Sean King

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San Juan, Puerto Rico, United States

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Part I, Chapter I: Faith and Belief

As noted at the top of this page in the left margin, I've decided to serialize and publish on this blog a book that I've been working on for some time. Below is the second installment. Consult the Table of Contents at the right of this page for a chronological listing of posts.

The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.
--Literalist bumper sticker slogan

[I]f there be [a God], he must approve of the homage of reason more than that of blindfolded fear.
--Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787

I know of no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too desirous of evidence to support their core beliefs.
--Sam Harris

That Christians attain salvation “by grace through faith” is axiomatic among Literalist, but few bother to really ponder what this salvific formula actually means. For example, if faith is required, then we must ask, “faith in what?” The typical answer to this question is usually, “faith in Jesus Christ”. But again, what does that really mean? What does it really mean to have “faith in Jesus.”

To answer this question, one must first determine the meaning of the word “faith”. Is faith the same as belief? Because most Literalists seem to think so, I shall rephrase the question: What does it mean to “believe in Jesus”? Do I “believe in Jesus” if I merely pray to a god so named? Or must I also believe that he came to earth as a man? And that he was sinless? That he was crucified? And died? And that he rose from the dead? If I stop here, is that enough to say that I have “belief in Jesus” and am saved, or am I also required to believe that he walked among humans after his resurrection, or maybe that his death someone atoned for my sins? Where does it stop? Does “belief in Jesus” require a belief in every word of the Bible, or is there a subset of beliefs that is sufficient? If the latter, exactly what are they?

As these questions imply, “belief in Jesus” means much more to Literalists than merely praying earnestly to a a particular god. To the Literalist, “belief in Jesus” encompasses a whole host of other ideas that have at least one thing in common: They are mostly historical. To be saved, Literalists argue that I must accept that certain events of extreme spiritual importance actually happened on earth long ago. When asked to list the specific beliefs required for salvation, many Literalists will simply point to one of the various ancient Christian Creeds, perhaps the Nicene Creed which reads:

I believe in one God,
the Father Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth,
and of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only-begotten Son of God,
begotten of his Father before all worlds;
God of God, Light of Light,
very God of very God,
begotten, not made,
being of one substance with the Father,
by whom all things were made.

Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven,
and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man;
and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate;
He suffered and was buried;
and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures;
and ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of the Father;
and He shall come again, with glory,
to judge the quick and the dead;
whose kingdom shall have no end.

And I believe in the Holy Ghost the Lord and Giver of Life;
who proceedeth from the Father and the Son;
who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified;
who spake by the prophets.

And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church;
I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins;
and I look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Other Literalist may prefer the Athanasian Creed or the Apostle’s Creed or some more recently drafted denominational statement of faith that all followers of a given church are expected to recite and “believe.” But regardless, once a given Literalist has settled on a particular formulation of the required articles of faith, the required historical beliefs, do things end there? If I believe only in those historical things, would such a Literalist deem me saved?

Not likely. After all, the historical events in question, though perhaps miraculous, are only religious in nature to the extent that they have some spiritual significance. Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection are meaningful to Literalist because they are understood as providing a means of spiritual salvation—actually, the sole means of spiritual salvation. So, not only must I believe that these events happened, I must also accept the Literalist interpretation of their spiritual significance: I can believe that Jesus came, lived, died and was resurrected, but unless I accept that these acts somehow atone for my sins and reconcile me to God, most Literalist would say that I’ve not accepted Jesus as "savior".

But, how exactly do these events save me? In what way did the historical details of Jesus’ life secure salvation for humanity, or at least certain members of it? Although the exact explanation varies a little by denomination, most Literalists draw the following theological conclusions from the "history" chronicled in the Bible:

1) Man was created sinless by God, but through Adam’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden, man fell from his original perfect state and every generation since then has been tainted with “original sin.”

2) In this “fallen” state, man’s fate is eternal separation from God, for God cannot commune with sin.

3) Man cannot save himself from this fallen state or unilaterally reconcile himself to God.

4) God nonetheless desires to reconcile Man to himself for His own glorification.

5) Due to God’s perfect righteousness, He is unable, or perhaps just unwilling, to reconcile man to Himself unless and until man is made righteous through “atonement.”

