Religion and Morality I

Too many people base their morality on shallow and ultimately unsound reasons: a fear of hell, a desire to get into heaven, and parochial obedience to God. They do not represent true goodness. Good and ethical conduct should stem from empathy, compassion, and rational sincerity – it should be done for it’s own sake, not out of primal instincts such as fear, self-preservation, or obedience to a higher power.

But alas, that is where many theists, particularly of the Abrahamic religions,  seem to ultimately derive their moral compass.  It’s all rather clear cut – if you don’t do what God says or approves of, you go to hell; if you follow what is “right” as commanded by God (or interpreted by you, your choice, or the Bible) than you earn the reward of heaven. It’s basically a celestial stick and carrot, and is akin to the sort of moralizing paternalism that guides the actions of children (who are self-evidently lacking in reason and are in their formative years of ethical and moral development).

Of course, this isn’t to say that all theists prescribe to such a disturbingly selfish notion of morality. On the contrary, I’m fortunate that most of the religious people I’ve encountered are far removed from such a basis in conduct, if only because they’re also far removed from the dogmatic and fundamentalist notions of God that justify it. Most Christians, particularly in my younger demographic, seem to take a more liberal view of God, one which downplays the concepts of heaven and hell.

Nevertheless, there are many theists that do ground their actions in this perverse notion of morality, with disquieting implications for society. What does it say about our race when so many of us feel a need to be intimidated into doing good things? Why do we need God to determine what is right and just? And why should heaven be an incentive? Why have an incentive at all? Ultimately, my concern is that people raised under such notions will ultimately fail in developing a true  ethical and moral foundation. Instead of learning the value of doing good things for their own sake, or out of a more tangible sense of empathy, they’ll come to see good deeds as nothing more than a way to make God happy and ensure their place in eternal happiness. Does that sound like a sincere basis for goodness? Is bribing or threatening you to do a good thing make it genuine on your part?

What I find even more disturbing is how many theists seem perfectly content with all this. They see no problem with basing their morality on these “incentives” and in fact see it as simply the way things are (which I interpret as a euphemism for having personal reservations about something but ultimately getting over it because, well, that’s just what God intended, so end of story). I’m reminded of the story of Abraham, and how the patriarch of the great monotheistic faiths was willing to murder his own son just because God commanded it. Obviously, we all know that God had no intention of letting Abraham kill his son – it all just a test of his faith. But he certainly didn’t know this. Despite his reservations, Abraham was going to go through with this disturbing act, believing full well that it was the right thing to do because God said so.

So what does this say about the nature of morality in Christianity and the other “Abrahamic” faiths? Is it just what God decides? What if God were to hypothetically command a follower to go on a killing spree? Would he or she do it, since God is the source and final authority on such things? Christians retort that God would never do such a thing, and that his very existence embodies what is good and right. But that misses the point: what if they were placed in Abraham’s place, not knowing it were a test? What would they do then?

There is more I wanted to write on this subject, and I was hoping move the topic along to  Divine Command Theory and the Euthyphro dilemma. But I think I’ll leave that for another post, as it is getting late. I look forward to any replies, particularly from theists.

39 comments on “Religion and Morality I

  1. I’m a theist. I’ll respond.

    I think your concept of what theists believe in terms of morality doesn’t exactly mesh with what theism holds to. First, many theists (including myself) don’t subscribe to a works-based salvation. So doing good things to ensure our eternal reward is a fallacy–all the good in the world we could do wouldn’t ensure our eternal reward unless we have a relationship with Jesus Christ based on trust and reciprocal love.

    Christian theism doesn’t work without Christ, and love is the essential part of that relationship. We need not look further than the two greatest commands according to Jesus: love the Lord, and love your neighbor. Just as if you really love someone and are willing to do anything to just continue to be in love with that person, so it should be with God. We do things because we desire to have that loving relationship with Jesus Christ. It’s no different than any other type of love we see in the world here; it just has a different object. I see no harm in that.

    Like the Jason Gray song “More Like Falling In Love,” says, “It’s gotta be more like falling in love than something to believe in. More like losing myself than giving my allegiance.” Out of our love for Him comes the desire to achieve goodness. And since Christian theism holds that God is pure good, we seek to emulate that goodness.

    My question back to you is this: by what do we measure right and wrong? That is to say, what is the standard by what we deem something to be right or wrong? What is the measuring stick which determines what side of the coin we fall on? I feel like we could better dialogue if I knew where we stood, and what exactly are the issues with objective moral values. Thanks!

    • Wonderful! I was much looking forward to a theist response. I appreciate you taking the time to response with a well-thought out defense.

      I understand your point of view. Perhaps I should’ve been clearer in my disclaimer, but I do acknowledge that many Christians prescribe to a belief system very much as you described it – one based on faith and love. But unfortunately, I’ve come to encounter many Christian individuals, groups, and websites that perpetuate a far darker take on morality, one which emphasizes the wrath of God and the punishment of hell as major components to their theology. In doing so, they are cultivating a culture of belief and works based around fear more than anything. Even if this isn’t intentional, it is essentially what begins to develop.

      I also take issue with the notion that belief in Christ is largely all that matters. In theory, this isn’t problematic, and plenty of loving Christians (including yourself I am sure) are sincere about this. But there emerges two problems: one, belief in Christ is overemphasized to the point that personal moral accountability is marginalized. I’ve encountered many theists who excuse themselves of their moral failings because they whole heartedly believe that asking forgiveness and keeping up their faith supersede their actions. For another, the problem of hell once again emerges: eternal punishment becomes a means of enforcement, which has the psychological impact of incentivizing such faith. All too often, many Christians proselytize a belief in Christ with the intent of “saving” others from damnation – but would that encourage belief for it’s own sake, or belief out of a deeper fear?

      Lastly, to address your excellent question: there are many ways to base one’s moral and ethical conduct. Empathy is one, for example – do onto others as you’d want done to you, for example. Altruism is a product of both psychological and evolutionary development, pertinent to our nature as a social species. Obviously, there are many moral and ethical questions that remain without solid answers, but I find the same occurs with respect to theistic beliefs – God embodies goodness, yet what that “goodness” is becomes mired in varying interpretations and subjective notions. We’re all trying to find our moral compasses from different but equally complex foundations.

      There’s more to say on the matter, but I must depart for now. Thanks again for the good discussion.

  2. Thanks for your candor and for explaining your position further. I think one of the biggest disservices to the world is the divisions among the church. I think when people begin substituting their own opinions instead of pointing to what the Bible says, we get into these kinds of problems where two people both claim to be theists but say very different things about an issue.

    I will do my best to stay true to what the Bible says, because I believe that the answers are there if you look for them. I know some people would laugh at that very notion, but I have very good reasons to believe what the Bible says, so I take it on good authority.

    A morality based on fear isn’t good, I agree with you. I think problems arise when people try to do “not bad” instead of good, because the motivations behind it are selfish instead of selfless. While the Bible does teach the reality of hell, I don’t think the Bible teaches “fire insurance.” Yet too many people today go out and espouse the “turn or burn” message. That’s not inviting, and I can’t think of anyone who would rightly be swayed by it.

    I think that the Bible gives us a clear picture of what morality is. Jesus says, “Love the Lord your God, with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like it–love your neighbor as yourself. On these two hang all the Law and Prophets (Law and Prophets being a description of the Old Testament).” Anything that is good adheres to these two principles, and everything boils down to those.

    Let’s make it personal. What is it that drives YOUR personal moral code? What is the standard by which you choose what is right, and what is wrong? Is it empathy, altruism, what exactly? Perhaps we can both glean some greater understanding when we bring it to that deeper level.

    Thanks again for the discussion. I eagerly await your response.

    • No problem it is my pleasure. Such discussion is very crucial to enlightenment, and is in keeping with me main objective in this blog. I am happy to encounter yet another theist with a level-headed and honest approach to morality and purpose. Were it not for such positive encounters, I’d very likely be more cynical towards religion.

      With that said, there isn’t much you just wrote that I don’t already agree with. You reflect many of the same concerns and criticisms with religion that I do. However, I do bear some concerns about Biblical epistemology that I’d like to discuss at some point, perhaps when we’re done establishing one other’s views 🙂

      To elaborate on your question, I am in fact agnostic, though I often lean towards spirituality and deism from time to time. While in the midst of my search for Truth, I maintain my moral and ethical code from an innate sense of empathy with the people around me. I know that theft, dishonesty, and murder are wrong because such experiences are damaging to others, based on my ability to relate. I do not know if that answer is satisfactory for you, but that is where I derive my compassion: I feel the for the suffering of others, and thus base what is right and wrong from what produces suffering. Obviously, this formula doesn’t entirely work for the more complex moral dilemma’s we face, but it is a good starting point.

