Eight Ways to Go Wrong in Bible Study

1. Lucky lotto: (eyes closed) – “Umm . . . I will read this verse”

You may be tempted to simply ask God a question, open up the Bible, fix your eyes on the first verse you see, and think that verse provides God’s answer to your question. There is an old story about a depressed man who did this. He opened up his Bible to Matthew 27:5, “He went out and hanged himself.” A bit confused, the man did it again. This time his eyes fell on John 13:27, “What you do, do quickly.” Now, that was not lucky at all.

What you have to understand is that, while inspired, the Bible is not a magic book. God does not speak through it out of context. There is a message that needs to be understood, a context to every passage. Be careful not to practice “lucky lotto” Bible studies.

2. Brussels Sprouts: “Do I have to?”

Many people hate to study the Bible like they hate to eat their vegetables. You must find a way to cultivate a love for sitting at the feet of God through Bible study. I know just as well as anyone that Bible study can be long and laborious, especially when you are in certain books that don’t seem to produce much fruit from their labor. But always remember that you have the opportunity to hear from the God of all eternity. Bible study is a privilege. When it becomes a burden, think through your life and commitment to God. I know that it is usually a burden to me on days that I am not quite so sold out to him. But when my life is on track, Bible study is often the best part of my day.

3. Channel Changer: “Let’s read something else”

It is easy to jump from place to place every time you study your Bible. But try to be disciplined to stick to one book at a time. Think about it in relation to the movies. We don’t watch little bits and pieces of dozens of different movies. We start a movie at the beginning and we don’t stop until it is over. This is the way I want you to approach the Bible. Work your way through entire books, becoming completely immersed in what they have to teach, then move on to the next. It is okay to be reading many books at a time, but make sure that you are not always jumping all around, never getting the whole story.

4. Concorde: “Watch how fast I can finish”

When I was a kid, I used to feel so guilty about not reading the Bible. My mother taught me about the importance of Bible study and I kept a Bible beside my bed wherever I went. But it was very hard for me to actually read my Bible. I don’t know why. However, when I did guilt myself into reading it, I would always pick the shortest chapter I could find (usually in the Psalms) and blow through it at lightning speed. I wonder what God thought of that. “Okay God, I am ready to listen. Just talk as fast as you can and let’s get this over with.” I seriously doubt he gifted me with much insight. The point is to put on the brakes. Read your Bible slowly. Read your Bible carefully. Pray before, during, and after you are done. Just talk to God while you are reading. Talk out loud if you have to. This will make you much more engaged and will produce much more fruit in you study.

5. Baseball card: “I’m very picky”

Some people like certain parts of the Bible more than others. If you were to look at my Bible, you would see the pages of the “Upper Room Discourse” in John 14-17 are more worn than any other section. This is because it is so comforting! I love Jesus’ “Do not let your hearts be troubled . . .” stuff. I also don’t like other books too much. For example, the Law can be archaic and boring. The prophets are hard to understand. However, I must discipline myself to be intimately acquainted with the entire Bible. Yes, some things will seem more relevant than others, but God wants us to know the whole story, not just the parts we like. I encourage you to try to go through the entire Bible every year. There are some great Bible reading plans that you can easily access. You can continue to read those passages you love over and over. But make sure you are getting the whole picture.

6. Clint Eastwood: “I don’t need anyone’s help”

We all need help. Bible study is wonderful, but it is tough. Make sure you lean on the many great teachers of today and from church history to aid you in your studies. Yes, you do have the Holy Spirit in you and you can understand much. But the Holy Spirit works primarily through the community called “the Body of Christ.” This is true in Bible study as well. There are many Bible study aids out there, but the best works you can have are called commentaries. These are books from people who have spent their entire lives studying the Bible. There are so many good commentaries available. Once you determine to read a book, find a good commentary to help you through the difficulties that are sure to arise.

7. Magical: “Abracadabra . . . It applies to my life”

Some people call the Bible “God’s Love Letter to You,” but we have to be careful with this. The Bible was not really written to you. The Bible was written to people who lived thousands of years ago, were in a completely different culture, and had very specific needs and problems. Rightly understood, the Bible will have many principles that apply to your life, but these principles must be gleaned by interpreting the Bible through the lens of time. This is why it is so important to understand the context of each and every passage and story. Sometimes it will have direct application to your life, but sometimes it is just God telling you about what happened with no encouragement to follow the examples.

8. Indiana Jones: “Let’s find the hidden meaning”

This is a very dangerous approach. The Indiana Jones approach to Bible study assumes that there is some hidden meaning that you are trying to find out. This assumes we need some sort of secret decoder ring to find the layers of truth hidden by God but discernible only to the Christian. We need to be very careful here. While the Bible was written by God, it was not done so with the intent to have secret truth shown only to a select few. It was written to reveal truth to all who will listen! There are no hidden messages in the Bible. Applying the proper study methods will guard you against this often divisive and very subjective approach.

I encourage you to read my post “How to Study the Bible in a Nutshell.” This will give you more detailed insight about what proper Bible study looks like.

52 Responses to “Eight Ways to Go Wrong in Bible Study”

  1. Nice one, Michael!

    Here’s one way to go ‘right’ in reading the Bible:

    Don’t just pull the text off the page…pull the gospel out of the text.

  2. I know this kind of blog post probably wasn’t intended to invite criticism from skeptics, but rather to support fellow believers, but I can’t help but ask anyway…

    Is the bible written in such a way where it can be clearly, unambiguously interpreted? Or is it inherently vague? After centuries of analysis/commentary, nothing remotely close to a consensus has emerged among theologians or laypersons about what the bible teaches on a number of issues critical to the faith community:

    How does one get ‘saved?’ What does it mean to be ‘saved’? Do actions or belief form God’s basis for doling out reward/punishment? Wouldn’t it be arbitrary/capricious to eternally punish a morally decent person who can’t bring herself to believe in a hidden reality – in other words, for not being a hypocrite? Couldn’t this emphasis of belief over action create unnecessary division and an unhealthy preoccupation with doctrine and dogma at the expense of the good and the moral? Why does belief in God matter? Is homosexuality immoral? Do unbaptized newborns go to limbo for eternity? Does God think condoms/contraceptives contravene his divine will and are thus sinful devices? Does hell exist? Were women relegated – not just by human action, but by divine decree – to second-class status in biblical times? Does this make the bible seem more a product of man/culture than God? What are we to make of books like Revelations, the pseudepigrapha, the many contradictions, the evil, capricious goings-on of Old Testament Patriarchs/Prophets?

    I’m not asking nor do I expect you to answer a bombardment of critical questions like these. I only want to point out that there is room for serious doubt, that studying the bible is hard and frustrating for an obvious reason, that any force like the holy spirit has been enormously unsuccessful at producing consensus views of biblical content/themes, and most importantly that this effort could perhaps be better spent on philosophy or science.

