Is sin “missing the mark”?

Have you been told that the “sin” literally means “missing the mark” in the original Greek? In fact, it does not.

The verb “hamartano” (αμαρτανω) was sometimes used in pre-Classical and Classical Greek to refer to missing a target. Homer uses it in the Iliad to speak of a man who failed to hit his opponent with a spear (Iliad 5.287, using the archaic form ημβροτες): “But Diomed all undismayed made answer, ‘You have missed, not hit.’” In other contexts it was used to speak of losing one’s way on a road.  But more generally it meant, “to do wrong, err or sin” (see Liddell, Scott and Jones, abbrev. LSJ). By the time they were writing the New Testament, the average reader would not have heard the word as “miss the mark,” unless he or she was thinking about Homer’s Iliad, written 800 years earlier.

To import the use of the word from spear throwing to theology is about as great a leap as the following: unless you raise poultry, you might not remember that the word “comb” can refer to the red crest of the rooster’s head. Today we usually mean a hair comb, although the word has other meanings as well. To say that sin is literally “to miss the mark” is about as useful as saying “a hair comb is literally the top of a rooster’s head.” It gives no help. And in fact it is misleading.

The Bible does not teach that sin is literally or really “missing the mark.” That is misapplying the use of the verb in one field (spear-throwing) to another field (theology). The Bible defines sin as offense against God, either through neglect or through conscious intent. This “missing the mark” viewpoint can give the idea that sinners try their very best but somehow fall short. They goofed. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth: sinners are never doing their best, not even by human standards. They are doing pretty much what they want to do, which is to live for themselves and not for God.

When I was being trained in how to share my faith, I was told to take people to Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” I was instructed to ask them, “Now, haven’t you made some mistakes? Is anyone free from wrong?” Of course the correct, and easy, answer was, “No, of course not, we all make mistakes.” From there we would go on to the truth that God would save us from our sin.

In hindsight I would argue that this distorts the Bible’s teaching on sin. “We all make mistakes!” is what a kindly grandfather says when a 5-year-old knocks over his glass of milk at dinner. But that kind of slip-up has nothing to do with what we call “sin.” Sin is rebelling against a loving and just God, the kind of treason that would be unpardonable were it not for the cross of Christ. It is not the “oops” that is implied by this “missing the mark” exegesis.

Additional thought: the Greek language is, like astrophysics, Irish literature or cabinet-making, an area of knowledge that may be studied and mastered. Those who wish to tell others about what the Greek means should do what it takes to really get a grasp of it; a basic understanding may be attained through two years of part-time study from a qualified instructor. See also

“Is sin ‘missing the mark’?” by Gary Shogren, Ph. D., Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San Jose, Costa Rica

25 thoughts on “Is sin “missing the mark”?

  1. Very interesting post. I agree completely with you about the importance of specific choice of words in the original languages and their meaning to the people at the time. To me it is very interesting that the authors of the new testament chose to use hamartano for the concept of sin, especially in light of the fact that the more ancient Greek texts (Iliad, etc.) used it to refer to missing a target. I believe it’s because of this more ancient usage though that Paul and the other authors of the new testament chose this particular word. I believe they were expressing that sin is both simultaneously missing the mark AND as you describe to do wrong and to error.

    It is wrong and is error to sin (aka to miss) against God’s will. To do so knowledgeably or in ignorance is of no consequence, both are equally sin. Paul himself laments that the evil he does not desire to do he finds himself doing (ROM 7:19); he was well aware of the target, but he missed. Others purposely hurl their spear at another target entirely, purposely avoiding God’s will, this is of course in error and wrong as well. Both are equally liable for punishment and will be if not for the saving grace of Jesus Christ.

    I believe the reason the idea of “missing the mark” is a correct description of sin in the New Testamen is because it is supported in the Old Testament.

    In Judges 20:16 the left handed warriors are described as so accurate with their slings they could aim at a hair and not “miss.” The word translated as “miss” here is the Hebrew chata’ah and is translated by the word “Sin” in the old testament nearly 200 times. It’s the same word which means it conveys the same concept. To miss.

    For me it seems like a perfect literary choice to describe our plight; either we flagrantly refuse to obey, thus missing the path prescribed for us, or we attempt to obey but stumble, thus missing the path prescribed for us. Either way we are left with the fact that our “righteousness is as filthy rags” and we require a Savior.

    All that said, I’m sure you have mulled this one over before, and I’m curious about your thoughts on the Old Testament usage. Thank you for posting this article and thank you in advance for your reply. GOD BLESS.

