Monday, January 28, 2013

Better than Jesus; Worse than Hitler: A microscopic view of a horrible bit of Christian theology

Imagine, if you will, that a new terrible dictator were to come to power, one that puts Adolf Hitler to shame in his propensity for genocidal murder. Indeed, imagine that this terrible leader were to decree that every child born to Christian parents is to be seized at birth, baptized according to the right Christian faith, and then murdered on the spot, the moment the prayers are finished. Imagine this situation as if it were real.

What would Christians say? How would they react?

The answer, thankfully, is obvious. The outrage, the pain, the feeling of persecution, the likelihood of outright rebellion, the calls to help from outside powers to stop this monster would be deafening.

And here's the problem with that: it's the wrong reaction, if they believe their own theology.

Certainly, many of those children of Christian parents would have grown to be fine Christian men and women themselves, said the right prayers, confessed the right confessions, done the right good deeds, and lived generally upright enough lives to feel reasonably confident in their admission to heaven, per their theology--no comment on how they would be broken into tens of thousands of disagreeing sects on how to get there and how they'd never be able to feel quite sure that they made it.

On the other hand, all of those children, according to the theology, are born sinners. Baptism washes them clean, as it is generally considered utterly abhorrent to say that an innocent pre-logical child is condemned to burn for eternity simply for failing to live long enough to choose Jesus. Some of those children would have spent their lives "sinning": some would have been drug dealers or murderers; some would have been sexually promiscuous; some would have been homosexual; some would have grown up to apostatize from Christianity and become atheists. These children, if allowed to live their lives according to their choices, provided via the presumption of free will, would have been destined for hell--eternal, agonizing torment--according to the theology.

This monster of a dictator, then, is needlessly taking the brief, immaterial life--according to the Christian theology--from the would-be Godly children, but he's saving the rest from hell. According to the theology, this is a finite cost to save an infinite amount if it so much as saves a single soul and thus is not only justified but is the only justifiably moral thing to do in the context of the theology.

Now, what if this horrible dictator is himself a devout Christian, fully steeped in the theology and understanding the ramifications he faces?

This monster of a dictator, in fact, is condemning himself to hell to do it, according to the theology, sacrificing his own eternity to save the eternities of all Christian children. Jesus allegedly sacrificed his life and then went to hell for three days, depending on the theology, whereas this monster will burn forever. This horrible monster, according to Christian theology, is providing a greater sacrifice than Jesus, then, in personal cost while providing the guarantee of salvation for every Christian child, instead of merely offering an ill-defined opportunity for it.

Would Christians see this monster this way--as the realization of the salvation of all Christian children?

Would they exalt him, sing his praises, and try to get him to provide the same benefits for children of other parents?

Why not?


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  1. I appreciate the point that you're making here, and I agree...the theology is nonsensical, and if anyone took it faithfully to this extreme it would have tragic consequences. However, as you allude to in the title, this is a very specific detail of a doctrine that is inserted into a very extreme scenario. Perhaps I'm over-thinking it or I'm unsure of what your target audience is, but I don't think a believing Christian would take anything about this scenario seriously, much less far enough reconsider their belief in that doctrine, etc. They're more than likely to give some "sophisticated" exegesis on how you've taken the theology out of context to build up a straw man, or some such thing.

    I think that a much more powerful tool is to challenge moderate and liberal Christians with some of the most pressing examples that their religious tradition has to offer the world TODAY (e.g. Westboro Baptist Church) and help them to realize that - by its very definition - the religious faith (Faith)-based claims, beliefs, and behaviors of today's Christian Fundamentalists are *exactly* as valid (justifiable and authoritative) and relevant (significant and applicable) as their own Faith-based beliefs. It poses an interesting dilemma (or trilemma) for them to wrestle with.

    Firstly, they may choose to rebut their Fundamentalist counterpart's sincerely held Faith-based claims/beliefs/behaviors in terms of their own sincerely held Faith-based beliefs, interpretations, and/or revealed "truth". But this means that they are trying to fight Faith with Faith, and there's no convincing way to prove that their own claims/beliefs/behaviors are more correct/relevant/valid than those of the Fundamentalists. Keep pressing them on what makes their Faith-based claims any better than those of the Fundamentalists'.

