Levels of Gray

People who use scanners and monochromatic computer screens find that the quality and clarity of a picture is better when it is displayed in many levels of gray than when it is displayed only in black and white. The more levels of gray there are in a gray scale display or print, the better the picture will be. I once scanned a photograph into a computer and it displayed very clearly on the computer monitor with 256 levels of gray. But when I printed it on a black and white printer, the whole picture turned black.

I believe our picture of marriage and adultery is similar. If we see everything in black and white terms—either as very good or very bad—our picture will not be as good as if we are able to distinguish many levels of gray. The ability to distinguish between mild sexual faults and serious adultery is crucial to getting a clear picture.

Otherwise the distinction between the more chaste and the less, and the more unchaste and the less, cannot stand out in a person’s idea. Without these distinctions, all relation between them is lost, and with this, all clear-sightedness in matters of judgment. The understanding is then involved in such shade that it does not know how to distinguish fornication from adultery, and still less the mild kinds of fornication, and likewise of adultery, from the grievous. Thus it mixes evils together, making from diverse evils one pottage, and from diverse goods one paste. (CL 444a, emphasis mine.)

What Happened at Sodom

I have sometimes heard New Church people say that homosexuality is the worst kind of adultery. Some people think that this is the teaching of the Writings. I am not aware of any passage in the Writings that says, “Homosexuality is the worst kind of adultery.” There is however a passage which refers obliquely to the evils of Sodom:

Although in the next chapter [Genesis 19] it seems as if Sodom means the evil that consists in the worst form of adultery, nevertheless nothing else is meant by it in the internal sense than evil that stems from self-love. (AC 2220)

Some people have assumed that what made the evil of Sodom the worst kind of adultery was that it involved homosexuality. Consequently, they jump to the conclusion that any kind of homosexuality is the worst kind of adultery. However, homosexuality is only one of several significant aspects of the behavior of the men of Sodom. If we look at what the Writings teach about different forms of adultery, we find other reasons for calling Sodom’s evil the worst form of adultery.

What Makes Adultery Really Bad

Three Kinds of Adultery

The Writings speak of three kinds of adultery. Simple adultery is when a married person has sex with an unmarried person. Double adultery is when a married person has sex with another married person. This is twice as bad, because two marriages are broken by it (CL 482). Triple adultery is with blood relations—incest. This kind of adultery is three times as bad as simple or double adultery (CL 484). The passage in Conjugial Love refers to Leviticus 18: 6-17, where the types of incest that are included involve parents, stepparents, siblings, half-siblings, grandchildren, aunts, uncles and in-laws. (Other verses in the same chapter in Leviticus condemn homosexuality, along with simple adultery, sexual intercourse during menstruation, bestiality and immolation of children. There is no indication that homosexuality should be included in the same category as incest.)

One of the reasons why what happened at Sodom was “the worst kind of adultery” was that it must have involved incest— “The men of Sodom, both old and young, all the people from every quarter.”

Four Degrees of Adultery

The Writings speak of four degrees of adultery, the first being the mildest and the fourth the worst (unlike our degrees of murder, where first degree murder is worst).

  1. Adultery from ignorance. Examples are adultery committed by someone who does not know that adultery is wrong or someone who is completely drunk at the time.
  2. Adultery from lust, when a person is overwhelmed by the heat of the moment, as for example, when a person is seduced.
  3. Adultery from reason, committed by those who rationalize away their evil and justify adultery as something good.
  4. Adultery from the will, committed by “those who make them allowable and pleasing and not of sufficient importance to merit consulting the understanding in respect to them,—making no judgment concerning adulteries as to whether they are evil or not.” (CL 492)

We cannot be certain of the degree of adultery committed by the men of Sodom, since we have very little evidence to go on, and we can’t fully know another’s intentions. We know that Lot tried to talk them out of acting so wickedly, and their response was, “Who is he to judge us?” This sounds to me like it might be adultery of the fourth degree.


The lust for violation or rape is one of four lusts, which are “in the highest degree destructive of conjugial love.” (CL 459) This lust for rape “recedes in consequence of consent, and is sharpened by refusal. It is a burning desire to violate any woman, whether virgin, widow, or wife, who absolutely refuses and resists with violence.” (CL 511) The men of Sodom wanted to rape the angels who came to Lot. When Lot gave some small consent for them to take his daughters instead, they weren’t interested. It is not perfectly clear whether their lack of interest in his daughters was because they were women or because there was a degree of consent on Lot’s part. I suspect both reasons may have been involved. In any case, their lust was certainly excited by Lot’s refusal. Swedenborg cautions us that few men are in this lust; not every man who is inappropriately forceful with a woman is in the lust for violation. Yet there seems to have been at least a degree of lust for violation displayed in the actions of the men of Sodom.

