Monday, April 04, 2011

Is Sin What We Want?

James McGrath linked to a post by Richard Beck on his blog, Experimental Theology. I wanted to quote a large portion of his post addressing universalism and the motivation for evangelism if there is no hell:
And this vision of things also helps address another common question asked of universalists: "If everyone is getting to heaven why not just live it up in this life?" Again, seriously? If you have to ask this question I have to wonder if you're even a Christian. Because you are basically claiming that the life of sin is "better" than the abundant life found in Jesus, that people would prefer sin, today, over the Kingdom of God. You are insinuating that the Christian proclamation isn't good news.

And I think that's really the heart of the issue. If you ever hear a person raise these questions about mission, evangelism or calling people out of a life of sin you are dealing with a person who doesn't really believe in the good news. Because hellfire appears to be the only motive for evangelism these people can imagine. They can't compute a proclamation of joy. Hellfire also appears to be the only motive for calling people out of a life of sin. No hell, no reason to give up sin. Sin, in this view, is the best! Sin is the party, not the Kingdom.

Maybe this is why people who believe in eternal torment are so grumpy, mean-spirited, and miserable. If hell is the only motive for coming to God, if sinners are the one's having the most fun, well, of course these "turn or burn" Christians are unhappy. They've been called out of a fun and joyous life into the Kingdom of God where all is proper, boring, structured, grey and lame. But hey, at least they aren't going to hell! So there they sit in their churches, jealous and grumpy that the world is throwing a party that they can't attend because they had to dress up and go to church on Sunday. No wonder these sorts of Christians want the world to go to hell. They are jealous.

I can't say that I agree with all of the imputed judgements made about people who believe in eternal torment. I think the reasons people cling to certain beliefs can have many roots and those roots can be very complex systems that reach deep beneath the surface of individuals.

On the other hand, I wholeheartedly concur with his criticism of common attitudes about sin. I have often heard Christians declaring that if they found out that the Resurrection never happened that they would lose all faith and live like heathens. They would see themselves as desperately flocking to sinful, hateful behaviors without the check of their Christian faith holding them back.

I don't know what to think when I read people make comments like that on blogs, as if living life in a sexual, drug and alcohol fueled fury would be some kind of awesome life.

To all of those who think that way, I have only two words....Charlie Sheen. Does he seem happy? Wait, you say. Charlie's not a good example.....after all he's probably mentally imbalanced, right?

Maybe. But think of all of the people in your life who are truly miserable. They are probably people who live selfishly, impulsively, and without regard for the consequences of their own actions.

"Sin" is not a party. Or, maybe it is. It's the party that the cops show up at, kicking drunk, vomiting teens out of a trashed house filled with beer cans, drug paraphernalia, and unconscious others who over-imbibed.

I don't think people ever stop "sinning" because they are afraid of eternal damnation. They stop because they realize that sin never gives anything....it only ever takes. It makes you into a person that you don't want to be. It doesn't give peace, it only disrupts your serenity.

If there is any good news it is in the fact that there is another way to live; there is hope; there are second chances; there is the possibility and realization of redemption.

There is no need to sustain the idea of eternal torment as a way to make living the Christian life more appealing.

***update***

I swung by D'MA's blog at Gullible Travels and thought her post was relevant and an example of how some Christians think of sin.

A quote from one of D'ma's fellow Sunday School attendees:
The teacher starts out, "For the believer God's commands are a protection from self-destruction. How do non-believers view God's commands?"

Other attendee: "Unbelievers reject God's commands because they don't want to be accountable. Men want to go out and party and have adulterous affairs and not feel they have to answer for it. Women want to drink and have one-night stands and not feel guilty."
Sin = having a great time.....Faith = missing out on all the good stuff! ;-)

11 comments:

Like a Child said...

I think for some, a loss of faith can certainly lead to different behaviors, particularly if the Christianity they left was extremely counter-cultural. Personally, I want to live my life as I did as a Southern Baptist regardless of whether I have faith or not, which ironically, has made my doubts all the more stronger, b/c my moral "compass" seems to have remained the same, and if anything, I have more empathy for people in rejecting the traditional view of hell. Many forms of liberal or progressive Christianity would actually entail a change in values for me (for example, call me old-fashioned, but I still advocate for chastity prior to marriage, although I'm not against gay marriage).

All this said, I have noticed my views seem to be in the minority. I wonder if being in my thirties, married, with kids changes things. The selfish, undeveloped frontal lobe part of me is long past, and I witness the damage adultery did to my in laws marriage. Charlie Sheen (or really most movie starts) is another apt example!

D'Ma said...

Like a Child alludes to something that also struck me in the conversation. Not only in the fundamentalist Christian view does "Sin = having a great time.....Faith = missing out on all the good stuff! ;-)" but it also believes that a person can't be a mature, responsible adult without God. Whereas I think that whether you are a believer or not immaturity breads problems. Regardless of religious affiliation one can plainly see the consequences of adultery, dishonesty, or any number of other "sins". It's easy to see that you can create your own hell on earth whether you're a believer or not. It's almost silly to think we need a fear of an eternal hell to steer us away from creating a mess for ourselves in the only reality we know for certain.

