This post will demonstrate that the binary notion of salvific belief (belief leading to salvation of the soul) found in the Bible is logically absurd.
You may love both 1) pizza and 2) your children, but you wouldn’t abandon your children as you might a pizza during a catastrophe.
You may spend money on both 1) a pizza and 2) a house, but I would hope the prices you pay for each are vastly different.
You may believe both that 1) your young son will attend university and that 2) your young son will live to see tomorrow, but those two beliefs are very likely at very different degrees of certainty.
Loving, spending money and believing are all gradient concepts.
Gradient concepts are sometimes represented with low-resolution paired binary tags such as “hate” and “love”, “cheap” and “expensive”, and “disbelief” and “belief”.
These tags, in spite of their binary linguistic essences, do nothing to change the gradient essences of the concepts they are recruited to represent.
Modifiers such as “very”, “slightly”, “absolutely” or “tend to” are often attached to the basic tags in an attempt to add precision to the actual degree of loving, spending or believing one wishes to convey.
Most humans have no trouble understanding the intrinsic gradient nature of loving and spending, but have much more difficulty perceiving the concept of believing a gradient concept.
We have a psychological impulse and social pressure to either believe or disbelieve any given proposition. Even those deeply schooled in science often deviate from the degree of scientific certainty to epistemically gravitate to one of the poles of either disbelief or belief.
But, once again, neither the binary nature of the linguistic terms employed to reflect a gradient concept, nor the psychological impulse to sort propositions into one of the low resolution buckets of disbelief or belief are reasons not to map our degree of certainty to the degree of the relevant scientific certainty.
Rational belief is a degree of belief that maps to the degree of the relevant evidence as one perceives it.
Because evidence for inductively assessed propositions normally arrives incrementally to the assessor of the evidence, adding to or subtracting from the balance of evidence with each bit of confirming or disconfirming piece of evidence, the scientific certainty for such a proposition can be at any point upon the evidential gradient for any assessor of the evidence..
And because a rational degree of certainty must invariably map to the current degree of scientific certainty, the rational mind updates its epistemic degree of certainty upwards or downwards with the introduction of each new bit of confirming or disconfirming evidence.
This notion of rational belief as intrinsically gradient is not controversial, and this notion sets the stages for our discussion of the salvific belief found in the Bible.
Salvific belief treated as vague or binary
John 3:18 says…
“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”
Imagine a stranger knocks at your door and says…
“Give me money. If you do, I’ll reward you with everything you’ve ever dreamed of. If you don’t, I’ll inflict upon you every misery you can imagine.”
Wouldn’t this be not just a little bit strange? The stranger has not specified how much money will result in reward and not misery.
This is the first absurdity. The demands for belief in Jesus found in the Bible are presented as demand for a binary belief: either you believe or you don’t. Nothing specifying the degree of belief accompanies the demand, yet the consequences are highly nuanced and as polar as one could ever imagine. It is almost as if these passages were written in an age that had not yet conceived of the necessary nuanced degrees of certainty we easily recognize as essential to a rational epistemic position in this age of science. It is as absurd as our stranger demanding an unspecified amount of money without including the threshold at which the reward will be granted, and the misery avoided.
I’ve been quite interested in the various degree of belief at which Christians place this threshold absent in the Bible. There seems to be four very different positions on this.
1. Any degree of belief greater than zero.
2. Any degree of belief greater than 50%.
3. Any “high” degree of belief.
4. Only 100% certainty.
This list of vastly diverse opinions on salvific belief serves to highlight the absurdity of treating belief as if it were binary. Salvific belief is the only way to redemption, yet it is presented so vaguely as to completely confuse the very Christians who seek that redemption. They disagree on the threshold in incomparable ways. This vague treatment of the belief at the core of salvation is not the modus operandi of a rational god who wishes to present the method of salvation in an unambiguous way.
This becomes more salient when you imagine “believe” replaced with another gradient concept, “love” in our scenario of the stranger at your door.
Imagine the stranger at your door demanding that you “love” him to be rewarded and avoid unimaginable misery. We recognize instantly that, while we might love the stranger as we would any other human, we probably do not love him to the degree that he expects. So also for the the amount of money, and so also for the amount of belief he might expect as we shall soon see.
Now imagine the stranger at your door says…
“I am your king. If you believe I am your king, I’ll reward you with great pleasure in my kingdom, but if you disbelieve, you’ll be tormented for a very long time in my dungeons.”
Now that we have introduced belief into the scenario, we can see how absurd the demand is. The two possible choices and their consequences are unambiguous, yet the degree of belief is unstated. Belief is not binary, yet the Bible treats it as such with no gradient nuance introduced in any of the hundreds of passages referring to salvific belief.
