What does the Bible Say about Masturbation? Is Masturbation a Sin?

This month three Spiritual Conundrums have been submitted to Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life on the subject of masturbation. First, from “Hmmm”:

A question has been bugging me a lot lately, what is your opinion on masturbation and pornography, if that’s not too much to ask of course.

I’ve been wondering because there’s many people that says it’s bad, and others who say it’s fine, if this isn’t too much to ask i would like to know your opinion on it.

Thanks in advance

We’ll deal with pornography in a future article (see: What does the Bible Say about Pornography? Is Pornography Sinful?). Yes, it is true that many people masturbate while viewing pornography. But let’s deal with one issue at a time.

Here is the second conundrum, submitted by a reader named Daniel:

Hi

What is Swedenborgianism view on masterbations and other related activities?

Thank you

And finally, a conundrum submitted by a reader named John:

I’m a gay male 18 years of age and things aren’t so easy for me. I really want to go to heaven and finally have peace and I pray to God every night before I go to sleep to forgive me for what I am, and the sins I do (Usually masturbation). I’ve talked to many priests and confessed but I can’t tell them about my sexuality, It’s just that they keep telling me that I will have to wait till I get married to get involved in sexual activities and I can’t see that happening in my situation. I really want to go to heaven but I find it near impossible to resist to all of my temptations and urges, and I’m still very young I have a long way ahead of me. I try so hard not to masturbate but sometimes it just gets me, not saying that that’s my only sin, but it’s the one that most bothers me. I’d appreciate it if you’d respond to me, thank you!

About homosexuality, please see my article, “Homosexuality, the Bible, and Christianity.” I realize it is a highly charged issue in the Catholic Church, and in many other churches as well. But what the Bible says about homosexuality is nowhere near as clear cut as many conservative Christians think it is.

Masturbation is not quite as charged an issue as homosexuality in religious circles. But it is still a matter of much needless consternation. So let’s get one thing out of the way immediately:

Q: What does the Bible say about masturbation?

A: Nothing.

The Bible says nothing about masturbation

Yes, you heard me right. The Bible does not say one word about masturbation.

The idea that masturbation is a sin was originated and promulgated by Christian priests and theologians long after the Bible was written.

The Bible itself simply isn’t concerned about masturbation. If it were, it would have said something about it. But it doesn’t.

The Bible does contain many general exhortations to preserve sexual purity. But it never identifies masturbation as a sexual impurity. Rather:

  • It prohibits adultery, which is sexual relations when one or both people involved is married to someone else, and
  • It generally discourages fornication, which is when two unmarried people have sex.

Notice that I did not say that it prohibits fornication.

The commandment is not, “Thou shalt not have extramarital sex,” but “Thou shalt not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14).

The Bible unequivocally forbids adultery. But its views on non-adulterous extramarital sex (when neither of the two is married) are more pragmatic. The reality is that quite a few people in the Bible engage in extramarital sex, and they are not necessarily condemned for it. For more on premarital and extramarital sex, see my article, “Is Sex Before Marriage Forbidden in the Bible?

The sin of Onan

The traditional Christian prohibition of masturbation is not based on the Bible. However, those who hold to it usually point to two things in the Bible in an attempt to support their belief that masturbation is a sin:

  1. The Bible’s general discouragement of fornication.

But fornication is sex between two unmarried people. Masturbation is not fornication.

  1. The story of the sin of Onan in Genesis 38:6–11.

Because the story of Onan is so commonly misunderstood and so often wrongly applied to masturbation, we’ll take an extended look at it. If you’re already convinced that the Bible doesn’t say anything about masturbation, you can safely skip to the next section of this article. (The rest of this section is based on an answer I wrote on the Biblical Hermeneutics StackExchange site in answer to this question: “What was Onan’s sin?”)

Here’s the story:

Judah got a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death.

Then Judah said to Onan, “Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother.” But Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death also.

Judah then said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, “Live as a widow in your father’s household until my son Shelah grows up.” For he thought, “He may die too, just like his brothers.” So Tamar went to live in her father’s household. (Genesis 38:6–11)

This story is commonly misinterpreted as being about masturbation. But Onan did not engage in masturbation, which is sexual self-stimulation. Rather, he engaged in what is known technically as coitus interruptus, which is having sex with a woman but withdrawing before ejaculation.

