What is forgiveness, anyway?

Forgive

I’ve been grappling with the nature of forgiveness in my personal life lately. 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 really 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?

 

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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.

 

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.

 

On being free

chains

Commenter Rebecca responded at length recently to my post ‘Why God Could Not Possibly Have Created The Universe (pts 4 & 5)’. There was so much in her response, that I thought it best to reply to her in a full length post rather than with a brief comment:

Hi Rebecca,

I won’t be able to respond to all of your points as there are so many, but will attempt a few.

I’m glad you find your faith beneficial. You’ve obviously thought about the whole incarnation/sacrifice/reconciliation issue, but I wonder whether you’ve ever asked yourself what it is you need saving from and reconciled with? What is it that means you personally need to avail yourself of the sacrifice Jesus supposedly made (however you interpret that)? I guess evangelicals, of which you seem to say you are not one, would claim it’s because of sin; the alienation from God that our very existence seems to cause.

Is that really the case though? Isn’t it rather that ancient superstitious peoples needed some explanation for why life was so difficult, short and brutish? They reasoned that surely it couldn’t be the fault of the creator God, so his tendency to treat them badly must be entirely their fault. Consequently, they had to do something to appease this god, to make him smile upon them again as they felt he must once have done. They thought the way to do this was, variously, through sacrifice and/or righteous living, by murdering those they felt offended him the most, and through praise and supplication.

There is no getting away from the fact, however, that the primary way they sought to reconcile themselves with their deity was through blood sacrifice. The New Testament’s interpretation of the death of Jesus is expressed in just such terms:

In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our sins, according to the riches of His grace (Ephesians 1.7).

This is not just an evangelical perspective; it is the major theme of much of the New Testament.

I’d like to ask you, Rebecca: are you really so steeped in sin that you need to avail yourself of a bloody human sacrifice in order to be reconciled with God? I have to say it seems extremely unlikely.

I didn’t leave faith behind because of how repugnant this idea is, however. I experienced an epiphany while walking one day, after many years of thinking about such things, and realised with conviction that there was no god: no god to appease, be reconciled with or commune with. He simply didn’t and doesn’t exist (see here for why I think this is the case). Of course, there being no god means there’s no son of god either.

I then started living my life on the basis of the fact there is no god, and I have to tell you it became a whole lot better. I didn’t have the constant feeling I had to come up to some impossible standard; I didn’t feel guilt for the most trivial of ‘sins’; I no longer worried that not getting my beliefs quite right would result in the loss of my eternal life; I stopped worrying about eternal life because it was obvious there was no such thing; I stopped thinking hell and heaven were real; I started living in the here and now; I stopped thinking I had to respond to others’ needs by telling them about Jesus (and started relating to them as people); I no longer had to subjugate whatever intellect I have to force myself to believe things that were clearly nonsense; the self-loathing I felt about my sexuality began to slip away. I could be me, and what a massive relief that was. I think I became a better person as a result. I certainly became a happier one.

You say the bible contains many deep truths – perhaps – but it also includes much that is cruel spiteful, damaging and just plain wrong. I lost interest in sifting the wheat from the chaff because there was just too much chaff (a free biblical analogy for you there.)

The secrets of life, whatever they may be, Rebecca, are not in the bible, nor in any convoluted explanation of what Jesus stood for (he was just another failed apocalyptic preacher). They do not lie in Christianity or in any religion. Life is more than any of these ultimately dead things.

Thank you for writing. It can only be a good thing that you’re thinking about these issues. You will I’m sure find your way out into the light. I hope what I post here can help you with that.

Those resurrection experiences explained

Emmaus

Isn’t it amazing how modern Christians see Jesus in clouds (the picture in the previous post was taken from a site that genuinely believes it was Jesus in the sky – there were lots of others examples there too), on toast, in their own whipped-up emotions, through voices in their heads and as a result of inner-visions but deny that the original resurrection appearances were just the sort of thing? No, Jesus really appeared then, they say, resurrected in his damaged body – he showed Thomas the holes in his side, didn’t he?

Given people’s propensity for seeing things that are not really there – figures in clouds, the sense of a supernatural presence (‘Mother Mary comes to me’) – isn’t it more likely the original ‘manifestations’ of the risen Lord were precisely this; the same sort of ‘sightings’ that people claim to experience today? Maybe not on toast admittedly, but in their heads, in the euphoria of shared worship, in their need for comfort? I’ve done it myself, when I was a Christian. I sensed Jesus’ presence in carefully stage-managed worship, in intense prayer, in what I took to be his response to those prayers. Of course, these were nothing more than my interpreting my own emotions as something from outside myself; an intense and reassuring self-delusion.

Is there evidence of this sort of process in the accounts of the risen Christ? Sure there is – Paul’s encounter is a vision in his head (Galatians 1.16; 1 Corinthians 9.1 & 15:8), while the gospels have Jesus say that whenever two or three of his followers are gathered together, there he will be amongst them (Matthew 18.20). He cannot have meant that, long after he’d left the Earth, he’d be physically present. Rather, this is a later explanation of the intense emotion early believers felt and decided could only be Jesus’ mystical presence – his so-called holy spirit (which isn’t called ‘The Comforter’ for nothing.) They were doing what I did and what millions of Christians still do today – interpreting the feelings they shared in these worshipful contexts as visits from the risen Lord. Later, the gospel writers made Jesus ‘predict’ just such experiences and then firmed them up, so that the accounts of warm feelings and visions became, retroactively, encounters with a physically manifested person.

That’s how it happens today – a vaguely human-like shape in the clouds or on toast and warm feelings become an experience of Jesus. We readily see human form where there is none (we are psychologically primed to seek out human faces) and attribute external agency to phenomena that don’t have any. No reason to suppose it was any different back in the first century.

The oldest trick in the book

Cloud

Hemant Mehta draws our attention to a new book by ‘Christian Prophet’, Mark Robert Pryce called Princess Diana Speaks from Heaven: A Divine Revelation. In it, Pryce claims, the late Princess of Wales communicates with him from beyond the grave. Hemant notes how

(Diana) spends a lot of time convincing readers it’s totally her. Which is exactly what the real Diana would do, of course.

Sound familiar?

Here’s an earlier version:

After his suffering, (Jesus) presented himself to (the disciples) and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive (Acts 1.3).

I’ve always wondered why Jesus would need to do this. Wouldn’t his old friends just, well… recognise him? How exactly do you prove you’re alive? Wouldn’t it be self-evident when you were breathing, moving and talking right there in front of people? Unless, of course, you weren’t really there, but were some sort of apparition or shared delusion. Then, those who felt they were experiencing you would need to convince themselves that you were really there. Just as charlatan Prophet Mark Robert Pryce has ‘Diana’ do in his book.

Plus ça change.

 

 

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.