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Chapter 18: The Way of Sin to Death


The five preceding chapters have clarified the nature and kinds of sin, and the conditions for mortal sin. This chapter will trace the relationship of various elements which make up a sinful life. Rather than being fixed and static, such a life is a continuous movement, from the moral indeterminacy of imperfection, through various stages of moral degeneration, to the ultimate disaster of eternal alienation from God. But its stages do not succeed one another with iron necessity; instead, a sinful life is a life of free choices, and its “stages” need not follow in precise sequence.

Analyzing the way of sin, we come to understand something of the power of evil. One might imagine the stage at which the moral consciousness of the child begins to dawn as a plain, the way of sin as an interstate route proceeding with many curves downward into the valley of death, and the way of Jesus as a hiking path with many switchbacks proceeding upward to the golden ridge of eternal life.

However, two mistakes must be avoided. First, one must not suppose that this process becomes automatic at any stage. If the downward road to hell is smooth, still sinners do not follow this road as if it were a railroad and they were cars without brakes. Rather, one reaches the end of this road only by freely staying on it, normally by making repeated wrong choices. At each point of choice, with the grace of God a right choice could have been made, and the right choice would have amounted to applying the brakes to halt the dynamics of sin. Second, the metaphor of the road must not be pressed too far. The dynamics of sin not only depend upon free choices, but also admit of shortcuts on the downward route and dramatic translocations from a point near the gates of hell to the very gates of heaven.

Sins are not discrete acts unrelated to the dynamics of one’s whole life. Imperfections lead to venial sins, venial sins to mortal sins, and mortal sins to final impenitence and hell. Grace and freedom always can reverse this evil process up to the moment of death. But eternal separation from God is a real possibility for each of us.