Monday, May 12, 2008

The Emperor's New God

Last week, I ended by explaining how I came to realize I didn't have a relationship with God. In short, I empirically tested whether or not God was speaking his words into my mind and I concluded that at least some of the time, things that "felt" like they were from God were not. Specific things I thought God had promised me didn't happen, so that must not have been from God. Moreover, even simple thoughts that were no more specific than a horoscope were also no more accurate. In short, I realized I had no evidence to conclude I had ever communicated with a higher power. And lacking a relationship with God, I realized I was not a Christian.

That is not the same thing as giving up my faith.

Indeed, for a few months I desperately wanted "back in". There is a categorical difference between not having a relationship with God and being unable to have that relationship. Even to this day, if it turns out God exists, then I really want a relationship with that God. Who wouldn't want to be friends with the creator of the universe?

So having lost the evidence supporting my religious faith, I started from first principles, to see if the tenets of Christianity logically made sense. In other words, I wanted to logically test whether Christianity was truth but modern Christians had pursued the faith in the wrong manner, or if the religion just didn't make sense and I should give up on it altogether.

For those of you who aren't that familiar with Christianity, here is the core doctrine:
God loves people, but God is perfect and righteous, and therefore cannot allow sin to exist in his presence. Because all humans are innately sinful and God loves them in spite of this, God devised a plan that would allow him to have a close relationship with humans on an individual level. God sent Jesus, who is himself fully God and fully human, to live a perfect, sinless life and then become a penitence sacrifice for all of humanity. Jesus suffered the penalty of death instead of me so that I could live and have a relationship with God. And Jesus.
When I broke the dogma down to this description, there were three potential logical issues that I spotted. If any one of these things is false, the religion doesn't make logical sense. Here are the issues:
  • Why can't God let sin exist in his presence?
  • Why is the penalty for sin death?
  • Why is someone else dieing for my sin considered justice?
According to the Bible, Jesus spent a lot of time with prostitutes, drunkards, and other "sinners", expressly because these were the people who needed ministering the most. If Jesus is fully God, why wasn't Jesus bothered being around sin? That sounds like a strong logical contradiction.

I don't have a problem accepting that everyone is a "sinner", meaning that no one lives a perfectly righteous life, never mistreating or hurting other humans, or taking advantage of them. But why is it fair that living unrighteously should be met by death? Jesus himself talks about how some sins are worthy of greater punishments than others, and a spiritual death in hell is clearly the worst punishment someone could earn. By and large, most people never do anything so disruptive to society that death is a just punishment for them. It doesn't make logical sense that all kinds of unrighteousness should be worthy of the same death sentence.

Last, there's the question of why, if I'm guilty and deserving a death, it's fair for someone else to die on my behalf. This kind of thing goes against the basic philosophy of penal systems. If I'm sentenced to serve 10 years in prison, the courts don't consider it fair if someone else chooses to serve 10 years instead, or even 30 years. That option is simply not allowed because it doesn't even relate to the issue at hand. The Bible supports this opinion as well, according to Ezekiel 18:20:
The soul that sins shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son.
Historically there have been some penal systems that allowed, by consent, some people to receive the punishment intended for others. The result has always been that rich people pay poor people to serve sentences for them, and in most cases the systems were changed to disallow this abuse. So if I really am worthy of death for my sins, I don't logically understand why it would be okay for Jesus to die instead of me. That simply doesn't make sense.

I sent this list of questions four Christians whose opinions I respected. All of them were pastors at the time or had been in the past, and two of them had served time as missionaries in the third world as well. Of them, one actually tried to answer the questions. Two said they would think about it and get back to me, which never happened. The last didn't even respond. And all the answers I received boiled down to, "God knows better than you. It makes sense to God and that's what matters."

I'm sorry, but that's not a strong enough argument for me to base my life around a religion. The overall silence spoke louder than words and confirmed what I had suspected all along: the Christian religion is fundamentally flawed. A God might exist, and I certainly hope he does. But he is not the Christian God. A sentient being that could create the beautiful physics behind our universe can create a religion that doesn't have glaring logical holes in the core of its doctrine.

Now all that said, I'm still a big supporter of many Christian ideals as they relate to society. "Love your neighbor as yourself" is a good general rule for life, and creates a society that's better for everyone as a whole. Just because I've given up religion doesn't mean I've given up ethics.

At any rate, thanks for taking the time to hear my story. Next week I promise I'll be back with more AI themed discussion.


Anonymous said...

"Why can't God let sin exist in his presence?"

I would say your initial statement here is wrong or isn't true at least according to the Bible. God can't commune/dwell with sin (live with for eternity as God is outside of time. But there are many instances all throughout Scripture where sin is in God's presence (i.e. in Job where Satan himself is in God's presence).

