OBNOXIOUS DISCLAIMER: If you’re happy with your Christian faith, I suggest you skip my posts on the subject of religion. What I have to say is not for you. It will just annoy you and I won’t argue with you about it in any way that will be satisfying to you.
Here’s how arrogant I am about this: There is no such thing as an intellectually responsible Christian.
Let me define Christian so I’m sure to offend exactly whom I intend: A Christian is a person who believes that Christ’s Atonement (crucifixion) was real and necessary to avert universal damnation for the human race.
If you believe in the Atonement, you may be perfectly smart, moral, nice, loveable and respectable in other areas of your life. But you’re a crackpot goofball about this. I’d as soon get into a detailed argument with someone about phlogiston vs. oxygen.
Only if you are already looking for an exit strategy from your faith am I interested in what you think about it.
Now, on to John 3:16:
At every pro football game, you see the camera pan to John 3:16 painted on the belly of some fat fan with enough belly to support painting the numerals large enough to be seen from the Goodyear blimp. This New Testament Bible verse reads (KJV):
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
This short sentence packs up all the things most fundamentally wrong with the Bible, so it’s worth unpacking it. Implicit in it are these beliefs:
- The default fate meted out by God to every human is to perish (go to hell, experience eternal damnation — to end up in some very bad state that everyone would want to avoid — I’m going to call it going to hell).
- Contradictorily, God loves all us people he is sending to hell. Why then would he send us to hell? Because we deserve it for not being morally perfect.
- God has provided a Get-out-of-hell-free card: You must believe in Jesus as your personal savior. There is controversy in the Christian world about whether mere belief will avert God’s wrath. Belief is definitely the sine qua non for salvation, but there may be other requirement and indications of sincerity, such as living a reasonably moral life.
To those raised in Christian churches, the above points seem obvious and unremarkable. They’ve been breathing it in since they were toddlers and don’t smell anything off anymore. To those not raised Christian, it seems bizarre and convoluted and more than they want to take on thinking or arguing about.
My first close experience with someone not raised Christian was with my daughter. I abandoned Christianity before she was 2 years old. She was raised in a religion-free bubble. You should have heard the hilarious middle school conversation that occurred when I tried to explain the Eucharist…”Dad, shut up! Normal people don’t pretend to be cannibals in church!”
So now let us reason together about what’s wrong with John 3:16. If you’ve been raised Christian, it’s going to take some effort to look at this with fresh eyes. You’ve heard this so many times that, like any phrase repeated over and over again, it loses semantic content and just becomes sound.
The first thing wrong is the binary view of justice implicit in Christianity: If you are not morally perfect, you deserve eternal punishment, no different from that deserved by Jeff Dahmer or Ted Bundy. Absent from Christianity is the sensible notion that the punishment should fit the crime. Instead, “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” and all deserve eternal damnation. Doesn’t matter if the worst thing you ever did is stand up your prom date or if you raped her and killed her and then took her home. God cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance. Even misdemeanors warrant the same punishment as capital felonies.
The second thing wrong is the notion that punishment should obviously be eternal. Really? Unending torture, eon after eon? How does this protect the innocent or reform the guilty? Inflicting eternal pain for the sake of making what point? Even for Jeff Dahmer or Hitler this seems over the top and…more evil than what Jeff or Adolf did.
The best depiction I’ve seen yet of the morals of the Christian God is in the Hellraiser movies. Eternal sadism for its own sake. How morally numbed have Christians become that they don’t recoil from Jehovah like they recoil from Pinhead?
The third thing wrong is the idea that only believing will save you. Nothing else matters if you don’t believe. Let’s get clear here about what “believing in Jesus” really means. It means submitting to Jesus. Not just accepting that Jesus exists. Whatever Jesus says goes. Not my will, but thine, O Lord. The demand is that you give up independent moral reasoning and self-determination. In what way is this different from
“He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”
If Big Brother takes the rats away from Winston’s face, and the Christian God takes away the threat of eternal damnation, what’s left?
But, wait, the Christian god isn’t like Big Brother. God commands us to do what’s right. A few Biblical counterexamples:
- God told Abraham to murder his son Isaac, purely as a test of Abraham’s obedience. Yes, at the last moment, Jehovah relented. So what? Here’s a case where fresh eyes help: What if you saw a woman on Oprah telling a story about how her boyfriend told her to kill her child to prove her love. And she was just about to do it too, when he let her off the hook. You’d consider her contemptible and him a monster.
