Sunday, July 12, 2020

The Logic of Christianity and Grace

As a professor of physics I will often work with undergraduate students and graduate students who are just learning the process of analyzing complex data from a high energy physics experiment. The students will show me graphs they have made and sometimes, with a relatively brief look at the graphs, I will know that the student has made a mistake somewhere in their analysis. There are a few ways that an obvious mistake may present itself. Some distributions should have a known shape and a major deviation from that expectation indicates a problem. If the results from different plots contradict each other then something must be wrong somewhere. Consistency across different data sets and different parameters is essential for a properly implemented analysis.

As a Christian who wants to know the truth, I have also analyzed the message and worldview of Christianity to see if it is consistent. If Christian doctrine contained actual logical contradictions, that would be an indication that Christianity has problems and is likely not true. Although I sometimes encounter people who think that the message of Christianity is contradictory, I usually find that those people have an incorrect view of the what is actually believed by Christians who are grounded in biblical doctrine. 

In my previous blog post I discussed the television show The Good Place and its insufficient idea of heaven. I also conveyed the show's premise that a person's eternal destiny was determined by a points system that gave either positive or negative points for each action taken on earth. I stated that Christianity is the only world view that does not base one's eternal destiny on some kind of points system that weighs an individual's good actions versus their bad actions. In his book, What's So Amazing About Grace, Philip Yancey also affirms this distinctive feature of Christianity by describing an encounter between C.S. Lewis and other scholars at a religious conference.
 
        During a British conference on comparative religions, experts from around the world debated what, if any, belief was unique to the Christian faith. They began eliminating possibilities. Incarnation? Other religions had different versions of gods appearing in human form. Resurrection? Again, other religions had accounts of return from death. The debate went on for some time until C.S. Lewis wandered into the room. "What's the rumpus about?" he asked, and heard in reply that his colleagues were discussing Christianity's unique contribution among world religions. Lewis responded, "Oh, that's easy. It's grace." 
        After some discussion, the conferees had to agree. The notion of God's love coming to us free of charge, no strings attached, seems to go against every instinct of humanity. The Buddhist eight-fold path, the Hindu doctrine of karma, the Jewish covenant, and Muslim code of law—each of these offers a way to earn approval. Only Christianity dares to make God's love unconditional.1

The idea that salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone is not only a unique feature of Christianity but, from a logical and reasoned point of view, it is the lynchpin that binds Christian doctrine into a consistent and cohesive picture, allowing all the data to fit together. In other words, the entire message of Christianity follows an internally consistent logical progression that requires salvation by grace alone:
  1. The character of God including his holiness, perfection, and justice requires that certain standards must be met by those who want to have a friendly relationship with God.
  2. Human beings are not capable of meeting those standards.
  3. God's justice requires that when those standards are violated the appropriate consequences must be enforced.
  4. God's love and grace causes him to voluntarily suffer the required consequences, and to offer humans the gift of a complete pardon.
  5. Humans can choose to accept or reject the pardon.
Let's look at each point in a little more detail.
  1. The character of God including his holiness, perfection, and justice requires that certain standards must be met by those who want to have a friendly relationship with God.
Christian beliefs are firmly grounded in the character of God as revealed in the Bible. God is completely loving, holy, just, and perfect. The characteristic most often attributed to God in the Bible is that he is holy. This comes from a word that means "separate." God is separate and different from humans in that there is not a trace of evil in his character. He is totally good and totally righteous. Everything he does is right. God wants to have a relationship with people, but people must satisfy God's standards in order to have such a relationship. Now some people think that either (a) God's standards are arbitrary, (b) God's standards are unfair because people can't meet them, or (c) God should just lower his standards to match what people are capable of doing. 

I have a friend who often tells a personal story to illustrate why none of the three options, (a), (b), or (c), are really valid. The friend explains that when he first wanted to date the woman who is now his wife, she initially refused to date him because he was not the kind of person that she wanted to have a relationship with. Perhaps she wanted someone who was kind, generous, and patient, who could be both strong and vulnerable, and my friend didn't have those characteristics. She wanted a person like that because of the kind of person she was and the traits she valued. Would you say to her the she should just lower her standards to date my friend, or that her standards were unreasonable or arbitrary? 

God's character is perfectly holy. The fact that such holiness and perfection is required of those who want to have a friendship with God is not arbitrary, capricious, or unfair. It is simply based on who he is.
  1. Human beings are not capable of meeting those standards.
No matter how good or perfect a human being is, there is no way any individual is able to meet God's standard of perfection. The best human being and the worst human being all fall extremely short of the standard required by God's character. In fact, since God is an infinite being with infinite holiness, and humans are finite, human beings fall short by an infinite amount. 

