Transcript: Podcast 10- Evil Christianity

31 August 2007

For this podcast we are going to take a look at one of the main objections to the Christian faith- that Christianity as an institution, as well as individual Christians both past and present, are responsible for a great deal of evil and suffering in the world. For the book reviews we are looking at The Impossible Faith by J.P. Holding and God: A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist by William Lane Craig and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong. Before any of that, however, let’s take a look at the news.

News

According to the Guardian, a forthcoming ITV documentary will portray Jesus as Muslims see him. 1 Although many people are unaware of it, Jesus is actually a highly respected figure in Islam. He is honored as a great prophet, although Muslims obviously do not believe he is the Son of God. In fact, Muslims don’t even believe that Jesus Christ was crucified; they regard such a ignoble death as impossible for such a great prophet. Many Muslims hold that the crucifixion was a divine illusion.

This is actually one of the greatest problems of the Islamic faith. The crucifixion is one of the most well-established historical facts about the ancient world. In addition to being widely attested in the New Testament documents, his crucifixion is confirmed by secular historians like Tacitus. There are almost no historians who would question the occurrence of the crucifixion.

If, however, Muslims wish to claim that the crucifixion was an illusion of some sort, then it is difficult to see how this does not amount to divine deception, since it has led to billions of Christians who were apparently tricked by the illusion.

Main Feature: Evil Christianity

One of the most popular critiques of the Christian faith is that both the institution as a whole, as well as individual Christians, have done and continue to do terrible things. Historically, Christianity has been responsible for the Crusades, the Salem Witch Trials, and other despicable episodes. Even today, televangelists milk innocent people of their money, some priests are involved in sexual child abuse while others attempt to shield these criminals from the consequences of their actions.

This theme- that Christianity has and continues to cause a great deal of evil and suffering in the world- is extraordinarily popular in recent atheistic literature. Letter to a Christian Nation and The End of Faith by Sam Harris, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, and Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel Dennett have all argued this case, and most of them pull no punches in their critiques of Christian behavior past and present.

Despite the popularity of this line of argument, however, I have never really understood exactly what the relevance is. Christianity is a historical religion, and whether it is true or false depends upon historical facts, not on the behavior of professing followers. If Jesus Christ is the Son of God who died and rose again to atone for sin, then Christianity is simply true. This is the foundation upon which the truth of the Christian faith rests, and it is a remarkably historical question. Either Jesus Christ really did die and rise again, or he didn’t. If he didn’t, then Christianity is false. If he did, it’s hard to see what choice we have but to accept that Christianity is true.

Even ignoring this important fact, however, it seems wrongheaded to reject the Christian worldview for the behavior of supposed followers if it can be shown that their behavior is not supported by the worldview itself. This is true of any worldview system. We are not justified in rejecting utilitarian ethical theory, for example, just because some professed utilitarians fail to act consistently with their own ethical theory. It is not the theory that is undermined. All this shows is that the supposed adherent of the theory fails to live consistently. If we want to undermine utilitarianism, we need to look at the evidence for and against the theory itself.

This is important to mention because almost every case of evil cited by critics of Christianity is demonstrably inconsistent with the Christian worldview itself, as revealed in the Bible and in the teachings of Jesus Christ. In fact, for those who take the ethical teachings of Jesus Christ seriously, it is hard to imagine how anyone could use them to justify any evil act. Christ teaches that it is morally wrong to even be angry with our brother, let alone kill him. Christ also teaches that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. These are radical teachings, but obviously radical in the direction of being extremely loving and extremely moral. Due to these radical teachings, the vast majority of the early Christian community were pacifists who refused to engage in wars. Now, personally, I think that this is based on a misunderstanding, but clearly it is an understandable misunderstanding at the least. Christ’s teachings are radically loving.

In fact, even many non-Christians admit that this is the case. Non-Christians generally have a very high view of the ethical teachings of Jesus. Obviously, some people bring up complaints, but they are generally unimpressive, and they usually betray a total ignorance of Christian theology. For example, many critics claim that Jesus is immoral because he teaches that those who reject him will go to hell. While the doctrine of hell may be a problem for an orthodox Christian to answer on another level, namely, how can a just God allow people to go to hell, the fact that Jesus preaches about it does not make him immoral. In fact, it seems morally good that Jesus would warn people of their fate should they persist in unbelief. After all, if hell really does exist and people really need to believe in Christ in order to be saved and avoid hell, then this is important information that we should be happy to receive. It is hardly to our advantage to be ignorant of this fact of reality. So Jesus behaved quite morally in warning unbelievers about the consequence of their unbelief.

Another complaint is that Jesus does not explicitly condemn slavery. This is an argument from silence, however, and hardly demonstrates that Jesus approved of the institution of slavery. Moreover, this objection betrays a real lack of knowledge of historical context. In the ancient world, slavery was sometimes a necessary institution willingly entered into by the slave. It is a little different in the modern world, where social programs and whatnot can ensure that such a system is unneeded. In any case, Jesus never says that slavery is morally acceptable, so this hardly shows that he was an immoral teacher.

