Ethics in “The Hunger Games”

How do the choices we make in pursuit of an end goal impact the outcome of our endeavors? If our cause is worthy enough, are we excused from ethical considerations in our efforts to achieve it? In other words, do the ends justify the means?

These were the questions on RTB editor Maureen Moser’s mind after reading Mockingjay, the third book in author Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series. She knocked on my office door recently to discuss ethics and consequences. Whether you plan to see The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 or not, I hope this post will provide some food for thought. (Possible spoilers included.)


ac09894e-3903-11e4-93ff-bc764e11a888In the Hunger Games, it’s obvious the Capitol is untrustworthy and cruel, but then the leaders of the rebellion also pull some very dirty, even brutal, tricks to win the war in Panem. If you are fighting for the “good guys,” are you ever justified in using unethical tactics to achieve victory?

I think many people, perhaps Christians especially, would say that the means should never violate the ends. That is, a sound approach to ethics means you must have a moral end and moral means to getting there.

One big challenge in war is that the nature of warfare often changes strategies. Philosophers, theologians, and ethicists can come up with a sound ethical code—but applying anything to the battlefield is difficult. During World War II, the Allies occasionally cut corners despite the American policy of not targeting noncombatants. The bombing of Dresden, for example, killed many civilians. So did the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I have sympathy for people who have to make those choices. Ethics requires a lot of thought and reflection, but in combat, you have to make instant decisions. You have a second or less to decide if you’re going to shoot or be shot. It’s not easy to know if your means is ethically compatible with your ends. I have a lot of admiration for noble soldiers because they act justly when they could be abusive. It’s easy for me, sitting at my safe desk, to criticize people on the battlefield. My tendency is to give them the benefit of the doubt whenever I can.

War is often evil, always regrettable, but sometimes it is absolutely necessary to fight—because if you don’t, the greater evil will prevail. Of course, it’s never comfortable to reason out what the least of the evils is.

The scenario in Mockingjay, of replacing the corrupt Capitol with a new government, brings up an interesting question. When you accept an ends-justify-the-means-mentality, are you building your new beginning on a history of doing things that are ethically unsound?

That’s a great point. I think it’s true that most new wars begin because of the way the old war ended. The ending of World War I caused real problems that historians suggest contributed to the onset of World War II. Also, the way the Second World War ended raised complications for the Cold War. Winners of wars, even though justly fought, must be very careful in how they treat conquered enemies.

In American history, I look at the aftermath of the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln’s policy was to let the South off easy and extend forgiveness. But Andrew Johnson’s administration, which followed Lincoln’s assassination, was about as bad as Lincoln’s was good. The country has paid a heavy price for it in the form of bitterness and racial tensions. Perhaps showing mercy would have been the better policy.

What about the question, would it be wrong to lie to Nazis in order to protect Jews? In this scenario would the ends (saving a life) justify violating one of the Ten Commandments?

If you were hiding Jews and the Gestapo came to your door, most people would agree that you should lie to the soldiers about the refugees’ whereabouts. These questions have been debated for a long time. In general, there are two schools of thought among Christians regarding such scenarios.

Some people would say that lying to the Gestapo agents is something you have to repent of, but it is the lesser of two evils. So, it’s a bad thing to break the Ten Commandments and to lie intentionally—but in this case, it would be the lesser moral offense.

The other school of thought would argue that the greater good of saving a life would mean that that intentional deception was no evil at all. People in this camp would take the view, and I agree with them on this point, that the greater good principle would mean that you haven’t done anything wrong at all.

This brings to my mind the story in Exodus about the Israelite midwives who lied to Pharaoh in order to save the Hebrew male babies. And God rewarded them for it by giving them families of their own!

Yes, in such a case, I would argue that the value of life outweighs your obligation to your political leaders. Personally, I would agree that it would not be wrong to intentionally deceive an evil power that is out to crush innocent human life.

This doesn’t mean I think intentional deception is an easy thing to do; hopefully our conscience tells us that telling the truth is right. I’m thankful that I haven’t had to make that kind of choice, which also puts you and your family at risk. The Corrie ten Booms and Sophie Scholls of history have shown extraordinary moral strength.

