There is this example under the entry "sin" in the New Oxford Dictionary:

the human capacity for sin

I don't know how to understand capacity here. According to the definition of capacity in dictionary, I think it may convey one of two possible meanings:

  1. The maximum amount of sin that human beings can tolerate.

  2. The ability of human beings to commit sins.

I tend to prefer the latter version, but am not very sure.

P.S. I think the word human is quite worthy of attention. Does it imply something inside individual humanity?

  • 1
    Imho, it will depend on the context. I would say that it should mean the second, as you prefer. I also think that with out any specific context, it is likely to imply the context that is related to some kind of religious beliefs, especially the Christian's one. Commented Dec 19, 2013 at 6:04
  • 2
    @DamkerngT. - While I agree with you about context, I think 99.9% of the time, this expression will refer to ability, not amount. Usually, us humans don't have too much trouble cramming one more sin into our lives. "Oh, I'd love to go out with you guys tonight, but I just don't have any room left in my sin bin..." :^)
    – J.R.
    Commented Dec 19, 2013 at 10:18
  • Denny, please make sure my edits are faithful to your original meaning. I'm still not sure what you mean by "inside individual humanity". Commented Dec 19, 2013 at 22:09
  • @Tyler James Young -Thank you for your kind edits. They really have made my post much better. By saying "inside individual humanity", I am actually wondering the meaning of "human" here, if it refers more to human beings as a whole group or more to a person individually.
    – dennylv
    Commented Dec 20, 2013 at 1:01
  • 2
    I believe it means “characteristic of human beings as a whole species” here. Commented Dec 20, 2013 at 1:32

1 Answer 1


It is impossible to say exactly what is meant without more context, but there are two strong possibilities:

  1. It probably refers to the theological doctrine that because only human beings, of all creatures, posses free will, only human beings are capable of sin: wilful disobedience to God's order.

    The Christian insistence on the human capacity for sin, rather than simply being a pessimistic interpretation of human nature, is a testimony to our freedom and responsibility as human beings.

  2. It might refer to judgments of how sinful it is possible for human beings to be.

    The Holocaust taught us a terrible lesson: that modern Western civilization had greatly underestimated the human capacity for sin.

  • "It is impossible to say exactly what is meant without more context". Of course it is: #2 is definitely the correct answer.
    – RonJohn
    Commented Oct 16, 2023 at 14:49

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