    Secondly, they may choose to rebut their Fundamentalist counterpart's Faith-based claims/beliefs/behaviors in terms of secular reasoning. By relying on secular reasoning, the moderate/liberal Christians undermine the validity and relevance of *their own* Faith by demonstrating that Faith is unnecessary to reach a conclusion, or to defend a moral choice.

    Thirdly, they may choose to ignore their Fundamentalist counterpart's Faith-based claims/beliefs/behaviors (they may claim that they are "not their brother's keeper, or some such nonsense), but in doing so they are acting very irresponsibly. In allowing the Fundamentalists to go unchallenged, the moderate/liberal Christians risk abandoning them all to falsehood, shadows...and possibly even Hell. The moderates/liberals also risk being eclipsed and marginalized by the Fundamentalists, who tend to be vehement and carry a big stick. This would result in Fundamentalism run amok, in which more and more people would fall into falsehood, shadows...and possibly Hell. They are also choosing to stand aside while the Fundamentalists verbally and possibly physically abuse the targets of their righteous and faithful indignation; like gays, atheists, etc. Such gross negligence on the part of moderate/liberal Christians simply cannot be justified or rationalized as loving or Christ-like in any way!

    1. Thanks for your comment. I quite agree that your technique is effective, when it's effective. I urge you to get out there and do it, and if you already are, to keep getting out there and keep doing it!

      I also agree that I don't think that this argument, in particular, will hit most believers where it matters. Then again, I don't know what does or would. It's nice that you hypothesize that your approach would, but it requires them to be moved by such positions, which they frankly aren't. They don't care if they're in a philosophical bind or not. Theology is kind of the branch of (pseudo)-philosophy that exists simply to weasel its way out of philosophical binds.

      Have you read my post where I liken religious belief to a cancer of the mind?

      You'll find in there that I would suggest that there probably isn't a single way to shake people free, but rather that different individuals will be shaken by different things. This particular analogy was one I developed while talking with a person who is losing her faith, so while it may or may not hit believers, it is likely to hit those whose beliefs are in various stages of failing, who make up my target audience.

      In any case, consider my microscopic approach as a method of really highlighting some of the fundamental philosophical or, in this case, ethical problems inherent in Christianity (and other religions). The goal is to reach those people who will take such a perspective as food for thought.

      I hope you also noticed that the tone in this post is ultimately inquisitive. I don't think that the questions I ask at the end are meant to be rhetorical. The goal of this post was to present an idea, stir the pot, and enable conversation with a different perspective thrown in.

    2. I'd be remiss to fail to point out that the most salient way I've run across to describe the Christianities (and by extension, other religions) is as a form of very serious social clubs, where the social function is defined primarily in terms of some social valuation mechanisms that we have (Cf. Jonathan Haidt, e.g.). In that sense, the religions, whatever they say, hardly care about holding beliefs in statements that are "true." They're more interested in being able to suspend disbelief in the right things that allow them to achieve and maintain membership and status in the social network.

      Granted, this misses some of what's going on with religion, but it's a very, very useful way to consider them when it comes to attempting the (so far impossible) problem of rooting out why people believe (or claim to believe) these things.

    3. Thanks for your thoughtful reply. My apologies if my comment came off sounding at all dismissive of your technique; as when I said "I think that a much more powerful tool is..." I only meant to communicate that it was one of the only ways I've found to reliably get moderate/liberal Christians to engage in dialogs about religion rather than dodge them. They make a comment about how frustrated they are about the Westboro Baptist Church I just ask them why, since the WBC folks are doing engaging in the same basic process of Faith-based living.

      I also wasn't suggesting that mine is a one-size-fits-all technique, but I didn't make that terribly clear. I agree, there isn't a single way to shake people's holds on Faith. It's difficult for them to be moved by such challenges, and they do employ a lot of weaseling to get out of these binds. I also don't mean to suggest that any technique (much less mine) will get through to them the first time it's used. I gently challenge them again and again, in order to prick their conscience. I don't ever expect that they'll come and say to me "Hey, you're right...Faith really is bollocks!", but I hope to shake their confidence in and advocacy of Faith, as well as their obliviousness its consequences.

