The Seven Deadly Sins: Alive & Well in the U.S. of A

Photograph Source: Hieronymus Bosch’s The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things – Public Domain

What was the last sin you committed?

The Bible describes “sin” as a transgression of the law of God (1 John 3:4) and rebellion against God (Deuteronomy 9:7; Joshua 1:18).

In the year 590, Pope Gregory the Great specified the seven deadly sins:

pride – an excessive belief in one’s own abilities;
envy – excessive jealousy for others’ traits, status or abilities;
anger – excessive fury or wrath;
gluttony – an excessive desire to consume more than that which one requires;
greed – an excessive desire for material wealth or gain, no matter the consequences;
sloth – excessive self-indulgence, laziness, a refusal to accept work discipline; and
lust – an excessive craving for the sexual pleasures of the body.

Traditionally, the seven deadly sins were divided into distinct categories:

Spiritual sins – pride, envy and anger.
Corporal Sins – gluttony, greed, sloth and lust.

It should be noted, in some accounts “gluttony” is not identified as a sin. In Prov 6:16-19, the sins include haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.” 

Each impulse persists into the postmodern world, defining key aspects of 21st century life.

In 2008, the Vatican revised the list of post-modern sins to now include the following: (1) genetic modification, (2) human experimentation, (3) polluting the environment, (4) social injustice, (5) causing poverty, (6) financial gluttony and (7) taking drugs.


The notion of sin, the forbidden, has been an aspect of American social control since the nation’s founding four centuries ago. How it has morphed over time reveals how society has changed.

According to one source, “the sin of pride is the sin of sins. It was this sin, we’re told, which transformed Lucifer, an anointed cherub of God, the very “seal of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty,” into Satan, the devil, the father of lies, the one for whom Hell itself was created.  We’re warned to guard our hearts against pride lest we too “fall into the same condemnation as the devil.”

It then notes:

St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.) wrote, “‘Pride is the commencement of all sin’ because it was this which overthrew the devil, from whom arose the origin of sin; and afterwards, when his malice and envy pursued man, who was yet standing in his uprightness, it subverted him in the same way in which he himself fell. For the serpent, in fact, only sought for the door of pride whereby to enter when he said, ‘Ye shall be as gods.'”

Another source brings pride up to the 21st century noting: “Oddly, its bedfellow is self-hatred. Pride and self-hatred are two sides of the same coin.”

St. Thomas Aquinas defines envy as sorrow for another’s good (ST, II-II, 36,1): “…we grieve over a man’s good in so far as his good surpasses ours…because to do so is to grieve over what ought to make us rejoice, [namely] over our neighbor’s good.”

A Vanity Fair writer acknowledged how envy has become a very 21st century indulgence:

Unrequitable envy is no fun at all, but there’s always the flip side: inducing envy in others. This is a pastime for everyone, and one of the main uses of social media. Ordinary people once flaunted their lives in mass holiday mailings. With Facebook and Instagram these holiday letters can be posted every few minutes. 

With regard to the sin of anger, one source reminds us, “Anger is an emotion that has been present since the beginning of humanity. The Bible reveals that the first human ever born (Cain) became so angry at God and his brother (Abel) that he killed his brother (Genesis 4:4-8).” It adds: “Anger has been with people from the start.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes, “Anger as a deadly sin is ‘a disorderly outburst of emotion connected with the inordinate desire for revenge.’ . . . It is likely to be accompanied by surliness of heart, by malice aforethought, and above all by the determination to take vengeance.”

Writing in Psychology Today, Steven Stosny, Ph.D., links anger to entitlement. As reported, “Today people feel entitled not just to the pursuit of happiness, not even just to happiness, but to feeling good most of the time. If they don’t feel good most of the time, someone or something must be to blame.”

Saint Paul, in The Epistle to the Philippians (3:19) condemned gluttony among those who ate greedily and in excess. It was regarded as a sin that could trigger others. However, as has been reported, “it could be either a mortal or venial sin, depending on the severity of intent and the context in which the sin was committed. The pleasures of the stomach were also associated with the pleasures of the loins, namely the sin of lust, which inflames the senses and causes physical upset leading to licentious behavior. Hence, Christian morality strongly condemned “those whose god is their belly.”

In the 20th century, gluttony was secularized and labeled in the Diagnosis and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) a binge-eating disorder and an estimated 8.5 million Americans suffer the condition.

Thomas Aquinas defined greed as “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.” (2, 118, ad 1)

However, in Oliver Stone’s 1987 movie, Wall Street, the character Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas) captured the word’s post-modern ethos when he proclaimed, “Greed is good.”

Proverbs 19:15 notes, “Slothfulness casts into a deep sleep, and an idle person will suffer hunger.” A more recent observer notes, “It’s sinful because God designated people to work. … it’s how people provide and care for their family, help their neighbor and community ….”

Another source claims “slothfulness means laziness, sluggishness, or indolence which is the avoidance of activity or exertion. The slothful person is one who not only doesn’t want to work but is one who avoids it as well. This person may even go out of their way to avoid doing work.”

And then there is the sin of lust. The New World was besieged by numerous sex scandals during the first 75 years of Puritan settlement. The Puritan minister, Samuel Willard (1640-1707), once observed, “… in nothing doth the raging power of original sin more discover itself … than in the ungoverned exorbitancy of fleshly lust.” Two offenses were most upsetting: bestiality involving young men and sexual witchcraft among older women. Among Puritans, as John Murrin points out, “Bestiality discredited men in the way that witchcraft discredited women.”

Lust is especially revealing, signifying not only the autoerotic sexual pleasures experienced with oneself as a physical, natural being, but the erotic relations with another(s), whether real or imaginary.  One imaginary expression of lust is pornography that’s become a multi-billion business, gaining widespread popularity in the (ostensibly) Christian, conservative Bible Belt.

Bromleigh McCleneghan, an associate pastor at Union Church, Hinsdale, IL, is the author of Why Chastity Isn’t the Only Option – And Other Things the Bible Says About Sex. Reflecting on contemporary sin, he warns, “When talking about lust and fidelity in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus counters that mind/body duality, suggesting that you don’t actually have to commit adultery to sin against your partner.”


We’ve come a long way since the British settlers first colonized the New World and the belief in “sins” was stamped upon the consciousness of a people.

The old “spiritual sins” of pride, envy and anger have been integrated into daily life, with pride morphing into self-hatred, envy into virtual existence and anger subsumed into notions of entitlement.

Similarly, the “corporal sins” of gluttony, greed and sloth have transformed into the post-modern forms of self-indulgence if not, as exaggerations, or psychological disorders.

And then there is lust. A host of sexual prohibitions, including masturbation, premarital sex, adultery, homosexuality and interracial sex, are no longer considered sins by civil authorities, most moralists and a significant proportion of the public.

Prostitution has become a discreet business activity, regulated in a few rural counties in Nevada, decriminalized in a growing number of cities and – compared to times of old — relatively free from moralistic and police harassment. Today, the limits to acceptable sex are based on consent among adults or among similarly aged adolescents over 16 or 18 years. Strong prohibitions, both legal and ethical, seek to halt nonconsensual sexual acts like rape, pedophilia, incest and bestiality.

However, for the early Puritans and other colonists, both sin and satin were threats to personal and public life. Today, among some religious moralists sin and satin persist in one’s gender identity, in non-heterosexual relations and in the books one reads (or permit children to read). We can be grateful that, after four centuries, people are no longer executed for consorting with the devil.



David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at; check out