Well, is he?
It’s a central tenet of Christianity (though certainly not one held by every Christian I know) that only through accepting and praising Jesus Christ as the son of God can any of us be “saved” – that is, reaching a state of being worthy to enter Heaven. Clearly I have some problems with the whole God thing in the first place, but let’s try not to get bogged down in petty details like whether or not he actually exists.
So, we’re supposed to accept Jesus. Anyone who fails to meet this simple criterion will be destined instead for an eternity of… well, something less desirable, be it Hell, or the somewhat more vanilla terminus of Purgatory, or something else which, however you look at it, doesn’t equate to an infinite reward. Well, that sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? Hardly seems like God’s asking for a whole lot, just that you “accept him into your heart” and pray for his blessing. And think of all the things he’s done for you lately, what with creating the Universe and bringing you into existence and everything. You can’t do him this one little favour? You wretched ingrate.
But srsly, folks.
The biggest fly in my frankincense about all this is that I’ve also been told a whole bunch of other stuff about what’ll be good for me after I’m dead. When I compare all that other stuff to this particular claim about Jesus, it all looks damn near identical as far as I can tell, in style, conviction, and realism, while being totally different and mutually exclusive in content. Surely the least that a respectable omnipotent deity could do is to make his own divine word stand out a bit, from the numerous tribal legends and other stuff that people just made up. Especially if there’s really so much riding on it, and if God actually gives a crap what happens to our eternal souls (which most religions claim he does, though they call it ‘benevolence’ more commonly than ‘giving a crap’).
There are many other religions around, which make similar claims about the importance of adhering to their tenets, and many people of differing faiths seem to believe that theirs is the only path to salvation. Even if you’re sure that your own exclusive claim to salvation is the right one, you have to at least admit that many people are sincerely mistaken.
But let’s imagine for now that the requirement that we accept Jesus is convincingly authentic. Still, this doesn’t seem like an obvious thing on which everyone’s eternal fate should rest. If your supreme overlord’s biggest concern really is how much time his subjects spend singing about how great he is, then fair enough. But many religions, including Christianity, also place a lot of emphasis on how we actually behave towards each other. This may sometimes have some connection to a person’s divine ass-kissing quotient, but they’re not the same thing.
The Top Dog, the Big Cheese, the Head Honcho
You might ask – as I rather flippantly did a few paragraphs ago – whether God doesn’t deserve some praise for all the hard work he’s put in over the years, towards the creation of, well, Creation, and its subsequent maintenance. Maybe this justifies the importance of accepting Jesus: God deserves credit for his work, and we lesser mortals really ought to give him his due.
I’ll happily admit that, if it does turn out that I have some divine being to thank for all that’s good in my life, then I have a lot to be grateful for. But whether or not his latest work deserves any five-star reviews is a different matter entirely from whether this earns him the right to be petulant about getting the credit for it. Even if he were real, I’d have no interest in bowing and scraping to a god immature enough to throw a strop and eternally condemn anyone who dares to be unimpressed by his magnum opus.
Actually, that’s a lie. The only appropriate response to really knowing of the existence of such a monster would be to cower in terror and do anything, everything, to keep him from punishing us to the full extent of his omnipotence. Write a hymn? Done. An hour a day in silent contemplation of his glory and wonder? Have two. Sacrifice of my first-born son? I’ll get the kitchen knife. Never was that attached to the kid. But to respond like this, it’d be necessary to really believe in such a god in the first place.
And I don’t. There are many reasons why people believe things, but broadly speaking, because I’ve not had the idea hammered into my skull throughout my upbringing until it became a part of my worldview that it would be unthinkable to abandon, and because I’ve never been at a particularly emotionally vulnerable point in my life and turned to religion for solace or been taken advantage of, and because I’m not that irrational, I don’t believe that a god exists who expects and demands that I accept him as my saviour before allowing me any kind of post-mortem payoff. (Pardon the ever-so-slight generalisations there.)
