Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Epic Plan of Salvation: The Sequel

I don't see why he can't just jump across...
A while back I made a quite sarcastic post lambasting the Epic Plan of Salvation found in the Bible. While I do think it covered a broad range of important points, I'd like to drill down a little deeper and focus on one particular issue: the play between faith/belief and knowledge/understanding. This post will be more geared toward already-believing Christians but will generally be a critique of the theology in general for those who don't fully understand how it works.

Why is that chair empty anyway?
All too often, hardworking Americans are sleeping soundly on a Saturday morning, only to be rudely awakened by two men at their front door carrying Bibles. When the door is opened, what will be the first thing to come out of the evangelists' mouths? Most likely, "Have you accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal Savior?" According to most Christians that I am aware of, the doctrine of salvation is the most important bit of theology from the Bible. Everything else pales in comparison to the question, "Are you saved?" But what do they mean by this question? There are many biblical verses with similar (but not always identical) answers. It generally goes like this:

Realize you are a sinner. “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)

Understand that you are condemned to death. "For the wages [payment] of sin is [eternal] death [in Hell]." (Romans 6:23)

In order to avoid this death, you must "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved." (Acts 16:31) "[Jesus is] the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father [gets into heaven] except through [him]. (John 14:6)

So he can't jump across the gap but he's supposed to step
over the cross hump? I say give the man a pole and let him
try his hand at vaulting.
Some explain this as the "ABCs" of salvation: Admit that you are a sinner, Believe in Jesus, and Confess that Jesus is your Lord. The reasons for believing that any of the above verses are actually true are sort of assumed in the bible. Theologically, every single person that has ever lived has sinned and deserves to be tortured in hell forever as their just punishment. (No explanation for this necessary - it's just true according to the bible.) You must believe that Jesus took your punishment on the cross and accepting his sacrifice in your place is the only way to avoid hell and receive eternal life. Once you have done this, you are a True Christian™.

See anything missing from the above paragraph? If you were thinking "good deeds" or "a person's heart or attitude" you were right! (Christians are usually very proud of this. They believe it sets them apart from all other religions.) According to the Bible, it's not about what you've done, only what you believe. Many of you may find this as perplexing as I do - that there is a god who wants to forgive you but can only do so if you believe in this particular religion when it says that God became man and lived a perfect life and sacrificed himself to himself to appease himself for the wrong things that human beings have done to other human beings. Why wouldn't God just forgive everyone, or at least everyone who tried to be a good person? Because that's not how it works. You have to believe these very specific things. Which is usually fine and dandy for those who have grown up in Christian households because they are very aware of how this salvation thing works.

But what about those who have never heard before? What about American Indians who lived long before Columbus came and Catholicism could have spread? They would have had no clue what the right thing to believe was, which means there was no way to to believe in Jesus, which is the only way into heaven. Certainly I am not the first person to bring up this kink in the otherwise simple plan of salvation. Nonetheless, the bible seems to be very clear on the rules and therefore the ignorant seem to be doomed. How do Christians explain this troubling problem?

There are two camps. One takes the position that "Because Jesus is the only way, then by definition any person ignorant of the Scripture must be destined to Hell upon death." This is certainly harsh and therefore does not seem to enjoy support from the majority of the Christian crowd. If it were true, then we can easily see how bad a plan of salvation this is, since the vast majority of people who ever lived probably wouldn't know the exact right thing to believe unless a Christian explained it to them. These billions of people would certainly find themselves surprised to appear in the eternal lake of fire upon their death, especially if they were what we would consider good and kind people. Any god using this method of punishment would immediately be condemned as immoral, cruel, and sadistic by an honest, objective observer.

The other camp (and I make no attempt to argue which viewpoint is the "right" one) believes that in the absence of Scriptural understanding, God will judge peoples' hearts and how they dealt with the general revelation that was provided to them. By "general revelation," I mean any evidence that points to the existence of a god that can be observed by simply viewing nature. (Many Christians - and indeed the Bible itself - argue that we can deduce the fact that god exists by the fact that nature exists [Romans 1:20]. While I disagree with this notion, that's an argument for another day.) I understand this to mean that God will judge these peoples' hearts and if they were "good" people according to what they understood about morality, then they can be allowed access into heaven.