Group Sex

Conjugial love can only exist between one man and one woman. To the extent that sexual relationships are shared with more than one they become external and adulterous.

Love of the sex, being a love shared with many and in itself natural, yea, animal, is impure and unchaste; and being a roving and unlimited love, is scortatory. (CL 47)

Promiscuous premarital sex is worse than premarital sex limited to one woman (CL 459, 460). Taking a concubine while still sexually active with one’s wife is worse than taking a concubine after having separated (CL 463-467).

One of the four lusts, which are “in the highest degree destructive of conjugial love” is the lust for varieties (CL 459). People with an advanced lust for varieties “desire the women of all the world and troops of them, and think of the whole female sex as a common harlot” (CL 507). I suppose that if having many partners sequentially is destructive of conjugial love, then having many simultaneously is even more so.

It seems likely that one of the reasons why the evil of Sodom was great was that it involved group sex.

Homosexuality vs. the Evil of Sodom

I think it is clear both from the record in the Old Testament and from the teachings of the Writings that the evil of Sodom was the worst form of adultery. It involved not only homosexuality, but also rape, group sex and incest, apparently with deliberate intent. The term “Sodomy” has been used to denote all forms of homosexuality, but this is not a valid reason to conclude that what the Writings say about the evil of Sodom applies to all forms of homosexuality.

Kinds and Degrees of Homosexuality

All evils have various kinds and degrees (CL 478) similar to the kinds and degrees of adultery. With a little discernment we should be able to see how homosexuality can vary from a relatively mild problem to a very serious evil.

The Degrees of Adultery Applied to Homosexuality

The degrees of adultery described in Conjugial Love (485-496) refer to the degree of conscious intention that is involved in the adultery. These degrees would apply in a similar way to any kind of evil. Thus there would be four degrees of homosexuality:

  1. Homosexuality from ignorance
  2. Homosexuality from lust
  3. Homosexuality from reason
  4. Homosexuality from the will

So we could say that homosexuality is light if one does it from ignorance, or momentary lust, especially if it is not repeated or approved of afterwards. Homosexuality is worse if it is justified as being good, or if it is done from the will with no concern for whether it is good or evil.

Homosexuality Is Not Necessarily Adultery

The term “adultery” can be defined narrowly or broadly. In a broad sense adultery might include everything which undermines or shows disrespect for marriage, including pornography, sexual fantasy, masturbation, obscenity, premarital sex, concubinage, etc. We could add various kinds of spiritual adultery, such as using Scripture to justify evil actions. Such a broad definition may help us see how a faithful husband or wife can apply the commandment not to commit adultery. On the other hand, such a broad definition may lead us to the kind of black and white thinking that “makes one pottage of various evils.”

The Writings usually use the term “adultery” in a more strict sense that involves breaking a marriage covenant. For example, Swedenborg makes it clear that fornication or premarital sex may be immoral, but it is not adultery (CL 449, 445, 444a, cp. 482), because when both sexual partners are unmarried, no marriage covenant is broken.

From these teachings about premarital sex, we can conclude that homosexuality before marriage is not as harmful as homosexuality after marriage. To indiscriminately label all homosexuality as adultery might cause us to overlook this important distinction.

Homosexuality with Promiscuity, Rape, Incest or Seduction

By making comparisons with various other teachings about heterosexual immorality, we can draw some general conclusions about different kinds of homosexuality. The following table suggests some of the comparisons we might make.

Teaching about HeterosexualityConclusion about Homosexuality
Premarital sex limited to one is not as bad as promiscuous premarital sex (CL 456)Homosexuality with one partner is not as bad as homosexuality with many partners
Lust for rape is worse than simple adultery (CL 511)Homosexuality involving consenting adults is not as serious as homosexual rape
Incest is worse than simple adultery (CL 484)Homosexuality is worse if it involves incest.
Seducing innocent people is worse than simple adultery (CL 513)Homosexuality between consenting adults is less serious than when it involves seduction of innocent people.
Lust for defloration is worse than simple adultery (CL 501)Homosexuality is worse when it involves people who have not had prior sexual experiences, and when initial desire turns to contempt and loathing.

