Faith Unjustified

Jesus is perhaps the most influential philosopher who ever lived. His words are familiar even to non-Christians. Scholars tell us about his times and about the values of his contemporaries. Sometimes, researchers conclude that he didn't ever say some of the words attributed to him. Others have suggested that he never lived.

Whether or not the Gospels cited Jesus correctly, the Jesus of the Bible is the only Jesus that matters. His thoughts are internally consistent; they reflect a single philosophy. Oddly, there is one thing that scholars and academics have never done: they have never evaluated this philosophy. In other words, Western thinkers, for two millennia, have never taken Jesus seriously. They may have worshipped him, rejected him, or dispassionately studied his life and times. Yet they have never confronted his philosophy as philosophy. There has never been a critical reading of what he said. Surely Jesus is important enough to merit such an evaluation. I propose to do so now.

A central element in Christian thinking, based on the words of Jesus, is the doctrine of justification through faith. For Catholics, salvation can be achieved through faith and works; for Protestants, through faith alone. There is no Christian doctrine of salvation exclusively through works. Jesus spoke of faith in unambiguous terms:

I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth
in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and
whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.
Believest thou this (John 11:25-26)

Eternal life is the reward for faith. But what about those who have no faith? If we read carefully, we see that there is no hope for them:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only
begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should
not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent
not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but
that the world through him might be saved. He that
believeth in him is not condemned: but he that
believeth not is condemned already, because he hath
not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of
God (John 3:16-18).

Faith, by definition, is different from knowledge. If we have knowledge, we do not need faith. Faith involves believing what we do not know and perhaps cannot know. It cannot be proved to a person who has experienced neither heaven nor hell that these places exist, nor can it be conclusively demonstrated to one still alive that a particular route is the only path to salvation. Jesus's miracles could show those who witnessed them that he multiplied loaves and fishes; the miracles could not prove that he could grant life everlasting, although they could create faith. George Bernard Shaw, in fact, defined a miracle as an event that creates faith. This definition shows that Shaw considered faith something of a miracle in its own right.

What happens to those who have no faith? Let us consider what Jesus said about a certain rich man:

There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in
purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every
day: and there was a certain beggar named Lazarus,
which was laid at his gate, full of sores, and
desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from
the rich man's table: moreover the dogs came and
licked his sores. And it came to pass, that the
beggar died, and was carried by the angels into
Abraham's bosom: the rich man also died, and was
buried; and in hell he lifted up his eyes, being in
torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in
his bosom. And he cried and said, Father Abraham,
have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip
the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue;
for I am tormented in this flame. But Abraham said,
Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy
good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now
he is comforted, and thou art tormented. And beside all
this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so
that they which would pass from hence to you cannot;
neither can they pass to us, that would come from
thence. Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father,
that thou wouldest send him to my father's house: for I
have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest
they also come into this place of torment. Abraham
saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let
them hear them. And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but
if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent.
And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the
prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one
rose from the dead (Luke 16:19-31).

An ugly story. It tells us about the horror of eternal damnation. If the average contemporary reader does not experience this horror, it is no doubt because we do not really believe in hell. In other words, we have no faith. The rich man seems to be punished for selfishness and not for lack of faith, but if we look at the words of the story, we see that it is indeed lack of faith that led him to his fate: he is punished for not heeding Moses and the prophets, for lack of obedience to something he could not know about directly.

His brothers too will be asked to have faith; they will not be given the chance to talk to someone who has been to hell and can tell them what it is like. The argument offered by Abraham that they would not be persuaded by an eye-witness account is unconvincing. If people had a chance to question someone who had been there, or if they could see it themselves, they would not need faith; they would make a totally rational and informed decision. The rich man says by his plea to save his brothers that his life would have been different had he simply had more direct knowledge. His wish to help them is entirely disinterested. Neither Abraham, a character within the account, nor Jesus, the narrator, recognizes this evidence of goodness. There is no forgiveness and no mercy for those in hell.

Good works are described by Jesus not as worthy in their own right but as deeds done to Jesus himself:

When the Son of man shall come into his glory,
and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit
upon the throne of his glory: and before him shall be
gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one
from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the
goats: and he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but
the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto
them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father,
inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation
of the world: for I was ahungered, and ye gave me meat:
I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger,
and ye took me in: naked, and ye clothed me: I was
sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came
unto me, Then shall the righteous answer him saying,
Lord, when saw we thee ahungered, and fed thee? or
thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a
stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto
thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them,
Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto
one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it
to me. Then shall he also say unto them on the left
hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire,
prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was
ahungered, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty,
and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took
me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in
prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also
answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee ahungered,
or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in
prison, and did not minister unto thee? then shall he
answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as
ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it
not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting
punishment: but the righteous into life eternal
(Matthew 25:31-46).

