Thursday, October 18, 2012

What It Means to Be a Good Person

The view of the afterlife that I offered in my last post, “Heaven and Hell Reconsidered,” is both liberating and troubling for many Christians. It is liberating because it makes it possible to say, “God loves everyone,” with a straight face. Such a statement is hard to believe if you also think that God designed hell as an eternal torture chamber for those who disobey Him. However, according to my interpretation of Scripture, hell is the experience of being trapped in one’s own sin for eternity. [E1] Thus, it is the sinner - not God - who creates hell, whenever he or she lives a life that is envious, self-absorbed, vengeful, etc. The reason that God wants to stop people from sinning is not because God is offended by sin but in order to save people from their own, self-inflicted hells. With this view, one can genuinely believe in a loving God and the reality of hell at the same time.

However, a number of Christians find this view of the afterlife to be troubling because it contradicts the standard account of salvation. [E2] Let me explain. My view of the afterlife denies that God demands a penalty for sin. Instead, I claim that the only penalty for sin is sin itself; God freely forgives anyone who prays for forgiveness with genuine repentance. [E3] But for Christians who believe that Jesus “died on the cross in order to pay the penalty for sin,” this claim undermines the entire Christian message. They reason that if there is no divine mandate requiring sin to be punished, then Jesus’ death didn’t really accomplish anything. Thus, they accuse people like me of preaching a watered-down gospel, one that teaches that the only thing you have to do in order to end up in heaven is to be a good person.

Actually, this accusation is mostly true. I do believe that the only thing you have to do in order to end up in heaven is to be a good person. But I wouldn’t call this a “watered-down gospel” because I also believe that it’s impossible to be a good person without following Jesus. In fact, if Jesus had not come to the earth, I suspect that all human beings would have ended up in hell. [E4] In my view, Jesus’ earthly mission was to make it possible for us to be good people. In order to do this, he had to do three basic things: he had to (1) show us what “goodness” really looked like, (2) defeat those forces which held us captive to sin, and (3) create a new community that could shape us into good people.

I will talk about #2 and #3 in the next two posts, but for now, let me address #1. Christians are right to object to the idea that being good people will lead to salvation when the phrase, “being a good person” is used in a generic sense. Sometimes, you will hear people say things like this: “I don’t really think it matters what religion you follow so long as you are a good person.” The problem with that statement is that it assumes there is a universal definition for “being a good person” that people of all religions accept.  Unfortunately, this isn’t true. You may think that “being a good person” simply means showing respect to everyone you encounter, but the people at Westboro Baptist would disagree with you. They would argue that being universally respectful is irresponsible because it gives approval to all sorts of sinful behaviors. So, you may back-peddle a bit and suggest that “being a good person” simply means not harming innocent people. But Muslim extremists would disagree with you: they might argue that sacrifices sometimes need to be made in order to advance the will of Allah. My point here is not to pick on fundamentalists, but to show that every definition of goodness depends on a particular moral perspective. It may not be a religious perspective, but it is a moral perspective nonetheless. So when I say that you have to be “a good person” in order to end up in heaven, I don’t mean it in the sense that the American pluralist means it, that you have to be generally pleasant, tolerant of others and loyal to family and country. Instead, I am advocating a particular understanding of goodness; I am saying that in order to enjoy eternal life, you have to be molded into the image of Jesus.

In order to save humanity, Jesus had to live among us to show us what kind of lives God wanted us to live. [E5] Unfortunately, many Evangelicals scoff at this notion, claiming that it reduces Jesus to a moral teacher. [E6] But to claim that Jesus came to teach us does not reduce his status as the Son of God. On the contrary, no human teacher would have been able to reveal God’s true nature to us. This revelation is the first step of salvation.

The importance of Jesus’ teaching ministry has been obscured by a widespread myth called, “natural theology.” [E7] Natural theology claims that God has given each one of us a conscience that teaches us the difference between right and wrong. According to this view, every human already knows what the right thing to do is; the problem is simply that we lack the “will power” to pursue it. At first, this sounds like a Christian perspective, [E8] but on closer look, it deeply conflicts with the testimony of Scripture. The Bible teaches us that people sin without having any clue that they are sinning. [E9] According to Paul, this is because human sin has given us “a depraved mind.” [E10] Thus, all of us tend to delude ourselves into believing that we are “good people,” that the conflicts we get into are not our fault, and that the consequences we experience are unfair. [E11] We don’t even know what “goodness” looks like, but we are influenced by cultural definitions, which are always biased in favor of the society’s well-being.