We’ve been discussing big topics and intense scenarios. For those of us who will not likely face such choices, how might the ethics we’re talking about apply to everyday life?

I do think many of us face temptation to cut corners. There’s a moral flaw in any theory that allows you to hold an ideal, but then allows you to cheat, lie, and destroy in order to achieve that thing. We have the opportunity to live out the greater good everyday of our lives. If we’re morally strong with the small things, then the more likely we’ll be morally strong when the big things come along.

We need a morality that’s deeply grounded in some form of revelation. I think any kind of secular grounding doesn’t work; we need a broader principle to guide us—love God and love your neighbor. This means we don’t lie to our neighbors and we don’t cheat our neighbors. It isn’t always easy. The Christian life can be very challenging, but I think it’s a deeply rewarding one.

Definitely. Any thoughts you’d like to close with?

Yes, for the New Year’s resolution episode on my podcast Straight Thinking this year, I’ll be sharing a list of thought-provoking movies. I think movies are great, especially the ones that have you walking away from the theatre wondering, how would I respond to that? I hope people will choose to go see movies like that and it sounds like the Hunger Games series raises some issues that need careful thought.


Additional resources


Reflections on War

The Second World War is the largest single event in human history, fought across six of the world’s seven continents and all its oceans. It killed fifty million human beings, left hundreds of millions of others wounded in mind or body and materially devastated much of the heartland of civilisation.

— John Keegan, The Second World War (New York: Penguin, 1989), 5.

133636309To say that war is a difficult and controversial topic is a huge understatement. Nevertheless, it is a reality of our world. Its potential for devastation makes it all the more imperative that we think carefully and deeply about it. And there’s no better time than Veterans Day to ask the difficult questions about war.

War is always tragic but is it ever necessary? Is it possible to conduct a just war? How have Christians approached these difficult questions about military conflict?

Below are links to articles and podcast episodes where I attempt to think carefully about the issue of war.

Thank a veteran of America’s armed forces today for his or her service to our great country.


  • “Ken’s Top 50 World War II Films” (Part 1 and Part 2)





Do We Derive Pleasure from Sports Violence?

The problem of football is football. Which is to say, it [NFL football] is consciously merchandising violence.

— George Will, Fox News Sunday, September 21, 2014

78738805I have been an avid sports fan from the age of nine. Prior to that my interest was presidential politics—I was the only fourth grader in my class who could name all of the candidates running for the presidency in 1968. But once a childhood friend introduced me to athletics everything else took second place. Sports became my religion.

If I wasn’t playing, I was watching televised games or collecting cards or discussing statistics. To my parents’ regret, school studies didn’t derail my passion for sports. I relished the competition and physicality offered in sports.

As an adult, sports are no longer a religion for me; nevertheless, I remain a genuine fan, happy to watch a good game and discuss a team’s potential with friends. (The Dodgers and the Lakers are particular favorites.) I have even enjoyed practicing the martial arts with a church friend who is a seventh-degree black belt. During these sessions I still experienced a rush when I delivered or received a hit.

I say all this to demonstrate that, while most people see me as a quiet, reflective, and easygoing person, the physical activity that comes with contact sports is just as thrilling for me as it is for many others. Engaging in contact sports and watching such contact in sporting events on television tends to appeal to my inner tribal instinct.

But this raises a difficult question: Is it appropriate for people, Christians in particular, to derive pleasure from watching or participating in sports violence, especially when such forceful contact results in injury? NFL football has drawn criticism for the growing amount of medical evidence that NFL players are seriously prone to post-career brain illnesses. For example, CBS’s Face the Nation program reported on September 21, 2014, that the “NFL says 28% of players develop debilitating brain conditions.”

Should this type of information cause us to reevaluate the reasons we enjoy sports so much?

The Concerns with Football

I’ll admit that my own bout with a life-threatening brain illness has sharpened my sensitivity to such reports. Let me start by acknowledging that there are many good things connected to American football. This sport has helped many young men grow in strength, maturity, and responsibility. Working hard and together as a team toward a common goal pays dividends for life. Football has also made it possible for many players to receive a college education. I also acknowledge that the NFL is seriously seeking to improve players’ protective equipment, for example, developing new helmets that can limit injuries to the brain.