It is beautiful to say that by serving others we serve God, but in a certain sense this minimizes the service. God needs us less than our fellow creatures do. Moreover, a deed done for its own sake is truly a good act; one done to gain reward or avoid punishment is merely a transaction. Faith in the reality of damnation may persuade us to be good because it pays to be, but somehow that is not really being good.

What about the poor goats? Like the rich man, they did not know what they were in for. They lacked the greatness of soul to want to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. They also lacked the faith that would have taught them they had better shape up or else. Only faith could have shown this to them. The knowledge that would have made goodness an act of enlightened self-interest was not available to them, as it is not available to anyone. They are still burning in hell. Then how can we say that "God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved"? The goats and the rich man were not given a a fair chance.

The goats and the rich man - however disproportionate their punishment - were objectively lacking in mercy. There is a rough justice to their fates. Many of the parables, however, are stories where the point seems to be that there is no justice:

For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is
a householder, which went out early in the morning to
hire laborers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed
with the laborers for a penny a day, he sent them into
his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour, and
saw others standing idle in the market place, and said
unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever
is right I will give you. Again he went out about the
sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the
eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing
idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day
idle? They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us.
He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and
whatever is right, that shall ye receive. So when even
was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his
steward, Call the laborers, and give them their hire,
beginning from the last unto the first. And when they
came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they
received every man a penny. But when the first came,
they supposed that they should have received more; and
they likewise received every man a penny. And when they
had received it, they murmured against the goodman of
the house, saying, These last have wrought but one hour,
and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne
the burden and heat of the day. But he answered one of
them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not
thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is and
go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto
thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will wish
with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?
So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many
be called, but few chosen (Matthew 20:1-16).

Is this parable meant to teach anything? Is it simply recognition of the fact that life is unfair? But it is not about life; it begins with the words, "For the kingdom of heaven is like. . . ." Whatever its meaning, it reminds us of a different instance of injustice:

Now it came to pass, as they went, that he encountered
into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha
received him into her house. And she had a sister
called Mary, which sat at Jesus' feet, and heard his
word. But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and
came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my
sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore
that she help me. And Jesus answered and said unto her,
Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many
things: but one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen
that good part, which shall not be taken away from her
(Luke 10:38-42).

The answer of a male chauvinist, who takes it for granted that women serve him. Martha too would have preferred to sit at Jesus" feet. Yet the openness of Jesus with women has been cited as an example of his respect for women's rights in a pariarchal age. So has his disapproval of divorce, which at the time and place he lived was a unilateral act by the man. But if we look at Jesus' words, his condemnation of divorce seems to have nothing to do with women's rights:

It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife,
let him give her a writing of divorcement: but I say
unto you, That whosoever put away his wife, saving for
the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit
adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced
committeth adultery (Matthew 5:31-32).

There is no hint or tone suggesting a concern for women's position in this passage. What we see instead is the view that marrying a divorced woman (there is no mention of a divorced man) is adultery. The gravity of this sin in shown in the verses that immediately precede this citation:

Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time,
Thou shalt not commit adultery: but I say unto you,
That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her
hath committed adultery already with her in his heart.
And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and
cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that
one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole
body should be cast into hell (Matthew 5:27-29).

Wow! It is better to be blind than to look at a woman with lust. And what if a woman looks at a man with lust? The possibility is not mentioned. It is reasonable to conclude, however, that these passages are not concerned with anything so mundane as women's rights. They are a rejection of sexual desire - not adultery, just simple looking with lust, something that everybody does every day.

The assertion that thinking, or at least lusting, is as bad as doing leads us back to the question of faith. Desire can be controlled, but short of plucking out one's eye, it cannot be eliminated. It is simply there, like faith or lack of faith. And like lack of faith, it is a reason to burn in hell. This makes no sense. Why should honest doubt, or honest desire for that matter, be a punishable offense? It only makes sense if the purpose of life is to have faith. We are told this directly. Salvation comes through faith in Jesus:

Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the
life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me
(John 14:6).

The New Testament offers a consistent view throughout. The purpose of life is to achieve salvation, which is done partly (for Catholics) or entirely (for Protestants) by accepting Jesus' sacrifice through our faith in him. Obligations to the living and the dead do not count unless, as in the cases of the rich man and the goats, these duties are redefined as obligations to Jesus:

And another of his disciples said unto him, Lord,
suffer me first to go and bury my father. But Jesus
said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their
dead (Matthew 8:21-22).

