Levels of Sin, Degrees of Afterlife, and Why People Participate in Spiritual Community

While I intended to get to both questions that were submitted yesterday, it didn’t quite work out that way. With that said, let me share with you a series of questions that Yvette submitted yesterday.

“Since there are various degrees of sins, I am going to assume there are various degrees of afterlife– or does one sin equal one sin no matter what? My question is– as always, in a different manner– sin is sin, yes? Forgiveness is forgiveness? What is it that motivates humans to become religious besides the social aspect? It cannot be spirituality- because I find that in my own in my heart. Is it fear? Is it the social aspect? And if it is– is that why many are excluded? Because of belief, and worship?”

There are a few different questions contained here, so let me touch briefly on each of them. One of them touches on an issue near and dear to my heart, so I’ll spend a little more time on that one.

While there are some traditions in Christianity that teach there are different degrees of sin, not every Christian tradition does. The Catholic Church, for instance, talks of mortal sins and venial sins. I – like many Protestants – do not put spiritual energy into trying to distinguish between sins.


Well, the Hebrew word that has often been translated as sin generally means “missing the mark”. With that in mind, it means our behaviors either hit the mark (and are fully reflective of the person God created us to be), or it doesn’t.

There are two dangers for me in trying to distinguish between sins. First, we can use such efforts as a way of minimizing some of our troublesome behaviors (i.e. “I may have lied to my spouse but at least I didn’t have an affair!”); or you can use the perception of degrees of misbehavior to target certain groups (i.e. see the case of Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky, who is in her fourth marriage and yet is trying to take the moral high ground in refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-gender couples).

By keeping my energy solely on hitting the mark – and not in conversation about how close to the mark I (or others) have come – I find myself more fully living into the person I can be.

In terms of various degrees of afterlife, that is another area where different Christian traditions have different understandings. Some Christian traditions, for instance, teach a belief in purgatory while other Christian traditions do not. Therefore, it is important to be honest and say there is no consensus on the matter of various degrees of afterlife within the Christian community.

The last question I want to touch on is the question: “What is it that motivates humans to become religious?”

There are a lot of different answers to that question. For some, the primary motivation is a desire to secure a reward (“heaven”) or avoid a punishment (“hell”). For others, the primary motivation is social. To enjoy the company and support of people around you who have a broadly similar outlook on things. I do need to be clear about one thing. There are many, many, many people out there whose primary reason for participating in spiritual community is, in fact, spiritual.

Let me speak from my own personal experience here. While it is certainly possible to have spiritual experiences completely on one’s own, I’ve found those experiences are somewhat limited. The experiences reflect solely the individual’s experiences and thoughts. By coming into a spiritual community, it greatly expands the things that I am exposed to in my spiritual journey and makes my journey far larger and more expansive than it would be otherwise.

Let me give you a few examples. If I were left on my own, my spiritual practice of prayer would gravitate almost exclusively toward centering prayer. Because I’m in spiritual community, I have been exposed to a variety of other prayer practices (such as intercessory prayer and lectio divina) that broaden my spiritual connection and awareness.

Same thing goes with my call to live out my faith in terms of morals and ethics. If I approached my spiritual journey exclusively on my own, I would have strong convictions about social issues that reflect – well –MY attitudes and opinions. When I enter into spiritual community, I am forced to wrestle with moral and ethical perspectives that I would never otherwise engage. My perspective on things like the death penalty, the use of embryos in medical research, and global climate change have all been profoundly shaped because I live in spiritual community and am forced to wrestle with perspectives larger than my own. And in that process of wrestling, my spirituality has grown tremendously.

Of course, I will be the very first one to acknowledge that living in spiritual community is a challenge. There are many days when I wish I could hike up to a mountain cabin and avoid others and just do my own thing.

So what keeps me in spiritual community?

The knowledge that by living through the challenges – and the JOYS – of living in community, my experience of God is so much more expansive than it would be otherwise.
The last question you raised is, “Why are so many excluded from spiritual community?”
My take on this is pretty simple and straightforward. I think so many are excluded from spiritual community because of human insecurity.

As I said at the outset of the section, people participate in spiritual community for many different reasons. Not all folks are comfortable with that. Some people need to believe that everyone is “here” for exactly the same reason. So when they encounter folks who are there for other reasons, they are compelled to either force others to comply or leave.

So why am I so inclusive in my approach to building spiritual community?

Well, regardless of the reason people state for being in spiritual community (i.e. social, fear, spirituality, etc), I believe their reason is profoundly spiritual. It just may not look like it in the ways you might expect.

Lots of people in progressive churches, for instance, say, “I’m here just because of the fellowship and friendships.” Many interpret that to mean they are “here” only for social reasons. What they fail to realize is that there can be a depth and qualitatively different dimension of the fellowship and friendships that are formed in spiritual community. So rather than focus my energy on whether or not a person is in spiritual community “for the right reason” (whatever that means), I chose to meet each individual where they are and help them realize the spiritual dimension of what brings/brought them.
So what about you? What do you think on these matters?

About Pastor Craig

I'm a 54-year-old who lives in Los Angeles, CA with his black Labrador Retriever named Max. I'm an ordained clergy person in the United Church of Christ. My passions include spirituality, politics, and sports (Go Houston teams, go!). I use my blog to start conversations rather than merely spout my perspectives and opinions. I hope you'll post a question, comment, or observation for me to respond - so we can get the conversation started!
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3 Responses to Levels of Sin, Degrees of Afterlife, and Why People Participate in Spiritual Community

  1. Beverly Marshall Saling says:

    I’m currently involved in building an atheist community for people who respect and desire the benefits of being in a spiritual community without the requirement of belief in anything supernatural. We made a list of the things we most missed by not being in a faith community so we could try to recreate them for our atheist community. This won’t tell you why people become religious, but the top answers for why be in a spiritual community were:

    1. To build into our lives some mandatory time for thinking about and discussing with others how to live better, more moral and meaningful lives. It’s too easy to neglect those questions when you’re busy with everyday life and don’t have others holding you to your commitment to explore them.

    2. To support each other in times of sorrow or celebration. Regular friends can do this, too, but it’s nice to have a group that explicitly promises each other to offer practical help when someone is sick, grieving, or troubled and to show up with joyful hearts when someone is celebrating a life milestone or achievement.

    3. To team up to tackle problems in our larger community and world that we could not do much about on our own. It’s possible for a single person to serve those in need either alone or by volunteering with a non-spiritual organization. But it works even better to be able to talk about living better lives with a group of people and then turn around and put that talk into practice with the same people. Doing so improves both the discussion and the practice.

  2. Stevie says:

    I go to church for only spiritual reasons. The Mass gives me a powerful connection to God, but I’m not a part of the community at all. I think I need to work on that.

  3. Sharon says:

    Dear Craig, God has certainly given you the gift of explaination. I know that isn’t scriptural, but I am amazed at how you answer so many of our questions. I thank you and the gift giver😊
    I love being a part of a local church body because, I want to learn and love more, the God of Creation. I love Him, because he first loved me. ❤️

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