Reason for the Season

A lot has been said in the past couple of weeks about what I, and others, believe.  A lot has been said around the nation, even the world, about Christmas, its meaning, and how it came to be.  But I won’t be drawn into that right now.

This post is not about taking sides.

This post is about what I *do* believe.  Some of these beliefs are conclusions based on observable fact.  many of them are emotional ideals, unprovable, and based on nothing more than the way I might wish things were.

I believe we only go around once.

I believe it solely up to us to decide what sort of life we will lead.

I believe that every human being is absolutely equal.  None of us asked to be here.  All of us are going to leave here.

I believe that if anyone has value, then everyone has value.

I believe we are stronger working together than working against each other.

I believe things are slowly getting better, not worse.

I believe compassion is emotional glue that holds people together.

I believe selfishness is a fire that destroys.

I believe we make our own meaning, our own purpose, and fill our lives with it, whatever we choose.

I believe we have the power to change our minds.

I believe that if anyone is calling us to action, it is our own minds, our own hearts, willing us closer to our fellow man.

I believe we are capable of destroying ourselves.

I believe we are capable of ending war and destruction.

I believe every action is rooted in human choice.

I believe the decision to accept another person just as they are is the root of compassion.

I believe compassion for others is the one thing most religions get right.

I believe religions get a lot of other things very wrong.

I believe holidays like Christmas are beautiful, not for their history, but for the spirit of giving and loving kindness they inspire.

I believe the spirit of compassion must be cultivated.

I believe we are born with a deep desire to have compassion poured upon us.

I believe learning to give to others what we desire for ourselves is the key to a better world.

I believe humanity’s survival is our choice.

I believe nurturing compassion in our lives and our communities is critical to that survival in an ever more crowded world.

I believe becoming compassionate is only as far away as wanting it to be so.

I believe actions speak louder than words.

I believe consistent action over a long period of time speaks more than has ever been written or said.

I believe the “Christmas Spirit” is our emotional desire to be at peace with every other human in the world.

I believe the people that desire that will eventually outnumber those that don’t.

I believe there is no ideal time – we have to start right now.

I believe wanting something for nothing is wrong.

I believe wanting nothing for something is the epitome of compassion.

I believe our government should reflect our highest ideals.

I believe one of our highest ideals is to care for those in need.

I believe it is worth being taken advantage of on occasion in order to feed, clothe and house the poor.

I believe Christmas should be a reminder to care for the poorest among us all year, not just an occasion to do it once.

I believe love is action.

I believe Christ was right when he said to love our enemies.

I believe that if we can learn to love our enemies, our love for family and friends will deepen.

I believe every word said in anger hurts the whole world.

I believe I’ve caused a lot of hurt.

I believe I have the power to heal those hurts, one compassionate act at a time.

I believe in you.

I hope you believe in me.

I’m sure I’ll think of more, but I have to stop somewhere.  I hope during this holiday every person will shed the separation of dogma and particular religious belief for the togetherness of being human, together, on this small, beautiful world.

All Systems Go

Well, it seems it’s past time to deal with another misconception.

In a long comment thread down below a couple of my Christian commenters make a positive claim.  They both assert the following:

That my rational application of reason on the claims of the bible is a “belief system” of the same sort as their faith in Jesus Christ and the biblical God.

Before we can analyze whether this is true, we should define “belief system.”

Wikipedia defines “belief system”:  A belief system is a set of mutually supportive beliefs.

Leading Edge Internationl Research Group website defines belief as:  Whatever an individual is willing to accept without direct verification by experience or without the support of evidence, resulting in assumption which is taken as a basis for action or non-action.

I personally would define a “belief system” as so:  A personal, interrelated set of unverifiable preconceptions through which one interprets facts observed in reality.

In other words, a belief system is a filter through which facts are viewed in order to draw conclusions.

Now, let’s look at the elements of this conversation.

First, there is the Bible.  It is the centerpiece of the entire conversation concerning Christianity.  Every claim regarding Christianity, Jesus Christ, God, and any aspect thereof is necessarily dependent on the bible for its communication.  There is no other source for understanding any particulars of Christianity.

Determining which content of a text is true would have a nearly infinite set of possibilities, being either wholly true, wholly false, or partially true and false by a matter of degree between those two absolutes.

However, because of the Evangelical view of the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, there are only two absolutes: the Bible is either True (contains no errors) or False (contains at least one error, therefore not inerrant, and not the Word of a Perfect God.)  It is the Evangelical position that actually simplifies the conversation, because their own insistence that the bible is “God-breathed” and therefore inerrant means a single proven error disqualifies the entire text as the Word of God.  So we have a simple True/False consideration.

