Tag Archives: World Religions

The Design of Salvation, Part 1

“Golgota” by Mihaly Munkacsy, 1884

There are many critics of how the Bible describes God’s plan to save the human race, but it’s far easier to criticize someone else’s design than to work through what’s actually the best choice to accomplish a particular goal yourself. If you had the job of providing a means of salvation to a stubborn and rebellious people – many of whom don’t even think they need to be saved from anything  and want to actively resist any rescue attempt – how would you do it? How would you design salvation?  Let’s look at some alternatives and see whether those criticisms are really justified or not.

First off, is salvation even necessary? In case you haven’t read the newspaper, watched the news on TV, or gotten on the internet in a while, it’s pretty obvious that the world is a messed-up place. People are messed up. We like to think we’re not as bad as _____. Just fill in the blank with the person or group you tend to look down upon, because we all do that. Comparison comes naturally to us. But the fact is, none of us are perfect. A lot of times that doesn’t bother us because we assume that God grades on a curve. “Nobody’s perfect, but my saintly old grandma would surely get bumped up to a high A. I may not be as good as her, but I’ll certainly still pass, probably with a high B, or maybe even a low A. People like Hitler will obviously get an F. That guy that cut me me off on the highway the other day may be a borderline C, but God certainly wouldn’t fail me – I’m a good person.” Right? Well, God doesn’t grade on a curve, and there’s only 1 passing score: perfection. That’s bad news for all of us. Turns out, we’re in the same boat as Hitler and all the “really bad” people  that we feel so superior to according to our subjective grading curve. We have a serious problem, and need a serious solution. What are some options?

  • Would you make salvation dependent on earthly power? Is eternal life a gift not to be wasted on the masses? Are only the movers and shakers – the Pharaohs and Caesars of world history – worthy of it? Most of us are in that category of “the masses”, and probably wouldn’t pick that option. But historically, those in power wouldn’t have minded rigging the system to favor the powerful. However, power can actually be a hindrance in that it tends to blind us to our real needs that only God can meet. [Mk 8:36] Thankfully, God makes salvation available to the leaders of superpowers and the untouchable outcasts in the filthiest slums, and everyone in between.
  • Would you make salvation dependent on wealth? How much should tickets to Heaven cost? What value do you place on eternal life?  Judging by how much people will spend on surgery to try to retain the fleeting looks of youth, I imagine eternal life could fetch quite a price – maybe enough to price most of us out of the bidding.  There are many people with prideful hearts that would love to simply throw some money at God to purchase life eternal rather than pay the costlier price of submitting themselves to Him. “$100 to go to Heaven when I die, and I can live however I want until then? I’m in!” But what about when the price is $10,000?  $1 million? $1 billion? Even if it’s only a few dollars, any price you could come up with would be out of reach for somebody. Of course, there’s also the question of whether you would really enjoy Heaven if you just bought your entrance guarantee and spent the rest of your life living like the devil. Yet God makes salvation available to all, from the richest fat cat to the most destitute, bankrupt beggar.
  • Would you make salvation dependent on knowledge? Would people need to pass an exam, or be some type of Illuminati? Would you have a bridgekeeper asking obscure trivia like in Monty Python’s Search for the Holy Grail?[1] The Gnostics believed one needed “secret knowledge” beyond what the ignorant masses could ever hope for. I remember struggling in certain classes in college, and the frustration of being the student that just didn’t understand what everyone else seemed to grasp so easily. It was frustrating then, and it was just a class grade on the line, not eternity! So as much as I appreciate knowledge and enjoy learning new things, I thank God He didn’t make my salvation dependent on how much I know. On a related note, what if I’m in a car accident and suffer brain trauma and have amnesia and mental retardation as a result, or if I develop Alzheimer’s and can’t even remember what I learned the day before? Would my loss of knowledge put my salvation at risk? Thankfully, it’s not our IQ or our learning that saves us, for God makes salvation available to the genius and the dunce alike, to the scholar with a string of letters after his name and the illiterate orphan.
  • Would you make salvation dependent on race or ethnicity? The idea of one group of people being intrinsically more valuable than others is generally reprehensible to us now, but preference for those like us still creeps in to our thoughts, it seems. I can’t help but notice (and be amused at) how very white and European Jesus – a Jew from the Middle East – has typically been portrayed by Western artists in the centuries since. Yet God is no respecter of such shallow traits like nationality or skin color. He makes salvation available to the Jew and the German, the Russian and the American, and every other nationality there is. Likewise for every skin color: “red, brown, yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight”, as the old children’s song goes.
  • Would you make salvation unconditional? Everybody goes to heaven/paradise/eternal bliss in the end? That sounds very loving and good at first. But it seems like it might be a little awkward if you were an innocent victim brutally beaten to death, and you meet your very unrepentant murderer in heaven. Might you feel a little slighted? Might you wonder where justice is when the victim and the laughing victimizer get the same reward? We have to minimize the justice of God for this option to appear feasible. Yet God offers salvation lovingly while still being just.
  • Would you make salvation dependent on good deeds? That is the probably the most common approach in man-made religions. And I get it: we understand the need for justice, and so we naturally think good should be rewarded and bad punished. But what about the one who realizes the error of his ways late in life? What good can he possibly do at the end to offset a life of selfishness, greed, dishonesty, theft, or murder? What hope is there for him? Or what of the child who gets hit by a car before she has much opportunity to earn credits in her “account”? But even with a long life of good behavior, it’s still not perfect behavior, and so it still falls short.  Works appeals to us because we do understand working and earning benefits, but also because we don’t understand the hole we’re actually in. So we think it is something we can work our way out of. In reality, if it’s on us to get ourselves out, the situation truly is hopeless.

