There is a certain convenience in the Calvinistic tendency to consider oneself “totally depraved.” If this were truly one’s condition, one would never need to ask forgiveness for any particular sin. There is no specific sin to name and no specific sin to avoid next time. There is no need to grow in self-knowledge, no rush to ask for the grace to overcome any one vice, no circumstance or moment to talk about and pray over the next day. If everything is a grave sin, then somehow nothing is a grave sin.
As a result, even the sincerest followers of Jesus need never admit (or confess) anything particular. Moreover, our Savior’s own words—“Therefore, he who delivered me to you has the greater sin” (John 19:11b)—would prove false. Even Christ’s warning that Sodom’s sin was more tolerable than the rejection he encountered at Capernaum (Matt. 11:22-24) would ring untrue.
But this way of looking at sin is not in Sacred Scripture nor is it the way any of Christ’s ancient Church approached sinful humanity’s need for grace. The apostles and Gospel authors understood well that some sins are clearly graver than others. For instance, John gives us an insight into how to navigate our way when looking at our own brokenness:
If any one sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal (1 John 5:16-17).
The Latin here for a mortal sin is mortalis, and the great Christian Tradition has named the contrary to that scriptural warrant venialis, a common word meaning “not deadly” or even “pardonable,” that which is much lighter than mortalis. As such, the distinction between mortal and venial sin is not some medieval invention but a 2,000-year-old apostolic warrant by which Christ inspires us to take note of our sins and find the appropriate response in him.
But how did the seven deadly sins come into existence? The first Christian to write extensively in Latin was Tertullian of Carthage (d. 220), and he was also the first to enumerate the deadlies at seven. His ranking of sins did not last through the third century, but he did provide later theologians with the number seven, a classical symbolic number for wholeness or thoroughness, which lasts to this day. Not much was done with this list of sins until Christianity was legalized in A.D. 313. Why so?
Growing in holiness
With the role of the martyrs having come to an end (at least for a time), the faithful were in need of new heroes. With the legalization of Christianity in 313, that hero who had been the martyr gave way to the monk, those men and women who lived the Faith with zeal and abandon, giving the Church living examples of single-hearted devotion.
With more and more people seeking spiritual guidance, manuals of devotion covering how to grow in holiness as well as how to root out one’s own sins came into demand. These spiritual guidebooks arose in the mid-fourth century as ways of helping those living wholly alone in the desert or some living in early monastic communities understand how the Spirit of God invites and consoles and how the evil spirit seeks to destroy.
The way these early Church Fathers understood growth in the Spirit was usually delineated in three distinct moments:
Purgation. We begin by allowing God to tear out all that keeps us from him, and to do that we need to be able to name and understand where and why it is that we often prefer a transient creature over our eternal Creator.
Illumination. Now that this space has been created, illumination comes wherein we receive from the Spirit the ways of growing closer to God, leading us to the ultimate goal of the Christian life, divine union.
Union. Here the human soul and the divine Spirit act in sweet unison, the creature being lovingly inspired and impelled by nothing other than God’s will.
Understanding this goal of divine union is key in realizing how the seven deadly sins—or the deadlies—came to be articulated. That is, the entire point of the Christian life is not only to receive Christ’s life passively but to reproduce it and extend it into the world through loving discipleship.
As Athanasius of Alexandria said around this time, “God has become human so we humans could become gods” (De inc., 54, 3: PG 25, 192B). We thereby fall so in love with Christ that we take on his very heart—his mannerisms, words, and ways of interacting with others. Christianity is thus a matter of interpersonal transformation and not simply achieving virtue and avoiding vice.
Development of the deadlies
By the latter part of the fourth century, a monk named Evagrius Ponticus (d. 399) produced a 100-chapter work titled Praktikos, indicating its aim to help like-minded ascetics to practice the ways of holiness. Given the theological pattern developed much earlier, it should not surprise us to see how the Praktikos opens by naming the sins from which we need to be purged. Only then will Evagrius go on to describe Catholic catechesis and deifying union.
It is here that the list of deadly sins as we have them today, more or less, first appears. These logismoi or “wicked thoughts,” he called them, were actually first enumerated at eight but fall in the same (albeit inverted) order that became standard shortly thereafter:
These are the thoughts and temptations that assault the soul from its tranquility in the Trinity, and these are the perverse movements of mankind that render children of Adam pathetic and pitiful.
As helpful as Evagrius’s list proved, Pope Gregory the Great (r. 590-604) saw too much overlap and similarity between two sets of these sins: vainglory and pride, sloth and sorrow. In his extensive Commentary on Job and the problem of evil, Pope Gregory therefore took it upon himself to reduce Evagrius’s list of eight logismoi into seven deadlies by collapsing vainglory into pride, sorrow into sloth, and adding envy.
This gives us the list of the seven deadly sins as we have it today:
This list can be represented by a helpful acronym: PEWSAGL. This acronym bespeaks volumes of orthodox and rich theology. The human person is the only creature made for union—the only creature made to find him or herself in union with another. This is taught in Genesis 1:27 and brought to its fullness when we think of eternal salvation as the intimate union between Christ and the soul.
