7 min read

Sin: explained

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

From rottweilers to North African bishops, Graham Tomlin kicks off the Seven Deadly Sins series with an introduction to the unpopular idea of ‘sin’.
Seven Deadly Sins
Illustration generated by Dan Kim using Midjourney.

A little while ago I went for a health check. They took a blood test, weighed me on the scales, poked me around a bit. Soon afterwards, I got a printout of my general health. It told me that my blood pressure and liver function was pretty good, but I ought to watch my cholesterol, my calcium levels could be a bit higher, and my folate result was not great (whatever that is). 

It told me a lot about my physical health. What it didn’t tell me was anything useful about my spiritual and moral wellbeing. I began to wonder where I could get a spiritual health check? Is there a way of telling whether I am in danger of diseases that might affect my soul rather than my body?  

As it happens, the Christian church has long had a spiritual health check - a kind of ticklist for spiritual and mental wellbeing – it’s called the Seven Deadly Sins. And over the next few weeks, here on Seen & Unseen, we’ll be running a series on it – think of it as a chance to check out your own spiritual wellbeing.  

Of course, the word ‘Sin’ has a chequered past. Peccatio, Pèche, Sünde, Sin – whatever language it came in, it was once a terrifying word – a word that struck fear into the heart of almost every European. It had the same kind of emotional effect as words like ‘Nazi’, or ‘cancer’ do for us today. It was something you wanted to avoid at all costs, something dreadful and dangerous.  

Now, it has changed from a rottweiler into a poodle. ‘Sin’ has been calmed down, domesticated, neutered. The word is now usually spoken with a smirk, or a heavy dose of irony. Describing something as ‘sinful’ usually means you think it is naughty but nice, or even seductive. We get perfumes called ‘My Sin’, or even a bakery called ‘Sinful Cakes’. Po-faced people who denounce something as ‘sinful’ seem to just want to stop other people enjoying themselves.  

They waged a constant, subtle and undermining war against the inner self – they were the deadly enemy of the soul.

Yet there were reasons why the word ‘sin’ had such a ghastly aura about it in the past. Sin was not harmless transgression of some random moral code invented by repressed and frustrated medieval clerics. For our ancestors, ‘sin’ described a pattern of life that was quite simply destructive. Each of the seven deadly sins were a sign of spiritual poor health just like a raised PSI count might be a sign of prostate cancer, high blood pressure a sign of the risk of a heart attack and so on. Sins like greed, anger, lust and pride could destroy families, friendships, happiness, peace of mind, innocence, love, security, nature, and most importantly, our bond to our Creator. They wrenched us out of our proper place in the world, which is why it’s worth knowing whether you’re suffering from them or not.  

A passage in the Bible talks of “sinful desires, which wage war against the soul.” That captures it well. These impulses or patterns of behaviour were not just arbitrarily wrong, but self-destructive. They waged a constant, subtle and undermining war against the inner self – they were the deadly enemy of the soul. Sin was a like a virus that got into everything, so that although life carried on, it never quite worked in the way you felt it ought to. Life always had that grit in the oyster, the nagging soreness of a shoe that doesn’t fit, the reminder of a dark secret that wouldn’t go away.  

In many people’s minds, ‘sin’ means simply ‘breaking the rules or the law’. The difficulty with this idea is that it fails to get to the heart of the issue. An insistence on rules alone is often a sign of a shrivelled, arid moral vision. It’s what makes disapproving busybodies and prudes. Laws exist to protect things that are more important than laws, like human lives, families, marriages, reputations, communities and peace. They are not ends in themselves. Rules and laws are vital for the protection of goodness, but do not itself go to the heart of goodness – they simply try to ensure its survival.  

Life would be simple if things that were bad for us were ugly and things good for us were beautiful. 

One traditional way of thinking about sin was to classify it into types. Our ancestors were shrewd enough to know they needed to know their enemy. The idea of the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ emerged from the early centuries of the Church as a neat way of remembering the some of the chief ways in which this deadly pattern of behaviour manifested itself.  