6) The voluntary, sacrificial death of a perfect, sinless person is necessary to atone for mankind’s sins and “wash away” the taint of those sins in God’s eyes, thereby permitting a reconciliation without offending God’s sense of justice.

7) Since there is no perfect, sinless man (and per 1 above, there never could be such), God impregnated a virgin named Mary, came to earth, and walked among us as a perfect god-man named Jesus.

8) In an act of undeserved mercy, Jesus voluntarily endured a brutal and painful death by crucifixion. This sacrificial death of a perfect man satisfied God’s demand for “justice”, thereby permitting atonement and potentially reconciling us to God.

9) God raised Jesus from the dead, thereby demonstrating that sin/death no longer holds sway over humanity.

10) Whoever accepts God’s gift of atonement by believing in the 9 statements above (and perhaps some others based on the particular denomination involved) as literal, factual history is delivered from sin, reconciled to God, and “saved.”

11) Everyone who refuses to accept Gods gift by believing in the historicity of these events is destined for eternal damnation (i.e., separation from God).

For purposes of this book, I will call the above 11 theological conclusions “Atonement Theology.”

Note that Atonement Theology is more than just a chronicle of historical events. It also includes a number of theological conclusions and assumptions about the significance of those events and the motivations of the actors, even God. It is these assumptions and presuppostions that cloak the “historical” events with religious meaning: Yes, the god-man Jesus came and died and was resurrected, but this has meaning and spiritual relevance only because these events accomplished God’s plan of salvation. Otherwise, Jesus’ life, while perhaps miraculous, was not substantively different or more significant than any of the other Bible heroes.

However, I can’t emphasize enough that the spiritual and theological conclusions offered by Atonement Theology are not the only reasonable ones that follow from reading the Bible, though I admit that they do flow somewhat naturally from the Paradigm of Historicity. If the Bible is both a chronicle of history and a book of spiritual and religious significance, then it is reasonable to interpret that significance in light of the historical events it describes, and this is exactly what Atonement Theology does. In short, Atonement Theology is what happens when one tries to understand the purpose and meaning of the Bible by attributing theological significance to the “historical” events described therein.

But, what happens if the history upon which atonement theology is built is called into question? Aye, there’s the rub! After all, Atonement Theology makes little sense if the events of the Bible didn’t actually happen exactly as described. This is why Literalists tend to preach the Bible’s infallibility. After all, if the Bible gets some things wrong, then how can we be assured that it gets the history underpinning Atonement Theology right? And, if the history isn’t right, then what does that say about Atonement Theology itself? This is a problem to which we shall return time and again.

Why The Reader Should Keep Reading

Non-Literalist Christians should have no problem with the purposes and conclusions of this book. They understand already that we need no longer blindly accept our received interpretation of Christianity in order to be “faithful.” My prayer is that this book will provide them with a renewed appreciation for the fullness and usefulness of their faith, as well as a better understanding of its fascinating history. To the extent that their current understanding of Christianity is “fuzzy, imprecise and relatively unappealing”, I trust that this book will provide a remedy.

Literalist, on the other hand, may find this book quite threatening. After all, its stated objective is to undermine their entire religious worldview. As a result, I don’t expect that many true Literalists will have bothered to read even this far. Very few will have the emotional fortitude required to subject their most fundamental beliefs to scrutiny. But I take some comfort in the fact that those who were meant to read this far will have done so, and I’ll devote what’s left of this chapter to explaining why they should continue.

Jesus’ Faith

Let me note first that whatever the writers of the Bible meant when they spoke of saving “faith” and “belief”, it is clear they didn’t mean merely an intellectual assent to some creed or statement of faith, nor did they mean a belief in the historicity of certain events. Consider for a moment what Jesus Christ himself repeatedly says about faith and salvation in the gospel of John:

I assure you, most solemnly I tell you, the person whose ears are open to my Words, who listens to My message—and believes and trust in and clings to and relies on Him Who sent me has (possesses now) eternal life. And he does not come into judgment—does not incur sentence of judgment, will not come under condemnation—but he has already passed over out of death into life. (John 5:24).

I assure you, I most solemnly tell you, he who believes in Me—who adheres to, trusts in, relies on and has faith in Me—has (now possesses) eternal life. (John 6:47).