The second element is the observer.  Each observer is a human individual who will draw a conclusion regarding any subject at hand, in this case, the bible.

The third element is the physical reality around us.  This represents the world in that it actually exists as observed.  In other words, what is true is true for everyone.  If 1+1=2 is true, it is true for every person and everything that is.  If an observer by an act of will denies the truth that 1+1=2, that does not make it false, rather it indicates that the observer has come to an incorrect conclusion regarding that truth.  Furthermore, this truth can be taught to others who can, with only their mental faculties understand that truth and reproduce proof to support it.

Let us allow for two observers.  Observer A is an agnostic skeptic of no particular faith.  Observer B is an Evangelical Christian Believer.

They both read the following texts from the New International Version of the Bible.  The four texts are the total accounts of a unique event in the Christ narrative – the Triumphal Entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem, heralding the beginning of the “Passion Week,” as it is traditionally known.

There are no other accounts of this event.  According to Christian tradition, this event happens but once, therefore all four accounts are relating the same exact event.

Account #1

From Matthew 21 -

1 As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”

4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:

5 “Say to Daughter Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”

6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on.

Account #2

From Mark 11 -

1 As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 3 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’”

4 They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, 5 some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” 6 They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. 7 When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it.

Account #3

From Luke 19 -

28 After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 29 As he approached Bethphage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, 30 “Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it.’”

32 Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”

34 They replied, “The Lord needs it.”

35 They brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it.

Account #4

From John 12 -

12 The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. 13 They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting,

   “Hosanna!”

   “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

   “Blessed is the king of Israel!”

14 Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written:

15 “Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion;
see, your king is coming,
seated on a donkey’s colt.”

Now let us simply analyze the content of all four passages.  We will refrain from drawing any conclusions or ascribing any sort of meaning to any of the passages.  We will observe content only and how the four accounts align.

First we’ll list all of the elements that are the same in all four narratives.

  1. Jesus obtains at least one animal on which to ride.
  2. At least one of the animals is a donkey.

Second we will list all of the elements that exist in one or some, but not all, of the narratives, and that are not contradicted by any of the other accounts.

  1. At least one of the animals had never been ridden.
  2. He rode into Jerusalem.
  3. The event was the fulfillment of the Old Testament passage Zechariah 9:9.
  4. The animal(s) was tied up outside.
  5. People put cloaks on the animal(s) for Jesus to sit.
  6. People waved palm branches.

Third we’ll look at the elements from the narratives that conflict in one way or another with elements from at least one of the other narratives.

1. Jesus sent two disciples to obtain an animal(s).

Three of the narratives, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, agree on this.  However, John’s account says that “Jesus found a young donkey…”  So the first point of conflict is:

  • Did Jesus either find (obtain himself) the animal(s) or send his disciples ahead to obtain it (them?)

2. Jesus obtained two animals, a donkey and a colt.

This is according the the account in Matthew.  However, Mark, Luke, and John only record one animal, that being a young donkey, or the colt of a donkey.  So the second point of conflict is:

  • Did Jesus obtain one animal (a young donkey) or two?

3. Jesus sat on the animal(s).

This is according to the accounts in Matthew, Mark, and John.  However, Luke says the people “…put Jesus on it.”  That is the third point of conflict.

  • Did Jesus sit on the animal(s) himself, or was he placed on it(them) by others?

4. Jesus is directly quoted telling the disciples to obtain the animal(s).

The passages in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, quote Jesus giving direction to the disciples.  However the quotes are different.  The difference is related to item 2, in that in the Matthew quote, he tells them to find *two* animals, a donkey and a colt.  In the other two he is quoted telling them to find only a colt, one that has “never been ridden.”  So the fourth point of conflict is:

  • Did Jesus tell his disciples to obtain a donkey and a colt, or just a colt that had never been ridden?

5. Zechariah 9:9 is quoted.

Two of the passages, John and Matthew, actually quote the prophetic passage supposedly fulfilled by Jesus at this time.  This is also in relation to the second item of conflict.  The passage is quoted differently.  In John, the passage says:

“…see, your king is coming,
seated on a donkey’s colt.”

And in Matthew it is quoted:

“See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

Again the quote matches the account in which it appears, but it conflicts with the other accounts of the same event.  This is the fifth point of conflict:

  • Did the author of Matthew or the author of John correctly quote Zechariah 9:9?

Now we’ve covered most, if not all, of the salient points of these passages.  We have not yet drawn any conclusions.  We have simply noted the elements in each narrative that agree or are not contradicted, and we have noted those elements in the four narratives that are in conflict with other elements.

So what does this have to do with belief systems?