In the fourth century, there was an important theologian named Athanasius who argued that Jesus saved humanity by showing us what goodness looked like. He says it much more beautifully than I do, so I would like to quote some of his words below:

“You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains. The artist does not throw away the panel, but the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again, and then the likeness is re-drawn on the same material. Even so was it with the All-holy Son of God. He, in the Image of the Father, came and dwelt in our midst, in order that He might renew mankind made after Himself.” [E12]

If Jesus hadn’t come and taught/showed us what goodness looked like, it would be impossible for anyone to live out the kind of lives God had intended because we didn’t know what these looked like. [E13] But this is only one of the ways in which Jesus saved us.  I will consider some others in the ensuing posts.



[E1] As I explained in the last post, this isn’t really “my” view of Scripture, but it is one that is widely held in the Eastern Orthodox Church and which has made its way into Western Christianity through the influence of C.S. Lewis. For other Christians who hold this view, see Jerry Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation, and Rob Bell, Love Wins.

[E2] By “the standard account of salvation,” I mean the satisfaction paradigm for the atonement. Over the course of Christian history, there have been a number of different models for understanding salvation have been offered. In the book, Christus Victor, Gustav Aulen showed that the early church embraced a Christus Victor model of salvation, which suggests that Christ brought about salvation by having victory over the devil. I consider my own view a variant of that one (and most closely related to the one offered by J. Denny Weaver in The Nonviolent Atonement). Over time, other models have been offered, including the deification model of the Eastern Church (which technically isn’t “an atonement theory”), the moral influence theory of Abelard, and most significantly, the satisfaction theory of Anselm. Anselm was a twelve century theologian who argued that Jesus’ death satisfied the debt of sin and made forgiveness possible. The atonement theory of penal substitution, which is pervasive in American culture today, is a direct descendant of Anselm’s satisfaction theory.

[E3] In Psalm 32:5, 65:3, 78:38, and 85:2, David claims that God forgave sins when asked. Some people claim that this forgiveness was only possible because it anticipated the sacrifice that Jesus would make in the NT, but this is nowhere to be found in the text itself. Similarly, Jesus forgave the paralytic before he died and made no reference to his future death in Mark 2:5/Matthew 9:2/Luke 5:20. Although Jesus frequently preached about forgiveness in his ministry, he rarely connects that teaching with his impending death.

[E4] I say “suspect” because no one has access to the full mind and/or will of God, and it is rather presumptuous to claim to know what God “would have done” in different circumstances. Nevertheless, we do “have the mind of Christ,” (1 Cor 2:16) which allows us to make some presumptuous claims about the nature of God.

[E5] Ok, it’s true. I learned this principle from Karl Barth. For Scriptures that make this point, see 2 Cor. 4:4 and Hebrews 1:2-3.

[E6] Although I love C.S. Lewis book, The Great Divorce, I have become less thrilled with his apologetic text, Mere Christianity. In one famous passage, Lewis says, “You must make your choice: Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse… But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” Of course, I agree with Lewis that Jesus is God, but I would counter with John 13:13, “You call me teacher and lord and rightly so, for that is what I am.” Jesus did see his teaching role as a central aspect of his identity and mission.

[E7] “Natural theology” is often attributed to Thomas Aquinas, who offered five proofs for God’s existence in the Summa Theologiae . However, Stanley Hauerwas has argued that Aquinas was not really a natural theologian, and that the proofs for God’s existence are the exception rather than the rule. I’m not a Thomistic scholar, so I am probably not qualified to meddle in this debate. But however it came about, natural theology was widespread during the Enlightenment, when people began to believe that distinguish between right and wrong was just a matter of “reason.” Of course, if any cultures disagreed with their definitions, they wrote them off as barbaric or irrational. We are still inheritors of the Enlightenment tradition today. “Postmodernity” has not fully disabused us of natural theology.

[E8] I will offer a more extensive critique of the concept of “will power” in the next post.