      The way I see it, there is something innate in us as social creatures that allows for the development of altruism and compassion. It’s simply a matter of interacting and developing bonds with as many people as possible, and learning to project your own thoughts, feelings, and concerns onto them. I am not sure if you’d want me to go into more detail, but I’ll leave at that for now.

      What about you? How did you reach your moral conclusion? Why the Bible or Christianity specifically? Any particularly denomination?

  3. This is great stuff. Thanks so much for the good discussion!

    I think in terms of your views on morality, you are definitely headed in the right direction. The empathy from which you derive your moral code is right in line with the “love your neighbor as yourself” command given by Jesus. I truly believe that it’s the moral nature God has instilled in you that gives you that sense of altruism and compassion. I guess the next question would be whether or not you believe that these moral value judgments (i.e. murder is wrong) are objective or subjective. Is murder (and by murder I mean with pre-meditated intent–so murder is different from just killing in my opinion) wrong in all cases?

    The reason I ask is because I see a sort of slippery slope with the objective standard for moral values being suffering. I believe murder is wrong because I see God as being all-good, and murder is contradictory to His very nature of goodness (He commands us not to murder, after all). Only part of this, in my opinion, has to do with the fact that it causes suffering. Bear with me while I give a couple of examples.

    A man puts a knife to a woman’s throat down an empty alley, threatening to kill her if she doesn’t let him rape her. Somehow, the woman is able to turn the tables on the man, and in defending herself uses the knife to stab the man to death. If suffering is the measuring stick for morality, then she has committed an immoral act, because it caused her assailant to suffer (physically) and the loved ones of the assailant to suffer (emotionally). Do you agree/disagree, and if disagree, why?

    A second example (these are on my blog, and I may touch these again in my third evidentiary point for God’s existence) is this. World Series, two outs, bottom of the 9th, home team down by 2 runs, bases loaded. The cleanup hitter comes up, and on a full count belts a grand slam out of the park. The crowd goes wild! The hero grins from ear to ear as he circles the bases, with his teammates at home plate ready to mob him. He’s won the game! Unfortunately, he has committed an immoral act by hitting a home run. Why? Because he has caused suffering to the opposing pitcher, the opposing team, and to all of the opposing team’s fans. And not only that, but his immoral act is far worse than the woman acting in self-defense from the first example, because his act caused more people to suffer.

    Now those examples are a bit in jest, but I think they do a job of showing the potential slippery slope when suffering is the measuring stick by which morality is determined. We should definitely strive to minimize suffering, because if we “love our neighbor as ourselves,” we would not cause suffering because we don’t want to suffer (Golden Rule, right?).

    So the thinking is right, but I think the application of it leaves a bit to be desired. I think you have to go one step further and say that the desire to minimize suffering is the product of a Moral Lawgiver, and by nature that Moral Lawgiver must have objective moral values, or nothing could ever actually be deemed wrong because the moral law could change (e.g. slavery, once acceptable, no longer acceptable because the common US law changed).

    And the God of the Bible is right in line with that minimization of suffering. 2 Peter 3:9b (NIV) says, “He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” God wants the suffering minimized too. All He does is ask that you accept the free gift of love and relationship that He’s offering.

    Does what I’m saying make sense? If not, what can I clarify for you?

    As to my moral conclusion, I think C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity sums it up pretty well for my view. I know that there are some things that I consider to be unjust, but in order for me to know what’s unjust, I have to know what is just. You can’t know if a line is crooked unless you know what a straight line looks like, you know? So I knew that there had to be some sort of a moral compass, and the God of the Bible, with all of his attributes and qualities, appears best able to derive this moral compass, based on His claim and demonstrations of infinite goodness. So that’s where I am. No particular denomination. Just a lover and follower of Jesus.

    Again, I think this is great stuff. Hope we can continue with the meaningful dialogue, and thank you so much for your openness and honesty in sharing your opinions!

    • No worries about the length of it. I appreciate you taking the time to respond. And what you’re saying does make sense.

      In response to your first scenario, it’s a bit of an oversimplification, perhaps not helped by my attempt to be too concise with my explanation. Suffering is an inevitable reality of existence, so the key is to minimize it when it can be helped (ala utilitarianism). Obviously, if you create suffering due to extraordinary circumstances that threatened your very existence, than suffering is permissible. The intent wasn’t to cause suffering, but to save one’s own life.

      To the second, it is in the context of a game. Suffering with respect to losing a game or failing to best someone in any sort of competition (be it for a job position or prom queen) isn’t equivalent with that of theft, dishonesty, or murder. Humans engage in such activities as learning experiences, distractions, or simple fun. To apply the metric of suffering to them would be taking too absolutist a view. Secular moral objectivism need not aim to eliminate all suffering, because we acknowledge minimal amounts to be pertinent to the human experience.

      You mention that God unequivocally discourages murder. But throughout the Old Testament, he is described as sanctioning murder numerous times. While people explain that this has more to do with the context of the times, wouldn’t God nonetheless not beholden himself to keeping with cultural and temporal norms? How does one reconcile his seemingly different moral prescriptions between the Old and New Testaments? I know it is a bit off track, but it seems pertinent to this discussion.

    • Romney,

      Good questions/comments. Let me try to address the best I can.

      To your first two paragraphs, I think we agree. Minimal amounts of suffering can be pertinent to the human experience. I think this is a simplified way of reconciling theodicy, for one, but more relevant to our discussion it illustrates the fact that suffering ought not to be the benchmark by which we determine objective moral values, because if any suffering at all is deemed acceptable, then we are saying bad is good, which defies logic.

      So what I’m saying is that the idea of minimizing suffering, while right in concept, is not fit as a moral measuring stick. So we need to find a better straight line by which to determine our crookedness, so to speak. 🙂

      To your question about OT versus NT, which is a very common and puzzling one, to be sure. I think a lot of it depends on what your definition of “murder” is. Think about how Jesus refers to the NT application of it–the real sin isn’t the murder, it’s the anger that inspires it. So you have to ask yourself a few questions: 1) Were the Israelites angry with those that they defeated? 2) Was God angry with these people? 3) Did these people who died commit sin against God (i.e. was God’s anger justified/righteous?)? 4) If so, then was God really guilty of murder, or was He using the Israelites as arbiters of righteousness?

      I think a lot of this issue ultimately boils down to what Voddie talks about in the video I posted on the other blog post of yours. Who is supreme in these instances? If man is supreme, then it is God that owes us something, and He is only omnipotent but not sovereign. We wield His power for our own agendas, so to speak. However, if God is supreme, then we understand that missing the moral mark (sin) causes us to be worthy of justice for sin. And Romans 6:23 says “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” So if God is supreme, is He really anti-benevolent to those who died, or is He actually overly benevolent (merciful) to all the rest of us who deserve death every day but don’t get it?

      When we look at it from our own perspective, it’s easy to get blurry. But if the God of the OT and NT exists, then we must look at it from His perspective, and I think the picture becomes a lot clearer. If we look at it from God’s morality, one that is rooted in pure righteousness and holiness, then we see that we are owed NOTHING and get EVERYTHING from God. That is the picture that makes the desire greater to do good, because it’s the least we can do in exchange for mercy and grace.

      Hope that helps! 🙂

      • I’ll in turn try to address your statements as well.

        For one, I don’t think that accepting suffering in even minimal amounts necessarily leads to an issue of proclaiming bad to be good. One need not be absolutist about it. Applying utilitarian logic, a secular humanist would note that suffering can be acceptable in certain circumstances if the net overall amount is reduced. Perhaps it sounds too cold and technical, but the point is merely that we should avoid suffering when it can’t be helped, be it in self-defense or as the natural product of disappointment.

        Of course, there is more to secular humanist morality than suffering, which perhaps I’ve focused a bit too much on. Based on empathetical understanding, we can determine what is best for one’s well-being and seek to live by that principle. We know that being kind, providing assistance, and doing no harm all help in one’s well-being. This can be derived even from scientific analysis of how living thing react to such things. Ultimately, as an agnostic, I cannot completely rule out anything you’re saying. I’m merely determining the validity of what you’re suggesting.

