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Now You Owe Me a Zillion Dollars

June 6, 2011
by

I have occasionally run across what is supposedly a standard evangelism tactic where a Christian asks someone whether they feel like they are a dirty, rotten sinner. If the person says yes the Christian proceeds to tell them that there is hope – Jesus has died for them and made things right. Problematically, very few people say yes. Faced with a “no” a Christian can do one of two things: drop the subject or attempt to convince the person they are talking to that they are in fact a dirty, rotten sinner. I’ve seen both but I’ve never seen either work. The tactic doesn’t work for a simple reason: it’s essentially this conversation:

Ajax: “Hector, bad news! You owe Patroclus a zillion dollars!”
Hector: “How did this happen? I don’t even know the guy.”
Ajax: “Everyone owes Patroclus a zillion dollars.”
Hector: “This sounds like a scam. I’m not paying.”
Ajax: “Bad news. You have to. Patroclus owns the army.”
Hector: “Oh. That’s not good. I don’t have that kind of money.”
Ajax: “No one does. A zillion isn’t even a real number. But wait! Good news! Patroclus has paid your debt himself!”
Hector: “So I don’t owe him anything?”
Ajax: “Not a thing! But you should probably thank him.”

Needless to say, this sort of thing doesn’t sit right with people.

I presume that regular readers of this blog are not so silly as to attempt this particular tactic. Rather than dive immediately into my main point, I’d like to take a moment to make some tweaks to this routine (while remaining suspicious of these sorts of salesman tactics across the board). It’s simply hard to start by saying to someone, especially the unfortunate stranger on who this is often sprung, “Don’t you agree that you’re a giant pile of animate feces?” Most people won’t. On the other hand most people will agree that other people take a dump on them. In fact the contention that the world is full of sinful people is supported by all sorts of evidence. I’ve opened up the BBC main site on my browser while writing and without clicking on a single link I see political chaos in Egypt, a suicide bombing in Pakistan, an airplane crash, violent conflict in Sudan, a discussion of computer hijacking, a house arrest in Iran, multiple murders, a piracy trial, a mass rape trial, the arrest of an activist in China, an oil tanker hijacking, and an immigration fraud case. Even the good news sometimes tells us of prior terrible things – former gang members leaving gangs to play cricket, peace talks to end a war, and a race car driver leaving the hospital after being seriously injured. Of all of these only the plane crash and the car crash have any real possibility of not being directly linked to sinful action on the part of one or more specific people. Rather than start with bad news people will reject we could start with the bad news everyone’s heard: lots of bad stuff happens. From there we could move to good news: God has taken action to fix this. This tactic is more like this:

Ajax: “Hector! Do you have a zillion dollars?”
Hector: “Does anybody?”
Ajax: “No. But Patroclus would like to give everyone a zillion dollars.”

Having begun by discussing the problem everyone agrees on, it’s easy to make a series of natural transitions. Bad things often happen because other people misbehave, sometimes in small ways and sometimes in very large ways. If we take this problem seriously we will inevitably realize that just like everyone else we misbehave. By starting by talking to people about being victims of sin we can eventually talk to them about being sinners themselves – and when we do, it actually means something.

This is where we get to my real point, a point about how the large, esoteric issues actually matter. All of this is part of a much larger conversation about the nature of sin and salvation.

When we discuss sin we need to discuss why it’s a problem. Is the problem of sin extrinsic or intrinsic? That is, does sin cause us problems because someone else gives us trouble for sinning (“Take a cookie and I’ll whack your knuckles with this rolling pin”) or because sin is actually action that hurts us by its nature (“Punch that brick wall and your knuckles will hurt”)? The first conversation, the one I don’t like, focuses on the extrinsic problem. God has charged you with a crime. Much like Patroclus fining you a zillion dollars for existing, this problem isn’t really one that lives inside of you. It’s really a problem someone else has with you. The second conversation focuses on the intrinsic problem of sin. Sin hurts. That’s simply what it does. Sometimes your sin hurts you and sometimes it hurts others (and in the end these all end up bleeding together anyway).

The discussion about salvation stems from the conversation about sin. Jesus comes to save us from sin but if sin is punishment that means something very different than if Jesus comes to save us from something more like a disease. The first view of sin generally results in the substitutionary atonement model of salvation. This one, so well known in many churches that the existence of other models is not even suspected, asserts that Jesus saves us from our sins by taking the punishment for them and using that punishment up. The second view of sin generally results in the Christus Victor model. In this view Jesus saves us from sin by absorbing the evil of that sin into himself and, in resurrecting, utterly defeating that evil whose greatest power is death.

It would prove my point well enough if I stopped here but there’s yet another layer. Both substitutionary atonement and Christus Victor are tied to philosophical notions of morality (themselves tied to philosophical views of the existence of abstract principles). Specifically, each of these views derives support from separate positions on the issue of whether or not God transcends morality (a question I took a stance on, alongside no less than Thomas Aquinas, here). If God transcends morality (moral rules do not bind God) then God is certainly free to satisfy His wrath any way He wants. Torturing Himself is a rather weird way to do this but He is certainly free to do so. What’s more, the Christus Victor model makes little to no sense under this view because the moral law that humanity has infringed upon is not in some sense real. It is not an aspect of God but a declaration. God could rob evil of its power simply by calling it good. If God does not transcend morality (which is normally assumed to be because God’s nature is moral and God is bound by His nature) then there are clear intrinsic consequences to sin and God cannot declare His way out of them. Christus Victor suddenly makes a great deal of sense.