"Why is someone else dieing for my sin considered justice?"
Your argument seems to boil down to this isn't fair - as if our sense of fairness equates to justice. So I would say this simply boils down to whose definition of justice you are willing to accept.

"Why is the penalty for sin death?"
Quite a bit fuzzier. I'd agree with you as there are certainly a variety of implications in Scripture about certain things God hates more than others and Jesus does reference certain sins as being more worthy of punishment than others.

Ultimately, the question is who makes the rules.
If you look at creation...and you interpet Adam/Eve's sin to be rebellion against the rule of God than it appears relatively simple to me.
God created man and asked that they obey him. If they chose not to, he warned them of the penalty.
Man/Woman chose not to. The penalty for that choice was death.
God chose to sacrifice his Son (Jesus) to redeem Man/Woman. His Son paid the price that God had declared (death) for a Man/Woman who could not pay the price on their own.

Anonymous said...

I meant to also say, thanks for sharing.
I appreciate your openness.

Anonymous said...

"Why can't God let sin exist in his presence?"

Sin can exist in his presence, but God is perfectly holy and hates sin. He will not allow sin to continue to go on unpunished forever, because if he did, he would be an unrighteous judge.

"Why is the penalty for sin death?"

THe lawgiver determines the penalty for the breaking of the laws. God is infinitely holy. Any sin against him is an infinite offence against his holy character. God told adam and eve the day they sin they would surely die, they sinned anyways, knowing the consequence was death. THere is something I believe that you are missing regarding Christianity. God chose Adam to be the represenative head of all mankind. When Adam chose to sin, he plunged all of mankind into sin and death as our representative. We are judged to death as a race because Adam sinned against God.

"Why is someone else dieing for my sin considered justice?"

Because Jesus was the "second Adam" the new representative of mankind. God told Adam and Eve that if they sinned, they would surely die. Jesus NEVER sinned a day in his liffe as a human. He only died because God placed the sins of his people onto him at calvary. Jesus never sinned, therefore he did not deserve to die. He died in our place as our new representative. If these are the reasons that you are giving up believe in Christianity, I feel sorry for you. THese are easy questions to answer, and I feel REALLY sorry for the pastors and friends that could not answer them.

Anonymous said...

Please forgive the typos in the post above. I should have proofread it before posting.

mrthree said...

I will too take a crack at your questions. They are valid and should be questioned by everyone who thinks they are a Christian, or might be one. This is all my opinion, I don't want to sound like a know-it-all because I too am human and am trying to figure this out.

"Why can't God let sin exist in his presence?"
God is goodness, he defines the standard. Just like the definitive blue paint can't have red in it, God can't have sin. However the whole Jesus taking on sin comes into play which is why for a time, God's identities were separated and Jesus was forsaken from the father when he took upon the sin from the cross. Jesus conquered the sin and then unified once more with the rest of God. Also being around sin is no way the same as being tainted by it. Jesus can be a perfect winner and have dinner with a sinner.

"Why is someone else dying for my sin considered justice"
It isn't justice, it is grace. Grace - getting what we don't deserve. Mercy - having deserved punishment taken away. The system has been in place with sacrificial animals where the punishment is transferred to something else because God gives second chances. Just like telling a teen not to drive into a curb, that type of stuff happens and there is grace to let them try again, deflect the punishment on to your tires.

"Why is the penalty for sin death"
Well God created life, and if you don't want a part of God, then you don't have to have a part of God, it is free will to be with him or be without him. It just so happens that a world with no God is hell. Earth is sort of a middle ground or testing ground as I see it. Those who want no part of God and enjoy earth are enjoying parts that God made just without acknowledging where it came from.

that's my unpopular opinion, feel free to take it for what you may.

Ted Vessenes said...

I'll remind people that I was an extremely devout Christian for 30 years, and a very well studied one at that. I've read the entire bible multiple times, plus commentaries by major theological authors. My friends that I posed these questions to were also similarly learned. Three of the four pastors I questioned had studied at the prestigious Fuller Seminary, for example, and two of them doctorates.

Two years ago I was making the exact same arguments people have posted here (and I've received my share of emails as well). It's not that I haven't heard the standard Christian responses; I'm very familiar with them.

They're just answering the wrong questions.

For example, the standard response to "Why can't God let sin exist in his presence?" is that God is infinitely holy and it would be a physical and spiritual impossibility for unholiness to exist in the presence of pure divinity. That's a good answer to the question, "Can God let sin exist in his presence?" But it's answer for "why is that the case?" is just theological hand waving.