  3. I think you are right that the Bible does contain some pretty difficult teachings and passages. Some are hard to understand and some seem to contradict themselves. This is why we need to be somewhat timid in our conclusions about areas of tension. But we don’t need to recognize as hard to understand areas that can be explained by emotional dispositions trumping exegetical conclusions. Issues like the reality of hell are not that difficult to conclude from the Bible. Yet our emotions are very much a part of the interpretive process and we need to recognize when this is the source of the problem, not the clarity of Scripture.

    As well, we can overstate the differences by losing site of what all Christians believe. The three major Christian traditions believe the Bible teaches:

    That God exists
    That there is only one God
    That God created everything out of nothing
    That God exists in Trinity
    That Christ is God
    That Christ died on the cross for our sins
    That we are sinners
    That we cannot save ourselves
    That we have to have faith
    That grace alone saves us
    That Christ is the only way to God
    That Christ rose from the grave
    That Christ assended into heaven
    That Christ will come again
    That there will be a judgement
    That all people will be resurrected
    That there will be a new heaven and a new earth
    That there is a church, both visible and invisible
    That the church is the Body of Christ
    That we should fellowship with other believers
    That we should forgive each other
    That we should lay all our anxieties on God
    That we should pray every day
    That we should read and study our Bible
    That we should celebrate the Lord’s day
    That we should take the Lord’s supper
    That we all have a broken nature that is sinful
    That we should do good works

    I could go on and on. But this list is significant enough to say that the Bible is pretty clear on very significant issues. And this list is enough for us to say that Christianity is very stable, even if we can bring up thousands of minor differences. These are beleifs that represent two thousand years of Christianity!

  4. First, you have to know it’s a mistake to subsume christians under three major religious traditions and claim that almost all subscribe to the beliefs you list. There are many Christians – professional theologians even – who self-identify as a member of one of these three religious traditions who disavow, to take a few examples, vicarious redemption (euphemistically known as salvation by grace alone), salvation through Christ alone, the Trinity, and in creatio ex nihilo. A smaller point, many christians couldn’t read the bible until the last few centuries, due to illiteracy or no access to books a la no printing press until 15th century, so it’s difficult to say whether they believed in half of this list, esp. creatio ex nihilo, the Trinity.

    Second, as a theologian you surely must know that theological differences of opinion among thoughtful, educated folks on critical issues like hell, the mode and means of obtaining salvation, biblical inerrancy, the exact nature of divine biblical authority, and many others, cannot be explained in terms of emotions trumping good textual analysis. Be serious!

    In a sense, I understand your point. Not all tenets of Christianity are hotly contested or in constant flux. But, to be sure, the bible isn’t clear on many issues deeply important to believers. You can find enough verses to help support an affirmation or denial of salvation through grace/faith alone…just depends on what mood you’re in.

    And that’s my main concern with religion – besides my belief about it’s falsity. Most create God in their own image and serve up holy books selectively/self-servingly. In a sense, this is a relief. Science education, witches, sabbath day workers, virgins, unbelievers and women in general are better off because of this. I mainly worry about the danger of uncritical belief-forming habits, unjustified certainty, it’s perceived monopoly on the moral, an unbalanced perspective devoid of scientific/philosophical literacy.

  5. Need to add high on the list in the comment above –

    That God alone is worthy to be exalted and worshiped; His is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty and dominion over all

  6. If an unimaginably powerful, perfectly good being beyond time, space and all human thought does exist, I don’t think he/she would particularly concern themselves with soliciting your praise and worship. Nor are many inclined to think that a being more incomprehensible and mysterious than our own universe would take sides in tribal conflicts, exhibit anything resembling human qualities/motives or ask a young species to ritualistically sacrifice animals to atone for behaving in ways that nature compels them to.

    In some moods, I’d rather leave people alone and not bother about whatever belief system gives them consolation and happiness. But since religious belief rarely stays private and personal, sometimes causing unnecessary guilt and suffering, you have to address it eventually. We all know the common examples. Retarding stem cell research – one of the most promising areas of medical research, instilling a deep, insidious sense of self-loathing and guilt in homosexuals, something I had to personally watch play itself out in high school as an acquaintance committed suicide, making public policy decisions based on religious, faith-based conviction rather than on evidentiary or rational grounds, etc.

    It’s one thing to adhere to beliefs about a prime mover or some mysterious higher power, but claiming to know his/her will and pushing so hard for belief in God seems strange to me. Why does it matter so much? Does it really solve any of our difficult problems? I have trouble understanding how you’d feel better if all you hope for is true and the God of the Old & New Testament exists.

    I would bet we have so much in common in terms of shared moral beliefs, how to treat others, how to be decent, the value of human life, and the rest of it. If all you knew about me was my skepticism on religion/God, what will your honest initial impression be? Would that create instant division or solidarity? There you have it.

  7. I think this has potential to get off track here. Whether or not you think that God would want to be worship is hard to fit into the mold of this post.

    Definitely there are those who will claim differences with the list I provided above. But these are the exceptions. You cannot define anything by letting an absolute least common denominator rule. If we did this in every area of life we would have no way to define anything independent of even the most obscure detractors.

    I think that you need to start by being honest and recognize the central aspects of Christianity are in tact (or, at least, begin to consider it). It seem disingenuous or misguided any time I hear the “Christians can’t agree” argument.

    And to place this at the foot of the printing press is a stretch. Whether or not Christians could read does not forfeit the great ecumenical council or the general intellegence of the Christian community (or humanity for that matter). There were plenty that could read, scholars and theologians alike. And isn’t that were all this starts even today? That is who you brought to the table as detractors.

    You may have problems with Christianity and God. But l think you need to start by examining some of the issues that Christians have always agreed upon such as the death, burial, and bodily resurrection of Christ. This is an issue that is judged by history, not the tallying of votes (even if the votes would be on its side!)

  8. Sure, it was an off-handed remark, intended more to encourage a second glance at how such a proposition sounds on its face rather than serve as an argument.

    We both know doctrinal differences are many, substantial, deep and by no means does some small minority dissent from the majority. Sure, there is broad agreement on certain tenets: Jesus’ death & ressurection, God’s omnipotence, etc, etc. But there isn’t a consensus -among theologians or laymen – on issues like eternal security, the existence/nature of hell, what Jesus meant in referencing the kingdom of God, atonement criteria, and the list goes on. These are critical, not trivial, doctrines. What does the Wesleyan camp think, the Methodist, the Pentecostals, the Lutherans, the Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Dispensationalists, fundamentalists, literalists, YECs, dominionists, Baptists.

    To be sure, there is widespread, legitimate disagreement on critical doctrinal issues, in addition to general agreement on some doctrine. It’s surprising that you don’t think this is true.

  9. Hi Ryan, wanted to respond to your 3rd comment/1st sentence
    “the hour is now when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” John 4:23-24

  10. Ryan, I realize that there is disagreement. I also realize that many people believe that the issue about which they disagree is legit. However, this comes back to what I have been saying, individual Christians (or churches) don’t get to set the bar on what is legitimate and what is not. This would especially be the case for unbelievers—how could they suppose to determine the bar then use their determination as reasoning for not being Christian!