A glance through the traditional list of the seven deadly sins raises an obvious issue for anyone with any sense of contemporary life and morals: these are not the ones we’d identify as the chief causes of evil in our world. If anything, our culture tends to admire these qualities, not avoid them. Lust is a sign of a healthy sexual appetite, Pride a perfectly valid pleasure in our own achievements, and Greed an essential motor for the economy. Lust, envy and gluttony sell porn websites, cars and food, so naturally there are powerful forces dedicated to encouraging these habits to grow as rampant as possible in our souls and societies.  

Of course, our forebears were not all as innocent as we might think. Of course they didn’t all detest sin because it has always carried a very real and powerful attraction. And unless we grasp this, we will never understand it. Life would be simple if things that were bad for us were ugly and things good for us were beautiful. But life isn’t like that. As the great St Augustine said of his own younger tendency to steal just for the sake of it: “It was foul, and I loved it”.  

The great works that have dealt with sin in the past had a simple aim, to uncover the ugliness of sin, and unmask the veneer of attractiveness that it wears. Dante’s great Divine Comedy did it by showing what these patterns of behaviour led to. It showed how each received its fitting punishment in a vision of such elegant symmetry that it seemed so obvious. In Dante’s imaginary hell, the angry are condemned to fight each other for eternity; the slothful or indolent are condemned to running constantly and breathlessly; gluttons are made to lie in mud, exposed to constant rain and hail just like pigs, and end up eating rats, toads and snakes, as a parody of their excessive greed. 

Illustration by Jennifer Strange Keller 

Illustration of Dante's Inferno

Yet strangely, each sin always has at its heart something good. Medieval artistic depictions of sins portrayed them as misshapen and deformed versions of some good quality. The reason is not hard to find. Lust takes the delights to be found in sexual desire and satisfaction and distorts it into an uncontrollable, damaging enslavement. Gluttony twists the pleasures of succulent roast beef and a glass of dark red Beaujolais and turns them into bloated, sickly over-consumption.  

There is always something of the grotesque about sin. In old fairgrounds, there was always one stall where you would place yourself in front of odd-shaped mirrors, which would exaggerate parts of your body and shrink others. The result was on the one hand funny but at the same time, slightly frightening. Sin does the same thing. It takes something beautiful and makes it ugly by twisting it out of shape, so that it bears enough resemblance to the original to retain its attraction, but when seen in its full light, is as ugly as… well, sin. On one level, it’s funny. Most of our jokes revolve around the grotesque - things out of place, misshapen, strange. Yet there is a dark side as well and it is that that these medieval imaginative poems tried to unveil. Theologian Cornelius Plantinga says: “a sinful life is a partly depressing, partly ludicrous caricature of genuine human life.” 

A woman in a hall of mirrors, circa 1935. 

Marilyn Monroe Funhouse Mirror

Although it can seem a monstrous and terrifying power that threatens to overwhelm everything, in the end, evil can only ever distort something that is at its heart good. Evil cannot create anything, it simply twists, caricatures, or destroys. Sin is always a parody, a type of behaviour that often looks vaguely like goodness, and often likes to pretend it is, and it sometimes takes some moral and spiritual discernment to tell the difference. Yet a difference there surely is, and the ability to tell good from evil is a real sign of human and personal maturity. But the reason why it is often difficult to tell is that sin always has at its heart something good. A fit of temper against a brother or sister or child usually justifies itself by the behaviour that provoked it in the first place, which probably was out of order; jealousy or envy persuades itself that it is really proper outrage against the deep injustice that has given to someone else what I really deserve.  

This means of course that however monstrous sin or evil are, in the Christian view of the world, they are ultimately trivial and pathetic when compared to real goodness. St Augustine struggled all his life to understand the nature of malevolence. Towards the end of that life, the reality of evil began to recede from his attention, to be replaced by something much bigger. As Cambridge historian Gillian Evans put it:

“Where first he had been aware of (evil’s) perverseness and emptiness, its huge darkness, its hopeless entangled knottiness, now at last perhaps he had come to feel its essential triviality in comparison with the light and power of the Good.” 

