Forgiven

Boy

In the UK, as in the States, there have been a spate of sexual predators who although admitting to their crimes, have claimed that God has already forgiven them their misdemeanours (the links provide only a couple of examples; there are many more out there). Naturally the abusers expect this to carry weight in any trial they face or in their rehabilitation into society, but it seems to me that such claims are, every one of them, bogus and fraudulent.

Overlooking the fact that God’s forgiveness is an impossibility – on account of there being no God – the idea is incompatible with the brand of Christianity, drawn from Paul’s theology, practised today. According to Paul’s reasoning – I use the term loosely – God doesn’t offer forgiveness. He provides the means to have one’s sins overlooked, covered by the blood of Christ. They are not forgiven, rather Jesus’ death serves as an atonement for sin. In those letters that are genuinely his (1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Romans, Philippians and Philemon), Paul doesn’t mention divine forgiveness once.

On the other hand, Jesus, whose teaching is largely ignored by those who claim to follow him, does have plenty to say about forgiveness. This isn’t, however, the easy ‘get out of jail free’ card proffered by today’s offenders and populist preachers. Like all of Jesus’ morality, this forgiveness is hard to come by. If you want God’s forgiveness, Jesus says, it has to be earned; it is dependent on whether we ourselves forgive. Here’s how he puts it:

If you forgive others the wrongs they have done to you, your Father in heaven will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive the wrongs you have done. (Matthew 6:14-15)

The same idea is preserved in the so-called Lord’s prayer: ‘forgive us our sins in direct proportion to the sins we have forgiven’ (Matthew 6:12). This measure-for-measure approach is central to Jesus’ teaching.

So are those who’ve hurt or abused others claiming they’ve forgiven everyone else for offences that they’ve been subject to and have so earned God’s forgiveness? Even so, is this good enough? ‘I have God’s forgiveness because I’ve forgiven those who’ve hurt me,’ doesn’t begin to cover the hurt I may have caused others. What about them? As usual Jesus’ morality here is inadequate in the real world.

He has another go at it in Matthew 18:21-22 where he commands his disciples to forgive others innumerable times. But again this covers only those who have offended me; it doesn’t do anything for those whom I might have offended. It’s not good enough. His parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:23-35) has the same problem.

If I’ve caused the hurt, have I the right to expect my victims to forgive me so that they in turn can earn God’s forgiveness for their sins? This seems to be the implication. And the answer is ‘no’, I can’t expect those I’ve hurt to forgive me just so they can be forgiven; it’s unrealistic. It doesn’t work.

Rather, when we have hurt or offended others the onus is on us to ask for forgiveness and to make reparation. This is how seeking forgiveness really works. You want forgiveness from others, you earn it. I need forgiveness from others, I earn it.

Jesus makes brief mention of this in Matthew 5:23-24:

So if you are about to offer your gift to God at the altar and there you remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar, go at once and make peace with your brother, and then come back and offer your gift to God.

‘Make peace with your brother’: it’s not enough, is it? Jesus doesn’t say how to ‘make peace’ and what sort of reparation he has in mind; his teaching is strictly ‘in-house’: believers are not being called upon to forgive those outside the fold at all, nor do women appear to be covered by his edict. This is a paltry, poorly thought-through version of how to seek and earn forgiveness.

The easy claims of abusers, rapists and other offenders, that God has forgiven them simply because they’ve asked him to, is cynical, insulting and cheap beside the sorrow and effort that is really needed to merit others’ forgiveness; not just cheap – worthless.

 

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Judgement Day

Franklin2

And the Lord said to them, ‘Let’s have a look how you got on. You fed the hungry, right?’

And they answered, ‘Well, we gave some money to charity a couple of times and we’re pretty sure the charity fed the hungry for us.’

‘Okay,’ he said, ‘I suppose I can give you some credit for that, though I have to say I was looking for something a little more… hands on. How about when people were naked – you know, needing their material needs met. How’d you get on then?’

‘The charities did that too, we think. Maybe.’

‘And the sick and imprisoned? You bother with them?’

‘Not so much,’ they answered. ‘Look, Lord, if people can’t take care of their own health needs or choose to live lawless lives, then that’s up to them. It’s really not up to us to help them out, now is it.’

‘I see. So how about the stranger, the homeless, the immigrant? You take any of them in? You cared for them?’

‘Well, no. I mean, if you’d said that’s what you wanted doing we would’ve done it, wouldn’t we. But you didn’t make it clear.’

‘I thought I had,’ he said. ‘Maybe it got lost somewhere in translation. Selling all you have to give to the poor, then? Surely some of you did that.’