    There are four criteria which set doctrine as essential:
    1. Biblical explicitly: Does the Bible explicitly say it is essential? Like Paul says in 1 Cor. 15 “I delivered to you that which was of *first* importance. It would be hard to argue that his following words about the person and word of Christ are not more important than other issues. And the implication about a doctrinal taxonomy is tremendous!
    2. Biblical clarity: Is the doctrine clearly taught in Scripture. For example, it is hard to say that one’s interpretation of Paul’s statement about baptism for the dead is clear. It is mentioned only here and not given a context to understand. So it could never qualify.
    3. Historic explicitly: Once we have qualified something from the first two, we look to the last 2000 years of Christians to see if they explicitly taught the same thing. The great ecumenical councils would be a good example.
    4. Historic clarity: Is this clearly taught in the history of the church or is it limited to a certain time (say, 500-present) or is it clearly found in the historic Christians faith.

    Not passing all four of these tests does not mean that something is not true nor that we should not be passionate about said doctrine. It simply means that it is not part of the essential barometer which determines what all Christians have always believed and what is essential to the faith.

    Back to the post: so much of Scripture is very clear. So much is not. But it is only those parts that are very clear that are candidates for central Christian truth that unites all Christians of all time.

    Therefore, what I would do is not be militantly concerned about what Christians disagree about (as if this really changes anything), but study deeply essential Christian truth. It is only in these that you can determine the truthfulness of our faith.

  11. The ambiguity of scripture is obvious when one considers that once the Roman Catholic church lost control (coinciding with the printing press and the Reformation), the church has fractured into 30,000+ different denominations within a few hundred years. No doubt the vast majority of these are petty differences, but still – is this what we would expect if this is the Word of God?

    I’d agree, however, that it makes more sense to examine Christianity within the framework of what is generally agreed-upon. I think too often the skeptical approach results in identifying the disunity, then throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

    Nevertheless, examining the main tenets of Christianity (such as the list above) is not as straightforward as it would seem. A skeptic is not going to approach the scripture as the Word of God, or even with a “high” view of scripture. So a big step is in evaluating just how much weight to give the evidence the scripture provides. But even treating the Gospels as history (which is iffy) may not be sufficient to overcome skeptic tendencies. After all, at the heart of the Gospel is a miracle narrative. And miracles require a lot of evidence to be believed.

    It seems to me any skeptical approach first has to begin with whether or not God exists. If God exists, then presumably God can perform miracles, which affects the prior probability when considering the evidence for miracles. The biggest stumbling block for me, though, is the “high” view of scripture, which certainly doesn’t arise form any reading or study of scripture – it simply has to be assumed from the outset.

  12. One other thing: one problem with saying only “clear” scriptures can be candidates for central Christian truth is that we obviously don’t all agree on what is “clear”. It may seem clear to me that Jesus falsely predicted that his contemporaries would be around for His 2nd coming, which would make Him a false prophet. This is pretty clear to other Christians as well (such as C.S. Lewis), but this is not going to be a candidate for “central Christian truth”. Why? Because it’s more important for Christ (and scripture by extension) to be inerrant. So, it seems to me that there is dogma that enforces belief on certain issues, turning what would otherwise be “clear” scriptures into gray areas.

  13. One can debate the existence of God until the end of time and never satisfy the one who refuses to allow a spark of faith in his soul.

    Heb 11:6 “But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.”

    God makes the rules. The Bible is God’s revelation to mankind. He who rejects the entrance of any light from Scripture will never be convinced any farther than he is today.

  14. Rick, is it your honest opinion that those who aren’t convinced/converted after reading the Bible remain unchanged because they *refuse* to believe? Because that certainly does not follow from that Hebrews verse.

  15. Michael: The point in mentioning the absence of general consensus – esp. among professional theologians – is to demonstrate that no clear answer is available, not to claim that epistemic authority derives from individuals. Isn’t this conclusion reasonable, since formal, systematic analysis has failed to definitively solve many substantial doctrinal disputes? This isn’t to say no broad consensus on some doctrine exists, but to say much of the bible is too vague or contradictory to interpret unambiguously.

    I never thought I’d heard it be advanced as a serious claim that Christian belief has been fairly static since its inception. Do most theologians: believe Genesis is literal history, believe in women’s subjugation to man as Paul advocated for, believe the account in Joshua supports a geocentric cosmology, that slavery/serfdom is divinely sanctioned, that belief first and foremost, not action/character save you? What makes these various councils, which produced conflicting doctrinal decrees, by the way, the arbiters of biblical interpretation?

    We haven’t even touched the question of whether there’s room for reasonable or strong doubt on the bible’s divine authority. We’ve only discussed whether what we’ve got is intelligible. Many of us don’t believe God was involved in Old Testament affairs, that archaeology doesn’t support it, that psychology, anthropology and history explain the plethora of gods, made in man’s image, that isolated, reworked accounts of a charismatic preacher don’t count as any kind of reasonable evidence that Jesus resurrected himself and was born of a virgin.

    My main concern is how certain you are, how quickly you dismiss serious objections and your conviction that the rest of us can’t really be good people unless we make the right supernatural assumptions.

  16. Ryan, it seems to me that you’re conceding that “broad consensus on some doctrine exists”, which is what Michael is claiming about “central” Christian tenets. And Michael is conceding that there is much ambiguity (with respect to other doctrines).

    So it is only the case that Christianity has been “static” when we are considering core doctrine. I think you’d have to agree that for over 2000 years, Christians have agreed that there is 1 God, that God is Triune, that Jesus is the SOn of God, etc. That there have been numerous other developments is without question. No one is denying that, that I can see.

    To say that Michael is quick to dismiss serious objections seems misguided to me, however. He engaged your objection(s), but in doing so offered a distinction of ideas: “core” Christian concepts and not. You have failed to interact with this distinction.

    And when did he say you can’t be a good person without the right assumptions? I can’t even see where this is implied.

  17. JBChappell: Happily conceding, yes. You see, when I discuss, my goal isn’t to win or persuade by being disingenuous or asking someone to prove or demonstrate something I already know is true. No one can seriously doubt there’s general consensus on some Christian doctrine.

    What I’m disputing is Michael’s assertion that all or most doctrines essential or extremely important to Christians are clearly and unambiguously laid out in the bible. This claim, just like the one above, is one that everyone in the know should readily accept. It’s trivially and blatantly obvious. This alone doesn’t falsify Christianity. I’m only taking the holy book you have and highlighting something nearly all christian theology experts/academics would agree with: There are vast, widespread areas of disagreement on some very significant doctrinal issues.

    How you get salvation, and whether it’s permanent or contingent, whether the earth is 6,000 years old or not, whether the sins of fathers are visited upon future generations, whether God thought women subordinate to men, whether God meant for all biblical stories/parables to be interpreted in a literal, historic sense or not…all of these issues have vast, wide-ranging, critical implications for Christians. and no serious person should say there isn’t considerable disagreement over these issues. If you don’t know this, nothing more I say could possibly persuade you.

