Forgiven

Boy

In the UK, as in the States, there has 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.

 

“When (a worldview) doesn’t include God, there is no basis for morality.” Roy Moore, 2008

Ravi3

I planned to dissect Ravi Zacharias’ morality argument even before recent revelations that he lied about his credentials. I’m sure that, despite his fraudulent claims, he’s still a good Christian™, perfectly entitled to tell the rest of us what terrible sinners we are. If you’ve ever seen his grandiose sermonising, you’ll know he likes to pretend that Faith is something deeply intellectual, despite Paul’s contention in 1 Corinthians 1. 26-27 that it isn’t. Zacharias’ pseudo-intellectual Christianity is, like many of his qualifications, fake.

In common with other Christians desperate to prove their God, he relies too on circular reasoning. He tells us that our morality derives from God (you listening TC Howitt?) and then uses this to argue that, because of we have morality, God must exist. His unproven conclusion is his premise, with nothing in between to justify either.

Here’s his ‘argument’ in full:

Ravi3

Let’s take a closer look:

‘When you say “There’s too much evil in the world”, you assume there’s “good”. Who says this? How much evil is ‘too much’? Do people other than Christians see the world in terms of good and evil? Does acknowledging evil mean one also assumes there is good? How is this ‘good’ defined? So many unanswered questions in this first muddled statement.

‘When you assume there’s good, you assume there’s such a thing as a “moral law” on the basis of which to differentiate between good and evil.’ The only one making assumptions here is Ravi himself. The considerate treatment of others, which is how we might reasonably define morality, is easily recognisable when it occurs. This presumably, given he fails to define any of his terms, is what Ravi means by ‘good’ (and conversely, inconsiderate or malicious treatment of others is his ‘evil’). There’s no reason to suppose, however, that the demonstration of good is a component of an objective ‘moral law’ that exists somehow independent of human interaction. Morality and any resulting goodness (or ‘evil’), is human interaction.

‘But if you assume a moral law you must posit a “Moral-Law Giver.” Well, of course we’re not assuming a moral law, not in the magical way Ravi is assuming we’re assuming. And how about that imperative: ‘You must posit a “Moral-Law Giver”‘! Must we? Morality is socially determined by human beings themselves; we see this is in the different moralities that have emerged in cultures with shared heritage; we see it in the changing attitudes over the last fifty years to the treatment of women and gay people. Morality is fluid; it evolves. The ‘Moral-Law Giver’ then, if we must have such a term, is we ourselves.

‘But that’s Who you’re trying to disprove and not prove.’ Erm no. Ravi’s being disingenuous here. ‘We’ were not trying to disprove a Moral-Law Giver at all; he was trying to prove it (him? – note the capital sneakily added to ‘Who’). Let’s though, for the sake of argument say Ravi is right; let’s say there is a Moral-Law Giver out there somewhere. Why has he, over the expanse of human existence, issued such varying and often conflicting moral codes? Compare, for example, today’s moral standards with the harsh, brutal morality of the ancient Israelites, which demanded the death penalty for almost any infringement of the law. Compare that with the morality Christians today claim they derive from New Testament. Then compare Jesus’ impossible demands with how Christians actually behave. By and large, they’re happy to ignore him and, with the exception of one or two areas they get hot under the collar about (abortion, same-sex relationships), they go along with the consensus of the culture in which they live.

‘Because if there’s no Moral-Law Giver, there is no moral law.’ There is a ‘moral-law giver’: it is us. That is why moral laws vary according to culture and through time. Zacharias wants us to conclude that this capitalised ‘Moral-Law Giver’ is his God, yet he has neither demonstrated that a deity (any deity) decrees moral codes from on high, nor has he ‘proved’ (his word) that this cosmic law giver is his god, the barbaric and inconsistent YHWH. Rather, he ‘assumes’ this to be the case and hopes that his audience, failing to notice his assumptions, presuppositions and sleight of hand, will too. Given that most of them are Christian sheep  (Jesus’ term, not mine) they will no doubt do just that.

