A Self-Created Problem

For a long time, I couldn’t understand how anyone would turn down God’s gift of salvation. Who wouldn’t want to be saved? But really, the answer to that question was right in front of me, and I should have seen it. I was taught that the first step of evangelism involves convincing a person that he or she is a sinner. Once you’ve convinced them that they’re sinners, then you tell them, using the Bible, that the punishment for sin is eternal torture in hell after they die. Once you’ve got them convinced that they deserve eternal damnation, then you share the gift of salvation. In other words, Christianity solves a problem that it itself creates.

I’m reminded of the following excerpt from an atheist website:

Imagine you are strolling down the sidewalk and a man excitedly calls you over to his front porch to share some “great news,” Protestant minister-turned atheist author Dan Barker asked his audience on Wednesday.

The man’s got a gruesome torture chamber in his basement, Barker said, but you don’t have to go down there. Instead, you can come over, hug the man’s son, say you love him and you can all move in together in the attic and tell them how great they are forever.

“Isn’t that great news?” a sarcastic Barker asked the crowd…

The gospel message is only actually “good news” to those who have been convinced that eternal damnation awaits them and that they deserve it because they’re sinners. The thing is, even the idea of “sin” is an invention.

The Romans had no concept of sin, for example. The Romans believed that Gods were capricious things who only cared that you properly honored them (with sacrifices, for instance), but didn’t actually care how you lived your life or what you did. The concept of sin did not exist. Christianity creates that concept. (This is not to say that Christianity is the only religion to have such a concept, but rather simply that the concept itself is invented rather than universal.)

Christianity solves a problem it itself creates, and the gospel message is only good news if someone has been convinced that he or she is a sinner and doomed to hell. Personally, I don’t think there is any such thing as sin – I think people are just people, not perfect but not evil either – so trying to tell me that I am a sinner would make no sense. Similarly, I don’t believe there is a God, so trying to convince me that some doom awaits me after death wouldn’t do any good either. And finally, I don’t see the Bible as in any sense authoritative, so quoting from it wouldn’t make any difference.

I wonder sometimes if the reason that this line of evangelizing can bear fruit is because so many Americans, whether they attend church or not, have a sort of Christian background and way of viewing the world. Ideas like sin and judgement make sense to them, and they see the Bible as somehow vaguely authoritative. With this background, the one two three evangelism style (you’re a sinner, you’re going to hell, but Jesus can save you) can be very effective.

It would be easy to analogize this self created problem to parenting as well. I could tell Sally the following, for instance:

Sally, you are a selfish rotten little girl. You are always asking for things you want and getting in the way when I’m trying to work. Because you’re such a naughty, despicable girl, starting tomorrow I’m going to have to punish you by taking away all of your toys, only feeding you bread and water, and having you sit in the timeout chair every minute you’re awake. But even though this is the punishment you deserve, Sally, I love you and I’ve found a way to forgive you of your naughtiness by hurting myself. Now, if you tell me you love me, I won’t have to punish you at all. Isn’t that loving of me?

Actually, that’s not loving, that’s really bad parenting. I was taught growing up that God is our father, but it seems to me that a good father would try to earn his children’s love rather than threatening his children with horrible punishments if they won’t love him.

Weirdly, I was also told that God is loving, and I was taught to have a personal and intimate relationship with Jesus, and to make him my best friend. I think sometimes that when you’ve been raised within a belief system you cannot truly see its oddities or problems without first stepping outside of it. Now, looking back, I can see that Christianity of my youth merely solves a problem it itself creates. At the time, though, I couldn’t see that.

Note: Fundamentalists and Evangelicals do all sorts of mental gymnastics trying to make this self-created problem make sense. They set up God’s nature in such a way that he couldn’t help but send people to hell for disobeying him, for example. Then, when God finds a way to forgive humankind without sacrificing his holiness by having his son serve as a human sacrifice, he is to be praised. The problem with this, though, is that it means God cannot be all powerful. After all, if God IS all powerful, he creates the rules and sets up the systems. There are lots more rationalization attempts, but they only prove that if someone REALLY wants to believe something, they’ll find a way to do so.