    There are many other considerations that I think effectively falsify – or on the most charitable view of the evidence cast serious doubt on – the bible as a special revelation from God.

    Belief in Christianity – depending on the version – usually implies that unbelievers can’t be good, or at least as good as they could be. Tremendous moral importance is placed on belief in God, Jesus’ atonement and the Christian bible. Indeed, most Christians think God doles out punishment on this basis. You tell me, how is this NOT implied by belief in Christianity??

  18. Ryan, the claim is that in order for a Christian doctrine to be “central” or “essential”, it first needs to be clear in scripture. There is no doubt some degree of subjectivity with respect to things being “clear”. However, it seems to me that the list Michael offered is a good start to some central doctrines of Christianity, and if you disagree that they are clear, then you need to be more specific.

    And, again, no one is disputing that there is disagreement on many other issues. This is especially the case when we move from being general to getting more specific. For instance, you claim that “how you get salvation” is an issue with “considerable disagreement”. But I don’t know of any Christian who would deny that salvation is “attained” by grace, through faith. What exactly “faith” means here, however, is more controversial (does it involve works? Is it only given by God? Etc.).

    Pressing the point that there is widespread disagreement when topics get increasingly specific does nothing to undermine the idea that scripture is revelation from God, unless for some reason your concept of “revelation” or “inspiration” includes the idea that we can’t possibly misunderstand what is said. I think the idea of inerrancy or inspiration is more problematic in the sense that there’s no real good reason to believe it in the first place. It’s an assumption brought to the text(s), not a conclusion drawn.

    As for being “good”, this is a nebulous term. If by “good” you mean a morally decent (but imperfect) person, then Christianity makes no claim that says unbelievers cannot be such. If, however, you mean *truly* good, or perfectly good, then as Jesus said: “no one is good but God alone”. Thus, in either case, Christianity would say that Christians and non-believers are equals as far as “goodness” is concerned. It is the case, however, that Christians try to hold themselves to a higher standard than the world around them (but often fail miserably, of course).

  19. The problem is, Michael’s list doesn’t include many doctrines that he probably takes to be essential. He certainly lists a few uncontroversial beliefs among Christians. No one disputes that.

    It seems I wasn’t clear before. Take atonement, for example. Most Christians believe in salvation by faith/grace alone, unless you don’t think Catholics are Christian, or Wesleyans, Calvinists (the fatalism takes salvation out of one’s control…even worse), Lutherans. There’s the first problem. I just thought of a large number of Christians who don’t hold your view.

    The second problem is, you may believe salvation is bestowed by faith/grace alone, but how does one get this gift? You see the distinction, of course. When I mentioned how one gets salvation as an area of ambiguity/disagreement, this is what I mean. Not what saves a Christian, but how the Christian secures/maintains the gift, and whether it can be lost. Do you not view eternal security or salvinic requirements as essential? Is this point about ambiguities on essential doctrine still not clear?

    Not only is this an area of disagreement, but verses can easily be found supporting both sides. Is it really necessary to post them all, or can we make this easier by admitting to ourselves what verses are in the bible?

    I notice that many Christians, presumably you included, reject many verses communicated with stark clarity. To take a small example, do you share Paul’s view of women, no doubt a product of the patriarchal, male-dominated nature of society during his time? Should women be silent in the church, or risk being disgraceful? Should they rely on their husbands to supply opinions, and never presume any authority over man? I see most selectively serving up christianity according to taste, probably cultivated more by cultural advancement than greater understanding of a loose collection of ancient, myopic writings.

    I really didn’t expect this point about essential doctrinal ambiguity to be…

  20. Ryan:

    Regarding the list Michael provided, and whether or not it is comprehensive of his own notions of “essential” Christian tenets, only he can answer that. All I can say is that you seem to be rather presumptuous in saying that it probably isn’t.

    I don’t know of any Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, etc. who deny that salvation is by grace through faith. Perhaps you can explain why you think they would. That Calvinists hold that this faith is “fatalistic” (your terminology, not theirs of course) does not discount the fact that they still hold that faith is necessary, and that it is still offered as a gift. Again, I don’t know of any “Christian” who would deny that faith is necessary for salvation. Scripture is rather clear on this. However, scripture is less clear on what, exactly, faith *is*, and so there are (of course), divergences of opinion on just what the relationship is between faith and works, for example. Again, the more specific we get, the more divergences we get. But in what field of study is this not the case?

    Personally, I do not view “salvific requirements” or eternal security as core tenets. But I assume you are not so interested in my personal beliefs. Some would, of course, claim that it is “necessary” to be baptized or speak in tongues, but most – when pressed – would nuance this claim, and most would not call someone who thinks otherwise as UN-Christian. That there are always exceptions cannot be denied… but broadly speaking there is consensus that there is no one specific protocol for accepting the gift of salvation. As for eternal security, I don’t know of anyone who would deny someone status as “Christian” based on their beliefs of eternal security (that doesn’t mean they aren’t out there, of course).


  21. Ryan: (continued from above)

    I do not simply dismiss verses that are clear but I do not like, although certainly there are many Christians who do. I struggle with them, as do many Christians. Sometimes, one must simply admit ignorance and proceed in good faith. Unlike most Christians, however, I do not contend that the Bible is inerrant (seems like I’ve been clear on that point). So, it is perhaps easier for me to simply accept (not endorse!) the sexism or homophobia in the Bible as accurate reflections, but misguided beliefs of the time & place. Of course, rejecting inerrancy brings up other complications (a significant one I mentioned above) that I have to contend with instead.


  22. JBChappel,

    You’ll notice I used the word ‘probably’ when emphasizing that Michael’s list wasn’t entirely representative of his own personal beliefs, nor was it representative of doctrines that christians should take to be essential.

    Just to be clear, even though it seems we’re understanding each other now, the issue isn’t whether most Christians think faith – whatever that is – is what saves. The issue is how faith saves, what the object of this faith needs to be, whether one can lose it, why faith/belief is the criteria for ultimate judgment rather than action/character, etc.

    I think its a serious mistake to downplay how significant the relation between faith, salvation and works is for Christians. It’s not a small detail. It involves – for the Christian – the difference between eternal reward and punishment.

    I hope you’ll agree that it’s reasonable to assume that if an all-good, just, powerful God was inclined to make salvation contingent upon meeting certain, specific criteria, then he would make this criteria unambiguously clear, or otherwise risk being arbitrary, capricious and evil, even. Anyone who’s read the New Testament shouldn’t have a problem admitting that the issue of salvation isn’t entirely clear. The conclusion here should be clear.

    As far as proceeding in good faith once one encounters difficult verses or contrary evidence, this is where you and I differ. I take these difficult, obviously man-made verses – in combination with the lack of evidence – to mean that the bible is entirely man-made. The downside of faith is that no amount of counter-evidence can overthrow it, since faith doesn’t rely on justification or proof.