I have to say, I’m not very impressed with any of the alternatives above. Are there other alternatives to what God did that you can think of that might’ve worked better? I don’t think there are, but I’d love to hear if you think I’ve missed something. It’s easy to criticize a plan without actually having a better option. But it’s when we work through the problems and consequences of alternatives, that we see the superiority of a plan we might’ve dismissed at first. Design is all about making choices to accomplish a specified purpose, and now that we’ve eliminated some alternative choices, join me next week for Part 2, where I’ll look at God’s actual choice for offering salvation, how it accomplishes His purpose, and why it really is the best design for rescuing us from our desperate situation.

[1] If you don’t know what I’m talking about there, your life is incomplete. Watch that scene from Monty Python on YouTube to catch up: https://youtu.be/Wpx6XnankZ8

Before and After September 11th

By Robert on Flickr, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s been 16 years, but I still remember the shock of watching September 11, 2001 unfold as those of us out west awoke to two planes hitting the World Trade Center.  For Americans of my generation, it is “a day that will live in infamy,” just as December 7, 1941 was for my grandparents’ generation. It was a day that showed the depths of depravity and evil of which humans are capable in the attacks themselves, but also the virtuous heights of compassion, kindness, courage, integrity, and resilience we are capable of in the reactions to the attacks. For some, like Richard Dawkins, this attack by Islamic terrorists changed how they thought about religion. As he put it,

“Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where’s the harm? September 11th changed all that. Revealed faith is not harmless nonsense, it can be lethally dangerous nonsense. Dangerous because it gives people unshakeable confidence in their own righteousness. Dangerous because it gives them false courage to kill themselves, which automatically removes normal barriers to killing others. Dangerous because it teaches enmity to others labelled only by a difference of inherited tradition. And dangerous because we have all bought into a weird respect, which uniquely protects religion from normal criticism.”[1]
— Richard Dawkins

Not that Richard didn’t have a low view of religion before September 11th, but afterwards, he was galvanized in his opposition, even if often misdirected. Now, for the record, some religions may do poorly in the area of evidence, and some may be taken up in desperation as a crutch, but  Richard has taken up an aggressive position against the existence of God in any conception, and in so doing has really overreached far beyond what his objections can support. In the case of my belief in the Christian religion, it is actually based on evidence and is definitely not a crutch for consolation. Though God has indeed comforted me in times of grief, I believe in His existence in general, and His revelation of Himself in the Bible specifically, not because of needing a crutch, but because I think it’s true. In fact, God makes for a rather frustrating “crutch” if that’s all one’s after, for crutches don’t normally convict you when you’re misbehaving. God is true, and oftentimes inconveniently so. But is Dawkins right about religion being dangerous?