Note 2: I am aware that many liberal Christians no longer believe in sin or damnation. The fact remains that the vast, vast majority of Christians today do, as have the vast, vast majority of Christians across the two thousand years of Christian history.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00352307000387725294 Aili zai Zhongguo

    The technique of telling people that they're unworthy of you, in a way that they are fundamentally unable of changing… but you FORGIVE them is actually a very effective indoctrination technique, often used by abusers.My abusive ex-boyfriend used to use a similar technique to keep me with him. He made me out to be a "worthless slut" (I'd had sex with one person before I met him…) who had "ruined his life" (by being a worthless slut) and whom nobody else would ever love, and then told me that he forgave me and loved me anyway. It's one reason that Christianity gives me the heeby-jeebies. The original sin argument just sounds way too similar to what my boyfriend used to do for my comfort.Interestingly, my ex tried to convince me to become Christian, even though he himself wasn't. A part of me still wonders if that was because on some level he understood that he could mistreat me more effectively if I was being exposed to the same kind of logic from a socially powerful force.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13930917517196516292 Jason Dick

    It's amazing to me just how long after getting out of Christianity that it took me to realize this issue (something like 4-5 years, though admittedly I didn't think about religion much at all in those intervening years).But yes, this theology basically presents God as a manipulative, abusive parent.@Aili, wow, that is horrible. Definitely sounds like a great thing that you're done with that POS.

  • http://luckystarfish.blogspot.com Mrs. Strawberry

    I'm so with you on this. I grew up Southern Baptist and am still trying to recover from all the damage done to my psyche. ALL my family is still in the church, so it makes it much, much harder. They honestly cannot see what a bully they make God out to be. I ask them, if God is my Father, what kind of father is he if he's going to send me to hell to burn for ever and never, ever die just because I told my friend that no, those pants didn't make her look fat, just to spare her feelings? Or because I stole some candy from my brother when I was a kid? Or because I swear when I'm annoyed? I mean…if my biological father tried to set me on fire because I did something he didn't like, we'd lock him up and throw away the key. But we're supposed to hold God to a lower standard??And yeah, God DOES send people to Hell, despite the fact that they say people decide to send themselves there. Yeah. Ok. So, it's either do what God wants or BURN FOREVER. How is that a choice? How is that even remotely ok?

  • Wendy

    My husband and I have been reflecting on these ideas lately. It seems to me that every deeply held Christian virtue is, simply, the kind of behavior that helps enslaved people stay alive.Great post!

  • Toibaobao

    I don't even understand how sin can exist. If Jesus died for all our sins, aren't I'm forgiven even before I mess up? I don't get it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00034789805638968595 Tim Frisch

    I do believe there is sin in the world.I saw this headline today: “Janitor finds mentally disabled people locked in basement; 3 arrested.” The article says, “Three people have been arrested and accused of holding the people captive and stealing their Social Security checks.” The mentally disabled victims were discovered, surrounded by human waste. This is one of many such horrible things we see in our world every day. Christianity creates the idea of sin? I would have to disagree. Article found at: http://www.cnn.com/2011/10/16/justice/pennsylvania-disabled-chained/

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03820077215682328240 boomSLANG

    "The Romans believed that Gods were capricious things who only cared that you properly honored them (with sacrifices, for instance), but didn't actually care how you lived your life or what you did." Libby AnneNot much has changed. I don't think it's by any accident that the only unforgivable "sin" is not accepting "Jesus", yadda, yadda. And does that not make it the only relevant "sin", ultimately? It appears so. For example, a serial killer on death row could convert to Christianity while waiting to be put to death, and he or she (presumably) earns a life of unadulterated, never-ending bliss when he or she dies. Meanwhile, Libby Anne, boomslang, and countless other atheists – many of whom, never having harmed a hair on anyone's head – get tormented with fire 24/7 for the "crime" of non-belief. If that is not a mockery of "justice", then nothing is."I don't think there is any such thing as sin – I think people are just people, not perfect but not evil either – so trying to tell me that I am a sinner would make no sense." ~ Libby AnneRight, 'makes no sense, especially when one considers what would've happened if Adam & Co. had not "sinned". What?…the whole human race would be inherently "good"?…we'd all be totally devoid of the ability to commit a wrong-doing….ever? The problem with that should be obvious. In any case, yes, old school, Evangelical Christianity creates the very problem it claims to "solve", and it uses fear tactics to enforce its teachings, not unlike any other cult.@ Mrs. Strawberry,Right? Make no mistake, people don't "send themselves to hell". That apologetic is as amusing as it is unconvincing. It's not as if, on "Judgment Day", the people in the "Hell line" are going to voluntarily go single file into a "lake of fire". No. Someone would most definitely have to put them there, or at least, they'd have to put me there.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13930917517196516292 Jason Dick