    The main reason I care about all this is these beliefs – which you’ll admit are at least open to some measure of doubt (and which I’d say are open to extreme doubt) – aren’t very important for living a good, virtuous life, and seem to (not always, though) create unnecessary division and…

  23. Ryan, you keep cutting yourself off, bro!

    I would agree that “the issue of salvation isn’t entirely clear”. But there is a path to God laid out fairly clearly in scripture. Whether there are “other paths” or different means is an open question to many, if not most, Christians. How/if this works, however, is definitely not clear in scripture.

    And obviously I have no interest in arguing that scripture is clear on everything we deem important. I know of no Christian who would. But saying “I don’t like the non-clarity of X” is hardly reason to think that other aspects of Christianity are not true. And so I’d echo Michael’s sentiments that when examining Christianity, it makes more sense to start with what is “clear”, or at least generally agreed-upon.

    You and I understand faith differently. It seems to me that you take “faith” to be belief despite the lack of evidence, or something similar. While I can’t deny there are many Christians who look at it similarly (and I would share any trepidation with this), it seems to me pretty obvious that isn’t how scripture views it. There is no virtue in “blind faith”. So where you and I part ways is actually the conclusions we’ve drawn based on the evidence available.

    So, when I say “proceed in good faith” when encountering a difficult passage, it doesn’t mean go on believing whatever you did before, despite convincing evidence to the contrary. Rather, it means that if it seems problematic, but unclear, sometimes you just have to shrug your shoulders, admit ignorance, and move on with your life. If it is problematic AND clear, then you have to evaluate it accordingly.

  24. JBChappell,

    I know, man. It cuts me off once I max out characters, even if I delete some text to meet the requirement. Weird. It only cut off two words.

    I don’t mind talking about your beliefs, by the way. I was trying to stick to Michael’s assertions just for focus/clarity’s sake.

    I understand that when you used the expression “in good faith” you didn’t mean ‘faith’ in the religious sense, but rather honesty/integrity. The phrase only reminded me of the difference between those who continually subject beliefs – especially esoteric beliefs for which much doubt can be had – to scrutiny/revision and those who hold beliefs with finality.

    The main points I’d want to communicate here are that first, ethics isn’t doomed to groundless, subjective preference if God doesn’t exist. Authority can attach to actions/beliefs in proportion to their tendency to produce flourishing/well-being. You can say that someone can still question this, but showing that something is good for us does confer a kind of “objective” authority on it. Let me know if you disagree and why.

    Second, I realize your faith isn’t completely blind. But even though it’s not completely blind, it does go beyond the evidence. Surely you’ll concede that all sorts of evidences and lines of argument exist that cast serious doubt on the divine authority of the bible. What most Christians say in response is that this is where faith or the holy spirit comes in. You’re a bit unique in claiming that your belief is firmly grounded in evidence and inferences from it.

    Historians – at least when they put their secular, objective historian hats on – don’t consider the resurrection as a historical event, nor do they view the bible as divinely authored. Archaeology disproves many claims in the OT, suggesting it was manufactured much later, so the only legitimate evidence you have is the gospel accounts, and those appear reworked, borrow from one another and were written well after the…

  25. …events they describe.

    To be sure, skeptics are completely entitled from an epistemic standpoint to doubt the Christian Worldview. In other words, it is far from certain, and is not so well-attested by evidence that it should get the assent of all rational people.

    For this reason, and because our lives can be moral, informed, purposeful and meaningful without God, in my opinion it’s irrelevant. I understand that religion for some people provides comfort and direction, so I’m not saying it’s necessarily evil or bad. But I do think all the worry and effort expended on the spiritual, on salvation, etc., is wasted and tends to divide rather than unite us.

    I think I’m a pretty good person, if I say so myself, but the initial impression I often give the religious (even educated ones) when they discover I’m an atheist or religious skeptic is not positive, and an immediate wedge is driven between us.

    How is this a good thing? And why does my willingness to concede to supernatural propositions that are unknowable, questionable and far from certain form the basis for God’s eternal judgment, for most Christian’s initial impression of me. Doesn’t this emphasis on doctrine over right action create petty conflict over trivial differences of belief and a focus on something that doesn’t really matter for being a good, responsible person – supernatural belief?

    These are questions I’m confident are insurmountable for the Christian.

  26. Ryan: If God doesn’t exist, morality isn’t “grounded” in anything – it can only be arbitrarily defined a certain way. Granted, if there are enough people who *prefer* to equate “the greatest good” as “moral”, you can make that work… for those people. In any case, I’m convinced morality ultimately becomes subjective anyway. Even if we have decrees from God that make morality objective, it is obvious that we don’t all agree on what they mean, or if/how they apply. They have to be interpreted. Likewise, even with an “objective” Sam Harris-esque morality, it isn’t always clear what leads to the “greatest good”, or what “flourishing” even is. The difference between the theist and atheist is obviously in the starting point, which can lead to different moral stances – and this is why we have tension between religious ethics and secular ethics, as I’m sure you know.

    I don’t claim any “divine authority” for the Bible. The Bible is a mix of poetry, prophecy, law, history, and – yes – mythology. Separating the myth from fact is obviously an important and difficult task. One of the main differences between my approach as a theist as opposed to an atheist/naturalist, would be that I don’t simply dismiss out of hand any supernatural (I hate that term) or miracle (hate that too) claim as “myth”. This is assuming naturalism from the get-go. Using naturalism as a filter to support naturalism is obviously circular. And this is what what we really mean by “secular, objective historians”: those who presuppose naturalism. Now, I don’t necessarily have a problem with scientists or historians using naturalism as a filter. But, when we do that, it becomes misleading to say “the Resurrection is not a historical event” or “creation/intelligent design is unscientific”. Because what this should mean is that it falls outside the domain of inquiry. But we all know what many/most really mean when they say this, which is that “it isn’t true”. And that is…

  27. A bold claim…this idea that without God, morality is arbitrary and subjective.

    Three things. First, Anthropologists estimate that all known human cultures share between 80-90% of moral beliefs. The Christian argues God imprinted it on our hearts. The skeptic argues that evolution and culture shaped it. The Christian theory can’t explain why our moral code is usually lost or eroded under extreme duress, genetic defect or slow deception/normalization (think of Nazi Germany). The skeptic’s working theory can.

    Simply because evolution shaped human morality in no way changes it’s “objectivity.” We need to be precise here, because we’re missing something crucial. Almost no one questions that almost all of us want, naturally, well-being/flourishing. Right? Are there objective facts knowable to us that reliably produce it? There you have it. There is nothing subjective about this.

    Second, you haven’t answered the Euthypro objection. If the good/moral is reduced to mean “whatever God says,” what business do you have calling it good or right? How do you know God is good? Even if he is good, does that make his decrees good? Unless his commands track independent reasons, then he is legislating arbitrarily. If an all-good God does exist, then he would naturally set up moral rules in ways designed to achieve our good, right? Or do you think he would aim for our harm, or issue arbitrary decrees whimsically? Of course not. So, to the extent we can discover what’s good for us, we can discover the moral. This again points to my theory anyway, regardless of whether God exists.

