Monday, February 3, 2014

Perfect Society Ruined

Even as an atheist, I acknowledge that the Bible contains essential truths, maybe even the truth.  How can anyone deny the power of the Two Greatest Commandments or the Good Samaritan?   The authors of the New Testament had immense spiritual insight and knowledge no doubt.  They knew what was wrong with mankind and had the wisdom to fix it.  The novel part of their solutions were that they were simple.  For me the most dramatic example of their wisdom was The parable of the Prodigal Son.  It appears only in the Gospel of Luke.  The story is of a man and his two sons.  He is a wealthy man but also a kind and generous man.  He is a loving father to both of his sons, yet for whatever reason, the younger son decides he wants to leave, and he wants to take his portion of the inheritance with him.  Unwilling to wait for his father to die, he approaches him and asks for his part of the estate.  The father gives it to him and sadly watches his son leave never expecting to see him again.  The son, the prodigal son, lives up to his name, spending money lavishly and wastefully until it is gone.  When drought hits the land he is destitute, not even able to feed himself.  He decides his last recourse is to return home.  knowing he has brought disgrace and opprobrium upon his family, he doubts his father will accept him back as his son.  He thinks to himself, maybe father will let me be one of his servants.  I won't even ask him to pay me in money, just food.  Upon returning his father sees him approaching from afar.  It is not clear how much time has passed, probably years, nevertheless his father recognizes him even at a distance.  He runs towards his son, instead of rebuking him he embraces him, kisses him, and asks nothing about where he has been, brings up nothing of his previous acts of iniquity.  He takes off a ring, a ring that probably marks him as the head of the family, and puts it on his son's finger.  Not to offend the elder brother, or to announce the prodigal son as the new head, but to welcome him back into the family, and to assure that the son knows that all is truly forgotten.  It is an astonishing story. It is an act of absolute forgiveness.  He brings him to the house overjoyed and announces that his son has returned and orders the servants to butcher the fattest cow and prepare a feast.  There is joy and merrymaking. Yet the elder brother is angry, angry that he did everything right but his brother who has done everything wrong is now welcomed back into the family without any consequences.  The father notices this and tells him that this is part of being human, to forgive, and in order for there to be true forgiveness, it must be given by all.

Is this truth? Is this the path to God?  It doesn't matter, it is essential, an essential requirement if humankind is to achieve a peaceful society free of violence and anger.  Isn't this the same as knowing God? Isn't finding God just another way of ending human suffering?  Christians will say that the father represents God and all of us are represented by the prodigal son.  Maybe that's true, or maybe it is telling us that it's possible for all humans to practice this form of absolute forgiveness.  We can all feel the joy the father feels.  We as humans DO have the capacity for this level of forgiveness, we can forgive anyone for anything, we just need to be reminded of it.  Christians will tell you that we are not capable, that we are fallen.  Unfortunately history seems to be proving them right, but it's not forgone that we are to be this way.

This parable should have been the foundation for the entire New Testament, a foundation for a new and perfect society. Yet it was ruined.  When I first learned the concept of hell I was confused and then horrified.  When I realized what it meant for the Prodigal Son I was heartbroken.  The story of the Prodigal Son and the actuality of Hell cannot coexist.  The idea that we are all condemned to damnation for the crimes of our ancestors is the antithesis of the parable.  The same God could not have given us both.  The author's of the New Testament could not have been divinely inspired and what their intentions were is not entirely clear.  They were unsure of something, so much so that they had to create a God that was both forgiving and barbaric.  Didn't they see the contradiction in this?  Was this deception?   Are we to believe in a God that would tell us a story of unbelievable compassion and mercy only to then threaten us with the oppressive and unjust prison of Hell, to tell us the horrendous depictions of rotting corpses being devoured by maggots, flesh burning, voices screaming in agony, all lasting for eternity?  Do we not all have an internal sense of justice?  Was this not given to us by God?  Can anyone, sound of mind, say that guilt by kinship and eternal torture are just, let alone forgiving?  The Prodigal Son is the story of limitless forgiveness, and Hell is the story of uttermost injustice.  Hell destroys everything the Prodigal Son accomplishes.  The perfect society ruined.


  1. Great piece, Joel. You ask, "How can anyone deny the power of the Two Greatest Commandments?" I would argue that in addition to tainting one of life's greatest emotions by making it compulsory, they ask people to conform their behavior to one of the vaguest concepts in all of history from which no set of behavior necessarily follows.

