Sunday, 14 October 2012

Repent And Believe

Recently, I attended an evangelistic outreach type meeting. Y'know, the kind where they hold an invitation, at the end of the service, and ask people to come forward to "accept Jesus as their lord and personal savior".  It's the first such event I have attended, since becoming an atheist nearly 3 years ago now.

As you might well imagine, such experiences strike me a lot differently than they used to.  For example, I couldn't help but notice how strongly the evening, as a whole, played to people's emotions.  Was church always like this, I wondered?  Perhaps it was, and I have just forgotten all too quickly.  Somehow that world feels so foreign to me already.  Quite frankly, a few of the personal stories, shared that night, were downright gut wrenching.  Anybody with half a heart would have been profoundly moved, by certain aspects, and I was.  It served to remind me, rather poignantly, of something I already knew (but sometimes forget); namely, that a lot of people come initially to belief in Jesus because of how it makes them feel.  I've written about this dynamic before, right here, but it was a good reminder nonetheless.

It was the invitation itself though, that really grabbed my attention.  There was nothing unusual about it, per se, in fact you might even say it was pretty ordinary (as far as invitations to accept Christ go).  The preacher focused heavily on the guilt that we all should feel, for having done bad things in our lives, and then moved straight into the "Jesus can forgive you" clincher. The line that I remember most, went roughly something like this, "by coming forward tonight you are saying to God 'I repent of my sins, and I believe that Jesus was your son'".  As the preacher continued on with his plea, it occurred to me that this simple line of his encapsulates one of my single biggest objections to the Christian faith.  

Let's look at the line again, and see if you can guess what I will take issue with.  (Keep in mind these probably weren't his exact words, but it matters not to my general point.)  Here it is again, "by coming forward tonight you are saying to God, 'I repent of my sins, AND I BELIEVE THAT JESUS WAS YOUR SON'".  Let me state my objection plainly...

The preacher was pitching repentance but, in so doing, he was smuggling intellectual assent through the back door.  

Now, you might be tempted to ask, so what?  What exactly is the difference anyway, between repentance and "intellectual assent"?  I might have asked the same question, only a few short years ago.  Let's think about it for a moment.  When Christians speak of the need for "repentance", what they basically mean is that the given person needs to feel badly for falling short of God's perfection.  So, to "repent" is to turn around, admit your wrongdoing, and head in the other direction.  That's essentially it.  But what on earth does this have to do with the purely historical proposition that Jesus was God's son?  I'll tell you what...nothing whatsoever.

On the rare occasion I bring this objection up to Christians, they tend to say something along the lines of "well, it's impossible to repent to someone that you don't believe in".  True enough.  But this is precisely my point.  Intellectual assent (belief) is a non-negotiable, according to basic Christian theology.  It may not be the only thing needed for salvation since, after all, "even the demons believe" (that there is one god), but it's certainly one of the required elements.  

Allow me to further illustrate my point...let's suppose that someone is generally o.k. with the idea that we're all imperfect, but they have serious doubts about whether or not Jesus was God, rose from the dead, or performed miracles etc.  Can such a person make it to heaven, without changing their mind on the factual claims?  I have yet to meet a single Christian who answers "yes" to this question (in fact, most give it a resounding "no").  In other words, a lack of intellectual assent (aka belief) precludes you from being a Christian.  Right?  But the preacher said nary a word, during the course of the sermon, about why we should believe the proposition that Jesus was God's son.  Not one word.  After all, Jesus could well have been something else, like just a man, yes?  So, what gives him (the preacher) the right to insist that people intellectually assent to something they haven't properly investigated; especially something so incredibly important, and controversial?  Isn't this bordering on the irresponsible?  Was he meaning to implicitly suggest that unbelievers go home, read up on the relevant research, and then come to an informed conclusion, on their own, when they feel ready to do so?  Quite the contrary!  In fact, he implored the audience members to make an immediate decision, to "accept or reject" Jesus, before it was too late for their very souls.  What's worst of all, to me, is that he did it under the pretext that they were merely admitting to having done some bad things in life.  (Who hasn't?)

To be perfectly clear, I don't mean to imply there was deceitful intent, in the way the gospel was presented that evening.  On the contrary, I think the preacher's message was actually quite representative of how the Christian message is very typically packaged.  I've heard hundreds of salvation sermons throughout the years and, as best as I can recall, only a tiny handful of them have so much as *mentioned* issues relevant to the historical claims of Christianity. Even in those rare instances, often the "facts" are given a shallow, Lee Strobel-ish sort of treatment.  It may sound impressive enough, to the totally uninitiated, but (unsurprisingly) the counter arguments are rarely broached in any serious way, if broached at all. (I led many people to Christ myself, while I was a believer, and usually via "The Romans Road".)