And that’s the word
If such a god did exist, though, then this brings up the issue of “spreading the word”. Many human lives will unquestionably be lived out in entire ignorance of the name of Jesus, or of even the concept of the Christian God. Many children die in infancy, or grow up in cultures where other faiths rule and Christianity is never heard of. Is a full and comprehensive embrace of Jesus really the only way that anyone is going to avoid an infinite and undesirable fate, even the poor saps who never had any opportunity to know him, to accept him, or to do anything to piss him off?
If your god allows the whole experience of existence, for thousands upon thousands of people, to amount to nothing more than a small handful of confusing days in the world with no language, little motor ability, and a barely developed cognitive capacity, followed by an eternity in torment as a result of not accepting him, then your god is a more fucked-up and evil piece of work than I have any wish to consider. It’s his doing, directly and utterly, and no sanctimonious and pandering bullshit about baptism or free will or predestination or “mysterious ways” can change the fact that this scenario paints him as a twisted sadist.
Boy, is it me or did the buzz just totally die in here? Toning down the indignant rhetoric, this is still a big problem for anyone making the “Jesus is the only escape hatch” claim. What precisely does this mean? Where are the exact boundaries? Who, specifically, is going to go to Hell (or otherwise miss out on the heavenly delights on offer to those of the correct faith)? Maybe an exception can be made for kids who haven’t had the chance, but where’s the demarcation? Does it become a person’s responsibility to accept Christ or face damnation once they reach a particular age? What if they’re mentally handicapped in some way and can’t understand the choice they’re supposed to make? What if they’re perfectly mentally capable, but still either don’t understand or don’t accept the limited options allegedly available to them? Are they to be punished for stubbornness, or stupidity, or being ill-informed?
What if they live in some obscure part of the world where the Gospel is never preached? If people who never hear about Jesus are safe from Hell, since the option of accepting him really isn’t open to them, then isn’t going out there and telling people about Jesus the absolute worst thing you can possibly do to someone? We should try and destroy all evidence of his existence and never mention him again, so that future generations can be safely ignorant, if that were the case. But that’s not an idea that’s ever really taken off.
Even if Christianity does have many benefits, such as being the only way to “know” God or to live a truly fulfilled life on Earth, is it worth opening people up to the possibility of eternal hellfire just to tell them about it? If you’ve rationalised away some “special circumstances” by now, might it not make more sense to suppose that people earn their place in the afterlife, wherever that might be, through the life they live, regardless of which god they happen to believe in?
Again, if Jesus is the turning point, where is the line drawn? To stretch the point, if dead babies and those who never hear the good news get a pass, but for most people merely knowing about Jesus suddenly makes us obliged to follow him, what degree of knowledge necessitates this?
“I said, uh, pass the salt.”
Yes, this is a silly example, but if ignorance of Jesus is enough to let you off the hook, and a passing mention like this also wouldn’t condemn you for subsequently failing to obey God’s word, when does it become a vital requirement to be a Christian?
If you passed somebody in the street who was smiling slightly maniacally, handing out spiritual books with great enthusiasm, and telling people how wonderful the world is once you accept the love of the almighty Krntqz, I’m guessing you’d move on swiftly and try not to make eye contact. This is not a worldview you’re familiar with, it clashes with your own, and this person’s behaviour looks far more like that of a certifiable lunatic than a true prophet. People in cultures far different from our own have undoubtedly had identical reactions to a similar scenario, in which the word “Krntqz” is merely replaced with “Jesus”. Would you have earned Krntqz’s anger, if he turns out to be the one true god, any less than they should incur the wrath of Yahweh?
The Book of Jeff
Imagine a person who is, by some unlikely mechanism necessitated by this thought experiment, unaware of any religion. This person – let’s call him Jeff – has never stopped even to consider the notion of a god before, and is a naive, impressionable, good-natured sort of chap. One day, Jeff is suddenly and simultaneously set upon and evangelised to by two different religious fanatics.
“Hey,” one shouts, “have you heard the good news about Jesus? He’s the son of God, and the one truth path to righteousness and salvation is through him!”
“No,” cries the other. “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet! Honour him and you will be spared his wrath!”