My primary concern with these "arguments" is that merely state their thesis, never solid rationale. For the example in question, saying, "God is totally holy, therefore sin can't exist in his presence" is not a sound logical step, because "total holiness" is not defined as "the inability for unholy things to exist in this thing's presence", no more than the definition of "smart" means "stupidity can't exist in this thing's presence".

There might be a chain of logical reasoning that takes you from "God is totally holy" to "Sin can't exist in the presence of God", but I don't think that's the case. If it is, no one has explained why.

For the record, this question is analogous to the question, "Can God make a rock so large he can't lift it?" So that should be a hint that the answer and reasoning is not as obvious as it first seems.

Anonymous said...

In that sense you are right, in that the answer is "Because God said so."

As such, it is a matter of who you choose to put your faith in...your own intellectual prowess or God.

My perception, without trying to be offensive, is that you are placing a premium on your intelligence (or human intelligence) and your "right" to answers.

Ted Vessenes said...

I would actually claim the reverse. It's not that I'm putting a premium on my own intelligence. Rather, I am convinced that if God exists, he is immeasurably smarter than me. And if the Universe was created by God, then God cares an awful lot about causality, because the whole structure of the universe is founded on it.

I refuse to believe a God smart enough to design the elegance of the universe can only come up with "because I said so" to describe why things are the way they are. It's not like the concepts of good an evil are hard to conceptualize in the abstract, even if they are difficult to reach in practice.

We aren't talking about sub-atomic particle physics here. If it really is impossible for sin to exist in the presence of God, God is certainly smart enough to articulate exactly why that is to someone.

Or conversely, because I've never heard a better answer than "because I said so", I honestly believe the claims just aren't true. This argument isn't founded on my own intelligence; it's based on expectations of God's intelligence.

Anonymous said...

It is not justice for someone else to die for your sin. Nor is it fair. That's why it is called "mercy."

Why is the penalty for sin death? I don't know, but the one who makes the law, also defines the punishment.

Why can't God let sin exist in His presence? I'd ask, Why should He allow sin to exist in His presence? He's the Creator, and He has defined the terms of fellowship with Him. One of those terms is sinlessness. Since humans have a difficult time becoming and remaining sinless, He sent His Son, Jesus, to accept the punishment due us, "so that all who believe in Him should not perish, but have eternal life."

It won't work to try to make God play by our rules. Or our notions of fairness and logic.

I'm an old man, well, middle-aged, and I have tried many other "paths" and philosophies, but I keep returning to the Truth of Christ. I have done all I can to disprove it to myself, but I can't. I wasn't raised in the Church, so you can't blame upbringing. I am far from a model Christian, and I violate His rules regularly, but His mercy remains.

Friend, something else is the issue, not God. Resolve that, and then review your faith.

Joe Osborn said...

Don't the above commenters see that they're trying to resolve a Gordian Knot of cognitive dissonance? Each pull at it tangles it more and more. Why the axiom of Original Sin? Why would God, who knew exactly what humanity would do from before he created them, make them in such a way that untold billions would die without knowing Him and be doomed to suffering? Why choose a small nomadic shepherding tribe over the bustling civilization in China? What about the millions of humans who lived before God chose anybody at all?

The only satisfying answer is to drop all these axioms and cut the knot: These traditions were long-lived enough to be codified as law in a time when law and religion were inseparable. By coincidence we inherited superstitions.

Isn't an organic, observable, earthly system a more consistent, complete, and useful answer than a thousand pages of "God did it"?

Mr. Vessenes, congratulations on rejecting a psychological prison and choosing freedom for yourself.

Jonathon said...

Of course the irony of the whole situation is that you're not freeing yourself but instead just imprisoning yourself in a different cage.

Joe Osborn said...

What's the argument for that, jonathon?

As Hitchens puts it, the religious spend their lives enslaved to a mass-murdering psychopathic tyrant. This isn't unique among humans, as there are certainly mass-murdering, tyrannical governments. But at least you can die and escape them. As for God, that's when his fun with you really starts...

"Imprisoning [my]self in a different cage"?

Which cage is that? The cage of personal responsibility? The cage of true freedom of choice? The cage of choosing the good without the compulsion of a celestial dictator?

Is it more or less of a cage than being constantly under surveillance? More or less than seeing divine prosecution for thought crimes? More or less than intentionally limiting your beautiful humanity at the command of the entity that made you that way in the first place?

God granted us freedom and then vowed to punish us if we executed it - how sadistic and controlling can you get?

This is an argument of visions, and I won't follow it any further. as Mr. Vessenes mentioned, no amount of arguing from outside will change any minds. But please take a moment to examine your assumptions, and don't be afraid of the big world outside of the tiny little uncomfortable box called religion - it might look vast and scary, but it's quite charming once you get used to it.

Gros said...

I love you.