        Thanks for attempting to clear up the issue of Biblical epistemology. It does indeed help, and it’s certainly a fresher explanation from what I usually receive. However, isn’t God frequently described in the OT as wrathful and jealous though? Don’t such attributes contradict the notion of love and benevolence? If God is so capable of mercy and forgiveness, why not forgive the transgressions of those who crossed him or the Israelites? Where and how does one separate acts of righteousness from murder? His character just seems to vary too wildly between the two books, despite his presumably unchanging nature.

        As always, thanks again.

      • Good points/questions.

        To the first paragraph, I agree with you. My whole “bad is good” point was only applicable if suffering is the objective moral standard. Since I think we’re both at the point where we agree that’s not the case, I think this one’s OK.

        My question on your second paragraph is when you talk about “one’s well-being,” are you talking about self, or those around you? I think if this is self there is an issue with the presence of altruism and sacrifice. Let me tell a story (plagiarized from William Lane Craig) to illustrate my point.

        A few years ago there was a terrible mid-winter air disaster in Washington, DC, as a plane crashed into a bridge spanning the Potomac River, spilling its passengers into the icy waters. And as the helicopters came to rescue these people, attention focused on one man who again and again passed by the rope ladder rather than be pulled to safety himself. Seven times he did this, and when they came again, he was gone. The whole nation turned its eyes to this man in respect and admiration for the noble act of self-sacrifice that he did. And yet on the humanist/evolutionary view, that man wasn’t noble. He did the stupidest thing possible. He should have gone for the rope ladder first, pushed others away, if necessary, in order to survive! But to give up all the brief existence he will ever have for others he didn’t even know? Why?

        If the goal is really to assure one’s own well-being, then such sacrifice is pointless, because it is only detrimental to your well-being (particularly if there is no reward in the afterlife). So that is why I don’t find that line of thinking completely sufficient as a moral standard, though again, the line of thought is a good one to follow. We should strive to do good, be kind, provide assistance and do no harm. Again, this is the practical application of “love your neighbor as yourself,” which is an essential part of the Biblical code of conduct.

        Let me stop here with this one and write a second one to address your last paragraph. I think it’ll be easier to discuss in chunks.

      • Interesting story.

        Well in response to your anecdote, most humanists and evolutionary behaviorists wouldn’t necessarily find his move to be stupid (though I don’t doubt some would). As social animals, we have a natural connection to our fellow humans. While self-preservation is undoubtedly written into our most base instincts, so is an obligation to put our needs before those of the whole (i.e. for the greater good). Going back to the utilitarian ethics I described, what he did was logical: he gave his life to maximize the potential of others. Obviously, we’ll never know for sure what his intent and motivations were, but it’s clear that there was a deeper commitment to his fellow humans, and that doesn’t necessarily require any sort of moral standard beyond the empathy that is intrinsic to our higher intelligence.

        I’ll address your second post in this one as well (thanks for breaking it down). For one thing, I found your explanation to be far better than most that I’ve read, so kudos for that. I can tell you’re refreshingly well-versed in your faith, as opposed to most Christians that I discuss these things with. In any case, however, I still feel some reservations that I’d like to sincerely share.

        For one thing, it seems to me that – based on your explanation – God is taking a disturbingly cavalier view of his relationship with humanity. In other words, humanity owes him and needs him, so he takes it upon himself to do what he needs to set them straight. I mean no offense, but for a lack of a better explanation this seems to degrade man’s worth and dignity. So because we are in such a pitiful state without God, we are beholden to him to the extent that he can do what he wants if it serves his greater purpose? It seems abusive, and would seem to explain why so many Christians I know (besides yourself) seem to develop a very misanthropic mindset.

        Secondly, if God’s wrath is directed at sin, then why create and command these laws that seem to perpetuate it? The sanctioning of genocide, infanticide, slavery, and the subjugation of women all seem contrary to God’s motives. How could the law of the OT be developed to show man his shortcomings, if at the same time they seem to be condoning such shortcomings? Why not set the example of good conduct from the beginning?

        Finally, I still find there to be some contradictions with respect to God’s nature. 1 John 4:8 famously proclaims that “…God is love.” In 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 Paul explains, in much detail, that love is patient, kind, un-jealous, un-boastful, is not arrogant, does not seek it’s own, is not provoked, takes no accounts of wrongs, does not act unbecomingly, and endures all things. He goes on to say that “love never fails.” Taken together, this must mean that God embodies the definition of love as described by Paul.

        Yet Exodus 34:14 clearly describes God as jealous. Deuteronomy 9:7 states “Remember this and never forget how you provoked your God to anger in the desert.” Judges 2:12 states that “they provoked the Lord to anger.” Indeed, God is described as being provoked at least 30 times in the OT. Doesn’t this contradict with the description of Love as outlined by Paul, and as describes God? I’m asking sincerely, not provocatively 🙂

      • To continue a bit with the Biblical epistemology discussion.

        The OT does talk about God as being wrathful and jealous. God even calls Himself jealous a couple of times. I think what’s important to note is, again, that we must look at what these terms mean from God’s perspective.

        What exactly is God wrathful about? To what is His anger directed? Is it to people? Or is it to sin? And if sin is contradictory to His nature, ought not the response be one of anger? I think the misconception is that God exacts justice on people, when the truth is that His justice is exacted on sin. It’s an important distinction to make. And if there is sin against God, would you agree or disagree that it makes anger against that sin justified?

        I think the other problem is that people see the end result (death to these people) and think “mean God.” But again, the focal point there is on the supremacy of man, that God owes them forgiveness and mercy. But as Voddie said in that video, if God is supreme, then it is clear that He was merciful in even letting them have one breath to the next. So God was extremely forgiving and merciful if you look at it in that context.

        I think you also have to look at the after-effects of such things too. Exacting of righteousness ought to bring about positive results, right? So did destroying the Amalekites cause good to happen? Did the propitiation of idol worship plummet? Were there fewer raids on other tribes? While this is not exactly a satisfying definition (and I wouldn’t stake my hat on it stand-alone), it’s at least worth noting. Then contrast this with something like the death of Uriah the Hittite in 2 Samuel, so David could cover up his adultery with Bathsheba. What were the after-effects of this? Did David’s life get better, or worse? Truth is, it got worse, because what David committed in this instance was murder, and God’s righteousness would not let him get away with it.

        A common way to describe the differences in the two testaments is this: the law (which governed the OT) was given so that man would see that he falls short of the standard, and needs God to save him. The NT is the way by which salvation is addressed, and how to apply one’s self in light of the acceptance of the free gift that God has offered. Truth is, no man can keep the law perfectly. Romans 3:23 makes that clear: “For all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glorious standard.”

        The way I think about it is this–God is always carrying out His attributes. He is always loving, always holy, always just, always wrathful. He doesn’t change in that respect. What changes is where we are in relation to God, and that is based on how we live (our desire to maintain the moral code). When we do right, we tend to move under His loving nature; when we do wrong, we tend to move under His wrathful nature. Think about it like sunlight and shadow (Earth to sun); one gets a very different perspective on how the world looks depending on where they are in relation to the sun. The same is true here; the world looks very different depending on where you are in relation to the Son. But He doesn’t move, doesn’t change. We’re the ones with the potentiality to change. Yet no matter what we do, we’ll never be fully right until we accept the free gift of Christ, which is extended in grace and mercy.

        I think in that light, it’s much easier to see the unity between how God appears in the OT and how God appears in the NT.

        Again, hope this helps!

  4. I understand your position on maximizing the potential of others. I think that’s the honorable way to do things. I’m just saying that on evolution, there is no logical basis for doing this. The whole evolutionary idea is based on natural selection, or “survival of the fittest.” The problem is that the “fittest” don’t need to be sacrificed for, so the idea of sacrifice is counter-intuitive to the entire concept of natural selection. Maximizing the potential of others is the theistic perspective, not a naturalistic one. Sacrifice and altruism is more of a “survival of the fittest and the weak too” than pure natural selection. And that’s why there’s an additional factor to the idea of good that transcends human nature. Does that make sense the way I put it?

