While all sins are equal, some sins are more equal than others.
There is a very real equality among sins. James tells us that “whosoever shall keep the whole law and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.” In one of Charles Williams’s novels, the descent into hell of a specialist in military uniforms occurs when he commits the seemingly trivial sin of knowingly misleading others about the style of an epaulet. Since God’s standards are no less than perfection, any sin can keep one from the kingdom. Moreover, sins are equal in the sense that “the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7): no sin—except for the unpardonable sin of refusing redemption—is too heinous for Christ’s redemptive cleansing at the last day.
Yet one can legitimately paraphrase George Orwell: while all sins are equal, some sins are more equal than others. That is to say, whereas all sins receive their just recompense at the last judgment, some sins are such an affront to the divine majesty that they are very likely also to trigger imminent judgment in the course of human history itself. In the Old Testament, for example, we read that Uzzah was struck down on the spot for touching the ark of the covenant (2 Sam. 6:6–7), and the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira for attempting to deceive in spiritual things (Acts 5) is a not dissimilar New Testament incident. To be sure, God’s ways are not our ways, and no one can presumptively say that certain sins will always be followed by imminent consequences; yet, at the same time, it would appear that there are some acts that by their very nature kindle the divine wrath and are likely to lead to immediate retribution.
One thinks of the destruction or perversion of marriage. The Bible presents the proper relationship between husband and wife as the highest analogy of the relationship between Christ and the church (Eph. 5), and frequently parallels apostasy and harlotry (Hos. 1–2). Thus it does not seem unreasonable when the early church fathers so often argue that the collapse of marital standards among the Romans (as displayed, for example, in Petronius Arbiter’s Satyricon) was a source of the divine judgment that led to Rome’s fall. The fragility of the short-lived French Revolutionary governments—and their replacement by Napoleonic autocracy—was due, at least in part, to the loose morals of the revolutionaries: one out of every five Parisian marriages ended in divorce in 1799–1800, and the nation could not survive the shockwaves (cf. J. M. Thompson, Napoleon Bonaparte [Oxford, 1952], p. 181).
The destruction of God’s chosen people is another, even more obvious example. From the standpoint of eternity, it is not going too far to hypothesize that Hitler’s “Thousand Year Reich” collapsed into a seething inferno in a single generation largely because the Führer and his cohorts attempted to exterminate the apple of God’s eye—the people he chose as the vehicles of human salvation.
May I suggest a third area of potential imminent judgment? Each of the gross sins just mentioned ties by high analogy or direct interconnection with the essence of the plan of salvation. “Little children,” as Scripture speaks of them, fall into this same category. “Suffer the little children to come unto me,” Jesus said, “for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” Destruction by the horror of being thrown into the sea with a millstone around the neck is associated with Babylon in Revelation 18:21 and with those who do harm to little children in Matthew 18:1–6. A little child—unable to save himself and fully dependent—is, like the Jewish people, one of those “weak things of this world” chosen by God to “confound the wise.” Those who harm them do so at their peril, both in time and in eternity.
The early church was especially concerned with the interests of little children. In contrast with the callous and fatal exposure of unwanted infants by “cultured” Greeks and Romans, the early Christians as a matter of conscience saved the lives of abandoned children (see C. L. Brace, Gesta Christi [London, 1886], chap. 7: “Exposure of Children”; and especially E. Semichon, Histoire des enfants abandonnés depuis l‘antiquité jusqu’ à nos jours [Paris, 1880]).
Since Scripture teaches that the child’s life begins at the moment of conception (Ps. 51:5) and that he is a genuine person no less while in the womb than after birth (Luke 1:41, 44), early Christians likewise protected prenatal life and regarded abortion as homicide. In his apologetic against paganism, third-century Christian lawyer Minucius Felix declared: “I see your newly born sons exposed by you to wild beasts and birds of prey, or cruelly strangled to death. There are also women among you who, by taking certain drugs, destroy the beginnings of the future human being while it is still in the womb and are guilty of infanticide before they are mothers” (Octavius, XXX [J. H. Freese ed., 1919], pp. 82–83). Such sentiments can be multiplied; thus the anonymous Christian work, The Prophetic Scriptures, written before A.D. 325, asserts that “the embryo is a living thing” and that “abortive infants shall share the better fate,” i.e., go to heaven (sec. 48, 50).
The kairotic time has come for American Christians to bring this eschatological perspective to bear on our society. If God did not tolerate the Nazi extermination of six million Jews, what makes us think that he will continue to ignore our daily mounting toll of infanticides? 1 am not a prophet, nor the son of a prophet, but I see as less than accidental our simultaneous slaughter of the innocents and declining domestic and foreign position. In baldest terms, the life we can save by a right-to-life amendment to our federal Constitution may well be our own.
John Warwick Montgomery is a lawyer-theologian in California, and director of studies for the International Institute of Human Rights, Strasbourg. France.
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