(Some Christians attempt to suggest that salvific belief is binary since it involves the binary choice of following or not following Jesus. This is misguided. Imagine you are forced to cross an old bridge because a bear is chasing you. You assess the bridge to be 50% likely to hold your weight. You make the rational choice to cross the bridge since your chances of fighting off the bear are very small. As you cross the bridge, would you then increase the original 50% degree of likelihood the bridge will hold your weight to near 100%? Of course not. Yet the Bible absurdly presents such a move away from the actual evidence a virtue as we shall see next.)
(Another objection I’ve heard is that we can not easily place a highly specific number to the degree of belief. This is often true, but rationality only requires that the epistemic agents feels they have honestly mapped their degree of belief to the degree of the evidence, even though those degrees may be quantitatively imprecise. This will be dealt with in the next section.)
Salvific belief encouraged with no reference to the degree of the evidence
The absurdity deepens. Not only do we have an alleged God of the Universe unable to clearly state how much belief is required, we also have hundreds of passages referring to salvific belief without the slightest suggestion that the degree of belief be mapped to the degree of the evidence.
As we’ve already established, rational belief is a degree of belief that maps to the degree of relevant evidence. Imagine the stranger at your door says…
“I am a king. If you believe I am king, I’ll reward you with great pleasure in my kingdom, but if you disbelieve, you’ll be tormented for a very long time in my dungeons.”
In this circumstance, it is not hard to imagine a majority of those so confronted simply conjuring up belief in the stranger as king just to avoid the negative consequences were the stranger is telling the truth.
However, how could any actual king be just? Would not a perfectly just king honor only epistemic honesty from you?
Let’s review John 3:18.
“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”
Here we have the bald affirmation that Jesus is God’s one and only son. There is no requirement to map your degree of belief to the degree of the evidence. In fact, you will unlikely find any promoter of Christianity suggesting that believing in Jesus to a degree not warranted by the perceived degree of relevant evidence is improper.
(This would be an interesting study. Ask church leaders the following question: “Is believing in Jesus to a degree not warranted by the perceived degree of the evidence a virtue? Is it epistemically dishonest?” I suggest you’ll find yourself up against the most vigorous attempts to evade this question.)
Let’s modify our scenario a bit.
Imagine two strangers arrive at your door, each claiming to be the actual king (let’s ignore the fact that neither may be) that will reward you immensely if you believe, and torture you horribly if you disbelieve. Each offers you a letter allegedly certifying their right to the thrown. Each asks you to look deep in their eyes as evidence of their honesty. Yet, each stranger continues to emphasize that you’ll be tormented horribly if you do not believe one or the other is indeed king in spite of the evidence that each is the actual king being equivalent in weight.
Is this an unrealistic scenario? Not at all.
Imagine a young girl with a Muslim father and a Christian mother. In her honest little mind, based on the teaching of each parent, she holds it equally likely that the Muslim God and the Christian God are actual…yet she must choose only one according to both the Koran and the Bible. And neither book leaves open the option of simply and honestly not choosing either. Both books affirm that, if she fails to choose, that is tantamount to rejection, and worthy of eternal damnation.
Is it here not clear to the rational mind that neither alleged God could be just? For how could any just God condemn epistemic honesty?
Nowhere in the Bible do you find the notion that rational belief is a degree of belief that maps to the degree of relevant evidence as perceived. And the Bible’s demand for a degree of belief unmapped to the evidence is quite ample grounds for its rejection. Just gods don’t encourage you to become epistemically dishonest by detaching your degree of epistemic certainty from the scientific certainty. And just gods certainty do not damn humans who, out of epistemically honesty, refuse to choose one of two or more evidentially equivalent options.
Not only does the Bible ignore the rational epistemic commitment to mapping your degree of belief to the degree of the relevant evidence, it encourages belief beyond the evidence, and classifies doubt a character flaw rather than as a rational response to the evidence.
Look at the following verses.
“For we live by faith and not by sight.”
“διὰ πίστεως γὰρ περιπατοῦμεν, οὐ διὰ εἴδους”
2 Corinthians 5:7
“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
Ἔστιν δὲ πίστις ἐλπιζομένων ὑπόστασις, πραγμάτων ἔλεγχος οὐ βλεπομένων”
Note these verses contain no suggestion belief (πίστις) is a gradient act rationally mapping to the degree of the evidence. Explore the many other reference to belief in the Bible. You’ll find the consistently irrational form of belief you see in these two verses encouraged. (http://biblehub.com/greek/4102.htm) There is one notable exception.
“For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith.”