    To your question about God being able to do what He wants. The truth is, with a God that is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent, this is the reality. God CAN do whatever He wants, but based on His pure Actuality and being pure good, He can only do good. There are some things He can’t do. He can’t lie (Hebrews says this explicitly), He can’t sin, can’t cause evil. Anything that is contradictory to His nature of goodness He can’t do. So anything that God DOES do is for the greater good, not just because He wants to do it. I can’t imagine Him wanting to send Jesus to die on a cross for us, because no dad would rightly send a Son to that type of punishment. But it accomplished the greater good, and so He did it. And if what He does is always good, then it can’t possibly be abusive, because abuse is wrong (or evil), and contradictory to His nature. It’s a contingent belief, but if you allow for the Christian God’s existence, these are all the attributes that follow.

    I think your questions about the law might come from a general knowledge of the atheistic view. The truth is, when you boil the law down to its essence and look at the actual text, you’ll see that these things (genocide, infanticide, slavery) are not sanctioned by God at all. God doesn’t promote evil, but He does permit it (going back to the “some suffering is pertinent to human development” discussion). That’s part of the free will aspect of humanity, which of course is a whole ‘nother discussion in itself. 🙂 I’d be happy to look at specific texts with you regarding what God does and doesn’t endorse. That might be better than speaking to it generally as we’ve done here.

    I realize now that I didn’t even touch on jealousy in my last post! My apologies. I think this might be a question of the definition of supernatural jealousy. We hear the word jealous and think “envious, covetous.” But our jealousy is different than God’s jealousy, because He is not jealous OF us; He is jealous FOR us. God’s jealousy is the unchanging desire to be in fellowship with His creation. But it is not motivated by any of the things that cause us to be jealous: greed, lust, etc. The simple reason is that God is a simple Being, and as such has no needs. And a God who needs nothing has no reason to be motivated by anything other than what He is in Actuality, and that is simply pure good. So again, allowing for God’s existence means we must look at it from His perspective when discussing His attributes.

    Finally, to the point about anger, I’m not sure how to address it better than I did previously. The real question I would ask based on your references is this: what did they do to provoke the Lord to anger? Was it sin, and again that speaks to the “righteous anger” of God, whose responsibility as completely just is to stamp out any injustice caused by sin. It is His motivation to see good done that causes Him to be angry about sin, and the ultimate goal of goodness seems more loving than unloving, I would say. Keep in mind that the same people God spoke to in your references, He has loved enough to keep around for 2,000 years to be able to re-inhabit the Holy Land, when He could have easily destroyed them for their sin and started over with a different group. Again, to me, this is mercy, not anger. If you weigh out the two, I think you’ll see which one is more prevalent and that the anger He has comes from His desire to extend mercy. That God seems loving to me, and I take comfort in that hope.

    Thanks again for this fantastic discussion! I really appreciate your insights and questions, and I hope I am helping in some way as you go on this journey. Have a great evening!

    • I see you’ve put much thought into this reply. Much appreciated. I’m going to chew on this for a bit before I respond. There’s much to take in and consider. Thank you.

    • Well, I’ve read your excellent replies and will comment accordingly. Thanks again for your time.

      For one thing, evolution is merely a process that occurs in nature – it has no actual bearing on our higher intelligence, which has long since grown out of our basic primal instincts. In other words, evolutionary processes don’t have any intrinsic effect on our behavior. While this may seem to be the case intuitively, in actuality, the notion of “survival of the fittest” doesn’t conflict with self-sacrifice and altruism. In fact, the concept applies more to genes than individuals, and as it happens, genes that sacrifice some of their copies to save the others end up doing better than genes that don’t. On the contrary, both values are crucial to the survival of our species, given the social and communitarian nature of the human race. If you consider the case of three communities – one in which everyone is out for themselves; another in which people only help their kin; and a third in which everyone helps everyone, the community most likely to survive is that last one. This has been demonstrated in our continued status as one of the most adaptable and successful species on Earth.

      To your second paragraph: I honestly have a hard time wrapping my head around the notion that God’s actions, even if they seem evil, are ultimately not. It a way it makes some sense, yet I still feel some conflict with the NT. Take for example the position of slavery, which I’ll stick with for the sake of simplicty. Both testaments do openly condone the pracice.

      7 If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do. 8 If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her. 9 If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter. 10 If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. 11 If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money. Exodus 21:7-11

      18 Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. 19 For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. 20 But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. 21 To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. 22 “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.”23 When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. 24 “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” 25 For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. – 1 Peter 2:18-25

      1 All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered. 2 Those who have believing masters should not show them disrespect just because they are fellow believers. Instead, they should serve them even better because their masters are dear to them as fellow believers and are devoted to the welfare of their slaves. – 1 Timothy 6:1-2

      47 “The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. 48 But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. – Luke 12:47-48

      I don’t mean to load you with quotes, but I wonder what could possibly be the greater good of condoning slavery, only to have your son claim that all men are equal under God (even though some of his apostles argued in favor of slavery). In any case, why permit evil? Being omnipotent means God could completely do away with evil. He could’ve made the universe however he wanted. So why allow for the existence of tremendous suffering? Some argue such suffering is “useful,” yet given his infinite power God could’ve made it so that it didn’t have to be. If he is so merciful, why have a hell? Why have a place where one suffers irredeemably for eternity, without any chance to repent or be saved (even the good people who simply couldn’t bring themselves to believe in him completely, like myself?

      To the point of jealously: the Bible makes no distinction of the “types” of jealously, at least to my knowledge. Paul clearly defines love as being without jealousy period. And God – who is described as love itself – is also described as being jealous numerous times without the detailed caveats you presented (however logical). It seems to me that one must play with semantics or apply a subjective interpretation in order to separate the two. Yet how can we know this can be accurate?

      Finally, back to anger. My overall point is that there seems to be a contradiction in God’s behavior. He tolerates some evil, which would inevitably include some sin, due to the idea of “suffering for the sake of human development.” Yet in other cases he reacts with righteous anger. Where does the demarcation between the two lie? And why has he not responded with such righteous anger since the time of the Hebrews? If he wants to see good done, why not intervene as he has before? Perhaps there is a Biblical pronouncement I’m not aware of that explains this?

      As always, thanks for an illuminating discussion. You’re very helpful on my path to truth 🙂 I hope I’m not making this discussion too voluminous.

  5. Thanks. Will try to respond without another novel. 🙂

    To your point on “survival of the fittest.” The issue I think is that your “three communities” example doesn’t subscribe to this concept. Only the first community adheres to the true natural selection process. The other two are aided by human reaction and altruism. This isn’t nature–this is intervention due to intelligence. And when intelligence supersedes natural order, well, this is the theistic position isn’t it?

    To the slavery examples, which, by the way, thanks for narrowing it down a bit. The truth is that if you look at the text and just see the word “slavery,” you think “Bible condones it.” But looking at each example, to whom is each text speaking? In your Exodus example, note how the “sold servant” is referred to in the later verses–“wife.” So you see that this is not actually slavery–servitude is done in the bonds of marriage, which is supported by Ephesians 5.

    And to whom are the NT examples speaking? To the masters, or to the slaves? It seems that the text is speaking much more in the manner of, “If you find yourself in this position, here is how you are to act,” not “It’s cool that you’re in that position. I’m OK with it.” The Bible also teaches how to behave when you find yourself in sexual immorality, but does that mean the Bible condones sexual immorality? I think it’s important to note the context of how the verses are being used: are they to condone slavery, or how to handle it? This is a common leap to make, but you have to be methodical in the process and look at what the text actually says, instead of inferring its implication.

    To the issue of “why does God allow suffering.” The truth is that God can’t completely do away with evil, since evil exists because good exists. So to eliminate evil is also to eliminate good, which is impossible. So your question is more “why doesn’t God minimize suffering?” I suspect. And I think I’ve answered that one, most succinctly with the video on the other blog post. To your question of hell, which is an interesting one. I think this has to do with the common notion that God sends people to hell, which is just not the case. Romans 1 makes it clear that we all have enough knowledge of God’s existence to make a choice, and we are judged based on our knowledge. So to choose disbelief is to choose hell, and we all make that choice individually. Think of it more like being offered a gift and spurning it. Life would be better with that gift, but you would be choosing to reject it and therefore making life harder on yourself. So it goes with eternity. It’s a mysterious issue, and I wish I had a perfect answer for you, but I think that’s about as close to a good answer as you’ll get in this life.

    Jealousy: what Paul refers to in 1 Corinthians 13 in the original Greek is “burning with hatred or envy.” This word translated into the Hebrew is not the same word used of God. The word used of “jealous God” is used only when referring to God, and not to man, so the implications of jealousy are different. Again, it’s an important distinction to make, and unfortunately one that gets lost in translation. This is why understanding context is again so vital to understanding what the Bible actually says.

