Category Archives: Incoherence of Christian Doctrine

Impractical Christianity – Jesus can’t mean *that*

Several years ago, I was at a couples Bible study that my wife and I regularly attended. We were studying Matthew 5:38-42, part of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus says:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (NIV)

The question we were pondering was: ‘Does Jesus really expect us to act this way?’ Taken literally, the passage is a mandate to lay oneself open to as much abuse as another person is willing to dispense.

I offered this insight: “Jesus can’t be saying that we have to act this way toward everyone. It would be impractical. We would run out of shirts! I think he’s saying that we have to be willing to yield to another person this way if God asks us to.”

No one challenged me, but someone should have, because my interpretation of the passage rendered it meaningless. I mean, you could replace “yield to another person this way” with any action and it would be equally true for a Christian: “We have to be willing to eat glass fragments and wash them down with sulfuric acid if God asks us to.”

Unfortunately, that kind of watering-down is necessary (but not sufficient!) to reconcile such a passage with common sense. These alleged words of Jesus cannot be followed verbatim. That’s why no one does.

‘Teaching things’ in science class

In the places where intelligent design ‘theory’ is allowed to be ‘taught’ in science classes, how is it going?

I’d like to see how it really plays out. What do teachers say about ID? What can even be said about it? This is all I can come up with: “At some point, some people give up on seeking knowledge methodically and decide to content themselves with the idea that some intelligent designer ‘just did it.’ Meanwhile, there are some scientific theories about …”

People who are campaigning to have ID ‘taught’ in schools, or to ‘prevent evolution from being taught as fact,’ convey a shamefully simplistic view of what it means to teach something, and total ignorance of the active process by which real students learn. This insults students and the education profession.

Preacher: ‘Duh! God doesn’t talk to you!’

One of my friends from high school shared a link to this sermon via Facebook.

Pastor Phil Johnson

Pastor Phil Johnson

I’ve never heard a sermon quite like this. The speaker, pastor Phil Johnson, spends the first 15 minutes asserting that God does not communicate with individuals by putting words or thoughts in their heads, and ridiculing people (generally and specifically) who believe that God communicates this way.

At the 15:54 mark, Johnson says, “The very same superstition that allows Oral Roberts to believe he got a message from a giant Jesus is the same kind of belief that makes a Southern Baptist reader of [Blackaby and King’s popular Bible study series] ‘Experiencing God’ think that God is speaking directly to him.”

So yeah, anyone can see how absurd that is, right?

Then he explains (starting at the 16:16 mark, and invoking 2 Timothy 3:16-17) his view of how God does communicate: Verbally, God communicates through scripture only — “sola scriptura.” This means that God definitely communicated directly with characters in the Bible and with the writers of the Bible but definitely has not communicated directly to anyone since.

After drawing the arbitrary line of “sola scriptura,” Johnson immediately blurs it by saying (at the 17:21 mark), “beyond that, we just trust the providence of God to order our steps.” This seems to mean that God sets conditions in a way that nudges or entices people in the right direction, placing an obstacle here, clearing a path there. Well, I can still recall being a believer and puzzling over the meaning of each setback (was God telling me to stop or testing my perseverance, or was the devil or ‘the world’ persecuting me?) and each golden opportunity (was it a gift from God, temptation from Satan, or something else?).

One reason it’s tough to determine whether (and how) one’s steps are being ‘ordered’ is that the Bible cautions people against exercising their own judgment. Johnson affirms this principle: At the 19:11 mark, alluding to Proverbs 3:5, he says, “The Bible is God’s message to us. Trust it, and lean on it, and lean not to your own understanding, and especially not to whatever subjective impressions you might feel.”

Now try to follow Johnson as he ‘clarifies’ how God does and does not communicate (starting at the 19:52 mark): “Those urges and sensations that we feel are not revelation. But to whatever degree they are true at all, they are the result, the effect, of illumination — when the Holy Spirit applies the word of God to our hearts and opens our spiritual eyes to its truths. And then we need to guard carefully beyond that, against allowing our own experience or our own subjective thoughts to eclipse the authority and the certainty of the more sure word of prophecy.”