P.S. Thanks for the link.

evangelically incorrect said...

Ironically, I was traveling along back roads in New York, with my Father at the wheel. I had a podcast going, and it posed the question, "Why do people continue to sin?" My Father breaks in and says, "I know why people sin. It's fun!"

I just asked him about that comment in order to write this, and he said, "The devil's no dummy. He knows what people like!"

And that is the depth of theology I got from my dad today, one day after we had a memorial service for my very fundamentalist mother.

JS Allen said...

Fear of hell shouldn't motivate anyone to give up sin, but this bit is just wacky:

"Because you are basically claiming that the life of sin is "better" than the abundant life found in Jesus, that people would prefer sin, today, over the Kingdom of God."

What, exactly, is wrong with this? The vast majority of people would prefer to live a life of sin rather than give all of their possessions to the poor and dedicate their lives to God. This is a simple empirical matter -- Mr. Beck must be smoking some good drugs if he thinks the average person would find a life of discipleship to be naturally appealing.

"You are insinuating that the Christian proclamation isn't good news."

Huh? Is he saying that the "good news" was that we now get to take up our cross daily and be persecuted in God's name because that's what people naturally want? Beck's ability to misapprehend "good news" boggles the mind.

All of this is completely orthogonal to the issue of hell, BTW, and I agree with Terri's claim that sin is overcome through carrots and not sticks. However, I don't think you motivate people by telling them that virtue brings peaceful sleep and makes you "the kind of person you want to be". That might work in the case of drug and sex binges, but those are pretty tiny in terms of overall sin. Most people avoid sex and drugs, yet sin prolifically and sleep very well at night. I'm not saying that threats of hell are the answer, but citing virtue as a mechanism of self-help is going to be worse than useless in most cases.

terri said...

JS Allen,

Well...I don't exactly see it is as my job to "motivate" anybody to do anything.

I used to....once upon a time. I used to think it was my job to point out everything wrong about the way people thought about things, the things they said, the things they did, the "right" way to do everything...etc.

So much of what I thought was "being a Christian" revolved around the proclamation of everyone else's "wrongness".

I think that is a common feeling among evangelicals and conservative Christians. We couched it in terms of "speaking the truth in love"....though there was very little love that I could see in it.

This urge to correct everybody and everything and to make sure doctrinal truth is "pure" is the root of the flurry of activity surrounding Rob Bell's book and the reactions to it.

Several bloggers, some of them very popular, wrote posts about why we need hell and the wrath of God...and almost all of the points in those posts revolve around "motivation".

If no hell....then what?

The sustaining of hell as ideology in order to keep it in the arsenal of spiritual motivation....like the evil villain in the movie saying..."We have ways of making you talk"....while he brings out his instruments of torture.....well, it's just not the way it should be in any faith....let alone one that is supposed to be about life and redemption.

Maybe I'll have to post about that.

JS Allen said...

I see. So by leading your post with a quote that says, "If you have to ask this question I have to wonder if you're even a Christian", you're not proclaiming other people's wrongness?

What, exactly, was the point of your post, if not to pile on to Beck's incoherent condemnation of non-universalists (i.e. the vast majority of Christians) who believe that hell motivates people to abandon sin? You also added your own opinions about what motivates people, which are probably accurate in the limited context of sex and drug binges.

As I said, I don't think that the doctrine of hell exists for utilitarian reasons. The people who say it does are mistaken. But they're not mistaken for the reasons you and Beck cite:

1) Do you honestly think that non-universalists believe in hell primarily because they think hell motivates virtuous living? 2) Do you honestly think that people naturally prefer virtue (as defined by Christ) over sin?

I find it puzzling that you would believe both claims; they seem patently false to me. Both are empirical matters; there is no need to psychoanalyze. I'm even more surprised that you would base a broadside criticism of the majority of Christians on these claims.

"So much of what I thought was "being a Christian" revolved around the proclamation of everyone else's "wrongness"."

This post being an excellent example. Psychoanalyze everyone who doesn't believe the same as you: check. Criticize them for their wrongness: check. Hint that they might not even be Christian: check.

terri said...

JS Allen,

Whoa there! First of all I agree with you. I think the quote that you bring up is obnoxious and that Beck is out of line on that point, which is why I pointed out that I didn't agree with his analysis of the imputed motives of non-universalists.

There wasn't an easy cut-off point in the section I wanted to quote, so that was included. I bolded the things that I wanted to talk about and that I thought the post was about. Maybe I should have more strongly emphasized my disagreement with Beck on that point in order to be more clear.

1) Do you honestly think that non-universalists believe in hell primarily because they think hell motivates virtuous living? 2) Do you honestly think that people naturally prefer virtue (as defined by Christ) over sin?

On point #1...yes...some do. I can think of numerous authors and very popular bloggers who essentially said that very thing....that it is required and necessary for motivating virtuous living.

