Salvation through faith alone: poison

Everybody who reads this blog knows I am an atheist, but I try to avoid attacking core Christian doctrines. Ultimately, I believe in co-operation. I would like to work with reasonable Christian people to build a model of education which is agreeable for everyone. I don’t (usually) see any benefit in attacking beliefs.

Yes, I attack Young Earth Creationism, but this is not a core Christian doctrine. It is not even a core fundamentalist doctrine, historically. Fundamentalism was kickstarted by The Fundamentals, a collection of essays affirming Christian beliefs. Not everyone who contributed was a Creationist. It did contain a Creationist essay by George Frederick Wright, but Wright’s views were complicated. In many writings, he expressed support for Darwin, and his Creationism was far from that expressed by Ken Ham, Duane Gish, Henry Morris, or Ray Comfort.

Plus, Young Earth Creationism is demonstrably false. So if you want to make that a core Christian doctrine, then I can say unequivocally that Christianity is untrue, and we can stop the conversation right here.

In general, I do not find the concept of God either plausible or useful. But there are certain expressions of God that, while I don’t believe them, I can see how an intelligent person could hold them.

But, I’m sorry, salvation through faith alone, the cornerstone of the Reformation, of fundamentalism, and of conservative Protestantism, is a pernicious, poisonous doctrine. I really want to co-operate with Christians, but if that’s your view, I don’t think we’re going to find common ground.

Here’s fundamentalist doctrine on salvation: Your eternal fate, heaven or hell, has nothing to do with your good works or sins in this lifetime. Everyone has sinned, and therefore, by default, everyone is going to hell. But if you believe in your heart that Jesus is the Son of God, and that God has raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved. No matter what else you do, if you believe this and confess it, you will go to heaven. Salvation is through faith only.

This is a wonderful doctrine, say evangelicals. Every other religion requires you to work for your salvation, when it’s really a free gift from God! And no one can say they are better than anyone else, because salvation isn’t due to any merit on our part.

I disagree.

Two reasons why Martin Luther ruined everything

1) It creates “us” and “them”

Salvation through faith alone makes Christianity a brutally exclusive religion. There is no possibility of anyone of a different faith going to heaven. Everyone who is not in this branch of Christianity – not just a Christian, but a True Christian – is unregenerate and does not know God. There is no possibility of them having anything worthwhile to say, because Wisdom comes from God, and they don’t know God. As Donald Howard, founder of ACE, writes in staff training for all ACE supervisors that non-Christians are “incapable of reasoning to truth.”

The words of people like Gandhi, Buddha, and almost every great western philosopher become worthless, because they were not the right kind of Christian.

This leads to what Protestants call the doctrine of Biblical Separation – that Christians should have no fellowship with the World (and, in many cases, Christians who don’t believe the right stuff). And that inevitably leads to ignorance, intolerance, and negative ideas about the “others”. Humanity is naturally fearful of unfamiliar groups, and historically we’ve dealt with strangers in rather unfriendly ways. Sealing yourself off is not going to help this.

Seeing people who are not part of your group as “other” is divisive. However tolerant you think you are, seeing most of the world as “not my tribe” is primitive and maladaptive. That’s going to be even worse if you think that doctrinal purity makes the difference between eternal bliss and eternal torture. Then you have to be really careful who you listen to.

Whereas if you believe that God looks at the heart, at intentions, and at whether you’ve done your best in life – well, there’s just a possibility that we’re all the same.

2) Evil people go to heaven while good people go to hell

Of course, the fundamentalist would say we’re all evil, and there’s no hierarchy of sin. But this is bollocks, and we all know it (in fact, it’s another pernicious doctrine, because it makes good people feel crippling guilt over trivial offences). If Martin Luther was right, a serial child rapist can repent on his deathbed and go to heaven scot-free.