  2. God is love. Simply. Nothing else matters. An act or thought that is not rooted in love (God) is an error. It missed the mark. I’m always confounded by the supposed “teachers of God’s word,” that they are so quick to condemn, when Jesus’ teachings were of forgiveness. “Forgive them Father for they know not what they do.” That you would insert evil or attach the intent as being against God is evil trying to insert itself. don’t let it. Stay in love. Stay in God.

  3. What are your thoughts about BDAG?
    And what sources would you recommend for getting the correct definitions of the words used in the NT?

    1. BDAG is by far the best. I cannot recommend Thayer. New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology is very useful, as is Balz and Schneider’s Dictionary. Blessings, Gary

  4. I gather you’re protestant, which means you’re spiritual fathers are Luther and Calvin, in the main. They both effectively denied free will, each in their own way. Check out the Catholic Encyclopedia on “sin” and read about the protestant errors in this regard. ( You seem like a nice guy. It would be a shame for you to burn for all eternity because you reject the true faith of Christ, the Catholic Faith. Pax Vobiscum.

    1. Hi Johnny, greetings and thanks for visiting. Even more, St. Augustine by way of the Reformation, yes. I do not see how they “effectively” denied free will, unless Augustine did too, since they followed the Father along his lines, I believe.

      I do use the Catholic Encycl and will check out that article. I access the very useful New Advent site fairly frequently, as well as the Vatican’s site and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which I find very helpful.

      By the way, many people write in to my blog, and 9 out of 10 times I write back. Out of those roughly 5000 comments, I find the most compelling, those which try to persuade with evidence and logic. I believe that your wish about my eternal destination is sincerely based on good will on your part, but I would urge you consider how you might capture your audience better with a lighter touch – if indeed, “persuading” is what you want to do. When I speak of Catholicism, I take great pains to try to represent the Church and all groups (including, lately, Islam and Mormonism) with clarity and accuracy, and I often chide people for gratuitously insulting Rome.

      Many blessings, Gary

    2. I would think if your Catholic beliefs turn out right Johnny that poor Gary would have at least purgatory as a backup Catholic plan or have I remembered Roman Catholicism incorrectly, must admit I am a tad rusty on the established Church having been largely unchurched for several decades…..blessings Gary and thanks Mr google I’ll follow your blog…..

  5. Read A Course in miracles and you will understand what sin is, brother.
    Sin is belief in evil. Which is illusion.
    There is no sin, no punishment. No reward.
    There is only unconditional love and forgiving. There is no treason.
    So missing the mark fits way way better than what we ve been said about sin.

    1. Hi Cosmin, and thanks for dropping in.

      Obviously we have two very different approaches to faith, as A Course in Miracles is an alternative to the Bible. Which everyone has the right to follow; but since my field is Bible investigation, that is the track I take.

      I will also mention that it’s relatively easy to take a positive view of the “illusion of evil” if one is not being hunted down in Sudan, bombed in Syria, or put in the ovens of Dachau.

      Blessings, Gary

  6. Language is a malleable tool shaped by the cultures which share it over the ages, not a rigid dogma devoid of imagination. Flexibility is at the foundation of English. Metaphorical adoption within English, or “borrowing” words from other languages is the cornerstone of the entire language. If you think that the archery metaphor is inappropriate, that would be a personal opinion, and would be ignoring that meaning is given to words by each person’s individual experiences, not some set of arbitrary and meaningless human “rules”.

    Not only do I disagree that this metaphor is semantically impossible, but it also is a harmful concept that a person who sins MUST be stigmatized as being a wicked, evil person, which is implied in it’s modern meaning. If we ever wish to teach others to be moral people, we need to make understanding sin and understanding that we are born sinners as clear and unambiguous as possible. I strongly believe that some of the most evil people in the entire world exist because they justify themselves as “good people” who have “never sinned” and thus use their moral high horse to treat people they consider to be weak and vulnerable with the most powerful acts of hatred of all.

    1. Thanks Liam, although I’m not sure if you got my point, which is that the Greek root was not used in archery. If someone wants to envision such a metaphor based on the English, no problem semantically.

  7. I don’t know why this is a problem. Literally, we are missing the mark (God) when we are focusing on our own wants. That is, in itself, violating God’s will (current usage of sin).
    There are many other words that are not perfect renderings, but they convey the original concept.
    Why is everyone so hyped up about a word that isn’t even in the original languages – it is there for edification.

    Also: To “hit with a spear” is easily a parable, just as much as is to “gouge out an eye” or “cut off a hand”. I think it’s perfect for helping people understand that Sin is not a scale of bad and less bad, as if one’s sin is less damaging than another. God created us for his companions, and if we choose to focus on anything other than that companionship, it is all Sin… Missing the mark of focusing on God in all aspects of our lives. It’s not right to categorize it as actually hitting someone with a spear any more than it is correct for someone to gouge out his own eyes to avoid lust (which doesn’t work, by the way).

