Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Problem of Poorly Communicated Salvation

If only it were this simple.
In the past others have written about some general problems with the Christian God's supposed ability to communicate his will. Here I want to address a specific facet of this issue, with what I'll call the Problem of Poorly Communicated Salvation (PPCS). Here it is crystalized into a formal syllogism:
  1. If the Christian God existed, he would clearly communicate the criteria for salvation.
  2. The criteria for salvation have not been clearly communicated.
  3. The Christian God does not exist.
The syllogism is a valid argument in the modus tollens logical form, so if you accept the first two premises, you must accept the conclusion. I'll tackle the second premise first.

The Unclear Criteria
Virtually all Christians and even most nonbelievers think that Christian salvation is pretty straightforward. After all, you just have to believe in Jesus, right? Well, hold on a minute. Let's be specific and methodical about this. Which of the following are necessary or sufficient for entrance into heaven?
  • Belief that God created the heavens and the earth
  • Belief that the Bible is the Word of God
  • Belief that the Father is God
  • Belief that the Holy Spirit is God
  • Belief that Jesus is God
  • Belief that Jesus is God's son
  • Belief that Jesus became fully human
  • Belief that Jesus died on the cross
  • Belief that Jesus rose from the dead
  • Belief that you are sinful
  • Acceptance of Jesus' forgiveness
  • Lack of belief in any other gods
  • Verbally confirming that Jesus is God (Romans 10:8-10)
  • Avoiding blasphemy of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 12:31-32)
  • Denying oneself and following Jesus daily (Luke 9:23-26)
  • Forgiving others for their sins (Matt. 6:14-15)
  • Bearing children (For women only: 1 Tim. 2:14-15)
  • Baptism (Believed among Catholics, Lutherans, Mormons, and Jehovah's Witnesses: Mark 16:16; John 3:5; 1 Peter 3:21)
  • Good works (Among Catholics and Orthodox Christians: James 2:14-26; Rev. 20:11-13)
  • Being chosen by God (Among Calvinists: Eph. 1:4-5; Rom. 8:29-30, 9:11-22; 2 Thes. 2:11-13)
  • Someone else being baptized on your behalf after death (Among Mormons: 1 Cor. 15:29)
When we break the Christian worldview down into fragments that we can accept or reject individually, we reveal the true complexity of the situation. What if I believe Jesus died for me, but I think he was only divine (or only human)? What if I believe in both the Trinity and the Hindu pantheon? What if I don't believe in the Holy Spirit? What if I do everything else right, but I don't do any good works or get baptized? And what happens when people die before they're too young to understand the requirements, or die before ever hearing of them? I'm not just being pedantic here; if Christianity is true, these questions have quite real and profound implications for anyone who happens to fall into such categories.

My guess is that if I gave the above list of potential requirements to a hundred Christians, I would get close to a hundred unique responses. Why? Because for all its chatter about redemption and salvation, the Bible never actually gets around to laying out a condensed, consistent and precise set of necessary and sufficient conditions for entering heaven. If this were not so, there would be no need for the evangelical tool known as the "Romans Road," which takes tiny bits and pieces from throughout the book of Romans and patches them together to summarize the gospel and the standard Protestant requirements for being a Christian.

Remember, God is supposedly perfect. He could come up with the exact set of words that would cause the least amount of confusion among his followers. So if God is such a great communicator, why are various Christians sects (and individuals) in such disagreement on the exact requirements for salvation? Why didn't he inspire the biblical authors to write them out clearly and succinctly in big bolded letters?

The Enormous Stakes
At this point it should be obvious that a perfect God could have communicated salvation far more clearly than he did. The first premise of the PPCS deals with a different question: would he have done so if he existed? I think most people would intuitively say 'yes,' but just to be thorough, I'll try to explain exactly why an unerringly God would act in this way.

First, there's the issue of earthly violence that has come about as a result of this confusion about what's necessary for salvation. A large part of the difference between Catholics and Protestants, for example, comes down to differences of opinion on this topic. Who knows how many lives could have been saved if the Bible were clearer about salvation? Perhaps the Thirty Years' War, the Catholic Inquisition, and the Troubles of Northern Ireland could have been largely or completely prevented—and that would be just the beginning.

And second, I want to stress the importance of the afterlife in Christianity. If you're saved, you are rewarded for eternity; if not, you're punished in the fires of hell for eternity. People by their very nature are unable to fully grasp the idea of an infinite length of time, so I think it's quite impossible to understate the implications of this doctrine. If even one person goes to hell as a result of a misunderstanding, the resulting harm is boundless. And when we're talking about the fate of billions of people, the stakes grow to ludicrous, incomprehensible heights.

The Christian God is supposed to be benevolent: he doesn't want us to suffer unnecessarily. He's also supposed to be deeply personal: he wants us to be with him. He has every motivation to make the requirements for salvation crystal clear and easily accessible to all human beings. So what's stopping him?

Could free will be the issue? I don't see how; God could easily make the Bible more straightforward without interfering with anyone's autonomy just by magically editing the text himself. Maybe he thinks this uncertainty will test our commitment to interpreting his words? But thousands of theologians throughout history have devoted their whole lives to the scriptures, and they were still unable to agree. Could it be that Satan and his minions are muddling up the wording? Surely God could put them in their place with a snap of his fingers if it was important to him. Beyond this, I honestly don't see any other viable explanations. Christians can play the "God works in mysterious ways" card if they like, but such an unparsimonious and unfalsifiable cop-out shouldn't be convincing to anyone.

When it comes to the task of leading us on the path to salvation, the Bible is a disorganized, inconsistent mess—despite the fact that the stakes riding on it couldn't be higher. I think I've shown with reasonable certainty both that the Christian God failed to make the precise requirements for salvation sufficiently clear, and that he would in fact have done so if he existed. If we accept the two premises of the PPCS, the only possible conclusion is that this version of God does not exist.


  1. Thanks for pointing me to this article from the last one I commented on, Tim.

    I find myself wishing we were in the same city to have talks/discussions over breakfast or coffee, because I think we could go on for hours, days, weeks, and still not exhaust the conversation...

    I'm sure I would not be able to change your mind by sheer debate, but whether or not one of us would change, we would both be sharpened by the conversation.


  2. You have hit the nail on the head with this post as it relates to how I feel about the christian version of God and's all so confusing and unsettling.

    Thanks for summarizing your thoughgts!