This is just evidence of the great forgiveness and mercy of God, you may say. Fair enough. But this also means that a sincere person who dedicates her life to helping the poor (the victims of the above serial rapist, perhaps), and who earnestly seeks God, but who finds she cannot accept Jesus as Saviour, would spend eternity in hell.

This is not justice.

(And incidentally, the fundamentalist concept of hell is logically impossible, as William Bradley demonstrates in this sterling debate performance against William Lane Craig.)

3) Doubt becomes something to fear

For the majority of religious experience, doubt is perfectly natural. Many devout religious leaders are honest about their experience of doubt. Indeed, doubt is part and parcel of faith – if there’s no doubt, there’s no need for faith, because you’re certain.

But if faith is the sole criterion for salvation – if you can burn in hell for all eternity just because you stopped believing – then doubt is something to fight at every turn. Doubt is something to squash, to run from, and to feel guilty about.

This makes salvation through faith anti-intellectual. You begin to fear asking questions. Let’s say you’re a faith-only Christian who beings to doubt. You certainly don’t want to pursue that doubt. What if you uncover evidence which casts more doubt on your faith? Then you might stop believing. 

Then you would be damned.

This makes ignorance a good thing. It stops education cold.

With salvation through faith, true education is impossible

It’s the third point that is most important to this blog. I met a classmate from my ACE days recently, and we discussed Creationism. He said (it was a few months ago, so this isn’t verbatim), “There are some things that don’t make sense, so I just don’t want to ask those questions.” He even implied that God would not want him to ask. I was disarmed by his honesty, and appalled by what fundamentalist education had done to his mind.

My two take-away points, then:

If God made the human mind, He probably intended for us to use it.

Salvation through faith makes the truth something to fear. This is a problem.

Related posts:

Update: I didn’t actually mean to post this today! I was still working on the draft, and I’d forgotten that I’d scheduled it to go live. While I would stand behind much of what I said, there are ways in which my argument doesn’t hang together. Oh well, it’s public now so I’ll leave it, but you’re all very welcome to tear my thoughts to pieces.

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About Jonny Scaramanga

I grew up as a Christian fundamentalist in the UK. Now I am writing a book and blog about what that's like, and what fundamentalists believe.

Posted on January 21, 2013, in Accelerated Christian Education, Christianity, Education, Faith Schools, Fundamentalism and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. Everybody who reads this blog knows I am an atheist, but I try to avoid attacking core Christian doctrines.

    Yes, that pretty well describes me, too. However, I am going to disagree with you on the “faith alone” doctrine.

    Here’s a hypothetical situation that might have happened back in my teenage years, when I was an evangelical Christian. Suppose I came upon a person who I could see badly needed help. And suppose that the person was a very obnoxious and disagreeable person. I would never have said “My salvation is based on faith alone, so I need not help him.” Instead, I would be questioning whether I lacked sufficient faith, and that lack of faith was why I was resistant to helping him.

    I don’t think there’s a problem with “faith alone.” I think there is a problem with fundamentalism. As I see it, the fundamentalists have a fake faith, and fundamentalism is fake Christianity.

    • I don’t follow this line of thought.

      If you decided not to help him (or decided to just pray for him instead of actually doing anything), you could have justified it through “faith alone”. And with sufficient faith, you could expect that god would forgive you for not helping. But I don’t see what there is in “faith alone” that would necessarily motivate good works. Now the fact that you are a basically decent person with empathy for your fellow human beings would certainly be a motivator, whether or not you were a fundamentalist. And all the exhortations that Jesus makes in the gospels about taking care of other people, those could also be a motivator, but those really contradict the idea of “faith alone”.

      If “faith alone” is all it takes, then hermits, rapacious televangelists, Westboro Baptist members, and anybody else who does absolutely no good for their fellow humans can all get “salvation”, all without lifting a finger.

    • Thanks Neil. My argument doesn’t quite hang together as it stands so I’m glad of criticism.

