Guilt (in the Bible)

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In the Bible many Hebrew and Greek words, which are usually translated as "sin," should in many contexts be rendered as "guilt," i.e., the condition that follows upon the act of sin and perdures. This shows that the Israelite and the early Christian did not make much of a distinction between sin and guilt.

In the Old Testament

Connected with a dynamistic concept of sin was the term āwōn, especially when it was used in the sense of something borne or removed; e.g., in Ps 37 (38).5, "For my iniquities [āwōn ] have overwhelmed me" (i.e., became too great a burden to be borne); in Ps 31 (32).2, "Happy the man to whom the Lord imputes not guilt. " The original background of the term pictures a twisted body [Is 21.3; Ps 37 (38).7]. Traditionally, āwōn was translated as iniquity, connoting something monstrous and intolerable. Thus to bear one's iniquity signified to be guilty. Cain said, "My punishment is too great to bear" (Gn 4.13). Here āwōn meant both the misfortune inflicted as punishment and the state of guilt. Suffering brought with itself the sense of guilt. The Septuagint translators used νομία (literally, "lawlessness") to translate āwōn; St. Paul and St. John used the same Greek term for the mystery of iniquity or sin.

The word peša, a very profound theological term for rebellion, generally indicated a transgression against God and defiance of His rule. In Jb 33.9, however, it signified the guilt accompanying sin: "I am clean and without transgression; I am innocent; there is no guilt in me." The word e' often designated the penalty following guilt, e.g., "Anyone who curses his God shall bear the penalty of his sin" (Lv 24.15; cf. 19.17; 20.20; 22.9; Nm9.13; 18.22; Is 53.12; Ez 23.49).

The word āšām quite clearly expressed ideas relative to guilt; however, its use was confined mainly to matters of ritual law and it often connoted a material and objective quality, such as ritual uncleanness. Such guilt did not necessarily involve voluntary sin, but it could be incurred unintentionally. Yet an inadvertent error or mistake (š egāgā ) still bound one to a voluntary atonement (Lv 4.2; 5.15, 18). Even though one was not aware of the error, he became ritually unclean and guilty (Lv 5.2). The verb 'āšām (be guilty, condemned) and the noun 'ašmâ (guilt, guiltiness) referred also to moral guilt, "And the Chaldean land is full of guilt to be punished by the Holy One of Israel" [Jer 51.5; cf. Ps 67 (68).22]; the wrath of God was upon Juda and Jerusalem because of the 'ašmâ of the people, i.e., false worship (2 Chr 24.18). The term 'āšām was used also for a guilt offering (1 Sm 6.34, 8, 17 where the golden boils and mice were presented as gifts of reparation). Thus, one and the same word was used for the state of guilt as well as its remedy.

Guilt and Its Consequences. Guilt incurred the wrath of God. Since guilt involved a transgression of the divine will, the wrath of the Holy One of Israel was enkindled. In the early history of Israel the most evident examples of this were the earth's swallowing of the rebels Dathan and Abiram, and their families (Nm 16.32), and the punishment of Achan for appropriating some spoils of Jericho, which had been put under a ban; Achan's guilt was also the reason for the Israelite defeat at Ai (Jos ch.7). The guilt incurred by the sons of Eli aroused Yahweh's wrath upon the priest and his family (1 Sm2.2736; 2.1114). As a result of his census David, too, incurred the wrath of God; even though he was pardoned, the people were struck by a plague (2 Sm 24.1017). For the wickedness of Manasseh, Yahweh brought evil upon Jerusalem and Judah (2 Kgs 21.1015).

The notion of collective guilt was basic in these examples. Yahweh's anger was conceived as not ending with the punishment of the responsible individual but as perduring for generations: "I will not be quiet until I have paid in full your crimes and the crimes of your fathers as well" (Is 65.7), and "We recognize, O Lord, our wickedness, the guilt of our fathers" (Jer 14.20). The Prophets looked at the misfortunes Yahweh would inflict on His people as a result of the people's guilt, especially of their leaders, the king, nobles, priests, and false prophets.

Sense of Collective Guilt. From their earliest days the Israelites showed a sense of collective guilt (see responsibility [in the bible]). Although they considered that God held all responsible for their individual sins, they felt especially bound as a people to the obligations of their covenant with yahweh. The covenant's blessings were parallel to the guilt that they incurred by breaking it. Solidarity in blessings led to solidarity in guilt. Thus, the individual suffered for the community's sin and the community for the individual's. The expression of this outlook is found in Ex 20.56, "For I the Lord, your God, am a jealous God, inflicting punishment for their father's wickedness on the children of those who hate me, down to the third and fourth generation; but bestowing mercy down to the thousandth generation." The family group too was a significant moral entity; its head transmitted guilt to its every member (Jos 7.2426).

