Sunday, December 11, 2005

Queasy about Christ

I don't want to be a religion-basher. I recognize that religion plays an important role in many people's lives and serves a genuine human need. But, to be perfectly frank, I get a little queasy about Christianity some times. (I get a little queasy about Islam too, but I know so little about it that I can't discuss it intelligently.)

There are two main facets to Christianity. The first has to do with how we live our lives here on earth (love thy neighbor, turn the other cheek, etc.) I have no quarrel with that. It's the second aspect that makes me nervous, the one having to do with what happens after you die.

The problem is that a strict reading of Christian doctrine says that anyone who has not accepted Jesus as their personal savior is damned for all eternity. It says so right there in John 14:6. "No man cometh unto the father but by me." (Funny that none of the other Gospel writers thought to include this little tidbit, but who am I to second-guess the inspired Word of God?)

Let's try to put this eternity thing in persepctive. Let's say a person lives to be 100. That's 36525 days (more or less -- it depends on exactly where the leap years fall), 876,600 hours, 52,596,000 minutes, or somewhere in the neighborhood of three billion seconds. Most people would agree that next to the span of an entire human lifetime, a single second is pretty insignificant.

And yet a second is an infinitely greater portion of a human lifetime than a human lifetime is a portion of eternity. Eternity is a dreadfully long time. A lifetime (or any finite amount of time for that matter) is a mere blip by comparison, all but imperceptable against the vastness of the infinite. All of the human suffering that has been endured since the beginning of time is nothing compared to the anguish of even a single soul that dies without having accepted Christ.

Against the prospect of eternal damnation, nothing else matters.

I think very few Christians have really come to grips with this and what it implies. If you accept John 14:6, then unless you are a truly cold-hearted son of a bitch you must dedicate your life to converting as many people as you possibly can by whatever means necessary. You cannot allow doubts about Jesus to be voiced for fear that they will lead someone to lose their faith. The consequences of that are immeasurably worse than a thousand holocausts, a million Stalinesque purges, billions upon billions of 9/11s.

John 14:6 leaves no room for doubt of any kind. In fact, it leaves no room for anything but an absolute dedication of your time here on earth to cementing your relationship with Christ, and getting as many of your fellow humans as possible to do likewise.

I think this is the reason that we're seeing discontent about people saying "happy holidays" instead of "merry Christmas". If "happy holidays" causes people to think that it's somehow acceptable not to believe in Jesus, that's a truly terrible thing. In fact, if it causes anyone to doubt that Christ is the Way and the Truth and the Light and no man comes to the Father but through Him, then merely uttering the phrase is in fact a heinous crime, vastly worse than murder.

Viewed in this light, the current grumbling is actually a pretty restrained response.

The Right Answer, I think, is to recognize that it's possible that whoever wrote John just might have embellished the truth a bit. After all, none of the other Gospels mention this quip, and you'd think that they would considering how important it would be if it were true. Remember, if John 14:6 is true, nothing else matters. But this requires the capacity for humility and doubt, something that seems in short supply among many self-professed Christians noawadays.

19 comments:

Will said...

Hi Ron,

I think you underestimate how strong the exclusivity claim is in the New Testament; it's not just one verse in John, but is part of the warp and woof of the early Christian writings. It's in Paul (eg Romans 3), the synoptic gospels (eg Luke 13:23ff), the report of Peter's preaching in Acts (Acts 4:12), etc. Of course, this only strengthens your argument for 'nothing else matters.' And I've certainly heard Christians use this or a similar argument as a prod for witnessing.

But I think you (and they) are making a couple of false dichotomies. First is that the 'one great commandment' is to 'compel them to come in.' But, as you write, Jesus taught that we should live in certain ways. The great commandment he brought out, according to the gospels, is the one you mention: Love your neighbor (as well with loving God). On on the one hand, this prevents certain tactics--we can't convert people by 'any means necessary,' but only those ways consistent with the way of love. On the other hand, this means Christians need to pay attention to the this-worldly needs of people, too. Jesus is our example in this: he didn't just preach, he healed, etc.

Another false choice is set up in using the formula 'accepting Christ as their personal savior' as synonymous with Jesus being the exclusive way to God. The former is a particularly Western, even American, way of describing what it means to be a believer in Jesus. In some ways, it's a helpful formulation; in others, it's not. 'Getting agent A to believe proposition P before timepoint p = death of A, for all A in humanity' seems a particularly bloodless kind of religion.

