Category Archives: Jesus

Why You Don’t Have To Check Every Nutty Claim

going-to-hellA friend once earnestly invited me to his very fundamentalist church. I was a Christian at the time but, according to his church, I was not the right kind of Christian and was destined for hell. He said to me, “With the stakes so high, doesn’t it make sense to come check it out?”

He had a point, but I declined.

Why?

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Why Is Hell So Important to Evangelical Christianity?

Last time, I promised this post would consider the purpose of hell. It has been so long since that promise that some of my readers may think that I have actually gone there, but fear not: I have not and neither will you.

Alive and well so far, let’s turn to the cheerful subject of why hell is so important to evangelical Christianity.

1) Without hell, Jesus’ death on the cross is meaningless.

Several years ago, one of my daughters, who was a Christian, said she was worried about going to hell. At the time, I was still a Christian too, but, in the midst of my four-year period of deep questioning, there were some things I had figured out. I assured her, “Don’t worry. The doctrine of hell is ridiculous. A just God would not punish anyone for an infinite amount of time for sins committed in this lifetime’s comparative blink of an eye. Infinite punishment for finite sins makes no sense.”

She immediately saw the truth of my argument and stopped worrying about hell.

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“You Had Not Yet Sought Yourselves…”

Are you a parent whose children have chosen a path far from yours? Are you a pastor, rabbi or imam who is frustrated at your flock’s seeming lack of interest? Are you a disciple of a particular religion who is having a hard time conforming? Here is a passage from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra that may either encourage or challenge you.

Zarathustra is speaking to his disciples:

Now I go alone, my disciples. You too go now, alone. Thus I want it. Verily, I counsel you: go away from me and resist Zarathustra! And even better: be ashamed of him! Perhaps he deceived you.

The man of knowledge must not only love his enemies, he must also be able to hate his friends.

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Why I Became a Christian

“Wait, what!? I thought you weren’t a Christian!” That’s true now, but this post is about when I was a child of about 11, and what took place at  Camp Sandy Hill.

I don’t remember much exposure to the Christian faith before that summer. Our family had attended church when I was quite young, but for whatever reason we hadn’t attended regularly for several years.

I did think about God, but mostly in the negative. I recall that when we said the Pledge of Allegiance in elementary school, I was uncomfortable with the “under God” part. Sometimes I didn’t say it, and sometimes I said it but gave myself the excuse that God didn’t exist anyway so it didn’t matter.

I also recall an episode in first grade. This was in the 1960s, when prayers were still said in public school. After one prayer, one of my classmates told the teacher that I had had my eyes open. She was a wise lady and replied, “You wouldn’t have seen that his eyes were open if yours hadn’t been open, too.”

But I did have beliefs. My cornerstone belief was in Justice: I thought that good would eventually be rewarded and evil recompensed. Just how this happened I didn’t know, but it was almost like the Law of Conservation of Mass that I would later learn in high school. The universe would always be in balance.

That was my frame of mind when I went away to my first summer at camp. Sandy Hill was a Christian boys’ camp, with all that entails: fun crafts and activities, listening to Christian messages and singing Christian songs. One song was by far my favorite:

He’s Everything to Me
by Ralph Carmichael 

In the stars His handiwork I see;
On the wind He speaks with majesty.
Though He ruleth over land and sea,
What is that to me?

I will celebrate Nativity,
for it has a place in history.
Sure, He came to set His people free.
What is that to me?

Till by faith I met Him face to face
and I felt the wonder of his grace.
Then I knew that He was more
than just a God who didn’t care
That lived a way out there

And now He walks beside
Me day by day,
Ever watching o’er me lest I stray,
Helping me to find that narrow way
He’s Everything To Me.

Here’s a cheesy version sung around a campfire:

I had always wanted to do the right thing, so the idea that the majestic creator of the stars would be “ever watching over me lest I stray, helping me to find that narrow way” was very appealing. The evangelical Christian message that someone had to pay for our sins fit well with my idea of Justice. It made perfect sense to me that either I could pay (in hell) or I could accept Jesus’ payment on the cross and go to heaven instead.

So one night, lying on my bunk, I committed my life to Christ. I felt quite a rush. It was mind-blowing to have a connection — nay, a relationship — with he who “speaks on the wind” and “ruleth over land and sea.” Being even then a truth-seeking beagle, it also felt good to be right. It felt even better to be right with God.

Regular readers of the blog know that I look on faith differently now, but that was a very genuine experience of my 11-year-old self and I don’t want to tear it apart it in this post. I just wanted to tell that story, and now you have it.

Appropriate to Evidence and Cost

You may have seen this video of chimpanzees who were raised in a research lab, and released to the outdoors for the first time in their lives.