That’s right. Johnson even says the “word of prophecy” is “more sure” than “our own experience.” He reiterates this a while later (starting at the 40:44 mark): He reads 2 Peter 1:16-18, and then interjects, “Peter goes on to say that even what he heard with his own ears and what he saw with his own eyes was not as authoritative as the eternal word of God contained in scripture.” Johnson continues to verse 19, using a translation that includes the phrase “We also have a more sure word of prophecy … .”

Let that sink in. He’s saying that a person who reads in the Bible that the transfiguration of Jesus occurred has better proof of that event than the disciples who allegedly saw and heard it.

We end up with an implied hierarchy of influences, ranked as follows from most reliable to least reliable:

  1. Scripture.
  2. Personal experience (including seeing God ‘in person’ and hearing him speak ‘out loud’).
  3. The ordering of one’s steps, “illuminated” by scripture and the Holy Spirit.
  4. Personal judgment.
  5. Perceived direct communications from God.

This hierarchy is utterly illogical. For example, Johnson treats it as indisputable that God spoke directly to (or through) certain people thousands of years ago, but inconceivable that God speaks directly to (or through) anyone today.

He explains his stance (starting back at the 16:20 mark) by invoking scripture, and it really could not be explained any other way. His argument is structured as follows:

  1. The Bible, according to itself, is sufficient for instructing people on how to live.
  2. If God were to give revelations other than the Bible, it would mean the Bible is not sufficient.
  3. Therefore, God has given no revelations other than the Bible.

A classic example of “It’s true because our faith requires it to be true.”

By contrast, the two influences that are considered most reliable in the real world — personal judgment and personal experience — are treated as vastly inferior to the Bible.

It depresses me to know that Johnson has followers who embrace this hierarchy in the name of faith — rejecting empirical data and logic in favor of a recklessly assembled (and therefore disjointed and inconsistent) anthology of ancient, mostly unattributed writings.

Thanks for praying for me

… More specifically, thanks for letting me know that you are praying for me to abandon my skepticism and go back to believing in your god.

I know you are praying because you care, but the reason I’m so glad you’re doing it is because it so beautifully illustrates what is wrong with the concept of spiritual accountability to God.

Presumably, your doctrinal stance is that if I believe certain things about Jesus, I will go to heaven, and if I don’t believe those things, I will go to hell. This implies that I have inviolable control over what I believe — that I can simply will to believe something, independent of what I understand to be factually true and independent of external pressures. This is the only way that a god would be justified in holding me personally accountable for my belief or lack of belief.

If you are praying that I will believe in God again, that means that you think God can cause me to believe in him, or at least remove other external factors that prevent me from believing in him. In other words, you admit that what a person believes can be influenced by external factors — including, in some cases, divine manipulation.

If your prayer could even possibly make the difference between my believing and my not believing, then your prayer might be the deciding factor in where I spend eternity. If so, how fair is that — that my fate depends on whether you bother to pray for me?

Either external factors can influence a person’s belief in a god or they can’t. If they can, then personal spiritual accountability is out the window. If they can’t, then praying for unbelievers to become believers is futile, as are all other actions aimed at ‘converting’ them.

Thank God I’m wrong?

On my commute, I see a billboard identical to this one.

I’m not wrong, but if I were wrong and Answers in Genesis were right — that is, if the biblical god existed — how would that be good news to me?

I’m a big fan of the ‘mob mix-up’ movie plot. You know how it goes: An innocent doofus does something foolish and ends up owing money to a mob boss, and he spends the rest of the film trying to do a seemingly impossible task in order to get off the hit list.

Well, to me, the god of the Bible is like the mob boss in those movies. Before you met him, you were just living your life. But he decided you owe him something, and he’s powerful, so unless your debt is cleared somehow, you are in big trouble.

It’s considered a happy outcome — in the movie scenario or the God scenario — if the debt is simply cleared, if the protagonist merely gets back to where he was before he met the powerful being. Ah, what a relief! In a way, that’s something to be thankful for. But it’s not the powerful being who deserves the thanks, even if he lets the protagonist off the hook, because he arbitrarily imposed the debt in the first place.

Guy P. Harrison, on a recent episode of Freethought Radio, expressed the salvation paradox as follows:

What are we being saved from? We’re being saved from the god who’s also saying that he’s going to save us. … Jesus is knocking on your door, saying “I’m here to save you,” and you say “Save me from what?” and he says “From me.” Because we’re not under any threat apart from him.

