Saturday, June 13, 2009

Re: Theology Experment 1

Note: this is a response to a note on Facebook. Jonathan, A mutual friend pointed me to your post. First of all, thank you for your invitation to discussion. Your attitude and your desire for genuine understanding of the Christian worldview and how it might actually be coherent with reality if properly understood is evident and commendable, and I respect you for it. Too many people in your situation would express bitterness, simply wanting to prove themselves right. Right off the bat, the first thing that I, as a Christian, disagree with is one of your premises: "Genetics determines (at the least) how we approach experiences and decisions in our lives, and perhaps even how we make those decisions." I'm not saying that genetics doesn't set us up in life: each of us are certainly dealt a hand, and certainly from the perspective of a person coming into existence, genetics can be taken straight from God. What you seem to be taking from this assumption is that people are deterministic. The Christian model of a person is that he or she consists of a body, a soul, and a spirit. More specifically, that they are the soul, and that they have a body and spirit. In any case, every human soul has free will: that is, they can make free choices among the options presented to them. The human spirit was meant to be that part of our being which is our interface toward God: part of our purpose is to be connected to God in a relationship of trust and love. Human free will is the ability to choose from the options available to us. You cannot choose to become a bird and fly, but you can choose to fulfill your body's inclination to eat a sandwich, or scratch your nose, or read a book, or sit around and do nothing. You can even choose to become a pilot and fly. Our body, through our brain, isn't the only source of inclinations that we were designed to have. Our spirit was also designed to give us desires and insight: to present our will with a set of options and desires to fulfill or to ignore. Whenever we do something or nothing, we are fulfilling certain desires/impulses and not others. Our mind can also train our desires: if we choose to always indulge a certain desire, that desire will become reinforced at the expense of the alternatives (at the very least, the pathways in our brain associated with it will develop more efficiently, and so the desire will present itself more powerfully and be fulfilled with more ease and less mental effort). This in itself is neither morally good nor bad. The mind is a powerful rudder for what the body does, and we are continually shaping the landscape of how our desires will present themselves to us. What the Bible says about our desires is that our spirit has become dead to God. Admittedly, this is through no personal fault of our own: we can attribute this fact to our ancestors: Adam and Eve. Our spirit being dead to God means that without his intervention to restore that link and reestablish the relationship, we have no way to fulfill godly desires, since they do not even present themselves to us. This is what is known in Christian philosphly as total depravity: we cannot, of ourselves, please God because we cannot respond to him in loving submission: our spirit is broken. Even when we choose to do things that are the same kinds of things that our spirit would be prompting us to do if it were connected to God, we are doing them merely in response to our bodies' and minds' desires, not in response to him. I want to be very clear: when I say, "merely in response to our bodies' and minds' desires", I am not disparaging the good deeds that are done: what I am saying is that such good deeds do not "score any points", as it were, with God (not that we're on a point system with God!). The book of Proverbs says that "the plowing of the wicked is sin." This does not mean that it is wrong to plow. What is meant is that the wicked (those who do not respond to God) are incapable of true good no matter what their actions are. This is because what he designed us for is response to him in relationship, not simply certain actions and not others. To be sure, a relationship with him *will* produce actions that look a certain way, but acting in this certain way does not produce the relationship, nor will it transform the person, and the relationship with God and resultant transformation of the person is what counts. When Adam and Eve sinned, they were choosing to squelch that interface between God and themselves through their spirits, and thus their spirits became dead with respect to God. He could no longer stimulate them in that way, and they therefore defaulted to merely indulging in their other impulses. It may seem unfortunate that this spirit-death is commutable: that is, we inherit it from our parents, but because of the inheritability of the disease, the cure is also commutable from one Human to another. You see, God knew that man would sin, and he planned to turn that into something greater than it would have been if we had never been sinful. God didn't simply look at our situation of being born in depravity and say, "Well, it certainly sucks to be you." He's loves us and longs for us to be everything that he made us to be. Therefore immediately when sin entered the human race, he provided a way to re-connect ourselves with him. This reconnection, rather than being just like the original connection, is unbreakable, and, in its final state, an even closer and more glorious connection than the original. Sure, it's messy in the meantime, but God's not done with us. That's kind of God's style of creation: an "evening" and then a "morning"; a time of darkness and obscurity where things look confusing and out of place, followed by the emergence of what he has been making in the darkness into the light in its intended form. What that looked like at the time of Adam and Eve was a promise that a redeemer would come into the human race and destroy the devil's work at great cost to himself. God told Adam and Eve that "the seed of the woman" would come and crush the serpent in the head, though he would be crushed in the heel. God also provided an example of a substitute sacrifice when he covered their nakedness (a symbol of their now being exposed in shame) with the skin of an animal, which had to die for this to happen. Since that time, the "Messiah", or "Christ", has been God's way in which to reestablish that connection between God and man. Throughout history, God has been in the process of revealing how exactly this would be accomplished. Basically, that it was impossible to reconnect