There are many possible illustrations of this principle. For instance, suppose that God's standard required that a human being jump across the Grand Canyon. The worst jumper might jump a few inches and the best a few meters, but all would fall very short of the standard. In fact the difference in length jumped between the best and the worst is totally insignificant when compared with the standard. This is why any system of eternal judgement based on a points system as described, for instance, in The Good Place is totally rejected by those who understand Christian teaching. It doesn't matter if a human being gains lots of positive points or lots of negative points. The difference between any person's total points and God's infinite standard is still an infinite distance apart. Another illustration could be to place each person's "goodness" on the rung of a ladder with the best person on top, say 100 feet high, and the worst person on the bottom. But the standard we are trying to reach is to climb to the sun, 93 million miles away. Compared with that standard, all of the people on the ladder look to be just about the same place in their impossible journey. No amount of good "points" earned will ever be enough to reach God's perfectly holy standard. The gap between our "good" deeds and God's perfect character is even much greater than that across the grand canyon or to the sun. It is infinite since God's holiness is perfect. In addition, the criteria and standard which is so impossible to reach is not arbitrary. It is simply a consequence of God's character and who he is. 

There are other problems with any "points" system which are actually explored within the plot of The Good Place. Two of those problems are that (a) no person can really know all the consequences of any action they take so, with all the ramifications, it is quite difficult to even know if certain actions have a net positive or negative effect and (b) the motivations of a person should count in any point system, so even good actions with selfish motivations should carry a net negative point total.
  1. God's justice requires that when those standards are violated the appropriate consequences must be enforced.
If someone violates a law, we want to see justice served. We do not want to see a murderer go free with no consequences or an embezzler walk away freely with stolen money. In the same way, God's character requires that those who violate his laws and standards must suffer the consequences. The message of Christianity is filled with legal terms. As such, those who have violated God's standards, based on his character, are declared guilty and God's perfect justice requires that there be consequences. Just as we would not consider it just if someone who has broken the law endured no repercussions, so it would be unjust for God to allow humans, as lawbreakers, to experience no consequences.

If someone stole a million dollars, we would expect the consequence to at least be paying back the million dollars. Following the same logic, what should be the consequences of not reaching God's infinitely holy standard? There should be an infinite consequence: no friendly relationship with God for an infinite amount of time. Anything less than that would not be just or fair. Would it be fair for the thief who stole a million dollars be required to give only a one dollar payment as restitution? You might say it is unfair for God to hold humans to such a high standard. If so, then you should read point number one again. The expectations and standards are not arbitrary. They are based on the intrinsic character of God. To say that God should just lower his standards would be the same as telling someone that they should simply lower their standards regarding whom they are willing to date or marry.

The consequences of violating God's standards, dictated by his character, is that an individual cannot have a friendly relationship with God. Each individual has consciously or unconsciously rebelled against God and has therefore chosen to be separated from God, now and forever: what is referred to as spiritual separation or death. For an individual to have a relationship with God, then, there must be a reconciliation between the two parties. Reconciliation between God and humans cannot be accomplished by human actions or "good" deeds or earned points, because no finite actions can ever pay an infinite debt.
  1. God's love and grace causes him to voluntarily suffer the required consequences, and to offer humans the gift of a complete pardon.
Because each individual is guilty of violating God's standards, and because the consequences of that violation is an infinite debt that is way too great for any individual to pay, but also because God loves each person so greatly, God chooses to do something only he can do: pay each person's debt for them. Only God, who is an infinite being, has the resources to pay an infinite debt. Suppose someone commits a crime and the legal and just sentence is far beyond any resources the person has, say something like 1000 years in jail or a trillion trillion dollars, then that person is doomed. But, if someone else purely out of love pays the insurmountable debt, then the legal requirements have been met. The "legal" message of Christianity is that the death of Jesus of Nazareth, God himself in human form, paid the infinite legal debt that we owed to God, because Jesus was an infinite being and, therefore, had the resources needed to satisfy the legal debt that humans owed God. Finite human resources, by definition, are insufficient no matter how many good deeds a person does. Consequently, the only hope is that God with infinite resources pay the debt through an act of grace.
  1. Humans can choose to accept or reject the pardon.
Once God has paid the debt owed by humans, he offers each of us a pardon. One does not earn or work toward a pardon. It is simply accepted or rejected. That is the gracious offer God makes each human: reconciliation between him and us, freedom from the consequences of our rebellion, and a complete pardon. All an individual must do is accept the free offer that God makes to each of us.