And yet, to engage in any activity but especially voluntary sports that could damage the brain is highly risky. As I know from personal experience, when the brain is not working properly either through disease or injury a person’s whole life is thrown into turmoil. While it is not the goal of football to hurt players, it is nevertheless a game of overwhelming force. Concussions, the root cause of brain injuries reported among retired players, are a common occurrence. Sadly, the incredibly destructive effects of concussions are often not genuinely felt or discovered until years later. So, are football fans receiving pleasure and excitement from watching a game that involves future permanent mental impairment for an increasing number of players?

Some fans may say that they enjoy football for the amazing athletic ability of the players, not for the physical contact. It is indeed impressive to see a 6-foot-5-inch, 350-pound lineman sprint a 40-yard dash. But imagine how it feels to be in that player’s path. A full-force collision with a man who possesses such bulk, strength, and speed can lead to serious injury. It seems the tremendous athletic ability of these world-class athletes increases the risk. And although much of this article (as well as the public discussion) has focused on American football (arguably the most popular sport in America at this time), this critique rightfully extends to other sports that involve intense levels of physical contact, such as boxing, mixed martial arts, hockey, and rugby.

Having expressed these concerns, I’m back to considering how they should impact Christian sports fans like myself and how they should influence our enjoyment of the game.

Should Christians Enjoy Sports Violence?

It is not my intention to tell Christians what sports they should or shouldn’t watch. I think decisions like that are matters of individual conscience before God in the spirit of Romans 14. In fact, as with many of the issues that fall under the Romans 14 category, there may not be one right answer concerning sports violence. And I certainly don’t want to make people feel unnecessary guilt for enjoying what is often a helpful distraction from the stresses of life. Rather, I simply would like to encourage Christians to ask themselves honestly whether it is possible that they are deriving pleasure from violence in sports.

This question is not a new one. Ancient Christians discussed whether it was ever morally acceptable to attend the gladiator matches in Rome. In an article entitled “Murderous Games: Gladiatorial Contests in Ancient Rome,” author Keith Hopkins notes,

St Augustine in his Confessions tells the story of a Christian who was reluctantly forced along to the amphitheatre by a party of friends; at first, he kept his eyes shut, but when he heard the crowd roar, he opened them, and became converted by the sight of blood into an eager devotee of gladiatorial shows.1

Now, I don’t think football or any other modern sport should be equated with the gladiator matches of ancient Rome in which, on some occasions, contestants were killed. But the story relayed in Augustine’s Confessions does illustrate that athletic violence can have an appeal, even for Christian believers.So if you, like me, are a sports fan and you plan to watch a game (or games) this coming week, I’d encourage you to begin by asking yourself what you enjoy most about the game. What is it specifically about the game that gives you pleasure? Where does the excitement come from? What gives you a rush? Would you enjoy the sport just as much if the game were less physical?

For me personally, I have begun asking such questions of myself and the answers have led to some adjustments in my sports-watching habits. I hope this article will encourage further critical thinking about such important topics among my fellow sports-loving believers.

Listen to my RTB colleagues and I discuss this topic, particularly as it relates to football, on this Straight Thinking episode: “Christians Deriving Pleasure from Watching Violent Sports.”


  1. Keith Hopkins, “Murderous Games: Gladiatorial Contests in Ancient Rome,” History Today 33 (June 1983). If you’d like to read the story Hopkins mentions for yourself, see Augustine, Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Penguin, 1961), bk. 6, 8, p. 121–23.




The Seven Deadly Sins, Part 4 (of 4)

PEDuring the month of October, RTB editor Sandra Dimas and I have discussed the seven deadly sins and their virtuous opposites. This week we conclude the series with pride and envy. In case you missed the previous articles, you can click on the following links to read part 1 (sloth), part 2 (greed and gluttony), and part 3 (anger and lust).


Let’s start with envy. How would you define this sin?

Envy is when I can’t be happy about something good happening to you because I’m so needy that I want everything to be given to me. It’s such a self-centered lack of generosity.

What about the virtue that contrasts envy?

In contrast to envy is charity or being grateful. I can be grateful that something good happened to you because I love and care for you. Thus I extend charity or gratefulness to you and to others.