God and man from the man side, so God entered into humanity and did it from his side. Jesus was a human being whose spirit was not merely connected to God, it was God. Jesus Christ, in living a life in which everything he did flowed from God through his spirit, created a template that can be applied to other human beings: a cure for our condition that we can inherit directly from him. Since God is not *in* time (the past, the present, and a billion years from now are all equally accessible to him), this template was available to those who lived before Christ, as well as those of us who live after Christ. More succinctly put, because Jesus sinlessly and in righteousness toward God died a sinners' death, our old spirit's twisted God-ward connection can be done away with, and because Jesus sinlessly and in righteousness toward God lived a perfect life, his righteousness can be applied to us, such that we can now receive God's desires, and freely choose to do them. That isn't automatic, however. It's an elective surgery, and God is the ultimate gentleman: he didn't create us as people just to trample on the autonomy of our personhood. He will only perform the transplant at our invitation. That is what it means to be a Christian: not going to church, not believing certain things, but giving God permission to take away your broken, twisted, dead antenna, and replace it with the Holy Spirit of Christ, such that you will be able to "tune in" to God's desires, and make them yours. That is the choice that Adam and Eve got wrong in the first place to get us into this mess: they rejected God's desires, and we must personally reverse the decision in this way to participate in God's solution. Yes, by doing this, you are agreeing that you will surrender your competing desires and choose his instead: that ultimately, the only parts of you that survive will be those you have surrendered to him. But God made us who we are, and he values who we are even more than we do, and so he will work with you to help you surrender who you think you want to be and become who he knows you really are and ought to be. And no, none of us does it perfectly in this life. Doing it perfectly is not the point: re-establishing the relationship is the point. Perfection will come later, in the 'morning'. This life is the 'evening'. I've been a bit long-winded. I hope that you take the time to read and understand what I've said. Coming from this perspective, I will now respond to some of the specifics of the scenarios which you have put forth, hoping that it will shed more light on what Christianity really is. First, as I already have said, the universe is not physically deterministic. Any physicist worth his salt will tell you that at the particle level, there is no way to predict anything that will happen. For me, it is not too far a leap to say that our minds inhabit our brains and influence them and are influenced in return (whether or not that influence relates to quantum chaos): like a car and a driver, you cannot tell the car to fly, but you can steer, open the windows, lock the doors, and operate the pedals. Some people have a good interface to their brains, and some peoples brains are defective, or hard to handle: God knows this. He is just and loving. He works with what we have. You seem to have been blessed with a good brain and a good mind-brain interface. Second, just because Joe Sixpack has a genetic predisposition to addiction to alcohol does not mean that he has no choice but to revel in drunkenness. He is responsible for who or what he makes his god (i.e., the source of the desires to which he yields), and he will become that which he makes of himself, and bear the consequences. I would apply the same logic to homosexuality. There are a lot of people who make a big stink about how homosexuality is worse than other forms of God-rejection (i.e., sin). It is true that when we distort the beautiful gift of sexuality into what God did not intend, we can screw ourselves and others up a lot quicker and a lot more severely than in other ways, but homosexuality is not qualitatively different from other sins. It's sad to see Christians hypocritically condemn someone for succumbing to their personal weakness, while they themselves are giving in to pride. I don't see any specific evidence in your description of the two children to suggest that either child goes to heaven. Heaven and hell are what happens when the physical world is stripped away from a soul, and they are naked before their Creator God. Those souls that are in harmony with God: those who have responded to him and have a relationship with him will experience a quantum leap in the intimacy of that relationship, and the wonders that it does in them and through them. Those who have rejected God, who have no interface to him other than rejection will be burned and consumed by God's holiness. Since God respects our personhood and so will not unmake us, he has prepared a place for such souls: a place where, unlike all of the rest of reality, he is not there. The problem is that human beings were created to be with God and to know him and enjoy him. This place without God, known as hell, is characterized by the lack of the one thing that makes a human being complete: God. The irony is that this is what we tell him that we want whenever we reject him. This is the fate that He wants to save us from so much that he became part of humanity, lived perfectly, took upon himself the antithesis of himself: our sin, and died with it on our behalf. Again, rejection or acceptance of Jesus Christ does not mean going to church or believing that the Bible is true. It means accepting Christ's death as our own death to our ungodly desires, and accepting Christ's life as what we will now live because we want to desire God's desires (which we can't do without that fixed interface). The other stuff follows. Thinking we can be be righteous without God is putting the cart before the horse, and is the ultimate statement of "I don't want or need you" to God. I hope that his sheds some light on what real Christianity is and isn't. If you don't think that I'm presenting an accurate picture of what the Bible says on any point, or wish to know more specifically what the Bible says, let me know, and I can provide some backing. I didn't want to litter my paragraphs with references, and they would have taken a long time to compile, but I am certainly willing to do so upon request. If you find that my logic has holes or I'm misrepresenting something, or if you wish to discuss anything further, please let me know and we can discuss. Sincerely, Tim


