In 2015, a shooter at a rural community college in Oregon killed nine and wounded more. The incident was unusual because reports said the shooter targeted Christians.
Was he persecuting Christians? Was he promising them an afterlife based on his Christian views? Since the shooter killed himself, we can’t know for sure, but I’d like to focus on another aspect. John Mark Reynolds is a fellow Patheos blogger in the Evangelical channel, and he responded to the incident by imagining a situation where someone with a gun was singling out Christians and killing them. If placed in such a situation, he hoped that he would have the courage to stand firm rather than deny his Christian belief. “I don’t wish to die yet,” he said, “but there are some things worse than death.”
I admire that bravery. It’s pointless, thoughtless, and stupid, but it’s brave.
(Dr. Reynolds and I have had some interaction before. He was the one who sounded the alarm about anti-theistic Stalin wannabes like me eager to establish an atheistic dictatorship and rule the world. I responded here and here.)
Reynolds sums up his dilemma in facing this imaginary shooter: “Better dead than betraying the High King of Heaven.”
Would you die for your father’s honor?
Let’s imagine a parallel. Suppose that instead of God, you’re defending your biological father. The gunman declares that your father is a dirty, rotten scoundrel and will shoot you if (and only if) you disagree. Is your father’s honor in the mind of one deranged idiot worth dying for? No father would want that. No father would find it sweet or caring that his child sacrificed their life for his honor or reputation. Instead, he’d find it stupid and pointless.
This example is so meaningless—defending with your life the honor of a god that many Christians admit to occasionally doubting—that I almost wonder if Reynolds imagines an ending like that in the Abraham and Isaac story. God saved Isaac’s life at the end, and the whole thing turned out to be a bizarre and heartless test. The god who knew everything had to see if Abraham was so blindly obedient that he would follow even the most immoral of commands.
I’ve written other posts about Christians’ excitement over Christian persecution (here, here, here). Jesus promised that Christians will be persecuted, so some imagine that this is vague validation that they’ve backed the right horse.
Christian persecution 2000 years ago
The post alludes to Christian martyrs in Roman times, and I guess Reynolds worries about modern Christians not living up to the sacrifices of their ancient forebears. But let’s be clear about what we’re talking about. Category 1 is people forcibly rounded up and executed for being Christian. Category 2 is people given the choice of forever abandoning their religion in favor of the Roman religion or die. And category 3 is Reynolds’ imagined situation where he has the option to lie or die. Unlike the other situations, Reynolds has an easy out.(The “Who would die for a lie?” argument is tangential, and I respond to that here.)
Would God want your sacrifice?
Reynolds gives the obvious parallel: would you lie to Nazis to protect Jews hiding in your house? He concludes, “Nazis did not deserve the truth.” But a mass murderer does? Reynolds would lie to Nazis but feels obliged to tell the truth to a psychopath with a gun? He might respond that it’s not the recipient of the message but the message itself. “There are no Jews here” hurts only the Nazi plan, while lying that “I’m not a Christian” makes God sad (or furious or disappointed or something).
This is the god that Christians tell us is overflowing in love and understanding . . . but he also wants Christians to sacrifice their lives in meaningless tests? Is this just an Abraham-and-Isaac thing, updated for modern times? Any loyalty test is pointless since God already knows the outcome, so why worship this guy?
The Bible sometimes approves of white lies. The Hebrew midwives lied to Pharaoh (Exodus 1:15–21). Rahab lied to protect the Israelite spies in Jericho (Joshua 2:5).
Jesus said, “When you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:6). Does God need anything more from you to know where you actually stand?
And take an extreme case: Peter denied Jesus three times, and he turned out okay (h/t commenter Jack of Sandwich).
Reynolds wrings his hands. “There are worse things than death for a Christian and one of those things is a life of secret shame.” Shame? Then apologize afterwards to God. Could God be so stupid that he doesn’t understand what happened? He’s a billion times smarter and a billion times more understanding than any father. And what’s there to apologize for anyway? You preserved God’s gift of life—sounds like God would congratulate you for making a smart decision.
Death is not the worst thing for a Christian. A life that continues based on cowardice in the face of the ultimate test would be worse.
Personal doubt (which I’ve been pleased to see many Christians acknowledge) is a test of your faith. Performing an arbitrary procedure to save your life is not. Isn’t God smart enough to get it? What kind of delicate flower of a god would care that you didn’t defend his honor? There’s a difference between a noble cause and a stupid one.
This is a lot of drama for the honor of someone who gives no evidence of even existing.
because a bunch of guys who didn’t know
where the sun went at night
totally have all the answers.
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 10/5/15.)
Image from Peter Anderson, CC license