Up until now we’ve simply run a tally.  Now, however, Observer A and Observer B are going to consider the four passages and draw conclusions based on what they’ve read and the comparative analysis they’ve conducted.

One important distinction between Observer A and Observer B regarding the question at hand is that Observer B is invested in the preconception that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God.

Observer A, on the other hand, has no defined set of beliefs (see the above definition – a belief being an unverifiable assumption.)  In regards to the above conversation, Observer A may regard the bible as a text that may contain errors, but holds no personal investment in that conclusion.  As an agnostic, she considers such a conclusion the most likely, but is open to have her mind changed.  Additionally, she may have a set of preconceptions about the process of observing and assessing reality, but these preconceptions are not necessarily unverifiable assumptions.  Let’s look at a typical set of preconceptions accepted among skeptical agnostics.

  1. One must consider all available evidence before drawing a conclusion.
  2. One should only accept conclusions supported by the available evidence.
  3. One should not gather evidence solely to support a preconceived conclusion.
  4. One should be open to changing one’s preconceptions when new evidence becomes available.

Such preconceptions are known in the realm of Logic as “warranted assumptions.”  A warranted assumption is a belief which is supported by verifiable evidence which justifies the validity of the assumption.  In contrast, an unwarranted assumption is a belief which is not supported by verifiable evidence – a belief which must be accepted on faith alone.

This in and of itself is not a “belief system.”  It could be considered a system for informing or developing beliefs, but by our definitions above, it is not a belief system.

So Observer A reviews the passages above.  Not having a preconception to support, she notes the consistent elements of the story and draws some conclusions:

  1. The passages purport to record the same event.
  2. The similarity between some of the passages might indicate a sharing of stories rather than eyewitness accounts.
  3. Several of the surface contradictions might be explainable.
  4. At least two of the contradictions indicate at least one of the authors related the event inaccurately.
  5. Based on these passages, the idea of an inerrant Bible is suspect.

Note that none of these conclusions depend on any presupposition other than the idea that one can draw conclusions from available evidence.  Each conclusion is a reasonable conjecture based solely on examination of the text.  She has not applied any outside rationalizations to her conclusions.  Neither has she brought a preconceived conclusion to the conversation.  Every one of those conclusions can be rationally drawn from observation of the passages above, and without the application of any unwarranted assumptions.

The critical point to take away from this is that there is no application of a belief system (an unverifiable set of preconceptions through which reality is observed and interpreted) upon the facts in order to draw conclusions.

Now Observer B, the Evangelical Christian analyzes the passages above.  He comes to the conversation admitting to having a belief system.  This belief system contains several preconceptions, several unverifiable assumptions:

  1. God as expressed in the Bible exists in the persons of God the Father, Jesus Christ (God the Son), and God the Holy Spirit.
  2. The Bible is the perfect expression of God’s communication with man.
  3. This communication is inerrant and contains all necessary information for man to interface with God.
  4. Any textual indication that the Bible does not fulfill these preconceptions must have an explanation that maintains the first three assertions.

Observer B places this filter between the issues under consideration and his own capacity to reason.  This belief system is applied to every aspect of the above analysis.  When faced with clear indications that one or the other of two biblical authors has incorrectly, for whatever reason, related an event or story, they have placed themselves in a position to be unable to accept the textual evidence at face value.  They are compelled to make excuses unsupported by the actual text in order to maintain their preconceived conclusion of inerrancy.

Conclusions drawn include obfuscating assertions such as Six Blind Men and an Elephant, or as seen in the thread referenced above:

I’ve been looking for Joe, so I ask my friends to let me know if they see him. A friend of mine phones me and says that he just saw Joe driving down Main Street. Another friend phones seconds later and says that he just saw Joe driving down Main Street with his mother. One of these friends is mistaken. Which one is it?

Of course, this is no answer at all.  Such an illustration serves only to show that two individuals can relate an event sharing different details and not conflict.  It does nothing to address the precise issues raised in the specific passages in question.  In the passage above I’ve identified five specific contradictions.  Two of these are what I would term surface contradictions, in that they are contradictions at first reading, but they can be explained without abandoning reason.  For instance:

Did Jesus find the animal(s) or send his disciples to obtain the animal(s)?

While there is a difference, it’s not unreasonable to assume that the author of John might have glossed over that particular detail in order to get to what seemed important to him, that Jesus was riding into Jerusalem in fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy.  There’s no necessity to apply assumptions or filters to this contradiction in order to provide an explanation that doesn’t break Observer B’s belief system.  So we can allow that point.

