have an innate capacity for sin. It is this which William Golding is referring to in his novel Lord of the Flies, where he shows that the seemingly innocent schoolboys can, without the restraining effects of civilisation (itself, ironically, involved in a devastating war at the time) rapidly descend into savagery. Golding gives the reader hints of his intentions by referring to three crucial elements of the story of Adam and Eve: the fruit (which Eve, Adam and Piggy eat); the snake-clasp belt which Ralph takes off (Eve was seduced by a serpent into sin); and nakedness (which Ralph enjoys but which Piggy, more accustomed to the trappings of so-called civilisation, does not; Adam and Eve were innocently naked until they disobeyed God).

The possibility of rescue

The work of Christ

Christians also believe that, through the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, all humans are offered the possibility of redemption from sin (see Big ideas: Redemption, salvation). This is summed up by Paul, a missionary and writer of the early Church. He explains in Romans 5:1-21 that, although ‘sin entered the world through one man' (Adam), ‘and death through sin', so ‘one righteous act' meant that all could be justified and live. Christ Jesus came into the world to ‘save sinners' (1 Timothy 1:15) and ‘died for the ungodly.'

Redemption from sin in Shakespeare

The idea of redemption from sin through the grace of God is one explored in several of Shakespeare's plays, especially those known as the Last, or Romance plays, in which the loss of a child symbolises the loss of innocence. In The Winter's Tale, for example, it is only when Leontes, urged on by Paulina, fully repents of his terrible jealousy and destruction of his family, that his daughter Perdita, and his wife, are restored to him. However, his son Mamillius remains dead: the sinner may be forgiven but the consequences of sin can be permanent.

The Seven Deadly Sins

In medieval times the idea of seven deadly sins was widespread, and can be seen in such works as the cycles of miracle plays performed in York or Coventry. In the well-known anonymous play Everyman, all the sins tempt the hero.

The seven deadly sins are traditionally pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, anger and sloth (laziness). They are graphically referred to by the Pardoner in Chaucer's Pardoner's Prologue from The Canterbury Tales.

These sins were referred to as deadly because, unless the sinner repented and received forgiveness, they could have deadly consequences for the soul. Another term for ‘deadly' is ‘mortal'. A mortal sin was an act considered to be so wicked that, unless repented of and forgiven, it condemned the offender to eternal damnation, causing the death of the soul.

Related topics

Big ideas: Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, ‘Second Adam'; Creation, creativity, image of God; Redemption, salvation

Other cultural references

Chaucer's Pardoner's Prologue from The Canterbury Tales

Everyman (morality play), Anon

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