“Λέγω γὰρ διὰ τῆς χάριτος τῆς δοθείσης μοι παντὶ τῷ ὄντι ἐν ὑμῖν μὴ ὑπερφρονεῖν παρ’ ὃ δεῖ φρονεῖν ἀλλὰ φρονεῖν εἰς τὸ σωφρονεῖν, ἑκάστῳ ὡς ὁ θεὸς ἐμέρισεν μέτρον πίστεως”
This verse is not dealing with salvific belief, but with a post-redemptive belief related to the assessment of one’s worth. Note that, rather than the measure of belief depending upon the measure of the evidence, the degree of belief is absurdly dealt to individuals by God. This frees the Christian from the obligation of aligning their degree of belief to the degree of the evidence, and instead associates virtuous belief with whatever degree of belief God grants. If you find yourself believing more than the evidence warrants, it can be, according to this verse, be attributed to the grace of God, and that would be, if not rational, at least virtuous, right? Of course not.
The absurdity in this can be seen if adherent to religion X considers the identical form of belief of the adherent of religion Y. If religion Y also states belief comes from its particular God, and their own God-belief is, as a result, honest and virtuous, no adherents of either religion can be considered irrational. And since no just God would damn someone for an honest and virtuous form of belief, your own religion is in error if it condemns those who have “honestly” and “virtuously” arrived at their God-beliefs through the same process you employ.
This perverse severing of the degree of belief away from the degree of the evidence is made even more clear by the Bible’s treatment of doubt.
“But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. For that person must not suppose he will receive anything from the Lord. He is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”
“αιτειτω δε εν πιστει μηδεν διακρινομενος ο γαρ διακρινομενος εοικεν κλυδωνι θαλασσης ανεμιζομενω και ριπιζομενω. μη γαρ οιεσθω ο ανθρωπος εκεινος οτι ληψεται τι παρα του κυριου. ανηρ διψυχος ακαταστατος εν πασαις ταις οδοις αυτου.”
Those who doubt, according to the Bible, are not simply mapping their degree of belief to the degree of the evidence, but are “double-minded” and “unstable in all [their] ways”.
The facts are clear. The Bible wrenches the degree of belief away from the degree of the evidence, and makes a degree of belief exceeding the evidence virtuous, and any doubt a character flaw. The Bible is therefore not representative of any God who encourages rational belief.
And this abandoning of the mapping between belief and evidence becomes even more apparent based on the history of Christianity. Martin Luther stated “Reason is a whore.” Turtullian proclaimed “credible est quia ineptum est” (“I believe because it is incongruous”). Kierkegaard spoke of a “qualitative leap” of belief above the evidence necessary to follow God. This notion that salvific belief is rational in some way is a recent invention. Nothing in the Bible suggests that its God requires a mapping of the degree of belief to the degree of the relevant evidence as honestly perceived. The Bible introduces not the slightest reference to the standards of evidence and tools of rationality we successfully employ today in the sciences and in our personal lives.
(One exception cited is the Bereans in Acts 17:11 who “…received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.” But this is was simply their comparing the account of the life of Jesus to Old Testament prophecies that the New Testament writers had access to before they wrote down the account of the life of Jesus. Imagine being able to invent and/or tweak the life of a god-man based on a multitude of well-known vague messianic prophecies the public held in high anticipation.)
And even those who claim their belief in Jesus is rational do nothing to discourage those who believe in Jesus irrationally. Children in churches the world over are encouraged to believe long before they are taught standards of evidence or the tools of rationality. Many adult Christians, even as they claim they believe based on various evidences for an intelligent creator and an actual resurrection, know they did not become a Christian based on these evidences. A substantial majority of Christians become Christians long before they are taught to think rationally, and older Christians will invoke as virtuous the innocent unschooled belief the little child places in a salvation story motivated by emotions, most predominantly, the fear of eternal damnation. At the same time they will consider the belief of a Muslim child, identical to Christian belief in all but its object, worthy of damnation.
This attempted reformation of salvific belief into something somehow rational transparently transgresses the Bible, Christian history, and the actual practices found in Sunday Schools around the world.
The Bible’s notion of salvific belief can be safely rejected as nonsense for the two reason argued above.
1. The Bible, instead of treating belief as gradient, treats it as a binary act, making no reference to any sort of nuanced position.
2. The Bible, makes no reference to the evidence in the context of salvific belief, encourages a degree of belief above the degree of the evidence, and disparages doubt as a character flaw.
Any ideology that encourages a perversion of rational belief is false. For the rational mind, the degree of belief in any proposition must be honestly mapped to the degree of the relevant perceived evidence for that proposition. The Bible fails in this respect, and can therefore be dismissed as nonsense.