In the coming weeks, here on Seen and Unseen, we will be asking some of our regular contributors to write on each of the Seven Deadly Sins, analysing how they work their deadly poison, both in the past and in contemporary society. Keep an eye out for each article as they come – it might just be the spiritual health check you need.  

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Red radical: the tales behind the Santa we see today

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

A determined, fiery, culture warrior lies behind the iconic image of Santa. Graham Tomlin unwraps a tale or two and find some serious theology.
A Lego Stanta figure strolls across a table holding a wrench
Artem Maltsev on Unsplash.

There is one figure in our cultural memory who pops up at this time of year without fail. It is the unmistakable figure of Santa. 

Santa Claus, AKA Father Christmas, Sinterklaas in Holland or Kris Kringle in the USA conjures up a definite image in the mind’s eye. The Santa of popular imagination with elves, red suit, bushy white beard flying in a sleigh towed by reindeer was shaped more by the famous Coca Cola adverts of the 1930s than anything else, and may seem to have very little connection with the birth of Christ. There are, however, strong connections between Santa and the Christian celebration of Christmas.  

Santa Claus is a linguistic development of St Nicholas, who was a real, fiery, determined Christian bishop of the early 4th century. Many of the stories about him date from later centuries, and some, no doubt, are legends developed to enhance his reputation. Yet he clearly made a deep impact on those who encountered him. On the principle that there's no smoke without fire, while some of it may be fiction, these stories may also contain a grain of truth.  

A group of enterprising Italian sailors from Bari in southern Italy made a daring raid on the city, scooped up most of St Nicholas’ skeleton and carried it off home. 

Nicholas was born around 260 AD. His parents, or so the story goes, died of the plague while he was young, leaving him a reasonable fortune. The other thing we know about his youth was his profound and strong Christian faith. This shaped his mind from early years, and led him, like many young Christians at the time, to enter the demanding spiritual boot camp of the monastic life, and then in time to becoming the Bishop of Myra, a city in southern Turkey known today as Demre.  

Christianity at the time was deemed a dangerous religion, subversive of the unity of the Roman Empire and in 303 AD he was one of many Christian leaders imprisoned under the wave of persecution initiated by the emperor Diocletian. Not only did he survive the rigours of a brutal Roman jail, but he encouraged other Christian prisoners to stand firm, who, like him, emerged more determined than ever. He died around 335 AD and within a few hundred years had become one of the most celebrated saints of the mediaeval era, with numerous accounts of his life spreading around Europe.   

In the 10th century the Russian emperor Vladimir visited Turkey and was so impressed with the stories of St. Nicholas that he pronounced him the patron saint of Russia and he remains a hugely venerated figure in Russian Orthodoxy to this day. In 1087, when Myra had come under Islamic rule, a group of enterprising Italian sailors from Bari in southern Italy made a daring raid on the city, scooped up most of St Nicholas’ skeleton and carried it off home, where with great fanfare, a large basilica was erected around the resting place of the bones of St Nicholas – an attraction which enhanced the status of the city no end. It became a pilgrimage destination for numerous medieval Christians (which was what the sailors had in mind) and the edifice still stands on the very spot to this day.

He was promptly sent home for stepping out of line, but it did his reputation as a hero of orthodoxy no harm at all. 

There are two stories of St Nicholas that get us closer to understanding why he became such a key figure in our Christmas celebrations.  

While he was still a young man, so we are told, he heard of a local family who were falling into poverty. A father who was badly in debt desperately needed money to pay off loan sharks, otherwise his only option (as happened in many families at the time) was sell his three daughters into slavery, or in some versions of the story, into prostitution. St Nicholas, aware of the teaching of Jesus that good deeds should be done in secret, resolved to do what he could to help. He wrapped up a bag of gold coins and secretly dropped them into the window of the house to the relief and delight of the poverty-stricken family. Nicholas performed this act of generosity three times for each of the three daughters, and on the third occasion threw the bag of gold coins so far into the room that it fell into a sock hanging over the fire to dry - hence stockings on Christmas Eve. On that occasion the father caught Nicholas as he tried to slip away, and thanked him profusely. Nicholas insisted he tell no one, which the man assured him he would not. Obviously, he didn't keep his promise. 