      I agree with you that it’s possible to believe in salvation through faith alone and be a good person, but I don’t think that’s the problem here. In your example, I don’t think salvation through faith alone is a major consideration in your example. The major consideration is your moral code. Sola fide doesn’t have a lot to say about that. It is possible that the believer can use the doctrine to justify treating the unsaved badly though (ie. “That person must be bad, because they are damned, so they deserve everything they get”). A majority of believers don’t think that way, but Martin Luther and John Calvin did (for more, see Edward T. Babinsky’s excellent Leaving the Fold).

    • I am an atheist to (although I have no problems attacking any religious doctrines) and I don’t think that fake christianity is the problem. Honestly, the problem is just the generic religious arguments that come down to “I’m right and you’re wrong and that’s all there is to it.” If there was a religion that was more about changing to fit the times than sticking to what you believe no matter what, I might be able to live with the rest of humanity.

      • I suppose I agree, in that I think the doctrine of hell is the biggest problem, and what bigger way to say “you’re wrong and that’s all there is to it” can there be than to consign everyone who disagrees with you to eternal torture.

  2. Bravo, great post because this really does capture the true Christian mindset, that we are in the world. But not of the world. That we should be either hot or cold. That if god finds us luke-warm he spits us out.

    For me this was the Christian mindset I generally cone from. I have even used the phrased..”even good people go to hell.”. In my own evangelism techniques. So this really did hit it on the head for me.

    Because for me and the Christianity of the bible. Christianity was never about being or living as a good person. But that it was about God’s grace that if we accept Jesus as our personal lord and Savior. And turn from our sins. Then we will avoid judgement and receive gods grace, mercy and love.

  3. Hi Jonny,

    I discovered your blog a few weeks ago and I have read every post since. This is one to which I would like to respond. I was raised a fundamentalist and, though I did not attend a Christian school, I relate to what you say about fundamentalists. I ‘got saved’ when I was seven and I have been on a journey ever since; I am now 61 years old.

    Even while young I had an urge to follow the truth and when I found that my fundamentalist (and evangelical) beliefs were not true, I abandoned them. It was sometimes painful and frightening. However, I still follow Jesus because when I read the living memories of Jesus written by his early followers I find him to be compelling, even though their stories of him might not be accurate in every detail. I trust this Jesus, and, since I no longer believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, I do not trust him because of the authority of the Bible but because of the record of him preserved in the writings of his followers–that is, I trust him by failth.

    The problem I see among fundamentalists and evangelicals is that they do not really have faith in Jesus, or in God, but rather in the Bible and the tradidional understandings passed along to them by previous generations. This is all baggage. The problem is not faith, but that their faith is in the wrong things, so they are afraid to doubt or consider other possiblities and find themselves defending things such as hell and creationism which are not at all necessary for followers of Jesus.

    I have a new blog that went live last week, Jesus Without Baggage, in which I explain these things. Only four posts have published so far, so there is much more to say. I would love it if you were to check it out and perhaps let me know what you think. It is found at http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/.

    Keep up the good work; you are making a positive difference to people.

  4. So honestly, M. Rodriguez…you don’t see this doctrine as pernicious? (Or…the tense is unclear, you DIDN’T).

    You worship an all-powerful, all knowing Being.

    A Being so incompetent, so evil, that It plays games with its own creation and knowingly (because it is omniscient) and happily torture for eternity the vast majority of sentient creatures in it’s own creation.

    And, being omniscient, it does so knowingly and by grand design?

    This Being is little different in moral value than a sociopathic toddler torturing a cat!

    Yikes.

  5. What do I think? I think someone doesn’t know their Bible very well. James tells us that faith without works (action: good deeds) is dead:
    “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no works? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. Someone may say, “You have faith: I have works.” Show me your faith without works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe there is one God. You do well (sarcasm). Even the demons believe that – and tremble… A person is justified by what they do and not by faith alone… As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead.” James 2:14-26.
    If you find false teaching within the church (or school) you have the right and the responsibility to correct it with the clear teaching of scripture, but I fail to understand why you felt you had to discard all your faith because you found erroneous teaching in some parts.