Can I ask which of these deadly sins you struggle with the most?

For me, I’d have to say envy. When I was playing baseball as a young man, I envied friends who signed professional baseball contracts. Now I envy my apologist friends whose books sell better than mine do. There was a particular book I didn’t think was half as good as mine, yet it sold like hotcakes! Everyone was just falling over themselves trying to get this book. (laughs) So, I’m aware of envy, but I think it also probably depends on the season of my life, which sin I’m most susceptible to.

Now let’s talk about the big sin of pride.

C. S. Lewis said there were two kinds of pride. The first is a humble pride where you have a low self-image. The second, which according to Lewis is a much worse form of pride, is the diabolical pride, where you don’t care what anybody thinks and you don’t value the opinion of anybody—not even God. Lewis also said pride is the anti-god state of mind.

Is this “anti-god state of mind” why some would consider pride the worst of these seven deadly sins?

Pride is this antispiritual state of mind where it’s difficult to be generous and loving because you have contempt for everybody but yourself. Is it the worst of sins? Lewis thought so, and a lot of people would agree. Saint Augustine said the sin of Lucifer was that he exalted a good thing (himself) above the greatest thing (God). If pride is what made Lucifer the devil, it’s a pretty serious state of mind because it puts you at odds with others and with God.

What is the contrasting virtue to pride?

Contrasting pride is humility, which means you stop comparing yourself to others. Instead you recognize that whatever God does in other people’s lives doesn’t mean that you’re the odd man out. It just means that God’s grace flows over into all kinds of people’s lives.

Earlier you mentioned a “humble pride.” How would you compare “humble pride” with true humility?

Pride is the ultimate competitive state and always at odds with everybody else. Humility is accepting acknowledgment with gratitude. Christians sometimes get this false sense that humility means we deflect compliments. But being made in the image of God means God has put His fingerprint upon us. We have inherent dignity and moral worth.

Can you give an example of when you’ve experienced true humility?

A young man once shared with me that something I had written brought him out of a state of depression that could’ve led to suicide. I felt immediately humbled. I thought, how would I ever know that God could use something I had written to powerfully impact somebody’s life? What a wonderful thing that God would use a difficult writer like me for His glory.

You mentioned previously that medieval theologians formed the list of seven deadly sins. It seems that behaviors once considered vices are applauded today. Greed might be considered good because it’s good to be successful. Pride is considered good because too many people have low self-esteem. Sloth is good because you deserve to binge on Netflix. For that matter, gluttony is good because you deserve to binge on cupcakes.

I like your cupcakes, by the way.

Oh, thanks. (laughs) But do you think today’s Christians can look at these “deadly” sins as true vices rather than things we should strive for?

It’s helpful to realize that much of our sins are not directly doing the wrong thing but taking good things and misusing them. Instead of recognizing that food, money, sexuality, and so forth, are gifts, we misuse them. Sometimes we demand more than these things can give us. We’re asking finite things to meet a need that only the infinite God can fulfill. In Confessions, Augustine writes that “you’ve made us for yourself and our hearts find no rest until they rest in thee.” We were made for God.

How do these sins affect how we engage God? It seems they strip away our trust in God.

I think that’s a great point. Jesus called Yahweh Abba, which is an Aramaic term of endearment. Some scholars would say it is equivalent to “daddy.” When we lose control of ourselves, we’re not trusting in God’s fatherly care for us, His sovereignty.

Any final thoughts on this topic?

We’ve discussed the deadly sins and cardinal virtues, but there are also the theological virtues. Those are faith, hope, and love. I think the seven deadly sins show a lack of affirming faith, hope, and love. That may be the heart of it: we’ve lost our faith, hope, and love. Thus we’re scrambling to hold onto every thing we can get our hands on.


For more on the seven deadly sins, see Reordered Love, Reordered Lives: Learning the Deep Meaning of Happiness by David K. Naugle.



Quote of the Week: Michael Reeves

When you proclaim Jesus, the Spirit-anointed Son of the Father, you proclaim the triune God.

—Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 37–38.

The Seven Deadly Sins, Part 3 (of 4)

This week RTB editor Sandra Dimas and I continue our discussion on the seven deadly sins and the contrasting virtues. Read part 1 and part 2 to see which vices and virtues were already discussed.