    1. Hi, thanks for writing, and blessings. I took the liberty of combining your two comments.

      You first mention that sin is “literally missing the mark.” But this is not something you would have gotten simply by reading the Bible. It has only entered into popular teaching because at some point somebody thought he saw that as the root meaning of hamartia. And people who use it don’t take the meaning that you do: they say that “well, we tried our best and missed.” As you point out, that’s not what sin means. Google hamartia missing the mark and you’ll see how it misleads people.

      “Hit with a spear” could be a parable, I suppose, but it’s a poor one if we’re trying to summarize what the Bible says. And it’s not the equal of cutting off a hand or gouging out an eye, since those two illustrations are found in the Bible, where the spear idea is not.

      “It’s not right to categorize it as actually hitting someone with a spear”? Well, I don’t know how you could conclude that – look up any Classical dictionary and you’ll find that that’s precisely what it means, when we are speaking of marksmanship. I quote the Iliad where it uses this meaning.

      The problem is that people invent parables that don’t capture the Biblical teaching, and it results in a misunderstanding of the Bible itself. The hamartia one is an example, as is the (in)famous “explanation” of the Trinity that “Your father is a father, he is a son, he is a husband” – it’s best left unused, since it leads to a false teaching of the nature of the Trinity.


  8. I really appreciate this article. I have been trying to reconcile the “to miss the mark” definition with the theological explanation of sin and had been unable to do it. However, in examining the Old Testament words for sin, I am again stumped. What about the Old Testament word “chata”? In some instances it means “to miss the mark”. So, if sin can mean “to miss the mark” in the Old Testament, why wouldn’t it mean that in the New Testament?

    1. Hi Kurt. In my Hebrew lexicons, “miss the mark” is not a definition of chata (חֲטָאָה). I see that one online lexicon lists that as a possibility, but my impression is that “sin, offend” is the better definition. Strong’s dictionary is not always reliable.

  9. Well put Dr. Shogren. I’ve wondered about how that english and classical greek word for sin came to be. So without knowing what the etymology of the word sin was, in the past I’ve kidnapped the idea of missing the mark and falling short of the glory of God in evangelism to say this. – The arrows are our allegiences, desires, actions, attitudes and character. Upon seeing the “target” a loving, just, holy, righteous and good God, instead of trying to even aim at the target we turn a completely different direction in autonomy and rebellion. This metaphor isn’t very personal but I think it gives a distinction of trying and rebelling. What do think of that for evangelism.

    1. Hi Daniel, blessings.

      Your description of sin is more biblical, yes. For my part, I would skip the arrow metaphor entirely, since that use of hamartano really has nothing to do with the Bible’s use of it.

  10. Thanks Gary, I thinks is one of the most comun use that many people give to this word, thanks to put it clear as you did

  11. Thanks for this helpful reminder, Gary! You will probably agree that etymological misconceptions like this may be multiplied, even from sources who should know better. My personal favorite is “repentance is just a change of mind” , from “metanoein”, and “metanoia”. I have found Trench’s “Synonyms of the New Testament” (Eerdmans, 1976), pp. 255-261, to be a helpful source in countering this reductionism concerning “repentance”. The following are recommended as more modern additions to what Thayer wrote on this subject: Jurgen Goetzmann, “metanoia”, in “The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology”, gen. ed. Colin Brown (Zondervan, 1975), I:357-359; and Johannes Behm, “metanoew and metanoia in the New Testament”, in “Theological Dictionary of the New Testament”, ed. Gerhard Kittel, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Eerdmans, 1967), IV:999-1006.

    1. Hey bro! Yeah, metanoia is an annoying one, not to mention damaging. Have you read my article about Thayer on this blog? just look up “Thayer”. I ranted a bit when Logos promoted it as a wonderful and reliable tool.

      1. From my rereading of Thayer on the Koine terms for “repentance” , and comparing him to the more recent treatments in TDNT and NIDNTT (all cited in post above), I conclude that at least in this case his work is still on track, and reliable.

        1. Well…my experience of Trench hasn’t been as positive.

          His work predates the bulk of the new discoveries of the Greek language from the papyri. He also has the tendency of making fine distinctions between synonyms that don’t really reflect the actual usage of the language.

          Trench mistakenly states that stephanos always significes a prize, and that diadema always a royal crown. He states that agape was invented by the Jews to describe divine love, and that the word’s meaning is not that of phile.

          I have a copy of Trench, but rarely use it. Why would I want to spent a dozen hours, trying to figure out where Trench is right and where he is wrong, when I could read a book that takes into account the explosion of new data from the late 19th century to today?

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