Billy Graham’s in Heaven

He said he would be, once he died. He said he couldn’t wait to get there (but still hung on until he was 99). He said there’d be a fanfare of trumpets when he arrived, as there would be for all the Saved, and that Jesus would lead him by the hand into the presence of God himself.

I’ve no doubt that Graham was sincere in his beliefs. He was a brilliant orator and during a long public life managed to avoid too much controversy, though he could be anti-semitic and regularly voiced his opposition to LGBT equality. 

Sincere he might have been, but Billy Graham was deluded. Some Christian sites have said so in recent days principally because his doctrine was not quite in accord with theirs; he directed new converts to the Catholic church, for example, if that’s where their interest lay; he seemed to think non-Christians would go to heaven if in life they’d looked to the light and lived honourable lives; he relied on altar calls when they are alien to the bible’s idea of conversion.

But this isn’t why he’s not in Heaven today, nor why he won’t be there at any point in the future. He was deluded because he believed in supernatural beings, in gods and angels, and because he thought human beings could be ‘saved’ by a magical incantation devised by a psychologically damaged zealot two thousand years ago. At the same time he was happy to ignore the claims of the man he believed to be the Son of God when he said he would return in the first century so that God could establish his Kingdom over all the Earth. Graham was equally happy to disregard this same prophet’s insistence that his followers denounce all wealth; he amassed a fortune over his lifetime – around $25,000,000 at the time of his death.

Grahams

Billy Graham repackaged evangelical Christianity, imbuing it with great emotional appeal and proffered it to the masses. He was good at it too; he made the impossible and the fanciful seem plausible and appealing. But he misled people that what he was offering was something they needed. We can only be grateful that what little evidence there is suggests that most of those who went forward as a result of his altar calls did not remain believers for very long. Estimates suggest about 6% stayed the course, though given the numbers Graham preached to, this still means about 12 million people.

He leaves behind a son who seems intent on destroying his father’s legacy and reputation; who is bigoted and virulently homophobic. His daughter too has not inherited his diplomacy nor even common sense. Billy Graham’s life’s work, if not undone by his offspring, will soon be forgotten, like all the other ‘great’ oratory preachers of the past. We should not revere him nor mourn his passing. His only achievement was to mislead people, seducing them into a life of intolerant superstition.

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The Myth of God’s Forgiving Love

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God loves you, he really does. His love for you is so wide you can’t get round it. So high you can’t get over it, blah, blah, blah. We know this because Christian preachers are forever telling us. I saw Joel Osteen saying so the other evening on TBN, God’s very own TV station.

Don’t you think it’s strange that God needs TV stations and evangelists and preachers to tell you about his love, and everything else about him? An alien looking at religion without any foreknowledge would think it and its gods were entirely a human creation. He or she would ask why God doesn’t show himself, reveal his nature and demonstrate first-hand how much love he has for us. To which our Christian friends, if they’re not squabbling between themselves or blaming the world’s (i.e. America’s) problems on gay people, abortion or the absence of prayer in school (where, in fact, anyone is free to pray), would tell our alien that God did just that, once upon a time, when he sent Jesus. And they might then tell him how Jesus died so we might all be forgiven our sins and live with God, once we’re dead, happily ever after in Heaven. Grace they’ll call it, the free gift of God.

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time – I admire your stamina! – you’ll know that very little of this is what the Bible offers and that Jesus’ idea of getting right with God is very different from this perversion of Paul’s magical salvation plan.

In Matthew 18.21-35, Jesus tells a particularly unpleasant parable about God’s love and patience. It turns out it’s at odds with Joel Osteen’s view of the same things (still, I expect Osteen’s right; he’s got a congregation far in excess of the rabble who followed Jesus.)

