Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Not Good, But Good Enough

After recently spouting off in response to one of Dale’s fine posts at Faith In Honest Doubt, which was in turn a response to comments about one of his previous posts (got that?), I realized that the commenter - who went by the name Bible Study Boy, which gives a pretty good idea of his philosophical leanings – had hit on something that I had long thought was a slightly uncomfortable aspect of Christianity. First, his comment.

I realize that many professing Christians teach that one must live by certain rules in the flesh in order to be saved. However, all that is required for salvation is faith alone in Jesus Christ. I also realize this is an atheist website, or at least it appears to be, but there is a great bible study website that shows why many professing Christians don't really represent true Christianity. Many profess to know God, but they are full of evil and hate trying to get people to live according to their rules. This is contrary to the bible which teaches that faith alone in Jesus is sufficient for salvation, not our own works of righteousness in the flesh.

Actually, as I read that again, I have to admire his ability to hit sore spots so succinctly. The classic theme “my Christianity is true, yours is false” is practically a founding principle (Paul spent a lot of the Old Testament trying to settle arguments within and among various groups, and from what I’ve seen he wasn’t always eye-to-eye with Peter’s Roman crew), and the role, if any, of good works has been debated for almost as long.

But this also got me to thinking about a commonly-used phrase: “good Christian”, as in “He’s a good Christian person”. Grammatically it can have a couple of meanings.

“A good person who is also a Christian”.
“A person who is a devout follower of Christianity.”

Most Christians want to think of those as essentially the same thing, that a person who is a devout follower of Christianity is also automatically a good person. But – as Bible Study Boy inadvertently points out – that is not necessarily true. There have been far too many really bad people who considered themselves good Christians. The uncomfortable fact for Christians like Bible Study Boy is that – by the definition he presents – those people were right. No matter how awful they were as human beings, as long as they had faith in Jesus Christ they were as worthy of salvation as anyone.

Which means that Bible Study Boy would wind up spending eternity with the evil-and-hate-filled people he mentions, along with some other pretty unsavory characters. Perhaps this is why some people want to have a few more conditions. They’d like to think it keeps the riffraff out. It also allows them to sidestep an aspect of their religion that they’d rather not advertise; that you don’t have to be a good person to be a good Christian.


Dale said...

If I might armchair psychoanalyze for a moment, it seems to me that many Christians reach a "salvation through faith alone" form of the creed out of a desire to cut through all the many conflicting strands, demands, and entanglements of actually-existing Christianity.

I have to think that if you're a person who has it in his head to believe that Christianity is THE WAY, and you want to be thoughtful about it, you have *a lot of material* to sort through -- there are countless sects, an opinionated preacher around every corner, and enough theology books to fill a large canyon. What to do? As I say, an easy answer -- and one affirmed in at least some passages -- is to latch on to sola fide.

As with all easy answers, it doesn't quite hang together in the real world. For starters, it puts you in heaven alongside some extremely unsavory figures, and damns some extremely good figures.

Under the terms of sola fide, Atilla the Hun would be in heaven if he made a last-minute conversion to belief in Jesus. Maybe 24 hours before that he was putting someone on a stake to terrorize his enemies, but now he's saved because he assembled the right thoughts and emotions about Jesus in the right order. Meanwhile the person on the stake didn't make the last-second conversion -- died in agony believing in the wrong god or something, despite an exemplary life. That person is now in hell.

I think this is, in microcosm, one of the true functions of religion: it serves as a proxy for thinking about moral and metaphysical questions. Those are difficult. The temptations to easy, clean answers are strong ones.


Mike said...

Thanks Dale for your usual insight. Thanks to you too, Michael Gormley, for a detailed explanation of the other side of that argument. It's nice to know that I can at least attract thoughtful analysis of a topic, even if I don't provide much myself. That's one of the things I enjoy about blogging.