‘One or two extremists maybe, but look where it got them. Obviously that daft instruction was meant only for the guy you were talking to – you know, the rich young ruler or whatever he was.’

‘Well, not exactly. I said it so many times in so many ways you’d have thought you’d have got the message.’

‘We’re not socialists, you know, even if you are,’ they said.

‘So how about turning the other cheek, then? Or going the extra mile? Giving to all who ask? Surely you managed those?’

‘Well, no. We felt you were speaking metaphorically when you said all that. You didn’t seriously expect us to do such ridiculous things, did you? I mean, we’re not doormats.’

‘So what is it you did in my name?’

‘Well, we accepted you as Lord and Savior. That’s all that’s required, isn’t it?’

‘Not really,’ he said. ‘Not if you didn’t do as I asked.’

‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, becoming exasperated. ‘We’re washed in the blood of the lamb. Sanctified and redeemed.’

‘You’re what?’ he said.

‘Sanctified and redeemed. Made spotless. You know, like Saint Paul explained.’

‘Saint who?’ the Lord said.

‘We worshipped you and praised your holy name,’ they went on. ‘Filled with your Holy Spirit we witnessed unto you and defended your Holy Word.’

‘But you didn’t actually do as I commanded?’ he said. ‘And you think that’s good enough?’

‘We stood up for you and for family life. We spoke out against unbelievers and sodomites and all those who were unholy, lest they bring down the Father’s wrath on all of us.’

‘You didn’t consider that to be judging, then?’ he asked. ‘Something else I told you not to do?’

‘Oh no, Lord, not really. We decided what you really meant was it was okay to judge so long as it was done righteously. We always judged righteously, so that was fine.’

‘Well,’ he said, ‘what can I say? You came up with a much better agenda than the one I left you with. Come in and dwell in the house of the Lord forever. You’re my kind of people.’

And, lo, the self-righteous stepped forward, ready to surge into heaven.

But he stopped them in their tracks. ‘Now you just hold on,’ he said, ‘I was being metaphorical there,’ and he stood up to his full height and cleared his throat. ‘Here’s the deal,’ he said, ‘Not everyone who keeps saying to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will get into the kingdom from heaven, but only the person who keeps doing the will of my Father in heaven… So, get away from me, you who practise evil. I never knew you.’

‘What?’ they said. ‘We didn’t think you really meant that. We’re washed in the blood of the lamb, you know.’

 

Some Pig: Why God’s laws are not written on our hearts

Morals

According to Christians, everyone of us knows the right way to behave because God has written his laws in our ‘hearts’. We don’t always bother to consult what he’s written there, however, because we prefer to do our own thing, which is when our consciences start to bother us about our wicked ways. Here’s how Paul put in Romans 2.15:

Gentiles show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.

There’s no evidence that this is how it works, of course; Paul never cared much for evidence nor even for making sense. We know that, provided we are not born with psychopathic tendencies, we learn values, morals and how to relate to others from care-givers in our early lives. They teach us to share (or not) and how we should treat other people, and while it’s true we do seem to be born with a sense of empathy – watch a young child respond to the distress of another – this needs to be cultivated and nurtured. A knowledge of the 613, frequently absurd stipulations of the Old Covenant (which is what Paul is referring to) is demonstrably not genetic; we do not have an innate or instinctive understanding of God’s requirements. Psychologists point to the fact that it is only when she is three that a child learns that stealing is wrong; she is not born knowing it.

All of which is a far cry from ‘God’s law being written in (our) hearts’. Even if Paul meant we have a sort of general, non-specific understanding of how we ought to behave – though this is not what he actually says – there is no evidence this has been planted in us by a supernatural being. Certainly not one that thinks slavery is okay and whose prohibition against killing doesn’t extend to tribes beyond one’s own.

The Christian approach to morality puts me in mind of Charlotte’s Web. In that great children’s book, Charlotte the spider adds messages to the webs she spins to help save her friend, Wilbur the pig, from slaughter. When the gullible humans in the story see ‘Some Pig’, ‘Radiant’, ‘Amazing’ and ‘Humble’ written in the webs, they inexplicably give the credit, not to Charlotte, but to Wilbur. No-one, either in the book itself nor in reviews, comments on the fact that it is not Wilbur who has these qualities, despite what the messages say, but the creature who made them (an anomaly I’m sure E. B. White was aware of when he wrote the book.)

If I might interpret Charlotte’s Web allegorically, we humans are Charlotte, while Wilbur, on whom everyone seems focused, is God. It is we who have developed moral codes throughout our existence, the latest versions of which our children learn from us, and attempt to follow (or not). Meanwhile, the likes of Paul and contemporary Christians refuse to give us one iota of credit. Instead, they insist, the credit goes to their god; a being nowhere near as pleasant as Wilbur, though he’s every bit as fictional – another of our creations, just like those moral codes we invented.

