Monday, April 05, 2010

A game of "the sinner and the saint"

Back in January I had a little free time and was on the CARM discussion boards. One of the non-Christians there wanted to play a popular game for skeptics: a game of "the sinner and the saint". I've played before. Basically, the anti-Christian asks the Christian how in the world it is defensible that a good non-Christian might be lost and a bad Christian might be saved. One variant is "Gandhi and Hitler". I wanted to keep a few notes for next time I play, so I thought I'd pass along my answer here. The game was laid out like this:
So a guy kills a bunch of people, burns their house down, robs a bank, all on Friday. And then Saturday repents and becomes a Christian. Will this fella go to Heaven? Will Jesus save him?

What about an old Buddhist lady who has lived a pious life without committing any crime or serious offense, and was otherwise a kind and caring person. Someone who was familiar with Christianity but didn't care for it. Will she go to Hell?
My answer:
You know Christianity is one of the most diverse religions -- if you have 10 Christians in the room, you'll have 12 opinions among us.

As far as your murderer -- he's not beyond the reach of God's love. There's always hope. There's always redemption. There's always a way back. Even if he realized his soul was messed up. Maybe that's why he became a Christian.

As far as the pious lady, I'm glad I'm not her judge but I have a couple of questions:

Why isn't she fond of Christianity?
  1. Does she not think "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is part of the right path?
  2. Does she not think "Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, pray for those who persecute you" is part of the right path?
  3. Does she take offense at Jesus' claim to *be* the right path, to *be* the source of light she seeks in Enlightenment? ("I am the way ... I am the light.")
  4. Did she hear some sort of form of Christianity that had nothing to do with the Christ of the New Testament, so she had a false idea of Christianity?

What kind of "pious" was she?
  1. Did she fast twice a week, pray/meditate regularly, give 10% of all she had to the poor, and thank God / the gods that she was better than people like guy #1?
  2. Did she do her good works in public to be seen and admired, or did she help people in secret that God alone might have the praise?
  3. Did she see someone hungry and feed him, thirsty and give him a drink? Did she see someone a stranger and welcome him, or without clothes and clothe him? Did she see someone sick and in prison, and visit him? If so, she may have already met Christ, and believed in him, and loved him, without recognizing him. Jesus says there will be a lot of that going around on the last day.
The original questioner replied:
You can personally define pious however you like. In this hypothetical scenario, the lady is aware of Christianity but has no want or desire to convert and is perfectly happy the way she is. She has never committed a crime, been arrested, murdered someone etc, and is a caring person.

The scum bag who murders and steals, however, is just that... a scumbag. However he "finds Jesus" after committing his crimes.
My next round went like this:
The scumbag who murders and steals, who is just a scumbag, is exactly the kind of person Jesus would have had dinner with. "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners." He was fond of outcasts and sinners. Not so fond of the people who told him he was wrong to love them. Does it offend you that, in Christianity, an absolute scumbag has hope of redemption?

About what it means to be pious: Bingo! We can all personally define pious however we like; so that makes it fairly meaningless to say someone is "pious", if each person can tailor the word to mean what they want and it could just mean the person says "I approve of myself". Jesus said that not all kinds of piety are alike. The "holier than thou" piety was actually obnoxious to him. The piety that saw the face of God in the outcast stranger was precious to him; he said he himself was the outcast stranger. So the question was: when our undefined "pious" lady saw Jesus, the outcast stranger, how did she react? Love? Hatred? Indifference? Did she define "piety" as recognizing God in the face of the stranger (i.e., being loving), or did she define "piety" as improving herself and being impressed with her progress (i.e. spiritual narcissism)?

And we haven't quite determined how someone can be "pious" and have no interest in Jesus, whose most distinctive teaching is the primacy of love. It becomes a very pressing question how she defines "pious" if "love" does not seem like a good path to her. Remember, it was the "pious" people who were lining up to kill him, because they didn't like the picture of God he was painting ... the kind that would be interested in the fate of scumbags, and in second chances.
That one didn't get a reply, unfortunately.


Howard said...

It looks like you'd prepped for this brilliantly after your first experience. That is exactly the kind of clarity required when discussing such matters.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hey Howard. Great to see you. Thank you for the encouragment.

It took awhile, but eventually I caught on that most "bait-the-Christian" games played on debate boards are, in disguise, fairly good opportunities to proclaim Christ if we just keep our heads on straight.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Martin LaBar said...

Well done!

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Martin

Thanks for the encouragment.

Dan Lower / KKairos said...

I love this game.

I especially love your response--sometimes it does seem (to risk an uncharitable thought) that the people who play it are really much more put off by God's forgiveness, than concerned about the 'good' person in the scenario, which isn't to say that the seeming arbitrariness of accepting Christ doesn't put any of them off.

I probably would've left it at a note on the mystery of these things, but like I said before I really liked your questions about the good woman mentioned, and your follow-ups to the response, especially "Did she fast twice a week, pray/meditate regularly, give 10% of all she had to the poor, and thank God / the gods that she was better than people like guy #1?" (I assumed you didn't mean like the Pharisee with the tax collector.)

One criticism: You state that "we haven't quite determined how someone can be 'pious' and have no interest in Jesus, whose most distinctive teaching is the primacy of love."

I would be careful about this line lest we as Christians categorically denounce our spiritual ancestors the Jews as being automatically non-pious. Even if that statement were applicable to modern-day Jews, I have a feeling that it is not applicable to Ancient Judaism.

Double kudos for not having one of those CAPTCHA things on your blog.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Dan

Thanks for the response.

Considering what you said about ancient Judaism: the response to my internet skeptic friend is definitely geared towards today's world, and the setting he pained of someone who's aware of Christianity but disinterested in learning from Jesus. Back at that point in history you reference (B.C.) I wonder what a good substitute would have been. I think "trust in God's forgiveness" or "interest in the future Messiah" might have been an interesting angle to pursue ... or another gauge they had for "What's your brand of piety?" was "Which command is the greatest?" In the Talmud you can see the sages debating that point, & it definitely came up in their conversations with Jesus as well.

(Yah, I'm not fond of captcha. Every once in awhile I'll get spammed, but I prefer that to captcha.)

Take care & God bless

Diane R said...

The answer is:

Romans 2

Weekend Fisher said...


The trick for me is to take the thoughts and put them to the particular question. If they're asking a decent question, it all seems to work out ...