    Finally, the issue with intervention is that it undermines free will. If God could stop evil from happening, it compromises everything we are as humans, which are agents of choice. Think about it like Minority Report–though the police could stop the act, could they really stop the sin (anger, envy, murderous intent)? The answer would be to eliminate all sin, which the Bible says is coming. I think it’s important to note that just because God hasn’t done it yet doesn’t mean that He WON’T do it.

    I hope these answers are somewhat satisfactory. In the interest of limiting myself I wasn’t as detailed as I would have liked to be. Let me know what other questions you have, and thanks again!

    • I too will respond with as much brevity as possible. Thank you good sir.

      Again, survival of the fittest is not something one can “adhere too.” As you said, natural selection is a process, not a true ideology (despite attempts to make it so, most people don’t intrinsically adhere to it as such). It is not a concept, but a natural occurrence. Altruism and human empathy are a product of intelligence, and intelligence in turn is a product of millions of years of evolution. The super-cession of intelligence over primal instincts could’ve occurred naturally along the path of evolution. There is no reason to believe that it necessitates a higher power, as we could’ve naturally “evolved” out of such animalistic origins into a more advanced and stable species.

      I’ve heard the contextual argument before, and while valid and compelling, I don’t find it *entirely*satisfactory. Why would God limit his law to the cultural and temporal context of it’s revelation? If the Bible is the origin of moral teachings, why not present a moral teaching that outright condemns slavery in any and all forms? It can be interpreted as morally relativistic, and indeed many Christians held on to slavery as a justified institution precisely because the Bible appeared tolerant of it (which is what I meant by “condoning” of it). Curiously, other Christians took a stance against slavery by choosing other parts of the Bible. But two different moral propositions from the same book make the Bible seem questionable as a source for moral guidance, at least for some issues.

      With respect to hell and suffering – I don’t prescribe to the notion that God sends people to hell. But in a sense, he allows for hell to exist – being omnipotent would mean he could eliminate such a hell, could he not? I understand the argument of utilizing suffering for ulterior motives, and that just because God could do something doesn’t mean he should. But it seems incompatible with God’s supposed omni-benevolence: how could he stand to see what would amount to hundreds of millions of his children suffering terribly *forever* because they were unaware or unable to accept him? How could people be held accountable for not believing a Bible prone to so many mis-interpretations and sectarian divisions (such that nearly 40,000 different Christian denominations exist). How can it be free will if we’re left with only one “right” choice? And what about people that lived up to his moral teachings but simply couldn’t believe in him with all their hearts – they deserve the same fate as tyrants and murderers? Isn’t that a justification for mere obedience, which indeed many cynical but pious Christians argue is valid?

      With Jealously, I’ve heard the linguistic and semantical explanation before, but it raises a question: how reliable of a source can the Bible be if it is prone to mistranslations? How do we know other elements of it are to be trusted? It seems it presents an epistemological problem.

      Finally, with respect to intervention: I agree that it would undermine free will. But my point is, if that were the case, why did God seem so willing to intervene numerous times before, to the point of even starting the world over? Either there is an error in this claim, or God can and does indeed change.

      Again, thank you. I limited myself as well, to be fair.

  6. Thanks again! Glad to see we both understand the importance of brevity. Here goes!

    I see your point on natural selection. The issue for me is that minus intelligent intervention, natural selection at its core is based on self-interest, not group-interest. Let me take this in another direction, if I may, because I think the issue has turned a bit to the basis of intelligence. Where did intelligence come from? My opinion is that intelligence also can’t be explained naturalistically, which I hope to demonstrate after hearing your opinion.

    To this question: “If the Bible is the origin of moral teachings, why not present a moral teaching that outright condemns slavery in any and all forms?” the answer is: there is–“Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you don’t want to be enslaved, don’t enslave others. The Golden Rule is the very same moral teaching you ask for. Just because it doesn’t explicitly state all applicable areas and include slavery doesn’t mean it’s not the moral teaching you seek.

    To hell and suffering: in terms of eliminating evil also eliminating good, I think in a similar sense you could say the elimination of hell also causes the elimination of heaven, which in essence means moral choices bear no ultimate consequence. Any moral choice you make doesn’t succeed past this life, so there is no basis for making moral value judgments if there is no transcendent rationale for doing so. And if there is only one “right” choice, there is still a wrong choice as well, and if choice is present than free will remains.

    That’s why Christians are so earnest in discussing this very choice, because ultimately it’s the only choice that matters. The right choice will hopefully inspire you to more often make correct moral value judgments, but ultimately these value judgments are meaningless unless you first accept the gift of eternal life through belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of sin. There is no one who has “lived up to his moral teachings,” because sin is inherent in all of us. Romans 3:23 again: “All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glorious standard.” And God makes no value judgments on sin; all are equal in His eyes, because each is contradictory to His nature.

    To jealousy: you pose an interesting question on reliability. The answer is that we must look back to the original manuscripts to discern true understanding, and that’s what looking at the Greek and Hebrew does for us. A translation is only as good as its translator, but the earliest manuscripts we have would logically be most accurate.

    And lastly to intervention: I guess that’s where you have to look at the basis of goodness. And the truth is, God’s intervention was to promote the overall good. I’m not foolish enough to think that if God intervened in the past, He’s not intervening currently as well. It’s just with the Biblical canon closed, the documentation of it is minimal to none. We call them “miracles” now, but the current push of skepticism further clouds even those. I wish I had a better answer for you on this–I’m honest enough to admit I don’t really know why God intervened the way He did in the past, and why He doesn’t do it in the same way now. But I think I can make some pretty good guesses, as I’ve tried to do here.

    Thanks once again for this discussion. I hope it’s helped you as much as it’s helped me! Have a good evening. 🙂

    • Sorry it’s taken me a while to reply, I’ve been rather busy.

      To reiterate, natural selection does not necessarily exclude the development of moral behavior. The problem is that we must recognize the differences between ethics, morality, and moral behavior (which I may have admittedly muddled up). While we’ve yet to determine a biological origin for the concept of morality, ethical and moral behavior – including altruism – have been demonstrated to bear an evolutionary advantage. As a social species, we are fundamentally hardwired with socially beneficial instincts; total self-interest would only exist among lone predators, and even then there are exceptions.

      As the examples I mentioned earlier show, the most successful human societies have been those that practice such social bonding and reciprocation. The survival of those societies further propagates these values, which is partly why human civilizations have continued to advanced to much more developed and socially accountable units (from tribes and bands, to nations with institutions, to simplify things).

      With respect to human intelligence, that may lead to a whole other debate with respect to evolution, which would be my explanation but which you’d likely have a counter point. Perhaps we should save it for a separate thread.

      With respect to the Golden Rule as outlined in the Bible, I still see a contradiction with respect to the teachings of the Apostles and within the Old Testament. It seems strange for them to work with slavery and accept it’s existence even as they promote the notion of egalitarianism and loving one another. If you’re teaching people to love one another as you would love yourself, why not condemn slavery just as homosexuality, theft, and other sins are condemned? As I noted before, Christians had for centuries found slavery to be perfectly acceptable based on Biblical validation, including the early church fathers and most of the major Christian denominations up until the 19th century.

      To your response on hell and suffering: you make a good argument, once again better than most I’ve encountered. But can’t it be argued that moral choices do bear consequences regardless of heaven and hell, in that we determine the fate of other living things? In other words, removing a transcendental aspect still leaves us with moral and ethical considerations that could cause problems if bad, or lead to positive outcomes if good. To me, the concept of hell creates a opposite problem to the one you posed: it incentivizes many Christians to do good things for the sake of saving their souls rather than for good’s sake. I know we established that many Christians don’t necessarily see it that way, but it seems to be an intractable problem. If I encourage someone to do good things, or else, am I really propagating positive deeds for their own sake? Or am I simply motivating them with fear? Why not teach them that good for it’s own sake is the right way to go?

      With respect to reliability, the question comes down to sifting through the early Greek and Hebrew manuscripts, many of which have been omitted, altered, or disputed. Some denominations accept some as cannon, others don’t. How does one determine which to follow and which is valid? How do we know the parts that have been left out or rejected aren’t right?