  6. Why was the comment I posted removed?

  7. Ugh wow, all of these points exemplify my experience with being a fundamentalist Christian, which only ended about a year ago. Constant guilt from as little as THINKING the wrong way (and the turnaround of justifying things like stealing, hurting people, etc. because all sin’s the same, right?). Constant struggling against my own scientific and investigative mind, which was once something I found really valuable about myself. Being afraid to express any doubts I had, for fear of rejection. I did actually try to discuss them with my then-boyfriend, who more or less said that if I had so little faith, he would have to choose God over me so I wouldn’t bring him down with me.

    I’m glad that I entered and left fundamentalism in the span of only about two years, as an older teenager, as opposed to being indoctrinated as a child and having a much harder time getting out. Those were the two most confusing and damaging years of my life and I have a lot of sympathy for those who want to question things but feel they can’t, unless an eternity of suffering is ok with them.

    TL;DR, good post.

  8. I think the bible teaches faith plus works or even works alone. It is the goodness of the heart that God looks at. he doesn’t care what doctrine or creed you think is helpful to your salvation. Protestants almost entirely ignore the teachings of Jesus preferring to misunderstand the writings of Paul in favour of an easy and permanent salvation based on some ridiculous intellectual assent. Paul did say that he preached repentance and demonstration of repentance by deeds – without this proof where is the turning away from sin? But most protestants want to hang on their money and bling rather than sell what they don’t need in order to give it to the poor. Even intelligent protestants don’t seem to look too deeply at this issue. I wouldn’t say they will not be saved – God is the judge, he decides what is to be.

  9. EXPLAINING AWAY MARK 16:16

    Faith only believer want Mark 16:16 to just go away. It will not go away, so they try to explain it away. Over 100 translations of the Bible include Mark 16:16, however, that does deter some faith only believers from insinuating or simply stating that Mark 16:16 should not be including in the Bible because it was missing from a couple of manuscripts. If you believe God has a hand in guiding men to translate the Bible correctly, then have to believe Mark 16:16 should be included. If you do not believe the Bible has been translated accurately, then I would suggest that you burn all of your Bibles.

    EXPLAINING AWAY

    Mark 16:16 He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.

    The most popular way of explaining away Mark 16:16 is to say that it does not say, that he who has not been baptized will be condemned, therefore water baptism is not essential to be saved.

    If a secular law were written as such: He who does not commit robbery and does not murder will not go to prison; but he who commits robbery will go to jail. Would that mean you can still murder and not go to jail; because it does not state murderers will go to jail? NOT MURDERING IS ESSENTIAL TO NOT GOING TO JAIL!

    Being baptized is essential to not being condemned.

    There have been many attempts to explain water baptism away from Mark 16:16, including denying that, and, is a conjunction linking belief and baptism. Many attempts at distorting the simple meaning of words and sentence structure are used. Grammatical distortions are used in order to make Mark 16:16 fit the “faith only” narrative.

    HAS BEEN BAPTIZED SHALL BE SAVED, STILL MEANS WATER BAPTISM IS ESSENTIAL FOR SALVATION NO MATTER HOW MEN TRY TO EXPLAIN IT AWAY.

    YOU ARE INVITED TO FOLLOWING MY CHRISTIAN BLOG. Google search>>>>steve finnell a christian view

    • I always dread comments on this particular post, because I think I’ve over-reached myself in places. I don’t think the doctrine of salvation through faith is a healthy ones, but I’ve probably made bolder claims than my argument can really support.

      Here, though, you seem to be agreeing with me, but not for the reasons I would hope: a doctrine of faith + baptism does not seem much better to me.

  10. Good post. Though it does feel like only a Part One for some reason.

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