    I would argue that "Think before you act" or "Always be open to the possibility that you might be mistaken" would be far greater commandments to give. After all, faith-based actions in the name of "love" often do more harm than good.

    As far as Hell goes, I cannot fathom an argument for it being the eternal consequence of actions (or inactions) in a finite life. At a bare minimum, surely a perfect being would give people chances in the afterlife to change their minds...

    1. As far as making the greatest commandment compulsory being a negative thing. Most good parenting uses compulsion in the early stages of development. Eventually compulsion is unnecessary, but only after the child has reached a stage of advanced understanding. A simple example is "don't touch that, it's hot". Eventually a child learns the "why". But until then compulsion is necessary. A better example would be "you must share". Eventually most children grow up to where they do not need compulsion, but the first stage is usually compulsion.

      This is not necessarily relevant because Jesus did not even deliver this in a compulsory way. The "great commandment" is a short way of referring to when Jesus responded to the question, "teacher, which is the great commandment in the law (Matt 22:36 esv)". Jesus responds by quoting a verse in Deuteronomy (love god) and a verse in Leviticus (love your neighbor), putting them together as equally great. Certainly saying a rule is a good rule is different than compulsorily demanding that something be done.

      As to the making the greatest commandment abstract....the word love is a little less abstract when we get behind the English and look at the original Greek word used which is a derivative of "agape" which is understood to be sacrificial love or love that you might feel for your child or spouse. Certainly that kind of love is not always understood in exactly the same way by all people, but I would imagine that it conjures up similar sentiments and similar appropriate ways of behaving in most people.

      "Think before you act" is a great piece of general wisdom, but thinking before you act could mean remembering to put a round in the chamber before you pull the trigger. "Always be open to the possibility that you might be mistaken" is also great advice, except when applied to situations that require certainty and where you are actually not mistaken, like in the removal of a brain tumor during an open craniotomy, or when being charged by a rhinoceros.

      I have a hard time seeing how loving a person in a self-sacrificing way could do much harm except for making someone who does not reciprocate that love potentially very uncomfortable, confused or maybe even angry.

  2. Thanks Mark, I don't see the the two greatest commandments as compulsory, more as a reminder like I said about the Prodigal Son. That's a good point about the concept of love. It is extremely vague and hard to define, but I would give most people the benefit of the doubt that they know what the intent is. I am a big fan of simplification. If we were to simplify the Bible and cut out the extremely obvious parts that should not be in there, maybe it could be a decent document.

  3. I think I can understand the dilemma, but this story isn't just about forgiveness. It's also about repentance. An alternate version of the story might read something like: when he looked at the pigs food and desired it, he remembered his fathers food, and out of pride, unwilling to accept his folly, set his will against returning to his fathers house.

    But he realizes the errors of his ways, lets his pride go and repents, returning to his father who then restores him.

    Most people are unwilling to repent. They live lives that do not honor god and set their wills against the idea. All it takes is that persons repentance and god accepts them with no other conditions. Hell is not a reality for those who choose to acknowledge their folly and turn away from it, returning to the father.

    1. This has been the biggest source of comments on this post, that repentance is somehow involved here. I really don’t see it. The father forgives him before they even get a chance to speak, so repentance was not a prerequisite for forgiveness. Plus, as I see it, he never really repented, he took the actions he took out of practicality, because he had no choice. He runs out of money and food and then says to himself I know how I can get out of this dilemma, I’ll just return home and tell father I am sorry. Is that repentance? If he hadn’t run out of money would he have returned home repenting? I see forgiveness as the main part of the story, the secondary part is the joy we can get from that forgiveness, as we see the father trying to explain that to the older son. Repentance is of course very important and would be essential in a perfect society, but it is not a prerequisite for forgiveness and this story demonstrates this. Plus, it wouldn’t be forgiveness if there was some necessary requirement to attain it. I don’t know, like anyone else, I am probably just seeing what I want to see, but I also know that it was the forgiveness that struck me as so powerful when I first read it. If someone told me it was about repentance before I read it I probably wouldn’t have thought much of the parable.

    2. So it looks like defining terms is pretty important (like always). What do you think repentance is? I think recognizing that you have no alternatives and returning home is precisely what repentance is. I would argue that necessity and practicality are almost always elements of repentance.