Sometimes I feel like those chimpanzees. I blink and wonder at new virtues I see in the landscape of freethought. What I see is sometimes so unfamiliar that I cannot name it.

So it is with the virtue I propose for your consideration in this post.

It’s the virtue of urging change on others only

  • in proportion to the solid evidence for your idea, and
  • in inverse proportion to the cost that your change will exact.

Jesus had the right idea when he encouraged people to “count the cost” before signing up as his disciple. Even if a person really needed what Jesus had to offer, and was eager to have it, Jesus preferred to send him away with nothing if he was not willing to give up everything.

Too many people, myself included, have breezed past the ethical imperative of letting people know what they’re getting themselves into.

I would add that those who proselytize for high-cost spiritual programs (cost in terms of money or cost in terms of lifestyle change) ought to have plenty of evidence that their ideas are true. Not just that they “work” or “change lives” but are factually true.

How do you know they’re true? Do your ideas allow you to make predictions that can be fulfilled in front of people today? Have you proposed ways that your ideas could be proven false, and encouraged others to try those experiments? Do your ideas fit comfortably with what you see in the world, or do they force you into ad hoc appeals to the mysterious plans of invisible beings? Have you listened carefully to the best arguments from those who disagree with you? Have you actually read their books, or have you allowed your own side to summarize them for you? Have you given your opponents credit for being intelligent, sincere human beings, or have you demonized them as unenlightened and morally compromised because they disagree with you?

I once attended a group of spiritual seekers and one of the women there opined that it didn’t matter whether the system on offer was technically true; what mattered was whether it made you feel better. So astonished that I lost my manners, I blurted out, “Then just take drugs!”

I say from experience that the sweet feelings, warm social atmosphere and exalted morality of a spiritual system will turn bitter, uncomfortable and dark if the foundation on which they were based proves false.

So let’s rotate our own volume knobs counterclockwise if we don’t really have evidence for what we’re saying. Let’s be especially cautious if we’re asking a lot of those we are trying to convince.

P.S. – There’s one more aspect of this virtue that I will save for its own post. We should make special accommodations for people who are not equipped to evaluate the evidence. They may include children, the philosophically unsophisticated and people who have suffered deep psychological wounds.

Why Care About Right and Wrong?

<< Previous in this series: Why Care About Anything at All?

When I was an evangelical Christian, I thought that God was at the center of every sound reason for doing the right thing. For example, Jesus encouraged us, “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16). It was all about bringing glory to God, showing gratitude to God, respecting God, fearing God, etc..

I thought that when unbelievers did good, it was in spite of their philosophies of life, not because of them. Selfishness was the only consistent result of any “worldly philosophy.” The Bible told me that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9), and that’s what I believed.

In my final years of wrestling with my faith, someone close to me said, “You’re too afraid of yourself.” I did not believe her, but her comment stuck with me.

Imagine my surprise after my deconversion when I discovered she was right. Even without God, I still wanted to do the right thing.

How could that be?

Evangelicals themselves tell us the answer, perhaps unwittingly. Google God’s commands for our good and you’ll find statements like these.

Some of God’s commandments may require self-denial on our part. But in the long run we will discover that they are for our very best. A father doesn’t give commands to his children to burden them or harm them – but only to help them. This is how we need to see the commands that God gives us too. — Zac Poonen

In other words, if we follow biblical precepts, we will be happier in the long run.

Jesus, too, gave very pragmatic reasons for following his teaching, as in this famous verse from the Sermon on the Mount.

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. (Matthew 7:1-2)

Even God’s so-called ceremonial laws, such as the prohibition on eating pork, are for our own good, say believers:

Pigs are known to carry up to 200 diseases and 18 different parasites and worms. — Eating Pork Can be Hazardous to Your Health, at OnlineTruth.org

It does not require a belief in God to stay away from unhealthy food, or to realize that what goes around comes around. For the most part, God’s commands in the Bible do make sense, even to an unbeliever. I find that I still want to obey them.

I will admit to one huge difference. As a Christian, I took the Bible as God’s Word. If it commanded something, then it must be right. For reasons that I cover elsewhere on this blog, I can no longer believe that. Today, I base my moral judgments on how actions affect other people.

Although my ways of appraising right and wrong have changed, I still care about morality and ethics. There are sound, obvious, pragmatic reasons for doing so.

What Christians say is true: people are generally happier when they follow the Golden Rule and other universal principles that are in the Bible. A life of immorality and dissipation is usually an unhappy one. It’s far more fulfilling to devote oneself to improving the world and serving others. Christian, you and I disagree about a lot of things. Will you let me agree with you on this?