And I think even accepting your argument ('nothing else matters'), Christians would still have to satisfice; being, after all, agents with limited time resources themselves. The point being that an agent required to achieve n goals (even of infinite value) that cannot be achieved by the deadline cannot produce a sound plan (in the current case, a plan to convert everyone). Thus, don't be surprised that agents act by balancing a desire to help others believe with, say, sleep.

Still, as you do, I recommend that Christians live humbly, including living humbly in what they believe and how they express those beliefs. And doubt as to the certainty of the beliefs held is part of that. That doesn't mean shutting up at every point, of course, any more that it does in scientific discourse. Falwell's 'Christmas war' is obviously deviant, and it saddens and angers me. But, as influential as Falwell might be (and I suspect that currently he's more like an agent provocateur than anything else) Falwell doesn't speak for me or many Christians.

Ron said...

Hi Will, thanks for the thoutful response.

I think you underestimate how strong the exclusivity claim is in the New Testament; it's not just one verse in John, but is part of the warp and woof of the early Christian writings.

Yes, I know, but John 14:6 dominates the argument because these are Jesus's own words. It is much easier to doubt things that came out of Paul's mouth alone (e.g. I Corinthians 14:34) because Paul was a fallible human and one can entertain the possibility that he might have gotten some things wrong without having the whole fabric of your belief unravel. But with John 14:6 this becomes much harder because you either have to believe that 1) it's true or 2) the Gospels are not an accurate record of what Jesus said, in which case, as I've noted, the whole thing starts to come apart at the seams.

Love your neighbor (as well with loving God). On on the one hand, this prevents certain tactics--we can't convert people by 'any means necessary,' but only those ways consistent with the way of love.

But what tactics could possibly not be consistent with the ways of love? If you've tried everything else and you believe that torture is the only way to get me to accept Christ, would it not be loving of you to torture me? After all, you'd be trading some finite and therefore insignificant earthly suffering against the possibility of saving me from eternal hellfire. How is that not "consistent with the ways of love"? (BTW, the Inquisitors actually believed this, and here in the United States it seems to me that we are well on our way to seeing this way of thinking come back into style.)

Thus, don't be surprised that agents act by balancing a desire to help others believe with, say, sleep.

Sleep, sure. Even eating I could see. But taking the kids to Disneyand? Or surfing the Net? ;-) That's just unforgivably self-undulgent when there are souls to be saved, don't you think?

MTR said...

Thanks for this post. I am a Christian. You may call me devout. Thanks for not saying you don't like Christians because of Republicans (or vice versa). Thanks for not equating me to Jerry Falwell.

Sorry about my previous posts, but I wish I could introduce you to some of my dedicated Christian friends who are Democrats (I'm not one of them).

I went off a little earlier, but that has to do with stuff other than just your blog (see my most recent post).

http://fromthemorning.blogspot.com

joel said...

You raise a good point, Ron.
This is the point, I think, at which a rational Christian may say "there's something out of whack here, but I do believe that there is still something of truth and value in my faith", and start to re-evaluate things.
There are certainly many kinds of Christians, although sadly we see a certain branch dominating the public and political scene in America today. Compare, for example, the evangelical religious right style Christianity with the self-sacrificial, radically pacifist Christianity of the CPT kidnappees in Iraq. As a Christian, I get a bit queasy about the former myself.

Ron said...

Thanks for not saying you don't like Christians because of Republicans (or vice versa).

I do not dislike Christians. Some of my best friends are Christians ;-) What I dislike (and fear) are extremists -- of any stripe. I have as much quarrel with some of Richard Dawkins's religion-bashing as I do with Jerry Falwell.

This is the point, I think, at which a rational Christian may say "there's something out of whack here,

I certainly hope so. The thing that worries me is, where does the rational Christian go from there? In science when something is out of whack we can alway go do another experiment to help settle the issue. Where is a Christian supposed to turn once they start to doubt the veracity of the Gospels?

The difficulty of answering that question may be one of the reasons the extremists are winning.

omm said...

I understand John's words as it is Jesus the one who saves the person. Now, how do you know that when a person is not Christian Jesus doesn't act through him? Or viceversa, that because someone is a declared Christian it just means is doing right all the time and Jesus acts through him constantly? To me the answer to this matter belongs only to God, not to any human being.None of us know when, how or who Jesus chooses to manifest.

We are all limited on our views and Christians or not the theory under Christianism is soo vast that most of as, whether practicing the doctrine or not, are pretty ignorants on the topic. Priest in fact are there to guide people precisely because is well known how ignorants we are and even this given, they are still humans too.

BTW Ron, with your passion you'll be an excellent adding to the Church! -just kidding-.

Will said...