The story concerns a king who cancels (forgives) the substantial debt one of his servants owes him. This king, who represents God (or maybe even Jesus himself in one of his more egotistical moments) is indeed forgiving at this stage of the story. However, the servant – let’s call him Franklin – then comes across a fellow-servant (Jason) who asks Franklin to overlook the much smaller debt he owes him. Franklin responds by telling Jason that he must pay his debt immediately or else he’ll have him thrown in jail. Unfortunately for Franklin, the king hears of his lack of compassion and in light of the fact he himself has forgiven Franklin much, is enraged at his attitude towards Jason. He rescinds the forgiveness he extended towards him and has Franklin thrown in jail instead. Having told the story, Jesus hammers the moral home, as he does here in Matthew 6.14-15:

If you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.

We learn three things from the parable about how Jesus (or his scriptwriters) viewed forgiveness:

1) Far from being an unmerited free gift, God’s forgiveness is entirely conditional. It is conditional on how much we ourselves are forgiving. Matthew 5.23-26 and the Lord’s prayer both take the idea further: we can’t even expect God to forgive us unless we’ve forgiven others: ‘Father, forgive our sins,’ says the prayer, ‘to the extent we forgive those who sin against us.’

2) God’s forgiveness is not once-and-for-all; it can be withdrawn if and when we fail to forgive others.

3) There is no mention in this story, nor in the prayer, nor in Jesus’ other teaching about forgiveness, of unmerited grace or a salvation formula, even though the gospels were recorded long after Paul devised his magical incantation. God’s forgiveness, therefore is not the result of Jesus’ dying for us, nor is it unmerited, as ‘grace’ would suggest; it has to be earned. And how is it earned? By forgiving others.

4) God is no God of Love. He’s a bastard who can’t be trusted; one slip and you’re out on your ear.

So what does any of this matter when there’s no God and Jesus was something of a deluded charlatan, anyway? Well, you won’t hear this version of forgiveness preached in church or promoted by evangelists, or even practised by Christians. This perspective on forgiveness is so far removed from Paul’s ‘gospel of grace’ and modern day Christianity that it has to be ignored, disregarded, forgotten about. After all, Christian leaders don’t want their flocks to know that forgiveness needs to be earned. And they certainly don’t want the rest of us to know that they’re really not up to the task. Besides, squabbling about doctrine and blaming gays for everything is much more satisfying.

 

How it is

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It all depends on the premise from which you begin. I’m tired of the arguments of Christians of all stripes that

   The bible is the inspired word of God

      Jesus died for me

          He really did rise from the dead

                Jesus was, in some sense, the son of God

                     God, or Jesus, loves us and wants to have relationship with us

                          God, or Jesus, will forgive our sins if only we ask him

                            He has supernaturally changed the lives of millions

               We are all, whether we realise it or not, involved in a spiritual battle

       Jesus is coming back soon to judge the world

Most people will go to Hell, a select few to Heaven

We can argue with Christians about these claims – and others you can probably think of yourself – pointing out how the Bible really can’t self-authenticate itself, that just because it appears to say it’s the Word of God doesn’t mean it is; arguing about who wrote the gospels and whether they can be trusted; disputing the resurrection when the bible’s own accounts are so inconsistent; challenging the theology behind Paul’s redemption formula… and so on.

But really, why bother? Take a step back.

All of these ideas are dependent on one thing: that there is a God.

Yet there is no evidence there is. Christians will tell us that that the absence of evidence doesn’t necessarily equate with evidence of absence, but in this case it does. The absence of evidence that I keep a pink unicorn in my garage is fairly conclusive evidence that I don’t – and so it is with God. The evidence for him is circumstantial and so remarkably thin that the probability he exists is virtually zero (I’ve discussed this previously; here, for example). What humans have imagined him to be is not evidence of his external reality; a book written by superstitious sheep-herders and first century fanatics certainly isn’t. And beyond that? Nothing.

It follows that if God doesn’t exist then

       the Bible can’t be his inspired word;

                    Jesus cannot be his son;

                       God cannot have sent Jesus to redeem us;

                            he cannot have raised Jesus from the dead;

                                  he cannot be offended by ‘sin’;

                                        it cannot be God who changes lives;

                                  heaven and hell are not real;

the whole panoply of supernatural beings that populate the bible don’t exist either.

