A practical test of an abstract idea
People have long debated the philosophical feasibility of intangible deities. They are said to reside in the sky or perhaps in some sort of parallel spiritual dimension. There’s no way to prove or disprove these ideas because they’re inherently outside the realm of observation.
However, religions also tend to make systemized claims about how the spiritual realm affects the lives of people. We can observe people. Every day is a chance to make observations of the people around us. Behavior patterns can even be studied scientifically.
“If the Scriptures are True” is a new series that examines whether the claims of religious scriptures align with our observations of the real world. I focus on Christianity since that is what I know, but I welcome submissions of a similar approach for all religions.
Fruits of the Spirit, deeds of the flesh
This is the Biblical premise: A vine cannot bear any kind of fruit except what is inherent to the vine. A good vine bears good fruit, and a bad vine bears bad fruit. Those who are attached to the good vine (Jesus) will bear the “fruit of the spirit”. Non-Christians, attached to the worldly vine, will produce the “deeds of the flesh”.
In these passages, Jesus states that a person’s spiritual “fruit” depends on whether or not they “abide in him”.
… As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. (John 15:4-5)
… Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. … So then, you will know them by their fruits. (Matthew 7:16-20)
Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. (Matthew 12:33)
Paul elaborates on what “good” and “bad” fruit look like.
Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these … But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:19-23)
In short, the idea is that humans are inherently sinful. Unless they accept Christ, they are slaves to sin, and cannot stop sinning. But people are fundamentally changed when they accept Jesus and are filled with the Spirit — the chains are broken and now they are free to turn away from sin, since Jesus conquered sin and death in his resurrection. God grafts new believers onto the good vine, and this brings forth good fruit in them.
I understand that different Christian denominations have different interpretations of these passages. I am attempting to present this logic as it was taught to me within mainstream Baptist & non-denominational Christian groups, who hold that the entire Bible is the infallible word of God.
Testing the claim
Logically, if Jesus’s words are true we should expect to see a world where Christians are the only people who can embody the qualities of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control. They cease to exhibit the deeds of the flesh, which no longer have any power over them, because they have been filled with love for God and are repulsed by what repulses God. Indeed, they cannot exhibit sinful behavior because their lives are merged with Christ. Replaced by Christ. It’s impossible for the good vine to produce bad fruit.
We should also expect to see a world where every non-Christian is stuck in a depraved cycle of suffering and filth. Immorality, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, envy, drunkenness. These are the only qualities they demonstrate, day in and day out. They are on a bad vine, so bearing good fruit is an impossibility.
Think about what a stark contrast it would be. Christians would essentially be the only people who have any shot at a happy, healthy, balanced life. Everyone else would only know miserable desperation. Crime rates and social abuse in all non-Christian cultures would be immense, and Christian communities would be utopian in their unfailing love and compassion for one another. Converting to Christianity would be a no-brainer; the advantages would be unmistakable.
Is that the reality of the world we live in? Do people’s good or bad qualities correlate perfectly with their adherence to Christianity?
Perhaps you have friends who have different religious beliefs and you’ve seen what their lives are like. Are they as depraved as the Bible would have you believe? This is something you can analyze for yourself.
Is it really that simple?
Maybe non-Christians can act like they have the fruit of the spirit on the surface, but it’s a facade, lacking spiritual significance. Maybe Christians continue to make sinful choices due to the influence of Satan, and because they are flawed humans. With these fudge factors, maybe we can still say that the doctrine is sound.
Another interpretation could be that Jesus’s claim was accurate, and the “Christians” who do sinful things were never actually saved, as evidenced by their bad fruit.
For one thing, this logic makes it impossible to criticize Christian behavior. If a Christian does a horrible thing, they were never a Christian. Christians are therefore good by definition — problem solved. It’s way too convenient.
How far does this logic go? Certainly every Christian still sins to some extent. Were none of them saved? How much sin is enough that we can confidently say they were never saved? Isn’t being saved as simple as receiving a free gift and welcoming Christ into your heart, who changes you from the inside out? Alternatively, if salvation is about making a personal effort to become holy, doesn’t having Christ on your side provide some kind of benefit in that quest?
Even if you can discount bad-fruit Christians as not being Christian, how can you account for non-Christians who demonstrate good fruit? Did they somehow get saved accidentally? As far as I can remember, salvation requires a specific acceptance of Jesus as personal Lord and savior. Can a person be filled with the Holy Spirit without believing in Jesus, or even knowing about him?
In my experience
Because of this doctrine, I grew up believing that without God, I’d be a miserable, immoral, destructive person. Without God to give life meaning, what would keep me from raping, killing, stealing, and doing every bad thing? I was terrified of who I would become if I ever lost my faith.
Contrary to what I expected, in the 10 years since I realized my disbelief, my “fruit of the spirit” have increased as a result of deep changes in myself that have led to greater security, joy, intention, peace, and confidence. I have cut out some of the “deeds of the flesh” which led to suffering with no help from God. Others (such as sensuality and occasional drunkenness) I have embraced as a normal, enjoyable part of the human experience.
Why would I seek to bear good fruit even though I don’t believe there’s a God keeping track of my actions? Simply because these qualities feel good to embody. They’re a product of healthy human development. These are traits that are valued nearly universally, in religions all around the world. Life is more enjoyable when you love others, love yourself, and work for the common good, rather than seek to hurt others. I think this is easily explained by our evolution as social, co-operative, tribal creatures.
If a person’s ability to embody the Fruit of the Spirit depends on something other than their acceptance of Jesus, doesn’t this mean the Bible has made a false claim? If Christians on average sin just as much as any other group, where is the power of the Spirit? Why doesn’t the eternal God living inside us empower even a single human to break their bondage to sin, as promised? How can there be non-Christians who consistently display good fruit rather than the deeds of the flesh?
I suggest it’s because the “fruit of the spirit” are not in fact dependent on being a Christian, but rather they are universal human traits that develop from healthy growth and self-care. I believe humans have the capacity for “good” and “evil” whether they’re devoutly religious or avowed atheists.
In this way we can use our observations of the world surrounding us to test the hypotheses of scripture.
Recovering from Religion has launched a new podcast! We are fortunate to have authors Tim Rymel and Bill Prickett co-hosting the show. You can learn more about them by listening to the first episode, where they interview each other about how their life paths led them to their current work with RfR. They both have fascinating histories working inside ex-gay conversion therapy ministries, which they now actively oppose; relevant to that, they’ve released a special episode discussing the film Boy Erased. They have a lot of great content lined up, so check it out!