ALKen, so far we’ve discussed sloth, greed, and gluttony. Now let’s take a look at two more sins. Let’s start with how anger can become a sin. What does Scripture have to say about anger?

The Bible says, “In your anger, sin not.” Jesus became angry. He went into the temple and turned over tables. I’ll bet you Paul felt anger, too, when his dignity and the dignity of his companions was cast aside or by hypocrisy he saw in the religious leaders.

Considering this, what is an acceptable reason for someone to become angry?

Anger is sometimes a very appropriate response. For example, if somebody were harming someone I care about, being angry over that would be perfectly justifiable. I can tell you, though, it’s very difficult not to sin when your anger has reached a certain level.

When does anger become a sin?

I don’t know if you’ve ever been angry where you’ve lost control of yourself. I have. When this happens you are enormously vulnerable to do something you may regret for a long time. You’ve lost all of those resources that keep things in check. Anger can cause people to lose control over their actions—and unchecked anger could even lead to murder. Think of how road rage over this small little thing can lead to someone pulling out a gun. How vulnerable we all are when we lose control of ourselves. So, while anger is a good thing in the appropriate context, it’s such a powerful emotion that it could lead to some of the worst sins—either murdering someone or using slurs that degrade people.

What is the contrasting virtue to anger?

The contrast to anger is meekness, that is, composure or self-control. When Peter talks about doing apologetics he talks about doing it with gentleness and self-control.

In fact, 1 Peter 3:15 influences how we at RTB engage apologetics.

Right, and that’s a very powerful thing. When people hear your presentation, even if your arguments are good, if they think you have an arrogant attitude or you come across as impersonal, that affects persuasion. We’re persuaded for reasons other than just intellectual ones. We don’t often think of a champion apologist as being meek, but it’s certainly there and needed.

Yet people often misunderstand meekness as synonymous with weakness. Can you explain the distinction between the two?

I think in the minds of many people meekness means you let people push you around and don’t stand up for yourself. Jesus said, “I am meek and lowly of heart, take on my yoke. I’m gentle of heart.” It seems to me that there was nothing about Jesus that was weak. He could talk to the Samaritan woman at the well. He could touch the lepers. Or He could stand up to the religious leaders of His time. So I don’t think meekness involves letting people abuse you or push you around. It simply means having a deep sense of self-control and composure. It’s about treating other people with dignity because we are all made in the image of God.

Let’s now discuss the sin of lust and how that differs from sex.

Like the other deadly sins, lust is misusing something that was originally meant to be good. Sex according to the Christian worldview is a good thing. It’s a God-ordained thing. In fact, whenever Yahweh talks about His relationship to the covenant people, the analogy is marriage. When Jesus talks about His intimacy with the church, it’s marriage. So there is this sacredness to marriage and sexuality.

What sort of behavior would be identified as lust?

Sex becomes lust when it is out of control and out of the proper context of marriage. But it’s also lust when we use the other person for sexual pleasure rather than an expression of love and giving in charity. I think in our culture sex has become a type of idolatry. Pornography is a very serious problem and some of the statistics I’ve read indicate that even among Christian men pornography is a problem.

With the popularity of the book Fifty Shades of Grey (and its film adaptation coming out next year), it seems that lust is an issue for women as well.

You’re right.

How has sex become a type of idolatry?

By saying that sex is the end all, be all, as if your hedonism would bring this incredible fulfillment. In reality, when I have talked to people who have had multiple sexual affairs and relationships, they often seem very lonely and unfulfilled. Thus people have made the case that married people are happier.

What virtue contrasts lust? And how do we battle the sin in our lives?

That would be purity, which is self-control in a physical way. I think the power of sin points to the deep sense of grace. The only way we can be saved and the only way we can have godliness is through the gift of God’s grace—His love, His forgiveness, His empowerment.


We will conclude this series next week with the deadly sins of envy and pride.

For more on the seven deadly sins, see Reordered Love, Reordered Lives: Learning the Deep Meaning of Happiness by David K. Naugle.

Quote of the Week: Blaise Pascal

Man’s greatness and wretchedness are so evident that the true religion must necessarily teach us that there is in man some great principle of greatness and some great principle of wretchedness.

— Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. A.J. Krailsheimer, rev. ed. (New York: Penguin, 1995), no. 149/430.

The Seven Deadly Sins, Part 2 (of 4)

In part 1 of this series, I began a discussion with RTB editor Sandra Dimas about the seven deadly sins. This week we delve deeper into the topic by looking at two more sins and their virtuous counterparts.


GGLast week we talked about the deadly sin, or vice, sloth and the virtue of zeal. Let’s now move to the sin of gluttony.

Gluttony by definition is an unreasonable preoccupation with food, that is, having no limits. But it could refer to more than just food. It could include drinking or any number of things.

I’ve heard gluttony described as “the only sin you can see,” which could be true if you think of it on a basic level as just an excess of food or alcohol. I had a conversation with someone who challenged me to guess what his deadly sin was. It turned out to be gluttony because of his excess of books.

Hey. You’re getting personal here!

Well, you might have way too many books, but I’m probably the same but with music. Gluttony can be viewed as an overindulgence or overconsumption of anything to the point of waste. That part about waste seems vital.

Exactly. One thing of note about the seven deadly sins is that it’s often about taking things that are good and misusing them. So, for instance, food is a good thing. We can’t live without food. But you can take eating food and abuse it or exceed its purpose.

What would you say to those who are hurt when they’re told that obesity is a sin?

Again, this is a good thing gone bad. That’s the sinful condition. We have kind of twisted the good things of life. Food is absolutely necessary, but if there are no limits to it, it becomes a very serious problem. I’ll put it in a biblical context: instead of eating to live, you live to eat. So the orientation is switched. Instead of us being in control of it, it controls us.

How else might the sin of gluttony show up in one’s life?

Gluttony as a state of having no limits could apply to any number of things and could spill into other areas of our life.

What would the virtue be in contrast to the vice of gluttony?

The virtue in contrast to gluttony would be temperance, an older word meaning moderation, be it of food or drinks or books or music. Temperance or moderation is a very important virtue in any number of the areas of our life, not just food and drink.

Greed can be similar to gluttony in that it’s a sin of excess.

Yes, that’s interesting. The Bible doesn’t say that money is the root of all evil. It says that the love of money is the root of all evil. Again, it’s a perversion. Money could provide for a person’s education. Money could provide for healthcare for somebody. Money is a powerful resource. Greed emerges when we have an obsession with money. It’s not that I want just enough money to provide for my family, I want more money than you! As with food, money is a good thing but it could be exalted and misused.

What would be the contrasting virtue to greed?

In contrast to greed or obsession is generosity. Instead of hording things or wanting to control things, a generous person is giving. They would also credit other people for the good things that they do.

In what ways do you see generosity in your life?

I think about my role as a father. My kids are no longer children, so my fatherly role has changed. I want my kids to say, long after I’m gone, “My dad was so generous with what he did.” It’s difficult to have that generosity if you’re holding on to every little thing. Greed often manifests itself as an attempt to control all of the resources in your life rather than putting them out there to help others. But, in fact, I think the more you give the more you may receive, from a theological point of view.

How does our view of generosity impact our Christian walk and how we relate to God?

One thing that I love about God the Father is that He’s so generous. He’s so giving. His love spills over. So I think, how can that be reflected in my life? Can I have a generous spirit? Can I be generous with my time? Not just generous with my pocketbook, but is there a spirit of generosity where I’m always looking to give? That’s part of my own spiritual approach. I want to see the characteristics of the triune God evident in my own life.


Next week this series will continue with two more deadly sins and cardinal virtues.

For more on the seven deadly sins, see Reordered Love, Reordered Lives: Learning the Deep Meaning of Happiness by David K. Naugle.


Quote of the Week: Proverbs 20:9

Who can say, “I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin”?

— Proverbs 20:9


The Seven Deadly Sins, Part 1 (of 4)

Fall is upon us, and with that brings pumpkin spice lattes, the turning of leaves, and the ever-tricky topic of Halloween. RTB editor Sandra Dimas joins me to discuss something far scarier than haunted houses and bubbling cauldrons. Join us for this month-long series on the seven deadly sins.


