There exists, in legal philosophy, the concept of the “victimless crime.” These are infractions of the law where no one is actually harmed. The debate as to what constitutes a victimless crime is ongoing, and the existence, or lack of existence, of a victim is frequently in the eye of the beholder, but we might grant that human lawmaking being what it is, it is possible for things to be made illegal which should not be made illegal and not all crimes end up being immoral. A country which outlaws the preaching of the gospel and the conversion of men to Christ has made illegal that which is good. Likewise, there may be crimes wherein the infraction is a matter of failure to properly comply with bureaucratic requirements due to oversight or negligence. In these cases, the concept of a victimless crime is a useful one.
At other times the perceived lack of a victim may only be wishful thinking on the part of those who don’t want their particular life-style or life-choices criminalized. Advocates of legalized drugs, prostitution, and assisted suicide all argue that these activities lack a true victim and therefore should not be illegal. In each case it is not too hard to find examples of suffering produced by these choices, whether it be children neglected and abused by their intoxicated parents, broken homes, or simply trauma caused by the loss of individuals who were loved and valued more than they knew. Whether or not any single activity should be criminalized is a matter for public debate, but we should not delude ourselves into thinking that is impossible for the selfish choices we may want to make for our own self-gratification to ever hurt anyone other than ourselves.
There likewise exists, in the mind of some, the concept of the “victimless sin.” Like the victimless crime, these choices and behaviors are perceived to be activities without harm. The little white lie to assuage feelings, the romantic dalliance of an adulterous nature, a night of drunkenness in the privacy of one’s own home. “Nobody is hurt,” is the argument and defense for such behavior, and though the Word of God proscribes against each of these, there are those who feel it unreasonable for God to condemn such behavior, and feel their wisdom in such matters to be superior to God’s revealed law.
“Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness (1 John 3:4; ESV).” Sin is not the breaking of the laws of men, but the laws of God, and God does not make law capriciously.
The Bible also teaches: “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:8-10; ESV)”
The Law of God teaches us to do right by others. Sin is a breaking of that law, and is properly understood as doing harm to others. We may not perceive the harm done, but God in His wisdom and knowledge tells us that such harm exists. All sin has a victim, even if we do not know immediately know who that victim is.
Concerning sin and sinners, God says, “In their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known (Romans 3:16-17; ESV).” Most people would agree that the world is filled with unhappiness. The Bible tells us that chief amongst the culprits for this global condition is sin. Every sin actively works to make the world worse, affecting both the participant and those in proximity. The world is not in the state it is in because men are adhering too closely to God’s word; rather men choose to continue to behave in ways which not only damage their relationship with God (cf. Ezekiel 18:20; Isaiah 59:1-2), but which also causes harm. The weight of each of these individual choices adds up until at last the whole world has sorrow, groaning to be released (cf. Romans 8:19-22)
All sin has victims. Each of us have been harmed because someone else made a sinful choice. Likewise, each time we choose to sin, we are choosing to harm someone else. Love does no harm, therefore love is the fulfillment of God’s law, and if we truly love others, we will repent of our sins rather than excusing them.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.