Coitus interruptus is not masturbation. It is a (very unreliable) method of birth control used by some heterosexual couples. Onan was attempting not to get Tamar pregnant because he did not want to provide an heir for his deceased older brother.

Though marrying a brother’s wife was normally prohibited (see Leviticus 18:16; 20:21), the law of levirate marriage was an exception to this rule. Marrying a deceased brother’s wife under this law was not considered adultery or inchastity. And the rules of “inchastity” for men were rather lax in those days anyway.

The law of levirate marriage is stated in Deuteronomy 25:5–10:

If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel.

However, if a man does not want to marry his brother’s wife, she shall go to the elders at the town gate and say, “My husband’s brother refuses to carry on his brother’s name in Israel. He will not fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to me.” Then the elders of his town shall summon him and talk to him. If he persists in saying, “I do not want to marry her,” his brother’s widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, take off one of his sandals, spit in his face and say, “This is what is done to the man who will not build up his brother’s family line.” That man’s line shall be known in Israel as The Family of the Unsandaled.

Although this law was recorded several centuries after the time of Onan, as with many statutes in the Mosaic Law it was a codification of a law that was already in effect long before the time of Moses, and that was common to many ancient cultures. For more on the law of levirate marriage, see: Jewish Encyclopedia -> Levirate Marriage (Hebr. “yibbum”).

The law of levirate marriage was, however, complicated in its application, and has been the subject of much debate and varying interpretation since ancient times. Having said that, here is a summary of the key events in the passage, followed by the most likely scenario of precisely what Onan’s sin consisted of:

At the time of the incident of Onan in Genesis 38:6–11, Judah had fathered three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah (see Genesis 38:1–5). Er, the eldest, had received the punishment of death from the Lord for unknown offenses. Judah then instructed his second son, Onan, to fulfill the law of levirate marriage for Er, his deceased elder brother, and provide an heir for him. Onan went through the motions of doing this, but avoided actually getting Tamar pregnant by the practice of coitus interruptus, termed in the Biblical account “wasting his semen on the ground.”

The text states Onan’s purpose for doing this as follows:

But Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother. (Genesis 38:9)

This was why the Lord carried out a sentence of death on Onan:

What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death also. (Genesis 38:10)

Why did Onan marry Tamar, but then avoid getting her pregnant? And why was this an offense punishable by death in the Lord’s eyes?

By going through the motions of taking Tamar as his wife, and thus appearing to fulfill the law of levirate marriage, Onan would become the heir to his deceased brother’s current possessions. If he refused to fulfill his duty under the law of levirate marriage, he would not receive his brother’s property. So he had a financial incentive to at least appear to fulfill the levirate law.

However, if he got Tamar pregnant, and she bore a child, especially if it were a male child, that child would inherit:

  1. The primogeniture that would have gone to the first biological male child of his Levirate, or legal father Er, Judah’s eldest son—which would cause the leadership of the clan to pass to the child, and
  2. A double inheritance from Judah, their father, which the firstborn son was entitled to by long custom (see, for example, Deuteronomy 21:15–17).

As mentioned above, Onan would have already received his deceased brother’s property by taking Tamar as his wife. However, if he impregnated her and gave her a child, especially if it were a male child, he would lose both the primogeniture and the double portion of the inheritance from their father Judah.

A bit of simple math shows that assuming Judah fathered no more children, this would cut Onan’s inheritance from two-thirds to one-fourth of his father’s total wealth when his father died. And of course, it would deprive Onan of the primogeniture, or leadership of the clan, which would otherwise pass to him because his elder brother would have had no heir.

(Additional source for the above: Jewish Encyclopedia -> Inheritance (“yerusbah,” “naḥalah”) -> Levirate Connections.)

The sin of Onan, then, for which the Lord punished him with death, was that of going through the motions of obeying the law of levirate marriage in order to obtain his deceased brother’s property, but not actually performing his duty under that law—the duty of providing an heir for his brother—in order keep for himself both the primogeniture and the inheritance of a double portion of the wealth of their father Judah.

