Several Spiritual Conundrums have been submitted to Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life in recent months on the subject of pornography. Here are some of them. First from a reader named Tom:
I have a question I would like answered. Is porn considered sin in the Bible? Or is it just based on whether or not the star you are looking at is married, homosexual (I’m straight btw), or if you get addicted to it or not?
And from “newbeliever”:
I struggle with a desire to look at pornography, as well as to read erotic stories and to masturbate. Now, I cannot tell if all of these three things are related. Could any of those things possibly be okay, and under what circumstances? Because I believe that sexual desire is natural but not necessarily sinful, but lust is sinful, and I have trouble distinguishing between the two. Could masturbation be a way of staving off temptations to lust? Could doing things with my girlfriend function in a similar way?
When there is a temptation to sin, God always gives you a way out. Therefore, if I ever sin, it is by choice. I struggle because I feel as though if I ever look at porn, though I would try to choose not to, because I gave into temptation and could have done otherwise, God will not forgive my sexual immorality, as He seems to judge sexual immorality more harshly than some other forms of immorality (1 Corinthians 6:18).
And from a reader named Johnny:
my name is Johnny.. am a practising Christian.. but when I went to high school.. I became a porn addict and later end up in masturbation.. so one day a pastor came to our school, and started to praying to people. after a while he said that the holy spirit showed him that someone is struggling with masturbation.. so he wanted that person to come to the alter to be prayed for. I was really troubled and I refused to go to the altar. is that blaspheming the holy spirit?
The Holy Spirit revealed to a pastor that in a room full of teenagers, someone is struggling with masturbation? No way!
On that subject, please see, “What does the Bible Say about Masturbation? Is Masturbation a Sin?” About blaspheming the Holy Spirit, see: “What is the Unpardonable Sin? Am I Doomed?”
And about “doing things with my girlfriend,” please see: “Is Sex Before Marriage Forbidden in the Bible?”
Now it’s time to answer the question everyone’s asking:
Q: What does the Bible say about pornography?
The Bible says nothing about pornography
Yes, that’s right. The Bible doesn’t say anything at all about pornography.
That’s because in Bible times, the concept of pornography didn’t exist.
Yes, in ancient times there were statues of nude male and female figures in public places in some cultures, and statuettes of fertility goddesses were fairly common as well. But these had more to do with beauty, power, and fertility than with sexual arousal. In ancient times, fertility was a big issue. Having many children was critical to the survival of one’s family and clan. And if a clan’s livestock became infertile, that could spell starvation and death for the clan.
Further, photography and video hadn’t been invented, so there was no way to distribute sexually explicit material far and wide as there is today.
In short, the Bible couldn’t possibly say anything about pornography because pornography didn’t exist in Bible times. So if you hear people saying that the Bible condemns pornography, you can safely ignore them because they don’t know what they’re talking about.
Is pornography good or evil?
Does that mean there’s nothing wrong with pornography?
I didn’t say that!
Unfortunately, sex is a highly charged issue in some religious circles, just as it is in much of society generally. That’s at least partly because some of our most primeval human drives and needs revolve around our sexuality—drives and needs that are often difficult to control and to channel in a healthy direction. Our sexuality strikes close to our very identity as human beings.
And pornography has become so charged an issue that it’s hard even to have a rational conversation about it. It tends to devolve into a highly black and white discussion in which there is nothing but pure evil on the one side and pure good on the other—and nothing in between.
Ironically, pornography is one of the few issues on which conservative Christians and ardent feminists can agree. They both think that pornography is evil, evil, evil—though for different reasons:
- Conservative Christians believe that people who use pornography are committing terrible sexual sins that will send them straight to hell.
- Many feminists believe that pornography is an integral part of a patriarchal, male-dominated culture of sexualizing, objectivizing, and oppressing women.