A further complaint often tossed around is that Jesus was supposedly anti-family. This complaint merely reveals an ignorance of Christian theology. Jesus did point out that his message may separate families, but that is only because some would accept his message and some would not. But this hardly demonstrates that he was immoral for preaching, particularly given the Christian context that his message was one of ultimate importance for salvation. Jesus did demand allegiance superior to that given to family, but this makes perfect sense given Christian theology and in no way demonstrates that we should give no respect to our family. Indeed, Christ repeated the command found in the Old Testament to honor your father and mother.

A full defense of the ethical teachings of Jesus is not possible here, but despite a few dissenting voices, the vast majority of reasonable people agree that Jesus was an ethical teacher. There is no place in his teaching for the practice of child abuse, killing nonbelievers, or any such clearly immoral action.

This all goes to show that, even when Christians behave in horrible ways, their actions are not defensible given their own belief system and worldview. Like the utilitarian ethicist who seeks his own gratification rather than pursue the greatest good, the Christian who murders, maims, hates, and lives extravagantly by fooling people out of their money, simply fails to act in accordance with their own professed worldview. Thus, these actions are not an indictment of the Christian worldview, it only goes to show that individual Christians sometimes fail to live consistently. This is hardly a surprise, since all ethical systems and worldviews have followers who behave in remarkably inconsistent ways.

This should be the end of the issue, it seems to me. The critic of Christianity has two problems- first, Christianity is a historical religion that does not hang or fall on the actions of people, and second, Christian teaching does not support those actions which the critic rightly finds most reprehensible in the first place. The only thing we can conclude is that some Christians behave inconsistently.

Of course, this mild conclusion hardly is evidence against Christianity. Indeed, according to Christian doctrine, we would expect Christians to at least occasionally behave inconsistently, for we are all human beings who struggle with sin.

Perhaps, however, I have missed the main thrust of the argument being offered here by the critic. After all, if Christ really is our Savior, and if believing in him produces good fruit in our lives, then why is so much evil done in the name of Christ? C.S. Lewis writes in his book Mere Christianity of this question. 2 He says,

“If Christianity is true why are not all Christians obviously nicer than all non-Christians? What lies behind that question is partly something very reasonable and partly something that is not reasonable at all. The reasonable part is this. If conversion to Christianity makes no improvement in a man’s outward actions- if he continues to be just as snobbish or spiteful or envious or ambitious as he was before- then I think we must suspect that his ‘conversion’ was largely imaginary; and after one’s original conversion, every time one thinks one has made an advance, that is the test to apply. Fine feelings, new insights, greater interest in ‘religion’ mean nothing unless they make our actual behaviour better; just as in an illness ‘feeling better’ is not much good if the thermometer shows that your temperature is still going up. In that sense the outer world is quite right to judge Christianity by its results. Christ told us to judge by results.” [207-208]

A key thing to note here is that, as Lewis points out, Christ tells us to judge by results. That means that true followers will bear good fruit, a concept which is found all throughout the Bible. Now let’s go ahead and assume that virtually all people who profess to be Christians bear bad fruit. Does this demonstrate that Christianity is false? No, it only shows that there aren’t very many true Christians. As I emphasized earlier, Christianity is true if Jesus Christ is the Son of God who died and rose from the dead to atone for our sins. This is an objective fact about reality which is either true or false, and the actions of professed followers has no bearing on this fact. If anything, the bad actions of professing believers only goes to show that they aren’t true believers! So, at best, the objections of critics like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins who complain about the widespread evil committed by Christians only goes to show that there aren’t many true Christians! This is not question-begging or the so-called ‘No True Scotsman Fallacy.’ This is simply following the logic of the belief system of Christianity.

Should we, however, grant that there are very few true followers of Christ? I don’t think so, and C.S. Lewis continues on to demonstrate that it is unreasonable to think that, given the truth of Christianity, all Christians should be obviously nicer than non-Christians. First he points out that we do not live in a world of black and white, where people are either 100 percent Christian or 100 percent non-Christian. Some people, he claims, are slowly ceasing to be Christians and others are slowly becoming Christians. Beyond this technical detail, he points out that we should expect individual Christians to be nicer because of their belief in Christ, but not necessarily for them to be nicer than all non-Christians. He writes,

“Christian Miss Bates may have an unkinder tongue than unbelieving Dick Firkin. That, by itself, does not tell us whether Christianity works. The question is what Miss Bates’s tongue would be like if she were not a Christian and what Dick’s would be like if he became one. Miss Bates and Dick, as a result of natural causes and early upbringing, have certain temperaments: Christianity professes to put both temperaments under new management if they will allow it to do so.” [210]

In fact, as Lewis points out, those people with a naturally worse temperament may be more inclined to put their faith in Christ anyways, since the man who finds kindness easy and virtue trivial is less likely to see the need for salvation. Indeed, in the Gospels we find that Christ’s message was especially popular amongst the ‘no-gooders’ of society like the tax collectors. All of this goes to show that the question of why Christians are not clearly morally superior is more complicated then it appears, especially when we consider the fact that not all professing Christians actually are true followers of Christ.