For me, as a Christian, 9/11 didn’t change my worldview in the slightest. I know that humans are made in the image of God and are capable of truly great, beautiful things, like the heroism and selfless love displayed by first responders and ordinary civilians alike on that tragic day. But we are also corrupted, sin-enslaved creatures, fallen and capable of tremendous evil, like the meticulous planning, and carrying out, of a cowardly attack against unarmed, defenseless people. As Malcolm Muggeridge succinctly put it, “The depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable reality but at the same time the most intellectually resisted fact.” And three centuries earlier, Blaise Pascal developed that idea in his Pensées  to show that only Christianity adequately explains this paradox of man’s goodness and wretchedness.

But there is another thing Dawkins overlooks in his rush to denigrate all religion: 9/11 didn’t change the fact that there are monumental differences between Christianity (what he really objects to) and Islam (the easier target). To lump them into the same class is to ignore the significant intrinsic differences in them (as well as the recorded effects of both religions, for good or bad, over the course of their respective histories, but that is another post). Why do some Islamic people choose to kill themselves and others in suicide attacks? Is it just that the “false courage to kill themselves” has removed a barrier to killing others like Dawkins suggests? No. The purpose is not primarily to kill themselves but to kill infidels. A Muslim who kills only himself in Jihad, and fails to kill any infidels, has utterly failed. It is the idea of physical war against unbelievers embedded in Islam, and the idea that you can gain Paradise at the expense of others that promotes these attacks. Islam is ultimately a works-based religion motivated from selfishness. And the idea that killing unbelievers will not just count in your favor, but will guarantee you entrance to Paradise when you die is powerful motivation, particularly if you’ve done a lot of stupid stuff to make up for. Now compare that to Christianity, where a supposed Christian who succeeded in murdering an unbeliever is the failure, for not only has he sinned against God in committing murder [Ex 20:13], and forfeited his own life per God’s command of capital punishment [Gen 9:6], but he has condemned that unbeliever to eternal hell when God says that He desires the wicked to repent and live [Ez 18:23,32]. Rather, Jesus confirmed that all of the Old Testament law is summed up in 2 commands: Love God, and love your neighbor (or fellow human) [Lk 10:26-28]. And just to make clear to the Jews to whom He was speaking that this really included anybody under the title of neighbor, He told them the story of the Good Samaritan, where the  hero of the story is a Samaritan, an ethnic group they despised [Lk 10:29-37]. Even more bluntly, He said to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us, to bless those who curse us, and pray for those who mistreat us [Lk 6:27-36].  I don’t know that you can get any sharper contrast to the idea of Jihad.

Events often divide our lives into times of “before” and “after”. Maybe you’ve had this vague concept of “religion” that you felt was just bad, and events like 9/11 only solidified that feeling. But I’d ask you now to set a new dividing line in your life, where you say, “Eternity is too important to trust my feelings to. If there’s truth to be found in religion, I’m going to look at the evidence, and find the real deal amongst all the counterfeits.” Do that, and I assure you, it will lead you straight to Jesus Christ.

[1] “Has the World Changed?” The Guardian, October 11, 2001 (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/oct/11/afghanistan.terrorism2, accessed 2017-09-12).

On Suffering, Part 2 – Alternative Views

Leprosy in India – photo by Bruno Jehle

Last week, we looked at the tough topic of suffering, and how the Christian can view it. Just as for the Christian, other worldviews can also filter how we perceive suffering, and consequently our conclusions about it. With that in mind, I’d like to highlight a few alternatives to Christianity and how they address suffering (as best as I can tell).