    @Tim,That has little to do with the Christian idea of sin. Nobody disagrees that there are some sick, twisted people out there (and many of them happen to be Christians, along with a wide variety of other religions or no religion).When Christians teach of sin, they teach as if sin is something we all have within us, not just a few sickos, and that we all need to be saved from. Supposedly, all of us have this strong desire to sin, all of us fail and sin sometimes, and thus all of us need to be saved.But all of us do not capture and steal from the mentally disabled. All of us do not rape. All of us do not abuse our children. In fact, to those of us that are well-adjusted, those actions are horrifying and repulsive. We have no desire whatsoever to cause such harm to other human beings. And while in a fit of anger many of us will be tempted to harm another, the vast majority of the time cooler heads prevail and we consider it better to not carry that out.The Christian teaching of sin as something we all need to be saved from, then, just does not agree with the view as sin being the action of a few twisted individuals.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10562805251128821984 Libby Anne

    Tim – What Jason said. I'm not denying that there are people who do horrible things, or that all people are at times unkind or uncharitable. But elevating psychotic minds and occasional (or even frequent) human selfishness to something called "sin," some intrinsic human problem that dooms humanity to eternal torture, does not make sense to me.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00034789805638968595 Tim Frisch

    Jason,I am a Christian and understand the teaching on sin, and in answer to your comments:First, I think there are more than just a "few twisted individuals" out there. Part of my point is that evil is very widespread.Second, I think all of us have done things we have felt ashamed of and have realized a change needs to take place. I would certainly call myself a sinner, even though I am not what you would label a sicko.Third, you classify some actions as horrifying and repulsive. It seems to me that the Christian doctrine is saying that God finds certain actions horrifying and repulsive, even though people may not always think that they are. If we have the right to judge something as horrible, then perhaps God does to!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10562805251128821984 Libby Anne

    Tim – "Part of my point is that evil is very widespread."Ah, then we completely disagree. I honestly don't believe that there is evil in the world."It seems to me that the Christian doctrine is saying that God finds certain actions horrifying and repulsive, even though people may not always think that they are. If we have the right to judge something as horrible, then perhaps God does to!"But see, I have a reason for finding certain things repulsive. What God finds repulsive seems relatively capricious (which it is, because many Christians simply define sin as "disobeying God," and whatever God says goes). I don't believe in a God, but if I did, I would expect him to make sense and have reasons for what he does. This is a bit off topic, but the things we find repulsive are culturally conditioned. In a past age, people didn't find slavery repulsive; today we do. I would imagine that some things are universal (seeing coldblooded murder as repulsive), but I haven't done the anthropological research so I don't know. Regardless, you've already identifies yourself as a Christian who does believe in sin, so we're not going to agree on this one.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10562805251128821984 Libby Anne

    For point of reference, the first google definition of sin is "An immoral act considered to be a transgression against divine law."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13930917517196516292 Jason Dick

    @Tim,"First, I think there are more than just a "few twisted individuals" out there. Part of my point is that evil is very widespread."In addition to Libby Anne's point above, if you go almost anywhere in the world, you can almost invariably expect to be treated with kindness and respect. The few exceptions to this rule are usually places where some specific dogma or other has convinced people to treat outsiders as anathema. And even then they typically treat members of their in-group with kindness and respect.Are there a lot of nasty things that happen in this world? Certainly! But if you actually investigate to understand the underlying causes, the Christian concept of "sin" just doesn't make any sense whatsoever. What you instead find is that the primary causes of suffering everywhere are dogmatic thinking and the greed of a few powerful men.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00034789805638968595 Tim Frisch