If the second viewpoint is true, then a simple question must be asked: Why use the belief based system for the non-ignorant at all? If it is possible to avoid punishment based on one's actions, then why introduce belief into the equation at all? That just makes it more likely that people will end up damned. If a good person who otherwise would have made it into heaven because of their Scriptural ignorance hears the Gospel, they will immediately enter a spiritual state of doomed-until-further-notice. What if they died before they decided to accept? This reminds me of a portion of a dialogue between a missionary and an Eskimo.

Eskimo: “If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to Hell?”

Missionary: “Not if you did not know.”

Eskimo: “Then why did you tell me?”

Up until now in this discussion, I have generally assumed that people would generally accept the Gospel if they had heard of it and understood it. This leaves out one major portion of the population, however: those from other religions and atheists. It is generally the case that people brought up in a certain religion will tend to stay with that religion even when approached by missionaries from other religions. But what about my case? Specifically, I am someone who grew up with Christianity and believed it up until around 20 years old, and now rejects it as a myth akin to any other religion that has died out. I am fully aware of what the requirements are for salvation according to the Bible, but I reject the truth of the bible out of honesty and education. "Why is this a problem?" you may ask.

Let's assume for the moment that I am both justified in my non-belief and that the Bible is true insofar as it speaks about salvation. I find no reason to believe that Jesus died on the cross and rose again due to lack of historical evidence, but I try to be a good person all the same. There is no reason, theologically, that I should fall under the salvation plan (viewpoint two) of those who have not heard, so I would inescapably be destined to hell. Because I am a good person? No - for as the bible states, even one sin is enough to condemn you to hell forever, no matter at what age that sin was. (Another popular theology is "Original Sin" which basically states that you would still go to hell even if you lived a perfect life, because you inherited the "sin nature" from Adam. Again, not worth discussing in detail but it is relevant in the case that I wanted to somehow argue that I've never done anything wrong, ever.) I would be condemned simply for not believing what I know is not true. This is a plan of salvation that does not factor in what you've done or what you know, it is simply a matter of belief. It rewards blind faith from those who could not possibly know if the biblical stories are true (such as indigenous tribes in Africa) over justified rejection in the case of those who have good reasons not to believe.

This makes sense to me in a religious context, since religions need people to follow regardless of truth. What better way to gain followers than the threat of an eternal fiery torture in hell, when the only thing one must do to be saved is believe the right thing and ultimately assimilate into that religion? What doesn't make sense is how a good, loving, and forgiving god could ever come up with a salvation plan like this. Ignoring the fact that God must have created hell and the rules that condemn everyone to it initially, only a cruel god would reward ignorance over knowledge and faith over justified belief.

The Christian response to this is often either A) You haven't done enough research or you would believe, or B) You are just suppressing (my) god's truth so that you can continue your life of sin. I need only to respond to each of those criticisms by saying that A) I have done more honest research than most Christians I know concerning all kinds of biblical topics, and B) If I really believed that the bible was true and, by extension, that I would be condemned to hell, why would I pretend to disbelieve just so that I could enjoy a short-lived life? Why would I think that any omniscient god couldn't see past my pretending? The fact is that I have no reason to think that the bible is true in any non-trivial way and therefore I have no reason to ask forgiveness from a Jesus I don't think exists. (An aside: why does Jesus want us to ask him for forgiveness instead of us asking forgiveness from those we've wronged? Why are we apologizing to Jesus at all? We haven't harmed him in any way.)

If any Christians are willing to respond, what are your explanations for a plan of salvation that doesn't involve God just forgiving everyone and giving each person a happy afterlife where no one will be wronged again? Why does God reward blind faith over honest research? And what are your opinions on how ignorant non-believers will be handled?