Take away God (and he was never there in the first place) and Christianity with its claims of the supernatural, salvation and eternal life, crumbles to nothing. It is nothing.

So it all depends on your premise. If you’re prepared to believe, against the evidence, that God exists you’ll find substance in the claims of religion. If you recognise that he doesn’t, however, you will also recognise that religion’s claims are illusory, fallacious, deceptive. No need to get involved in fruitless arguments with believers about it; that’s how it is.

“Christian” Scare Quotes: A Response

JesusLaughs

Christian bloggers like their quotation marks – ‘scare quotes’ as they’re often known. The Righteous wear away the computer keys with them on when ranting writing about same-sex “marriage” in particular. This kind of marriage always receives them, even though marriage is marriage whether same-sex or not. Those who like to use and over-use them, however, intend to show that same-sex marriage isn’t marriage at all but a devilish, unbiblical substitute for the real thing.

The Christian Research Network (a misnomer if ever there was one: the site only ever features two contributors, involves no research and is distinctly unChristian) regularly adds speech marks to other terms and titles. The Pope, for example, becomes “Pope Francis”, and the fact Francis is not his real name is constantly highlighted. This is intended to show, presumably, that he lacks authenticity. The irony is that the figure whom Christians themselves worship and adore isn’t known by his real name either, a fact lost on “God’s chosen”. Yeshua Bar Yosef wouldn’t recognise “Jesus” and certainly not “Jesus Christ”.  Then there’s “Paul”, real name Saul. Christianity’s use of false names is nothing new.

My proposal, therefore, is that from now on, whenever we write “Christians”, we add quotation marks to the term to reflect the hypocrisy of so many of them, as well as the vacuity of the belief system itself. This can be done even when speaking of “Christians”, by wiggling the fingers as the word is said. It can, and should, be extended to all of the other fallacious ideas within Christianity: “God”, “Jesus”, “God’s Word”, “The Kingdom of God”, “Holy Spirit”, “Heaven” and “faith”.

We needn’t worry about running out of quotation marks with which to do this; we can always use those that “Christians” have previously attached to same-sex marriage.

Jesus demonstrates that God doesn’t exist

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I often feel I’ve run out of thing to say about Christianity, or rather, I think I’ve said all I want to say about it. It’s not much of a challenge to show how insubstantial, inconsistent and spurious religious faith is. None of it actually works, even though Christians, in the face of all the evidence, continue to insist it does.

On his Theological Rationalism blog,  James Bishop smugly tells his readers how he can ‘defeat atheism’ with three questions, chief of which is asking, ‘What would you count as “actual, credible, real world evidence for God?”’ Although I’ve already responded directly on his blog, for me it would be if any of the promises Jesus made (or was made to make) actually came true in the ‘real world’. 

Jesus said that Kingdom of God would descend on the Earth within the lifetime of his original followers, in Luke 21:27-28, 33-34; Matthew 24:27, 30-31, 34 and here in Matthew 16:27-28:

For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels… I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his Kingdom.

Did this come true when he said it would?

He claimed that the judgement of the nations and their peoples would immediately follow, with the righteous going on to populate the new Earth while the wicked were sent to eternal punishment: 

But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. Before him all the nations will be gathered, and he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats (Matthew 25.31-46).

Did this?

He promised that whatever his followers pray for in his name, God would grant. No ifs and buts, he would do it. Matthew 17.21, Matthew 21.21-22, John 14.12-14 and here in Mark 11:24:

…if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.’

Does this ever happen?

He said that with enough faith, believers would literally be able to move mountains. (Matthew 17.20).

They literally don’t.

He guaranteed that his followers would be able to drink poison and handle serpents with impunity (Mark 16:18).

Those who are stupid enough to take him at his word find they can’t.