  1. For reference, here is the original post. Jonathan, if you don't want this posted here, let me know and I can delete it.


    Which child goes to hell? (Or if you’d like it phrased more politely: Which child gets into heaven?)

    My conclusion:

    The first child (also assuming him, because I’m sick of saying “it”) is not compelled strongly by the will of others. The peer pressure placed upon him by a majority religious group of friends, only sways him far enough to give this religion a chance. Not coming from a religious background, the child does independent analysis, and rejects the religion as unsubstantiated.

    In this, it is largely the child’s genetics that are at work. Parental orientation does play a role here, but it mainly serves to make the child lack a religious brand already. If his parents were religious, he almost certainly would already be a member of the church.

    If this church is Christianity, and if they are right, this child goes to hell.

    The second child comes from a similar background to the first. Yet, because he is genetically disposed to seek affirmation from others, he readily joins the faith along with his friends. His peer group approves of religious study and defending the faith so this child readily becomes adept at both. Because of his disorder and personality, he constantly defends his place as an authority in the faith by diminishing those who would challenge him in the eyes of their mutual friends. His natural charm saves him from becoming ostracized. As he ages, his aggression lessens and he also believes internally what he has so long preached externally. Though he still struggles with the “negative” parts of his nature, he now consciously attempts to curb their influence on his life. It is a constant struggle. He never fully feels empathy because he is not equipped to, however he does understand it. He is never diagnosed with a disorder, and simply assumes others struggle in the same way. He is not a good person by default, but he understands how one would act, and at least now tries to emulate that.

    As with the first case, it’s largely the child’s genetics at work. He too lacks a religious brand from his family, but because he craves acceptance, he readily joins the church of his peers.

    If this church is Christianity, this child goes to heaven.

    (continued below)

  2. Implications:

    If the Bible is the word of God and is indeed true, the first child goes to hell based on his rejection of Jesus Christ. His nature is immaterial. The second child goes to heaven based on the same criteria. I have been told by a few Christian friends that a person's nature is not immaterial; my response is usually for them to go read their Bibles. (John 3:16 and the whole “saved by grace” thing seem fairly clear on this)

    Oddly, the above is not what I have a problem with. If God wants to be arbitrary, well, being God that seems to be his right. Who am I to argue? However, I begin to have a problem when two things become involved: Modern Genetics, and Jeremiah 1:5.