      I've been to a handful NA/AA meetings and the first step is "we admitted we were powerless over alcohol/our addiction—that our lives had become unmanageable". An alcoholic usually decides to "repent" or turnaround from his choices to drink alcohol after hitting some kind of "rock-bottom" or at least after realizing that life is no longer livable as it is.

      Would you think that the son were truly repenting if he seemed to express guilt? Maybe he is... I guess it doesn't say either way.

      And yes the story is primarily about forgiveness, but stories with multiple things to say are usually more interesting. Half of the beauty of forgiveness is the father giving it away. The other half is the son receiving it. Had the son failed to "repent", humble himself, and return to the father, the receiving part of the forgiveness would never have taken place. The father would have stood at the end of the road waiting until he died....I don't think that story is as beautiful.

      Forgiveness and repentance must come together to reach the full beauty of this story.

      You are right to say that forgiveness is not forgiveness if it is attained or earned, but in this case the sons actions did not earn his fathers forgiveness but they did enable him to receive it.

    3. Joe, I prefer to think of repentance as an action that is rooted in empathy, compassion, realizing you have hurt others, and that you are truly sorry for having done so, it is a result of being human. Christianity tries to dehumanize us, tell us we are broken, fallen, sinful. It tells us that we need to be forced to repent, forced into being a decent person, forced by god. Your repentance is a very self-serving repentance. It is a result of having no other options, a result of being selfish, and so you are essential forced to admit that your bad decisions got you into a difficult situation. It is not rooted in the essence of being human. Forgiveness isn't forgiveness if there is a prerequisite to attain it, likewise, repentance isn't true repentance if you are forced to do it.


    4. So we disagree slightly on what repentance is. Feeling sorry for what you have done, no matter how deeply that may be does not guarantee change of behavior. My definition of repentance may initially be self-serving, but that is only the start. Repentance can be and certainly must at some point be more than that, but that is the minimum requirement.

      Again with forgiveness....if I punch you in the nose and you forgive me for doing so, yet I say "screw your forgiveness, I was in the right" then I have not received your forgiveness. The relationship is still broken. You have offered it and I have not received it. The transaction is incomplete, despite your having fulfilled you're end of the bargain.

      Christianity does exactly the opposite of dehumanizing us. The message is clear that God created us to live as reflections of his perfection. The bible claims that we have chosen not to do that. The biblical definition of sin is "to miss the mark". Certainly only the most delusional would claim that humanity has nailed the mark. On the macro level, we bomb/torture/cheat each other, on the micro level, we murder/gossip about/ridicule one another. Someone might say that gossip and ridicule is not such a bad thing, but when compared to the biblical picture of humanity where we love and serve one another sacrificially, this is very much missing the mark.

      The message of the bible is not at all that we need to be forced to repent. Indeed there is no compulsion by god to repent at all. That is why humanity began and continues to miss the mark. God will not force us to do anything. We can assent to acknowledge him, repent of our living beneath the beauty that he intended and receive his forgiveness..... or we are permitted to deny him, continue living below his standard of beauty and perfection and never take hold of his outstretched forgiveness. Either god forces us to repentance or he waits patiently for our own choice to repent while enduring the mess that we make while he waits.

    5. Joe,
      From my understanding of the Bible and Christianity (which comes solely from those years in the Evangelical community and my reading of the Bible) I would definitely disagree with your statement that Christianity does the opposite of dehumanization. He does not force us to repent but threatens us with eternal torture if we don’t, which is essentially the same thing as using force. When I was a Christian I would constantly hear my fellow coreligionists say things like “I am fallen, broken worthless. I need to give up trying to control my life and give all control to God (which negates free-will)”. They would say that God’s grace is undeserved and that we all deserve to go to Hell, which implies we are less than human, less than all other living things on the planet. I found confirmation in the Bible for some of this thinking, but it really doesn’t matter, only what Christians believe and how they practice their religion is all that matters.
      Yes, mankind has ‘missed the mark’. There are many different explanations for this, but monotheistic religions have not made this better, maybe even worse. If the spread of Christianity were true and all of these Christians were repenting, then wouldn’t things be getting better? Even if some of the Christians were not ‘true believers’. I have to assume that the Bible’s solution to correcting our fallen society is not working and therefore cannot be true. I fully acknowledge that something is fundamentally wrong with mankind, but I think WE can fix it. Christianity has forced it’s believers into a dangerous position that exacerbates this problem, faith in the Christian God inevitably means having no faith in mankind. My stance is that there is a way forward, but we have to remove all of the false solutions before we can begin, Christianity is by far the biggest of these false solutions. I say this last part simply because of the historical record concerning Christianity, it can’t be denied.

