Sin is basically an offense against God. Although by sinning people cannot do God any actual harm, they do act against God by despising him and his commandments, and by injuring others (or themselves), since the person injured is also an object of divine providence and protection. The principal Hebrew words for sin express these basic notions. The verb ḥāṭāʾ and the nouns related to it, such as its Greek translation hamartanō and its derivatives, originally means to miss a target or to fail to reach it; with the connotation “to sin,” it is used most frequently in relation to God, as a violation of his law. The verb pāšaʿ and the noun pešaʿ mean rebellion, either against a human being, such as a king (1 Kings 12.19), or against God (Isa. 1.2). Both of the words just discussed are used together in Isaiah 43.27 and Job 34.37. A third main word for sin in Hebrew is ʿāwōn, which can mean an offense, the guilt resulting from it, or the punishment that follows (see Gen. 4.13).

In the Dead Sea Scrolls and other postbiblical Jewish literature, there is a tendency to speak of sin less as an individual deed than as a power that governs men and women and inspires their conduct. This is particularly the case with the nouns ʿāwel and ʿawlâ, meaning “wickedness.” Correspondingly, the role of the opposite force, the “holy spirit,” is stressed in these writings. Depending on such passages as Isaiah 11.1–9; Jeremiah 31.33–34; and Ezekiel 36.26–27, several passages speak of this “holy spirit” as repairing the broken relationship between God and human beings (see, e.g., 1QS IV.20–23).

The New Testament vocabulary for sin is largely that of the Septuagint, where the word hamartanō and its derivatives can translate all three Hebrew terms discussed above. Another important word is anomia, literally meaning lawlessness, which mainly translates ʿāwōn but can also be used for pešaʿ and rāšāʿ, “wicked.” Also used to translate pešaʿ are asebeia, meaning impiety, and its derivatives.

In the Gospels, sin is often understood as a kind of debt. This metaphor is found in Jewish tradition and is developed in the Lord's Prayer, whose fifth petition links divine forgiveness of human sins to a corresponding human forgiveness of others; see also Matthew 6.14–15; 18.23–25; and note especially Sirach 28.2. The synoptic Gospels speak of sins to be forgiven in the plural (e.g., Mark 2.5), but this plural form is found only three times in the gospel of John (8.24; 9.34; 20.23), probably in dependence on earlier traditions. More often hamartia, in the singular, means not just a particular sinful deed (as in Matt. 12.31), but a state or even a power that separates a person and the world as a whole from God. This power is personified as the devil, or Satan, who is the adversary of God's Son and his followers (1 John 3.8–10; cf. 2 Thess. 2.1–12).

In Romans 5–7, Paul elaborates the view that sin, like death, originated with Adam; long dormant, its power emerged simultaneously with the giving of the Law. Christ's death was the expiatory sacrifice (Rom. 8.3; cf. 2 Cor. 5.21) that liberated human beings from their enslavement to the power of sin.

See also Fall, The; Temptation

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Leopold Sabourin, S.J.