Are you forgiven?

Occasionally I hear the accusation that, as an atheist, I probably just want an excuse to behave however I want. After all, religious folks assert, without a belief in a god I couldn’t possibly have any restrictions on my actions, any sense of right and wrong. This accusation is very misguided (if you disagree, stay tuned for my morality series starting this weekend), but even stranger is when the accusation comes from religious people whose beliefs actually have a built-in sort of Get Out of Jail Free card.

I realize that, with so many different denominations of Christianity, there are naturally some Christians out there who don’t agree with what I’m about to say. But there is a very large segment within Christianity that teaches that, no matter what wrongs a person has done, they are forgiven by the grace of God. All you have to do is believe and dedicate your life to Jesus, and it doesn’t matter how immoral and monstrous you’ve been. God’s got no beef with you, and you don’t have to feel bad about your actions, either. Hooray!

The Christian rock group Sanctus Real illustrates this point in their chart-topping single, “Forgiven.”

A snippet of the lyrics:

Well the past is playing with my head
And failure knocks me down again
I’m reminded of the wrong
That I have said and done
And that devil just won’t let me forget

In this life, I know what I’ve been
But here in your arms, I know what I am

I’m forgiven, I’m forgiven
And I don’t have to carry
The weight of who I’ve been
Cause I’m forgiven

Yep. It’s the devil’s influence that makes you reflect on your past actions and feel regret about the bad ones. If you believe in Jesus, you can be confident that you’re always “a treasure in the arms of Christ,” no matter what. Are you an addict who abuses your family in a drug-induced stupor? Jesus forgives you! Child molester? Jesus forgives you! Serial killer? Jesus forgives you, too. No worries!

I understand that there’s value in being able to move on from the past, instead of wallowing in sadness about things that can’t be changed. But I get stuck on lines like, “I don’t have to carry the weight of who I’ve been.” Sometimes people should have to carry that weight for a while! Sometimes, the regret we feel is what inspires us to make amends and improve ourselves in the future. If Christianity really works in this way, though, and believers face no moral judgment for even the most heinous acts, then that seems like the worldview which grants individuals license to behave as immorally they want.

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  1. Agreed. The whole “cheap grace” movement annoys many religious leaders (though I wouldn’t claim all of them or the majority – I have no idea of percentages). Mostly for the reasons you’ve listed.

  2. This reminds me of how religion appeals to our childish impulses. God is the loving parent who’ll make everything better for us, and put our minds at ease. He’s always there to rescue us when we’ve done something bad. No sense of responsibility, and no carrying of burdens required.

    Of course, this is part and parcel of being dependent on God for everything, and dependence is the bread and butter of religion.

  3. Keith, the other day my 6 year old son asked for a banana, and when he bit the end of it, the entire banana broke in half.

    He threw an absolute FIT, chucked the banana on the ground, and screamed for five minutes.

    He reminded me of a lot of the “New Atheists” I deal with.

  4. Seth, that is absolutely the most outrageous, unconscionable post I have ever seen on the internet, and I will not stand for it!!!!

    Only kidding 🙂

  5. Well, I was kinda kidding myself, so I suppose that kinda makes us even.

  6. I couldn’t agree more, Seth. We New Atheists are just like your child, in the sense that we’re both terrified of bananas. Ray Comfort said it, so it must be true!

  7. Oh, is he the guy I saw on YouTube arguing that the banana was proof of God’s existence?

  8. You got it, Seth. He says it’s “the atheist’s nightmare,” etc. Quite a piece of work.

  9. Yeah, I thought it was stupid too.

    One of those “with friends like these…” kind of moments for me as a religious person.

  10. I don’t know, to a certain extent I like that there’s an emphasis on the ability of human beings to overcome their past mistakes and attitudes and become a different person, no matter what they’ve done. And I’m not sure you have to be “weighed down” or tortured by your past in order to be inspired to do better. That’s a little bit like thinking you have to hit your kids to make them grow up to be mature and responsible adults. It sounds too much like revenge to me.

    I do see your point regarding some religions, but I grew up Catholic, and that religion by no means said you can just get away with whatever you want because you’re forgiven. I was actually taught to disdain and mock the attitude that said you could just say Jesus is your savior and that’s that – you had to work for forgiveness.

  11. Aristarchus

     /  April 1, 2011 at 9:45 pm

    There’s a big difference between you forgiving the thief who robbed you and God forgiving them. The Christian teaching that you should let go of grudges and not seek revenge, etc., is great – it makes both your life and society better. The teaching that God will forgive the thief because they believe in him, though, seems horrible. God is the source of morality, so if he is forgiving you then in some sense it is acceptable that you did it.

  12. grizzlybaker

     /  April 3, 2011 at 5:33 am

    I will support Carla a little. As a former Roman Catholic myself, I know a bit about the religion. One of the primary differences between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism is that the RCC favors certain Bible verses (James 2:14-26) exemplifying “good works,” while most (maybe all, not sure) Protestant sects favor different, conflicting Bible verses (Romans 3:28) that insist on sola fide, “faith alone.”

    So, at least for Roman Catholics, doing good (however that is defined, more on that below) is important for salvation, just as much as belief. The problem therein is that the songs seems to indicate that it is the introspection on past sins that is the problem, while most would argue that accepting them and trying to do better is what makes you a better person. The song seems to say that, as long as you accept Jesus, all of the past goes away and one never need feel regret or the desire to improve.

    Of course, this is ignoring the fact the morality of the Bible as a whole is an obedience-based morality, that is that the belief and compliance of the individual is far more important than anything else. Also known as divine command theory, what is “good” is that which god decides is good, and acceptance of that is more crucial than any person’s own sense of ethics. Examples include the Fall, Abraham’s almost filicide, and many others.

  13. While religious traditions that favor good works over good thoughts are certainly preferable, I have to question the motives behind them. There seems to be something inherently selfish about helping others for the ultimate goal of winning your own spot in heaven. It makes me think of boy scouts who do as many good deeds as possible so that they can have more badges on their uniforms than the other boys.

  14. @Carla and grizzlybaker: I did say in my post,

    I realize that, with so many different denominations of Christianity, there are naturally some Christians out there who don’t agree with what I’m about to say. But there is a very large segment within Christianity that teaches that, no matter what wrongs a person has done, they are forgiven by the grace of God.

    I didn’t intend this to be an attack on literally every Christian belief system. I hope that wasn’t misunderstood. Catholics are notably not covered by this criticism. (Though, I have to say, it makes one wonder when you look at how the Catholic Church has been dealing with child molesters. It seems like that’s one crime they don’t think people should have to bear the weight of, one bit.)

    @grizzlybaker, I think you hit the nail on the head with the citing of contradictory Bible verses, though. Even if Catholics (and whoever else) have focused on these certain, less ridiculous ones (on this topic at least), they still have to contend with the verses that do seem to teach the moral philosophy that they scorn.

    @Keith: For sure. I would rather have religious people who say, “I have to do good things because God told me to,” rather than, “It doesn’t matter what I do and what harm it causes because God loves me anyway.” But a morality that’s entirely based on “God says so” seems a bit vapid no matter what. (See: post I’m now trying to finish for today.) … Oh, and by the way, whenever you comment with a different email address (or even a different capitalization of the same email address) you’ll get a different Identicon. No big deal, but in case you are wondering why that’s happening, I thought I should tell you. 🙂

  15. Thanks for the tech heads-up, NFQ – I just need to be more consistent with typing in my blog’s URL when I post from my iPod.

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