On the other side of the issue, there are those who proclaim that the human body and human sexuality are a powerfully beautiful part of nature and of God’s creation, and who believe that there is absolutely nothing wrong with viewing pictures and videos of the naked human body and of people engaging in sex with one another. In fact, they see erotica, as they prefer to call it, as a good and positive thing!
It is very difficult even to come up with a sound and sensible definition of pornography that doesn’t tar with the same negative brush many beautiful depictions of the human body and healthy human sexuality. “Pornography” is in the eye of the beholder—which prompted U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart to famously say, “I know it when I see it.”
If nothing else, the huge popularity of pornography in many cultures throughout the world is a testament to a vast army of lonely, sexually frustrated men and teenage boys—not to mention some women and teenage girls who are in the same boat.
Heat, light, and shades of gray
I don’t claim to be an expert on pornography. And no matter what I say about it, it’s likely that plenty of people on one side of the issue or the other are going to be upset.
However, as with other controversial issues that we have taken up by popular demand here on Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life, we’ll press on and attempt to cut through some of the black-and-white thinking and charged language, and take a more objective and more human look at pornography.
It’s an issue that millions of people, male and female, young and old, struggle with mightily. So let’s bring in some light on the subject so that we can tone down the heat and be a little more constructive and practical. If you are “struggling with a desire to look at pornography,” I can’t tell you how to live your life. But perhaps I can offer some thoughts that may help you make your own decisions and move in a positive direction.
And let’s start by recognizing that there are many shades of gray here. As an expression of our sexual drives, pornography is neither the worst nor the best. It doesn’t involve actual illicit sexual contact with another person. But it is also far from the ideal of mutual, loving sexual intimacy within a long-term, committed, faithful relationship. And the production of pornography involves a great deal of immorality and, yes, a lot of exploitation.
The use of pornography arises when our natural longing for sex and intimacy meets our widespread inability to find that sex and intimacy in a good and healthy relationship. And it can have very different results for different individuals who view it, depending on the circumstances and the choices each person makes.
First, let’s return to the Bible.
Lust, adultery, and pornography
When Christians want to expound upon the evils of pornography, they quote Bible passages such as this one:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27–28)
Here Jesus doesn’t talk about pornography but about adultery, and about a man lusting after a woman in his heart as a form of adultery.
The Greek word here translated “lust” means to burn with passion. This is not a mere aesthetic appreciation of a woman’s beauty. It is an intense desire to have her, and to have sex with her. And it is not a mere fantasy about having sex with her. It is a powerful drive to actually have sex with her if at all possible.
The strong word Jesus uses here makes it clear that he is not talking about a man having fleeting fantasies of having sex with an attractive woman that he sees passing by. Rather, he’s talking about a driving desire that will result in a man actually having sex with a woman if he can find—or make—an opportunity to do so.
In short, Matthew 5:27–28 is talking about the type of burning inner desire that will cause us to actually commit adultery if we can. If we have that kind of desire, then as Jesus says, we have already committed adultery in our heart. It is from that burning desire in our heart that adultery comes.
Adultery vs. marriage
As covered more fully in the article, “Is Sex Before Marriage Forbidden in the Bible?” Jesus’ primary concern, and the primary concern of the entire Bible, is to forbid us from committing adultery. Any thoughts and desires that would lead us to go ahead and commit adultery are also forbidden, precisely because they do lead us to commit adultery.
Adultery is having sex when one or more of the participants is married to someone else.
That’s what the Bible primarily condemns. And as explained in the article linked just above, although the Bible does generally frown upon extramarital sex that isn’t adultery, there is actually no clear commandment against non-adulterous extramarital sex in the Bible.
From a biblical perspective, then, the primary question to ask about any sexual activity is whether it is adulterous, or drives us toward committing adultery. To ask the same question in a different way:
- Does a particular sexual or sex-related activity lead us away from honoring marriage and toward violating marriage?
- Or does it provide a possible path toward honoring marriage, and away from violating marriage?
This is the question we must ask about pornography, as well as erotic literature, and the various ways it is used.