The author and enforcer of morality?

I’ve been listening to a lot of debates (in podcasts), mostly about whether the Christian god (or any personal god) exists.

Here is one of the most common challenges to the atheist position: “If there is no god, where does morality come from? Who or what has the moral authority to decide what is right and what is wrong?”

And here is another common challenge: “Without God to answer to, what motivates you to be good?”

I know these challenge have been answered eloquently and convincingly by many others, but I’d still like to offer a multi-point response of my own.

1. These challenges pose a false problem, produced by sleight of hand:

Step 1: Assume the existence of a god with traits only a god can have — in this case, absolute moral authority.

Step 2: Hypothetically remove that god from existence.

Step 3: Put the burden on atheists to fill the vacancy with something else that has the same trait.

(The same technique is represented in the question: “If there is no God, what is the meaning of life?” The speaker generally has a narrow definition of “meaning” in mind — the implication is “God assigns my transcendent, sacred missions to me. Who assigns yours to you?”)

It has not even been established that we humans have or need an absolute moral authority, so questions about where it comes from are premature.

2. There is a common set of good and bad behaviors that theists and atheists acknowledge.

Giving, telling the truth, and protecting people from harm are good. Stealing, lying, and physical assault are bad. Enhancing people’s self-esteem is good; degrading it is bad. There are trade-offs, but we all have a very similar sense of what is right and wrong.

When people deviate from the common moral code, it’s often because they have adopted uniquely religious ‘moral’ hierarchies — usually entailing requirements or constraints on speech, thought, food, and sexual behavior that do not promote anyone’s well-being in any tangible way and that often work against it.

In the debates I’ve heard, when the atheist opponent points out that nonbelievers also know good from evil , the theist concedes but explains that “the law is written on everyone’s heart,” invoking Romans 2:15. In other words, we are indeed all born with an innate sense of what’s right and what’s wrong, but God put it there. At first glance, this seems no more testable than a claim that God engineered the Big Bang. However, the “written on our hearts” claim has a flaw: only the common moral code is in everyone’s heart. Everybody knows that stealing, lying, and physical assault are wrong; everybody does not ‘know’ that homosexuality, eating shellfish, and blasphemy against the Holy Spirit are wrong.

3. God, as portrayed in the Bible, acts — and commands people to act — in ways that are inconsistent with what ‘we all know’ is right. His moral expectations are not only subjective but also incoherent.

By comparison to the common moral code among humans, the biblical god’s moral code is completely without rhyme or reason — especially in the Old Testament.

  • In multiple instances, God commands his chosen people to commit genocide and take slaves, including sex slaves. (Viewed another way, he punishes the non-chosen people just for being non-chosen — something completely beyond their control and completely within God’s control.)
  • God commands Abraham to murder his son.
  • God executes one of his own Levites, Uzzah, for daring to touch the Ark of the Covenant in order to steady it.

4. Everyone is motivated by fear of repercussions.

Whether there are gods to answer to or not, people still have to deal with the natural, legal, economic and social repercussions of their actions.

5. Vicarious redemption negates fear of repercussions from God. 

If a person believes he can have any and all of his sins absolved by ‘accepting’ Jesus’s vicarious sacrifice, then he has no greater motive to be moral than a person who believes there are no gods to answer to. Once he’s been ‘saved,’ his fear of hell is dissolved. So what motivates him to be good?

‘When I found you …’

In my work, I make SharePoint sites. But I’m a self-taught developer, so things break once in a while.

When something does break, I work really hard to resolve the issue. And after I’ve fixed it, the user invariably thanks me. I want to say “You’re welcome,” but that is not enough; I feel weird accepting thanks for solving a problem that I caused. So my standard reply is: “It’s always my pleasure to fix what I broke, or designed poorly to begin with.” 

In Christianity, there is this notion that God finds people in a miserable condition — depraved and doomed — and then cures and pardons them. That is the connotation of Colossians 2:13: “And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses … .”

I call that verse the “when I found you” verse because it always makes me think of the scene from The Princess Bride (1987) where Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) is dressing down his two hired thugs. To Inigo (Mandy Patinkin), he says, “When I found you, you were so slobbering drunk, you couldn’t buy brandy!”

