John 3:16 says that God so loved the world, he gave his one and only son so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. What the Bible does not say is that God sacrificed his son because some people masturbate. Nevertheless, masturbation is somewhat of a contentious issue in Christian theology. It’s an act that represents lust and pleasure, two things that certain sects of Christianity see as inherently “sinful,” regardless of whether it’s addressed explicitly in the Bible.
“Masturbation is a hotly debated topic among Christians, and historically, it’s been the catalyst for great divides within the church,” says Kelly Gonsalves, a certified sex educator and Catholic who previously taught Sunday school classes. “Masturbation isn’t mentioned directly in the Bible, but many Christians point to verses that explicitly say lust is a sin to defend an anti-masturbation stance.”
Beyond lust, there’s one particular verse in Genesis 38:9-10 that’s often cited as a Biblical condemnation of masturbation, specifically vis a vis “wasting semen.” It refers to a man named Onan, who under Mosaic Law of the time was obligated to marry his brother’s widow and produce a child. “Whenever he went in to his brother’s wife he would waste the semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother,” the verse reads. “And what he did was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death also.”
This line about wasting semen or “spilling seed” is regularly touted as evidence of the sin of masturbation, as it assumes said semen isn’t being used for reproduction (nevermind the fact that you can masturbate without a penis). But as the story rather obviously states, Onan’s sin wasn’t jacking off, it was pulling out. Even more specifically, the sin wasn’t inherently the act of pulling out, but his supposed refusal to fulfill a familial obligation. Perhaps in this context, if you’re too busy jacking off to pursue your baby-making responsibilities, then sure, it’s a sin. But it’s not actually masturbating itself that’s the problem.
Nevertheless, it’s often the feelings and desires that lead to masturbation (i.e., being horny) that are identified as the sins as well. A line of thinking originating in the 18th century is also partially responsible — during the Enlightenment, philosophers like Immanuel Kant and Jean-Jacques Rousseau both wrote of how a man “gives up his personality” and that “body and soul will be enervated” when one masturbates, because it will become all they think about.
Again, while there are no specifics about masturbation in the Bible, it’s true that lust and succumbing to temptation are considered “sinful” per the scripture. One particularly famous passage is Matthew 5:28: “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
That’s a little dramatic, no?
But from Gonsalves’ perspective, this denouncement of lust doesn’t have to apply to the act of masturbation, either. “[Lust] is often involved in the process of masturbation, given that many people masturbate while thinking about a specific person they sexually desire or an act they want to do,” she explains. “The thing is, most references to lust in the Bible deal with the way lust can propel us toward sin, such as when a married person experiences lust for a person other than their spouse. The cheating is what’s morally wrong; the lust is simply something that could theoretically lead us toward that immoral act. But it’s tough to make a case today that single people experiencing lust for other single people is somehow immoral.”
More than that, taking such a hard stance against masturbation or interpreting it according to verses like the one with Onan require a literalist approach to the Bible, wherein everything written within it is intended to be treated as truth. But as Gonsalves notes, there are also parts of the Bible where it’s said that those who cheat on their spouse should be murdered, something even those who read the Bible as a fixed text probably aren’t going to do.
“Others recognize the Bible as a collection of texts written in a specific period of history with a certain set of cultural traditions that no longer align with modern life,” she continues. “While the general teachings and values still hold true, we must adapt them to make sense for society today.”
Among those traditions and values that need adaptation is masturbation. “For myself as a Catholic, I believe that quibbling over whether sex or masturbation is okay is a distraction from doing God’s real work anyway,” Gonsalves argues. “In fact, I know that my pleasure grounds and nourishes me, and my pleasure is what gives me the energy and strength I need to be able to care for and serve my community, which I know is the work that God calls me to do. My orgasms are healing, and in that, I know they could never be wrong in God’s eyes.”
Perhaps, then, we can interpret masturbation not as a sin against God, but as an act that helps better serve God amongst those who do. Even if it were a “sin,” so is eating shellfish and wearing clothing of mixed materials, from a literalist standpoint. Not to mention, God sent Jesus to the cross to die so our sins could all be forgiven. Thus, it’s hard to see how a little wanking is gonna send you to hell.