And when we look at this question about pornography, we find that it simply isn’t a black and white issue. Rather, it does occupy a gray area between our desire for sex, intimacy, and love, and our inability to find and enjoy these things at the present time within a committed, faithful, monogamous relationship.
The reality is that our natural, biological sex drive does not wait patiently for some future time. It drives us to satisfy its desires now. And if it is put off too long, it will push us into some kind of activity in order to satisfy that drive.
The question is, what kind of activity?
Perhaps a few mystical souls are able to sublimate their sexual desires into spiritual contemplation. But most people who think they can do this are only fooling themselves. The vast majority of humankind is going to engage in some sort of sexual activity, whether healthy or unhealthy.
That powerful, impatient, God-given sex drive
Consider this. The very first commandment God gave to the male and female human beings that God had just created was:
Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it. (Genesis 1:28)
And how do we humans go about being fruitful and multiplying?
By having sex!
So the very first commandment God gives to us humans in the Bible is that we must have sex in order to reproduce ourselves.
This gives us an idea of just how basic our sex drive is to our existence as human beings. And the modern science of biology fully confirms that not only for humans, but for every animal species on earth, the drive to reproduce is the most powerful drive there is, even eclipsing the individual survival instinct.
It is not unusual for male animals to die in the attempt to mate with available females. And it is not unusual for female animals to die in the attempt to protect their offspring from predators.
I recently watched a mother bird repeatedly fly right into oncoming auto traffic in an attempt to ward it away from her baby, which was haltingly and very dangerously walking across a busy four-lane road. (Miraculously, the baby bird did narrowly escape with its life. And the mother did avoid getting hit.)
Clearly the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” is not one that God takes lightly. And pursuant to that commandment, God has embedded in the very fiber of our being a powerful, often overpowering, drive and desire to have sex.
So for the vast majority of us human beings, the question isn’t whether we’re going to engage in sexual activity. It’s what sort of sexual activity we’re going to engage in.
What sort of sexual activity?
The ideal is to engage in mutually loving sex within a long-term, committed marriage relationship. (See: “How does Marriage Fit In with a Spiritual Life? Is There Marriage in Heaven?”)
Unfortunately, for many people that isn’t one of the current options.
- In many cultures, marriage isn’t even allowed until at least five or six years after puberty, when our sex drive kicks in.
- Even when the culture does allow us to get married, many of us don’t find a suitable and willing partner, or if we do, social and financial circumstances make marriage difficult, if not impossible.
- Far too many people who do get married find themselves in a relationship where either there was no mutual love in the first place, or love quickly dies, and the sex life along with it.
- And even within marriages in which there is love, various physical and psychological circumstances sometimes make normal, healthy sexual relations difficult or impossible.
These are only a few of the many reasons why many people don’t have the ideal form of sexual activity available to them in the present moment. And no matter how often religious leaders tell us to WAIT, unfortunately that is simply not how the human animal works. For most people, attempting to suppress all sexual desire and all sexual activity until it can be done in the ideal way, under the ideal circumstances, is neither realistic nor workable.
Now don’t get me wrong. For those few people who are able to do that, it’s a wonderful thing!
But everyone else must wade into that gray area between our powerful, God-given desire for love, sex, and intimacy, and the reality that right at the moment, and for the foreseeable future, the ideal of sex within a loving, committed marriage relationship is not available.
This means that for the vast majority of actual flesh-and-blood human beings, some alternative to the ideal will be necessary for at least some part of their lives.
And so, once again, the question most people face for at least some part of their lives is: Given that the ideal isn’t available, what sort of sexual activity am I going to engage in?
And the best general answer to that question is: The sort of sexual activity that is least damaging to achieving and experiencing a loving, committed, faithful, monogamous marriage in the future.
In other words: The color white (loving marriage) is currently out of stock. The color black (adultery) is a very bad option. So what’s the best shade of gray currently in stock that keeps white available as a future option?