Short version: Onan made a pretense of following the levirate law, but in fact shirked his obligations to his family and clan under the law, all from motives of greed and desire for power.

In other words, the story of Onan’s sin in Genesis 38:6–11 has absolutely nothing to do with masturbation. Those who read it that way do not understand the story or the culture in which it took place.

So if you hear someone using the word “onanism” as a synonym for masturbation, you can safely ignore anything they say on the subject. They don’t know what they’re talking about.

Heavy burdens

The reality is that the Bible is nowhere near as puritanical as many Christian preachers are.

Yes, the Bible forbids adultery. And yes, the Bible generally frowns on extramarital sex. But it is also quite pragmatic about the fact that humans are going to engage in sex. Once again, please see the article, “Is Sex Before Marriage Forbidden in the Bible?

If that’s so, then why do so many Christian churches and preachers say that masturbation is a sin?

The general answer seems to be that traditional Christianity has major hangups about sex. There’s really not any other explanation for the fact that traditional Christianity puts far heavier strictures on sex than the Bible itself does. I am reminded of Jesus’ words about the religious leaders of his day:

They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. (Matthew 23:4)

The fact is that the Bible does not forbid masturbation, and there’s no good reason for Christian churches and leaders to forbid it, either.

Does masturbation damage your health?

Over the centuries, many wild and crazy theories have been circulated about masturbation. Alarming claims have been made that masturbation leads to blindness, impotence, insanity, and many other physical and mental problems.

These claims have scared many people into not masturbating, or into masturbating with fear and trepidation, hoping that they are not irreparably harming themselves.

There’s just one thing:

All of these claims are false.

Of course, anything done to excess or done recklessly can cause physical and mental problems. Masturbation can cause some problems if it is done obsessively. And masturbation is not as beneficial to our physical and emotional health as a mutually loving sex with a partner is. Masturbation should not be seen as a substitute for healthy, mutually loving sex in a committed relationship (ideally a marriage), if that is available. Still, even happily married people commonly masturbate as one part of their overall sex life.

If you are concerned about the possible health effects of masturbation, please read these articles to allay your fears:

There is plenty of good information about masturbation available. The best antidote to the old, archaic fear and hysteria about masturbation is to educate yourself about it.

Don’t pay any attention to old religious manuscripts whose purpose was to scare people into obedience to church-imposed rules that had no basis in the Bible. Read good, contemporary, scientifically sound material on masturbation, such as some the references above, and leave your unfounded fears behind.

Is masturbation a sin?

Q: Is masturbation a sin?

A: Only if you believe it is.

The Bible does not forbid masturbation. In fact, as pointed out above, the Bible says nothing at all about masturbation. So if anyone tells you that the Bible says masturbation is a sin—even if it’s a Christian priest or minister—they simply don’t know what they’re talking about. There is no basis in the Christian Scriptures for churches and clergy to condemn masturbation as a sin.

However, if you believe that masturbation is evil and a sin, then you may have a problem.

Whenever we violate our own conscience it causes us spiritual and psychological distress. If you believe that masturbation is a sin and you do it anyway, the harm to your spiritual and emotional self is not caused by the masturbation itself, but by your belief that it is a sin, and the resulting violation of your conscience.

Masturbation will not hurt you if you do it as one part of an overall healthful life and lifestyle. But if you have unfounded religious fears about masturbation being a sin, and have fears about your health based on old wives’ tales about the “harmful effects” of masturbation, it will cause you a whole lot of unnecessary angst and suffering.

It can be very difficult to leave behind moral and spiritual beliefs that have been inculcated into us from our youth. I can only suggest that if you have been taught that masturbation is a sin, look into it for yourself. Read the Bible and satisfy yourself that the Bible does not, in fact, forbid masturbation. Educate yourself about the scientific and social facts on masturbation.

In time, you will gain a more healthy and realistic picture of masturbation. Then you can make your own decisions about whether, how, and how often to masturbate.

As Jesus said,

You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free. (John 8:32)

Masturbation: a normal, healthy outlet for sexual drives and feelings

Humans, like the rest of the animal kingdom, have natural, biological sex drives. Biologically, this is how the species is reproduced, and continues generation after generation. There is nothing wrong with having sexual urges and desires. It’s a normal, healthy part of being human.

