A Critical Look at the 7 Deadly Sins

The Last Judgement by Fra Angelico
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In Christian tradition, sins which have the most serious impact on spiritual development have been classified as "deadly sins." Which sins qualify for this category have varied and Christian theologians have developed different lists of the most serious sins which people might commit. Gregory the Great created what is considered today to be the definitive list of seven: pride, envy, anger, dejection, avarice, gluttony and lust.

Although each can inspire troubling behavior, that isn't always the case. Anger, for example, can be justified as a response to injustice and as a motivation to achieve justice. Moreover, this list fails to address behaviors which actually harm others and instead focuses on motivations: torturing and killing someone isn't a "deadly sin" if one is motivated by love rather than anger. The "seven deadly sins" are thus not only deeply flawed, but have encouraged deeper flaws in Christian morality and theology.

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Pride and the Prideful

Illustration of people being tortured by demons. Le grant kalendrier des Bergiers, 1496.
Source: Jupiter Images

Pride--or vanity--is the excessive belief in one's abilities, such that you don't give credit to God. Pride is also the failure to give others credit due them--if someone's Pride bothers you, then you are also guilty of Pride. Thomas Aquinas argued that all other sins stem from Pride, making this one of the most important sins to focus on:

"Inordinate self-love is the cause of every sin...the root of pride is found to consist in man not being, in some way, subject to God and His rule."

Dismantling the Sin of Pride

Christian teaching against pride encourages people to be submissive to religious authorities in order to submit to God, thus enhancing church power. There isn't anything necessarily wrong with pride because pride in what one does can often be justified. There is certainly no need to credit any gods for the skills and experience that one has to spend a lifetime developing and perfecting; Christian arguments to the contrary simply serve the purpose of denigrating human life and human abilities.

It's certainly true that people can be overconfident in their own abilities and that this can lead to tragedy, but it's also true that too little confidence can prevent a person from achieving their full potential. If people won't acknowledge that their achievements are their own, they won't recognize that it is up to them to keep persevering and achieving in the future.


Prideful people--those guilty of committing the deadly sin of pride--are said to be punished in hell by being "broken on the wheel." It's not clear what this particular punishment has to do with attacking pride. Perhaps during medieval times being broken on the wheel was an especially humiliating punishment to have to endure. Otherwise, why not be punished by having people laugh at you and mock your abilities for all eternity?

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Envy and the Envious

Illustration of people suffering in icy water. Le grant kalendrier des Bergiers, 1496.
Source: Jupiter Images

Envy is a desire to possess what others have, whether material objects, like cars or character traits, or something more emotional such as a positive outlook or patience. According to Christian tradition, envying others results in failing to be happy for them. Aquinas wrote that envy:

"...is contrary to charity, whence the soul derives its spiritual life... Charity rejoices in our neighbor's good, while envy grieves over it."

Dismantling the Sin of Envy

Non-Christian philosophers like Aristotle and Plato argued that envy leads to a desire to destroy those who are envied so they can be stopped from possessing anything at all. Envy is thus treated as a form of resentment.

Making envy a sin has the drawback of encouraging Christians to be satisfied with what they have rather than objecting to others' unjust power or seeking to gain what others have. It is possible for at least some states of envy to be due to how some possess or lack things unjustly. Envy could, therefore, become the basis for fighting injustice. Although there are legitimate reasons to be concerned about resentment, there is probably more unjust inequality than unjust resentment in the world.

Focusing on the feelings of envy and condemning them rather than the injustice causing those feelings allows injustice to continue unchallenged. Why should we rejoice in someone obtaining power or possessions which they shouldn't have? Why shouldn't we grieve over someone benefiting from injustice? For some reason, injustice itself is not considered a deadly sin. Even if resentment were arguably as bad as unjust inequality, it says a lot about Christianity that once came to be labeled a sin while the other was not.


Envious people--those guilty of committing the deadly sin of envy--will be punished in hell by being immersed in freezing water for all eternity. It's unclear what sort of connection exists between punishing envy and enduring freezing water. Is the cold supposed to teach them why it's wrong to desire what others have? Is it supposed to chill their desires?

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Gluttony and the Gluttonous

Illustration of people being force-fed by demons. Le grant kalendrier des Bergiers, 1496.
Source: Jupiter Images

Gluttony is normally associated with eating too much, but it has a broader connotation that includes trying to consume more of anything than you actually need, food included. Thomas Aquinas wrote that Gluttony is about:

"...not any desire of eating and drinking, but an inordinate desire...leaving the order of reason, wherein the good of moral virtue consists."