Looking at pornography from this perspective is much more useful and pragmatic than either condemning it as a terrible, horrible evil that will send a person straight to hell or proclaiming that there’s nothing at all wrong with pornography, and we can consume it with abandon.
Pornography is a business
First, let’s consider pornography itself from a pragmatic perspective.
People who view pornography usually do it for sexual stimulation. That’s what makes it pornography.
But people who produce pornography almost always do it to make money.
To understand pornography, it is necessary to understand that pornography is a business. Both the people in front of the camera and the people behind the camera are in it for the money.
What we see when we view pornography is not people making love. And it is certainly not people who are in love with one another. Some pornography manages to come close to looking like the people in it are making love—especially with the rise of pornography produced by women, and even the phenomenon of feminist pornography.
But no matter how skillfully pornographic scenes are produced, and no matter what ideas—or even ideals—are behind it, pornography is still a business, and the people producing it are still doing it to make money.
At best, the performers in pornographic photos and videos are full adults who have chosen to make their career and their living in pornography. There are even trade organizations devoted to ensuring good working conditions and wages for workers in the porn industry. And a large class of pornography doesn’t even require the performers to engage in actual sex, but only to display their bodies in sexually enticing positions and motions.
At worst in legal pornography, the subjects are teenagers just over the legal age who are desperate for money and are lured into pornography as a “quick and easy” source of cash—only to be dumped out on the street as soon as sleazy porn producers have squeezed every bit of exposure, sexual use and abuse, and humiliation out of them, and have moved on to next fresh-faced legal-aged teenager.
And then there is the truly black side of pornography involving actual (not just simulated) coercion, or young children, or teens who are minors, or any number of other shady, illegal, and highly destructive practices. Society rightly condemns this sort of pornography. Those caught producing and consuming it are subject to severe penalties. In particular, child pornography by its very nature violates the integrity and rights of minors who are not yet of an age to give consent. Like statutory rape and child sexual abuse, it causes terrible long-term damage to the psyche of its victims.
But the common denominator in nearly all porn is that people are in it to make money. They’re doing it as a business, whether legal or illegal.
Many conclusions could be drawn from this. For our purposes, the main thing to understand is:
Pornography is not a realistic depiction of loving, healthy sex and sexual relationships.
Pornography is fantasy, not reality
People who think they are going to learn about love and sex from pornography are deceiving themselves. What they’re getting instead is a money-driven depiction of sexual poses, sexualized dances, and sexual situations that various groups of people find erotic to fantasize about.
And fantasy is not reality.
In real life, good and satisfying sexual relations require building a relationship with one’s partner. In real life, loving sex is the expression of mutual love between two people. And it becomes more loving and more satisfying the more the love grows and deepens between the two people.
Pornography, on the other hand, is all about short term, uncommitted, shallow sex. It’s about depicting sexual fantasies that have little or nothing to do with the actual love life of real-life happy couples. The people who consume pornography are drawn to it precisely because they are not engaged in a healthy, satisfying sex life. Who needs pictures and videos when they have the reality? And what porn producer would try to record or even to simulate the love life of a happily married couple? Not one who wants to make any money.
So don’t confuse pornography with love, or with making love. Pornography does have its appeal to many people. And as we’ll discuss below, it even has its uses. But it does not depict real, deep, romantic and sexual relationships. The same goes for most of the popular erotic literature out there.
Pornography gives a false, distorted picture of love and sex that can make it more difficult to form a real romantic and sexual relationship with a real person.
Because it fills people’s heads with unrealistic fantasies about sex that must be unlearned before it is possible to build a real, mutual, and satisfying sexual relationship with an actual human being.
If you do view pornography, keep in mind that what you’re seeing is people engaging in sex for money. And they’re making money by depicting sexual fantasies. You are not seeing people making love with one another. And you are certainly not seeing what goes on in a healthy, long-term romantic relationship.