I couldn't help but wonder, as people stepped out to get "saved", how many of them were versant in the historical research pertaining to Jesus.  Had they sufficiently considered, for example, the evidence pointing to him as a failed apocalyptic prophet?  (For a taste, see here, here, and here.) I strongly doubt it.  In fact, I doubt that most of them would even have known what an apocalyptic prophet was.  Regardless, they were tacitly assenting to the belief that Jesus was God's son by going forward.  Given that the sermon focused almost exclusively on repentance, the brute reality is these sorts of intellectual questions were, rather ironically, likely the furthest thing from their minds in that moment.

In Christianity, the belief often just comes as part of the package deal.

16 comments:

  1. Hi there. I'm right there with you, with the whole "foreign world" feeling in church, but when you say,

    "But the preacher said nary a word, during the course of the sermon, about why we should believe the proposition that Jesus was God's son."

    That's false. It's just that you're now looking for a different why than what was on offer. You're succumbing more and more to the new logical positivism! I can see it with each post. The "why" is so you can be reconciled to YHWH and inherit life eternal, and I can guarantee that this was preached—unless you happen to have stumbled upon a severely unorthodox rally. So, there was a "why" offered, just not the one *YOU* now look for as a doubter.

    At any rate, I hope you're well, I was just dropping by to ask where we left off with that flurry of back-and-forths a month or so back. I haven't written my "hell" post yet.

    Take care.

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    1. Well, I'm not even attempting to deny that there is no why, for believing, according to Christian theology (there certainly is), but it seems to me this is simply begging the question. Why should I believe that this Jesus guy was god's son? Well, because, if you do believe it, than you'll be reconciled with god and have eternal life. Problem is, that only counts as a legitimate *reason*, for belief, if Christianity is in fact true...in other words, it's an entirely circular way of thinking about the issue.

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    2. Oh, and please, please, don't slap me with a label. This is a general pet peeve of mine (but I realize you had no way of knowing that, so it's more of a heads up for the future). No, I don't subscribe to the new logical positivism, as you suggest, nor am I "succumbing" to anything.

      I'm not sure if I knew that you were planning to write your own post on hell (or maybe I just forgot). But I look forward to reading it so, if you remember, give me a heads up when it's done. (Are there any other specific posts, on your site, that you would recommend I read? I've checked out a number of them already.)

      I hope you're well also!

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  2. Howdy again.

    No problem on the "label" thing, I feel the same way (I don't like the label "Christian" since, as far as I know, it's a derogatory derivative of cretin). However, the plain fact of the matter is that you now doubt, or are skeptical, or whatever you want to call it, and at times such statements have a proper place in the flow of the conversation. This was one of them, as your new perspective is a direct result of doubt, skepticism, or whatever you want to call it. But again, I'll do my best to steer clear there.

    "...it seems to me this is simply begging the question."

    That's because of the shift in your perspective. Preachers aren't setting up "rational" arguments when they do calls to repentance. The arguments and evidences are a different thing, altogether. Although, some preachers prefix their calls with the arguments and evidences. It just so happens this wasn't the case at the event you attended.

    "Problem is, that only counts as a legitimate *reason*, for belief, if Christianity is in fact true"

    Not at all. It's a legitimate reason either way. A repentance call is only "circular" if you're approaching it from the rationalist / positivist / skeptic perspective of a cogent argument when it is not intended to be, and cannot be. But, now that I think about it, I suppose it could be advanced as a cogent evidential argument.

    "Are there any other specific posts, on your site, that you would recommend I read?"

    That depends on what your thoughts and feelings are at the moment. If you share that, perhaps I can point you to something.

    P.S. - I'm still wondering where we left off on the back-and-forths. From here on out I'll keep a better track, so I don't have to ask again.

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  3. I would also add:

    "Why should I believe that this Jesus guy was god's son?"

    Because the stakes are so high. Then again, it all depends on what you value. If you think skepticism or doubt or whatever you want to call it is more important than reconciling with YHWH and gaining eternity, well... then you shouldn't believe.

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    1. "If you think skepticism or doubt or whatever you want to call it is more important than reconciling with YHWH and gaining eternity"

      I don't want to speak for the blog author, but I think what's important is actually seeking truth, coming as close as we possibly can to reality. Talking about a god from the ancient hebrews and this concept of eternity should not be treated as if it were fact when there is so much evidence to the contrary. It's not a question of reconciling. You can't reconcile with something that you've never met. If someone like the author does not believe a god as described by the bible exists, then how can you ask him to reconcile with it? Would you be comfortable reconciling with Allah?

      Why are the stakes high? Because your own set of beliefs makes it so? Pretend to be a follower of Allah for a moment and pretend that the blog author had left Islam because of a lack of evidence for the claims of the religion. Would you try and give him a guilt trip for abandoning Allah? Wouldn't it be better to show him actual evidence since this is why he left?