- Jehovah commanded Moses to commit genocide against nearly all the inhabitants of Canaan. And this time, Jehovah didn’t say “April fool’s!” Why was this genocide ordered? Because Jehovah was worrie that the Israelites might, over time, be influenced by unbelievers and fall away from the faith.
- Jehovah allowed slavery and even accepted actual human sacrifice of slaves, not just of animals. The central event in Christianity is exactly the murder of an innocent to appease God’s rage. Fresh eyes, people: how can you be revolted by the Aztecs sacrificing virgins and not see that the Christian god’s bloody demands are the same?
- Why would God care whether you believe in him or not? what difference would it make to God what you think? If it matters so much to God that he’ll burn you in hell forever just for not acknowledging him, what does that tell you about God?
- Why does God demand your belief by appealing to your fear of damnation? Is that all he’s got? Why doesn’t he make better arguments?
- What other arguments than believe in me or burn in hell has the Christian God offered to get you to believe in him? (I mean arguments in scripture, not arguments from human apologists trying to defend the Christian God against reasonable questions.) (Hint for mainstream Christians: there’s a thing called a concordance which is like an index to the Bible.) Before taking up all the craven apologists who’ve tried to make up for and explain away contradictions and absurdities in the Bible, let’s get a good grasp on what’s actually in there.
- What offense would make you sentence one of your children to eternal torment?
- Punishment is usually justified on grounds of (1) deterring others from committing the same crime (2) protecting others against the criminal, and (3) rehabilitation, or deterring the criminal from committing the same crime again. How does the threat of eternal hell for unbelief serve any of these purposes? what other justification for punishing someone can you think of? Can eternal hell be justified by that criterion?
- how well do you think the threat of hell works as a deterrent? Which important moral offenses or crimes do you think are most deterred by the threat of hell? if you didn’t think you were going to go to hell for it, which moral offenses or crimes would you commit?
- What is it that keeps most atheists and even Christians who don’t believe in hell from being habitual criminals. Make a list of all the moral rules you think are important. Which ones do you obey mostly to keep from going to hell? which ones would you discard if there were no hell?
- Make a list of the moral offenses you think that unbelievers are more likely than believers to commit. Why are they more likely to commit these offenses? Are you sure they’re really offenses?
- Do you think that not believing in Jesus is in itself is a moral offense? If so, why? if not, why should not believing be sufficient reason to send you to hell forever? Does belief in Jesus excuse other moral offenses?
- Let’s say you go to hell. Should you be able to do anything, ever, to get out of hell? Would believing be enough? (After all, you now would have plenty of evidence to believe and submit–you’d have to be crazy not to). Why shouldn’t believing after you’ve been sent to hell be enough to get you out of hell, if believing before you went to hell is good enough? Is it because believing per se isn’t enough? You didn’t believe IN TIME and so now it doesn’t count. How is Jehovah/Jesus different from a salesman who tells you that the deal is good TODAY ONLY? Why should your eternity be predicated on TODAY ONLY? If the important thing is that you believe, and you eventually believe, shouldn’t that be enough? or is the important thing that you believe NOW? Why is NOW so important to Jehovah and used car salesmen?
- If you were God, what would you sentence these guys to? Hitler. Tiger Woods. Torquemada. Ted Bundy. Jimmy Carter. Timothy McVeigh. Larry David. Christopher Hitchens. Sean Hannity. Stalin. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Christina Aguilera. Britney Spears. Khalil Gibran. The Christian God would probably give eternal hell to Hitler, Tiger, Larry David, Chris Hitchens for sure, Stalin, Emerson, Spears and Gibran. In heaven would be Torqie, Teddie, Jimmy, Timmy, Seanie and Christie. Seems about right. Doesn’t it?
- God sent His Son to save us. Jesus, by all accounts, lived a perfect life with not one moral blemish and was sent to Earth to be brutally tortured and murdered over the course of several days which made it possible for his father to not savagely torture all of humanity for eternity. What the fuck? I mean, what the fucking fuck?
- Last questions for today: what’s the difference between living in a Mel Gibson or a Clive Barker universe? Which would you rather watch again, The Passion of the Christ or Hellraiser? Which one has better moral lessons to teach? Why should you settle for either?
UPDATED 4/3/2010 – re-organized and removed irrelevant material…for a later, expanded post.