Some Have Entertained Angels

In the New Testament book of Hebrews, there’s an exhortation to believers reminding them to show hospitality to their guests:

“Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

—Hebrews 13:2

The implication is interesting: that Christians should be hospitable to visitors, not simply because they are fellow human beings who need food and shelter, but because some might be angels in disguise who would, presumably, grant blessings to any person who showed them kindness. (The ancient Greeks had similar legends about gods in disguise visiting human beings and richly rewarding the humble souls who treated them well.)

When religious proselytizers claim that only their faith provides a solid basis for morality, the usual atheist retort is that their religion doesn’t actually teach people to be good – it only coerces them to commit certain deeds out of a desire for reward or a fear of punishment. In other words, it keeps people in line with appeals to greed and fear, rather than encouraging goodness for its own sake. And in this verse, the Bible confirms that this is the model of behavior it’s trying to inculcate.

The conservative columnist Cal Thomas offers another example of this belief that’s truly incredible in its bluntness:

If results are what conservative evangelicals want… they already have a model. It is contained in the life and commands of Jesus of Nazareth. Suppose millions of conservative evangelicals engaged in an old and proven type of radical behavior. Suppose they followed the admonition of Jesus to ‘love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison and care for widows and orphans,’ not as ends, as so many liberals do by using government, but as a means of demonstrating God’s love for the whole person in order that people might seek Him?

For Cal Thomas, doing good deeds is just a means to an end. He urges Christian evangelicals to do good for the needy and the downtrodden, not because they are human beings who need help and giving it is the right thing to do – that’s the ideology of “liberals” – but because those poor, miserable people might be induced to convert to Christianity if Christians are the ones who help them out. (This passage speaks volumes about why conservative Christians try to slash government-run social programs while boosting handouts to churches that have free rein to proselytize.)

Presumably, Thomas and others like him would view their effort as wasted if the recipient of their aid chooses not to convert, and Christians who follow the admonition in Hebrews would be disappointed if their guests turned out not to be angels. That’s the difference between them and us, as Robert Ingersoll wrote in an essay explaining the meaning of secularism:

Secularism means food and fireside, roof and raiment, reasonable work and reasonable leisure, the cultivation of the tastes, the acquisition of knowledge, the enjoyment of the arts, and it promises for the human race comfort, independence, intelligence, and above all liberty. It means the abolition of sectarian feuds, of theological hatreds. It means the cultivation of friendship and intellectual hospitality. It means the living for ourselves and each other; for the present instead of the past, for this world rather than for another.

Ingersoll’s focus on this world and the good things it has to offer shows what our moral motivation should be. As atheists and humanists, we welcome guests because we want to bring ease and comfort to our fellow human beings, not because we secretly hope to flatter angels. We put fantasies aside in favor of what is real and meaningful, and live for this world, rather than dreaming of one to come.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • velkyn

    just have to relate a “greed and fear” story (and apologies if I have before). In 1999, my brother’s mother-in-law had her church (she’s a pastor) buy a farm, stock it with food and *weapons*, including bass in the swimming pool, for when the “ravening hordes” from the city came after the Y2K bug happened. Ah, such good Christians with their trust in guns rather than God. My husband really wanted to go up to the farm just a few hours after midnight New Years Eve, and see what reception he got, him looking like a stereotypical biker crossed with classic depictions of Jesus. Somehow I dont’ think he’d have gotten a reception as a possible angel until he could perform a miracle. So much for the prating of Christians when they claim that their God only wants “faith”.

  • 2-D Man

    …with food and *weapons*, including bass in the swimming pool…

    Were they mutated bass, to replace the sharks with frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads? ;)

  • Roy

    I think Thomas was chastising “conservatives” for not being more like Jesus who did do some “good deeds” without thought of reward or thanks (10 lepers, healing non-believers, etc.) He is also taking a dig at “liberals” who want good things for the downtrodden but prefer to use someone else’s means to get the job done.

  • Maynard

    We all want something in return for our good deeds. Whether it’s a big pay off of fortune or simple warm fuzzy feelings, or maybe just an improvement in your own community that benefits everyone.

    I don’t think it disingenuous to work for a specific aim or goal, no matter how superstitious the reward. The problem with most religionists is that they feel entitled to the reward and might throw tantrums when it’s not received. (Unless the reward was heaven, then their tantrums are suffered by the worms.) Entitlement is one thing, but hope or ambition for personal benefit, especially when others benefit too, is honest (and human, IMO).

  • Polly

    Conversely, and much more disturbingly, all evil actions can be said to be against GOD – the owner of humans. When David was asking for forgiveness for having Uriah the Hittite killed after impregnating his wife, his cry was “LORD, against you and you alone I have sinned.” Psalm 51:4

    He never once mentions that he wronged a MAN twice, (a foreigner btw, from one of those nations the Israelites were commanded to exterminate) with the second wrong unto death.

    ‘Cause all sins are really against god, not people. So, if god forgives you, it’s all good.

  • existentialdrift

    The Thomas quote ties into the warped morality of fundamentalists, who see wealth as a sign of being moral, and poverty as arising from immorality. Thus, poverty provides an opportunity for Christians to proselytize to the sinners, because they wouldn’t be poor if they weren’t.

