Category Archives: 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.


Stuff I used to believe, part 1: Wisdom and how to get it

As a Christian in my 30s, I heard my pastor preach one Sunday on how to receive wisdom.

He quoted James 1:5:

But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him. (NASB)

This is the understanding that I took away with me that day:

  • Wisdom means sound judgment and an ability to make good decisions.
  • If I ask God for wisdom, he’ll make me wise. If I don’t ask, I’ll remain unwise.
  • I won’t be able to make myself wise by learning from experience or developing my critical thinking skills. Only God has the power to make me wise.

Imagine my relief at not having to put any work into it. And image how wise I became once I started praying instead of learning.

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.

On inerrancy of the scriptures

ScreenHunter_01 Dec. 24 08.06If those to whom the narratives of the Bible are so sacred that they are not to be handled freely as other narratives are handled, could for just one moment stand aside from their own point of view, and could realize that criticism, if it is honest criticism, must begin by looking upon the Bible just as they themselves look upon other sacred books, as something to be tested just as other books are tested, at least some of the bitterness of controversy would be done away.

There is the more need to speak plainly and sharply in this matter, because many of our religious leaders are disposed to admit the principle, while they are not willing to apply it. The Bible, they say, may contain errors. But that any particular statement is an error, they will not admit so long as there is any way, probable or improbable, in which it may be explained. Now this is not consistent, and it is not quite honest; it is pretending to treat the Bible in an impartial way, without treating it in a way that is actually impartial. When we are dealing with any other book we do not assume that its statements are true so long as there is any conceivable way in which they might be true; we balance the evidence, and then we decide for the more probable view. And we must insist that the statements of the Bible are to be accepted or rejected on just the same degree of probability or improbability which would govern us anywhere else.

— Arthur Kenyon Rogers, The Life and Teachings of Jesus: A Critical Analysis of the Sources of the Gospels, Together With a Study of the Sayings of Jesus, 1894


I’ve been listening to Hitchens’ “God Is Not Great,” read by the author (what great delivery). I thought of Mike Huckabee’s recent comment when it came to this part:

“When the earthquake hits, or the tsunami inundates, or the Twin Towers ignite, you can see and hear the secret satisfaction of the faithful. Gleefully they strike up: ‘You see, this is what happens when you don’t listen to us!'”

‘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.

Why no promo homo?

I have a question for those who invoke the Bible or other scripture to support their opposition to homosexuality: Are you a reluctant opponent of homosexuality, or an eager one?

Reluctant: You don’t personally agree with or understand God’s condemnation of homosexuality, but you feel compelled to have a ‘united front’ with God (as you understand him), so you reluctantly speak and act in opposition to homosexuality as a matter of loyalty to God. This inner conflict may strain or limit your personal relationships, or cause you guilt.

Eager: You personally agree with God’s condemnation of homosexuality (as you understand it). That is, you think homosexuality is not only an affront to God but also inherently immoral, or at least harmful to society or to individuals somehow. You feel that speaking and acting in opposition to homosexuality is an act of service to society, not just to God.

If you are an eager opponent, I would challenge you to examine your core assumptions. Using something other than your interpretation of scripture, can you show that homosexuality actually harms society or individuals? (That exercise may at least make you a more reluctant opponent!)

If you are a reluctant opponent, I would challenge you to work out why your personal morality is at odds with what you see as scriptural morality.

Hiddenness: an obvious problem

I’ve been searching in vain online for a coherent explanation for ‘the hiddenness of God’ — an answer to the question, “If God really wants a personal relationship with everyone, why doesn’t he make himself and his intentions more obvious?”

The least satisfying answer I’ve found is, essentially, that God has made himself ‘obvious enough’ for everyone to believe in him if they want to believe. (This is true in a circular way: If people are willing to believe something based on flimsy evidence, then flimsy evidence is sufficient.)

Another answer, and one that gets a little closer to addressing the actual question, is that God hides himself on purpose because if he made himself too obvious, then believing in him would require no faith. Put another way, God intentionally makes it difficult to believe in him so that when people do believe, it is meaningful. But that begs the question of why that kind of ‘difficult belief’ is necessary in order for God to have a genuine love relationship with people. Why place any obstacle in the way of the relationships you are seeking?

There is no parallel of that requirement in human relationships — sane people do not intentionally make themselves difficult to understand, love or trust, just so it will be meaningful when people understand, love and trust them.

Also, this ‘hidden on purpose’ explanation is inconsistent with the situation described in the first few chapters of Genesis, before ‘the Fall.’ There, God is ‘completely obvious’ to Adam and Eve and appears to have a close personal relationship with them nonetheless. This isn’t trivial. Christian salvation doctrine depends on recognizing the pre-Fall situation as the baseline for the God-human relationship, the kind of relationship we all could be having with God right now if Adam and Eve had not listened to the serpent. We lost perfection “through Adam,” so we need to gain it back “through Christ.”

So for me, the hiddenness of God remains unexplained.

Bomb on bus

Speed posterGod wants everyone to be saved. But on his terms.

It’s like the movie “Speed”: (per Wikipedia) Dennis Hopper’s character “sets up a bomb on a city bus that … must keep moving above 50 miles per hour to keep it from exploding.”

God wants everyone to be saved in the same sense that Dennis Hopper’s character in the movie wants everyone on the bus to survive. If everyone does exactly as he says, no one gets hurt.


Stories of Jesus evolved!

The episodes of the Reasonable Doubts podcast aren’t being produced fast enough, so now I’m listening to ‘back issues.’

This one, titled “Which Jesus?” presents straightforward “redaction criticism” with respect to the gospels in the modern New Testament canon.

As the speaker, Jeremy Beahan, explains, the gospels are not merely inconsistent with each other. Each gospel is unique in terms of how it depicts Jesus.

  • The gospel of Mark has unique content that depicts Jesus as a misunderstood messiah.
  • The gospel of Matthew has unique content that depicts Jesus as the son of God.
  • The gospel of Luke has unique content that depicts Jesus as a rejected prophet and the savior of the world.

(Mark, Matthew and Luke are known as the synoptic gospels. There is strong evidence that Matthew is derived from Mark, and that Luke is derived from Matthew, with gaps of approximately 15 years between  editions. )

  • The gospel of John, which developed separately from the synoptic gospels, has unique content that depicts Jesus as God incarnate, “the Word of God,” “the Lamb of God,” etc.

Such discrepancies are typically shrugged off as just showing different facets of a complex person. But an objective study reveals the extent to which these depictions conflict with one another, as well as patterns in the ways that they conflict. For example, Mark shows Jesus as continually striving to keep his identity a secret, but Mark shows him as  freely declaring his identity and shows others (Jesus’ family, his disciples and even the wise men)  as acknowledging it. A person may have a ‘private side’ and a ‘public side,’ but it seems far-fetched that the same person would seek to be as famous as a governor and as anonymous as a government-protected witness.

If Mark came first and Matthew and Luke show signs of being knockoffs, then it would be reasonable to conclude that Mark is closest to the truth — however close or far that may be.

More important, the mere possibility that any of the gospels is a rewrite of an earlier gospel calls into question whether the modern Bible really must either be accepted in its entirety or be rejected in its entirety.  Does the whole Christian belief system really fall apart if one allows that some (or even all) books of the Bible may have been selected in error? If so, then I’d really like to know how the church (or, rather, the churches) got by for the first 330 years!