[E9] To mention just a couple of pertinent examples, David prays for forgiveness for his “hidden sins” in Psalm 19:12-14, and on the cross, Jesus asks God to forgive the soldiers who crucified him, “for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) These show that you can be sinful without knowing that you’re doing anything wrong. Even then, you need forgiveness and restoration.

[E10] Ironically, this term comes from Romans 1, the chapter that is most often cited in defense of natural theology. But if there is any ambiguity about what it means, Paul makes is case with even greater clarity in texts like 2 Corinthians 4:4 and Ephesians 4:17-19.

[E11] Here, I am not trying to deny that many people suffer unjustly or that suffering is evidence sin. However, there are many times when we do suffer as a result of our sins, and in those cases, we’re inclined to blame it on something else.

[E12] Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word, translated and edited by C.S.M.V. (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996), 41-42. For the record, this is not his only or even primary understanding of salvation. He is most deeply associated with the divinization soteriology of the Eastern Orthodox church, and one can even detect antecedents to Anselm in his legal metaphors for salvation.

[E13] "So what about people who lived in times and places who never even had the opportunity to hear about Jesus?" That is a great question, so great, in fact, that it would be an injustice to try to answer it in a footnote. It will have to wait for another day...


Zack Crist said...

I completely agree with you in that humanity is required to be revealed what is right and wrong and that it comes in the form of text (like the Bible) and through human representatives (like Jesus). I think we agree here, so I'll continue.

You mentioned that you don't believe in a universal God-given conscience that discriminates from right or wrong. I would then ask you this question: "When we do come into contact with the above forms of revelation, by what means would we have to confirm they are right or wrong without a God-given conscience?"

As I understand: Yes, it is Jesus who gives us the example of what good is, however, our confirmation and the metaphorical light bulb that goes off when we witness one of his actions (which is a form of God's speach) and say "YEAH THAT'S TRUE!" must also be something given to us by God otherwise we'd have no means to read, understand, and confirm the message of revelation. What do you think?

Brian Bither said...

For starters, I think you've offered a very sophisticated and simultaneously accessible critique, which is exactly what I was hoping to get in this blog. Thanks for raising that point and saying it so well.

So, to answer your question, mustn't we have some kind of pre-set moral instincts in order to be able to say, "I am seeing true goodness in Jesus" when we witness it? Yes, I suppose so. However, I think it goes a little too far to say that we "confirm" God's revelation.

Confirmation implies an independent source of information. The other day, I was struggling to remember someone's name, and when my interlocutor said, "Oh, you must mean 'Roleen'?" I could CONFIRM that was correct because it triggered my memory, which was an independent source of information. But with revelation, it's more like we're connecting the dots for the first time, so that our reaction would be more like, "Oh, I see that," instead of, "Yeah, that's true."

The best analogy is perhaps with a child who is learning how to speak. When you teach a child an abstract phrase, like "I love you," you're not just giving them symbols by which they can communicate the feelings they already have. Instead, they are learning the concept of love as they learn the word. At the same time, they wouldn't be able to make sense of the phrase "I love you," if they didn't already have some thoughts and feelings (in the form of "raw data") that are the building blocks of the concept of love.

I hope that made some sense. I guess I'm saying that yes, we have moral instincts, but these aren't prearranged into anything as definitive as a conscience until they are constructed through some "language," such as a religion or philosophy that teaches us how to interpret them. I believe that Jesus' teaching connects the most dots, which is what makes it persuasive to me.

Zack Crist said...

Good points. I would say that confirmation of revelation is from my human perspective only! It is my duty as a believer so that my belief is more than just "blind faith." Otherwise, Truth is Truth, whether I recognize it or not.

Personally, I am not one who accepts the validity of blind faith for myself - others may, that's their business. So when I use the term "confirmed," it means a belief that has transcended mere imitation of my forefathers and the culture in which I find myself.

So yes, I think we do agree that it is through the representatives of God that we are able to put revelation into a human language. Just as God speaks through His Creation, He also speaks through a textual form that addresses the intellect, but He ALSO speaks through our human qualities (feelings, emotions, imagination, etc). As such, we should be taught how to respond to them as a human. This last part is just as much revelation to us and it comes in the form of Jesus's teaching.

I am enjoying these conversations, by the way. Keep me in your prayers Brian! God bless!