He said ‘very truly’ that believers would be able to do even greater miracles than he himself did:

Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father (John 14.12).

Where’s the evidence of this?

The fulfilment of any of these promises would be enough to convince atheists – well, me anyway – that Jesus’ God exists. If those about the Kingdom and judgement had come to pass when Jesus said they would, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion. I could still be convinced, however, if his guarantees of miracles and answered prayers regularly came about in the spectacular ways he said they would. The fact is, they never have done and they don’t; the world would be a very different place if they did.

All that the ridiculous claims Jesus makes for his God convince me of is that Jesus himself was, at best, deluded, and at worst, an utter fraud – a travelling salesman who promised the Earth and delivered absolutely nothing. His unfulfilled, empty promises are evidence enough that his God, like all the others, does not exist.

 

 

What is forgiveness, anyway?

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I’ve been grappling with the nature of forgiveness lately in my personal. You might, as a result, find this post to be much more personal than usual, but I hope you’ll bear with me.

Recently, a close friend let me down in a particularly damaging way. This wasn’t just a careless action on his part, but a deliberate one that he knew would have significant impact on me. Indeed, it left me reeling, confused and deeply hurt. I won’t go into details as I’m still processing what happened and I’m sure, in any case, that my friend would not want what he did broadcast to the world (or at least, the small number of people who read this blog!)

He has asked for my forgiveness. He has not said he is sorry for what he did, rather he has apologised for the effect it had on me, which is not the same thing. I’ve told him I can, and do, forgive him, but having done so, I realise I don’t know, in practical terms, what forgiveness means. What does it entail? What does it feel like? What actions does it require on the part of the forgiver? Sixty+ years into life, twenty-five as a Christian, and I find I really don’t know. The bible, as I suggested last time, is of no help. For all its advocates blather on about how it, and the Christian faith generally, are all about forgiveness, it hasn’t anything substantial to say about how forgiveness actually ‘works’.

Does forgiveness mean I have to somehow forget what my friend has done? Popular songs seem to suggest that’s what it’s about; ‘let’s forgive and forget’; ‘a time for forgiving and for forgetting’ and so on. But how do I do that? I can’t delete the part of my memory that knows what happened and seems determined to bring it into my conscious mind at every opportunity (usually in the middle of the night). I can suppress it to an extent, think of other things, make myself busy ‘to take my mind off things’, but that’s not really forgetting. I suppose I can resist the temptation to muster up a grudge but that, I think, would be for my benefit, not his.

Does forgiveness mean then that I allow things to continue as normal? I’m not sure that’s possible when I can’t now trust my friend. He could do the same thing again and I’m not prepared to leave myself open to that possibility. Forgiveness doesn’t, I’ve discovered, restore trust; but does this mean I’ve not really forgiven him? We could renegotiate our relationship, put it on a different footing perhaps, but wouldn’t such caution and readjusting also suggest I’ve not been able to forgive him?

Does forgiveness simply mean I won’t seek out some form of retribution or revenge? Possibly, but as I’m not inclined to do these things anyway – I’ve never believed that two wrongs can somehow make a right – I’m not sure I’d actually be (for)giving much with such a semblance of magnanimity. Perhaps, then, I might quietly let the friendship he and I once enjoyed drift quietly away into oblivion. I have, after all, to protect myself from the effect of his doing something similar in the future. I could let time take care of the problem, its passage allowing the pain, along with the friendship, to pass.

This is, in fact, the course I’m taking, and I’ve told my friend as much, but he doesn’t see this as the forgiveness I promised him. In truth, neither do I, but it’s the best I can do.

According to some parts of the bible (but not others), God forgives us our sins. He does this by magically covering them up with the blood of his sacrificed Son. It’s mumbo-jumbo, of course, but perhaps those who invented it had the same problems I have with forgiveness. In the end they realised that the only way they could ‘explain’ it was with wishy-washy hocus-pocus. It’s not much use in the real world though. Anybody out there got any better suggestions?

 

Forgiven

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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.