What is the sin unto death?


Paul told us to pray for all men, but John said that there’s a sin unto death (and that he wasn’t telling his readers to pray for it.)

What is this “sin unto death,” and how could John’s readers know if a fellow believer had commited it?

P.S. I think there’s already a thread on this subject somewhere, but I can’t find it (can anyone help?)


Good question.
I dont have an answer but can offer a presumption. I have always presumed that the text is saying;
there is a (type of) sin which leads to physical death.

These days one example might be promiscuous unprotected sex, or another: gross gluttony.

I’m interested in better answers.


I don’t know but would suspect that it refers to a sin which one wouldn’t repent of before dying. I think I’ve heard another interpretation but don’t remember what it was.

The Catholic Universalist - Feeling Hypocritical
sin unto death

I discussed the translation and interpretation issues of 1 John 5:16-17, pretty thoroughly back in autumn of 2008 here in this thread, starting with this comment.

While I’m (still) not altogether satisfied with the answer I derived, I (still :mrgreen: ) think it does more justice to the sticky grammatic issues and immediate contexts (and wider scriptural contexts) than other attempts I’ve seen.

The short version: I think John is trying to remind readers that all unfairness is sin, and that they ought not to be asking if there is (some kind of) special sin unto death:

“If anyone sees his brother sinning, a sin not unto death, he should ask and He [God] will be giving him life. These are sinning, not unto death. Is there sin unto death?–I say that he should not be asking about that! All unfairness is sin; yet sin is not unto death.”

Edited to add: I tried to search for other discussions of that verse set, but I don’t think I found any other extensive ones on our forum yet. It’s mentioned a couple of times elsewhere, including in passing by BAaron in a thread which contains some extensive exegetical commentary by me on a set of Isaianic and 2 Cor verses.


Thank you Jason.


Nice, Jason! Holy crap, that makes so much more sense.


It does to me too.


I need to take a closer look at your interpretation of the passage, that seems like an interesting take.

When I read this, Jeremiah comes to mind–I wouldn’t say I’m certain that it’s relevant, but it sounds similar to me:

Jer 7:16 "As for you, do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer for them, and do not intercede with me, for I will not hear you.

Jer 11:14 "Therefore do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer on their behalf, for I will not listen when they call to me in the time of their trouble.

Jer 14:11 The LORD said to me: "Do not pray for the welfare of this people.

I think the idea there is that the time has come for punishment, so don’t pray for them to escape the consequences of their sinfulness, it’s coming unless (and until) they repent.



This makes me think that perhaps we should develop a universalist translation of scripture. :mrgreen:


Only one problem I see with your translation, Jason (even though it clears up a huge bevy of others): why would John bring up the subject at all to begin with? I suppose someone may have brought up the notion in a letter to him, but then the wording is still odd:

“If anyone sees his brother sinning, a sin not unto death…”

Why wouldn’t John just leave out the part which says “a sin not unto death” since there ARE NO sins that doom a person unto death?


There is at least one universalist translation.

It’s called “The Concordant Literal Version,” and it’s published by The Concordant Publishing Concern.

Unfortunately, the translator (A. E. Knoch) was also Anti-Trinitarian (and ultra-dispensationalist), and some would say his translation is biased.


That would be my other inference if I had to go with the standard translation type. As I observed in the analysis, Paul puts that sin-unto-death thing into practice with the Stepmom-Sleeping Guy. But it still isn’t hopeless.

And if Jeremiah is mentioned, I would of course also point out that the topic of God’s punishment of rebel Israel doesn’t end with the punishment of rebel Israel, but rather that Rachel (loyal Israel) will be comforted with the restoration of her slain children–which will have something to do with the prophetic riddle of God doing a new thing in a woman encompassing a man!

So yes, the sin unto death isn’t necessarily hopeless (and there is even testimony that in ultimate eschatology it’s hopeful). But the grammatic weirdness of John’s text there suggests a somewhat different line of thought anyway.


It isn’t especially a “universalist” translation, though; I used it for years thinking the editor was a non-universalist.

(For that matter, this is the first time I’ve heard about him being anti-trinitarian, too!–so his results can’t be too biased. :unamused: :wink: )


But I didn’t translate the text to say there are no sins that doom a person unto death; only that John is exhorting his readers not to ask about that. Which fits the notion that we aren’t in any position (unless maybe we’ve been given apostolic authority) to know which sins are sins to death or not, so most of us should treat our brother’s sins as not being sin unto death. If we ask for his salvation and it’s in the will of God for him to be saved from death, God will grant our prayer. If God’s will is for him to die, then He won’t grant our prayer–but for sake of charity, and since we aren’t apostles, it’s better for us to pray in hope for the sinner.

It’s interesting that the surrounding context, especially afterward, makes it pretty clear that by “brother” John isn’t here talking about our Christian brothers but about our non-Christian brothers; and in the NT, the examples of sin-unto-death are issues within the Christian family. Non-Christians aren’t the ones under the threat of that special punishment, Christians are.

This might of course mean that Christians are under threat of being punished as unfaithful and so being treated differently (namely as the unfaithful instead of as the faithful), whereas the unfaithful have no change of status in regard to their punishment: their possible change of status is entirely positive.

Anyway, as I said I’m still not entirely satisfied with the translation; I think it addresses a weird grammatic issue better (don’t ask there!), but it might still be improved. Even the standard translation, though, lends no weight to hopeless damnation, taken in context with other scriptures; and those other scriptures might in fact testify to how we should understand a testimony about there being a sin unto death here (if in fact John is affirming so instead of deflecting his readers from the topic for sake of practical charity in praying for our sinning brothers.)


Did you never notice “God’s creative original” in Rev. 3:14?

Even Alexander Thomson (who collaberated on the C.L.N.T.) considered that an unfounded and biased translation.

BTW: AT was a modalist, and AEK was an Arian, so even though neither was Trinitarian, they had differing views on the Deity of Christ.

Thank you Jason (that makes a lot more sense to me than the standard translations.)


I would have thought that Ananias and Sapphira committed a ‘sin unto death’.


Well, you’re partly right Jason; Knoch was not a universalist when he started the translation, but was by the time he finished it! It was precisely his translation work which led him to the understanding of universal salvation. But yeah, my biggest beef with him is his ultra-dispensationalism. (He makes distinctions between the Bride and Body of Christ and literal and figurative Israel that I’m not convinced are there, as well as making distinctions between believers during the time of Christ (as Jewish converts) and those gentiles who came later (including us), i.e. Israel as opposed to the (gentile) nations, partly in an attempt to resolve apparent conflicts between the gospel as presented in the gospels, and the more expansive “higher” revelation that Paul preached.

I don’t know if I would call him Anti-Trinitarian precisely (although he is certainly not pro); he has a somewhat different take on the matter than a lot of non-trinitarians, and he does not deny the deity of Christ.
He does deny that Jesus Christ is God the Father (which, as Jason would say, trinitarians affirm also :mrgreen: ), and also denies Christ’s “co-equality” with Him.


If I may throw a curveball. I always thought this passage was talking about suicide. *“There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it.” * Obviously, it’s too late to pray for life someone who has committed suicide.