All of this is contained in the very derivation of the word “pornography.” It comes from two Greek words, porneia, “prostitution” and graphein, “to write or to record.” Prostitution is engaging in sex for money. And pornography is a “written” version of prostitution—which these days especially means a photographic or video version of prostitution. It is displaying one’s body in sexual poses and motions and engaging in sexual acts for others to view, for the purpose of making money.
Is that wrong?
You can decide that for yourself.
The point here is that pornography is a business, whose purpose is to make money.
And incidentally, pornography is nowhere near as big a business as many people think it is. Compared to the major entertainment industries such as broadcast and cable television and the mainstream movie industry, it is a mere bit player. See: “How Big Is Porn?” by Dan Ackman, at Forbes.com.
Please don’t confuse pornography with reality.
Is pornography evil?
We’ve already established that the Bible doesn’t say anything about pornography. But it does say a lot about evil, sin, fornication, and adultery. So we must use our thinking minds to decide how pornography fits in with these biblical and spiritual issues.
Here are the basic principles that can help us to do so:
- Adultery is absolutely prohibited in the Bible, and is a great moral and spiritual evil.
- Promiscuity is greatly discouraged in the Bible, and is a lesser moral and spiritual evil.
- Faithful, committed, monogamous marriage is the ideal and the goal morally and spiritually.
- Other sexual activities are better or worse depending on whether they lead toward marriage or toward adultery and promiscuity.
So is pornography evil and sinful?
Clearly from a spiritual perspective pornography is not good. It is far from the ideal of loving, committed, faithful, monogamous marriage relationships. Though not necessarily adulterous, it does involve a lot of promiscuity in its production. And in its consumption it involves non-marital or extramarital sexual thoughts, feelings, and, ahem, other activities.
Certainly, then, pornography as it is commonly produced and used is tinged with evil, even if it does not necessarily violate what is absolutely prohibited in the Bible—which is adultery. So as for whether pornography is evil, the most we can say is, “Yes, but as most commonly produced and used, it is not the worst evil.”
The scale of sexual evil
Pornography does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, it exists on a scale of human sexual activity from very good to very evil. Even if we do think of pornography as tinged with evil, we have to weigh it against the other possibilities for dealing with the not entirely resistible sexual urges that God has put into us by nature—and that we can’t always satisfy in the best way now or in the foreseeable future.
For people with ordinary to strong sexual drives, here are some possible ways of satisfying them when sex within a healthy, loving marriage relationship isn’t possible:
- Do nothing, and let sexual dreams and nocturnal emissions take care of the job.
- Masturbate as needed to satisfy one’s need for sexual release.
- Engage in sex with a single partner in a faithful unmarried relationship.
- Engage in casual sex with multiple partners, one after another.
- Engage in casual sex with multiple partners at the same time.
- Pay a prostitute for sex, and always go to the same prostitute.
- Pay many different prostitutes for sex.
- Engage in a consensual adulterous relationship with a married woman or man.
- Engage in multiple consensual adulterous relationships with many different people.
- Rape people through the use of blackmail, violence, or the threat of violence, or when they are too drunk or drugged to consent or resist.
Clearly there is a scale of non-marital sexual activity from very mild through horribly evil and destructive—though different people may arrange that scale in different ways.
Here are the key questions to ask about pornography:
- Where does it fit on the scale of mild to evil non-marital sexual activities?
- How does it function in relation to the other possible releases of sexual energy?
Pornography on the scale of sexual evil
The primary purpose of pornography is to provide sexual stimulation. And it is very commonly used to provide visuals and fantasies to accompany masturbation. Yes, there are other uses. Some of them are better, some are worse. But in the main, pornography and masturbation tend to go hand-in-hand.
And where does masturbation fall on the scale of sexual evil? Masturbation does not involve actual sex with another person, nor does it have any harmful effects if done in moderation as needed to satisfy one’s sexual urges. Masturbation is therefore one of the most benign, non-evil ways there is to satisfy sexual desires for which a person has no healthier outlet. (See: “What does the Bible Say about Masturbation? Is Masturbation a Sin?”)