Of course a pardon is no good if the party to which it is offered rejects the pardon. This fact was made very clear in the 1833 Supreme Court decision of United States v. Wilson. In this case, George Wilson was convicted of robbing the U.S. mail and was sentenced to death. President Andrew Jackson pardoned Wilson, who subsequently rejected the pardon. The case of Wilson's fate went all the way to the Supreme Court that ruled, "A pardon is a deed, to the validity of which delivery is essential, and delivery is not complete without acceptance. It may then be rejected by the person to whom it is tendered; and if it is rejected, we have discovered no power in this court to force it upon him."2 

God graciously offers each individual a pardon since God, himself, has paid the legal debt. Each person then has the choice of accepting or rejecting that offer.

Summary:
In summary here is the logic of the Christian message. I have used the word "require" to show that within the framework of Christian theology, there are really no other logical options.
  1. God's standards and the consequences of violating those standards are not arbitrary but are required given the perfect and holy character of God.
  2. The infinite gap between human good deeds and God's perfect holiness requires that no amount of finite good deeds can ever add up to paying an infinite debt.
  3. Jesus of Nazareth is required to be the infinite God in order to have the resources to pay an infinite debt.
  4. God's undeserved offer of a pardon based on his love and grace is required for humans to have a relationship with him because finite human works are always insufficient.
  5. For the pardon to be implemented, each individual is required to accept God's offer.
To make reasonable conclusions about the data, all of the data must be internally consistent and point to the same result. The Christian message of how a person can have a friendship with God and go to the "good place" is only internally consistent if the decision about one's eternal destiny is not based on the good or bad quality of their actions, but only on God's love and grace.

Postscript:
Since I began this post with accounts of students who may have done something wrong with their data analysis, I should end this post by giving my current and former Ph.D. students their proper appreciation and accolades. As a student progresses in their education they often surpass me, their advisor and mentor, in their knowledge and expertise. As my graduate students get closer to completing their Ph.D. they become the experts and I often go to them for advise and direction on how to solve my problems. As such, I want to thank the excellent Ph.D. graduate students I have had the privilege of working with over the years. Mandy, Callie, Ben, David, and Nate: Thanks for your excellent work and the many things I have learned from you all.

1Philip Yancey, What's So Amazing About Grace, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997) 45.
2https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/32/150 accessed on July 12, 2020.

3 comments:

  1. It seems to me this whole Salvation thing really is quite simple. "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." Now as you have so often said, there are implications from this "Simple" statement. God wants us to Do Stuff (works) feed the poor, promote justice, Spread The Good News....etc etc etc. The thing is to get the horse (Faith) before the cart (works).

    BTW I Very Confused young Agnostic commented on this piece.......
    When Backed into a Corner, Evangelical Apologist Dr. Michael G. Strauss Quotes Paul as an Early Church Father
    https://lutherwasnotbornagaincom.wordpress.com/2020/07/07/when-backed-into-a-corner-evangelical-apologist-dr-michael-g-strauss-quotes-paul-as-an-early-church-father/comment-page-1/

    Evidently (according to him) You Don't Know anything about the Early Church.
    Like so many non-believers he takes a very simplistic view of Christianity. Or so it appears to me.

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    1. The writer of that blog is Gary. Gary loves to let me know how "wrong" I am about most everything. I feel so privileged that I'm worth his time. In addition, I am so glad that he gives me free publicity on his blog. Just think of all his atheist and agnostic readers who now know about my blog because he likes to write about me and describe how little I seem to understand just about everything. I think it is great that his readers may be curious enough to read my blog and decide for themselves who is presenting the most reasoned and reasonable arguments. You don't have to read Gary's stuff very long for that to become quite clear.

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  2. A very affirming post and I have recommended it to a group of men in a bible study. S. L. Lewis Johnson, Ralph Kyper and other respected teachers now in Heaven would hold to the position that yes a person MUST choose to accept God's grace through Christ, but mot one will choose to because they are in rebellion and incapable and only when drawn irresistibly by the Holy Spirit will they believe, repent and accept Go's perfect gift through Jesus finished work. Or as Dr. Johnson said on several occasions, "I fought against God as hard asI could and He did everything else". I find this true but not in conflict with your post.

    ReplyDelete