    Genetics tells us (increasingly so) that much of who we are and what we do is determined by our genes. More accurately, who we are is based on our genetic makeup, filtered through our life experiences. Everything from our intelligence to our sexual orientation, our fine motor control to our capacity to believe in God (though I specifically left that out of the above experiment), is initially determined by our genes.

    This is where the seemingly unrelated Bible verse comes in to play. Jeremiah 1:5 reads (depending on translation):

    "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. Before you were born, I set you apart for my holy purpose. I appointed you to be a prophet to the nations."

    To put it in context, God is talking to Jeremiah specifically here. I don’t think he’s telling everyone that they have a holy purpose and are all to be prophets unto the nations (though I might be wrong). But while the prophet-purpose might be specific to Jeremiah, I would argue the “I formed you in the womb, I knew you” part is fairly universal to everyone. In fact most religious leaders would agree with me in that interpretation. How do I know? Simply because this is one of the most quoted verses for anti-abortion purposes (this verse also apparently means human life begins before conception, when God thinks of you). If I’m not mistaken in this assumption, God would then not only know your genetics, but also the kind of person you will be.

    This has far reaching implications, many of which have been debated before. Pre-destination (thinking about this is similar to reasoning out a time-travel paradox) being the main focus. Specifically, I’m interested in how this relates back to the two children. The problem of good people going to hell is also ages old, but this only illustrates that God’s ticket to heaven is a bit arbitrary.

  3. Really I’m talking about the specific implications if both modern genetics and Jeremiah 1:5 are true. If the first child’s decisions are largely based on his genetic makeup, and God knew what that would be before the child was born, arbitrary begins to look more lake sadistic. Child one goes to hell for something that God had control over, but the child did not.

    Why would God create a good child, whose natural skepticism would lead them away from religion? Is this simply to provide a greater challenge? Why should the naturally malevolent child be saved? Do things like this happen simply to illustrate the arbitrary nature of John 3:16? If so, what does that say about the nature of God?

    Disclosure: I am not a theist. I resemble child one in a few ways, child two in others. My parents were very religious, most of my friends as well. I grew up practicing the faith, and rejected it later based on my own examination of history, evidence, science, and the religion itself. I’ve come to the conclusion that there are three possibilities regarding the Christian God:
    1. He does not exist.
    2. He is willfully vicious.
    3. He is incompetent (not sure how that would work, but really if we all were some lesser deity’s training creation, would we know?).

    This is perhaps the first of a few essays that explains why I end up with only the three possible answers. I started with Christianity because I know it the best. If I feel I’ve explained myself, maybe then I’ll move on to other Gods (or maybe I’ll figure out I’m wrong and rejoin the faithful, one never knows). If someone has an Idea for an experiment that might push me the other way after analysis, let me know.

    I wrote this mostly to illustrate the innate incompatibility of science and religion, and for the secondary reason of provoking a response. I don’t mean you need to write to me, I only mean that those reading this will feel sadness, amusement, anger, confusion, or deep contemplation (although now I may be flattering myself) based on where you stood with all this before you read it. Some folks might feel all of that. If you felt anything, ask yourself why? If you felt anger, why did you feel that way? Are you angry at the arbitrary nature of the Christian God? Or are you angry I would paint him that way?

    Obviously I have a goal for writing things like this. However, I would like to note that nothing above has been invented. The facts are neutral, and I have explained my opinions based on those facts to the best of my ability. If you think my facts need correcting, or my opinions are bogus, please say so, but understand that I’ll expect corrected facts and corresponding opinions from you.

    Understand that I DID NOT say that all Christians only believe because they are genetically inclined to do so. Nor that they are sociopaths. I did not say that all atheists are great and gentle people, or that child A was more intelligent than child B (in fact, if anything I said that religion helped child B get close to being a healthy citizen). If you want to yell at me about any of the above, you have the reading comprehension of a gnat and should read it again or simply give up.

    "Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
    Then he is not omnipotent.
    Is he able, but not willing?
    Then he is malevolent.
    Is he both able and willing?
    Then whence cometh evil?
    Is he neither able nor willing?
    Then why call him God?