Thus the phrase "glutton for punishment" isn't as metaphorical as one might imagine.

In addition to committing the deadly sin of gluttony by eating too much, one can do so by consuming too many resources overall (water, food, energy), by spending inordinately to have especially rich foods, by spending inordinately to have too much of something (cars, games, houses, music, etc.), and so forth. Gluttony could be construed as the sin of excessive materialism and, in principle, focus on this sin could encourage a more just and equitable society. Why hasn't this actually occurred, though?

Dismantling the Sin of Gluttony

Although the theory might be appealing, in practice Christian teaching that gluttony is a sin has been a good way to encourage those with very little to not want more and to be content with how little they are able to consume, since more would be sinful. At the same time, though, those who already over-consume have not been encouraged to do with less so that the poor and hungry could have enough.

Over-consumption and "conspicuous" consumption have long served Western leaders as means for signaling high social, political, and financial status. Even religious leaders themselves have been arguably guilty of gluttony, but this has been justified as glorifying the church. When was the last time you even heard a major Christian leader single out gluttony for condemnation?

Consider, for example, the close political connections between capitalist leaders and conservative Christians in the Republican Party. What would happen to this alliance if conservative Christians began condemning greed and gluttony with the same fervor they currently direct against lust? Today such consumption and materialism are deeply integrated into Western culture; they serve the interests not just of cultural leaders, but also Christian leaders.


The Gluttonous--those guilty of the sin of gluttony--will be punished in hell by being force fed.

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Lust and the Lustful

An illustration of people being boiled by demons. Le grant kalendrier des Bergiers, 1496.
Source: Jupiter Images

Lust is the desire to experience physical, sensual pleasures (not just those which are sexual). The desire for physical pleasures is considered sinful because it causes us to ignore more important spiritual needs or commandments. Sexual desire is also sinful according to traditional Christianity because it leads to using sex for more than procreation.

Condemning lust and physical pleasure is part of Christianity's general effort to promote the afterlife over this life and what it has to offer. It helps lock people into the view that sex and sexuality exist only for procreation, not for love or even just the pleasure of the acts themselves. Christian denigration of physical pleasures, and sexuality, in particular, have been among some of the most serious problems with Christianity throughout its history.

The popularity of lust as a sin can be attested by the fact that more gets written in condemnation of it than for almost any other sin. It's also one of the only Seven Deadly Sins that people continue to regard as sinful. 

In some places, it seems that the entire spectrum of moral behavior has been reduced to various aspects of sexual morality and concern with maintaining sexual purity. This is especially true when it comes to the Christian Right--it's not without good reason that nearly everything they say about "values" and "family values" involve sex or sexuality in some form.


Lustful people--those guilty of committing the deadly sin of lust--will be punished in hell by being smothered in fire and brimstone. There doesn't appear to be much connection between this and the sin itself, unless one assumes that the lustful spent their time being "smothered" with physical pleasure and must now endure being smothered by physical torment.

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Anger and the Angry

Illustration of people being tortured by demons. Le grant kalendrier des Bergiers, 1496.
Source: Jupiter Images

Anger--or wrath--is the sin of rejecting the Love and Patience we should feel for others and opting instead for violent or hateful interaction. Many Christian acts over the centuries (like the Inquisition or the Crusades) may seem to have been motivated by anger, not love, but they were excused by saying the reason for them was love of God, or love of a person's soul--so much love, in fact, that it was necessary to harm them physically.

Condemnation of anger as a sin is thus useful to suppress efforts to correct injustice, especially the injustices of religious authorities. Although it is true that anger can quickly lead a person to an extremism which is itself an injustice, that doesn't necessarily justify condemning anger entirely. It certainly doesn't justify focusing on anger but not on the harm which people cause in the name of love.

Dismantling the Sin of Anger

It can be argued that the Christian notion of "anger" as a sin suffers from serious flaws in two different directions. First, however "sinful" it may be, Christian authorities have been quick to deny that their own actions have been motivated by it. The actual suffering of others is, sadly, irrelevant when it comes to evaluating matters. Second, the label of "anger" can be quickly applied to those who seek to correct injustices which ecclesiastical leaders benefit from.