    Third, it’s no damage to my position that it’s not always clear what produces well-being/flourishing. Such is the nature of human existence, and while we’ve made great strides in discovering what produces well-being, more work needs to be done, and will always need to be done. I worry more about folks who think they know already and have ceased inquiry on the matter.

  28. It’s not really a bold claim, that without God morality is arbitrary and subjective, but to be clear I did not claim that without God morality is *completely* subjective. In any case, quite a few atheists/agnostics would agree with such a claim as well. And obviously most, if not all, theists would. It seems to me, however, that you are failing to use the word “objective” in the same sense that philosophers would use it. Sam Harris and other atheists do it too, which is unfortunate because so much hot air gets wasted due to people talking past each other.

    Metaphysically, “objective” means that it exists whether or not we acknowledge that to be the case. It is mind-independent. Observing that humans share quite a bit of moral intuition hardly demonstrates that this intuition is grounded in something mind-independent. We almost all share a love of music as well, but that hardly proves this preference is rooted in something metaphysical.

    So, when you say that evolution in no way undermines the objectivity of morality, I would agree, but for completely different reasons. You claim that there are “objective” facts we can know (but not always) that promote human flourishing. This makes these *facts* objective, not morality – because “morality” is simply the tag you want to apply to this phenomenon, which may or may not be socially agreed upon. This is arbitrary and subjective, which should be obvious by your utilization of the term “want” – we “want” flourishing. How is that not subjective? This is not the case with a metaphysically objective morality, which imposes itself in a more top-down manner, if that makes any sense. Hopefully that clarifies how the term “objective” is being used differently.

    Moving on, the Christian can account perfectly well for how someone may become morally misguided. That something is “written on our hearts” does not mean it is fool-proof or that we are without free-will.

    Addressing Euthyphro will require…

  29. So now it’s cutting me off by two words now too. Interesting. “…another post” was supposed to be how that was going to end.

  30. Regarding Euthyphro, classical theism (which I’m not particularly interested in defending) would hold that God is both necessary and good. How do we know God is good? Essentially, because the theist defines Him that way. Is that arbitrary and subjective? You bet. But, it really doesn’t matter if God is “good” or not, technically, He can still institute a metaphysically objective morality. In any case, the Christian obviously has reasons for believing that God at least has good motives.

    So the question is whether or not this metaphysically objective system, even if defined as “whatever God says/wants”, is arbitrary. And the answer is: not if God is a necessary Being (which is obviously how theists conceptualize God). If God’s nature cannot be otherwise, then His commands must be in line with His nature, and they are the opposite of arbitrary.

    The dilemma is supposed to be between whether things are moral because God says so, or whether God says so because they are “moral”. Grounding morality in God’s necessary nature eliminates the arbitrariness while eliminating the potential independency of morality.

    Finally, moving on from Euthyphro, it does do damage to your position that a) “flourishing” is ill-defined, and b) we don’t always know what will even lead to flourishing. B will obviously change, depending on A, and that is exactly why “morality” so-defined is not “objective in any metaphysical sense. It only becomes “objective” insofar as people may prefer the same things (subjective) and agree on the same definitions (arbitrary).

  31. Most importantly, I think, on the naturalism…historians don’t reject the resurrection ONLY because it’s a miraculous, supernatural claim. They reject it because the gospels in particular and the bible in general aren’t viewed as historically accurate records, but rather, as literature.

    I’m sure you’ve heard the distinction between philosophical and methodological naturalism – the former being someone who believes only the material exists, and the latter assuming materialism for practical, scientific purposes, and not necessarily as a metaphysical worldview. Just to make sure here…

    We – or I at least – don’t circularly use naturalism to uncritically dismiss supernatural claims. That’s a strange charge, and one that often occurs among unsophisticated Christians who use the bible to prove itself. Of course, I wouldn’t attribute this to you, since you haven’t advanced any small-minded, prima facie fallacious arguments like this. I’m going on what you say…do the same for me!

    To give a few examples, I dismiss the bible as a product of a divine mind because of the lack of evidence, how extraordinarily specific in scope it is, how it favors one tribe over all others during a time when Israel was surrounded by often hostile nations, continued/borrowed rituals, practices and beliefs from other religions/cultures, contains not only depictions of evil, banal action on the part of prophets, but also divine decrees that are clearly immoral and anthropomorphic. On a practical note, I wouldn’t want to live under it’s guidelines. That’s a separate issue from whether it’s true, and the fact that it’s unpalatable isn’t why I regard it as false.

    The only reason some of us spend so much time refuting it isn’t because we secretly rebel against God or morality; rather, we lament the negative effects (not always), it’s potential to distort, misguide and instill guilt/shame needlessly.

    I’m sure you’re aware of the difficulty in defending your…

  32. I understand how philosophers use ‘objective’ in a metaphysical context. I wasn’t using the word in a metaphysical context, but rather to say that these facts are empirically demonstrated and not dependent on whether you like them or not. And I’m not Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens. I have a philosophy degree (Hitchens had some training, but his style doesn’t always reflect it) and can instill the sort of rigor and precision inherent in the western analytic philosophical tradition. Not offended, just saying…

    I should note I think it’s a mistake to restrict the style of conversation to formal syllogisms, word games and calling logical fouls. Many facts are left out when one substitutes broad-minded, comprehensive, evidence-based analyses with formal syllogistic arguments. William Lane Craig is notorious for this. We all rejected – or at least I thought we did – Rationalism as the best way of knowing a long time ago. It’s a part of science, but shouldn’t be detached from it.

    I don’t think morality is mind-independent, which I believe was made clear when I said morality is a human invention. It doesn’t need to be mind-independent to have “objective” authority.

    First, you note that flourishing/well-being is ill-defined. I disagree. Many concepts escape complete definition, but nonetheless still hold real meaning. No example is needed here, I hope. We all know what is meant by well-being and flourishing.

    Next, you say the facts concerning what tends to produce well-being/flourishing may be “objective” (can I stop the quotes now :), but our desire for well-being is subjective. Again, I disagree. It is as plainly established a fact as any that almost all of us (barring the psychopath or genetic anomaly) are born predisposed to seek after well-being. This is anything but subjective.

    The assumptions are piling up. God is necessary, he’s all good, etc. Even if true, the part of his nature informing his ethics is the all-good part…

  33. …since that’s the case, he would be compelled to legislate according to what’s good. What’s good for us is what is best for us. This is trivially true to the point of being a tautology. Can you see how this comes full circle back to my theory? If God exists, his good nature would dictate that he only legislate behavior in ways that achieve our good. To the extent we can discover our good, we can discover the moral.

    I wonder if Christian philosophers sometimes forget that the majority of philosophers in the western analytic philosophical tradition rejects divine command theory and all it’s variants, for what seem to me to be very obvious, foolproof reasons.

    It almost seems like you want morality to have stronger authority than is possible. When I say it has authority, I don’t mean some queer metaphysical basis. I mean that we have reason, mutual self-interest and well-being as motivation to adhere to certain behavioral standards, and that this gives us reason to enforce it on others. This is a kind of authority, even if the standards can be broken.