Evil Mixed with Good

A person may be predisposed to homosexuality because of hereditary evil or genetic factors. A person’s sexual outlook can be deeply influenced by childhood sexual experiences over which the person has no control.

Evil can become deeply rooted in a person without their complicity or fault. The Writings speak of two sources of actual evil that a person acquires to himself by a life of evil. “One is that he receives evil from others through no fault of his own; and the other is that he receives it of his own accord, thus through his own fault.” (AC 4171)

Swedenborg gives the example of someone who at first thinks his or her marriage is heavenly, but later becomes persuaded that marriage is a worldly contract that can be dissolved by mutual consent. Consequently the person loses the concept of heavenly marriage and lasciviousness results. (AC 4171.4) It seems to me that a person might similarly become persuaded that homosexuality is a valid alternative lifestyle, and as a result become homosexual through no fault of his own. As long as the person is not inwardly persuaded of it, the evil remains only in externals, and is the kind of evil through which good comes. (AC 4172)

The Writings say that hatred, cruelty, revenge and contempt cannot be mixed with good. Other evils that are not so opposed to love for God and others can be mixed with good. Love of self in particular is given as an example of an evil that can be mixed with good in its milder forms. (AC 3993.8) If homosexuality corresponds to love of self, as some passages suggest, then we might expect that a person who is homosexual, but is not cruel, vengeful or hateful, can have good mixed with his evil.

Other Factors

There are various other factors that may mitigate or aggravate the seriousness of homosexuality. For example, gender differences must be a factor in homosexuality. Men and women respond differently to sex. Some passages in the Writings can be taken to imply that premarital sex is worse for women than it is for men (see CL 503, 504, 459, 460). Certainly homosexuality with men is different from homosexuality with women (compare CL 55). I don’t know whether this difference makes homosexuality worse for one sex than for the other. Medically, gay men are at greater risk than lesbians. I don’t know which sex would be at greater risk psychologically and spiritually.

It could be argued that bisexuality is worse than homosexuality. A homosexual person might limit his or her sexual activities to one person, while a bisexual person does not. One might say that a person who is homosexual may feel unable to choose a heterosexual lifestyle, while a bisexual person has the ability to choose. A bisexual person does not have an aversion for the opposite sex, but perhaps it is better to be hot or cold than to be lukewarm. This issue is not very clear to me.

I don’t know how many other factors may be involved in understanding how mild or serious homosexuality is with an individual. Perhaps there are very important factors which I have not mentioned, or perhaps some I have misapplied some of these factors. Regardless of omissions and errors, it should be clear that there are many different kinds and levels of homosexuality, and it can be misleading to lump them all together.

Comparison with Polygamy

We may learn something about homosexuality by comparing it to polygamy. The Writings say some pretty serious things about polygamy. Polygamy is lascivious, makes conjugial purity, holiness and chastity impossible and prevents a person from becoming spiritual (CL 345-7). A Christian polygamist commits not only natural but spiritual adultery, profaning the Word and the Church, and bringing on himself a worse damnation than those do who commit only natural adultery (CL 339). It is detestable and unlawful, closing heaven to a Christian and driving him spiritually insane (CL 464). It is “the deprivation of all ability and inclination for the conjugial life which is within Christians from birth” (CL 466).

As with other kinds of sexual behavior, polygamy is serious for some people and mild for others. For Christians, polygamy is terrible. For others, it is not so bad. It is not harmful those who are natural (CL 340). It is not a sin with those who do it from religion (CL 348) or with those who do not know about the Lord (CL 349). There is even a place in heaven for good polygamists where they can have several wives and concubines (CL 343), although they may eventually have to give up their polygamy (De Conj. 47). Apparently the Lord is very tolerant with human weakness and lust with people who are trying to be good.

I suspect that homosexuality may also be an entirely different matter for a non-Christian than for a Christian. There are homosexuals in our culture who are ignorant of any genuine Christianity. There are people for whom homosexuality is allowed by their religion. Could it be that for such people homosexuality is not a sin? Can they, like polygamists, worship God and shun evils as sins? If so, what happens to them after death?

Divine Providence allows polygamy in Islam because it could prevent them from falling into much worse adulteries (CL 342.4). By legalizing lust, polygamy also limits it (see CL 345). Although I am saddened by current efforts to make homosexual “marriages” legal, I suspect that if such laws pass, they will be tools the Lord can use to put limits on this human lust.