It is interpersonal love, not the precepts of the law, that saves us; and, if this is so, pride is clearly the deadliest of sins, because the proud person cares about nothing or no one but himself. At least the envious person realizes that he is not the center of the universe, and so the list of seven deadlies descends in order of severity. They descend in severity insofar as each mortal vice resembles (or mocks) the ultimate virtue of love.
That is why pride is the worst and lust the least (but still a deadly sin, as I tell my freshmen boys: “You can still go to hell over it”), because pride is diabolically wholly self-centered where at least lust gropes outward toward another made in God’s own image and likeness. Let us now look at each of these seven in turn.
The Latin term for pride is telling: superbia. The proud person thinks he or she is above (super-) the normal workings and demands of human living (bios). The Greek word is hubris, a word connoting a sense of futility because the hubristic person desires to be perceived impervious to the human condition by denying anything higher.
That is why, according to the Greek playwrights and philosophers, this was the person who dismissed divine assistance from the gods and goddesses, who refused to take the counsel of the fates, and who relied on his own powers alone.
Pride is what C.S. Lewis calls “the anti-God” and why the book of Proverbs singles it out as the one vice that precedes the Fall: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18). It’s the “gateway vice” that tells me reliance on another is below me, that relationship is too risky.
According to St. Thomas Aquinas, pride can take on four possible forms:
- Attributing to ourselves perfections we do not really possess.
- Actually possessing such a perfection but thinking we have it because we worked very hard and earned it
- Possessing the perfection and knowing God gave it to us but thinking he did so because we somehow deserved it
- Possessing the perfection and knowing God gave it to us undeservedly but being unwilling to share it with anyone else
The first form of pride are those little lies we tell others to make ourselves look better, the garden variety form of pride that compels us to look better than we really are.
The second form of pride is very American (very male): instead of giving glory to God, I think I am in possession of this or that good because I have worked hard, trained hard, toiled, and sweated for all that I am and have.
The third form or pride is thinking that, for instance, my ardent Catholic faith is due to my having read the right book or my having fallen in with the right kind of Christian group or that God gave such a faith life to me because he knew I would try to evangelize and go to all the right conferences and listen to all the right podcasts.
Envy comes from a telling Latin term, invidere, meaning to look (vid-) only into (in-) oneself. It is a doleful and deplorable state in that one is basically telling God he did a poor job arranging the gifts and the goods of this creation. With such divine rejection comes the inability to rejoice over the flourishing of others, and the envious person has only himself to look at, everyone else being a threat.
The Latin term ire is what our acronym calls wrath. It is a lesser deadly sin because the truth is that there is a peculiar sort of intimacy in wrath. “You know, when you said this or did that, you hurt my feelings . . .”
It is much easier to put up the icy walls of pride than to reveal one’s vulnerabilities by exposing one’s internal hurt by showing anger. Every married couple knows this: it is better to argue over a sensitive point than to let it grow into an insurmountable barrier.
Sloth is perhaps the least understood of the seven deadlies. Here, turning to the Greek will help us understand why the ancients denounced this sin as the noonday devil from Psalm 91:6. In Greek, the term for sloth is acedia, a compound word meaning without (a-) care (cedia).
It wasn’t until the Protestant Reformers that sloth was viewed as physical laziness. For the Fathers as well as the medieval Doctors, sloth was being so busy that one didn’t make time for what was truly important. What is easier: to make a silent holy hour or to answer emails while talking on one’s cellphone?
This is why Thomas Aquinas defined sloth as an aimless “tendency to wander.” It is the inability to care about the everyday routines of life and the demands of basic human existence.
If the first three deadlies are what the British call “the cold sins,” those tendencies that isolate the individual on him or herself alone, and if the following three are the “warm sins,” sloth is that lukewarmness that renders a soul insipid and existentially mediocre. And we all know what Jesus does with those who are neither hot nor cold (Rev. 3:16).
Avarice is a fancy word for greed, the disordered use of material goods. Living in the world of cars and coats, the world of houses and hats, it is understandable that we might misuse such goods from time to time. Here the simple needs of life take on an allure that is not proper to them, consumerism based on this misjudgment of the true nature of things.
Gluttony is something most of us have encountered in one way or another. In the great Catholic intellectual tradition, gluttony is not simply eating too much, it is also eating at an improper time, eating too eagerly, eating too expensively, and even eating too daintily, as the sylphlike supermodel is just as consumed by disordered concerns about calories as the corpulent gourmand.
Lust is the English term for luxuria, the sin of luxuriating in bodily activities that lead to neither true unity nor the natural openness to human life. Yet since we have been made for intimacy and interpersonal relationship, lust is the most understandable of all the deadly sins. It is here we must learn to have our basest instincts tempered. Self-mastery is the most basic of all the virtues because lust is the least deadly of all our sins.
Such a history and such a list only prove yet again the brilliance and beauty of the Catholic faith. In making lust and gluttony the worst offenses against God, the Puritans inevitably rendered this world void of joy and the possibility of virtuous passion. Such a list helps faithful Christians understand not only for what and for Whom they have been created but also how to adjudicate the seriousness of sins in their lives.
These deadlies, St. John warns, cannot be prayed away. They demand the grace of the sacrament of confession; none of these are the lighter sins absolved during pious prayer or the penitential rite at the beginning of every Mass. They are serious, they are deadly—but they ordered and, thank God, they are forgivable.