    6. Ok well we obviously disagree on a number of pretty fundamental things. Let me outline a few based on this dialogue.

      You claim Christianity makes humans less than human-
      I claim that Christianity sets the bar for humanity higher than any other worldview. This whole discussion though begs the question.....what is your idea/standard of humanity?

      You claim Christianity's message is that god sends us to hell-
      I claim that it's that god extends his hand for us to take and we often refuse it....he acknowledges our refusal and let's us exist apart from him.

      You claim that man's sin (missing the mark) is because of many different things
      I claim that it is because of this rejecting of his extended hand

      I think we have both made our case pretty clearly and both of us remain convinced of the error of the other. I'm worried we will go in circles if we don't take a breather.

      You put forth two more claims in this last argument let me reply to each.

      Christianity is not helping the state of the world, indeed it's making it worse.-
      You cite the historical record of Christianity. First, would you mind mentioning what you mean by the "historical record of Christianity"? I think it would help the dialogue if we had some specifics. I think the historical record indicates otherwise. The western university system, for example, that provides the secular world with the information that it tries to better itself with was born out of the church (primarily from monasteries).

      We can fix the problems of the world on our own without divine intervention
      I'm curious where this assumption comes from. What evidence indicates that this might be true?

  4. It kind of sounds like you are angry with God and really want to (and maybe do?) Believe in God, the christian God, but you can't rectify it with the obvious contradictions and heaps of bull crap that are propagated and embraced by virtually all Christians. Sounds like you just want somebody who can actually explain things satisfactorily and untangle all the contradictions.

    1. Be careful when you say "virtually all Christians". It would be better to say most Christians in the West or better North America. The majority of Christians in the world are actually from Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia. The reason why this is important is that all that confusion you mentioned comes in trying to sort out true Christian thought from all of the western philosophies and cultural movements that create the atmosphere we breathe in...... a task made much more difficult when one is not aware that the two are even mixed together in ones mind. Those from other parts of the world do not struggle as much with the tainting of Christian thought by western philosophies and cultural movements.

    2. Joe it seems to me that you are some sort of atheist/agnostic Christian, which supports mark's theory. All of you arguments are argued from a non-theistic perspective. Wouldn’t God be able to break the cultural link, break the chains that culture or upbringing or geography have on Christianity? You don't seem to believe so. Plus, you have argued that other forms of Christianity, those different from American evangelism, as being driven by the church fathers. None of your arguments include God or the Holy Spirit.

    3. You seem to have trouble with my using human reason and logic in general to arrive at the conclusion that the god of Christianity is real. If you assume that God basically hates human brains then yes there would be an issue with using one to know him. But god created human brains and the point is to use them to know him. The other perspective is Gnosticism, not Christianity.

      I'm sorry if this is a misunderstanding, but you appear to be criticizing Christians for using faith instead of reason, however when a Christian uses reason instead of (or in addition to) "faith", you seem to think they must not be Christians (or at least not the normal kind).

      Yes god can break the cultural and geographic chains that keep people from knowing him. That is happening to me and to many others across the world. It's not always easy, but it is happening.

      The last point you made that none of my arguments include god/Holy Spirit is coming from a misunderstanding of god that is very common. God's intention all along was that he would give authority to humanity and that humanity would exercise that authority on this earth. That is why the words of man matter. Every human being was created to look/smell/act like god. God/Holy Spirit very rarely go around the man. Overwhelmingly, what god does and says goes through humanity.

    4. I never said that the contradictions were between Christian doctrine and western culture, don't fucking patronize me.

    5. Wade,

      Thanks for posting. I wanted to reply to your first comment but I didn’t get around to it until now. Part of what you say is correct, I am definitely angry at CHRISTIANITY. And yes, I do want there to be a God. I am actually envious of Christians (and other believers) who have that belief of a God. Unfortunately based on my experiences and the “evidence” I have seen, I cannot believe in the Abrahamic God. I think most Christians have had these same experiences and seen this same evidence but are able to ignore it. I don’t think they are faking it, I think their belief is real, they are just able to suppress the part of their brain that is telling them that it isn’t real, either through upbringing or emotional needs or whatever. That is why they can’t explain it consistently, there is a huge part of the story that they can’t tell themselves let alone others, for if they did, they might not believe either. Must be nice.