On the Irrelevance of Propositional Beliefs

One of the most prevalent beliefs among evangelicals today is Justification by Faith Alone (note the caps): also known as “Propositional Beliefs can have an Impact on your Eternal Destiny.” If you “believe in Jesus,” you will be saved, and if you don’t, well, you run the risk of eternal damnation (although perhaps some extra people will get in–but do you want to take that risk?). You could perform some acrobatic exegesis on the gospels to support this view, but I think it’s pretty much a Pauline thing. Even though the book of James is right next door (warning believers that “faith without works is dead” and that believing in one God means nothing because “even the demons believe this, and shudder”), Christians today are entirely comfortable hedging their eternal destiny on their assent to a few statements–and moreover, they are comfortable believing in the damnation of people who do not assent to these statements.

I recognize that if the Bible is taken as God’s Word, one is inclined to accept Paul’s claim that “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” But I don’t think it’s consistent. Mind you, nobody else even vouches for the divine inspiration of Paul’s words. For all you know, he just decided to say that.

I do not believe that it can possibly, under any circumstances whatsoever, not even in the wildest regions of unlikely truths, make the least bit of difference what facts you believe during your life. When you die, the bare facts you believed cannot have any impact on what happens next (under the assumption that something happens at all), and here’s why I think so.

First, without even stepping outside Christianity, read the Bible. Jesus does not talk about the “doctrinally correct” rising to eternal life; he talks about the “righteous.” He tells a parable where a bunch of confounded do-gooders get swept into the Kingdom of God, whereas some upright folks who “did great works in [his] name” go to hell. That’s right, hell. I’m pretty sure that the goats in that story believed in the bare facts of Christianity, because they did even did great things in the Lord’s name; yet they went to hell because God “never knew” them.

So I don’t know why so many Christians sit around thinking they’ll be OK if they believe a few facts about Jesus. They’re the ones who should be worried about hell, because they believe in the absolute truth of the gospels, in which Jesus tells a parable about ostensible believers (believers like them?) being tossed into hell.

Now, once you permit yourself to step outside of Christianity, you encounter several cans of worms that I do not think any Christian (who believes in the eternal efficacy of propositional beliefs) can account for…

First of all, you encounter statistics. The people who believe certain facts about Jesus do not believe them because of some mysterious condition of the heart that has to be spiritually ascertained. They believe them for very clear demographic, social, and psychological reasons. If we are to believe that these people’s eternal destines are riding on their doctrinal beliefs, then we have to believe that God loves women more than men, loves unintelligent people more than intelligent people (based on their raw IQ, mind you–not on their intellectual humility, or lack thereof), and loves people who were raised by Christian parents more than people who were not. He even loves your grandparents’ generation more then he loves your generation. You can cite counterexamples all you want, but you will still be left with statistically significant trends that make a lot of sense. I do not think, under any theological paradigm, that God’s will is supposed to be so transparent, or so amenable to scientific study.

We won’t even talk about all those people who’ve never even heard of Christianity (although I would pose the question: if someone has the possibility of getting into heaven without knowing about Christianity, but becomes responsible for that information once you tell it to them, why risk it? Leave them alone!).

Perhaps the main thing I would like to point out is that people get talked in and out of their religious beliefs in the same way that they get talked in and out of other ideas. Arguments about religion look exactly the same as arguments about politics, sex, gender roles, and economics. Tempers flare, biases solidify, emotions percolate, misinformation is spread and logical fallacies fly. In many such conversations, every participant believes firmly in the rightness of his or her position. But never in a million years would anyone at the table believe that there are eternal consequences for being wrong–except in the case of doctrine.

I have seen long, exhausting arguments about the authenticity of certain biblical texts, and the plausibility of the Christian claims; but the very existence of such arguments proves my point: it cannot possibly make an eternal difference what side of those arguments people come out on. Do you really think it all comes down to whether William Lane Craig did a good job on his notes that night? Consider a young man who is told, by some angry intellectual, that the Bible is a book of fairy tales and myths: we cannot trust a single page in either the Old or the New Testament, and archaeology has not corroborated any historical references therein. When he reads the Bible, he does not see any reason to doubt this conclusion. Christians who try to evangelize this man will say that he “has a hard heart,” or that he “loves darkness rather than light,” but it is not true! He just believes what he was told. Perhaps he was misinformed, but he believes the misinformation, and he has no reason to doubt the misinformation. He also has no time to go digging into the issues, because he has to work 12-hour shifts to feed his family, and he does not have the Internet because it is 20 years ago (mind you, the Internet has not really been strengthening many people’s beliefs either).

