What is the sin of Sodom?

The Missouri Baptist Convention has published a new resource called The Last Apologist: A Commentary on Jude for Defenders of the Christian Faith. The 275-page book is available in print and Kindle editions on Amazon, and in print from the MBC. But we also want to make each of the 16 chapters available online. This post features the last portion of Chapter 7: The Lessons of History: Remembering the Past to Defend the Faith.

Previously: Part 1 of Chapter 7


In the same way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them committed sexual immorality and practiced perversions, just as they did, and serve as an example by undergoing the punishment of eternal fire. (Jude 7)

In this, the third lesson from history in verses 5-7, Jude completes the illustration of the progressive nature of sin: unbelief leads to rebellion, which ultimately gives way to depravity. Perhaps no place in history is more readily identified with debauched behavior than Sodom (not to neglect its nasty neighbor, Gomorrah, or the surrounding communities). From the red-light district of De Wallen in Amsterdam to the Strip in Las Vegas, no modern-day place on earth holds a candle to the ancient flesh pot on the plains of Canaan.

Before the destruction of these cities, Moses favorably describes the area as fertile – a good place to raise crops and animals (Gen. 13:10). But God’s wrath against the sinful inhabitants is so severe that the cities are reduced to ashes. In fact, God’s judgment is so complete that the ruins remain undiscovered, and the cities’ precise location is yet in doubt. It’s possible, but not proven, that the ruins lie beneath what is now the mineral-dense water in the southern portion of the Dead Sea.

The Lord’s judgment not only buries the bodies of the wicked beneath the ashes; it plunges their souls into everlasting punishment – in part, as a dire warning to future generations that unrepentant depravity leads to an unmitigated divine response. Jude wishes to remind his readers that the false teachers who have infiltrated the church possess the same depraved nature as the Sodomites and will share the same fate – everlasting punishment in hell.

But what, exactly, is the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah? Jude seems quite clear that they engage in sexual immorality and practice perversions – particularly homosexuality. Yet some recent commentators argue that the Sodomites, though a salty bunch, are falsely accused and badly misunderstood.

Arrogance and injustice

Admittedly, sexual sin is not their only sin. Ezekiel says they also are punished for pride and a lack of concern for the poor (Ezek. 16:49). The Apocryphal books of Sirach and 3 Maccabees mention their arrogance and injustice (Sir. 16:8; 3 Macc. 2:5). And Josephus criticizes Sodom for its pride and hatred of foreigners (Antiquities of the Jews 1.194).

But Jude focuses on Sodom’s “sexual immorality” and “perversions” (sarkos heteras, v. 7). The Greek literally says they “went after other flesh,” which “refers to a desire for those of the same sex; they desired flesh other than that of women.”7

Let’s take a closer look at the story, which is found in Genesis 13-19. Here, we find that God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah because of the people’s wickedness, expressed most egregiously in their homosexual behavior. Jews and Christians traditionally have understood the story of Sodom and Gomorrah to speak directly to the issue of homosexuality – revisionist explanations of this passage notwithstanding.

Gen. 13:13 tells us, “Now the men of Sodom were evil, sinning greatly against the Lord.” When two angels and the Lord Himself visit Abram, the Lord says, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is immense, and their sin is extremely serious” (Gen. 18:20). Their sin clearly is homosexual behavior, for they surround Lot’s house and demand that his guests be given to them so they may “have sex with them!” (Gen. 19:5). Lot implores the men, “Don’t do this evil, my brothers” (v. 7), and he takes the extraordinary step of offering his two virgin daughters to them, if they only abandon their intent for the three guests under his roof.

Other references to these two cities cast them in the light of grievous, unrepentant sin. In a parallel passage to Jude 7, for example, Peter describes “the unrestrained behavior of the immoral” (2 Peter 2:7). The depiction of the “men” of Sodom surrounding Lot’s house shows that the entire populace is corrupt. The “whole population” – young and old, and from every quarter – is engaged in this immoral practice (Gen. 19:4). For this sin, the Lord destroys the cities in an act of divine judgment.

Lack of hospitality?

Not so fast, say some commentators, who wish to defend the citizens of Sodom against what they perceive as false charges. The most common objection to the plain reading of the text is the interpretation that the sin of Sodom is primarily inhospitality, not same-sex behavior. Proponents of this view often cite Ezek. 16:48-49 to say that the sin of the Sodomites is their refusal to take in needy travelers.

No doubt the men of Sodom are unsociable rascals, but reading the next verse changes the perspective: “They were haughty and did detestable things before Me, so I removed them when I saw this” (Ezek. 16:50). The word “detestable” – or “abomination” in other translations – brings us back to Leviticus, specifically Lev. 18:22 and Lev. 20:13, where homosexual conduct is in view.

Another challenge is that the use of the word yada – translated “know” in the KJV and ESV – does not necessarily refer to homosexual conduct. It’s true that the word yada appears numerous times in the Bible and normally refers to knowing factual information, but at times yada plainly means to know someone intimately in a sexual fashion.

