Your Lying Eyes

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30 October 2006

Atheists Are Supposed to Be the Smart Ones?

Matthew Yglesias declares the evangelical Christian belief that
...failure to accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior will result in eternal damnation is... in fact, completely absurd. And not just absurd in a virgin birth, water-into-wine, I-believe-an-angel-watches-over-me kind of way. On this view, a person who led an entirely exemplary life in terms of his impact on the world (would an example help? Gandhi, maybe?) but who didn't accept Jesus as his personal savior would be subjected to a life of eternal torment after his death and we're supposed to understand that as a right and just outcome. That, I think, is seriously messed up.
What's seriously messed up is for someone who doesn't subscribe to a given religion's beliefs to be upset about what that religion teaches about the afterlife. Yglesias clearly doesn't share evangelicals' views on heaven and hell - so what the - heck - does he care whether they think he's going to hell or not? They're not saying he should go to jail or be burned at the stake - they're talking about the afterlife - which he presumably doesn't believe in anyway - what's his problem? It's one thing if you're offended if someone of your own faith says you're damned - that might be upsetting. But who cares what they think if you don't believe? How stupid is that.

To be fair to the evangelicals, they do have a pretty good case. Right there in John 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God...For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life...He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God." Now you can quibble about the details (e.g., Catholics believe baptism in infancy counts as "born again") but there are few passages in scripture that are stated this plainly. So if your premise is that the gospels are - gospel - then believing that "failure to accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior will result in eternal damnation is" anything but "absurd" - indeed the rallying cry of protestantism has been "Sole Fide" - faith alone can bring salvation, not good works as Catholics believe. This is hardly some radical tenet of some backwoods tongue-speakers. On the other hand, if your premise is that, whatever else they may be, the gospels are not the word of God, then you needn't worry about any of this - you can believe what you want and not have to worry about salvation - but for goshsake, grow up about it!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The annoying thing about this argument is the way Yglesias casually puts himself into God's role; ie, if he were God, he wouldn't send nice Mr. Gandi to Hell. Well, he's not God, nor has he put enough thought into the matter to even warrant trying see things from His perspective.

Second, it's not like Matt is the first guy to think of this dilemma. It's dawned on Evangelicals as well. First, many of them will point out that they can't really judge where a man's soul is going because--surprise--they're not God. Would Gandhi merit Hell? Maybe, but I don't really know. Even in passage like John 3, there's a lot of room for interpretation.

But even if we're dealing with a person who understands Christ's message but rejects it and happens to be nice, God can't do anything for him simply because the man, nice as he may be, has rejected Him. That's what Free Will is all about. God doesn't want to compel love from his creatures, either through force or bribery.

October 31, 2006 12:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If a Christian God is Just, then additional criteria would be required than simply believing in Christ (or being born again).

If indeed the belief of Christ is mandatory, than a method of acceptance of Christ in the afterlife would need to be provided especially for those who never had a chance to hear in this life, again if God is Just.

The Universalists, probably have it right. Jesus saved us all regardless of anything. Free salvation for all.

October 31, 2006 3:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not an Evangelical myself, so I do agree that more than simple belief is required. Indeed, they do as well in practice. St. Paul spoke of "faith working through love." But faith is a necessary first step.

As for the afterlife, no one can really speak of it with certainty, and as a Baptist youth (I'm Orthodox now), I remember discussions of those who never heard of Christ. The short answer was, IIRC, it's not for us to say anything about them, only ourselves. Perhaps God does have some kind of mechanism in the afterlife. I don't know. The idea of Judgement Day does imply that one can offer a defense. I can only hope I have a good one.

Jesus would not agree with the idea that you will saved regardless of anything. He repeatedly insisted that he would send a fair number of souls to perdition come Judgement Day.

October 31, 2006 6:00 PM  
Blogger ziel said...

All reasonable views of salvation, but so is the evangelical view. But what is not reasonable is being put-off by who some religious group thinks is going to be saved, when you don't subscribe to their faith in the first place - it's asinine.

I have no idea what certain Hindus might think of people who eat cow-meat, but whatever it is could you imagine being upset if they thought you would be reincarnated as a slug?

October 31, 2006 7:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, ziel, there are, in fact, some Evangelicals who do subscribe to the view Yglesias lines out, and they act on that view as if it's a license to make first-class pests of themselves: targeting certain faiths for conversions, particularly Jews. Now offering info or tracts and politely taking a "no" is fine, but many seem unable to take no for an answer and can get pretty rude about it. So how they think can affect other people, and I can understand Yglesias showing some frustration. I just wish he'd have taken a bit more time to understand the theology before dismissing it so cavlierly.

October 31, 2006 11:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As someone who has lived for much of my 35 years in areas of the country largely populated by anglo-saxon, fundamentalist Christians and whose ancestors, for as far back as I can tell, were all rural fundamentalist wasps, I have always suspected that the principal reason they ARE evangelical christians is because its the only socially acceptable IDENTITY GROUP to which rural anglo-saxons can belong. Most fundamentalist christians, even those who do read the Bible frequently, and take it seriously, are a little murky on the big theological questions of christianity, not because their reading comprehension skills are lacking (as most of their critics suspect), but because they actually DO read the Bible carefully. Lets face it, the Bible is a mass of contradictions.

As mr. Iglesias alludes to, one of the more perplexing contradictions in the Bible concerns James' admonition that "faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead" (James 2:17). Compare this with Galatians 2:16, where Paul says "who know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law, shall no one be justified". Here we have James implying that having faith in Christ means doing good deeds, while Paul's insistence that doing good bears no relation to faith. This rather difficult to reconcile contradiction in the definition of faith is what prompted Martin Luther to label the letter of James an "epistle of straw" and even to exclude it from the canon of texts in his German language Bible.