The same applies to: Did Jesus sit on the animal(s) himself, or was he placed on it(them) by others?  It isn’t unreasonable to deduce that perhaps the author of Luke recalled (or had related to him) that the crowd hoisted Jesus onto the donkey, so that he sat on it, whereas the other authors simply focused on the fact that Jesus sat on the animals and rode into town.

These two particular points actually do fit into the illustrations above.  They can simply be tellings from slightly different perspectives without actually being inconsistent in substance.

Now that takes us to the contradictions that don’t fare as well under the filter of Observer B.

First let’s take on the obvious discrepancy:  One animal or two?

The author of Matthew claims that Jesus asked for, received, and rode into Jerusalem on two animals.

“They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on.”

While the three other accounts very specifically record the presence of but one animal:

Mark:  “4 They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, 5 some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” 6 They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. 7 When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it.

Luke:  “32 Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’  34 They replied, ‘The Lord needs it.’ 35 They brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it.”

John:  “14 Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it,”

It’s clear from the text that the authors of Mark, Luke, and John are recording the presence of a single animal, while Matthew records two.

The assertion made by our commenter Mike, as well as on dozens of websites addressing this particular issue (Google Zechariah 9:9, you’ll get a slew of hits on this issue) is that just because Mark, Luke, and John mention one animal doesn’t mean there aren’t more than one.  After all, they don’t say they found only one animal.

But this is textbook hand-waving at its worst.

Here is why.  It would be one thing if the animal were incidental, some aside that was virtually meaningless in the context of the event.  But this is not the case.  This donkey ride is a central messianic proof.  His act of riding into Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt is intended to accomplish two things.  One, it purports to prove he is the Messiah to readers by the fulfillment of the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9.  Two, it is supposed to be his public announcement to Jerusalem and all of Israel that he is, indeed, the Messiah his people have awaited.  One would expect the authors to therefore be accurate.

Furthermore, it is not as if the animal is mentioned but once in the above passages, except perhaps for John, and even there it is referred to twice in the singular, and more importantly, it says he sat on “it,” not on them.  The author of Mark refers to the single animal ten times in that short passage.  He gives a very detailed account of the sending, the securing, the delivery, and the mounting of the colt.  With all of that detail would that not indicate that the author was certain, enough for himself anyhow, that there was but one animal involved.

In the same way Luke refers to the single animal thirteen times.  Both authors refer to the animal in the context of Jesus’s directive, its environment, its current security, the disciples interaction, the bystanders’ interaction, and Jesus’s interaction.  There is no mention of a mother animal, or an animal of any kind.  The context makes it clear that among several people and several steps, we are dealing with the securing of a single animal.

Matthew also records multiple references to his two animals, seven references, to be exact, all of them referring to the animals as a pair, and only two of those references giving separate identification to the two animals making up the pair.  What’s worse, the quotes and the accounts of this interaction precisely mirror the accounts of Mark and Luke, except that two animals are referenced rather than one.

Which leads us to the words attributed to Jesus.

Did Jesus tell his disciples to obtain a donkey and a colt, or just a colt that had never been ridden?

Jesus is quoted as giving his disciples single direction.  In Matthew he is quoted as saying:

“Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”

Mark and Luke, however, relate nearly identical quotes saying:

“Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it.’” (Mark adds – “and will send it back here shortly.”)

Both quotes differ significantly on one particular point – and of course it’s related to the primary discrepancy in the accounts.  In Matthew, whose author records the presence of two animals, Jesus is quoted as sending the disciples after two animals.  In Mark and Luke, who record the presence of but one animal, quote Jesus as sending them after one animal.

In all of these cases, there are multiple references, both by the authors, by Jesus, by the disciples, and by the bystanders.  In each individual account, the number of animals is consistent with the narrative, though not with the other accounts.  If there were truly two animals, would not one of the 25 references in the other three gospel accounts have mentioned it even once?  This was, after all, one of the major turning points in Christ’s earthly ministry.

This leads us to the final contradiction – the actual quote of the Old Testament prophecy this event purports to fulfill.

Mark and Luke don’t quote the passage, so it’s just the authors of Matthew and John and the author(s) of Zechariah we can refer to.  The obvious difference is translated into English as the word “and.”

From Matthew:

5 “Say to Daughter Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’” (emphasis mine, of course.)

From John:

15 “Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion;
see, your king is coming,
seated on a donkey’s colt.”

Now let’s also add in a couple of Old Testament renditions:

From Zechariah:

“9 Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
   Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
   righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
   on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” – NIV

“9 Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
   Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
   righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
   on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” – ESV

“9Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.” – KJV

“9 Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
He is just and endowed with salvation,
Humble, and mounted on a donkey,
Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” – NASB

The thing that stands out in these translations is that each of them specifically refer to a single animal, and each of them capture the Hebrew literary device in the verses.  The restatement of the type of animal, with the clarification that it is young, is for emphasis.  Yet the author of Matthew has somehow altered this verse to refer to two separate animals, something nowhere in evidence in the original text, and in no way referenced in the other accounts.