For example, in Gen. 4:1 Adam “knew Eve his wife; and she conceived …” (KJV). Further, a look at Judges 19:22-25 offers a close parallel to the story of Lot in Sodom. Certain “perverted men of the city” surround the home where two guests have been taken in, demanding, “Bring out the man who came to your house so we can have sex (yada) with him!” (v. 22). The homeowner describes their intent as “evil” and “horrible” (v. 23), and he offers his virgin daughter and the guest’s concubine in exchange. The men take the concubine, rape (yada) her and abuse her all night (v. 25). The context determines the correct understanding of the word yada.

A third challenge is that Jesus mentions Sodom and Gomorrah but does not connect the cities with homosexuality. It’s true that in Matt. 10:14-15, as Jesus commissions the twelve disciples, He does not specifically refer to any sin for which the residents of the cities are guilty. His exact words are, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that house or town. I assure you: It will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.”

As James White and Jeffrey Niell explain, “Sodom’s judgment had become axiomatic for the fullest outpouring of God’s wrath throughout the Old Testament…. The issue is that these cities will be held accountable to God for their grievous sins. And the comparison is that it will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in that day than for those cities that had experienced the visitation of the very apostles of the incarnate Lord, but refused their message of repentance and faith.”

A final challenge is that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is not germane to the same-sex debate because it does not address loving, monogamous relationships. It only rails against homosexual gang rape and violence. Even if that were the case, it begs the question of what the Bible says, if anything, about loving, monogamous same-sex relationships. Again, White and Niell are helpful: “To call a relationship ‘loving’ in a Biblical sense means it is in accordance with God’s will and is fulfilling His purpose, resulting in His glory.” The Bible speaks positively of loving, monogamous, lifelong relationships between a man and a woman, but never of two women or two men.

So, the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them clearly is that of unrepentant same-sex behavior, which leads to “the punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 7b). Jude tells us not only that these cities are destroyed and their inhabitants killed, but that the punishment of the wicked is everlasting, not temporal. Further, he writes, this story serves as an example to us of the consequences of grievous sin.

Seven biblical truths about same-sex attraction

Does that mean homosexuality is an unpardonable sin? Do all people who engage in same-sex behavior inevitably find themselves in hell? We should consider several biblical truths that help us formulate a response to our friends struggling with same-sex attraction.

First, the Bible condemns all forms of sexual behavior outside the bonds of heterosexual, monogamous, life-long marriage. Homosexuality is not a special class of sin that makes it any more or less an act of rebellion against God than premarital sex, adultery, polygamy, polyandry, pornography, or other sexual sins. We do injustice to God’s Word, and to those struggling with same-sex attraction, when we make homosexual conduct a special class of sin.

Second, God has spoken clearly. The Bible never speaks of homosexuality in a positive – or even a neutral – light. Sexual relations between members of the same gender are always depicted as sinful in Scripture. The Bible describes such conduct as “an abomination,” “degrading,” “unnatural,” “shameless,” and a “perversion.” Those who commit same-sex acts, refuse to acknowledge them as sinful, and reject the call to repentance, are outside the kingdom of God.

Third, God’s creative intent for sexual relations is good. God created us male and female, and He designed a unique, complementary sexual union between us in the bonds of heterosexual, monogamous, life-long marriage. Summarizing the 2,000-year-old Christian narrative on sexuality and marriage, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry writes, “The sexual act is meant to reflect God’s love by fostering a union at once bodily and spiritual – and creates new life…. The fruitfulness of the marriage act reflects that God is a creator and has charged man to be an agent of his ongoing work of creation. And, finally, if God’s love means total self-giving unto death on a Cross, then man and wife must give themselves to each other totally – no pettiness, no adultery, no polygamy, no divorce, and no nonmarital sexual acts.”

Genesis 1-2 establishes at least seven norms for marriage: Marriage is covenantal, sexual, procreative, heterosexual, monogamous, non-incestuous, and symbolic of the gospel, according to Denny Burk in What is the Meaning of Sex?

Fourth, Jesus affirms Old Testament teachings about sexuality and marriage. Matt. 19:1-12 is instructive. The Pharisees confront Jesus after He crosses over the Jordan into Judea, and they ask, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife on any grounds?”

Rather than debate the lawfulness of failed marriages, Jesus takes the religious leaders back to the Garden of Eden. “Haven’t you read,” He replies, “that He who created them in the beginning made them male and female … For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, man must not separate.”

The Pharisees respond, “Why then did Moses command us to give divorce papers and to send her away?” Jesus tells them, “Moses permitted [not commanded] you to divorce your wives because of the hardness of your hearts. But it was not like that from the beginning.”

Clearly, the Lord has not changed His reasons for creating men and women, nor has His divine accommodation (allowing divorce under terms of the Mosaic Law) lowered His standards for sexual purity and marriage. There is no divine accommodation for homosexual conduct.