People do not have perfectly rational minds. We expect them to come to the wrong conclusions in every other arena of life, but we’re to accept that the mistake of denying Jesus is eternally lethal? When a Christian is extremely gullible or misguided, the punishment is, at worst, a blind faith (Jesus is Lord? Thanks; I’ve never looked into it, but I believe you). But when an Atheist is credulous or gullible (i.e. Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking don’t believe in God, and I guess I believe them, because they sound convincing, and they are smart) he is eternally boned.

The argument that people’s religious beliefs arise from some deep and mysterious realm, completely separate from the factors that drive all our other conclusions, is demonstrably false. People believe what they’re told as children, and they believe what makes them feel comfortable. They believe what they read in books, hear from friends, see in movies, and sometimes they believe what they’re manipulated into believing. But there is no reason to think these things have to do with “loving darkness more than light,” and so on. People just think these things because they think them, and there are reasons why they think them.

Christians argue. They argue that the foundational tenets of Atheism are flawed, and that there are deeply mistaken assumptions involved. You can go ahead and tell the Atheists that they’re wrong about God’s existence, but the existence of the arguments suggests strongly to me that it cannot matter who is right. Those Atheists really do think what they think. They’re convinced of what they think because it makes sense in their heads, just the way that everyone’s political views make sense in their heads, and I think it’s just ludicrous to suggest that anyone is going to burn for things making sense in his or her head.

I will throw in a bonus argument, and that is the representation of these ideas. None of us has ever seen Jesus. Lots of people have never even been to the continent where he lived. We have never experienced the world of 2000 years ago. So what does it mean to “believe in Jesus?” When we hold ideas in our mind, it necessarily follows that they are accompanied by some sense perception that gives meaning to the idea. If I am told that my mother was reading the newspaper yesterday, I imagine her sitting in the chair; I place this event at a certain time, and I have the ineffable experience of “believing” that this took place–I “feel” that it was a real event.

None of us are furnished with even the basic building blocks to represent a “belief in Jesus.” To “believe” that he rose from the dead involves, perhaps, a set of mental images and feelings that are completely idiosyncratic, given that 2000 years have passed since then, and we have never seen anyone else rise from the dead (if you have, please inform me). The belief that Jesus is one’s Personal Saviour is a totally abstract idea, and there is no reason to believe that it produces a remotely uniform set of feelings and perceptions in those who assent to it. While some people may have dramatic, identical conversion experiences, I have very good reason to think that one propositional belief can represent an almost boundless gradient of arbitrary feelings, images and mental states in the people who hold it. Christians, if you don’t believe me, just look how completely different from each other you all are, and how many other Christians think that your Mode of Operation is heresy!

At this point, the Christian drops the carpet bomb: “God knows your heart.” End of discussion. But what good is God knowing all our hearts if this information is hidden from absolutely everyone, including ourselves? I can dredge up innumerable propositions from the back of my mind that I neither believe, nor disbelieve–I simply have the information that was told to me, and I have a reaction to that information. While I can make decisions about my official position on it, there is a component of my “belief” that is beyond my control: if I feel, for instance, that a particular story is not true, no amount of “deciding” to believe it will remove that feeling. I think it is clear that most of us are not sure what we believe about a lot of minor issues. We simply live with a slurry of feelings, shifting inclinations, and complicated attitudes. It is ridiculous to say that God knows what we “really believe,” because if nobody on earth can find these hidden black and white beliefs in their own hearts, God cannot know them either. Any such beliefs cited by God would be equivalent. It is not the same as having a mark on the back of your neck that only God can see–such “belief,” by which we are supposed to be judged, is portrayed as a conscious condition of mind, and by the way it is defined, I think it is absurd to suggest that it may not be accessible to us.

Given the fragility of propositional beliefs, the reasons that people believe them, the means by which people acquire them, and the fluidity of their representation in the mind, I cannot accept that belief in a set of truths or propositions has any impact on anyone’s eternal destiny. Period.

“I agree!” say some Christians.  “It’s about the whole person that you are. The beliefs are just a part of the whole thing: believing, trusting, doing, etc.”

Well, then, shouldn’t you be concerned about how similar you are to everyone else?

But I admit that that is another story.

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