Of course, it’s not necessary to use pornography in order to masturbate. But men, especially, are visual creatures when it comes to sex. And women can and do enjoy a sexy body also.
Yes, many women and teenage girls do turn to erotic stories and sexually explicit “romance” novels instead. Many romance novels, with their narrative formula of long, teasing buildups to steamy, highly explicit sex scenes are calibrated to the sexual rhythms of women. Men and teenage boys may also go for erotic stories—though usually ones that skip the long buildup and move quickly to the explicit sex.
Still, it’s inevitable that many males and some females are going to want visuals when they masturbate.
That’s where pornography comes in.
Functionally, pornography is most commonly used as an aid to sexual self-stimulation when a sexual partner is unavailable. Or it is used when a person would prefer not to get sexually involved with a girlfriend or boyfriend for social, moral, or spiritual reasons.
And that’s why pornography, though tinged with evil, does not necessarily form paving stones for the broad, downhill road toward hell.
It can instead provide a detour away from that slippery slope by providing for sexual release that, while certainly not the ideal, at least doesn’t involve actual promiscuous or adulterous sexual relations with a flesh and blood human being.
Is the use of pornography purely innocent? No. Someone had to expose themselves sexually or engage in promiscuous or adulterous sex in order to produce that pornography. Pornography is tinged with evil—and some of it is very evil.
But we humans are not perfect beings. Not a single one of us is capable of living a sinless life. This is not to excuse sin when we could very well not sin. But as I said earlier, our sexual drives are some of the most powerful desires in us—and some of the most difficult to tame and direct into a completely healthy course.
So in the real world, real human beings must make choices about where to direct these powerful sexual drives and desires. And although pornography is certainly not the best direction in an absolute sense, for those with a normal to strong sex drive (which is most people), it might be the best available choice.
Yes, but isn’t pornography a sin?
Perhaps you are with me so far. And perhaps not.
But even if you are, you may still be thinking, “Yes, but isn’t pornography a sin? If it’s even tinged with evil, we shouldn’t use it, right?”
First, we need to distinguish between evil and sin.
Evil and sin are two distinct things. Evil is anything that causes harm in any away. Sin is intentionally doing things that we know are harmful and against God’s will. That’s why Jesus said:
If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see,” your sin remains. (Matthew 9:41)
The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. (Luke 12:47–48)
In other words, sin is not an absolute standard. It depends on what we know and believe to be wrong. (For more on the meaning of evil and sin based on the Bible, please see: God, Forgiveness, Freedom, and Hell – Part 4.)
If you strongly believe that viewing pornography is evil and sinful, and harmful to yourself and others, I would strongly advise you not to view pornography. If you do, you will be violating your conscience, which is never a good thing. Sin could be defined as violating our conscience—which is God’s voice in us telling us what is right and wrong.
Remember how I said, “Pornography is in the eye of the beholder”? Well, pornography is sinful for us when we believe that it is sinful based on our understanding of God’s commandments. And if God is telling you that pornography is evil and sinful, then you should definitely pay attention to that.
If you don’t think pornography is evil and sinful, then you will not be violating your conscience by viewing it. It will therefore not cause the spiritual anguish for you that it does for people who have had it drilled into their heads that pornography is terribly sinful.
Further, many young people view pornography because they have a natural, hormone-driven fascination with sex and the human body, and they want to see what it’s all about. Of course, pornography is not the best way to learn about human sexuality. However, since there are still many cultural taboos about sex and the naked human body, it is inevitable that curious adolescents are going to find out about these things wherever they can. If it’s just a passing fascination, and they move on once their curiosity has been satisfied, then there’s little real and lasting harm from this common phase of viewing pornography, reading explicit stories, and so on.
