This answer is extracted from my article, "Is Sex Before Marriage Forbidden in the Bible?" For the full version, please follow the link.
The Bible does not forbid sex before marriage
The reality is that the Bible is nowhere near as clear about sex before marriage as many Christians seem to think it is. In fact, though the Bible does generally condemn sexual immorality, there is no clear prohibition against premarital sex in the Bible.
No matter how upsetting this may be to some people with traditional moral values, that’s the fact of the matter
However . . . before you jump right into the sack, there’s more to it than that . . .
The Bible forbids adultery, and values marriage
The Bible simply doesn’t say much specifically about premarital sex. And some of what has been interpreted as applying to premarital sex doesn’t really apply to it.
What the Bible does condemn in no uncertain terms is adultery. However, even though premarital sex is traditionally considered fornication, it is not adultery. Adultery is when one or both of the people engaging in sex with one another is married to someone else. Strictly speaking, the commandment “Thou shalt not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14) does not apply to sex before marriage.
The Bible presents marriage as a relationship that is sacred because from the beginning God created two human beings to be united into one. Based on this, we can conclude that:
If the people engaging in premarital sex think there is nothing wrong with promiscuous and adulterous relationships, and just want to sleep around with no restrictions or boundaries, it is a serious issue.
But if the people engaging in premarital sex value marriage and want to be in a committed, monogamous relationship, it is not such a serious issue.
Does the Bible give a green light to premarital sex, then?
No, it doesn’t.
But it doesn’t give a red light either.
Let’s take a closer look at the Bible’s yellow light on sex before marriage.
The Bible says that marriage comes from God
First, the Bible says that God created two people to be united into one, and that this relationship is to be honored.
In the first creation story, God creates man and woman together:
God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)
In the second creation story, God forms woman from a rib taken from the human being that God had created (in Hebrew “Adam” means “human,” not necessarily “man”), and brings her to him so that the two may become one:
So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,
This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
for out of Man this one was taken.
Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. (Genesis 2:21–24)
(On the two creation stories and what they say about the relationship between man and woman, see my article, “Man, Woman, and the Two Creation Stories of Genesis.”)
In the New Testament, Jesus refers to the second creation story in establishing marriage as a relationship created by God:
Jesus answered, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Matthew 19:4–6)
And just one more for now. In the letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament, it says:
Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. (Hebrews 13:4)
This should be enough to show that according to the Bible, marriage is created by God, and is to be respected and honored as a God-given relationship. (Assuming, of course, that the people in the marriage are living in a godly way.)
The real question about premarital sex, then, is whether it contributes to marriage or damages marriage.
But before we get to that, let’s look at a few places where the Bible talks about premarital sex. The clearest ones are in the Old Testament.
The Bible takes a pragmatic approach to premarital sex
Let’s be honest. The Bible is full of imperfect people who do imperfect things. The only person who is presented by the Bible as sinless is Jesus Christ (see Hebrews 4:15).
In the Old Testament, laws could be quite harsh against those who broke God’s laws. Adultery, in particular, carried the death penalty (see Leviticus 20:10).
What about those who had sex before marriage?
Here, the law was more complicated, and more pragmatic.
If a woman got married, and it was then discovered that she was not a virgin when she got married, her offense was punishable by death (see Deuteronomy 22:13–21).
Yes, this was sexist and unfair. The same rule did not apply to men. But that was an earlier and more brutal age. This law was their way of assuring a man that his children were his own.
By the same token, if a man raped a woman who was pledged to be married, he was subject to the death penalty, while the woman was not to be punished at all (see Deuteronomy 22:25–27).
What if the woman was neither married nor pledged to be married?
In that society, it was assumed that an unmarried woman (who wasn’t a prostitute) would not allow a man to have sex with her, because the consequences for her would be catastrophic. So if an unmarried man did have sex with an unmarried woman, unless there was some proof otherwise, it was considered rape, and the man was to be punished for it—but not by the death penalty:
If a man meets a virgin who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are caught in the act, the man who lay with her shall give fifty shekels of silver to the young woman’s father, and she shall become his wife. Because he violated her he shall not be permitted to divorce her as long as he lives. (Deuteronomy 22:28–29)
In other words, the man was subject to a large fine payable to the woman’s father (which was basically a bride price) and to the ancient Hebrew equivalent of a shotgun wedding, from which he could not escape through divorce.
Of course, these laws are not in force for Christians today. We have made huge social, scientific, and spiritual progress since then—which is why most of those harsh Old Testament laws simply don’t apply anymore.
In the Bible, acceptable sex is connected to marriage
But consider the pragmatic meaning of that law about sex before marriage. If two people engaged in sex before marriage, they were required to get married in order to preserve the woman’s honor and hold the man responsible for his actions.
Another way of saying this is that in Old Testament times, the laws about sex were aimed primarily at enforcing the sanctity of marriage.
In the New Testament, there are no such detailed laws about how to handle various cases of sex before marriage. Instead, there are more general injunctions to avoid fornication and adultery, and to honor marriage through faithfulness and purity in one’s marital life. (And purity did not mean abstinence from sex.)
From this brief survey of what the Bible says about sex and marriage, we can draw two conclusions that support the ones I stated above:
- Promiscuous and especially adulterous sex with no intent to marry is forbidden in the Bible.
- Premarital sex that leads to marriage, though not ideal, is tolerated in the Bible, and is handled in pragmatic fashion to preserve social order.
This is what I meant when I spoke earlier of the Bible’s yellow light on sex before marriage. The Bible does not forbid premarital sex as many Christians claim. But it does consider it non-ideal, and either requires or encourages those who engage in it to move toward marriage.
In short, the Bible generally teaches that sex should be connected with, or lead to, marriage.
But once again, the Bible does not forbid sex before marriage—as upsetting as that fact may be for some conservative Christians.
To apply all of this specifically to the question: the Bible does not condemn premarital sex because the Bible is pragmatic rather than dogmatic, and it is more concerned with the sanctity of marriage than it is with exactly how we get there.