Overcoming Guilt and Fear

What does the Bible really say about the seven deadly sins? And how does this affect us today?

Are you worried about what will happen after you die? Do you fear that a place of punishment awaits sinners and unbelievers? It may come as a surprise to learn that there is no biblical basis for terrifying retribution immediately after death. Yet because there is a well-known list of seven deadly sins, many people live with guilt and fear of just such an ominous outcome.

Also known as cardinal or capital sins, the fatal seven had their beginnings in Roman Catholicism. Developed by Pope Gregory I, they are listed as pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth (each of which was assigned a corresponding opposite virtue). More states of mind than actions, these wrong attitudes are said to be merely gateways to, or sources of, actual sinful behavior.

Because the seven were considered deadly to spiritual development, in the 13th century they were linked with pain and suffering in the afterlife. But while the sinful attitudes on the list have biblical reference points, nowhere does the Bible list seven literal sins, nor does it picture nine circles of hell, nor a holding place called purgatory, where there’s a chance to climb and conquer its mountain of seven sinful terraces in order to reach paradise. This fiction owes its origin to Dante’s 14th-century work, The Divine Comedy. But it has persisted across the centuries in literature and art—mostly as troubling misinformation.

The New Testament does not describe the torment of Gehenna or portray Satan as the lord of Gehenna. These are later literary accoutrements.”

Anchor Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Hades, Gehenna”

So what does the Bible offer by way of sin lists and their opposites? And why do they matter? Is their purpose to make us carry guilt and fear eternal retribution?

It’s a big subject. While there are several such lists, for the sake of brevity let’s look at just one set of behaviors that God specifically dislikes. This comes from the book of Proverbs, a distillation of accumulated human and divine wisdom. “There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a man who stirs up dissension among brothers” (Proverbs 6:16–19, New International Version). These are actions that cause societal breakdown. They bring about the corruption and failure of human civility. When a society becomes filled with people who do such things routinely, normal everyday life becomes unsustainable. And if we live this way, life becomes its own hell or purgatory.

Old Testament scholar William McKane describes the consequences of these sins this way: “The types of behaviour under consideration have this in common, that they are all disruptive in their tendency, that they are characterized by self-assertiveness or malice or violence, and that they break the bond of confidence and loyalty between man and man” (Proverbs: A New Approach, 1970).

Why does it matter? It matters because God cares about human society and doesn’t want it to become self-destructive. He wants our success, our happiness. Here, by implication, He prescribes the opposite behaviors. It’s as if to say, don’t be arrogant, nor a liar. Don’t murder the innocent by intent or act, nor scheme evil. Don’t be quick to do wrong; don’t be a false witness, nor create division.

Isn’t this exactly the wisdom we need for today?

While there’s no need to fear a fictional hell or purgatory like that of Dante’s imaginings, none of us should wait for the end of life to address such shortcomings. There will be nothing to fear in the future regarding unfulfilled social obligations (“you shall love your neighbor as yourself”) if we start to address these very common behaviors today.