Goodness, Sin and Stop Signs

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending a talk by Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason. During the discussion phase of his talk, we engaged on the issue of sharing with others the Gospel message and the idea that everyone believes themselves to be "good enough" to get into heaven. He used an illustration that I want to share with everyone because it does illustrate in understandable language one particular aspect of the limits of goodness that most Christians don't explain particularly well.

As anyone who discusses Christianity with non-believers already knows, most people think of themselves as being pretty good. If there is a heaven, most people reason, God is going to allow the good people to enter and somehow punish the bad people (if by no other means, simply by keeping them out of eternal paradise). This idea appears quite sensible to most people because we all seem to have an in-born sense that Hitler or Stalin should not be spending eternity in paradise after being responsible for the killing of millions of people. Some contend that God lets everyone into heaven, but most people instinctively reject that idea because justice would seem to dictate that in a perfect world bad people will be punished in some way for their evil deeds.

But then the question becomes "where is the boundary between being good enough to get into heaven and being too evil to get into heaven?" Again, most people believe that there is some type of line between good people and evil people, and very few people will admit to falling below that line. (Those who do are the ones who are either ready to hear the Good News of the Gospel because they know that they need a savior or are caught in the pitiful AC/DC adolescent view that there is something glorious about being on the Highway to Hell.) People always view themselves as "good enough" to get into heaven.

This view is essentially like having a moral bank account where each person has a series of debits and credits. Under this view, if the overall credits stay above the debits the person has earned their way into heaven.

In the discussion, Greg talked about the fact that he was pulled over at one time for speeding. Now, what do you suppose would have been the policeman's response if Greg had rolled down his window and said, "Yes, officer, I know I was speeding, but if you had been following me around longer you would have seen that I stopped at the last five stop signs I encountered before turning onto this road. I should get credit for having stopped at those stop signs." What would the officer's response have been? Well, after he stopped laughing at how foolish the idea would be and if he bothered to give any sort of answer at all it would probably be something like, "But you don't get credit for stopping at the stop signs becuase that's what you are required to do. You don't get credit for doing what you have to do anyway."

That's the problem with the moral bank account idea: we want to get credit for those things that we have done right and use them to offset the things we do wrong. We want to get credit because we didn't steal from the office. We want to get credit because we didn't cheat on our spouse. We want to get credit for helping cheer up a friend who was depressed. But in God's eyes, those things are like the stop signs: we were supposed to do those things anyway. We can't get credit for not breaking the moral law most of the time because we are obligated to not break the law. We cannot get credit for being nice to our neighbor because we are obligated to be nice to our neighbor. Wanting to get credit for doing those things that we ought to be doing is like arguing to the policeman that we should get credit for having stopped at stop signs when we get caught breaking some other law. The police officer should rightfully dismiss such an appeal and we all instintively understand why.


Metacrock said…
BK good to see you blog again. I wish you would do it regular again.
Ron said…
Good post. While the juridicial model is something one can see in Scripture, I find that the healing model found in Eastern Orthodoxy resonates with me more. In the healing view, we humans haven't just broken God's moral code and thus need someone to take the penalty for us so to speak, but we need healing primarily because we are sick from not being united with God. Our original nature has been corrupted in the Fall and now we have a propensity to veer off course because we view ourselves as moral centers of existence rather than God. So, on this view, the problem with man isn't that he violated some external code but that he has broken off from the ground of the goodness of his existence and needs to be restored.

I've been considering Eastern Orthodoxy as of late and I have to say that their views make a lot more sense to me than what I've heard in Protestant theology.
BK said…
Meta, good to be back. I'm not sure how long I can hang around, and I may post about what's been happening to keep me away. Not bad things, but distracting....

Ron, I am not familiar with the healing view, but I don't see where it is significantly different than the more western Protestant view I personally hold. Having said that, I certainly believe that you should follow Eastern Othodox teaching if it makes sense to you. Last I checked, Eastern Orthodox believers are followers of Jesus, too.
Anonymous said…

I think there's a substantial difference between the two models when it comes to the underlying psychology of human beings. In the moralistic/Western approach, human beings are presumed to have full control over and cognizance of the significance of their actions, so disobedience to God is taken as an act of pure defiance by someone who knows exactly what they are doing. Sin is the fully intentional, willful product of a rebellious person. In this case, the only conceivable response is the subjugation or even destruction of the will that rises in opposition to God's.

In the healing/Eastern approach, however, human beings are more like sick people who don't fully realize what they are doing when they act in defiance against God. This defiance is more akin to the outbursts of someone with Tourette's syndrome than the clear, definitive, fully informed decision presupposed by the Western model. In this case God will act to thwart the rebellious actions, to be sure, but the ultimate goal is to heal and restore people to their right minds.

My experience as a teacher has got me thinking about which of these models makes more sense. In the classroom I have seen all kinds of nasty behavior, towards me and towards other students. In the face of constant provocation, and the defiance of my rightful authority, I am constantly tempted to respond to these kids as I would to an adult who similarly provoked me: lash out in anger, punish, subdue. But then I remember that these are just kids: their defiance more often than not stems from insecurity, from fear, broken families, the anxiety of conflicting expectations from society, etc. And I remember that I actually love these kids and I want to see them grow up healthy and sound in both body and mind, and I realize that if I want to get past the defiance, I cannot lash out and I cannot overpower them. I have to teach them, model the good life I want them to enjoy, and help them overcome whatever obstacles are standing in their way.

To be sure, part of that endeavor involves being stern, involves limiting their freedom of action, involves making sure they see the ugliness of what they are doing to themselves and others. But the intent is always corrective, never retributive.

I realize there's a good biblical case that God's justice is retributive, but I also think there's very good evidence that His justice is restorative. The tension between these two models is something I think about a lot.
Ron said…
Interesting comments. I agree with JD that there are considerable differences between Eastern and Western views here. Free will is seen as part of salvation, or to put it in other words, a cooperation/dance between us and God. Eastern theologians call this a synergistic view of salvation. This contrasts sharply with a Western Augustine-Calvinist view that God justifies through divine fiat, or as I call it, a 'point-and-click' model of salvation (I probably just offended all the Calvinist readers now).

Anyway, we can go back further and see that original sin is seen differently by the West and East traditionally, as JD outlined. Total depravity is a Western, specifically Calvinist idea, for example. In the East, original sin is thought of as a bad nature that humanity has inherited from Adam that has replaced the good nature God has created. With Augustine in the West, it's been traditionally thought of as guilt that we inherit, as if we share responbility for Adam's sins. In this guilt we share in his original rebellion.

I'm reading through the Orthodox Study Bible right now so I'm slowly learning more of their views and the rationales behind them, which has been interesting. I should say now that I don't mean to disparage Augustine in any way though I do think he's theology is flawed. His Confessions is definitely a gem.

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