Sunday, December 21, 2014

Merry Christmas! (But belief in Christ can't matter...)

As Christians prepare to celebrate the birth of their saviour, there remains great controversy among them regarding sola fide, the doctrine that one's sins are pardoned via faith in Christ alone rather than through works or deeds. Nevertheless, this notion, which has an extensive biblical foundation, is extremely common, especially among the fastest growing segment in Christianity, Evangelicalism.

Sola fideists tend to believe that one can only make it to heaven by genuinely believing that Christ died on the cross for our sins. Without that belief, and no matter how well one has behaved, one is doomed to eternal suffering in hell. Thus, one's eternal well-being, it would seem, hinges upon a belief.

In this post, I will not address the implausibility of the doctrine. Rather, I will argue that it is self-defeating in light of the alleged qualities of God and should therefore be rejected.

Firstly, we are told by Christians that God is morally perfect and omnipotent.

Secondly, if sola fide is true, then God rewards people for ascent to belief in the Christian story, and punishes eternally in hell those who fail to do so. The key observation is that reward or punishment is metered out by God depending on whether one can come to believe a particular idea ("by faith alone").

The problem is that no morally perfect agent would reward or punish others based on their beliefs. Only one's intended actions can be the object of moral punishment or reward.

Consider the following thought experiment: In Calgary, everyone drives a car (and so it actually seems these days), and while some exceed the speed limit by more than others, everybody speeds sometimes. People are always free to obey the speed limit, though nobody ever consistently does because everybody has inherited a speeding tendency. When caught in a speed trap, citizens are asked by the officer if they believe - on faith - that P, where

P = the Calgary Police Department (CPD) is staffed by morally perfect fairies who want you to obey the traffic laws.

Speeders are then made an offer: genuinely believe that P is true on faith and you will be pardoned and heated seats will be installed in your car. On the other hand, fail to genuinely believe on faith that P is true, and you are punished with a pricey ticket and worse: jail time if the fine is not paid. Reward and punishment are dissociated from the act of speeding; rather, they depend entirely on whether the citizen believes that P or not.

Since everybody speeds from time to time (some more than others, of course), speeding itself becomes irrelevant; it no longer makes any difference regarding who is punished or rewarded. The CPD drops out of the business of identifying and preventing speeding and becomes nothing more than a bunch of thugs demanding special respect or collecting cash for their coffers.

Am I the only one who sees a problem with this?

Similarly, the only way that God can maintain his moral perfection is if sola fide is false. God must give up his moral perfection if he doles out punishment or reward based on ascent to a particular belief rather than on intended behaviour. Since God is morally perfect by definition, the doctrine of sola fide is self-defeating: God cannot exist if sola fide is true, and if God cannot exist, then sola fide cannot be true. If you're a sola fideist, it's time to realize, as many other Christians have, that you're wrong, and it's time to stop proselytizing this doctrine, as ugly as it is, because you think it's true. It can't be.

As the product of a nominally Christian family and deeply Christian schooling, I believed in the "saving grace" of Christ. But as I thought more about the faith imparted to me by my respected elders, I eventually found that I could no longer genuinely believe. This was not a choice. (If you think that it was, please consider whether you could choose to believe that Santa Claus is real.)

Somewhere along the path of my deconversion, believers in sola fide must conclude that, barring being "born again", I became destined for eternal hell. I plan to teach my children to think critically and while they will ultimately make up their own minds about life after death and the saving power of belief in the Christian story, there is a very reasonable chance that my kids will also find both pills hard to swallow. Believers in sola fide must conclude that my children are likely to also be destined to eternal hell. That's quite a threat for doing what seems epistemically right: for me, nothing could be worse.

The fact that I lose not one wink of sleep over these possibilities indicates just how much I think that Christianity and the doctrine of Sola Fide are false. But it is Christmas after all, and so I implore the good people who believe in sola fide - many of whom are cherished relatives and friends of mine - to really and seriously consider just this one part of the doctrine. Would a morally perfect agent really punish my children and me with eternal suffering for thinking carefully about the Christian story and failing to be able to come to genuinely believe in its truth, on faith? This is not the behaviour of a morally perfect agent. I'm not the first to notice that this is the behaviour of a mugger who puts a gun to his own child's head and threatens to pull the trigger unless the child surrenders something of value. One can say that the mugger is a "loving" parent who "freely offers a gift" if the child does so, but those additional words are just nonsense. Any agent who behaves this way is evil.

I tried to surrender, but simply couldn't anymore. If God exists and really is all-powerful and morally perfect, he doesn't have to pull the trigger, and he wouldn't. Otherwise, he really is a mugger. He's holding a gun to your head, too, and the mere fact that you may be able to surrender doesn't make Him good.