      This is the point of the blog post. Evangelism is deceptive because it focuses on emotions and guilt. It's even worse when taught to children since they believe almost anything. The proper approach would be to show evidence first and give the matter a thorough investigation. New converts should be aware that there is quite a bit written not only in favor of Christianity, but against it as well.

      Christians know that they cant provide adequate evidence to prove such fantastic claims from thousands of years ago. They don't know how to perform miracles like the early christians supposedly did. They know that hearing from god is like a soft whisper in their heart and is not distinguishable from other thoughts inside their head. They are left saying that it is up to their holy spirit to select people to believe. This works because it is very subjective and if someone does not respond to the gospel than it simply was not their time yet.

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    2. What the bible records Jesus as saying is scientifically incorrect.

      First, when talking about marriage in Mark 10:6 and Matthew 19:4 both record Jesus as saying that God created mankind in the beginning. Jesus supported a young earth creation that we know is wrong. Although young earth creationist like to use pseudoscience and "flood geology" to support their claim, just look to the stars. It takes some of the stars billions of years for their light to reach the earth showing the universe if very old.

      Anther time, in John 12:24, Jesus claims that a seed must die to produce fruit. Any botanist can tell you that a dead seed will not grow into a plant.

      There is also the failed prophecy\prophecies RA has previously written about, but believers will find a way to justify those.

      However, this leads to one of the following conclusions:

      1) The writers accurately recorded the words of Jesus 50+ years after his death but that Jesus was just wrong. If this is the case, the bible is not true and Jesus cannot possibly be the son of God.

      2) The writers did not record Jesus' words accurately 50+ years after his death and Jesus never said these things. If this is the case, the bible is not true and there is no trustworthy evidence that Jesus was the son of God.

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    3. Jack, you nailed it. In the future, feel free to just refer to me as RA.

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    4. Has anyone checked out other sources about Jesus... not the bible but other written artifacts of the time and compared them?
      Thanks B

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  4. You get to the heart of something that I don't understand.
    I read of someone's conversion to Catholicism. They had an intense emotional experience and then they were confirmed and converted etc.
    But believing in Catholicism involves accepting a LOT of intellectual propositions, belief in miracles, etc.
    How does someone get from the emotional experience to the belief system? It seems to involve a decision on some level to not use one's critical and logical abilities.

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    1. Thanks for your thoughts Laura. I agree.

      *How does someone get from the emotional experience to the belief system?*

      I guess the short answer would be that most get there through *faith* (because, as the bible says, *without faith it is impossible to please god*).

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    2. That isn't an answer, though. How does somebody buy the whole shebang? and there's quite a shebang, with catholicism. With Christianity in general, actually.

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    3. The answer is twofold.
      (1) intellectual blackmail. Say you believe in this stuff, or we kick you out of our social club (and potentially mistreat you even further).

      If you poke a lot of Christians, you'll discover they don't really believe all those doctrines -- not really. If they really believed them, then the doctrines would have an effect on their personal behavior. Which they don't. The Christians just know how to repeat them by rote. The Roman Catholic Church had this down to a fine art back when they did Mass in Latin, a language few of their parishoners spoke, discouraged people from reading the Bible, and in fact kept as many people illiterate as possible.

      The doctrines are gussied up with linguistic manipulations -- use of double-meanings and slippery definitions to make things sound sensible which aren't.

      (2) This takes a stronger form when it turns to outright brainwashing. This is what's usually done to children in churches which "indoctrinate" children. The Roman Catholic Church has a particular record of using lots of brainwashing techniques even before they were known to be brainwashing techniques, but it's far from alone.

      At this point the Christian who has been subject to the brainwashing may really believe the nonsense, to the point where it starts influencing his or her behavior substantially; if so, it usually damages and hampers his or her life substantially, because so much of it is *dangerous* nonsense, with the parts about respecting priests by virtue of their office being merely the most obvious -- the parts telling people to be sheep and obey are really the worst.

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    4. FYI, the book that changed my mind from thinking that religious belief systems were wrong, but mostly harmless, to thinking that most of them were scary brainwashing cults, was _Leaving the Fold_, which has a quick catalog of common Christian brainwashing techniques in it.

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  5. "Allow me to further illustrate my point...let's suppose that someone is generally o.k. with the idea that we're all imperfect, but they have serious doubts about whether or not Jesus was God, rose from the dead, or performed miracles etc. Can such a person make it to heaven, without changing their mind on the factual claims? I have yet to meet a single Christian who answers "yes" to this question (in fact, most give it a resounding "no")."

    Universalists are the most famous sect who answered "yes" to this, though there are a few others. Of course, the Unitarian Universalist assocation proceeded to evolve in a direction very different from the rest of Christianity.

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