‘If there’s no moral law, then there’s no good. If there’s no good, there’s no evil.’ This is where the argument, such as it is, turns back on itself. Zacharias thinks he’s being very clever (he always thinks he’s being clever) but all he’s doing is declaring his premise over again.

Of course there are moral standards; humans have devised them throughout their existence. The ‘Golden Rule’ promoted by Jesus, for example, is first recorded thousands of years before him. We determine for ourselves what is good and therefore what is ‘evil’; these defintions are not delivered to us ready made from a “Moral-Law Giver” in the sky.

(While Zacharias doesn’t use the argument, there are those who like to say, on the basis of Romans 2.15, that God has written his (ever-changing) rules in our hearts, a fallacy I’ll address in the next post.)

‘What is your question?’ clever Ravi finally asks. We didn’t have a question. Here’s one for him anyway: how has he got away with such fraudulent drivel for so long?

 

Can you be good without God?

Good

You can’t be good without God, you can only be good with him – or so Christians like to tell us.

What is the evidence for this? What ‘goodness’ do we see in and from Christians (and other believers in God) that demonstrates they are directed in their morality by a supernatural being who, they say, dwells within them? ‘By their fruits ye shall know them,’ declares their leader in Matthew 7.16 – so what ‘fruits’ do we see?

How about Christians abusing the vulnerable? Sexual abuse of minors has long been widespread in the Catholic church and more and more cases are coming to light in Protestant ones too. Bruce Gerencser keeps a log of those accused and convicted of such crimes, adding names and cases from the States on almost a daily basis. Is this the ‘goodness’ Christians like to say comes from knowing God?

Or how about those believers whose ‘goodness’ manifests itself in cruelty, dishonesty or extreme right-wing views? (Never mind goodness, from these examples it would seem God doesn’t even provide his followers with common sense.)

Then there’s the likes of former judge Roy Moore, anti-LGBT politician who, when he’s not trying to erect monuments to the ten commandments, is excusing his history of grooming and abusing 14 year old girls? What part of this behaviour is ‘good’?

How about preachers like Franklin Graham, Stephen Green here in the UK and the self-righteous know-alls of Teens4Truth, all of whom persistently bear false witness? Perhaps demonising others with the intention of stirring up hatred and paranoia is somehow ‘good’ inside the Christian bubble.

‘Ah, but wait!’ say those Christians who insist we can only be good with God. ‘These people are not true Christians; if they were they wouldn’t be doing these things. Their behaviour tells us they’re not really Christians at all.’ And yet, they all profess faith in Jesus and are convinced his spirit lives in them; however they behave, and whether or not other believers accept it, they are Christians by virtue of this profession alone (Romans 10.9). Christian apologists can’t get out of the double-bind they’ve got themselves into by saying those who do wrong can’t be considered Christians and only those who are seen to be ‘good’ are true believers. They can’t reasonably demonstrate the goodness of God’s Chosen by discounting those who don’t manifest the characteristic they’re attempting to demonstrate, while pointing only to those who remain.

‘Well,’ Christians say, ‘non-believers and atheists are capable of behaving immorally too!’ which is true. But wasn’t their original argument that Christians are so much better (more good) than non-believers because of the indwelling Holy Spirit and their resulting spiritual discernment (or whatever)? Pointing out that some non-believers are capable of behaving as deplorably as some Christians is hardly a demonstration of the supernatural goodness that allegedly infuses Christ’s followers.

It has always seemed to me that religion is like alcohol. A little too much of either accentuates an individual’s true nature. If he or she is already a decent, kind person, drink and god-bothering tend to highlight these characteristics. If, on the other hand, a person is self-centred, greedy and unreasonable then that’s what we get more of. God has nothing to do with it; if it’s your nature, you can be good with or without him. As Bertrand Russell put it:

Cruel men believe in a cruel god and use their belief to excuse their cruelty. Only kindly men believe in a kindly god and they would be kindly in any case.

It is a pernicious lie that subscribing to a superstition imbues a person with ‘goodness’. It should be disputed at every turn.

 

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 nonetheless 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.

 

 

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.