Later, the deuteronomists modified this notion: "Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children for their fathers; only for his own guilt shall a man be put to death" (Dt 24.16; cf. the application of this rule by Amaziah in 2 Kgs 14.6). Yet during the Exile the older opinion so perdured ["Our fathers, who sinned, are no more, but we bear their guilt" (Lam 5.7)] that Ezekiel argued against it at length: "'Fathers have eaten green grapes, thus their children's teeth are set on edge?' As I live, says the Lord God: I swear that there shall no longer be anyone among you who will repeat this proverb in Israel. For all lives are mine; the life of the father is like the life of the son, both are mine; only the one who sins shall die" (Ez 18.24 and the rest of ch. 18). Without denying collective guilt, Ezekiel brought personal guilt to the fore and accentuated personal responsibility. Thus, despite national calamity there was hope for the individual.

Because of their deeper knowledge of God and of sin's reality, a more spiritual sense of guilt was developed by the Prophets and the Wisdom literature. Along with the evolving of a profound realization of sin as a personal offense against the loving kindness of the covenant God, these writers linked the sense of guilt with a deep sorrow and shame. Guilt and sin became for them an overwhelming burden: "There is no health in my flesh because of your indignation; there is no wholeness in my bones because of my sin, for my iniquities have overwhelmed me; they are like a heavy burden, beyond my strength" [Ps 37 (38).45; cf. Is 1.56; Ezr 9.6].

Prayers for Forgiveness. Mindful of Yahweh as a loving huband and forgiving father, of His justice as equaled by His mercy, of His anger enduring only for a moment whereas His kindness endured forever, the Israelite confessed his guilt and expressed his sorrow in prayer. Examples are numerous: "As long as I would not speak, my bones wasted away with my groaning all the day, for day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you, my guilt I covered not. I said, 'I confess my faults to the Lord,' and you took away the guilt of my sin" [Ps 31 (32).35; see also Ps 50 (51).11; 24 (25).11; 78 (79).9]. Isaiah and Jeremiah have other examples: "Behold you are angry, and we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean men, all our good deeds are like polluted rags; we have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind" (Is 64.5); "Even though our crimes bear witness against us, take action, O Lord, for the honor of your name even though our rebellions are many, though we have sinned against you" (Jer 14.7; Ezr 9.615). This yearning for forgiveness became even more evident in late Judaism, e.g., in Dn 9.419, which ended with these words, "O Lord, hear! O Lord, pardon! O Lord, be attentive and act without delay, for your own sake, O my God, because this city and your people bear your name!" Basic to all these concepts was the conviction that adversity was always a sign of guilt for the Israelite, indicating that Yahweh was angry with him and wanted him to beg forgiveness by confessing his guilt.

Guilt as Debt. The Septuagint (LXX) translators apparently introduced a more juridical category of guilt that of debt, which became prominent in later Judaism. Sin as an act against God Himself belonged to the order of religion and its remission depended solely on God; the consequence of sin was not a stain that man could wash away. By sin, therefore, man incurred a debt that only God could remit. This concept was introduced by the LXX's use of φίημι (to cancel or pardon a debt) in the technical formula for atoning for sins (Lv 4.20; 5.10, 19). In Lv 19.22 and Nm 14.19 the LXX used the same Greek term. Other Hebrew terms for taking away and pardoning sin, never associated with the idea of remitting a debt in the Hebrew, were also translated by this verb. The substantive φεσις was used for the releasing of property to its hereditary owner during the jubilee year and for messianic liberation [Is 61.1; Jer 34 (42 LXX).8, 15, 17]. In Sir 28.2 φίημι translated forgiving another man's injustice to oneself and not God's forgiveness of the debt of sin. Also, in non-Biblical Judaism the notion of sin and guilt developed as a debt toward God, and God's retribution for sin's debt became involved in the concept of guilt.

In the New Testament

The terminology of guilt, its connotations in the Synoptic Gospels, in the Pauline Corpus, in Hebrews and the Catholic Epistles, and in the Johannine literature are of significance in considering guilt in the New Testament.

Terminology. The common New Testament word for sin, μαρτια, was used also for the notion of sinfulness and guilt. Primarily it meant a sinful act, but at times it connoted an internal condition of guilt. St. Paul and St. John used it for a sinful way of life and a state of alienation from God. The word φείλημα (debt) in Mt 6.12 (cf. Lk 11.4) expressed a notion of guiltthe debts that the sinner bore in God's sight. Another term, νοχος, meant guilty of a fault or liable to punishment (e.g., Mk3.29; Mt 5.22). The term νομία (lawlessness or iniquity) translated the common Hebrew term for guilt, āwōn.

In the Synoptics. A context of forgiveness of sins or the remission of guilt or debt was usually the background for the Synoptics' consideration of guilt. The Judaic concept of sin as debt toward God was basic to their thought, although it was not the only notion involved with guilt. In the lord's prayer, Christ inculcated that charity, in the form of the mutual forgiveness of offenses against one another, was necessary to receive God's forgiveness of the debt of guilt (Mt 6.12). The original meaning of debt signified a financial debt and had been adopted from the language of commerce; but in its religious meaning it signified failure toward God with the consequent burden of guilt. It expressed the totality of man's feeling of indebtedness for having offended God and, in its context, connoted that only the Father's gratuitous love could pardon His children's debts. St. Luke's version of the Lord's Prayer was less Judaic in its use of φρτία in place of φείλημα.