  34. Ryan: re: naturalism

    Historians are not all of one mind on exactly how to approach the Gospels. Some simply take them to be myth, with some incidental facts thrown in, others take them to be propaganda that do have facts (but are slanted). I don’t know of anyone who would deny that there are any facts, or anyone who would claim that they are all facts. What virtually all historians would agree on is that miracles/supernatural events fall outside the purview of (academic/scholarly) historical inquiry.

    Yes, this is methodological naturalism, but it can affect the analysis. For instance, why would the Gospels be considered “literature”: what characteristics would merit that designation? Are claims of the supernatural one of them? And does the designation “literature” (as opposed to “history”) imply “fiction”?

    However, there are too many who would use this line: “[_X_] is not a historical/scientific claim; it is a theological one” to support the notion that [_X_] is NOT TRUE. This is abandoning the method to imply claims about reality, and it is a pretty regular occurrence. It was not my intent to say that you do so, only to draw attention to the fact that someone who does not engage with the method is obviously analyzing the data differently, and those who do participate in this method can convince themselves that the “method” is reality. It is not surprising that those who immerse themselves in methodological naturalism might come to conflate it with ontological naturalism.

    None of this, however, is meant to imply that you or that all skeptics make such a conflation.

  35. Ryan, re: moral “objectivity”

    OK, since you’re familiar with the metaphysical usage of “objective”, and that is how theists use it in conjunction with morality, why on earth wouldn’t you (and others who surely know as well) acknowledge that first?! This has always puzzled me. It seems like when discussing morality, atheists are entirely *offended* at the notion that theists would say that atheistic morality would not be “objective” (in the metaphysical sense), and so reply with a long exposition on how it CAN be (in a very limited way) “objective” – in the non-subjective sense. If you agree that morality is a human invention (sorry, I don’t see where you said that… unless it is where you say “evolution shaped human morality”, which isn’t quite the same thing), then clearly you agree with the theists who would claim that without God, morality is not metaphysically objective.

    It would seem that we more or less agree here. You may place a bit more value or emphasis on how secular ethics can be “objective”, whereas I would say they are more subjective, but nonetheless I think we can agree that morality can be defined, then measured/evaluated according to that definition, and that could be helpful in making moral decisions.

    We still disagree on the value of terms such as “flourishing” or “well-being”. I can’t say they have no value.But they are still problematic in that there is a real, significant division with morality when discussing these terms. Are we going to use them in a utilitarian or Rand-ian fashion? This obviously makes a huge difference. It seems so easy to say that “we all want flourishing”, because when it is so vague it is easy to agree with. But what one person considers “flourishing” might be “everyone”, someone else: “my family”, or to Rand: “me”. Is “well-being” conformance to certain virtues, or the prioritization of physical comfort, or the preservation of life?

  36. One more thing re: moral “objectivity”

    I agree that it is a FACT that humans are pre-disposed for self-preservation/self-interest.

    I disagree that this somehow makes the self-interest “objective”. It is decidedly a personal and mental thing, even if it is ubiquitously shared. It is a preference, and it can obviously change (we grow to value others interests as well). So, whether pre-wired or not, desires and preferences are, by definition, subjective – are they not?. That I desire something can be be an objective fact… the desire itself: subjective. This is made obvious by the differences in how we seek to establish our interest(s).

  37. Ryan, re: Euthyphro

    The properties that the classical theist assigns to God are not all assumptions, although I wouldn’t deny they are nonetheless problematic. God’s aseity is basically the definition of God. His necessity, I think, is a corollary of that – but also a conclusion of the Contingency Argument. So that isn’t really an assumption.

    As for God’s goodness… well, that is rooted in “perfect Being” theology, and to be honest, I’m not particularly interested in defending that. Presumably, God would be “good” if He had every “perfection”. But, of course, one could always say that Hitler would think God had blonde hair and blue eyes as a “perfections”. So it is subjective. (we can agree on that being subjective, yes?)

    As I said, though, most Christians can say “I have cause for believing God is good – because of the Cross.” You may disagree with that – or even think the opposite – but you can’t deny them their own evaluation of the Gospel.

    “What’s good for us is what’s best for us” – yes, I’d say that tautologous! The question, of course, is whether what we think is best for us is what God would think is good for us. Can’t assume that God would want the same things for us, that we want for ourselves.

  38. Michael, I would love to see how these would stack up against early church fathers. I know the Scriptures were in their hands in a much different way than they are today. However, wouldn’t #1 and #8 apply to a number of men ranging from Tertullian to Augustine to Cyprian to Basil?

  39. I think it would be good to be specific about point #8. To say that there is ABSOLUTELY no hidden meaning in the Bible seems a bit too drastic. While it is possible to go too far into sections of the Bible in trying to come up with some form of meaning which is not meant to be there, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that there is no hidden meaning in ANY portion of the Bible. Obviously, Jesus spoke many parables which most (if not all) have some spiritual (“hidden”) meaning. However, to try to find hidden meaning in such portions as…the genealogies in 1 & 2 Chronicles might be reaching.

  40. “Obviously, Jesus spoke many parables which most (if not all) have some spiritual (“hidden”) meaning.”

    Of course, spiritual and hidden aren’t synonymous. Something can impart a ‘spiritual’, moral or symbolic lesson without its meaning being hidden or obscured from the reader.

    I think it’s more accurate to say the parables communicate moral lessons. Of course, some of them communicate what sorts of punishment you can expect to endure if you disobey what other men tell you is commanded by God.

  41. Re: Ryan

    “Something can impart a ‘spiritual’, moral or symbolic lesson without its meaning being hidden or obscured from the reader.”

    Yes, some do, but I would say that some are DEFINITELY hidden and obscured. In fact, if you read Matthew 13, even the Lord’s own disciples did not fully understand some of His parables, thus they ask in verse 36 that He explain it to them.

    As for the parables communicating “moral lessons,” if that’s all they are, then that would be very shallow. Morality is not bad, but a Christian is not just moral or good, but has God living inside them and living out through them. To be a Christian is to live out God, not just to live out morality apart from God, which unbelievers do every day.

  42. I browsed Matthew 13 again; most of those parables aren’t difficult to understand for a literate adult, with or without a college education or exposure to literature. Of course, the majority of Jesus’ audience – disciples or random observers – were not literate. It may be a point without a point, if you know what I mean. I’m only saying there probably isn’t some secret message encapsulated in these passages that can only be understood via a supernatural holy spirit…

    I have a hard time understanding how moral lessons simpliciter (in themselves, by themselves) can be shallow in any sense of the word. Setting aside the fact that many of us just don’t believe that God exists for sure, that we can know his mind or talk to him, even if this were true, what does God (in his kinder moods) say is the purpose in living out his example in how you treat your family, yourselves and your fellow man?

    To live a just life, for fellowship, for solidarity, because its how you would want to be treated, because we are special and deserving of fair treatment. Basically, because it’s good and right.