It was Jesus' insistence that service to him was more important than concern about sentiment and society that enraged Judas and led him to betray Jesus:

Now when Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon
the leper, there came unto him a woman having an
alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it
on his head, as he sat at meat. But when his disciples
saw it, they had indignation, saying, To what purpose is
this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for
much, and given to the poor. When Jesus understood it,
he said unto them, Why trouble ye the woman? for she
hath wrought a good work upon me. For ye have the poor
always with you; but me ye have not always. For in that
she had poured this ointment on my body, she did it for
my burial. Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this
gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall
also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a
memorial of her. Then one of the twelve, called Judas
Iscariot, went unto the chief priests, and said unto
them, What will ye give me, and I will deliver him unto
you? And they covenanted with him for thirty pieces of
silver (Matthew 26:6-15).

The account by Matthew does not make any connection between Jesus' words and Judas' motivation for his act of betrayal. Money is not the issue, because Judas agrees to deliver Jesus before he knows what the reward will be. John, who does make the connection, maintains that Judas simply wanted to steal the money destined for the poor:

Then Jesus six days before the passover came to
Bethany, where Lazarus was which had been dead, whom
he raised from the dead. There they made him a supper;
and Martha served: but Lazarus was one of them that sat
at the table with him. Then took Mary a pound of
ointment of spikenard, very costly, and annointed the
feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the
house was filled with the odor of ointment. Then saith
one of the disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, which
should betray him, Why was not this ointment sold for
three hundred pence, and given to the poor? This he
said, not that he cared for the poor; but because he was
a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put
therein. Then said Jesus, Let her alone: against the
day of my burying hath she kept this. For the poor
always ye have with you; but me ye have not always
(John 12:1-8).

Matthew, who does not question the reasons for the disciples' indignation, does not mention Judas. As long as Judas is not referred to directly, the indignation seems logical. John cannot allow Judas to appear more concerned for the poor than Jesus is, so he must invent another motive for Judas' objection. When we read the Matthew and John accounts together, we see that the disciple who was offended by Jesus' words was Judas, who then went out to betray Jesus before he knew what his monetary reward would be.

Jesus knew that the reason for his sojourn on earth was to be crucified so that he himself could bear the punishment for the sins of humanity:

Then he opened their understanding, that they might
understand the Scriptures, and said unto them, Thus is
it written, and thus it behooved Christ to suffer, and
to rise from the dead the third day: and that repentance
and remission of sins should be preached among all
nations, beginning at Jerusalem (Luke 24:45-47).

It follows that his submission to suffering on the cross was a voluntary act - indeed a necessary one. Jesus unambiguously contradicts Pilate's claim to have the power of life and death over Jesus:

Then Pilate said unto him, Speakest thou not unto me?
knowest thou not that I have the power to crucify thee,
and have the power to release thee? Jesus answered,
Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except
it were given thee from above: therefore he that
delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin
(John 19:10-11).

This is hard to understand. "He that delivered me unto thee" is no doubt Judas, who was also given his power to do so from above. Why is this a reason for Judas' sin to be greater than Pilate's? We have already been told that Judas was selected to be a disciple precisely because he was needed to perform the duty of the betrayal that would lead to Jesus' suffering and the consequent redemption of the world:

Jesus answered them, Have I not chosen you twelve, and
one of you is a devil? He spake of Judas Iscariot the
son of Simon: for he it was that should betray him,
being one of the twelve (John 6:70-71).

The cross is a symbol revered by Christians because Jesus' agony was the means to salvation - the central miracle of Christianity. Then why should not Judas be equally honored? Had there been no betrayal, there would have been no road to salvation.

Despite the internal coherence of the New Testament, many questions remain unanswered. If God wished to save humanity from the horrible consequences of sin, why did this have to be done through suffering? Apparently the punishment has to go someplace. God cannot simply forgive the sin; a scapegoat is needed. Jesus' sacrifice then is a noble and beautiful act; God himself is the scapegoat. But why must there be punishment? For negative reinforcement? Then the rules and penalties should be made well known. For justice? Then the idea of a scapegoat is abhorrent.

Forgiveness needs no excuse and no explanation. Diversion of the punishment to Jesus is not the same as forgiveness, since by its nature it negates the ideas of both mercy and justice. Besides, God cannot be punished. If Jesus is entirely man, he is nevertheless entirely God. Jesus the man can suffer, but since he is simultaneously divine, his suffering, however real, cannot hurt him. Jesus the man can die and be resurrected, but God is eternal, so his death is inconsequential and his resurrection entirely natural.

For those Christians who have faith in the justice and mercy of God, these questions do not exist. Yet even during the Age of Faith there were those who did not believe. Not only were they damned if we accept Jesus' teaching; their ideas could lead others to damnation. The beliefs of the faithful had to be protected. Those who sentenced freethinkers and heretics to burn at the stake were not necessarily cruel people; they were simply following the logic of the doctrine of justification through faith.

Nowadays, Christian clergy and Christian laity, with few exceptions, believe in freedom of religion. Without directly confronting the issue, they have abandoned the doctrine of justification through faith.