On point #2...It depends on what you mean by naturally prefer. I think that what people prefer is something that changes with the more experiences they have. It's a matter of maturity vs. immaturity.

Hopefully, as we grow older and wiser we choose to do the right thing because it is the right thing and not because we simply fear getting caught doing the wrong thing.

terri said...

JS Allen...one more thing.

If the vast majority of people want to live a life of sin, unimpeded by morality of any sort...then why is the religious impulse so strong? Why is there near-universal outrage in the face of evil and why are there hundreds and thousands of humanitarian groups in existence in the world?

I am not saying that all religious impulses and moralities are equally moral and good.

I am saying that the empirical evidence for the desire for virtuousness could be attested to as easily as the empirical evidence for total depravity.

There is no one so dedicated to a cause as the one who believes in the virtue and truth of what he is doing.

Where does that impulse come from? Why are our so many of our great leaders so often the type of people motivated by such virtue?

terri said...

oh..One more "on more thing"....

I criticize what I was a part of. I argue against the arguments that I, myself, let flow from my lips.

I have said with a straight face, "We all deserve hell and should be grateful that we at least have a way of escape....that not all of us will experience it."

If there is any psycho-analyzing on my part it is based on my own experiences and my own psychological insights into what motivated me and many others I have known in real life.

I'm sorry if you think I have made a broadside against non-univeralists. I don't consider myself a universalist as much as I consider myself an annihilationist.

I used Beck's post to talk about what motivates people in dealing with sin, not whether or not universalism is true.

JS Allen said...

OK, thanks. I mostly agree on #2. Fear is the beginning of wisdom, but not the end. We might have different opinions about what percentage of the population is mature enough to truly desire to be Christ-like, though.

Regarding #1, people pointing out a likely consequence of jettisoning the doctrine of hell is not the same as saying that is why they believe in hell. In other words, saying "If hell didn't exist, I would exploit poor people more", is not the same as saying "I believe in hell because it stops rich people from exploiting poor people". A "belief" that someone holds provisionally for utilitarian motives is not a belief at all, and I don't think anyone believes in hell for that reason. That's an important distinction, and I feel that critics of the doctrine of hell are frequently uncharitable on this point. There are a number of very understandable reasons that people believe there is a hell, but I don't think that "it's a convenient way to manipulate behavior" is anywhere on the list.

"I am saying that the empirical evidence for the desire for virtuousness could be attested to as easily as the empirical evidence for total depravity"

Agreed 100%.

"If the vast majority of people want to live a life of sin, unimpeded by morality of any sort...then why is the religious impulse so strong? Why is there near-universal outrage in the face of evil and why are there hundreds and thousands of humanitarian groups in existence in the world?"

Well, I like atheist Robin Hanson's "Homo Hypocritus" theory. We humans use morals and norms to control other people and signal our status, while we use our big brains to sneakily attempt to evade the morals. The moral system is a tool used by high status individuals to dominate those with low status. You can read more at his site, but the evidence continues to mount, IMO. His theory handily explains why people prefer moral activities that are low-cost and high visibility, like "expressing moral outrage" or affiliating with a cause or group. It also suggests why Christ was so upset with the Pharisees, and why Christ's unique form of "morality" is one that few people will innately find appealing.

tildeb said...

If the vast majority of people want to live a life of sin, unimpeded by morality of any sort...then why is the religious impulse so strong?

Is it? A strong impulse, I mean?

I don't think so, which is why religious belief and its prevalent strength is co-relational to geography more than any other single factor. What does that say about it as an 'impulse' as you assume it to be? It shows that it isn't an interior impulsive motivation at all but an external social motivation.

So that's one point that reveals your assumption to be factually wrong.

You attribute morality to religion and this, too, is highly problematic no matter which way you come at it. Why should geography continue to play a dominent role in determining which competing and contrasting religious beliefs are moral? This assumes, of course, that morality is correctly attributed to religious belief to begin with.

But what if isn't?

What if morality has nothing whatsoever to do with religious belief? Well, the geographical aspect raises a troubling fact once again as does how believers morally sift through the wheat and the chaff when reading scripture, holding this example to be literal moral instruction, that one metaphorically instructive, this other one too repulsive to be taken seriously at all, that belief if interpreted just so indicative of this modern moral notion, and so on.

What if what we call morality is actually inherent in our biology expressed through behaviours?

If it is - and there is gobs and gobs of evidence indicating the increasing likelihood that morality is a biologically based brain function required for social creatures - then your assertions about sin makes very little sense.

The model you are using - religiously inspired faith-based beliefs - may be quaint and a comforting notion that harkens to the days of yore when god existed so easily wherever our knowledge ended, but is now a model woefully inadequate for the job at hand - understanding morality. That job seems to belong much more properly to science using all the avenues open to honest inquiry over faith-based assertions and assumptions we know not to trust.

A biological model also goes a fair way explaining why and how atheists are just if not more moral than religious believers.

Something to think about, anyway.