The Magic Words

The cornerstone of Protestant Christian theology is the belief of salvation by faith alone – that good works do not bring one any closer to God, but it is faith alone that saves and faith is the only thing that saves. This idea has been taken to an extreme in the theology of so-called “born-again” Christians. According to them, all one has to do to be saved is to sincerely say the following words, or something equivalent to them: “Dear God, I am a sinner and need forgiveness. I believe that Jesus Christ shed his precious blood and died for my sin. I am willing to turn from sin. I now invite Christ to come into my heart and life as my personal savior.” That’s it – that’s all it takes. Say that prayer and your salvation is guaranteed, your sins are unconditionally forgiven, and you’re promised a place in Heaven when you die.

Although praised by believers for its simplicity, this has some very unpalatable implications. For example, according to this system, if Adolf Hitler had experienced an epiphany while lying on his deathbed and cried out to Jesus with his last breath, he would have received an unconditional pardon and gone to Heaven, blame-free, all his many horrific atrocities absolved and forgotten. Meanwhile, the millions of innocent Jewish people he murdered would have gone to Hell to suffer for all eternity.

This is not only absurd, it is offensive. Conscience cries out against such a manifestly unjust system, and conscience alone should lead one to conclude that something so illogical and so contrary to basic principles of morality cannot possibly be true.

The first question that arises when considering this doctrine is this: how can justice be done if the guilty go unpunished? This theology would have us believe that a plea to God for forgiveness can cover all crimes, but in reality, sometimes it is not enough to be sorry. Some crimes are so serious that mere repentance, no matter how sincere, is not and cannot be enough. No apology can negate responsibility for these acts, because apology alone does not make right the wrong, nor undo the harm done.

For example, there are some whose crimes demand punishment – Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, and many others like them – yet this system would allow them to escape with none. Is God’s free offer of salvation open to these people as well? Can a rational mind really accept that any of these tyrants and mass murderers, if they have just one moment of contrition before they die, will be forgiven and welcomed into Paradise where God will look on them as his beloved children? Are we to believe that the slate of a lifetime soaked in blood and cruelty can be wiped clean by a thirty-second prayer on one’s deathbed? This is one of the major problems with this doctrine: by teaching that bad deeds do not have bad consequences, that people do not have to take responsibility for their actions, it denies justice.

The Christian response to this is that it is not necessary for the sinner to be punished, because as long as you’re truly repentant then Jesus, by his substitutive death, has already paid the penalty for you. But this idea is incoherent. The person who commits a crime is the one who must answer for it; basic principles of logic and justice mandate this. Guilt is not a commodity that can be transferred from one person to another; guilt is a fundamental and ineradicable part of a person’s character and identity arising necessarily from the actions that person has taken. It can no more be separated from the person responsible than a man who is not married can be separated from the property of being a bachelor. The opposite idea, that guilt can be transferred from a guilty person to an innocent one and expiated by punishing the latter, stems not from logic or a rationally derived system of justice, but from ancient rites of sympathetic magic where the sins of the community were ritually transferred to an animal (a “scapegoat”) and then absolved by shedding the blood of that animal or turning it loose to wander in the wilderness. A modern society that understands this to be nothing more than primitive superstition should likewise reject the born-again Christian theology of forgiveness.

Another absurdity of this system is its claim that forgiveness can be received by asking it of, not the person harmed by one’s wrong actions, but someone else entirely who had nothing to do with the affair. It would have us believe that no matter what terrible crimes you commit against someone else, God can (and will – he never turns anyone down) forgive you. This makes no sense – the only person who can grant forgiveness for an offense is the person against whom that offense was committed. How could it possibly be otherwise? Imagine the arrogance of a person unrelated to any of the victims who, at the trial of a murderer or rapist, stood up and announced they forgave the criminal for what he did! If Christian claims of free will exempt God from responsibility for people’s actions, then they also deny him the ability to forgive people for actions he had nothing to do with. One cannot have this both ways.

The most common apologetic response to this is that sin is ultimately an offense against God, so God is the one who has the authority to forgive us of it. However, not only does this not solve the problem, it actually makes it worse. When one commits an action that harms another person, one owes that person apology and restitution, to make up for the harm done as much as is possible. But God, if he exists, is the one being who by his very nature can never be harmed by anything we do. The Christian God is perfect and omnipotent: he lacks nothing, he needs nothing, he is invulnerable to hurt, his desires can never be thwarted. It is impossible to commit a crime or offense against someone who is unharmed by anything one could possibly do. When we harm a fellow human being, we must apologize to that human being, but the born-again Christian theology is absurdity compounded on absurdity: not only does it ask us to apologize to someone other than the person hurt, but it asks us to apologize to the one being that can never be hurt!

This belief denies justice in one more important way: not only does it allow the guilty to escape punishment, it does not redress the harm done to the innocent. It neither requires the person at fault to make restitution, nor does it undo the harm they caused by their actions. Under this system, if a person repents on their deathbed, when it is far too late to make up for whatever evil they did, we are told God will still forgive them; but even if they repent with many years remaining in their life, it seems there is no requirement in this system for them to attempt to right any of the wrongs they committed. Apparently, to have God’s forgiveness is enough, and whatever lasting harm other people suffered as a result of that person’s actions prior to repenting, they may just have to live with it.

When you cause lasting harm to another, it is not enough to be sorry. You must also take responsibility for your actions, whether by making restitution, accepting punishment, or both, yet this theology denies that you have to do anything at all. Instead, it offers forgiveness for free – absolution without accountability – and this is not only unjust, it is dangerous. By teaching that any sin can be forgiven at any time, as many times as a person wants, it sends entirely the wrong message. If it’s that easy to receive forgiveness, what is the incentive to stop doing wrong? If you already know you’re forgiven, why not, for example, employ deception in the name of advancing the faith? (It has been my unfortunate experience to meet a few Christians who do offer exactly that rationale for dishonest or otherwise immoral behavior.) When combined with a theology of inherent human depravity, under which no person is able to do good, it leads to unending cycles of sin, regret, repentance, perceived forgiveness, backsliding, sinning again, and so on, rather than giving people a real incentive to improve themselves and permanently change their behavior for the better. By denying responsibility – denying accountability for one’s actions – this theology denies morality, and encourages its opposite.

In response to this, most Christians would claim that God would only grant forgiveness if the person’s contrition was sincere and not feigned. However, what would stop, for example, a criminal from committing further crimes under the assumption that he will sincerely repent later, and then indeed doing so when he feels an intimation of his own mortality? Would such a person not have “gamed” the system? In such a situation, would this theology not have allowed evil to occur that would not have occurred under a different moral code?

By contrast, the humanistic ethical code compatible with atheism is one that stresses personal responsibility and right behavior as a lifetime commitment rather than a one-time event. Under this system, there is no forgiveness for free and there is no repentance without responsibility. To be truly sorry for one’s misdeeds entails accepting full responsibility for their consequences and doing whatever it takes to make them right if possible, or accepting punishment if not. This system provides a stronger reason to always behave morally, because there is no way to wash away or erase past actions; bad consequences inevitably arise from bad deeds, and we must accept the consequences of our own actions. Therefore, we should do good to ensure that good returns to us. Furthermore, no deathbed conversion can negate a life of evil; repentance is meaningless if it is not accompanied by dedication and positive action to make up for transgressions. This system is more difficult and requires more maturity than the theology of instant forgiveness, but on the other hand, it carries with it a greater message of hope: we are not depraved sinners, our only chance does not lie in begging a deity for forgiveness. We are human beings, and our destiny is in our own hands.