      As with intervention, I appreciate your honesty is admitting you don’t know. Not a lot of theists – or for that matter secular types – admit to that as much as they should, so kudos. Such mysteries and seeming inconsistencies are what have rendered my agnostic, and why I have such dialectics as I am right now. What’s always disturbed my about God’s interventions in the OT is their apparent brutality, as least as far as we humans would understand. I know you made the case that God’s motives are ulterior and ultimately good, but it seems to set a bad precedent of “might makes right,” in the sense that God takes such questionable approaches to these issues even as he teaches his followers to go about things in a more loving way. At least, that’s how I’ve understood it.

      Again, thanks for your time. I hope you’re well 🙂

    • Lol. I got lost in some other discussions and forgot where we were! You have no idea how refreshing it is to get back to you, instead of some of the other opinions going around. 🙂

      On natural selection: I completely agree with you that we’re fundamentally hardwired with socially beneficial instincts. I just submit that “survival of the fittest” doesn’t contribute anything to those specific instincts as it pertains to altruism and sacrifice. You know my opinion; we’re hardwired with those instincts because God has instilled them in us so that we may love Him and love one another. That’s part of the reason I think we’ll never discover the biological origins for altruism–because there isn’t one. And as it stands, I just don’t see it jibing very well with natural selection. You can’t really connect the dots without inserting a tertium quid, which is in most cases an intelligent being intervening. That’s where God fits in for the theist.

      I’ll agree to save the intelligence debate for a separate thread. Perhaps on my blog–I’m getting to that point one of these days soon. 🙂

      I think part of the problem is with what was defined as “slavery” back then. It was common practice for a “slave” to put himself under the authority of someone else to work off a debt. Sort of like us needing to have a job to pay off the credit card. So there is a bit of contextual understanding that isn’t implied directly in the text, and that of course makes it harder to understand. I think a lot of Christians wish that the Bible was clearer in these instances, but I think we have to be careful in wishing for too much of the mystery of God to be stripped away. That’s what makes Him greater than us, in some senses.

      It’s a shame that some Christians used the term “slavery” in the Bible to justify their practices, particularly because slavery in THAT sense goes against the Golden Rule commandment. I wish I could take back what that says historically about Christianity, but I can’t. All I can do is live my own life based on God’s teaching, and encourage others to do the same. And I understand the slavery mentioned in the Bible to be very different from the connotation we associate it with today.

      To heaven and hell: the moral choices bear consequences on other people, but then we’re just moving the end result back a notch. It would end with them, or just move it back until the heat death of the universe, in which case it ends naturalistically and has no ultimate consequence, so the same argument applies because no ultimate good is being achieved if it all ends in nothingness.

      I see your point about saving soul vs. doing good. That was sort of my point about “fire insurance.” The Bible doesn’t teach that, and I get disappointed when I hear it. I understand death and hell to be what I deserve, but that God has extended me a gift, contingent only on me accepting it. It’s out of thanks for the gift that I desire to do good, not to avoid hell. That’s the difference between grace-based and works-based salvation. Too many Christians practice the latter, when the incentive is really the former.

      To reliability: again this is another big issue. To me this is a big question of orthodoxy, and what did the people who were closer to it than we were think about it. Plus, I’m of the mind that a God who could inspire a text could probably also guide the discoveries of applicable texts and guide the minds of those deciding canon to choose what is best. In most cases you have to look at what books quote what books, and which ones reference the OT properly from the NT, etc. I have a whole chapter on it from a Systematic Theology book that I’d be more than happy to share, but perhaps in a different setting.

      Finally, to the intervention issue, it’s still a tough one, I agree. While some of the interventions do appear brutal, there are some that are not so. Look at God’s intervention twice on behalf of the widow who housed Elijah in 1 Kings 17. God sometimes intervenes gently and necessarily, and it’s easy to see the good. Why some instances appear more brutal than others, I wish I knew better. But in each instance, I think the greater good was achieved. It’s not the best answer I could possibly give, but I don’t really know if there’s a better one. Someone much smarter than myself might have it.

      Thanks again for your openness and discussion. This has been great. Have a great evening! 🙂

  7. Excellent point. I agree that morality should be in and of itself fulfilling, however people are more concerned with self-interest. Religion is a way to somewhat require people to be moral out of their own self-interest of reaching Heaven in the after-life .

    • That may be true of some religions, Dana, but not all. Christianity doesn’t follow the same pattern. Morality has nothing to do with reaching heaven in the afterlife (you can’t be good enough to get into heaven on your own), so it can’t be the basis by which moral choices are made.

      Instead, moral choices are made as a response based on the recognition of the mercy and grace freely bestowed by God to humans, and done less out of obedience and more out of appreciation. Christians are trying to give back to God out of awe for the un-reciprocatable gift that God gave by sending His Son to be a means by which we can spend eternal life with Him.

      So the moral choices aren’t due to self-interest, but a response to the interest paid in us by God. And that’s how it is different from both other religions and a worldview where there is no God. And much better, in my opinion, because it shows both a selflessness in intent and a direct purpose for doing so. Having both makes it unique from any other worldviews.

      My question based on your comment would be this: how can morality be in and of itself fulfilling on a godless worldview? For how can you know anything either is good or even feels good unless you know for certain what good actually is? And how can you know what good actually is unless there is a perfect objective standard for discerning the good?

  8. Yeah… I’m not going to read everyone else’s comments…

    Some preliminaries: read ‘Fear and Trembling’ by Soren Kierkegaard before commenting on the Abraham mythos.

    You have confused something which, for some reason, people do all the time. Have you read Heidegger’s ‘Being and Time’? I’m assuming you have – if not check out: for chapter summaries (which I’ll finish eventually… they’re still coming along).

    The notions of Heaven and Hell are NOT tied with morality. It’s rather simple to demonstrate with a few things most people don’t notice:
    Jewish morality is generally seen as coming from the Torah, BUT the Jewish people were chosen BEFORE the law was given. That is, Abraham was justified (made right for Heaven) not by his conduct – there was no measure for that yet – but rather by his faith. Now Luther drove home Sola Fide pretty hard, and with good reason. Justification is by Faith, which in turn reaps works.

    So criticising Christian morality for it’s usage of “carrot and stick” tactics is nonsense. Being good WON’T get you into Heaven, just as being bad isn’t really the reason you go to Hell.

    It’s often argued that children are never born believing in God, therefore to teach them that God exists is wrong. Well, I would argue that it is precisely BECAUSE we are all born disconnected from God that we need to learn about Him.

    Many argue that the concept of ‘original sin’ is cruel because, “how could a baby have done something wrong?” But this itself comes from the already conceived notion that justification is tied to moral deeds. (Not to mention that we can make no properly founded comment on who is and isn’t in Heaven.)

    This is where Heidegger comes in.

    His two big conclusions about Dasein (roughly) of ‘Being and Time’ (before he unifies everything in temporality and ‘anticipatory resoluteness’) are Dasein’s authentic being as: (1) Being-toward-death and (2) Being-one’s-self – guilty and with conscience.

    The first looks to the future – as Heaven and Hell, as traditionally conceived, are in the future (a side note: please reject Platonic notions of Heaven and return to the Biblical speak of a “New Earth” – it does matter).

    Conscience and guilt (Being-one’s-self) are elements of your past: and what are we if not the sum of our past? Now, this is not saying that we’ve all done wrong in the past but rather that guilt is a part of our Being.

    This gives a really cool view into both morality and justification – if we let Heidegger inform us (obviously only as a supplementary informer).

    Morality is not tied with action, but with Being: doing good is merely the result of being-good. So it should not surprise anyone that the atheist who too was made in God’s image (though it has been tarnished like everyone’s) should do good. The world was and still has some good in it – hence why the model of the Biblical Heaven is a “New Earth” – not some ethereal Platonic existence. So the question: ‘is it good because God says it, or does God say it because it’s good?’ Is shown to be asking whether God’s being is as it is because God is that way (“be’s” in that way) or because God is that way… God IS good.

    As for the notion of justification, it is a privation of the future “potentiality” – as Heidegger calls it – for the Being of Dasein (which is the self / soul / mind / etc. – we’re doing Wittgenstein proud here, ignoring the misunderstanding of words). The idea in Christianity is that man was not meant to die, and so the very fact that we are Being-toward-death needs righting. But it’s a bit more complex than that, we can’t instead be Being-toward-life because we are alive… Heaven is precisely the restoration of man to Being-toward- ? Well, what? The answer is Christian Hope: that God will uphold His character and His love and that eternal communion with Him will reign, where God is King and we are His friends.