The Bible also tells us that God made us male and female in the beginning so that we could be united with our partner. For more on the spiritual side of marriage and sexuality, see: How does Marriage Fit In with a Spiritual Life? Is There Marriage in Heaven?

Ideally, we would find our true spiritual partner and marry that person in early adulthood. But things don’t always work out that way. And just because we don’t happen to have a sexual partner, that doesn’t mean our physical desire and emotional longing for sexual contact will cease.

There are various ways to deal with the gap between when we can be sexually active in a committed relationship and when we start having sexual feelings and drives—not to mention times in adulthood when we are not in a committed relationship. Masturbation is one of the most healthful and morally sound ways. It does not violate the Biblical law against adultery, nor does it violate any Biblical strictures against fornication. And it is not possible to get a sexually transmitted disease from masturbation.

Of course, many teenage boys and grown men have sexual dreams resulting in “nocturnal emissions,” popularly known as “wet dreams.” Girls and women also experience sexual dreams. That’s one way that our natural sexual drives can be satisfied if we do nothing else.

But what are some of the other possibilities?

  • Casual sex with short-term or one-time partners
  • Having a girlfriend or boyfriend for sex with no real emotional connection
  • Using the services of prostitutes
  • Engaging in adulterous relationships with married men or women
  • Married people engaging in adulterous relationships with other sexual partners

None of these is particularly healthy or satisfying. And they can cause real damage to our emotional and spiritual wellbeing. Yet people commonly resort to all of these, and to other equally unhealthy outlets, in order to satisfy their sexual drives.

Masturbation, by contrast, has none of the damaging social and spiritual effects of these sorts of practices. And it has none of the risks of sexually transmitted disease that promiscuous and adulterous sexual relationships do.

Even if you aren’t convinced that masturbation is a good thing (as most health professionals today believe it is), consider this: it’s a lot better than many of the alternatives.

If you can’t help feeling a little guilty about masturbating, consider what you could be doing to satisfy your sexual drives. At least you’re not sleeping around and having casual sex in which there is no commitment, no real connection, and no future.

Masturbation is not evil, but good

So relax. You’re not going to go to hell for masturbating. And assuming you do it in a healthy, balanced way, you’re not going to cause any physical or mental harm to yourself either.

God knows that we humans have sexual drives. After all, God is the one who gave them to us. And God is not concerned about a practice that the majority of the people in the world engage in either occasionally or regularly as part of a normal, healthy sex life.

That’s why the Bible does not say one word about masturbation, let alone forbid it. In fact, masturbation helps us not to engage in adulterous and promiscuous relationships that the Bible frowns upon. In other words, masturbation can be a real help to us in keeping our sexual drives flowing along healthier channels than they otherwise might. And in that sense, masturbation is a good thing spiritually.

So no, masturbation is not a sin.

Masturbation is a normal, healthy way to satisfy sexual desires when we are not in a loving, committed relationship (ideally a marriage), and even as part of the mix within a healthy, committed, sexually active relationship.

It’s really your own choice.

This article is a response to three spiritual conundrums submitted by readers.

For follow-up articles, see:

  1. Can You Masturbate Without Lusting? What about Matthew 5:27-30?
  2. Is Masturbation Always Sinful? Does it Always Come from Lust?
  3. How Imagination and Fantasy Help our Spiritual Growth

For further reading:

About

Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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Posted in Sex Marriage Relationships
4 comments on “What does the Bible Say about Masturbation? Is Masturbation a Sin?
  1. Hi Lee,

    Thanks for the article. I tend to agree with you. Masturbation seems to be practical outlet for one’s sex drive. Since I come from a more conservative background, the typically verse used to make a case against masturbation is the one in Matthew where Jesus is warns that lusting after a woman is the same as adultery. So the argument is made: “Can you masturbate without lusting?” I would be curious if you have any thoughts on that particular verse since I have heard it used more often than the passage with Onan.

    David

  2. larryzb says:

    This is a very well thought out treatment of the subject. Conservative Christians need to read it and carefully consider it.

    Considering the alternatives, masturbation is a better, safer, less harmful outlet to be sure.

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