The Lord turns evil to good and overlooks evils in good people, and tolerates lesser evils in order to prevent greater ones. Considering this helps me become more tolerant of the evil and observant of the good in other people. If the Lord can allow polygamy on earth and even to an extent in heaven, can’t we be a little less judgmental towards homosexuals?

Paradoxically, I find myself wishing for more tolerance not only towards homosexuals and polygamists, but also toward people who cannot tolerate such behavior. People are sometimes condemned as “homophobes” simply for believing that homosexuality is unhealthy or bad.

Some people seem intolerant of polygamy. Angels fall from heaven when they think about polygamy (De Conj. 43). People from the Golden would exile those who thought about it (CL 75), and even people of the Copper Age cannot tolerate the presence of polygamists (CL 78). Probably the polygamists who get exiled would label these angels “polyphobes.” People from Christian heavens have nothing to do with people from polygamous heavens, because otherwise each group would be living with constant challenges to their chosen lifestyle. The lewd and immoral atmosphere around the polygamists would take all the pleasure out of life for the Christians, while the polygamists would always feel rebuked by the Christian’s insinuation the polygamy is a sin (See CL 352).

I suspect that the Christian angels, who detest polygamy, would have similar feelings about homosexuality. I empathize with angels in this world who find themselves upset by our deluge of sexual alternatives and who don’t want to give up their values in order to find approval in a liberal milieu. In our multi-cultural, free-floating society, is it possible to be both politically and morally correct? Can we have distinction without prejudice, discernment without condemnation? I suspect that part of the answer lies in the fact that a person with discernment can distinguish many shades of gray, while condemnation and prejudice involve only black and white.

Reasons for Levels of Gray

A little consideration of homosexuality has demonstrated that there are many kinds of homosexuality—many different levels of gray. A person who has a one-time homosexual experience as an ignorant teenager or in a drunken stupor is many levels of gray away from the people of Sodom, whose intentions included rape, incest and promiscuity. If a woman who had as a child been repeatedly raped by her father finds gentleness and safety in a lesbian relationship, it would seem obvious that her father’s adultery was far worse than her homosexuality. How can we possibly tell her that she is involved in the worst form of adultery?

Focus On Intention, Rather Than Action.

I suspect that one reason why the Lord teaches us about all these different degrees of sexual immorality is so that we can see more clearly that the real evil is never in any action per se, but in the intention behind the action. The worst degrees of adultery are those which involve the worst intentions, whether they are committed in act or not (CL 494).

By looking more carefully at the intentions involved, we may come to see that people who appear to be involved in serious evils are in a bad state through no fault of their own. We may also come to see that those of us who appear outwardly to be moral and chaste still have impure loves (cf. CL 71).

Leading to a Milder Hell

Another reason for learning the many levels of gray is to aid the process of growth and healing. Often in our sexual lives as in other areas we are constrained to choosing the lesser of two evils (cf. CL 459, 452 re Fornication; 475 re Concubinage). Before the Lord can lead us to heaven, He must first lead us to a milder hell (DP 183). The evils are cast out little by little, one small step at a time. The more stepping stones we have, the easier it will be to get across the river.

Despite the inroads of the gay rights movement, there are few homosexuals today who are suffering from a lack of condemning messages from our society. Surely the evil spirits, who love to accuse and condemn (AC 751, 761, 5036.4, etc.), amplify the judgmental messages society sends, seeking to trap people in the mire of shame. They probably take advantage of the fact that people under attack feel inwardly shamed and will outwardly defend or deny their evils in order to deflect the shame. Attacking evils in others often serves only to strengthen the level of defense and denial.

Angels scarcely see evils in a person, rather observing all his good and true qualities, and putting a good interpretation on what is evil and false (AC 1079). The angels know that the evil is not from the person but from hell, so in temptations they defend the person’s falsity and evil, for otherwise he would yield (AC 761). It seems that angels would rather paint a person’s evil in fine strokes of lighter gray, than use the broad, black brushes we efficiently wield.

We are inclined to emphasize the severity of an evil, thinking that by making certain actions look really terrible we will encourage the people who do those things to desist. Unfortunately, the effect is usually the opposite of what we intend. By magnifying the intensity of an evil, we discourage people by describing a very wide chasm for them to cross. When we define homosexuality in black-and-white terms (e.g., when we describe even simple homosexuality as the worst kind of adultery), we remove the very stepping stones which might help them cross the chasm, and we fail to offer the acceptance and understanding that might encourage them to make the effort.