So Jesus said to those Jews who had believed in Him, If you abide in My Word—hold fast to My teachings and live in accordance with them—you are truly my disciples. And you will know the truth and the truth will set you free. (John 8:31-32).

I assure you, most solemnly I tell you, if any one observes My teaching—lives in accordance with My message, keeps My word, he will by no means ever see and experience death. (John 8:51).

Jesus said to her, I am [Myself] the Resurrection and the Life. Whoever believes in –adheres to, trusts in and relies on –Me, although he may die, yet shall he live. And whoever continues to live and believes—has faith in, cleaves to and relies—on Me shall never [actually] die at all. (John 11:25-26).

And this is eternal life: [it means] to know (to perceive, recognize, become acquainted with and understand) You, the only true and real God, and [likewise] to know Him, Jesus [as the] Christ, the Anointed One, the Messiah, Whom You have sent. (John 17:3).

And when he was gone forth into the way, there came one running, and kneeled to him, and asked him, Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life? And Jesus said to him, Why call you me good? there is none good but one, that is, God. You know the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Defraud not, Honor your father and mother. And he answered and said to him, Master, all these have I observed from my youth. Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said to him, One thing you lack: go your way, sell whatever you have, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me. And he was sad at that saying, and went away grieved: for he had great possessions. (Mark 10:17-22)

Before analyzing these quotes, let me note first that those from the gospel of John are taken from the Amplified Bible. Although wordier than most translations, the Amplified Bible does a better job of conveying the subtle meaning of the original Greek than many shorter word-for-word translations, since there is not always a single English word that captures the meaning of every Greek/Hebrew/Aramaic one.

And as the Amplified Bible makes clear, the Greek word often translated as “faith” or “belief” really means “to rely on, to trust and to adhere to.” We could just as easily translate the Greek work for “faith” as “reliance” or “dependence”. Thus, to “have faith in” or “believe in” Jesus really means to “rely on” or “depend upon” him and what he’s saying.

With this background, note that Jesus repeatedly emphasizes in the quotes from John that reliance on his teachings, on himself, and on God is the key to eternal life. In fact, Jesus often lumps himself and his teachings into the same sentence as if they are one in the same. Having “faith in” or “relying on” Jesus can be reasonably understood as accepting his teachings.

In support of this last contention, note that Jesus never teaches Atonement Theology in the quotes above. Jesus repeatedly emphasizes what is necessary to be saved, but he never once mentions his own death and resurrection! True, he says “I am the resurrection and the life”, but he says this while he is still alive, and he uses the present tense. Isn’t this a little disconcerting for Literalists? If acceptance of Atonement Theology is an absolute requirement of salvation, how could Jesus (and "John" who is quoting him) have failed to mention that in these sayings, all of which specifically address what is required for “eternal life”?

Finally, note that Jesus tells his audience that they can have eternal life “now”—that is, while they (and he!) are still alive. Read the above statements of Jesus again: Doesn’t Jesus say plainly that “any one” who listens to his message and relies on Him/God already possesses eternal life? And doesn’t Jesus say this to them
before dying to “atone” for their sins
? Clearly Jesus’ historical death and resurrection were not necessarily prerequisites of salvation. That this simple truth conflicts so plainly with the Atonement Theology is hopefully intriguing enough to keep some Literalists reading farther.

But, if Jesus didn’t teach Atonement Theology, what exactly does Jesus mean when he emphasizes that faith in him/God is the key to salvation? Well, that’s a topic for another chapter. For now simply note that the Literalists view of salvation is not easily reconciled to Jesus’ own teachings in the gospel of John as quoted above.

As I type these words, I imagine some Literalist readers exclaiming, “But what about the rest of the gospels!? What about Paul!? What about Peter!? What about the other books of the Bible!? Don’t they shed light on the meaning of Jesus words?” Perhaps, and rest assured that I will address each of these in turn. For now I only note that, taken on their own, Jesus’ words above, which were specifically addressed to the requirements of salvations, do not explicitly support Atonement Theology. This should be a little disconcerting, and hopefully sufficiently intriguing, to convince the Literalist to continue reading.

With this background, let us now explore more deeply the perplexing power of paradigms.


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