BTW, the Inquisitors actually believed this (better to torture finitely that to let people suffer infinitely)

Well, prima facie, that the Inquisitors believed this is enough to discredit it, at least since The Brothers Karamazov was written. Look, here's what Christ is quoted as saying on almost this very topic (Matthew 23):

The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted... Woe to you, ... hypocrites [who] travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.

In other words, the point is not to provide fire insurance (as they say) at any cost--especially at the cost of turning others into salvation machines--but to be the best disciple one can. I try (and fail, and try again) to do this in all aspects of my life: engaging with my children, surfing the web, etc., etc. This includes sharing the good news with others--but the good news is that Jesus came to give people 'abundant life,' not just to assert certain propositions.

Love your Xooglers writings, by the way.

Ron said...

Now, how do you know that when a person is not Christian Jesus doesn't act through him?

Because Jesus said so:

John 3:36 "He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him."

That's about as clear and unambiguous as the Bible ever gets.

Milorad said...

Ron, I'm new to your writing, and I too must say you have excellent flow :)

On the topic at hand...

Christianity falls apart for me because God insists that we all worship him, and only him, or else!

I really can't respect a God that is so egotistical that he would banish you to eternal damnation for having self-respect, or for daring to use that free will he bestowed upon us.

I take exception to the torment which is free will, without the capacity to use it, lest one fry for it.

I've heard the phrase "God wants us to love him" ad nauseum, but that isn't really true is it? God doesn't WANT that, God INSISTS on that, and if he doesn't get it, he's going to make us pay.

Any violent stalker or domestic abuser will tell you that you can't force someone to love you.

Dennis Gorelik said...

I don't see what would prevent you to accept Jesus during your eternal afterlife :-)

Besides, you will have more information during your afterlife to make the best decision
:-)

Ron said...

I don't see what would prevent you to accept Jesus during your eternal afterlife

I don't have a Biblical citation for it off the top of my head, but I was always told that once you died it was too late.

omm said...

John 3:36 would be referring to an extreme situation, to me any person who doesn't practice Christianism has lots of opportunities to accept Jesus in his life and many times, without even realising, is doing so. That still is not going to make him be in absolute God's grace but neither is going to make a demon of him. It's kind of more subtle. I would like to point out that any religion is there mainly to make people understand and help each others, I recall the Bible talks about this too: ..."He is not a God of deaths but a God of alives"

Milorad, how was God going to be egotistical in any way? His very nature is all the opposite to that, please.

Dennis, what I say above explains also why your hypotesis is not acceptable to me and certainly any religion upon those ideas wouldn't make any sense and wouldn't be of use to anyone.

This Girl said...

First of all, the quote from the passage you mention, in context, is about trusting Christ to do all he said. (Trust in God, also trust in me, I go to prepare a place, if I go, I will come back and take you where I'm going. John 14: 1-4) But since the guys didn't know what he was talking about, they asked him where he was going and the way to get to where he was going. The text quotes shows more the veracity of Christ's relationship with God verses the call to salvation.

But let's say the verse means what you say. If you go down to the 14th verse, the answer to the dilemma you pose is answered by Christ himself (if you do indeed believe that God inspired the word of John 14) "you may ask for anything in my name and I will do it"

so I think that Christians would be remiss to try to bring people to Christ by any means necessary instead of asking Christ to do it. What you've written gives too much credit to man to be able to do anything and takes too much credit from God to do anything. There is not doubt that Christianity needs to man up to the responsibilities of Christ, but they are by no means required to go out and take the world by any means necessary. The only missionary outreach that is required of Christians comes from Acts 1:8 and we are required to be witnesses, not inquisitioners.

Ron said...

The only missionary outreach that is required of Christians comes from Acts 1:8

Acts 1:8 says:

"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

It doesn't sound to me like this says what you say it says.

the answer to the dilemma

I pose no dilemma. I merely point out that if you accept the concept of eternal damnation then nothing else matters. Your entire lifetime compared to eternity is infinitely smaller than a nanosecond is compared to your lifetime.

What you've written gives too much credit to man to be able to do anything and takes too much credit from God to do anything

I was always taught that Christian doctrine held that man had free will, and that even God was powerless to change that. You can't have it both ways. Either God can control what I believe, in which case it is His responsibility if I don't believe and end up eternally damned, or He can't, in which case it's up to me, and to my fellow humans to the extent that they can influence my thinking. Either way it's an awfully heavy burden that ends up on someone's shoulders.

marena said...

I do not dislike Christians. Some of my best friends are Christians ;-) What I dislike (and fear) are extremists -- of any stripe.