It is ludicrous to frame the god of Christianity — the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of everything — as making his initial acquaintance with a person only after that person has sunk to a point of utter depravity all on his or her own. The Christian God doesn’t find people in a sinful and helpless state; he puts them there! He is like me in my tech support role: the problem’s creator as well as its solver.

Why is there a battle?

ImageWhen I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a child — and again when I watched the 2005 movie — I was deeply disturbed by the battle and its implications. Why does Aslan, the all-loving, all-powerful king of Narnia, stand up an army and make it fight a battle against the white witch’s army?

If he needs an army in order to accomplish his will, then he is not all-powerful. If he doesn’t need the army, then he is sending four children and countless Narnian creatures into combat unnecessarily. My thanks to C.S. Lewis for this handy illustration of the problem of evil.

Berkeley’s parking racket

This is a parable in real life about the often-misplaced burden of proof concerning the existence of gods.

A few years ago, I got a parking citation notice from the City of Berkeley. It said my car had been parked on a residential street in Berkeley on a Tuesday morning during street sweeping hours. I had never parked my car on any street in Berkeley, ever. Clearly, there had been some kind of mistake.

I contested the citation in writing, saying that my car had never been parked in Berkeley, and further volunteering where it had been at the time the citation was written. My “request” was “denied” on the basis of insufficient evidence. This felt wrong to me, but I couldn’t articulate exactly why.

A short while later, I had an in-person hearing at the city’s offices. I asked my hearing officer, “How do I produce evidence that my car wasn’t in a given place at a given time?”

Missing the rhetorical nature of my question, she said, sympathetically, “Just do the best you can.” She then started suggesting ways that I might be able to show that my car had been somewhere else at the time the citation was written. I explained that I would not be able to recall, let alone prove, where my car had been at the time in question. Sometimes I drove to work; sometimes I parked at my son’s preschool, rode my kick scooter to the BART station, and took the train to work.

Eventually, I got a few preschool parents and staff members to provide written statements to the effect that they were accustomed to seeing my car in the preschool parking lot during work hours. That, apparently, was good enough for the hearing officer, and my citation was dismissed.

Happy ending, right? Wrong. To this day, I regret not insisting on a court hearing. Why? Because the city never met its burden of proof in the first place, and I missed my chance to call attention to that publicly. As I discovered after the dismissal of my citation, the notice had lacked two items of identifying information that the state vehicle code requires to confirm that the citing officer actually saw the vehicle in question.

I allowed a random city to make a random accusation against me with inadequate proof and then shift the burden of proof to me. I jumped through hoops to produce evidence to refute the accusation when I really should have forced the city to show its evidence first.

‘Without sin’ – wait, what?

Christian salvation doctrine depends on the premise that Jesus was without sin (Hebrews 4:15; 1 Peter 2:22 (citing Isaiah 53:9). He is figuratively called a ‘spotless lamb’ to make the point that his death was an acceptable sacrifice.

But what does ‘without sin’ mean?

  • That he never violated the will of God? If so, it’s kind of an empty claim. Whatever God told him to do was automatically ‘not sin.’
  • That he never caused harm to anyone? It can’t mean that, because he did some harm to some people. He called the Pharisees bad names, wrecked moneychangers’ property, commandeered someone’s donkey colt, and sent a demon into someone’s herd of pigs (presumably ruining his livelihood).
  • That he was never selfish, always altruistic, in everything he did? Kind of impossible. He ate and slept when he could have been healing people, raising the dead, etc. He praised a woman for pouring perfume on him as a tribute when, to Judas’s point, it could have been sold and the money used to alleviate someone’s suffering.
  • That he always made the right moral choices? That’s problematic. Is there always exactly one right choice?

The reality is that every act, however altruistic it might be, has an opportunity cost. It’s possible to always do things that have desirable effects, but there is no act that has only desirable effects.

In the very best cases, you have to choose between one good thing and another. There are trade-offs.

Put another way, every action has a moral downside. Being more generous toward one person means being less generous toward another.

No action is inherently good, so it is logically impossible for Jesus — or anyone else — to only do things that are good, things that have no downside.

It’s possible to be ‘without sin’ only if you treat ‘sin’ as a narrow list of don’ts. This is akin to saying a TV show is ‘wholesome’ as long as it breaks no FCC rules.