How To Be Saved (Possibly)

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Personal righteousness, that’s how. Who says so? Not Paul, that’s for sure; he thinks you get right with God by accepting the salvation made possible by Jesus death (Romans 1.16-17). Jesus on the other hand thinks it’s by being righteous. More than this, he says God will treat you in exactly the same way you treat others. He makes this point repeatedly; what the believer will receive from God will be in direct proportion to what the believer does.

So, according to Jesus, if you want God’s forgiveness, you must first forgive those who have wronged you:

For if you forgive men their trespasses your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6.14)

He applies this principle to other areas too. You want to experience God’s riches and blessings? Then first be generous yourself:

Give and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back. (Luke 6.38)

You want to avoid God’s judgement? Then don’t judge others:

Judge not that you be not judged. For with the judgement you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. (Matthew 7.1-2)

You want God to show you mercy? Then you must first show mercy yourself:

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. (Matthew 5.7)

You want God to show you compassion? Then be compassionate yourself:

The King will say to those at his right hand… I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me… Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord when did we see the hungry and feed thee or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee?… And the King will answer them, Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me’. (Matthew 25.34-46)

Do Christians believe that the degree to which they demonstrate mercy and forgiveness to others is the degree to which God will demonstrate it towards them, both in this life and the next?

It’s not that Christians don’t help the needy. Clearly many do, as do some atheists, Jews, Muslims and all manner of others. No, the point is that Christians have lost sight of the fact that for Jesus such behaviour directly equates with righteousness, which in turn determines one’s ultimate fate. There really is no getting away from the correlation that Jesus is at pains to underscore, particularly in Matthew and Luke’s gospels. The only recourse seems to be to disregard it, which most Christians are content to do. They are much happier with the self-centred faith that Paul offers in Romans 5.17, ‘the free gift of righteousness’. This makes far fewer demands, carrying only the minimal expectation that one’s treatment of others has any bearing on one’s own well-being.

Except this isn’t how it works, not according to Jesus; God’s forgiveness, blessing, compassion and removal of judgement are entirely conditional. To Jesus, a ‘measure for measure’ arrangement is how one attains righteousness, which is not God-given, but is worked at in the practicalities of daily life, in relation to others.

I dared to suggest this recently on a Christian blog and was berated for making a ‘Satanic’ suggestion. Not me, but the one Christians say is the Son of God, God himself even. Evidently this doesn’t extend to knowing what he actually says, taking notice of it and doing something about it.

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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.

 

Judgement Day

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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

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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.

 

God approves of slavery

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Over on his blog site, Biblical Musing, Don Camp is trying to justify why God appears to condone slavery. It’s not the first time Don has tried to defend the indefensible; he’s recently been arguing much the same thing on Debunking Christianity.

The fact the Old Testament appears to endorse the keeping of other human beings as slaves is a problem for Christians. It’s a problem compounded by the fact that Jesus in Luke 12.47-48 and the imposter-Paul, in Ephesians 6.5, both support the practice. How can it be that God approves, or at least raises no objection to it? Wouldn’t an omniscient, all-loving God have outlawed slavery, as he outlaws so much else, in one of his innumerable laws and commandments?

Instead, he provides instructions about how to keep and look after slaves; what to do, for example, when you flog one to within an inch of his life so that he later dies (Exodus 21.20-21) or when you deliberately blind your slave – she’s your property after all – or rape her (Exodus 21.26; Numbers 31.17-18).

Don’s answer is that, despite God involving himself in the minutiae of slave treatment, he knew it would be a waste of time telling his people slavery was wrong. Why? Because he took the trouble to tell them lying and stealing were wrong and yet they ignored him. So, hey, why should he bother telling them about slavery? They’d just ignore that too.

But the point is – disregarding the fact that not everyone steals and lies – ‘God’ did issue laws prohibiting stealing and lying (and eating shellfish, and wearing garments of mixed fabric). It seems it was important to him to tell his pet-tribe that these were wrong, even though he must have known many of their number, and many more subsequently, would ignore him.

What can we conclude from this? Only this: that God didn’t feel the same way about slavery as he did about lying and stealing, which is why he didn’t bother making even the same token effort to prohibit slavery.

Or, and much more likely: the tribes who wrote the laws didn’t think slavery was wrong. In fact, they thought it quite useful to have slaves. Given this utility, they were unlikely to have devised laws preventing their ownership. The enslaved themselves no doubt thought differently, but then they didn’t get to write the rules.

We don’t find a commandment prohibiting slavery in the bible because those who wrote it liked having slaves. For this reason too, we find all those inhumane instructions about keeping slaves and what should happen if you maim or kill them.

Of course God didn’t write these laws. People did. And they wrote them according to their understanding of what was moral, fair and legitimate within their own primitive milieu. Thus it was that slavery got a free pass.

Gilead – just a stone’s throw away

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Ken Ham’s Answers In Genesis thinks it’s okay to stone people. Specifically, your wayward kids. The bible says so and AiG’s Elizabeth Mitchell is eager to defend whatever the bible says, on account of it being ‘God’s Word’. She does warn us that we need to read Deuteronomy 21:18–21, where you’ll find this particular bit of parenting advice, in context, because although the bible is the fallible, eternal, literal word of the Creator of the Universe it needs interpreting, and has to be understood in terms of the time it was written.