At the risk of over-quoting Lewis, I just want to share his concluding thoughts on this matter. He writes,

“If what you want is an argument against Christianity (and I well remember how eagerly I looked for such arguments when I began to be afraid it was true) you can easily find some stupid and unsatisfactory Christian and say, ‘So there’s your boasted new man! Give me the old kind.’ But if once you have begun to see that Christianity is on other grounds probable, you will know in your heart that this is only evading the issue. What can you ever really know of other people’s souls- of their temptations, their opportunities, their struggles? One soul in the whole creation you do know: and it is the only one whose fate is placed in your hands. If there is a God, you are, in a sense, alone with Him. You cannot put Him off with speculations about your next door neighbors or memories of what you have read in books. What will all that chatter and hearsay count (will you even be able to remember it?) when the anesthetic fog which we call ‘nature’ or ‘the real world’ fades away and the Presence in which you have always stood becomes palpable, immediate, and unavoidable.” [216-217]

At the end of the day, these types of objections are just excuses for dismissing the Christian faith. Rather than point out all the evils done by Christians, critics of Christianity would do better to focus on the resurrection of Jesus Christ, where the faith stands triumphantly or falls miserably.

Book Reviews

The Impossible Faith

James Patrick Holding, creator of the apologetics website tektonics.org, published The Impossible Faith in early May. This book, though very short and concise, is a powerful defense of the truth of the resurrection.

Holding contends that Christianity greatly upset social norms and violated the sensibilities of the ancients and that, if it were false, it would certainly have died out. Instead, the record of history shows that Christianity managed to survive and thrive in the first century despite having almost every conceivable disadvantage.

What sort of disadvantages does Holding mention? One big one was the very fact of the crucifixion itself, upon which the entire message of Christianity depends. Modern American culture is very different, but in ancient times honor was of first importance. Crucifixion, in addition to being a painful and cruel form of tortuous execution, was also explicitly designed to shame the victim. This is why Josephus called crucifixion ‘the most wretched of deaths.’ It was an extremely dishonorable way to die. The very fact of the crucifixion should have meant the end of the Christian faith.

Unless, of course, there was a resurrection, and Jesus reversed the stigma of shame by rising from the dead and restoring his honor. Without such an incredible witness, however, Christianity would have been destined to the trash heap of history, lucky to gain a mere footnote in any historical text.

This is a powerful argument in itself, but Holding also mentions three other major disadvantages of the Christian faith. One, Jesus had a number of negative stereotypes. This includes the fact that he was Jewish, making conversion of Gentiles difficult, and also the fact that he was from Nazareth- a small town which would have afforded Jesus very little honor. Two, Christians had to preach a physical resurrection, which went against the dominant Gentile philosophy that the material world was evil. Gentiles would have been more comfortable with the idea of a spiritual resurrection. Three, Christianity was a brand new message. In the ancient world, the primary test for truth in religious matters was custom and tradition. Christianity, as an exclusivist innovator, would have been looked down upon.

In addition to the main discussion, Holding also compares Christianity with other religions, including Mithraism, Islam, and Mormonism, and shows that they all fail the ‘impossible faith’ test and are therefore entirely explicable by natural means. Finally, Holding critiques several naturalistic explanations, such as the idea that the disciples hallucinated Jesus.

I like the style of argumentation Holding uses in his short book The Impossible Faith, and I think nonbelievers will have a great deal of trouble answering his arguments. My rating for this book is 4.5 stars out of 5.

God?

William Lane Craig and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong face off in the book God: A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist, published in 2003.

William Lane Craig is an experienced debator with excellent credentials. Over the years he has debated many well-known atheists. Craig’s style is quick and confident, and, in my opinion, his arguments are generally very forceful and convincing. His great effort in this book, while expected, is very much appreciated. He is not afraid to get right down to the issue and into the trenches- which helps the debate to move along at lightning pace.

The real surprise here, in my mind, is the showing by Sinnott-Armstrong. Despite a lack of debating experience, he seems to me to be the best opponent Craig has faced in any debate I have read. He is quick, witty, and intelligent- advancing objections to almost all of Craig’s arguments. In other debates, atheists often just pick a few points of contention, but Sinnott-Armstrong challenges the whole case. This means that there is plenty of meat to the discussion, which is often lacking in other debates.

Both participants in the debate give strong efforts, and it leads to a fantastic and engaging book on the existence of God. If you are looking for a debate on the existence of God, then this is the best one I’ve read so far. My rating for this book is 5 stars out of 5.

NOTES:

1. Butt, R. (2007, August 18). TV airing for Islam’s story of Christ. The Guardian. Retrieved August 31, 2007, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/religion/Story/0,,2151358,00.html

2. Lewis, C. (2001). Mere Christianity. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.



—————————————————————————————————————-

Commenting is closed for this article.