Sin and Punishment: A Comparative Look

Question and answer details
Antonio Manetti
In the Catholic religion, commission of a serious transgression (as defined by the Church) causes the individual to enter a 'state of sin'. Dying in such a state will cause the person to spend an eternity in Hell regardless of whether or not the person led an otherwise exemplary life. In other words, someone who was otherwise unblemished may still be condemned to Hell if they sinned at the instant of death. Does the same concept hold true for Islam?
Shahul Hameed
Salam (Peace) Dear Antonio,

Thank you for your question and for contacting Ask About Islam.

There is a great deal of difference between the Christian concept of sin — whether Catholic or Protestant — and the Islamic concept.


What Is a Sin?

First of all, let us understand what we mean by sin in Islam. From the Islamic point of view, a person commits a sin if he knowingly goes against the Law of God or against his own fundamental goodness. That is to say, a sin is a conscious and willful action that violates a commandment of God or the right of a fellow being. It is an avoidable act that harms the perpetrators' own soul.

Muslims believe that there is no Original Sin; that means there is no innate or inherited nature that forces a person to disobey God. In other words a person's disposition to sin is only as much as, if not less than, their inclination to do good.

Human accountability is an important aspect of justice as envisaged in Islam. And no man can be truly held accountable for an action he cannot resist or avoid because God does not lay on a human more than he or she can bear.

Original Sin or Innocence?

To underscore what has been said above, Islam does not approve of anything comparable to the Christian concept of Original Sin. That is to say, the belief that the sin (of disobedience to God's command) committed by the first parents of mankind is inherited by every human. This is an idea quite abhorrent to Islam.

Islam clearly teaches that all humans are born innocent. Indeed Adam and Eve's disobedience in the Garden of Eden was pardoned by God Almighty as they had soon repented and learned how to seek God Almighty's pardon.

But Christians consider every child that is born a sinner, unless he or she is baptized into the Christian religion. And it is taught that after they become grown up persons, they should accept the idea of vicarious atonement or redemption from the inherited sin through the suffering and death of the son of God on the cross. This is what is meant by 'salvation'.

So from the Christian point of view, man's sinful nature — or the human tendency to commit sins — is directly derived from the Original Sin. As you have said, people 'enter into a state of sin'; because they are the children of Adam and they have inherited this tendency to sin from their first parents.

Islam views things differently. Muslims believe that God is All-Just, and therefore He does not punish people for doing something they cannot avoid doing. Nor does He punish the children for the sins of their father.

A human can be considered a sinner only when he knowingly and deliberately does something he knows to be a violation of the commandments of God. If someone acts in a particular way because that is his inherent and unavoidable nature, he is not accountable for that action; and the ends of justice are not met by their punishment.  


Defining Heaven and Hell

Now to come specifically to your question: You have mentioned the Catholic belief that the commitment of a serious transgression makes a person liable for eternal punishment in hell.

The Islamic teaching about Heaven and Hell, as it is clearly given in the Noble Quran in several verses, differs from this view.

Here I quote just three verses:

{As to those who believe and work righteous deeds, they have, for their entertainment, the Gardens of Paradise.} (Al-Kahf 18:107)

{Those who believe (in the Quran), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians,- any who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.} (Al-Baqarah 2:62)

{And for those who reject Faith and deny our Signs, there will be a humiliating Punishment.} (Al-Hajj 22:57)

The above verses as well as several others clearly tell us that all persons, irrespective of their background or upbringing, will have their reward with their Lord, if they believe in God and the Last Day and lead a life of virtue. And similarly, it is those who deliberately reject faith in God and the signs of God that will suffer humiliating punishment in Hell.

Now as far as humans are concerned, even the most virtuous persons may do wrong in certain contexts. But as soon as they realize their error, they should seek the pardon of their Lord and return to the path of righteousness.

It is repeatedly and unambiguously said in the Quran that God is All-Merciful and Most-Forgiving. We may read the following verses:

{Verily, God does not wrong [anyone] by as much as an atom's weight; and if there be a good deed, He will multiply it, and will bestow out of His grace a mighty reward.} (An-Nisaa' 4:40)

{Say: "O my Servants who have transgressed against their souls! Despair not of the mercy of God for God forgives all sins: for He is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful. } (Az-Zumar 39:53)

The foregoing clearly outlines the Islamic teaching that no one need be utterly dejected or disappointed owing to his or her sins. Indeed, if they are genuinely repentant and seek the forgiveness of God, they will be pardoned and so there is no question of their suffering an eternal and tormenting punishment in Hell.

This means that as erring humans all of us need to be continuously seeking God's forgiveness, while taking care to the best of our ability to do as much good as we can do in this life.

I hope this answers your question. Please keep in touch.



Useful Links:

Original Sin or… Innocence?

Original Innocence

Getting to Heaven

The Way to Heaven…?

Is Heaven a Muslims-Only Zone?

Heaven and Hell: Permanent or Temporary?

Different Heavens?

Who Will Go to Heaven?

The Road to Heaven

Defining Heaven

Heavenly Rewards For Pious Women?

Isn't It Unfair If Good Non-Muslims Go to Hell?

Women in Islam: Hell-Bound?

Is There Hell for Muslims?

Mercy, Through Hell...