    Of course, most of those people needing assistance (at least in America) are already Christians, but this is completely beyond the ability to someone like Thomas to understand. It was not a lack of faith that caused their poverty, but, among other things, lack of a social infrastructure that could have prevented the poverty in the first place, and it was Christians like him who agitated against building such an infrastructure and tearing down what already existed.

    People like Thomas treat the poor, the sick, the whatever, the same way vampires treat their “herd”.

  • bbk

    Roy, he clearly stated that liberals help others as an ends whereas the ends for conservatives is to demonstrate “God’s Love”. In other words, he said that liberals view the welfare of all people as a necessity that should not depend on the charitable predisposition of some individual and their personal stake in the matter (“what’s in it for me if I help you?”). He is saying that the actual welfare of a person does not matter in any way whatsoever. The only thing that matters to the conservative ilk is to be able to win their god’s favor by demonstrating to those in need that Christianity is superior. And he is admitting that the only way it would ever achieve the side effect of improving the welfare of individuals is if conservatives sought their god’s favor actively enough to displace the transfer payments that are written into our tax code. In fact, the transfer payments written into the tax code are his worst enemy because they prevent Christians from demonstrating that their dogma is better in any way whatsoever than any number of secular alternatives. He wants them gone so as to make it easier for him and his church to mentally enslave those individuals who we all identify as being in need of some kind of help. Good luck selling that concept to atheists!

  • NoAstronomer

    Cause all sins are really against god, not people. So, if god forgives you, it’s all good.

    But of course. Because all people are either sinners or righteous. If they’re righteous then they’ll forgive you anyway. If they’re sinners then f**k em.

  • Chris

    This passage speaks volumes about why conservative Christians try to slash government-run social programs while boosting handouts to churches that have free rein to proselytize.

    But of course – if government helped them, they might get the idea that government could help people, or even that it was the function of government to help people.

  • Entomologista

    But of course – if government helped them, they might get the idea that government could help people, or even that it was the function of government to help people.

    A government FOR the people? Surely, you jest.

  • nfpendleton

    I’m going to brand that Ingersol quote into my forehead…

    …or just put it on all of my holiday cards to counteract the religious piffle I get from the family.

  • http://thewarfareismental.typepad.com cl

    Of curiosity, how many people actually went and read the verse in context before commenting?

    I submit that Ebonmuse is not being objective about Hebrews 13:2. Somebody commented before that Ebon was at his worst when he plunges into biblical exegesis, and my experience supports that observation. When he discusses scripture, he’ll quote mine to prove his point (see his comment January 18, 2009, 1:41 am). Here, he claims that religion (& Hebrews 13:2 by stated implication) keeps people in line with appeals to greed and fear. This entails his subsequent preclusion of “encouraging goodness for its own sake” in his estimation of Christian morality.

    We can discuss the role fear plays in religion another time, as no intellectually honest person can deny connections. Point is, a reasoned reading of Hebrews chapter 13 verses 1-5 does not permit Ebon’s conclusions – and in fact – directly challenges them. As in the link above, he omits verses only words away that directly challenge his positions (v 1, 5). You decide: Is that clear and objective analysis? Or painting bulls-eyes around our targets?

    As for the Cal Thomas thing, I understand the charge against him, and I’m willing to bet his paunchy moral undercurrents are a bit off-putting to us all, but his original article denounces the religious right and calls to abandon religious “more of the same” attitudes. You’d think that would be something anyone could be happy about. For example,

    Too many conservative evangelicals have put too much faith in the power of government to transform culture. (Thomas)

    This is true of people in general. Culture is the sum of individuals, and apart from individuals there is no such thing as culture. On the other hand, government consists of individuals and certainly qualifies as a culture of its own, and individuals always retain the power to catalyze transformation in other individuals. This means that theoretically, government can catalyze cultural transformation, but this is not likely to happen with a paper-producing, impersonal beaurocracy. And that seems to be much of what Thomas rallies against.

    Politicians who struggle with imposing a moral code on themselves are unlikely to succeed in their attempts to impose it on others. (Thomas)

    Sounds good to me, no matter who’s saying it. The problem is, Ebon lifted Cal’s statement and made it appear as nothing more than a call to do right for wrong’s sake – when Cal wasn’t necessarily discussing motives for behavior – and that’s not so easily the case IMO. After several paragraphs explaining the religious right’s three decades of failures to positively transform culture and criticizing their strategies, Thomas asked what strategies might actually produce results, i.e., what might actually transform culture. It is in that context he offered the quote cited.

    To me, Thomas was blasting Sunday Christians who think that voting for Bush while existing in their Christian bubbles entails helping the hungry because Bush peddled Christianity too.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    Politicians who struggle with imposing a moral code on themselves are unlikely to succeed in their attempts to impose it on others. (Thomas)

    CL, Confucius is quoted as saying almost the exact same thing in the Analects:

    “If a man manages to make himself correct, what difficulty will there be for him to take part in government? If he cannot make himself correct, what business has he with making others correct.”

    How’s that for timeless truths?

  • bbk

    You’d think that would be something anyone could be happy about. For example,

    Too many conservative evangelicals have put too much faith in the power of government to transform culture. (Thomas)

    cl, are you trying to be funny? That’s like criticizing white by saying it’s not white enough when blue is a better color.


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