It is this kind of story that gives rise to the idea that Nicholas was a picture of radical generosity. Ever since then, depictions of St Nicholas are recognisable by his carrying three gold balls, representing the three bags of gold coins – and the same symbol found its way to hang outside many a pawnbrokers’ shop, after St Nicholas was adopted as their patron saint.  

The other story relates to the famous Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Although historians debate the question, there is some evidence Nicholas might have been present at this Council at which the Nicene Creed was written, the Creed that describes the heart of Christian faith for most Christian churches to this day. The Council centred around the controversial teaching of Arius, a priest from Alexandria who had taught that Jesus, although the best person who ever lived, the pinnacle of creation, was not in any significant sense divine, as the Council eventually discerned he was. The story goes that Nicholas was so incensed by the teaching of Arius that at one point he strode across the room in which the Council was taking place and struck him on the face. He was promptly sent home for stepping out of line, but it did his reputation as a hero of orthodoxy no harm at all. A heretic being punched by Santa Claus is an image to conjure with.  

The stories of St Nicholas give us the impression of someone who does not just do generous acts, but who has become generous. 

So why did St Nicholas become a person of such radical generosity? Were these two stories, however apocryphal some of the details may be, strangely linked? 

At stake in the debates at Nicaea was the question of whether Jesus Christ was just an illustration, a good example of what human life can achieve, or whether his radical love and self-sacrifice was in fact an expression of the heart of God, the very heart of reality itself. That is the core insight at the heart of the Nicene Creed – that when we see Jesus, we see God. The compassion, courage, grace, generosity, the anger at evil of the world, the deep compassion for those who struggle with life that flows out of him at every moment – all this is not a brief moment of light in an essentially dark world, but is the very nature of reality itself. In other words, Jesus Christ represents God giving to the world, not just a gift, but giving Himself.  

That kind of belief seems to have animated the soul and the mind of Nicholas, and if you believe that generosity is what lies at the very heart of things, its not surprising if it starts to seep out into a life full of generosity. Alongside the gifts to the struggling family, Nicholas is said to have argued the emperor into a tax cut for the people of Myra, and secured extra shipping of grain for his people during famine. The stories of St Nicholas give us the impression of someone who does not just do generous acts, but who has become generous – it’s the difference between the lucky tennis player who plays a good shot every now and again, and the pro who plays that shot nine times out of ten. That is virtue – where a person is generous almost without thinking about it, because it has become second nature.  

There are, of course, differences between the Santa of popular memory and St Nicholas. It’s hard to imagine Santa punching anyone, whereas St Nicholas had the fierce, determined faith of the early church, a faith so compelling that it took over the entire Roman empire. Then again, Santa gives gifts to children who are good but not to those who have been bad. He is a moral arbiter who rewards those whose good deeds outweigh their bad ones. That is about as far removed from a Christian understanding of grace, as depicted in the stories of St Nicholas as possible. In Christianity, divine generosity is not a reward for goodness, but is the wellspring of it. The God that Nicholas learnt about from his earliest days gives first and asks questions later. Generosity inspires gratitude and generosity as a response. 

St Nicholas became associated with Christmas partly because his feast day, December 6th, was near to the annual feast, but also because of this theme of radical generosity. Christmas is the time when Christians recall God’s greatest gift – the gift of Christ given to people of dubious moral standing like us. Not because we deserved it but despite the fact that we didn’t. It’s why we give gifts at Christmas, not to win favours from others, but for the sheer joy of it. We give as an act of gratitude for we have been given, before we even asked for it – just like three helpless young women, and their desperate father, in need of help.  

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