“Here,” continues the first, “read this Bible, it is the inspired word of God! It tells the truth about his purpose for us and the laws by which we should live if we are to honour him. Praise Jesus!”
“No, ignore this blasphemy!” retorts the second. “Read the Qur’an, and learn about Allah, the one true God, or face eternal hellfire!”
Then they both start fighting and ignore Jeff before he can ask for clarification.
On the face of it, what should our hapless, hypothetical fellow do? Both of the ideas he’s had thrown at him would be massively important if they prove to be true, but neither one is obviously superior or more likely, based solely on what he’s heard so far. This is all entirely new to poor old Jeff, remember, and neither one of these strangers accosting him and shouting things is any more persuasive than the other, from his unfamiliar position. His entire experience of both religions has been to be briefly proselytised at by two equally enthusiastic proponents. What is our protagonist to do?
If you want Jeff to be a Christian, turn to page 72. If you – sorry, my mind wandered a bit there. Back on track now.
For one thing, he might try reading both of these holy books he’s just learned about, and try to decide whether one or other of them really is the word of the all-powerful creator of the Universe. He might try to reach a decision about this by examining what’s written in these books, and the claims they make for these religions, and doing his best to determine which one (at a minimum) of the two was most probably made up by some humans in a more primitive society, who were struggling to understand the world and whose lack of modern knowledge shows through in what we now see as misconceptions in their writings. Presumably, any text actually inspired by an omnipotent and omniscient deity would look decidedly different from that.
If you think that studying and scrutinising each available text, seeing how well it corresponds to the world around him, and measuring it up to what seems to be real, is the correct way for Jeff to proceed, then what you’re supporting there is something called the scientific method. Science is all about doing this kind of testing, finding out what’s probably real by seeing how it looks from every angle of scrutiny possible, and if there’s any way that something can be shown to be wrong.
If, in the case of our intrepid researcher, he reads one text and find it to be just a bunch of ramblings from some jumped-up tribespeople with delusions of grandeur, but the other speaks to him deeply and describes great and profound truths about the world which could not possibly be attributed to mere mortal man, then he’ll have come to a conclusion by applying the scientific method, however rigorously.
But if this is the kind of approach that God wants us to take, then I’m afraid the modern scientific concensus overwhelmingly rejects the need for the God hypothesis. Personal testimony can do little to counter the reams of scientific literature supporting the assertion that the natural world is entirely explicable without getting him involved. The research done in every field strongly implies that books like the Bible and the Qur’an are significantly composed of myth, fable, and other inaccuracies, compiled by primitive peoples trying to understand a complex world over the course of centuries. From looking at the world, and studying the way things are, it seems entirely reasonable not to conclude that any particular deity is necessarily real, making it rather unreasonable that any paticular deity should punish us eternally for omitting him from our beliefs.
The only alternative to this kind of investigation seems to be to ignore any kind of process of observing the universe and testing one’s ideas about how it works, and just have faith anyway. But… just have faith in what? How is Jeff supposed to know whether it’s Jesus or Mohammed he should be blindly praising? Without making observations, testing them, and trying to refine an accurate picture of the Universe, how can he hope to distinguish between divinity and story-telling in his belief system?
Some people try to explain this by talking about personal revelation, and feeling the presence of Jesus in a way that science can’t address – but if it’s knowable, it’s subject to scientific enquiry. Some people get stoned and feel a deep spiritual connection to Scooby-Doo. Others pray and find Jesus. If we can know with any degree of certainty that one of those feelings is more real than the other, it’s only through testing it, trying to see if we’re wrong, or if our ideas stand up to scrutiny. That’s called science.
I’ll write some more for the Skeptictionary about faith itself soon, because that’s what a large part of this argument comes down to. But the claim that we must accept Jesus, either under all circumstances or just some subset, seems irreconcilable with any notion of fairness or consistency that I can come up with. As always, feel free to tell me what I’ve failed to consider.
This was adapted a little for the Skeptictionary from some earlier stuff I wrote.