Ken, can you name the seven deadly sins off the top of your head?

sI can. In fact, I’ve memorized them alphabetically. They are anger, envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, and sloth. Sometimes old English words are used. For example, I would say greed but some would say avarice.

Where did this grouping of sins originate?

That’s a great question because that collection of sins doesn’t appear anywhere together in Scripture. Scripture addresses all of those sins in various places, but the list itself doesn’t have a direct biblical origin.

So if there is no biblical origin, then how was this list created and by whom?

The seven deadly sins were initially talked a lot about in medieval Catholic monasteries and nunneries. These were people in the religious orders who took holiness very seriously and they wanted to avoid those sins that would potentially damn them.

How did the medieval Catholic Church determine which sins were “deadly”?

Having a Catholic background, you’ll remember the distinction in the Catholic Church between venial sins and mortal sins. Venial sins are lesser, “forgivable” sins that do not destroy one’s state of grace.

A mortal or deadly sin—sometimes called a capital sin—is what medieval theologians believed to be those sins that were so serious, so injurious, if you will, that they would destroy the state of sanctifying grace within the soul. At that point if you were to die you would go to hell. So you would need to go to the sacrament of reconciliation or confession in order to get that state of sanctifying grace back.

Considering this list of seven deadly sins was intended to help guide those in monasteries and nunneries to lead holy lives, how did the list’s reach eventually extend beyond its point of origin?

Slowly and gradually, the awareness that these are sins that everybody struggles with grew. Protestants don’t differentiate sin the way Catholics do, but that doesn’t mean that Protestants don’t appreciate that some sins may be more serious or more consequential than others. We just don’t typically talk about them as “deadly sins.”

We might recognize that certain sins are foundational. That is, these sins lay the groundwork for other types of sin. For example, anger may be the very root of what could be murder. Or lust could be the root for adultery.

Let’s begin to dissect these various sins and how each might show up in everyday life. How about we start with sloth?

Have you ever seen an animal the sloth? They’re very slow moving. Based on this animal’s behavior, some would identify the sin of sloth as being lazy or slow moving. My dad would always joke that I had the sin of sloth. Though, theologically speaking, sloth is not so much about a general laziness, meaning you’re not hardworking or you don’t have a lot of energy and drive. It’s actually more of a spiritual sloth. That is, you stop taking your spiritual life seriously. Maybe you avoid reading Scripture or you find it hard to go to church or you don’t pray regularly. Sloth is seen as the sin of having lost your passion and your love for God. Your spirituality is no longer vibrant.

Interesting point. I had always understood sloth as physical laziness. This is the first time I’ve heard it explained as spiritual sloth.

Right. I had always thought sloth was about laziness, too. But the context seems to suggest sloth is more that “you have left your first love,” as it says in the Book of Revelation, and therefore your spiritual life is not vibrant. The idea is that if you’re not doing those things that energize your Christian experience—such as attending church regularly, hearing the Word of God preached, receiving the Lord’s Supper, or praying regularly—then that will impact the rest of your life. It could mean that other sins would be more likely to appear in your life because you’ve lost that spiritual vibrancy.

Most Christians are aware of the seven deadly sins. Yet not many would know the seven cardinal virtues that contrast these sins or vices. Can you name them?

Sure. Meekness is the contrasting virtue to anger. Charity contrasts envy. Temperance contrasts gluttony. Generosity contrasts greed. Purity contrasts lust. Humility contrasts pride. Zeal contrasts sloth.

How might Christians exhibit the virtue of zeal, particularly if they begin to recognize the sin of sloth in their lives?

Sloth or complacency—again with more emphasis in this context to the spiritual side of life—is contrasted with zeal. That is, I have a zeal for the Lord and I want to honor Him. Zeal even involves the idea of integrity, meaning that everything I’m committed to is for God. In pursuing the tough road of sanctification (inner godliness), Christians must always keep in mind that their relationship with God is accomplished and maintained by the Lord’s loving and forging grace and not in their specific growth rate in sanctification (Titus 3:4–7).


Come back next week as we look at two more deadly sins and their virtuous counterparts.

For more on the seven deadly sins, see Reordered Love, Reordered Lives: Learning the Deep Meaning of Happiness by David K. Naugle.