  • Hinduism – Hinduism is difficult to classify because it encompasses a wide variety of different and often contradictory beliefs, but they do generally seem to agree on the existence of reincarnation and karma.  While American dabblers in the Eastern religions and their derivative  of New Age spirituality tend to have an overly optimistic view of reincarnation and karma, they are actually pretty oppressive concepts focused on suffering – a lot. There is a veil of ignorance (“maya”) in this life that hides from us what the true reality is, and getting beyond that to be liberated from the cycle of suffering (called “Samsara”) is the goal. This liberation is called “moksha”, and is the end of reincarnation, when your soul (“Atman”), is reunited with “Brahman”, a kind of divine, unchanging cosmic consciousness. Since maya hides or distorts true unchanging reality from us, suffering, as well as everything material, is illusory in a way. Also, suffering may just be your lot in life, especially if you’re in a lower caste. No matter how good you are, you may have to suffer in thousands of future reincarnations to pay for mistakes in past lives. Helping those suffering is sometimes discouraged because you are potentially interfering with the karmic “justice” due them for their behavior in past lives. So “suck it up, buttercup” – you likely have many more lifetimes of suffering ahead.
  • Buddhism – When Siddhartha Gautama left Hinduism to seek enlightenment and become the Buddha, he recognized the reality of suffering (dukkha) and made it a core component of his system: “To live is to suffer”.  Suffering is not illusion, is universal, and is the result of our selfish desires (the 1st and 2nd of his “four noble truths”). But he also held onto the Hindu concepts of reincarnation and karma, and proposed that it’s up to you to escape the tragic cycle of reincarnation and karma by living ethically (i.e. following Buddha’s eightfold path).  As in Hinduism, reincarnation is not something to be looking forward to, but something to be escaped. The Buddhist escape, however, is to be “blown out”, or “quenched”, as you reach “nirvana” (which means to be blown out, like a lamp) by realizing your “non-self”. This idea that there is no persistent soul, yet there is a continuing cycle of rebirth and suffering, is a primary (and somewhat puzzling) distinction between Buddhism and Hinduism.
  • Islam – Allah is sovereign, and suffering is the result of sin on the part of humans. Consider this response on the Muslim site IslamQA: “It is a Muslim’s belief that suffering of pain, hunger, tragic accidents etc, are due to one’s sins, for Allaah wants this suffering to erase these sins which were made by this Muslim. Allaah says in Sura 42 verse 30 interpreted means:   ‘Whatever misfortune happens to you, is because of the things your hands have wrought, and for many (of them) He grants forgiveness’.”[1] Whatever suffering befalls you is punishment that you deserve under Islam.
  • Christian Science” – I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this most inappropriately named cult famous for their views on suffering. Really neither Christian or scientific, the cult of the “Church of Christ, Scientist”  believes that all is spiritual and the material world is only an illusion. Hence, the sickness and death and suffering readily observable in the world are problems of the mind and insufficient faith. Unfortunately, ideas have consequences, and anyone else that remembers Metallica’s “Black Album” might also remember that James Hetfield’s mother’s adherence to these ideas, and her subsequent death from untreated cancer were the impetus for him writing the song “The God That Failed”.  Sadly, many have have conflated this cult with Christianity and rejected the truth because of the counterfeit.
  • Atheism – We are essentially on our own. It’s a dog-eat-dog world of survival of the fittest. Nature is “red in tooth and claw“, as Tennyson would say. The weak will naturally suffer as they’re eventually weeded out. If you have an inordinate amount of suffering in your life, this whole universe is just a freak accident of nature, and your miserable life is just the way your dice rolled. “Life sucks and then you die.” Atheists often question why a good God would allow so much suffering, yet never stop to ask why a merciless, brutal, godless universe would allow so much goodness, beauty, and joy. Ultimately, atheism has no compelling answers regarding purpose, either bad or good, in anything.

I’ve highlighted five alternative worldviews here. There are others out there, and each, if it is to be a complete worldview has to address suffering, ether directly or indirectly. None of the views presented here can a) explain the origin and purpose of suffering like Christianity, or b) redeem suffering like Christianity. Suffering is either pointless like in atheism, or the result of something wrong with you (or a past version of you). Suffering is something to be escaped from in each system, but it’s never really redeemed and turned to good like it is in Christianity. If  you missed last week’s post on a Christian view of suffering, you can read it here. If you’re an adherent to one of these views I’ve described, and you think I’ve misrepresented your views, let’s talk about it. I don’t want to misrepresent anyone’s beliefs, but I do think each of these belief systems have intrinsic deficiencies that make Christianity the better explanation.

[1] https://islamqa.info/en/2850, Sheikh Muhammed Salih Al-Munajjid answering why Allah does not prevent suffering, accessed 2017-08-29.