For people who do continue to view pornography and read erotic stories, and don’t believe it’s sinful, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s completely innocent and not at all evil. As pointed out earlier, pornography and erotic literature are fantasy, not reality. Even for people who think there’s nothing wrong with consuming them, these fantasies can skew attitudes toward sex and intimacy, making it more difficult to engage in a healthy sexual relationship with a real, flesh-and-blood human being.
So is pornography a sin?
It is if we believe it’s a sin. And even if we don’t believe it’s a sin, it can still cause problems.
What if you can’t stop viewing pornography?
And yet, for many people that’s all academic. They find themselves irresistibly drawn to pornography.
If that’s your situation, it may be time to switch strategies.
And if you feel terribly guilty about it, and are constantly beating yourself up for continuing to view pornography, it may be time to make some modest adjustments to your conscience. Remember, the Bible doesn’t actually say that pornography is a sin. So we must use the thinking minds that God gave us to come to some reasonable conclusion about it.
According to the Bible, the only person who ever lived a sinless life was Jesus Christ (see Hebrews 4:14–15). Once again, this is not an excuse to sin. But it should prompt us to have the humility to recognize that not a single one of us is going to live a perfect life. We are going to do things that aren’t very good, and even some things that are definitely evil.
The real question is: Which direction are we going? Are we going toward what is good or toward what is evil? Are we moving toward heaven or toward hell?
Pornography is not very good. But it is also not the worst sort of evil. It inhabits a gray area between our drive and desire for sexual intimacy and the common situation in which this is not available to us within a healthy, committed marital relationship.
If you’re losing the battle to completely avoid pornography, then it may be time to switch strategies. It may be time to recognize that at this point in your life, pornography isn’t going to go away entirely—but that you can still work to move your irresistible sexual energy in a better direction, and away from worse directions. We’ll get back to that in a minute.
The Bible on sexual immorality
If you find yourself unable to resist viewing pornography no matter how hard you try, then it might be time to start thinking in terms of the scale of evil rather than trying to adhere to some humanly impossible standard of absolute good.
The Bible is nowhere near as black and white about sexual immorality as conservative Christians often claim it is. And those conservative Christians commonly support such claims by quoting Bible verses completely out of context.
For example, speaking of 1 Corinthians 6:18, a few verses earlier Paul says:
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” (1 Corinthians 6:15–16)
It is in this context that Paul goes on to say:
Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. (1 Corinthians 6:18)
What Paul is focused on here is avoiding and shunning sex with prostitutes. In other words, he’s telling us not to actually commit sexual immorality by having sexual intercourse with people we shouldn’t have sexual intercourse with.
And no, sexual sins aren’t judged more harshly than other sins unless they’re actually worse than other sins. Sleeping with a girlfriend when neither of you is married, which is not forbidden in the Ten Commandments, will not be judged more harshly than murdering or committing adultery or stealing, which are forbidden in the Ten Commandments. And masturbation isn’t forbidden in the Bible at all (see “What does the Bible Say about Masturbation? Is Masturbation a Sin?”), so it makes no sense to say that it is going to be judged more harshly than sins that are repeatedly condemned in the Bible.
Pornography, also, is not forbidden in the Bible. So will it really be judged more harshly than murder and theft? The Bible’s commandments and statements about sexual immorality are aimed especially at serious sexual immorality, such as adultery, rape, and using the services of prostitutes.
Pornography, while not good, isn’t anywhere near as bad as sleeping with prostitutes, committing adultery, committing rape, and so on. And for those religious people who highly value remaining a virgin until marriage, pornography should at least be considered a lesser offense than having sexual intercourse before marriage.
It all hinges on recognizing that evil is not black and white, but that there is a scale of evil, from lesser to greater—and that this scale applies to sexual evils just as it does to every other kind of evil.
God recognizes that we are not going to be perfectly sinless. So in the Bible God steers us away from the worst and most damaging evil and sinful desires and actions such as adultery, rape, and prostitution. And God does this by moving us progressively upward on the scale of evil toward what is good.