Many other such theological conflicts arise as well from scriptural ambiguities concerning the question of free will versus predestination and the moral superiority of rejecting materialism as opposed to the blessedness of wealth.

But such abstractions aren't of much concern to most fundamentalist christians. What concerns most evangelical christians is that their faith offers them the only refuge from the contempt the greater culture has for them. And in fact, they are often detested by those who aren't from the same background, something the Republican party is so adroit at politically exploiting.

But thanks to the clueless, politically clumsy leaders of the Democratic Party, the Republicans always seem to be able to count on the fundamentalist WASP vote come election time.

November 01, 2006 4:10 AM  
Blogger ziel said...

Great commments, Thomas, Duke of York PA.

The Dems are trying, for example with Webb in VA. And PA has usually had relatively conservative Dems, such as Casey and Rendell.

On the theological issue, I agree that the bible is a bit contradictory on salvation. But there's no way you read the New Testament and end up thinking Gandhi is going to heaven - no way.

November 01, 2006 7:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, reading just the New Testament, the only person whom we know for sure went to heaven was the thief on the cross.

Thomas' point about the churches acting as a group identity is dead on. I'd only go further and say it also includes suburban whites (mainly Scotch-Irish/WASP).

I agree that there are contradictions in the Bible if you simply treat it as a single work, which the Evangelicals do. This is why an interpreting authority--i.e., some kind of heirarchy--is necessary.

November 01, 2006 9:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Mr. Ziel,

That is some campaign Webb and Allen are having. Obviously, Allen is seriously worried that the constituency he feels he's entitled to, rural and largely Scotch-irish Virginians, is in danger of being lost to Webb. Would a guy who refers to Indians as Moluccans be making an issue out of Webb's alledged off-handed use of the naughty N word decades ago if he wasn't running scared?

Derek Copold said:

"I agree that there are contradictions in the Bible if you simply treat it as a single work, which the Evangelicals do. This is why an interpreting authority--i.e., some kind of heirarchy--is necessary. "

I think Billy Graham had ambitions of becoming some sort of Evangelical Pope years ago. But evangelical christianity is decidedly not a monolithic religious persuasion, and so they will never go in for one man, or any kind of committee of Christian scholars, no matter how widely respected they are, assuming doctrinal authority over them. Remember, that is what so impressed Thomas Jefferson, not a particularly religious man himself, about the Baptists - he regarded them as having a healthy distrust of authority, political as well as spiritual.

November 02, 2006 12:03 AM  
Blogger Glaivester said...

Would Gandhi merit Hell? Maybe, but I don't really know.

Actually, everyone merits Hell. Those who are saved are recipients of God's grace. Even theologies that say that works are necessary for salvation also admit that grace is necessary, which indicates that what God gives the saved person is more than he deserves. The question isn't who deserves to go to Heaven and who deserves to go to Hell, but who will go to Heaven even though they deserve to go to Hell and who will get what they deserve?

Also, I would argue that the issue here is not whether works per se are necessary for salvation (i.e. does a person earn salvation through his works) but whether works are necessary for a person's faith to be real enough to save. In other words, it's not whether works are necessary in addition to faith, but whether works are a necessary consequence of true faith.

November 02, 2006 11:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had a funny experience along these lines years ago when I had finished college and was in my spiritual searching phase, looking for a new church after I'd newly planted roots in the South. I attended several churches in the area and, yes, I was interested in several of the evangelical ones.

In one of the churches I attended, the pastor was a real fire-and-brimstone type who declared that all the believers in rival faiths and churches-- and that included a certain rival evangelical church in the vicinity, which had decidedly different interpretations about some passages in Isaiah, John and Corinthians-- were hellbound. So out of curiosity if nothing else, I checked out the other church and, sure enough, according to *their* pastor, all the congregation in the rival evangelical pews were hellbound for *their* misinterpretations.

Ziel, IOW I sense that Matthew Yglesias-- however much I may disagree with him on other issues-- does have a very good point. Fundamentally, the "this leads to heaven, this leads to hell" arguments are really unprovable and just about ridiculous when it comes to Scriptural interpretations and specific belief systems-- evangelical churches would not only consign Gandhi and the Jews to hell by their beliefs, in many cases they'd also consign the majority of their fellow evangelicals due to "Scriptural deviations."

This isn't a trivial matter, since the whole heaven-hell debate points to something more fundamental-- the moral code by which humans on earth are supposed to live by. If the heaven-hell decision were so arbitrary, decided by the choice of a church and specific interpretations that, frankly, from a logical and broadly moral standpoint, are equivalent-- then the heaven-hell distinction is just about useless as a moral exhortation for behavior.

OTOH, if there truly *are* basically universalist principles that help make the decision-- rather than an arbitrary choice of which particular pew you sit down on-- then indeed, this belief system has a bearing on the behaviors and practices that are considered acceptable in a civilized society. That's supposedly what a big portion of the Bible is about, providing a law and, indeed, an interpretable logic that can be used to guide human behavior.

That the Bible is contradictory in many places in without doubt, and this also helps to explain the stupidity of many evangelicals (the Left Behind types in particular) who claim that they're literalists and dream of violence against others who are "less pure" (READ: other evangelicals who disagree with them). A part of the Bible was written as nothing more than thinly veiled political exhortations, and the branches among the evangelicals who cast aspersions at each other for impurity of belief are obsessed with the political parts of the Bible, rather than the moral exhortations that still make the Christian faith so unique and worthwhile.

November 04, 2006 4:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Then again, maybe Gandhi does belong in Hell:

The Gandhi Nobody Knows:

November 06, 2006 6:07 PM  

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