Seeing these facts, what is the more logical conclusion?

A.  That the author of Matthew misunderstood or mistranslated the Old Testament verse and altered the account to match his understanding of the prophecy?

or

B.  That all three of the other authors, directly referencing the animals at 25 times in this very important detail in the life of Christ, declined to mention the second animal at all, that the author of John misquoted the verse, and that the book of Zechariah has been mistranslated by everyone else everywhere?

Here is the difference between a belief system and a rational system of observation and analysis.  A rational system of observation and analysis, with no preconceived conclusion to support, can simply look at the entirety of the content of these passages and come to conclusion A without any problem.  In fact, I would claim that any objective observation of the above content would conclude either A or something very similar every single time.

On the other hand, a person with a vested interest in maintaining a belief system that hinges on the inerrancy of the bible would be forced to draw a conclusion unwarranted by the evidence at hand in order to maintain their belief (which is, remember, an unverifiable assumption) or else be forced out of integrity to reconsider the assumptions upon which they base their religion.

This obvious difference, the verifiable versus the unverifiable, the warranted versus the unwarranted, is the difference between my analysis of the bible documents and that of a Christian believer.  My method allows me to consider any passage in question without the pressure of a necessary conclusion.  No filter is imposed between my mind and the material in question.  Only the content needs to be considered, analyzed, and judged.  The Christian’s method places a filter of inerrancy over the inquiry that materially alters the conclusions drawn out of necessity to maintain the unsupported belief.

The skeptic’s “belief system” (which by definition is not *actually* a belief system) and the Evangelical Christian Believer’s belief system are not essentially the same, no matter how many times Christians try to tell you it is.

Period.

Pillars of the Earth

Another aside from the Survey of Doubt.

I found this video on exchristian.net the other day.  If you’ve kept up with the posts, you know that it’s my contention that Christianity (actually all of the Abrahamic Religions) are constructs of man attempting to explain the, at the time, unexplainable.  Man experienced unexplainable phenomena, while still dealing with the same great unknowns we still wrestle with today.

This video illustrates the possibility that what became Moses’s pillars of smoke and fire were actually a volcano.

A couple things to keep in mind.  One, the guy is an unbeliever, so he can be snarky (can’t we all?)  So apologies in advance to Christian friends who view this.  Two, this is only a conjecture.  Nobody is claiming that this is the answer.  It’s an interesting consideration, and the reasoning is very sound and fascinating.

It’s just under 9 minutes and well worth the watching.  Cheers.

Changing Filters

My groceries paid for, I rolled the shopping cart toward the door of the local Safeway.  Near the door was a video kiosk.  One family was selecting a movie at the screen, and two other families were waiting for their turn.

My first thought was that this family was going to waste their night watching some mindless, devoid-of-meaning movie.  Then I was amazed as I realized my Evangelical Filter was on.  26 years of thinking of everything in light of Evangelical theology and so-called biblical meaning dies hard.

Pastor and author John Piper wrote a book a few years back called Don’t Waste Your Life.  Here’s a blurb from the back cover:

John Piper writes, “I will tell you what a tragedy is. I will show you how to waste your life. Consider this story from the February 1998 Reader’s Digest: A couple ‘took early retirement from their jobs in the Northeast five years ago when he was 59 and she was 51. Now they live in Punta Gorda, Florida, where they cruise on their 30-foot trawler, play softball and collect shells. . . .’ Picture them before Christ at the great day of judgment: ‘Look, Lord. See my shells.’ That is a tragedy.

and

“God created us to live with a single passion: to joyfully display his supreme excellence in all the spheres of life. The wasted life is the life without this passion. God calls us to pray and think and dream and plan and work not to be made much of, but to make much of him in every part of our lives.”

I actually own this book.  I bought it a couple years ago, when my passion was waning but my belief in Jesus as God was still sure.  I was interested in so many other things.  I was trying to write a book, three different screenplays, and a musical.  I was deeply involved in the local theater group.  My job is time and travel intensive.  None of these things were Christ centered, and for that I harbored a low-grade guilt.

The Christian mentality is summed up in I Corinthians 10:31 (NIV) – So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.

This is driven into the Christian mind incessantly to the point where you look at every activity that you do and evaluate its eternal worth.  After a little while you start evaluating everyone else’s activities the same way.  If they’re just picking up a movie to while away a Friday night, then that night is wasted.  Often you take it a step further, assuming that if they’re wasting away that Friday night then they’re probably lost and headed to hell.