    Libby Ann,"I honestly don't believe that there is evil in the world."So holding mentally disabled people captive and stealing from them is not evil?The molestation of a little child is not evil?Hmmm…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10562805251128821984 Libby Anne

    Tim – Of course I find things like that repulsive, but I wouldn't call them "evil." It may be just a semantic difference, but I when I was a Christian I so connected the term "evil" to Satan and the battle of good against evil that I simply can't divorce that term from those religious roots, and I therefore don't use it. And yes, I would prosecute those people and send them to jail, but I wouldn't call what they did "sin." And you are, of course, pointing to the random example. In general, people steal because they are have not other options, or lie because they don't want to hurt someone's feelings, rather than out of some sort of maliciousness. The idea that everyone has evil inside of them and needs to change is not backed up by the evidence. Like Jason said, people are actually generally good and amazingly caring, not primarily selfish or bad or "evil." Earlier, you said "I think all of us have done things we have felt ashamed of and have realized a change needs to take place." I completely disagree with this. Being from a religious background, I think you are referring to the belief that Christians hold that everyone is enslaved by a sin nature and needs to be freed from Christ to become a new creature. This is bullshit. People are just people, and sure, sometimes people need to be kinder or more caring, but it's not like everyone has this hole in their heart that needs filling and feels guilt ridden by their "sin."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13930917517196516292 Jason Dick

    @Libby,On your last paragraph, this is one of the things that really surprised me when I deconverted from Christianity: the guilt. I used to be guilty about every little thing. I would feel guilty for thinking something Christianity said was wrong to think. I would feel guilty for making a small mistake that, in retrospect, really wasn't much of anything to feel guilty about. I would feel guilty for doing something that I should never have considered wrong in the first place.And as I left that religion, the guilt just slowly melted away to almost nothing. The guilt that Christianity pushes upon people really is debilitating and wrong. And since I've deconverted, I almost never feel guilty, while at the same time my actual behavior has, if anything, improved. This idea that people are inherently sinful is just bullshit, and what's more it is abusive bullshit.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03820077215682328240 boomSLANG

    "First, I think there are more than just a 'few twisted individuals' out there. Part of my point is that evil is very widespread." ~ T. FrischPick whichever percentage you'd like. The fact that human beings are, by nature, imperfect – all of whom use poor judgement at times; some of whom are amoral and/or mentally disturbed – is not proof that your your premise is true..i.e..that "sin" exists. To believe it does is merely affirming the antecedent. "Second, I think all of us have done things we have felt ashamed of and have realized a change needs to take place. I would certainly call myself a sinner, even though I am not what you would label a sicko."None of that confirms your premise. Tom Cruise could come along and confess all of his prior wrong-doings, and today he might call himself "a Clear". I'm almost certain that this would mean very little to you."Third, you classify some actions as horrifying and repulsive. It seems to me that the Christian doctrine is saying that God finds certain actions horrifying and repulsive, even though people may not always think that they are."But evidently, Christian doctrine finds no action more horrifying and repulsive than not accepting "Jesus" as one's "Savior". As long as those sickos in your provided article do that much, they are received with open arms. In fact, it seems to me that "sin" isn't about people's actions at all, but only what they believe(don't believe).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10374620768794536239 Sheena

    I believe that there is "evil" in the world, but I don't know that I believe in "sin" (at least, not the way that religion defines it).There are too many people who willfully hurt others, especially those who enjoy it, for me to believe that evil doesn't exist. But, honestly, I attribute the "evil" state of being as a psychological, rather than spiritual, trait. Sociopaths hurt others without remorse, which I would call evil; however, what is considered "sin" in religious circles is relatively minor.I also take issue with the religious concept of hell. I don't believe that someone like Ted Bundy, who claimed to be "saved" (even though he was a known sociopath and sadist), would go to "heaven", when a teenager who was not raised in the Christian faith (and is past the "age of accountability") would go to "hell" if that teen died. That is just cruel. I'd rather believe (even if it's considered a heresy) that hell is reserved for the "evil", who willfully hurt others without remorse. I won't accept that hell is populated by kind people who simply follow different religions (or don't follow a religion), if it exists at all.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13930917517196516292 Jason Dick