      Keep stirring the pot, James :)

    4. Well put, Tony.

      Honestly, as strange as it sounds, the most effective technique that I've run across is simply to be a decent person to as many people as possible while not hiding the fact that I don't believe in this stuff. I think at bottom, most of the religious phenomenon is psychosocial, with an emphasis on the social, so it breaks down a lot of barriers to consistently be as they're hearing we "aren't" in their churches. It's only a matter of time until the "Pastor Jones is wrong about this... what else might he be wrong about...?" though crosses their minds, it seems.

      The problem with that technique is that its scope is insanely limited. Anything that can be broadcast, though, is likely to miss a lot of targets, hit them wrong, etc. It's a tricky challenge, but I think it's just a matter of keeping it up from many angles until finally the social tide does the real work for us.

  2. Damn James,

    Intresting thoughts. As an exjw and a former wtbts droid, it always amazed me that christians ever had kids? Why in the world would someone even consider it? Bringing beings into "satans" world and cursed by adams trangressons is ABSURD! Its the most unloving thing you could do, if you believe un a biblical worldview! The risk outweigh the rewards! Plus with are "freewill" nothing is a given. Many of us Jw kids left the organization and never looked back! While I wasn't raised a jw and hardly came from a stable family, alot of the kids that grew up in loving familys still went astray...

    All your post's are fire James...straight fire...keep that heat coming man...


    1. Thanks Jason! I appreciate your encouragement and your story. I quite agree that the theology is pretty messed up when examined in fine-grained detail.

      I suspect this might be intentional too, though not in the "let's cook up the most vile thing we can" sense. It seems that one of the primary functions of religion, in that it attempts to diminish the impact that our mortality has on our psychology, is that it tries to dehumanize people. Oddly, it does this in both directions at once--elevating us above all of the lowly animals while repeatedly telling us what filth we are by our very natures.

      In this particular case, my suspicion is that it is not possible to accept the theology under a fine-grained look and retain your humanity, so it's a constant reminder of both of those two dehumanizing extremes: you should be better than your biology but since you're not, you should remember what an animal you are and the price of being such an animal is serious. It's really a damned shame, especially since it has the bonus, from the point of view of the power-greedy in the church hierarchy, of causing people not to want to examine their theology too closely (which would cause many of them to reject it). Apologists easily can then warp the discomfort of hitting upon ideas like this into "you read it wrong; let me help," and can maintain their power status and social worth that way too.

      This is all conjectural, of course. If intentional, it is merely another attempt to separate man from animals and man from God in order to preserve the mythology, but on the other hand, it could just be stupidity in having not examined the consequences of the apparently feel-good theology at a deeper level.

      Thanks again!

  3. Very interesting post. While this situation may seem a bit out there, it does line up with their theology. If someone did this, he would be sacrificing his own afterlife for that of countless children. According to those beliefs, it would be an incredibly selfless act.

    This very well may be what inspired this post in the first place, but if you want to bring this down to reality, this sounds a lot like the Andrea Yates case. She was afraid of her children ending up in hell and drowned them. He was of course ruled insane, but according to their theology, her sacrifice should be lauded.

    1. I had forgotten about the Andrea Yates case until you just mentioned it. It was actually sitting and thinking about a particular paragraph that I wrote in my own book--which wonders aloud of Christians ever pray for themselves or their children (saved or sufficiently young) to die of accidental causes. I kind of dismiss the "selves" case as, per the theology praying to die of an accident, if one believes prayer actually works, ends up not classified as an accident. In fact, I think thinking about examples like this starts to show immediately how weird and inconsistent the entire conception is, built as it was mostly ad hoc to address various questions outside the scope of tractability.

      After I posted this, I realized that it's kind of even worse than I presented since in some of the Christian theologies, all this monster really needs to do to save himself in the end is to pray for forgiveness and welcoming Jesus into his heart at the last moment.

      That's pretty messed up and strains credulity in the entire framework (which was, obviously, the goal of this musing).

    2. That's actually a really good point too. We were thinking that committing these murders would make it so the murderer would go to hell, but that doesn't actually seem to be consistent with what is taught. It doesn't even have to be in the last moment like you said, they could even accept Jesus before hand.

      It might be different from church to church, but where I grew up there was no confession or anything. It's not like when you sinned your soul was tainted or something until you got it cleansed. We are all sinners and deserve hell, that is a given. But if we accept Jesus we get in to heaven anyway, even if you sin after you accept Jesus. And since all sins are equally bad in the eyes of God, that mass murderer is no different from a habitual liar, or a guy who has a lot of lust in his heart for many different women.