Now, on the other side of this belief system, I see this filter through which I once viewed the world around me, and it is an ugly color.  It is ugly because it inspires a judgmental attitude and a sadness for which there is no foundation.  Seeing those families choosing a movie to watch, presumably together, should be a just what it is, or even a cause to smile, thinking of one little family spending time together enjoying something rather than apart.

Thinking on this exposes the bigger issue – Purpose.

When you’re “in Christ” you have a specific purpose.  You are here for a short time.  If you are fortunate enough to be found by God, then you need to realize that this is just a temporary home.  While you’re here, you need to work at becoming more like him.  You need to do his work and pursue his purpose, for you were “bought with a price.”  Any moment spent doing something just for yourself is a moment lost.  You can always be more holy.  Every time you ignore that impetus to pursue a selfish desire, to be entertained rather than enlightened, emboldened, encouraged or otherwise further indoctrinated, you lose a small chance to be your best for God.  You will finish the race with fewer rewards in heaven than the next guy.  The now is not about now, it’s about what’s ahead.

In this economy, entertainment is worthless.  It’s a distraction from the real meaning of life.  It’s nice to have, but you could always have done a little more for him.

In short, it cheapens the present in looking to a glorious future instead.

That saddens me.  Knowing what I know now, seeing the world the way I do without those filters on, I see that there is only Now.  Not only that, if there is no monumental future in the sky, then our lives aren’t about redeeming every moment to win more souls for Christ.  It’s about enjoying the present moment, loving your kin, finding peace, happiness, and joy in the tiny moments as they go by.  Finding happiness and comfort in sitting down with your kids to watch a movie together, reveling just in being together, sharing laughter, thoughtfulness, suspense, and the satisfaction of a story well told.

Referring back up to the blurb on Piper’s book, I think that couple is far from tragic.  What is tragic is that Piper can take a vignette of the simple enjoyment of marital devotion and togetherness and twist it into something to be derided.  That couple has found peace and happiness together, enjoying each moment in the little tiny seashells they find.  They’re enjoying the natural world in which they live, not worrying about tomorrow, just being in today.  That’s beautiful.

I like the color of that filter much better, and I think it tells a more accurate truth about every day life.

Cruel and Unusual – Hell and Punishment

Does the punishment fit the crime?

This is a key concept in modern society.  In the name of justice, fairness, reasonableness, compassion, and many other related motivators, western society is adamant that no criminal suffer unreasonably for the wrong they committed.  Even a state willing to execute criminals finds itself concerned about limiting the suffering of the condemned.

According to Evangelical Theology, the biblical god created Hell to punish the unrighteous.  Hell is the eternal aftermath of judgment.  Since god created Hell, as his perfect punishment, one would expect that punishment to reflect his nature.  Theologically, Hell is the execution of god’s perfect Justice.  But if god is omnibenevolent, perfectly good, loving, merciful, and forgiving, as well as just, we would not be remiss to expect his final punishment to also embody those aspects too.  After all, god is who he is, and nothing he does can ever fall outside his nature.

So, how does one get to Hell?

I don’t know for sure, but I’d bet you asking random people on the street would result in answers like, “Doing very evil things, murder, rape, molesting children, torturing people,” and so on.  However, that’s not what Evangelical Theology teaches.

J.I. Packer says:  “(…and if they encountered the gospel) rejecting Jesus rather than coming to him.”  He offers several references to back this up.  (John 3:18-21, Romans 1:18-2:8, and  IIThes 2:9-11)

We won’t go into General Revelation (those who haven’t heard the gospel, but who can be aware of the existence of god through nature) right now.  In truth it’s an even more unacceptable dogma.  In showing the illogical nature of the doctrine regarding the Revelation of the Gospel, the doctrine of punishment under General Revelation hasn’t a leg to stand on.

For those who have heard the Gospel, neither the sins or the good deeds of the past have any bearing on their eternal destiny.  Either they accept Jesus as Lord, or they don’t.

So here are a couple scenarios:

1 – Joe Smith is a bad man.  As a child he tortured animals and started fires.  As an adult he built up a rap sheet with his anger and his fists.  He date raped a girl in high school and got away with it because you just didn’t talk about such things in those days.  He abused both of his wives and his three kids.  He drank hard and lived hard.  He cheated on his taxes and made his money under the table.  He cheated on his wife and slept around all the time, giving his first wife 3 venereal diseases and his second the two she didn’t already have.  He got into fights with people whenever he could for whatever he could.  He committed some small crimes when times were hard, severely beating a shopkeeper who tried to stop him once.  He served 15 months for that one.  His other stint in jail was for nearly 7 years, when during a drunken brawl at a pool hall he accidentally killed a man with a broken whisky bottle.

