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In Matthew 5:27-30 Jesus affirms very unambiguously the sinfulness of lust:

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. (ESV)

However, if one asks the follow-up question "But what's wrong with having lustful thoughts?", a Divine Command Theory advocate might say "Well, lustful thoughts are evil because God has commanded that you shouldn't have them".

I'm not interested in that sort of answer here. That's why I'm scoping this question to Christians who do not adhere to Divine Command Theory.

If we assume that Divine Command Theory is false (for scoping purposes), what would be alternative ways within a Christian worldview to defend the claim that lust (of the kind that Jesus is describing in Matthew 5:27-30) is universally evil? What's wrong with lust without appealing to Divine Command Theory?

EDIT: Someone in the comments rightly pointed out that the word "evil" is not literally mentioned by Jesus anywhere in the passage I quoted. Instead, the literal word used is "sin". That's a fair observation. In the way I phrased the question I'm intuitively using "wrong", "evil" and "sinful" interchangeably, but for some Christians that might not be the case. Can something be sinful without being evil and vice versa? I leave the space to answerers to answer that question as they see fit, as long as they are coming from a Christian ethical viewpoint other than DCT.

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  • The question refers to "evil" three times, but that word never appears in the quoted scripture, where the word "sin" is used instead. Apr 30, 2023 at 2:14
  • @RayButterworth Good observation. Are you suggesting that something can be sinful without being evil and vice versa?
    – Mark
    Apr 30, 2023 at 2:15
  • Neither. I'm saying that using a word that isn't directly supported by the quoted scripture introduces confusion to the question. For instance, we know that "sin is the transgression of the Law", but we don't have a clear definition of "evil". Rather than answering the real question, people may become distracted by the question of "what is evil?", or even by questions such as "[Can something] be sinful without being evil and vice versa?". Apr 30, 2023 at 2:21
  • @RayButterworth Well, that's precisely what I want to avoid in the first place. I don't want answers that appeal to God's Law as the ultimate reason for lust being evil (sinful), which is why I ruled Divine Command Theory out of the scope. Editing as you suggest would be an open invitation to tautological DCT answers.
    – Mark
    Apr 30, 2023 at 2:26
  • Then I think the question needs to define what "evil" means, and in particular how it is different from "sin". Or are you asking for an answer about why lust is bad that could be given by a psychiatrist, sociologist, or historian? Apr 30, 2023 at 2:37

3 Answers 3

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For purposes of this question let's use as a working definition of evil/sinful "that which is contrary to the nature of God".

  • Lust seeks to sacrifice the interests of others for personal benefit. Love is willing to make personal sacrifices for the benefit of others.
  • Lust treats people as a means to an end. Love treats people as worthy ends
  • Lust is self-centered. Love is selfless.

Love & lust are opposites. Love is the nature of God (e.g. see 1 John 4:8), therefore lust is the opposite of the nature of God. Based on the working definition above, lust is evil/sinful.

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Big picture

1 John 3:2-3

2 Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.

3 And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure.

If a loving God has devised such a plan for our well-being, lust is something that actively fights against that plan, and the hope that it brings.

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  • Interesting answer. Sounds like a mixture of virtue ethics and "divine" utilitarianism. If love and lust are mutually exclusive, and love produces higher utility than lust, then it's rational to prefer love over lust, rendering lust as "suboptimal" or evil.
    – Mark
    Apr 30, 2023 at 4:09
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    @Mark C. S. Lewis once remarked that that which is evil is not typically the opposite of that which is good, but rather that which is good perverted and used in the wrong way. The natural sexual desire that inspires lust is fundamentally a good thing, an inherent part of the original commandment for the first husband and wife to "multiply" together. But God put bounds on it, saying "this is how it's supposed to work," and when people let their sexual desires run free outside those bounds, they're taking a good thing and putting it to use in evil ways.
    – Mason Wheeler
    Apr 30, 2023 at 17:32
  • @MasonWheeler But then you are begging the question. Why is using them in a way that is different from the original intended design "evil"? You are just assuming that if it's different then it's evil, without justifying why that's actually the case. If your argument is "God said do A, so if you do B, that's evil", that's pretty much Divine Command Theory.
    – Mark
    Apr 30, 2023 at 17:36
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    @Mark Using them in a different way leads to long-term unhappiness and unfulfillment, where love leads to lasting joy. I wouldn't call lust simply "love, but suboptimal." It leads to misery, and not just because of God, but because that's the way it works--"wickedness never was happiness." The reason God gives commands about how to use the sacred powers He grants are because He knows that following eternal laws, fundamental to the universe, will bring us joy.
    – Lige
    May 1, 2023 at 23:26
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    @Lige I never said that lust is "love, but suboptimal". That's nowhere to be found in my last comment. If I say that U(A) > U(B), I'm not saying that A = B. But anyways, I agree with your utilitarian interpretation of God's law. In fact, I previously posted a question suggesting exactly that same idea here.
    – Mark
    May 2, 2023 at 1:31
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Buried in your question is a contradiction: the word "justified". Justification in Christianity is a legal concept! To discuss a legal concept without reference to the law is not possible.

The Ten Commandments may be divided into fourteen imperative statements. For example, the sabbath commandment has three imperatives: (1) to keep the sabbath holy, (2) to work six days and (3) to rest on the seventh day. If you divide them so, a symmetry appears. The first seven imperatives are about love for God. The second seven imperatives are about love for neighbor. Each "upper" imperative matches a corresponding "lower" imperative. Thus the command to have no other gods before Yahweh (the divine creator) matches the command to honor your father and mother (your material creators). Murder matches the command to not create idols and adultery matches the command to not worship idols.

By this construction, lust is seen for what it is: a form of idol worship. Lustful thoughts can consume a person, cause them to commit adultery, rape, murder, break apart families, and commit a host of other crimes.

The commandments are there to tell us to do what is good for us and others and to not do what is harmful. Removing the commandments does not remove the goodness that comes from actions that are consistent with them. For wisdom, you worship the source of wisdom. For healing, you worship the source of healing. For eternal life, you worship the source of eternal life. Worship is how we open ourselves to channels of grace from Heaven. Thus lust closes off that channel and instead opens a channel that pours lies, barrenness and death into our souls. That is not a law, but it is described by the Law. Plants do not need an agricultural law to know that without water, they die.

The Ten Commandments are as much a gardening manual as they are a legal document.

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    "Plants do not need an agricultural law to know that without water, they die." — I like this analogy. I don't see God's Laws as being restrictive and burdensome. They should be seen more like Newton's Laws, which simply define cause and effect. Let go of the apple and then it will fall and get bruised. Condone adultery and then marriage, family, and eventually society will fall. Combining 1 John 3:4 and Ezekiel 18:4 simplifies to "If you break the Law, you will die", which is a statement of cause and effect, not a threat. May 1, 2023 at 14:54
  • I removed the word "justify" from my question because you clearly misunderstood what I meant.
    – Mark
    May 2, 2023 at 1:45
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There is no reason to abandon divine commandment theory, as it doesn't contradict with the basic moral knowledge, the conscience that man possess. We know these acts are evil because his law is written in our conscience. Many of the forbidden acts or sins maybe not so clearly known to us, for which we need the divine revelation or religion to study God's law better. Refer to detailed material on bethinking org and reasonablefaith org sites.

Ethics in Law Enforcement by Steve McCartney and Rick Parent states:

Barry (1985, as cited in Pollock, 2007) describes that understanding God’s will is done in three ways:

Through individual conscience
By religious authorities
Through holy scripture

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