 

The Moral Maze

Stoning

Where does morality come from? Ken Ham and others like to tell us it comes from the bible and the Christian ‘worldview’ they say they find there. Those non-believers who profess or practise morality in any meaningful way ‘steal’ it, they say, from this Christian worldview. They argue that without supernatural beings to dictate, with wild inconsistency, how we should behave, we simply wouldn’t know how to. That we do, by and large, means we can only have ‘stolen’ our morality from Christianity.

Unsurprisingly, the evidence suggests otherwise; versions of morality exist in all cultures – the secular, the pagan, the alternatively religious. Some of these are similar to those traditionally and often mistakenly associated with Christianity, some are not – which tells us they are socially determined. We decide ourselves, collectively, what is and isn’t morally acceptable. We don’t ‘steal’, or even need to, from the Christian ‘worldview’. Some of our morality might coincide with that espoused somewhere in the bible, but that doesn’t mean its taken from it. It means we value some of the same principles that ancient cultures valued – ‘do not steal’, is fairly ubiquitous, for example – because they too lived communally and needed rules like this one, as we do, to facilitate social cohesion. Of course, the collective understanding of a principle does not necessarily mean that everyone adheres to it, just as in those ancient cultures. Nonetheless we can all understand morality insofar as our culture defines and experiences it.

But let’s take a closer look at that ‘biblical worldview’ morality, that evangelicals think is the be-all-and-end-all, shall we?

T.C. Howitt, curator of the Oil for Light blog and commenter here, argues that ‘God’s moral law’, as demonstrated in the bible, is the only true (‘transcendent’ and absolute) morality. I’ve asked T.C. if he’s talking about the ‘morality’ that promotes the keeping and beating of slaves; the stoning of couples who have sex when the woman is menstruating; the execution of men who sleep with men, uppity teenagers and those who worship other gods, and which forbids work on the Sabbath (Friday evening to Saturday afternoon, that is).

It turns out it’s not (and yet it is) because, this, you see, is Old Testament morality and Jesus did away with all that. But nonethless it’s still transcendent and absolute because it’s God’s Eternal Law. (I hope you’re following this so far.) However, in practical terms, what moralising believers seem to mean by biblical morality, is that which can be found in the New Testament. As I’ve pointed out to T.C., this is not the same thing as biblical morality.

So what does New Testament morality look like? Presumably it’s the morality promoted by Jesus, such as go the extra mile; sell all you have and give to the poor; turn the other cheek; give to everyone who asks; hand over your shirt when your jacket is demanded of you; don’t judge; love your neighbour as yourself; love your enemies; treat others as you like to be treated yourself, etc, etc.

If this isn’t what’s meant by New Testament morality then I don’t know what is. But forgive me – I don’t know many Christians who practise it, not even with an indwelling Holy Spirit and God’s personal support. That’s because it is an impossible morality. Consequently, Christians, like the rest of us, derive their moral standards from the culture around them, at the same time reserving the right to harangue the rest of us over our lack of ‘biblical morality’.

Doesn’t the bible have something to say about this? Oh my, yes it does. It goes something like this: attend to the log in your own eye, because it’s blinding you, and leave others to attend to the speck in theirs.

Now that’s what I call biblical morality.

 

 

The evidence for Christ

Christ

The evidence for Christ is not historical — it’s spiritual — and that evidence is indeed abundant for those who believe.

So says T. C Howitt, commenter on the Rational Doubt blog. And what is the ‘abundant evidence’, of which he speaks, for the existence of this spiritual being? It is, he says, ‘spiritual’. That’s quite a tautology: ‘the evidence for my fantasy is my fantasy’.

T.C. goes on to say that only those who truly believe can know that their experiences of the spiritual are real; the rest of us, he decrees, are blind. In other words, evidence that his fantasy is real is that other people have experienced versions of the same fantasy – some of them thousands of years ago. The ‘evidence’ for Christ (as opposed to Jesus) is therefore one’s own feelings plus the strange psychotic experiences Paul relates that he feels sure must be this supernatural being.

Science removes human subjectivity, as far as is possible, from its demonstration of how things are. All that Christians (and other believers in the supernatural) need do is similarly demonstrate that the spiritual realm, with its attendant beings, has an existence independent of human emotions, feelings and imagination. They could show us that, like gravity, electricity and quantum mechanics, Christ and angels, seventh heavens, demons and all manner of spiritual beings, have an existence separate from the internal, subjective experiences of human beings.

They’ve had two thousand years to do just this and still they haven’t. Why not? Because it can’t be done: Christ and his angels, God and his heaven are mythologies and, like all others, are constructs of the human mind.