At the age of 56, with a liver as hard as a rock and the rest of his body worn out from decades of abuse, he lays on his deathbed.  He is overloaded with regret.  His girlfriend is there for him, along with two of his three kids.  His oldest won’t have anything to do with him.  He knows how wrong he was, and he wishes he could have a second chance.  He wishes he’d listened in catechism.  Well, kid #3 is a born-again believer.  She is worried for her dad’s soul, so she asks her pastor to come visit.  Pastor Ed comes by early in the evening and shares the Good News of Jesus Christ to Joe.  “Joe, everyone’s a sinner.  No matter what you’ve done, what sins you’ve committed, Jesus died for those sins.  He died so that people like you and me don’t have to suffer eternity in hell.  If you believe that Jesus died for your sins, and you ask him to come into your heart and by his blood wash away all those awful sins, he will forgive you.  You will be white as snow, and even if you were to die this very night, you would awaken on the other side to find yourself in eternal paradise with him.  ‘I tell you the truth, today you shall be with me in paradise!’”  Well, this is too much for Joe.  He can’t change his life, but he can change his eternity.  His heart overwhelmed by all his regrets, he prays with the minister for Jesus to forgive his sins and live in his heart.  He is at peace.  That very night, he dies…

Where does Joe end up?

2 – John Doe is, temporally speaking, a really good guy.  As a child he was thoughtful, giving and sensitive.  He was bullied at times, but bore it with scant annoyance, making as many of them as he could his friends so they wouldn’t treat him so.  He was a disciplined kid, a decent student, and a responsible collegian.  He never went through the rebellious stage in life, rather spent his teenage years trying different activities and getting involved in public service groups to try and find out what he really wanted to do.  He studied psychology and sociology in college and became a family counselor.  He married at 25, had 3 kids, and was kind and loving to all of them.  His kids turned out pretty well, and when one of them struggled with delinquency, he was patient and understanding and helped them grow through it.  He is generous almost to a fault with his money and time.  He gives to charity and volunteers to help the less fortunate.  He and his wife (and the kids when they were at home) haven’t spent a Thanksgiving at home for years.  Instead they’ve spent the day serving dinner to the homeless and impoverished.  All of his peer have a tremendous amount of trust in him and look to him as one of the nicest, most giving guys they know.

He is an agnostic.  He doesn’t know if anything’s out there or not.  But he does his best to live the golden rule, to treat others with love and kindness.  When he is approached by anyone religious, he is always gentle and kind, but he says he’s not really religious, but he’s glad it works for them.  He does these things because it just seems the right thing to do.  After all, we’re all just people on this little planet.

Now he’s 77 years old and some health problems have caught up to him.  He’s philosophical about the nearness of the end, and is satisfied he lived as well as he could.  He says goodbye to his loving wife of 52 years and his children, who all surround him as he fades away.

Where does John end up?

Before we answer those two questions, let’s throw one more bit of Evangelical theology into the mix.  According to Christian theology, Christ died for the sins of the whole world.  There is some dispute as to what that means.  J.I. Packer’s Concise Theology teaches that Christ only died for the elect, those that actually choose to come to Christ, but that he didn’t die for anyone else’s sins.  He even says that said doctrine isn’t inconsistent, but of course it is.  The reason for that is that if all have free will, then the free gift of forgiveness through the blood of Christ is available to any and all that call on the Name of the Lord.  Since every person in the world is said to have that freedom of choice, then Christ’s death was sufficient to cover every sin of every person ever to live.  The doctrine I was taught at the two churches I served at throughout my Christian life (SCBC and KCBC) indicated that Christ died for all sins, and that it was up to the individual to either accept this forgiveness that was already secured, or to reject it out of hand, condemning him or herself solely by their own choice.

Do you see it yet?

According to Evangelical Christian theology, Joe is enjoying the fruits of paradise in the presence of almighty God, his soul bought with a price, fully forgiven and free from shame and regret.

On the other hand, John is roasting on a spit in hell.  John will suffer in flames and isolation forever, without respite.  There will be no end.  After 10 million years, it will be like day one, with 10 billion years still to come.  Forever is a very, very long time.

What was John’s crime?  Apparently John didn’t realize that all his good works and helping of others didn’t mean jack in God’s economy.  John didn’t recognize his need of Jesus and instead depended on his limited abilities to do good to others.  In the Christian worldview, good works should ONLY be an outgrowth of one’s gratitude for salvation in Christ.  By themselves they are empty.

