Most Friday nights, Christian street preachers and pamphleteers inhabit Adelaide’s Rundle Mall. One pamphlet offered to me recently had the title The Final Flicker.
In summary, the pamphlet makes the following assertions:
- Everyone will die.
- The time of our death is unknown.
- The sudden death of a loved one shocks and distresses.
- The Bible can provide answers to the questions about life, but Science cannot. Neither can friends or doctors.
- Our time here and now is only a space in which to prepare for after death, according to the Bible.
- The Bible is clear that after death we go to one of two places, Heaven or Hell, and it’s your choice.
- God never created man for Hell, but…
- God is holy and just and cannot live in the presence of sin, so…
- Heaven is only for those who have had their sins forgiven, those who have been made righteous.
- Hell is the sad and necessary place of those who refuse God’s mercy.
- The Bible says that whoever believes in God’s son will not perish but have everlasting life.
- God is just, so must punish sins.
- God loves each of us, despite of our sin.
- All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.
- Jesus was the son of God, holy, pure, and sinless.
- The sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross took away our sins.
- He was the only one who was able to do this.
- Death could not hold him. On the third day he rose.
- He now sits at the right hand of God.
- All you have to do is repent, turn from your sin, trust Him as your Saviour and you will be saved.
The first two are self-evident: we’re going to die but we don’t know when. For anyone who has lost someone close, the third is not hard to fathom either. Actually, it’s patronising and pedantic. Everyone dies. Welcome to Life.
Point 4 says that the Bible has all the answers about life and that friends and scientists don’t. This is a bold claim indeed and needs to be justified.
That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. (Christopher Hitchens)
The fifth point declares that the purpose of life is only to prepare for death. Really? How depressing. Another unjustified claim unworthy of further attention. Nothing to see here. Move along…
Hmm. Wait. If these people really believed what they said, namely that the purpose of life is only to prepare for death, then why wait? Why not just end their lives now? I suppose the counter claim will be that suicide is a sin. Phew!
EDIT: After reading this post, a friend pointed out that since all sins should be forgiven, even this is not really an objection.
Another objection a Christian apologist may raise is: time is needed for such preparation. But how much preparation and of what kind? If it’s just a matter of believing something, well, anyone can do that, at anytime. If life is a moral training ground, and salvation comes from good works, then sure, that would take time. But, skipping to the end, point 20 says:
All you have to do is repent, turn from your sin, trust Him as your Saviour and you will be saved.
So no good works are required, just turning away from sin and having faith.
Higher up the list again: point 6 says that the Bible is clear that after death we go to Heaven or Hell.
What biblical verse declares this so unambiguously? The pamphlet is keen to point to specific verses to “back up” other points. Why not this one, given its obvious importance?
Perhaps it should quote Matthew 25:41. Want to see what that would mean in practice? Read points 7 to 10 again, view as much of the The Thinking Atheist’s video Burn Victims as you can and then ask yourself whether any aspect of a god who would send one of its own creatures to such an unimaginably hideous place could ever be considered good, just or righteous in any meaningful sense.
Point 11 brings us to John 3:16, the idea that if we just believe in God, we won’t be punished for our sins eternally but will have, a better, eternal life. That brings us back to the question I raised above: how much preparation is necessary and of what kind? Well, if we just have to believe, then we can end it all at any time! Right?
Surely this is all just too much like a game…
God could simply declare that everyone can come to the eternal party. Apparently this god requires the attention and adoration of its creatures. But an all powerful god should want for nothing. Right?
Point 12 declares that “God is just, so must punish sins”. That’s like me saying that I have a strong sense of morality, so I should punish those who don’t, or at least those who do “wrong”. Oh, I forgot. I’m not a god… Apparently, you need to have created a universe to be able to call yourself “just”.
All other points (12 to 17) are in need of evidence, not the least of which:
- that Jesus was the only one who could atone for our sins;
- including weak “supporting” Old Testament prophecy fulfilment claims such as referred to in the pamphlet: Isaiah 53:5;
- that there were any sins in need of atonement in the first place;
- that Jesus rose from the dead and…
- that salvation (if necessary at all), is attained by faith alone and not by works;
- i.e. that in order to be saved, you don’t have to be good, just gullible.
The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species.
In the end, the essence of the pamphlet is this:
- All of us have sinned and fallen short of God (Romans 3:23).
- Jesus sacrificed himself for our sins.
- Belief in Jesus leads to eternal life rather than eternal punishment.
The only positive thing I can say about any of this is that at least the pamphleteers are being consistent regarding core Christian claims, rather than adhering to some watered down theology consisting of only a vague notion of god, like many liberal denominations. That’s not to say anything about the veracity of the fundamentalist’s claims of course.
One particularly obnoxious idea that emerged in antiquity is Pascal’s wager, the “argument” that it is in our best interest to assume that God (but which?; there are so many to choose from) exists, to avoid the possibility of eternal punishment.
If God does not exist, the thinking goes, nothing has been lost, right?
Wrong! A life of pointless servitude can been avoided if a person recognises the distinct possibility that monotheism is an off-by-one error, i.e. that there is no evidence that any god exists, some version of the Judaeo-Christian god or any other, so that the correct number of gods is not one but zero.
Based upon the available evidence, this is all an atheist claims. My son noted this short animation recently, which makes a pretty compelling case for the off-by-one error.
In fact, “atheism” is a term that should not even exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a “non-astrologer” or a “non-alchemist.”… Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.
(Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation)
The Universe revealed by Science is rich enough. We don’t need to add our own unfounded complexity. Science and engineering have created the modern world that so many of us are fortunate to live in and is, along with critical thinking more generally, the only hope for solving our biggest problems.
If religious instruction were not allowed until the child had attained the age of reason, we would be living in a quite different world.
I get that people are afraid to die and find the idea of losing those they care about difficult to bear. The deep-felt desire for an afterlife is, I think, at the heart of most religions, whether openly acknowledged or not.
However, given the challenges to our way of life from climate change and dogmatic thinking, it’s not okay to retreat into The Dark like frightened children.
Come on people, grow up! We are not at the centre of things.
I’ll end with another quote from Hitchens, who has said it all better than I ever could:
The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.