Christian Nonbelievers

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When I was a student at Vanderbilt Divinity School, I believed that I would fit in well. At Harding University Graduate School of Religion, an excellent Churches of Christ seminary in Memphis, I had shed my Fundamentalist belief in Biblical inerrancy and had accepted a historical-critical approach to studying the Bible. I had come close to losing my faith–although I claimed to be agnostic, I was more of a doubting believer.

I quickly discovered that I did not fit in at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Many professors (though all all) denied the bodily resurrection of Christ, something I have always believed essential to Christian faith. In fact, to insist on the reality of the bodily resurrection would not have been good for my future there. And forget about the Virgin Birth–to most professors, that was not even an option to be considered (again, I’m sure there were exceptions). The school promoted a radical political agenda–to even question it was to invite censure. VDS was where I discovered that liberal Protestants and liberal Roman Catholics could be every bit as dogmatic and bigoted as Christian Fundamentalists.

I asked Professor Clement Dore, who taught in the philosophy department, what he thought about the Divinity School and its professors. He said I could quote him, and so I will–“Most of them are atheists, but they read the Sermon on the Mount and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if society would be this way’. So they try to change society.” Thankfully, I took most of my courses in the philosophy department which was more open to genuine discussion of ideas. There, an atheist was an atheist, a theist a theist, and I could tell the difference between the two.

Why are seminaries which are devoted to training Christian ministers filled with teachers who do not believe even one of the doctrines of traditional Christianity? Ultimately, this situation is the effect of the eighteenth century Enlightenment combined with the rise of modern science. Although Newton was a theist (though not an orthodox Christian–he tended toward Unitarianism), the world view of his science seemed more consistent with naturalism. According to naturalism, the world is a closed continuum of cause and effect with no room for supernatural intervention–all that exists is matter and energy. Even if there were a God, He would not interfere in the causal chain.

It is this view that led the New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann to propose “demythologizing” the Bible so that the really important message is one of gaining authentic existence. His project was a continuation of the project of liberal Protestantism to find subjective value in Christianity since the objective truth value of its traditional claims was considered to be “false.” So Friedrich Schleiermacher in the nineteenth century said that religion is a “feeling of absolute dependence.” Contemporary liberal Protestants have moved to a more political agenda with such movements as liberation theology, which interprets Christianity according to a Marxist framework.

I have no problem with denying inerrancy or with a historical-critical approach to the Bible. But alleged Christians who deny the existence of a transcendent-immanent God, who deny the Incarnation of Christ, who deny His bodily resurrection, are hypocrites in calling themselves “Christians.” I have infinitely more respect for a crusading atheist like Kai Nielsen than I do for a liberal Protestant who does not believe in God, even though he may hide his lack of faith in the complex language of Continental philosophy.

The good news for traditional Christians is that many younger theologians are more theologically conservative than their older counterparts. Hopefully this trend will continue. As Christianity begins a slow decline in the United States that parallels the radical secularism in Europe, hopefully those Christians who remain, including Christian scholars, will support the fullness of the faith and not some shallow, shadowy substitute.

Thoughts on the Death Penalty

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Back in the 1970s, a father tortured his small daughter to death. He forced her to walk without stopping, denied her food, and when she asked for water, he gave her hot sauce. She died slowly, agonizingly. The father was given a prison sentence, and if I remember correctly, it wasn’t life in prison.

In a famous case in Indianapolis from the late 1960s, a teenaged girl was left with a neighbor while her parents were away. The neighbor tortured the girl to death, helped by her own children and by children from the neighborhood. This torture continued over a period of weeks until the girl died. The neighbor was given only a few years in prison, and died a natural death after her release.

Such heinous crimes are those in which I think the death penalty would be justified. Those who kill in this most gruesome way most often lack any conscience or even a concept of a conscience. Ted Bundy probably had a moral sense to some degree, for he would not kill any woman he could not dehumanize. But he deserved to die in Florida’s electric chair.

The only proper justification for capital punishment is the ancient notion of desert–not the “desert” a person eats after dinner, but “desert” in the sense of a person getting the justice he deserves. Although the death penalty deters the person executed, it does not tend to deter crime in any other way. When the British had over 200 capital crimes in the eighteenth century, including pickpocketing, crooks would pick the audience members’ pockets at a public hanging of a pickpocket. But an argument from desert is not concerned with utilitarian considerations. Someone who commits murder damages the very fabric of human society so much that such a person deserves to die.

The real problem with the death penalty, from my perspective, is practical–what if someone innocent is executed? That is why I believe that unless a case is as solid as the case against Bundy or the murderers in the two cases mentioned above, life in prison is the preferable option. In addition, since some murderers retain a moral sense and a conscience, it may be best to give those murderers life in prison in case they repent. Just because a person deserves to die does not imply that he must be put to death.  But in the case of sociopathic or psychopathic murderers, and in the case of murders that are particularly heinous (such as the two cases mentioned at the beginning of this post), these individuals should be executed. This argument assumes that the murderers have free will; a delusional paranoid schizophrenic who commits a brutal murder while delusional belongs in a mental hospital.

Many Christians oppose the death penalty even though Jesus told Pilate in the Gospel of John that Pilate had no authority unless God had given it. St. Paul, in Romans 13, states that the governmental authority “bears not the sword in vain,” a clear reference to deadly force. For those Christians who hate St. Paul, I would remind them that St. Paul is in the canon of Scripture–and they are not.

It is sad that the moral fabric of some human beings is so destroyed by their murderous choices that they deserve death. Christians should be, I think, more reluctant than many secular proponents of capital punishment to put it to use. But some people are “desperately wicked,” as my Greek teacher at David Lipscomb College, Dr. Harvey Floyd, used to say, and death is the only proper punishment for them when they commit atrocious murders. It seems to me that those who deny any need for capital punishment are blind to the extent of human evil and cruelty in a fallen world.