And what about Joe?  Aren’t there any consequences for him?  Well, not really.  He might be saved as one escaping the flames, but he’s in paradise, saved, in the presence of God, perfect in every way, and never has to worry again.  Despite his horrible life and many sins, he accepted Jesus, so he gets all the goodies forever.

John tried to do right and there is NO recompense for his good-hearted effort.  In fact, when Christians tell this story, they’ll say “John tried to do right” with a condescending sadness, the tragedy of trying to do right rather than recognizing he’s a dirtbag who can never really do anything good outside of the urging of Christ and his Holy Spirit.

Now, I suppose this would all be well and good, if that’s all there was to scripture.  If it said, “Look, God’s pretty unfair.  It’s not about the good or bad you do.  It’s all about Jesus.  Just accept him and we’ll be buds.  Otherwise, I’ll burn you up.”

But the scriptures Christians follow say that god is Just with a capital J.  They say his forgiveness and mercy know no bounds.  They say that he is loving – scratch that, that he IS love.

What kind of love takes sincere effort to do good and hands out eternal torture?  What kind of justice let’s bad Joe Smith into heaven and sends decent John Doe to hellfire and brimstone?

And what about forever?  Let’s say John Doe, good as he is, makes a few mistakes.  We all do.  He yells at his kids now and then, says “goddammit,” looks at pretty girls a little too long, and occasionally gossips about an annoying workmate.

In what economy do ANY or ALL of those sins deserve ETERNAL damnation?  In what way is there justice in torturing forever and ever someone whose mistakes were so minor and relatively benign compared to Joe Smith’s?

And see, we haven’t even begun to touch on those whom have never heard the gospel, and are still sent to damnation.  That’s even worse.  It doesn’t need explaining at all, because the above example, where at least the person heard of Jesus, is already reprehensible.

In actuality, it is horribly unjust, and a remnant of Ancient Near East tribal religions, in which god was vengeful, wrathful, and demanded appeasement, with the petulance of a child at times.  Christians will answer that God’s standard is absolute perfection, and that only the propitiation of Christ’s blood can provide that perfection in the face of original sin.

Then I would ask – why then would God accept such a sacrifice?  The act of a god-man bleeding out on a tree isn’t truly equal to all the evils ever committed in the world.  Christians point to the crucified Christ and expound on his astounding sacrifice, the pain he endured on the cross, and equate it with the weight of all the evil done in the world, as though taking all of that on was an almost impossible task, one that takes the god-man to perform.  He loved us enough to die, they say – I said.

But you know what?  It really isn’t *that* impressive either.  After all, according to the New Testament scriptures, he KNEW he was going to rise again in three days.  If someone with full authority said to me, with the same assurance that Christ had, as he had the mind of god, “Hey, Anthony, listen: the world is in big trouble.  It’s going to die, and everyone on it.  But here’s the thing.  You can save your wife and kids and, well, everybody else.  It will be tough, but it will only last three days – actually, just about 2 days, the way we count them.  We’ll kill you, pretty brutally.  It will take you a good 3-6 hours to die, and it’ll hurt like a son-of-gun.  You’ll be in hell for about a day and a half, but then you’ll rise again, and you’ll be perfect, and your wife and kids will be safe forever – as will the whole world,” what would I do?  I’ll tell you what I’d do.  I’d go for it, in a hot minute.  Less than three days of suffering and I can guarantee that my wife and kids will live in bliss FOREVER?  I never have to worry about them again?  You bet your last dollar I’d do it, and so would you.

It would be a whole other issue if he didn’t know he was coming back.  But he did know, according to the scriptures.  What sort of sacrifice is that?  They’ll say, “But it was worse than that – he was separated from the father for the first time in all of eternity.”  So WHAT?  He’s god, for crying out loud.  Is that supposed to make it seem harder to do, for a man who is fully god?  I think not.

Truly the entire theology breaks down.  It is terribly inconsistent with the concept of a just god, a forgiving god, a righteous god, and especially a loving god.

What it boils down to is that in Christian theology God has drawn an arbitrary line around Jesus Christ.  He has, by his own choice, said, “This very temporary sacrifice is enough for me.”  Furthermore, even though it’s demonstrable that Jesus’s sacrifice paid for all of the sins of the world, whether they accept Jesus or not, that even though God has the power to forgive all sins (as anyone who accepts Jesus can of their own volition have their sins forgiven, without having to pass any other test) He has instead set up an arbitrary line to take some to heaven and torture the rest for eternity for not choosing a savior on little to no evidence, with their already paid-for sin as an excuse.

There is nothing righteous, nothing just, nothing loving in that at all.

PS: For a similar and interesting view, see Burn in Hell at the Respectful Atheist blog.