  1. A few of my immediate thoughts include:

    1. God didn't create us to be sinful. We were initially made in the perfect image of God and to be in relationship with Him. Sin is a consequence of our own choices. We choose to be sinful! Unfortunately, we have inherited a sinful nature and none are able to be perfect or without sin.

    2. Since God is morally perfect, he cannot tolerate sin and all sin requires punishment. God agonizes over the fact that we choose to sin and the consequences associated with it (death (physical and eternal) and separation from God). God gives the option of another way to have our punishment paid (death of Christ on our behalf). We have been created with the ability to have a free will/make our own choices. We are given the choice to accept this payment or not. God desires for all to be saved.

    3. In your police analogy, you state that the police orchestrate it so that all will speed. God created us to be sinless but we chose another path. It is theoretically possible to be sinless, but all of us sin as we have inherited a sinful nature and frequently make bad choices. In the police analogy the punishment is as a direct result of our own actions (to speed).

    4. "Salvation" is a result of not just a belief in Christ but a genunie acceptance of the payment provided. The mere ascent to the belief in the death of Christ saves no one. The Bible states James 2:19 "Even the demons believe and shudder!" The faith that saves (genuine acceptance) demands a response (embraces the gospel and acts accordingly). The basis of salvation is by the free gift alone via faith, with works not as the basis of our salvation but the necessary result.

    I suspect I may have confused things more than clarified them, but food for thought none the less.

  2. Thanks for your input, Anonymous.

    Regarding (1), if it’s our nature to sin, and that nature has nothing to do with any choice that we’ve made, then that sinful nature is being imposed upon us, and the resulting sin is emphatically not freely chosen. But whether we freely choose to sin or not, it still is the case that God rewards those who believe in the saving power of Christ and punishes those who don’t. That is evil because it rewards and punishes not on the basis of one’s sin(s) but on the basis of what one believes. Just as it’s wrong for the Calgary Police Dept to behave as I have described in my thought experiment, so it is wrong for God to do so. But perhaps you think the CPD is behaving acceptably in that thought experiment?

    Regarding (2), I could equally say that the Calgary Police Dept cannot tolerate any speeding infractions, all of which deserve punishment, but that the CPD gives the option of another way to have punishment paid (by believing, on faith, that P). The CPD may desire that all Calgary speeders choose this option, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s immoral for them to operate as they do in the thought experiment I provided.

    Regarding (3), the thought experiment does not require that the CPD orchestrate it so that all will speed. The experiment runs through just as well if Calgary drivers all freely choose at some point to speed. (But again, and as an aside, you contradict yourself when you write that it’s possible to be sinless in the face of an inherited sinful nature that nobody can escape.)

    Regarding (4) I think that the distinction you are making between merely believing in the saving power of Christ and genuinely accepting that saving power is a red herring. It’s impossible to genuinely accept it without believing it, so it remains completely true that those who fail to believe it are punished. That’s all that’s required for the thought experiment to run through and to demonstrate the evil of such a policy. (As another aside anybody who comes to really believe in the saving power of Christ would accept it unless they were cognitively or emotionally unfit; who, knowing that, would rather spend eternity suffering in hell? Such a choice would surely identify a cognitively incompetent individual who would not deserve eternal hellfire, which God would know, rendering the distinction inconsequential.)

  3. One more thing, Anonymous, regarding (3). According to your very own description of the Christian story, I think that it is actually an accurate part of the CPD analogy that the CPD orchestrate things to ensure that everybody speeds sometime, and it does make the situation worse for the CPD in my thought experiment, and for the Christian God.

    Our need for accepting Christ's "gift" through faith is not of our own making if nobody escapes sin because of an inherited sinful nature that none of us are responsible for. God imposes that sinful nature upon us through no choice of our own, and then he says "Believe, on faith, in me, or I will punish you eternally."

    This is the equivalent of the CPD making sure that everybody speeds sometimes, and then demanding that they believe that P or else.

    I suppose that you may respond that God is not responsible for our “inherited sinful nature” and that Eve is responsible for that. But even granting the absurd proposition that there ever were an Adam and Eve, no morally perfect agent would punish all of one’s innocent progeny for generations in perpetuity. So again, God must relinquish moral perfection if you are to suggest that this is the case, and since God is supposed to be morally perfect, then God does not exist, and if God does not exist, then sola fide must be false.

  4. Is your interpretation of sola fide not very strict? Apparently there is controversy even in protestantism. I found this on Wikipedia "Perhaps Luther's supporters may have understood "salvation by faith alone" to mean "salvation by being faithful to Christ," while his opponents understood him to mean "salvation by intellectual belief in Christ." Since there are passages in Luther's works that could be taken to support either of these meanings, both sides were able to quote passages from Luther defending their interpretation of what he meant." But you know I am not a academic philosopher.

    1. I did link to a Wikipedia entry of Sola Fide that expands on the controversy you mention, Rik, but my argument defeats any notion that faith is necessary, even if not sufficient, for salvation.