    Morality is not about action, but about Being. Getting into Heaven is the same. Jesus’ perfect life and death right these – about which I wish to write a book.

    A challenge for you, sir: on what do you base your own morality? The “good”? What is good? Pleasure? Surely hedonism is not to be encouraged – and what of the sadist, perhaps he is right. I contend that no conception of morality can exist in reality – that is, beyond the façade of consensus – without a fixed point (mine’s God).

    James 1:27 – check it out, and please use it as your definition of (at least) Christian “religion”.

    • Thank you for your response, and your civility. I hope you do not take offense to my musings on Christianity. I’m sincerely searching for input such as yours, and I appreciate you taking the time to enlighten me to your perspective.

      Some preliminaries: read ‘Fear and Trembling’ by Soren Kierkegaard before commenting on the Abraham mythos.

      Good suggestion. I’ve read it and found the argument interesting, as it would suggest that Abraham’s actions were not unethical insofar as they were predicated on an eternally validated faith. But by my understanding, the Bible suggests that Abraham did indeed sincerely believe that sacrificing his own son was God’s will. My concern, perhaps poorly explained on my part, is that such a certainty that something is validated by God leads to people of faith doing all sorts of terrible things under the notion that God wills it. If God becomes too much of a validation, isn’t it warranted to be worried about the implications with respect to how some Christians base their actions: more on what they think is faith?

      The notions of Heaven and Hell are NOT tied with morality. It’s rather simple to demonstrate with a few things most people don’t notice: Jewish morality is generally seen as coming from the Torah, BUT the Jewish people were chosen BEFORE the law was given. That is, Abraham was justified (made right for Heaven) not by his conduct – there was no measure for that yet – but rather by his faith. Now Luther drove home Sola Fide pretty hard, and with good reason. Justification is by Faith, which in turn reaps works.

      I acknowledged in my post that not all Christians apply Heaven and Hell as a compass for their morality. But by my experience, a good number of them do, and it is that form of Christianity that my post is criticizing and concerned about. If my statement seemed to be a blanket condemnation, which wasn’t intended, it is only because I find this mentality to be rather pervasive, such that many Christians use the threat of Hell as a way to enforce discipline among children, for example, or to motivate non-Christians to convert (which could be an appeal to fear more than to salvation for its own sake). You may find the celestial carrot and stick argument to be fallacious in its logic, as I certainly do, but it is factual in that it exists, at least insofar as I’ve encountered it regularly.

      In any case, I find the issue of faith alone being sufficient to present problems as well. If God is concerned merely with believe in him and his son, than what about those non-Christians who nonetheless live their lives the way Christ preached: charitable, forgiving, compassionate, and so on. They endure the worst fate imaginable due to a sincere lack of faith in something they might never have heard of. Does this not put mere belief above good morals, thus encouraging commitment to faith more than one’s fellow man? I’ve noticed some Christians taking this position, and it appears faith does not always lead to works.

      Also: how can some people be born “unjustified,” which would seem to be the implication? Would this mean that some people are thus predestined to a certain fate regardless of what they do? Why have such people exist in the first place?

      It’s often argued that children are never born believing in God, therefore to teach them that God exists is wrong. Well, I would argue that it is precisely BECAUSE we are all born disconnected from God that we need to learn about Him…Many argue that the concept of ‘original sin’ is cruel because, “how could a baby have done something wrong?” But this itself comes from the already conceived notion that justification is tied to moral deeds. (Not to mention that we can make no properly founded comment on who is and isn’t in Heaven.)

      But this raises my concern from my previous response: millions if not billions of people have been born never sincerely knowing the Christian God. It would seem perverse that they should suffer such a horrific fate for having been born in ignorance. If God embodies good, and would no doubt encourage good morals (as his son did) why put in place a system in which so many are condemned for lack of faith, whatever their sincere efforts to do good things?

      Morality is not tied with action, but with Being: doing good is merely the result of being-good. So it should not surprise anyone that the atheist who too was made in God’s image (though it has been tarnished like everyone’s) should do good. The world was and still has some good in it – hence why the model of the Biblical Heaven is a “New Earth” – not some ethereal Platonic existence.

      Yet this atheist will suffer tremendously for his lack of belief, even if he genuinely tried but failed to have faith. Wouldn’t a just and incalculably intelligent God be more understanding in this regard? And if morality is about Being, than why is that those that embody morality to the best of their ability, albeit without Christian faith, are nonetheless condemned to the same fate as those who are immoral?

      So the question: ‘is it good because God says it, or does God say it because it’s good?’ Is shown to be asking whether God’s being is as it is because God is that way (“be’s” in that way) or because God is that way… God IS good.

      But how do we define this good my friend? Every Christian seems to have a very different take on what God’s goodness truly entails. It seems either subjective or untenable.

      A challenge for you, sir: on what do you base your own morality? The “good”? What is good? Pleasure? Surely hedonism is not to be encouraged – and what of the sadist, perhaps he is right. I contend that no conception of morality can exist in reality – that is, beyond the façade of consensus – without a fixed point (mine’s God).

      This is a good question. My morality is predicated largely on empathy: I feel for the plight and pain of others, and thus can understand which actions are right and wrong based upon how they would affect me. When it comes to more “gray” moral issues – say, telling the truth even if it hurts – I too can base this upon experience and empathy, in that I know such suffering may be ultimately unavoidable and, in the aggregate, beneficial.

      But morality has other origins as well. We’ve found hormones such as oxytocin, or neurological development such as mirror neurons, which both underline social bonds, empathy, and altruism. Experiments have even found that altering the brain with magnets can affect moral and ethical behavior. So there is evidence that points to some biological origin of moral behavior, which in turn stems from our nature as a social species that depends on social cohesion.

      While we cannot completely account for the origins of morality, by agnosticism stems from the fact that I see no evidence to believe it is specifically God-given, or at least no reason to reach that conclusion just yet.

      James 1:27 – check it out, and please use it as your definition of (at least) Christian “religion”.

      I know I’ve asked this before, but feel free to condense it with the rest: what about those who live up to Jame’s statement yet are not Christians, or even religious?

  9. Regarding the whole incentive thing, and also not having read everything here myself, one concrete observation: as virtuous a mind as I have in terms of intellectual curiosity and personal empathy, “cares of this world” stress me enough that I don’t have the time and energy to bother doing this “right”. Things that don’t serve to meet personal needs on one level or another eventually get neglected. “I want to do this stuff, but in the end it just doesn’t pay,” is an oft heard complaint from many places. One of the oldest and IMHO opinion best of these complaints, in the Abrahamic tradition, is Psalm 73.

    So if non-theists get their energy to keep up with their “virtuous” activities from a sense of moral superiority, or because it earns them respectability in their community, or it gives them warm and fuzzy feelings that they can’t really explain, or because their brilliance is something that schools are willing to pay them to distribute… are any of those additional means of motivational maintenance ultimately superior to believing in rewards and/or punishments in the after-life?

    I’m just saying…

    • Your statement is quite valid, and I appreciate you sharing it. I used to maintain a pragmatic approach to the issue of “incentive,” in that if good things are done that end up benefiting someone or something, than what motivates such deeds is inconsequential. In the end, as long as it helps the world in some way, big or small, the basis for it is trivial.

      My relatively recent re-assessment of this view, however, stems from the concern that predicating morality and ethics on what is essentially self-preservation could create a greatly flawed sense of morality. People raised in such a manner may develop an approach that prioritizes their interests ahead of others. Granted, all humans do this to a degree, whatever their philosophical persuasion: reciprocation is a natural expectation. But I find myself wondering to what degree this sort of moral compass could unravel a strong foundation for human altruism and social cohesion.

      For example: we expect people not to steal or murder because we universally recognize such things as bad and detrimental the well-being of our fellow members of society (for the sake of simplicity, I’ll leave out nuances such as self-defense, etc). But if someone were to say that the only reason they don’t do such things is because they don’t want to go to prison, then they’re not truly good people who understand the idea of moral obligation, but are selfish people who are merely responding to a potential threat to their interests. This theoretically implies that removing such a motivator could possibly change their moral and ethical behavior for the worst.