Fifth, Christians share with our homosexual friends a struggle against sinful desires. Everyone is born with “original sin” – a natural tendency to live independently of God. When we act upon fleshly desires, we violate God’s holy standards and are in need of His saving grace. The apostle Paul, quoting from the Psalms, reminds us, “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, together they have become useless; there is no one who does good, there is not even one” (Rom. 3:10-12).

Paul further reminds us in Rom. 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” He then points out both the consequences of our sin and the remedy, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). Paul even calls himself chief among sinners (1 Tim. 1:15 KJV).

Christians are far from perfect. We struggle with sins like lust, anger, lying, selfishness, arrogance, and all other ways people rebel against their Creator. Remembering our sinful tendencies helps us see the sins of other people in a more accurate and gracious light. Yes, Christians have the Holy Spirit who dwells within us and gives us power over sin. But we often give in to our fleshly desires – and even make such excuses as, “I can’t help it,” or, “I’ve always had this weakness.” Perhaps the reminder of the beams in our own eyes helps us deal more gently with those suffering from a speck of dust in theirs. This commonality with our gay and lesbian friends makes us vulnerable, but also more genuine and compassionate.

Sixth, people can change. Paul makes this clear in 1 Cor. 6:9-11. He begins with a negative: “Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit God’s kingdom? Do not be deceived: no sexually immoral people, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, homosexuals, thieves, greedy people, drunkards, revilers, or swindlers will inherit God’s kingdom.” Then, he reminds his fellow believers, “Some of you were like this; but you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

The evidence indicates that same-sex attraction typically is discovered early in life and involves a combination of biological, psychological, and environmental factors, and that it tends to stay with people for a lifetime. In other words, an individual with same-sex attraction likely will struggle with that throughout his or her lifetime. The difference is that the One who resides in followers of Jesus – that is, the Holy Spirit – is greater than the one who is in the world.

God gives His own the ability to overcome even the strongest sinful urges. Numerous testimonies by formerly gay individuals, and by Christians who acknowledge same-sex attraction but remain celibate, serve as a witness to the transforming power of Christ. How do we challenge self-defined “gay Christians” to reshape their identity with the gospel? Despite our culture’s view, sexual gratification is not a sacrament, and celibacy is not a fate worse than death. Sexual abstinence can promote a life “devoted to the Lord without distraction” (1 Cor. 7:35).

Seventh, we should welcome into our churches those struggling with same-sex attraction. This does not mean that those living unrepentant, openly gay lifestyles should be received as members, or should play any role in the leadership of the church. But it does mean that the church should be a safe place for anyone struggling with same-sex attraction to have a candid, caring conversation.

We should not deny church membership to those who confess same-sex attraction, and who agree that same-sex lust and conduct are sinful, and who seek to overcome these sinful desires and behaviors by the power of God and the accountability of a community of fellow believers. Would we not afford the same consideration to those struggling with heterosexual lust, gossip, pride, or gluttony?

At the same time, we need to be consistent in our stand on biblical conduct and church discipline. For two people living together outside of marriage, or engaged in adultery, or any other activity the Bible clearly condemns, we need to follow the pattern of church discipline Jesus lays out in Matthew 18 and we see exemplified in other passages of Scripture.

As we seek to minister to our gay and lesbian friends, it’s important to draw a distinction between the temptation known as unwanted same-sex attraction, which is not a sin, and same-sex lusts and behaviors, which the Bible always characterizes as sinful. Every human being struggles with what the apostle Paul calls the flesh – the tarnished image of God warring against God’s Word and, for the believer, against God’s indwelling Spirit.

We should explore what God has to say about sex and marriage; they’re both good, by the way. We should rejoice in God’s creative design, earnestly pursue personal holiness, vigorously contend for the faith, and love those who experience same-sex attractions, whether they celebrate these attractions or acknowledge them as foreign to the will of God.

Serving as an example

As we close this chapter, it’s important to remember that Jude’s reference to ancient Israelites, fallen angels, and Sodomites is to “serve as an example” (v. 7b). The false teachers who have wormed their way into the church are not necessarily guilty of exactly the same sins, particularly with respect to homosexuality. But they most certainly demonstrate the same depravity as their predecessors: unbelief, violating the boundaries God established for angels and humans, and engaging in licentious behavior. Jude’s reminder of the past points to what God will do to the unrepentant wicked in the future.

As Thomas R. Schreiner cautions, “We must also be aware of overinterpreting the examples Jude presented of judgment in the past. Surely Jude was not implying that the opponents [false teachers] had sexual intercourse with angelic beings (v. 6). Nor was he necessarily implying that they engaged in homosexual activity. His purpose was to emphasize that those who sin are judged, not to say that the opponents had committed the same sins as their predecessors. It is likely, however, that the intruders were guilty of sexual sin, as we will see in subsequent verses.”

Next: Chapter 8: Kept, with Eternal Chains: When Angels Desert