    @Sheena,The only problem with that is that reality doesn't care what we believe. Fortunately, there's no good reason to believe in either heaven or hell.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10562805251128821984 Libby Anne

    Sheena – "There are too many people who willfully hurt others, especially those who enjoy it, for me to believe that evil doesn't exist. But, honestly, I attribute the "evil" state of being as a psychological, rather than spiritual, trait."Exactly. See, I don't think we disagree on whether "evil" exists, we just define it differently. I, too, see there as psychological causes for a lot of the most heinous crimes. However, even so, I wouldn't call that "evil," I think, like I said before, because I associate the existence of "evil" with religion.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00034789805638968595 Tim Frisch

    Libby Ann,"People are just people, and sure, sometimes people need to be kinder or more caring, but it's not like everyone has this hole in their heart that needs filling and feels guilt ridden by their 'sin.'"I just want you to know that I am not trying to defend a particular view of Christianity that you may have come from. It feels like you are almost anticipating my beliefs rather than hearing them. But to comment on the statement above, I wonder how a person can say others ought to be kinder or more caring if the person making this statement rejects a standard by which all people should live?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10562805251128821984 Libby Anne

    Tim – Ah, so you assume that I and other atheists have no concept of ethics. This is incorrect. Actually, the ancient Greeks had a system of morality built on academics and ethics that was totally separate from their religious beliefs. It's not necessary to be religious to have ethical standards. A simple one is "do as little harm to others as possible." Another is "do onto others as you would have them do onto you." Of course, this is only the small tip of the iceberg, and it's a rabbit trail that doesn't need following here, but I thought I'd answer your question as concisely as possible.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03820077215682328240 boomSLANG

    "I wonder how a person can say others ought to be kinder or more caring if the person making this statement rejects a standard by which all people should live?" ~ Tim FrischAnd what "standard" would that be? If by chance you mean the one found in Christianity, then you are begging the question. In any case, people who agree that it's better to exist than to not exist can easily say that others ought to be kinder or more caring, simply because doing those things ensures our survival/existence. For those who don't agree that it's better to exist than not, we have laws in place and/or medication in the case that these people are mentally unstable.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10374620768794536239 Sheena

    Tim, Like Libby Anne, I don't believe that any one group of people hold the authority/responsibility/whatever on morality or ethics. The belief system one claims has no bearing, whatsoever, on whether or not they are moral or ethical. How many have used "Christian beliefs" to excuse cruelty (such as the Crusades or Salem Witch Trials). While I have religious beliefs, I don't believe that my faith makes me a better person. It just means that I believe in and follow certain aspects of that faith system — though not uncritically, and not blindly; if I hear something at church or from a well-known "Christian leader" that doesn't sit well with me, I question that statement or belief, figure out why it bothers me, and often file it in the "ideas I disagree with" box.Kindness is not an exclusively Christian belief. It should be a universal practice, regardless of religion or ideology.

  • http://attackfish.livejournal.com/ attackfish

    Tim:There are incredibly kind, caring people of every faith and no faith. And likewise, there are real pieces of work of every faith. People can agree on moral standards without Christianity, or any religion at all.Interestingly enough, in the faith I grew up in (Judaism) the closest concept we have to sin is the word commonly translated as sin in the bible, which more literally means to miss the mark, or make a mistake. The Christian idea of sin makes no sense in a Jewish worldview, and I'm told my reactions as a kid when Christian friends tried to explain sin to me were pretty funny.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00034789805638968595 Tim Frisch

    Libby Anne,“Ah, so you assume that I and other atheists have no concept of ethics.”I would not say that you have no concept of ethics. I think atheists can have ethical standards, I just think they lack universal authority.But getting back to the main point: People can call moral atrocities something other than “evil” and they can try to say that horrific acts are not common (even though history and current events says otherwise), but I think it is going too far to say that Christianity “creates” the problem of sin. I see plenty of evidence for it. I am sure we could all argue endlessly about the particulars, but our world definitely has something wrong with it–whatever you want to call it. To all-I am signing off of this conversation, but I wanted to thank you all for interacting with me. I really do appreciate people being willing to talk with others who believe differently. I hope to discuss more in the future.Tim F.