    So, I see no difference between the evangelical christian professing proximity to God and the unbeliever who lives a good life, treats others fairly and sometimes gives generously and shows deep respect/concern for his fellow man.

  43. All I have left for you is these two verses: John 5:39-40

    [39] You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that testify concerning Me. [40] Yet you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life.

    Go to the Lord. He is the true and real life.
    May God bless you.

  44. Jesus was fairly explicit is saying that he spoke in esoteric terms. Thus, at least at one point, there were “hidden meanings” in what He said. I would contend that the apocalyptic genre is also one in which “hidden meanings” abound. Presumably, the reader of these works have been clued-in – we are part of the club, so to speak. But it in many cases, that’s just obviously not the case. We obviously still struggle to interpret much of the apocalyptic genre, and that is, no doubt, partly because the references that would have been picked up by knowledgeable parties have long since been forgotten.

    I would not classify moral teachings as “shallow”, but it nevertheless remains true that many of Jesus’ parables were not, in fact, moral teachings. But many of them were, so He obviously thought they were important as well.

    As for those claiming a relationship with God being indistinguishable from those who “live a good life”, the problem here is obviously ignoring the obvious difference: the (alleged) relationship with God. So while it may be that all other aspects are the same, there nonetheless remains a critical distinction.

  45. How’s it going, JB?

    Oh, I don’t doubt the obvious distinction between a Christian and an unbeliever. One believes in god and the bible as his written word, the other doesn’t.

    I’m saying in my opinion there is no moral distinction. In other words, I don’t view the willingness to believe in some supernatural realm or entity as a moral act or belief. I also, just to be clear, don’t view belief in supernatural, unseen realities as necessarily stupid or wrong. Plenty of good, selfless, giving people have religious beliefs. I’m not asking them to change.

    I only ask that we be honest with ourselves about what things are fit for moral judgment. Action, not belief, is fit for moral judgment. Someone can believe all they want in being fair-minded and just, but if they behave selfishly and callously, we rightly judge their actions, not their beliefs. Of course, to the extent beliefs influence outcomes and actions, they have moral dimensions.

    Many Christians respond by saying Jesus demands belief in him and his sacrificial gift as payment for salvation, and since we’re sinners, and he’s all-powerful, we’re obliged to accept.

    This is problematic for many obvious reasons. First, many of us honestly find the evidence for his divinity – and for the divine authority of the bible – almost completely lacking.

    Second, if a being is all good and just, presumably he would base eternal reward/punishment on non-arbitrary acts/beliefs that have moral implications. If a certain number of his creations simply lack belief based on God’s apparent nonexistence and hiddenness, it would be capricious and arbitrary to decide on that basis whether one is eternally rewarded or punished.

    Third, there’s something sinister about the idea of being punished for being created sick and failing upon pain of death/torment to be well. Fair-minded folks everywhere have difficulty picturing an omnibenevolent being legislating in this way.

  46. A “believer” does not necessarily mean someone who accepts the Bible as “[God’s] written word”, but that is quibbling.

    Beliefs seem to me to be morally relevant in at least some cases, which you acknowledge. Actions cannot *solely* be used for judgement because we would acknowledge that people sometimes do “right” things for the wrong reasons. If morality is something we hold in degree, then it would seem to me that someone doing something right for proper reasons would be morally superior (which sounds awful, I know) than someone who simply does something not to get caught, or because they are told, etc.

    Now, that beliefs are morally relevant does not necessarily mean that it is moral or immoral to hold specific beliefs. Most people would acknowledge that it is possible to hold wrong beliefs despite an honest attempt to evaluate the relevant data.

    Thus, it would seem a just judge would probably evaluate someone on the basis of the data they had available to them, the earnestness and honesty they pursued/evaluated that data, and the consistency of their actions in relation to the data. i would argue this is the general thrust of Romans 1:19-20. The nagging questions out of all of this, of course, is whether it is possible for someone to be a rational, honest non-believer – and whether or not God would “reward” someone like this for at least being an otherwise moral person.

    Call me crazy, but I think if someone is both rational and honest, then upon seeing God face to face they would both believe and desire His presence. It seems to me that would meet most Christians requirements for entry into Heaven. Of course, some would claim that this decision has to be made before you die, but I am not sure how this would be justified.

  47. I completely agree about intent and action being involved in moral judgment, and this is what I meant when I said – in a way that wasn’t entirely clear, I admit – that to the extent belief influences actions/outcomes, it’s fit for moral judgment.

    I also agree that in many cases a good will – even if it leads to worse outcomes – is sometimes morally superior to an act someone undertakes for reputation/appearance sake that leads to a good outcome. I imagine almost everyone agrees here. Kant has a beautiful statement about this: “Fiat justicia, pereat mundus.” (Let justice be done, though the world perish).

    You’re not crazy for thinking that a rational, honest person – when confronted face to face with an all-good, just God – would believe in and desire to be in his presence. But therein lies the problem. Many of us haven’t come face to face with him, or had a definitive, personal experience with him.

    So, I agree, If this happened in the here and now, then christian requirements for entry into heaven wouldn’t be arbitrary or capricious. But we both know many of us haven’t had this experience. If it happens after I die, you bet I’d prefer the company of a perfectly just, wise being. You also know many – not all – Christians think that belief & acceptance in Jesus and his sacrifice b/f death are necessary for salvation. This is the claim that doesn’t seem to withstand even basic scrutiny, in my opinion.

    I like your answer, though. I think I told you that I was raised in a deeply conservative christian household and my belief gradually eroded in my twenties while studying philosophy. It wasn’t a liberal or atheist professor that changed my views. It was exposure to evidence and considerations that cast doubt on the whole christian enterprise, and this very gradually altered my beliefs until finally I was comfortable saying to others and myself that I doubt it’s truth, but don’t say for sure one way or the other.

  48. Anyway, some religious friends and family are more liberal and flexible in their beliefs, but relating to some who are extreme biblical literalists is interesting. It doesn’t come up very often, and when it does, my main concern isn’t to change their belief, but to elicit some recognition for the fact that unbelievers have dignity and can behave just as morally and altruistically as believers.

  49. Ryan, it certainly is true that many Christians “think that belief & acceptance in Jesus” (before death) are necessary for salvation. It’s tempting to say all, but most – when pressed – would say admit that in the case of “those who never heard” it is at least possible that God will have mercy on them. This is an “inclusivist” view of salvation, which does not deny that Jesus is necessary for salvation, only that conscious acceptance of Him isn’t necessary. I’m not certain, but I would argue that most Christians are inclusivist. Universalists and hard-liner exclusivists are minority positions, I think.

    It is, of course, possible that God requires conscious, deliberate acceptance of specific facts about Jesus and His work. It is His heaven, after all, and He is free to set whatever condition He likes for entry into it. What becomes problematic, as I’m sure you’d agree, is in asserting that God is all-love and all-good, and yet eternally torments those who never heard about these conditions, or were never presented any good reasons for accepting them.


  1. Eight Ways to Go Wrong in Bible Study | Parchment and Pen « Christian Reasons - October 11, 2012

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