      • I would agree with your point, Romney, which is why it is the responsibility of each individual to seek out what the Christian faith is supposed to be, not what is actually lived out by flawed humanity. This is an important distinction, because the basis for morality isn’t what we see other Christians doing and trying to replicate it, but to respond to the moral code out of affection and appreciation for a God who paid the ultimate sacrifice. It is not just obedience, but admiration. It is not fear of punishment or desire for reward, but a respect that can only come from love of the second party in any relationship.

        What I would encourage you to do is to seek out what the Christian faith is predicated on, rather than what you perceive it to have become based on how humans live. Then you might have a better understanding of why Christians do what they do, and you can see the value in it compared to other moral systems.

      • Therein lies the problem my friend: my attempts to seek out the truth of Christianity is mired by the fact that there seem to be so many varied takes on what makes a Christian or constitutes the Christian faith. With over 30,000 denominations, and even different cannon forms of the Bible, I find myself unable to discern which is true, especially as there will always be some Christians that will claim my view on the matter is false, and theirs is the legitimate one. I know you mentioned following the Bible as the main source, but it seems that there are many different interpretations – and indeed variations – of it, that it too seems difficult to determine. How does one reach a certain conclusion?

      • Good question. I would say the best way you could do it requires a lot of work. First off, shun the use of “interpretation.” Don’t listen to me or anybody else and assume that we know what’s right. The Bible itself says to “Test the spirits” (1 John 4:1), which implies that it is each man that must do this himself. It is a deeply personal journey, one that should ultimately be guided by God Himself, rather than men thinking they know what’s best.

        Second, look for the actual meaning from the text than trying to interpret it to fit something. For example, 1 Timothy 6:1-2 is a passage often interpreted as condoning slavery. But look at what the text actually says, and glean the meaning from the passage. This study of hermeneutics will allow you the clearest understanding of the text.

        Finally, take a look at the text in its original languages. For the New Testament, this means taking some time to understand Greek grammar; for the OT, some Hebrew would be helpful. This will help explain the meanings of specific words and help the passage as a whole make more sense as it applies to the one meaning it carries.

        Regarding canon, I think you’ll find most versions of the Bible follow the same canon (minus the Apocrypha). Much of this has to do with which NT books quote which OT books, and what we can corroborate through history and archaeology. As I said in another comment, let me know if you would like more info on this, and maybe I can scan in some pages from the Systematic Theology book I have and E-mail them to you.

        I know this sounds like a lot, but in all sincerity, is what could and should be the most important decision you will make in your life something that should be done haphazardly? I truly think it’ll be worth the time and effort for you, since I firmly believe that at worst you will have a thorough understanding of the roots of Christian faith and be 100% sure of your position, and at best you will come to the knowledge of saving grace through Jesus.

        I am absolutely happy to help you in any way I can if you decide to take this journey into study. Have a good day, friend.

      • What of the Bible’s reliability as a source? There are a lot of contradictions between the synoptic gospels, and no alternative historical verification outside of the Bible for at least some of the claims made. How would one account for such inaccuracies or lack of verifiability?

        In response to this and the follow-up post: I’ll take it into consideration. Thank you for being kind and understanding.

      • By the way, a great way to start this is to find a Bible (either in book form or online) and just start reading the Book of Romans. It spells out Christianity in the clearest form I can possibly think of. Start with Romans 1, maybe do a chapter a day, then maybe we can discuss what questions you have.

      • I would only suggest that you read what’s in these books for yourself without prejudice first and decide for yourself. Don’t take it on anybody else’s word, for we’re all prone to “interpreting” and “cherry-picking” the stuff that fits what we want to believe. Do it objectively, and see what you come up with.

        Only then should you go look at the commentaries on both sides of the coin about inconsistencies. Take a look at the defenses and see if they make sense.

        Regarding verifiability, approach it like you would any book from ancient history. What can we corroborate from Plato, Aristotle, Hammurabi, etc.? Then see how much is available to corroborate the Bible in comparison, and use those as starting points. For instance, we have only 10 Greek copies of Caesar’s Gallic wars, 7 of Plato, 2 of the “Annals” of Tacitus, etc. Yet we have over 4,000 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, and over 13,000 with at least a portion of the NT in Greek. So take it as you would any other ancient book, with the understanding that we have far more corroboration of its accounts, dating much more closely to its suggested writing and un-attacked by over 23,000 archaeological digs based on its texts. I’d say that’s a pretty good place to start.

      • Well, I have already read what these books suggest. I even re-read the Bible through a streamlined form with notations and guides, for simplicity. But I have found more than enough inconsistencies to have driven me into agnosticism. I was a Christian before coming to doubt, not the other way around. While some Christian apologetics make sense, others don’t seem to, and I’m left wondering why a book claiming to be the guide of truth for the everyone and anyone is so prone to misinterpretation and the need for convoluted defenses that only the most Biblically learned could figure out.

        Yes, other books and historical people are lacking in historicity. But the differences is that none of those in question are claiming to have the answers to the universe as we know it. Whatever the number of manuscripts concerning the NT, almost everything we have to go by emerged decades after Jesus had died. Paul of Tarsus, the main link between Jesus and Christianity as a faith, demonstrated that he knew very little of the intimate details of Jesus’s life, including the miracles her performed. Certain events such as Herod’s slaying of the first born are not corroborated by evidence, nor are other aspects of Jesus’s birth, such as the time and location (even two of the gospels present conflicting accounts of the nativity). I can view the Bible as allegorical account, as it was often traditionally done, but I have difficulty finding it entirely reliable as a whole.

  10. Again, I challenge you to look at it objectively from both sides. See if the inconsistencies are indefensible. If you are unhappy with a “decades later” book, then disregard everything you know about ancient Roman history, about philosophy, about logic, because the earliest manuscripts we have regarding these concepts were not only decades, but hundreds of years after the fact.

    I’ve heard all of the objections, and I haven’t really found any of them to be sufficient. I know that may not sound like a particularly satisfying explanation, which is why I encourage you to seek these things out objectively.

    What pushed you away from Christianity, out of curiosity?

    • The comparisons you make are very different. Roman history is corroborated by multiple sources, and even then, what we don’t know we admit to not knowing and being only speculative. In contrast, the Bible claims to be indisputably true, and hold in it the truth of the entire universe. That is far more big and consequential a claim than history, and thus requires a higher standard of verifiability. And as for the other examples you mentioned – logic and philosophy – these are concepts that transcend specific temporal contexts and can be found elsewhere in the world. They don’t claim the same validity and consequences as the Bible does, and don’t require that we know the specific authors (since they’re not claiming divinity, or having the answer to the universe’s purpose). Hence why my standards for Christianity are higher.

      I’ve sought these things out objectively good sir. I was formerly a devout Christian, so it is not as if I was born with a bias against Christianity (indeed, the contrary would be true, as it may). Again, I cannot contend with the fact that Paul – the main driver of the Christian faith – seemed oblivious to many aspects of Jesus’s divine nature. I cannot contend to the synoptic gospel’s contradiction of Christ’s very birth, the fact that most of the Gospels seem based off of Mark’s, or the fact that Christ’s life, of which we know so little, is very much similar to that of other myths and religions, suggesting some possibility that at least some of the story was constructed. Again, I’m only more skeptical because this is a book that is supposed to be grounded in reality, yet seems validated mostly only be itself. I could believe in a general concept of God, but the specific doctrines seem more difficult to contend with.

      What pushed me from Christianity were these very topics we’ve been discussion. The various doubts and questions the answers to which I found lacking.

    • Regarding the higher standard issue, I think this blog post does an excellent job of breaking down the logic behind asking for that.

      As to the issues you have with the Bible, what things do you actually think are good about the Bible? Or are you disregarding it for disregarding’s sake? I think a great place to get a good affirmative defense of belief in the Bible is to go to YouTube and find one of Voddie Baucham’s “Why I Believe the Bible” videos. There’s a lot of great stuff in there. Maybe these two pieces will spark or raise new ideas or topics for us to discuss.

      • Of course I’m not disregarding for the sake of it my friend. Believe me, I’m not a rabid anti-theist or anything. I only disregard it with respect to it’s inerrancy and accuracy, due to epistemological concerns. But there are many excellent parables and teachings within it, and taken allegorically, as some early Christian leaders did in the beginning, it makes for a good read with interesting lessons, quotes, philosophy, and truisms. I’ve seen many apologetic arguments in it’s favor, but I’ve never been entirely convinced. I’ll explore Baucham’s take on it for the sake of an open mind 😛

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