  • http://attackfish.livejournal.com/ attackfish

    I love how he says lacking universal authority like it's a bad thing.

  • Anonymous

    I'm seeing rude and snotty in here and it isn't the one professing Christian who has been very polite, aside from not telling y'all what you want to hear. As an aside, I am reading Libby Anne's line of thinking and wondering if perhaps we inhabit different planets. Really??? I think that you may think you have changed. But what I see at the vantage point of my years is that the external beliefs may have changed but the inner pattern of thinking remains eerily similiar.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03820077215682328240 boomSLANG

    "I think atheists can have ethical standards, I just think they lack universal authority."And since ethics are situational, it would only make sense that ethics aren't "universal". And furthermore, appealing to a single-source authority for ethics leaves the moral objectivist in precisely the same subjective boat that they insist atheists are in. God's standard is only one (supposed) individual's opinion, which is completely arbitrary.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01147315895351599236 Renter

    Tim,Christianity itself has changed its morality over time. The Bible was once used to justify slavery. King David had how many wives and consorts? Rapists were expected to marry their victims and unwed mothers were stoned to death. The Spanish Inquisition used to torture people to invoke confessions and conversions. And today the Catholic church would rather see people die of AIDS than wear a condom.I prefer to base my morality and ethics on fairness, the greater good, and the golden rule. Throw in the Law of Robotics, concern for the environment, and how others are affected by an action for good measure.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    Interesting conversation going on here. I'm too tired for some long, drawn-out response but I just want to point out that the alternative to a God-centric system of ethics is not necessarily total moral relativism (which a lot of people seem to think). There are arguments for moral universalism (which is different from moral absolutism) that do not rely on the idea of God (Natural Rights theory, for example.) We can profess that there are universal moral truths–which I do believe–without bringing God into the whole thing and we can reject "because God said so" type ethics without automatically taking up the view that right and wrong are simply a matter of opinion.

  • Anonymous

    Wendy, that is a fascinating point, and it's really making me think and clicking some ideas into place for me. (As is this post, and this blog in general)-Kate

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00499236427446909328 Ron Amundson

    I'm curious as to how you perceive the Milgram experiment and/or the Stanford prison experiment. While I think there is an inbuilt survival aspect which often leads to ethical behavior, their also seems an element of evil that can be brought out in many.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13930917517196516292 Jason Dick

    @Ron,I don't see how those demonstrate that there is an "element of evil". The Stanford prison experiment demonstrated that unchecked authority breeds cruelty. The Milgram experiment demonstrated that it is frighteningly easy to get people to perform heinous acts as long as they feel you have a position of authority over them.I don't see these as demonstrations of evil so much as demonstrations of a particular human weakness: our weakness for authority. What these experiments demonstrate, more than anything, is that authoritarian structures are exceedingly dangerous. Church is one such structure.

  • Rosie

    I know this is an old post, but I do feel like I have something to add. Not only does Christianity create the problem it then purports to solve, *it’s considered suitable for teaching to children*, at least in many places. I was even taught, in evangelical churches, about “sin” being “missing the mark”, or “making a mistake”, which is indeed inherently human. Since I was altogether dedicated to being “good”, and yet still made mistakes, and was told I was inherently “sinful”, I came away with a deep impression that only perfection is acceptable, and that I’m inherently unworthy of any good at all, because I have made mistakes. I learned that making mistakes is a bad thing, the *worst* thing in fact, and punishable by death (at least in a theoretical sense), not a way to learn. Apparently it never occurred to anybody who was teaching this stuff where it all leads: perfectionism, insecurity, fear of trying new things. And no amount of belief in Jesus on my part was able to solve those problems, though it may have got me to “heaven” I suppose, if I hadn’t decided it wasn’t worth the trouble of believing.

    • ScottInOH

      A good comment on a good post. I might be bookmarking this one, as well.