There are yet more levels to this discussion, some of which are quite heated. However, as strange as it is to say, it may be that bad evangelistic routines are actually rooted in careless thinking about the way in which God interacts with moral law. This, ultimately, is the sort of thing that drives many of the articles on this blog. Even ideas far removed from immediate action items eventually get there.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. antonio permalink
    June 6, 2011 7:34 pm

    I am positively intrigued. The more I read the more I wanna know – what collection of (con)tributory events/experiences has together formed your opinion(s) and what stream currently feeds it?

  2. Eric permalink
    June 6, 2011 9:48 pm

    Interesting question. Obviously, being a scientist shapes the way I think to a great deal (just look at one of my data-dump articles, like the souls and spirits ones). There’s some bad experiences in the mix, too. Most men in their mid-twenties think they are invincible and don’t really believe they will die. At that age I got (and now seem to have recovered from) cancer. Coming to terms with one’s own mortality is a worthwhile experience, although I recommend a less traumatic method of doing so. And, honestly, some of the worst theology I see prompts me to ask questions like “Why is that so bad? What makes that not just wrong but crazy wrong?” That can be quite helpful.

    However, there’s also more accessible stuff. N.T. Wright got me into reading primary sources and original languages. Wright continues to influence me through his own writing but reading the Didache or making my way through Genesis in Hebrew is equally important – as is reading the Sumerian creation myths as I look at Genesis 1-3 or examining letters from the ancient world for clues as to what life was like.

    This article has benefited a lot from my contact with Eastern Orthodoxy. In fact, any time I mention personal growth as a Christian virtue, touch upon mysticism, or treat sin as a disease-like problem as opposed to a crime-like one (although both are true) I owe something to Orthodoxy.

    I also owe a large debt to my co-authors, and a number of other people in the Bible Studies I met them in, who I know personally and who bring new ideas to me and who are there for me to try out new ideas on.

  3. antonio permalink
    June 7, 2011 7:06 am

    It occured to me that nothing that I have read so far has surprised me or even alarmed me. My intrigue therefore must be based upon how much we agree and how simply you manage to explain what I already believe. And this happy coincidence has happened without the comparable personal tragedy. (Your testimony is nonetheless inspiring).

    In a round about way I was really asking – where/what and with whom have you studied? Where/what and with whom do you continue to study? Not because I am hung up on denominations or even degrees, but because I am genuinely intrigued by your writings and I am interested in knowing more about the source/s. I want to understand more about what I believe and the current method, though obviously effective, is also painstakingly slow.

    You have already given me some homework though – the Didache? N.T Wright? Perhaps I might need to take up that offer you made on the general comments page to have you suggest a reading list for my personal study.

  4. Eric permalink
    June 7, 2011 8:35 am

    In terms of direct book recommendations:
    1) N.T. Wright. Most of his stuff is great, some is more scholarly than others. Anything he’s written under “Tom Wright” is less scholarly. I am fond of his “Christian Origins and the Question of God” series, “The New Testament and the People of God”, “Jesus and the Victory of God”, and “The Resurrection of the Son of God” which is very much on the scholarly end.

    2) Dallas Willard is well worth reading, pretty much anything he’s written.

    3) Eugene Peterson’s “The Jesus Way”.

    4) Vladamir Lossky’s “Introduction to Orthodox Theology”.

    5) Early Christian writings – the Didache, Ignatius, Polycarp, Clement, Justin Martyr, etc. Most of these are available online. Some of the more verbose authors, like Justin and Ireaneus, are worth getting in book form unless you’re very fond of reading off a screen (or have an e-book reader).

    That’s all off the top of my head and related in some manner to the concerns I’ve most recently been thinking about and so there’s probably more I could recommend but that’s a start.

  5. antonio permalink
    June 7, 2011 8:56 am

    Thanks. I may well owe you a zillion dollars after I get through with all this reading. For now, please accept my IOU.
    Just by the way, is it on purpose that you have not answered the ‘where’ and ‘with whom’ parts of my question?

  6. Eric permalink
    June 8, 2011 5:51 pm

    No, it was absent-mindedness. I got working on a book list for you and forgot about the rest of the question.

    I don’t formally study theology anywhere. I have an undergraduate minor in Religion that may or may not have ever been recorded on my transcript. Most of my study is through reading which is why I started with books. I am currently part of a non-denominational church but (as I’m sure you’re aware) those can be a real crapshoot. My graduate Intervarsity group has been a great source of growth for me but graduate Intervarsity groups seem to be a very different sort of beast than the undergraduate ones most people are familiar with.

    I hope that helps. If I was a formal student of theology I’d have an institution and advisors/research partners to name, but I’m not.

  7. antonio permalink
    June 8, 2011 6:55 pm

    hmm.

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