Pornography can be a hedge against greater sexual evil
That’s where pornography comes in.
Here’s the deal: if pornography is used in moderation as a visual aid to masturbation and sexual release, then it can actually help people to avoid greater sexual evils.
This is not to say that using pornography is good. Rather, it’s saying that it can serve as a hedge against committing sexual sins that are flat-out forbidden in the Bible. For people who are strongly committed to remaining a virgin before marriage, it can even help to satisfy and release sexual drives without actually having sex with a girlfriend or boyfriend.
This is not a license to view pornography with abandon. The idea is not to let yourself loose, but to provide a necessary outlet for your sexual drives and desires so that your pent-up sexual energy doesn’t break out into worse sexual activities.
The key is keeping your mind and heart focused on the ultimate goal of being in a faithful, monogamous, loving marriage; and at the same time keeping your mind and heart turned away from adultery, promiscuous sex, and other serious violations of marriage and monogamy.
In short, if you view pornography, it should be with the clear understanding that it is a necessary evil in order to keep yourself away from serious violations of marriage and monogamy.
You’ll have to figure out exactly how to accomplish this difficult balancing act as you go along. But here are a few suggestions:
- Don’t view pornography hour after hour. If nothing else, it’s a massive waste of time! View pornography only enough to release your sexual energy through masturbation.
- Avoid the sleazier, more sordid forms of pornography. Steer yourself toward healthier and more positive depictions of sexuality and the human body involving full, consenting adults.
- Take up a hobby. Join a gym or an activities club. Volunteer at a local charity. If you have extra time on your hands, find something positive to do with it. Get together with other people who enjoy the same activities you do. As the old saying goes, “Idle hands are the Devil’s playthings.”
- And finally, once you do have a healthy outlet for your sexual drives and desires within a committed, faithful relationship, leave the porn behind. Focus on loving your partner instead.
Remember, the idea is to keep your sexual drives and desires reasonably satisfied in the least damaging way possible for you until you can satisfy them within a loving, committed, and ideally married relationship.
You may not be able to completely control your sexual drives. You may not be able to avoid pornography entirely. But you can exert your will to gradually turn yourself away from worse forms of sexual immorality and toward ones that aren’t so bad, until you can achieve a good and healthy sex life within the sacred bonds of marriage. Don’t be too worried if you slip up from time to time. Just pick yourself up and get yourself moving in the right direction again.
Think of your sex drive as a massive ocean-going ship such as an oil tanker, a container ship, or the Queen Mary 2. You can’t turn those things on a dime. When a huge ship is going full speed ahead and the captain commands, “Right full rudder!” the first thing that happens is almost nothing. The ship keeps right on going in the same direction. It only gradually turns—and a full turn can take ten or fifteen minutes, and cover a distance of well over a mile. That’s why even when the Titanic’s crew saw the iceberg dead ahead, they couldn’t steer the ship away in time to avoid hitting it.
Your sexual drives are going to take a lot longer to turn around. You may have to keep your ship at right full rudder for months, years, or even decades to finally get yourself going in the direction you want. Don’t expect quick and easy results. Stick with it, and gradually steer yourself away from the icebergs and shoals of more serious sexual misbehavior, and toward the clear waters of a hoped-for future loving marriage relationship.
This article is a response to several spiritual conundrums submitted by readers.
For further reading:
- If You Think You’re Going to Hell, Please Read This First
- What does the Bible Say about Masturbation? Is Masturbation a Sin?
- Can You Masturbate Without Lusting? What about Matthew 5:27-30?
- Is Sex Before Marriage Forbidden in the Bible?
- How to Attract the Opposite Sex—and Keep ’Em
- Beyonce and Jay-Z Reveal the Secret: How to Start a Lasting Marriage
- How does Marriage Fit In with a Spiritual Life? Is There Marriage in Heaven?