In the parable of the unmerciful servant (Mt 18.2135), again, in a context of cancelling a debt (18.2l is antithetical to the 70 times 7 vengeance of Lamech, Gn4.24), the notion of guilt and sin as an enormous debt was implied (18.24: "one was brought to him who owed him 10,000 talents"a fantastic debt). The lesson of the parable was that, unless men forgave each other their comparatively small debts (10,000 talents had a relationship to 100 denarii of 600,000 to 1), they would not be forgiven the enormous debt they owed to God. (For being guilty of an everlasting sin in Mk 3.29, see sin against the holy spirit.)

On the day of the lord those guilty of iniquity (νομία) would be excluded from the kingdom of god (Mt 7.23) and would be cast into gehenna (Mt 13.41). Thus, the lawlessness of evil acts was clearly connected with divine judgment. The Synoptics further described sin as resulting in slavery to the devil, an idea that entered into their concept of guilt. Thus, Christ's victory over the devil led to freedom from sin and guilt.

Pauline Teaching on Guilt. Paul followed the Judaic concept for sin as a debt in his references to sin's remission and sinful man's redemption (Col 1.14; Eph1.7; Rom 3.2425); his notion of remission, however, included the taking away of sin as well as the paying of a debt. Sin for Paul was not merely an external debt but something very much interior to man, almost natural to him. In Romans, Paul crystallized his doctrine on sinfulness and on the need that it caused in man. All men were subject to sin (Rom 3.918, 23) and could be justified only by receiving, through faith, the grace of Redemption won by Christ's propitiatory death (Rom 3.2425). The believer, once justified, could then be saved through the internal gift of the Spirit and the life that he lived in Christ (Rom 5.111). Without the Spirit man could do no good; even though he delighted in the law of God, sin held man back, for he was dominated by sinful flesh. The flesh led to death; the Spirit, to life and peace. Sinfulness, then, brought with it its own condemnation, enmity toward God and death, i.e., a guilt that could be overcome only by a new life vivified by Christ's Resurrection from the dead (Rom 8.111).

Guilt in Hebrews and Catholic Epistles. Although specific terms for guilt or debt were scarce in these Epistles, sin and its consequences certainly were not. The notion of sin in Hebrews was that of disobedience, lack of confidence, and failure to follow the way indicated, i.e., faults that had characterized the Israelites in the desert; it was also a stain that had to be washed away and purified (Heb ch. 3). In Heb 2.15 Christ's mission was to deliver those "who throughout their life were kept in servitude by the fear of death," through His own death. As eternal high priest Christ made atonement and took away sin and guilt by offering Himself as a sacrifice: "But as it is, once for all at the end of the ages, he has appeared for the destruction of sin by the sacrifice of himself" (Heb 9.26). Because of His sinlessness Christ could do what was beyond the power of the former sacrificial system (10.24, 11). With the new covenant sealed by Christ's blood came the means whereby there would no longer be consciousness of sin (10.2). Now there was a "new and living way" of access to God (10.2022).

In the Epistle of St. James sin and guilt had Judaic overtones as in Paul's thought. Man's passions, i.e., his evil desires, were the source of sin (1.14), which led eventually to death. Evil desire, sin, and death followed upon each other. Lack of a loving mercy brought the severest condemnation of guilt (2.813). For James, friendship with this world (4.4), a sterile faith (3.1426), condemnation of brothers (4.1113), and even the omission of good works (4.17) incurred the guilt of sin. The injustice of the rich was especially condemned by him (5.16). The guilt of sin, however, could be removed by turning to God in humble sorrow (4.610) and by the prayers and sacramental actions of the community, coupled with the sinner's acknowledgement of guilt (5.1417).

For 1 Peter, Christ's death and Resurrection were the source of the forgiveness of sin and guilt. The mystery of sin and guilt had been solved by Christ's suffering, although He was innocent; the Christian, even when he was guiltless, had to suffer with Christ (2.1825). When Christians suffered, therefore, it was no longer because of their personal guilt alone, but because of their part in God's plan for destroying all sin and guilt through Christ's death because of sin (3.174.2).

Guilt in Johannine Writings. St. John proclaimed the universality of sin and guilt when he reported John the Baptist's description of Jesus as the lamb of God who was to take away the sin of the world (Jn 1.29, μαρτία in the singular). Sin was the fundamental hostility of the world against God; by succumbing to it, a man rejected Christian vocation, divine filiation, and communion with God, and continued to accept the devil's domination (Jn8.3447; 1 Jn 5.1820).

The consequences of sin led even further to the point of hatred. The worker of evil "hates the light" (Jn 3.19). The guilty world hated Christ precisely because His mission was to destroy sin by performing His Father's works (Jn 15.1825). By the divine paradox, however, the working out of this hatred, namely the Crucifixion, effected the destruction of the devil's domination through sin and guilt (Jn 12.3133).

Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963), from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek 91218. j. hastings and j. a. selbia, eds. Dictionary of the Bible, 5 v. (Edinburgh 194250) (1963) 35455. For additional bibliography, see sin (in the bible).

[j. lachowski]

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Guilt (in the Bible)

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