 

To clanging cymbals everywhere

Massacre

If you’ve ever engaged one of God’s gentle people™ in discussion about one of their pet topics – the infallibility of scripture, evidence for the resurrection, the ‘abomination’ that is homosexuality or some other damn thing – you’ll know that, sooner or later, they turn nasty. They resort to name-calling and personal attacks; they tell you the reason you’re arguing against them is because you just want to wallow in your own sin – and, boy, are you going to suffer when it comes to judgement day.

Fellow-blogger, Bruce Gerencser has recently experienced this kind of thing from some twerp self-appointed ‘preacher of God’s word’ called T.C. Howitt, over on the Reasonable Doubt blog. I’ve been subjected to it innumerable times too. Eventually, you retreat; not because you’ve lost the argument or don’t have anything reasonable left to say but because there is only so much battering you can take. Then, as Bruce says, the bible thumper declares victory; the foe is vanquished – God’s word prevails! Even supposing this to be true, it is a Pyrrhic victory; the defence of doctrine is at the expense of others’ well-being and is achieved only by hurting them, usually intentionally so.

We shouldn’t be surprised by this of course; it has been the church’s way since the very beginning, from Paul’s tantrum about other evangelists he wished would accidentally castrate themselves (Galatians 5.12) to the massacre of native Americans by those passing on Jesus’ good news in the 16th century, right through to present day ‘hate’ preachers like Steven Anderson and Franklin Graham. Christianity is, and always has been, a nasty, bullying religion that cares only about its own preservation, never other people.

Those who proselytise on its behalf might care to read one of Paul’s better bits of self-promotion (1 Corinthians 13.1-2) which, if it is part of God’s infallible Word™, applies to those Christians today who have nothing better to do than hang around social media:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

We might add that if the only way you can win your argument is by demolishing your opponent psychologically, you demonstrate that you are without love, making you in the eyes of ‘men’ and your own God, worth precisely nothing.

The Same Old Song

Ascension2

How was it for you? The End of the World, I mean. The one last Saturday – 23rd September?

What do you mean it never happened? Christian numerologist David Meade promised it would. He worked it all out from the bible and stuff, and had numbers – numbers I tell you – to prove it.

When it didn’t happen, what did Meade do next? He explained that Saturday was only the beginning of the End. Terrible stuff was going to start happening on 23rd, that would lead up to the actual end End, which is not far off.

Same old, same old. How many times has this happened before? A predicted end-of-everything that doesn’t come to pass, followed by post-hoc ‘explanations’ from those who invented the nonsense? Invariably this entails some version of ‘it was really only the beginning of the end’, even though this is not what the ‘prophecy’ claimed before it failed. It’s easy to scoff, which is what Christians themselves do when one of their number fails spectacularly to predict the End. ‘They should know,’ they say, ‘that the Lord warned that no-one knows the precise time of the End.’ (And indeed he does in Mark 13:32.)

What they fail to see is that Christianity itself is built on a failed prediction that the End was nigh, and the resulting catalogue of excuses when it turned out not to be. Jesus (or those who put words into his mouth) was clear that the End of the World was scheduled while his pals and fans were still alive. When it didn’t happen, those who came after him invented all sorts of reasons why not: ‘he meant it would be a gradual process (Luke 17:20-21),’ ‘God doesn’t see time the way we do’ (2 Peter 3.8), ‘he’s delaying so more people can be saved (2 Peter 3.9). The writer of John’s gospel, written about 70 years after Jesus lived, solves the problem by ignoring the issue entirely.

Christians today leap on these excuses to explain why the world still hasn’t ended; yet there is an unassailable incongruity between this kind of fudging and what Jesus says. He thought and taught that the world was coming to a spectacular end soon, when God would remodel it in favour of the poor, the oppressed and the righteous (Matthew 16. 27-28 & 24.27, 30-34; Luke 21.27-28, 33-34 etc). He was wrong. Paul too thought God was going to rescue his ‘remnant’ while he still lived (1 Corinthians 15.51) and he was wrong too.

When it dawned on early Christians that the world was not going to end when Jesus and Paul had said it would, they started inventing their excuses. 2 Peter 3.3 warns that there would be scoffers in the last days, an undoubted jibe at those in the early second century who pointed out how mistaken Christians and their Christ were about the End. Those scoffers had a point and, two thousand years down the line, have even more of one.

Jesus is the archetypal failed prophet of End Times. Cranks like David Meade are merely modern day equivalents, purveyors of the exact same fatuous nonsense about the end of the world. Meanwhile, nothing changes; we are still here, the world is still here and God, as is the way with a non-existent being, remains characteristically unconcerned.