The context is of course that Deuteronomy and all of the Old Testament was written by primitive, superstitious bronze-age tribesmen who had the same mentality the Taliban and Isis have today. But this isn’t good enough for ‘Doctor’ Mitchell. No, her context is altogether different; she tells us in an article recently posted on the Answers In Genesis Facebook page that Deuteronomy 21 isn’t talking about children. No, it’s referring to uppity teenagers, which makes it okay. And not just teenagers, but really, really troublesome ones, which makes it doubly okay. These really, really troublesome teenagers are the scourge of society and can be stoned with impunity. The bible says so.

And yet, they’re not. Christians don’t stone awkward family members, thankfully. Perhaps, despite articles like Mitchell’s and others’, Christians don’t really believe the brutality promoted in and by the bible. Mitchell offers no explanation for this inconsistency of belief. Instead, her article peters out with some incoherent rambling about Jesus; the same Jesus who declared his undying support for these brutal, Old Testament laws (Matthew 5.17-19).

I suggested in the comments on Facebook that it doesn’t matter how much one takes context into account, the command of Deuteronomy, that rebellious youths be stoned to death, is utterly indefensible. It is cruel, barbaric and belongs in the past when, presumably, unfortunate young people were actually killed in this way by their families and tribal elders. I suggested morals and standards have evolved for the better since the days when people considered that murder was the best way to deal with youthful bad behaviour.

And for that I was metaphorically stoned myself. How dare you challenge God and his Word! How ridiculous to suggest we have better moral standards today when clearly we are in an immoral abyss worse than any before! Last Days! God’s standards are inviolate and if he says the best way to deal with miscreants is to stone them to death then it is!

The Gilead regime envisaged by Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale, where Old Testament sanctions are stringently applied in contemporary society, is closer than we think. People like those who hang around on Answers In Genesis’ Facebook pages, like flies around a corpse, would be more than happy to see the death penalty for those who infringe God’s barbaric laws. They’d be only too willing to throw the first stone, not only at difficult teenagers, but at all the others ‘God’s Word’ says merit the death penalty: couples who have sex when the woman is on her period (Leviticus 18.19); women who are not virgins on their wedding nights (Deuteronomy 22.13-14; 20-21); gay people (Leviticus 20.13); those who work on the Sabbath (Exodus 35.2; Numbers 15.32-36); blasphemers (Leviticus 24.16) and worshippers of other gods (Deuteronomy 13.6-9).

I am not an advocate of censorship but some form of censure is necessary for those who, either in speech or writing, advocate that others be put to death. Calling for the execution of those with whom you disagree or who have different moral codes cannot – must not – be tolerated in a civilised society. Pronouncements like those of Elizabeth Mitchell, her supporters and other religious crackpots who defend the indefensible, should be flagged up as hate speech, carrying a warning that the views expressed are themselves immoral, insupportable and, ultimately, illegal in civilised society. Ideally, their poisonous rhetoric should not be provided with an online platform. This wouldn’t, before anyone suggests otherwise, violate their right to free speech; they would still be free to express their unpalatable views in their churches, Creation Museums and own homes. Excluding them from Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, however, would deprive them of their wider audience – they’re only showing off, after all – and confine their hateful rhetoric to where it can do least harm.

These people are not merely ‘causing offence’ – offence is not the issue. They are inciting violence against others, influencing fellow believers to adopt their repellent views as their own. The standards of bronze-age tribes are not ours today; those who think they are abuse free speech and forfeit their right to be heard publicly.

 

 

When the Salt of the Earth loses its flavour*

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Embittered fanatic Linda Harvey (above) has it from the Lord that gay people are unnecessary. And even if there are those around who’ve ‘chosen’ this ‘lifestyle’, there’s absolutely no need for them to be having -yuk – sex together:

… as most well-informed Americans know (read: ‘as people who share my prejudices would agree’), no person is born “gay,” so this conduct is completely unnecessary… No male ever needs to engage in anal sex with another male, and we need to stop accommodating homosexual behavior and “gay” identity…”

How right you are, Linda, and I’m sure we can all look forward soon to reading about how how women of a certain age who don’t keep quiet like they’re supposed to (1 Timothy 2.12) are completely unnecessary too. And how there’s absolutely no need for them to wear make-up and jewellery or obsess about other people’s sex lives (Linda talks about little else). Equally, no-one needs to admire art, read a book or listen to music; survival doesn’t depend on these things so they are, by definition, ‘unnecessary’. Likewise driving, watching TV, drinking anything but water, celebrating Christmas. Since when does necessity determine what people can and can’t do? And who decides what’s necessary, anyway? Certainly not cranks like Linda.

Her Lord and Saviour had a go it’s true; nothing was necessary, he said, that didn’t advance the Kingdom of God (Matthew 6.33 etc). That’s the Kingdom he was sure was going to materialise some time in the first century (Matt 16.27-28; Luke 21.27-28, 33-34 etc) As for those activities he did think were necessary – selling your possessions, helping the poor, giving to all who ask, loving your enemy, not judging others – he was evidently wrong about, which is why Christians have long since abandoned them.

Which should make us ask: are Christians really necessary? Isn’t it long past time we stopped accommodating their misguided behaviour and their “holier than thou” identities?

* Matthew 5.13: “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.”