I'm with you on this. What scares me the most is the fact that even among successful science students, you still meet many extreme Christians--many who are far ahead of most of their class. I am sincerely boggled by their apparent ability to reconcile the absolute truths of religion with the tentative models of truth in science.

Your initial post does posit a likely resolution: that science only verifies that certain things are incorrect; it provides no route to delineating truth, albeit a kind of hit-or-miss process through the formulation of theories. Thus, their general belief system may be coherent despite the incongruity between the two ways of finding truth (religious and scientific).

Thomas said...

As an atheist who was brought up Catholic, I find this vision terrifying. I'm sure *some* Christians think/believe along those lines, but that's completely out of line with Catholic belief. Catholics make up 1/2 of all Christians world-wide, and some other denominations have similar beliefs.

The key concept you're missing when taking literal quotes from the Bible like that, is tradition, and here in particular, you're missing the concept of limbus. Limbus patrum is the state of happiness that the old Jewish prophets exist in until the Redemption, at which point they ascend into Heaven and a state of eternal bliss. It's also the state of all those who came before Christ, who died unburdened with sin, or who worked off their sin through purgatorial discipline. Remember, no one goes to Heaven until the Redemption, so this is a pretty good state to exist in.

Limbus infantium is what little Catholic children get so concerned about. This is a state analagous to limbus patrium, but for non-Christians who came after Christ. Unlike those in limbus patrium, souls in limbus infantium cannot ever ascend into Heaven (eternal bliss). But it's not like they live in damnation. They spend eternity in limbus infantium, that is, in eternal happiness. Little Catholic children find this thought unbearable, but I wouldn't exactly describe eternal happiness as "damned for all eternity."

Not that I'm defending the absurd beliefs of Christians. That's some crazy shit. But, while I'm sure some freaky protestants have beliefs along the lines of what you describe, it's not like that's what most Christians think. Now, I, as an ex-Catholic, am screwed :-)

Richard Kindig said...

Ron,
Thanks for your thoughtful honesty.

I am a Christian who agrees with your take on how awful it would truly be if all people who did not become Christians in this life were to be tormented eternally. If I believed that was what God had planned, I would walk away from Christianity... perhaps to embrace Judaism, which contemplates a Messiah who will bless and unify the entire world.

Let me suggest, though, that the mistake has been made in Christian traditionalism, and leaves out the Bible's internal harmonization of these issues.

For example, in John 14:6, Jesus does not say that the only opportunity for people to come to God through him is before death. Only that the only way for people to come back to God is through him. In fact, Jesus says in John 12:47 he says that if a person hears but does not believe, he does not judge him for that. Judgment for those is deferred until "the last day".

What will the "last day" be like? Most Christians paint a gloomy picture, but Psalm 96 describes it as a happy time, Jesus in John 5:28-29 himself describes all in the graves as experiencing a "resurrection by judgment". Isaiah 26:9 says that when God's judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness. Paul states in 1 Timothy 2:4-6 that all people benefit from Jesus' death, "in due time". In Romans 5:18-19 Paul argues that by the same process of hereditary inheritance that afflicted the human race, all people will receive the free gift of a release from that hereditary curse. Revelation 21:1-4 and Isaiah 25 and 35, among many other passages, describe a scene in which all people have their tears wiped away and their sorrows eradicated. And though most Christians assume these promises don't apply to the masses, the Bible is clear that even the darkest caricature of alienated humanity, the residents of Sodom, were only smitten temporarily: their "vengeance of eternal fire" of Jude 6 is forgotten when they are reinstated and restored to God's favor -- lessons learned, mistakes profited from -- as described by Ezekiel in the last half of the 16th chapter.

Sorry to talk so long but Christians should stop alienating thinking people like you by only quoting those parts of the Bible which support their view. They should read John 3:17, which says that Jesus never intended that his message of hope to those who receive him during the Christian age should turn into a message of ruinous condemnation for the rest of mankind. Christians are supposed to be servants of the reconciliation for all that God is in the process of working toward. Colossians 1:20.

I enjoy your posts at Xooglers etc.

Marvin said...

I believe Catholics also believe it is much too extreme to cast everyone in Hell for eternity. They've modified the rules so those who've never heard of Jesus are exempt.

http://www.religioustolerance.org/rcc_salv.htm

Look up the Ponzi scheme for salvation cooked up by Jehovah's Witnesses. They've determined that only 144,000 people get into heaven, ranked by the number of suckers they convert. Really motivates them to go door-to-door.

j_l_larson said...

Otherwise known as Pascal's Wager