Angry people--those guilty of committing the deadly sin of anger--will be punished in hell by being dismembered alive. There doesn't seem to be any connection between the sin of anger and the punishment of dismemberment unless it's that dismembering a person is something an angry person would do. It also seems rather strange that people will be dismembered "alive" when they must necessarily be dead when they get to hell. Don't one still need to be alive in order to be dismembered alive?

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Greed and the Greedy

An illustration of people being tortured by demons. Le grant kalendrier des Bergiers, 1496.
Source: Jupiter Images

Greed--or avarice--is the desire for material gain. It is similar to Gluttony and Envy, but refers to gain rather than consumption or possession. Aquinas condemned Greed because:

"It is a sin directly against one's neighbor, since one man cannot over-abound in external riches, without another man lacking them...it is a sin against God, just as all mortal sins, inasmuch as man condemns things eternal for the sake of temporal things."

Dismantling the Sin of Greed

Religious authorities today seem to rarely condemn how the rich in the capitalist (and Christian) West possess much while the poor (in both the West and elsewhere) possess little. This may be because greed in various forms is as the basis for modern capitalist economics upon which Western society is based and Christian churches today are thoroughly integrated into that system. Serious, sustained criticism of greed would ultimately lead to sustained criticism of capitalism, and few Christian churches appear to be willing to take the risks that would come with such a stance.

Consider, for example, the close political connections between capitalist leaders and conservative Christians in the Republican Party. What would happen to this alliance if conservative Christians began condemning greed and gluttony with the same fervor they currently direct against lust? Opposing greed and capitalism would make Christians counter-cultural in a way they haven't been since their earliest history and it's unlikely that they would turn against the financial resources that feed them and keep them so fat and powerful today. Many Christians today, especially conservative Christians, try to paint themselves and their conservative movement as "counter-cultural," but ultimately their alliance with social, political, and economic conservatives only serves to bolster the foundations of Western culture.


Greedy people--those guilty of committing the deadly sin of greed--will be punished in hell by being boiled alive in oil for all eternity. There doesn't seem to be any connection between the sin of greed and the punishment of being boiled in oil unless of course they are being boiled in rare, expensive oil.

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Sloth and the Slothful

Illustration of people being tortured by snakes. Le grant kalendrier des Bergiers, 1496.
Why Should Sloth be Punished in Hell by being Thrown into a Snake Pit? Punishing the Slothful: Punishment in Hell for the Deadly Sin of Sloth is to be Thrown into a Snake Pit. Source: Jupiter Images

Sloth is the most misunderstood of the Seven Deadly Sins. Often regarded as mere laziness, it is more accurately translated as apathy. When a person is apathetic, they no longer care about doing their duty to others or to God, causing them to ignore their spiritual well-being. Thomas Aquinas wrote that sloth:

"...is evil in its effect, if it so oppresses man as to draw him away entirely from good deeds."

Dismantling the Sin of Sloth

Condemning sloth as a sin functions as a way to keep people active in the church in case they start to realize how useless religion and theism really are. Religious organizations need people to keep active to support the cause, usually described as "God's plan," because such organizations don't produce anything of value which would otherwise invite any sort of income. People must thus be encouraged to "volunteer" time and resources on pain of eternal punishment.

The greatest threat to religion isn't anti-religious opposition because opposition implies that religion is still important or influential. The greatest threat to religion is really apathy because people are apathetic about things which just don't matter anymore. When enough people are apathetic about a religion, then that religion has become irrelevant. The decline of religion and theism in Europe is due more to people not caring anymore and not finding religion relevant anymore rather than to anti-religious critics convincing people that religion is wrong.


The slothful--people guilty of committing the deadly sin of sloth--are punished in hell by being thrown into snake pits. As with the other punishments for deadly sins, there doesn't seem to be a connection between sloth and snakes. Why not put the slothful in freezing water or boiling oil? Why not make them get out of bed and go to work for a change?

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Your Citation
Cline, Austin. "A Critical Look at the 7 Deadly Sins." Learn Religions, Sep. 17, 2021, learnreligions.com/punishing-the-seven-deadly-sins-4123091. Cline, Austin. (2021, September 17). A Critical Look at the 7 Deadly Sins. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/punishing-the-seven-deadly-sins-4123091 Cline, Austin. "A Critical Look at the 7 Deadly Sins." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/punishing-the-seven-deadly-sins-4123091 (accessed March 28, 2023).