      The more you explore these ideas, the more it shows how silly they really are.

    3. Indeed, if he can pray his way to freedom at some moment, then he's a hero. If he cannot and is damning himself (especially knowingly), then he's "better than Jesus" in terms of his willful sacrifice. It's pretty crazy.

      I keep looking for other examples of loopholes this big in the theology (not looking too hard, admittedly--it's not really worth the time as Tony noted above), but I haven't come up with any yet.

  4. Hey Dr. Lindsey,
    I'm obviously a late arrival, and I suppose any number of things might have happened since you wrote this post, but I was hoping to get some answers regarding some of the statements made above.

    As a Christian, I would, as you observed, be horrified by this dictatorial mass-murderer, just as I am disgusted by the past executions of "heretics" by the Inquisition. However, I don't see how you come to the conclusion that this murderer is "saving" the hypothetical children. For a start, baptism does not wash away sins (unless one belongs to a denomination that believes so), it is faith in Christ. In addition, regardless of the children's eternal fate, the murderer is a criminal, since only God is allowed to arbitrarily determine the life and death of a man. Thus, this is no "sacrifice" and cannot even hope to hold up to Christ on the cross - nor would the man be celebrated for this outrage, though you are right to observe that he might be saved from his own sins (as was St. Paul, who started his career as a missionary after originally persecuting and executing Christians).

    The entire premise of this argument is based on the notion that a man can save someone else, in this case by killing them before they can sin. Yet saving is not up to us, but up to Christ.

    In light of these comments, how do you justify the observations made in the original blog post?


    1. Hi Max. Let me see what I can do.

      1. "For a start, baptism does not wash away sins (unless one belongs to a denomination that believes so),"

      Many, perhaps most, do. I don't think it really makes any sense at all, but I'm not the one that holds Christian beliefs that have to face the problem of children that die before reaching an age where belief (thus salvation) is possible. How do you reconcile the problem of dead babies? Do they go to hell, de facto?

      2. "regardless of the children's eternal fate, the murderer is a criminal," and "Thus, this is no 'sacrifice.'"

      The man who would do this, if Christianity were true, has condemned himself to hell so that he might save the souls of every baby of Christian parents. Hypothetically, he believes that. If he voluntarily throws away his opportunity to have eternal life in heaven, forsaking it for hell instead, so that all others might have heaven, he is making a sacrifice on behalf of others--again, presuming these nonsense beliefs are true.

      3. "nor would the man be celebrated for this outrage"

      I should hope not, but it's not because of Christianity, but rather in spite of it, that this is the case.

      4. "though you are right to observe that he might be saved from his own sins"

      Does this not bother you rather tremendously?

      5. "The entire premise of this argument is based on the notion that a man can save someone else, in this case by killing them before they can sin."

      Are you suggesting that babies that are murdered don't go to heaven? Why not? What happens to their souls, since you believe in them?

  5. Thanks for getting back with me!

    1. Since salvation is dependent upon personal faith in Christ, rather than works, and since only Christ can do the saving, then baptism cannot be the redeeming event: in the case of infants, they cannot make the personal choice to accept Christ, therefore the act of baptism is through the actions another, which takes Christ out of the picture. Isaiah 7 and Jeremiah 19 speak of a period of innocence where children cannot choose between right and wrong, so the implication is that children will go to Heaven.

    2. I agree that this is nonsense, since while the man may truly believe he is in the right, he is in fact committing a terrible crime. Jer. 19 goes on to explain God's punishment for those who sacrificed children in ancient Israel.

    What I don't understand is the qualification "if Christianity were true" - does that make a difference?

    3. Again, I'm not sure what you're getting at, "it's not because of Christianity, but rather in spite of it."

    4. As a human whose naturally tendency it towards revenge, I would definitely want justice. On the other hand, if God offers salvation to all men (John 3:16 and I Timothy 2), I'd hope He would honor His promise and allow the worst of sinners to enter as well (again, see St. Paul, I Timothy 1). A God who betrays His own promise would indeed bother me tremendously.

    5. See above - also, my point was not about souls, but mankind's inability to save them: only Christ can do that.