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The Whole ‘Forgivness’ Thing

One of the things that's always bugged me most about common forms of Christianity is the whole concept of forgiveness. It bugs me that I can attempt to lead a good life, do so, and yet find myself in the company of a mass murderer who somehow "finds God" on Death Row and repents or asks for forgiveness just before they juice him up. Or, if I should commit some small sin before I die (stealing isn't hard, for example - if you split a drink at McDonald's you're technically guilty of stealing) and then die in a car wreck, well, some might say I'm hell-bound because I wasn't absolved of my sins.

Penn Jillette says it well:

Believing there's no God means I can't really be forgiven except by kindness and faulty memories. That's good; it makes me want to be more thoughtful. I have to try to treat people right the first time around.

I remain someone who believes that there's something greater than us, a collection of cells, out there. But then again I believe there's intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. I've always said that I cannot and will not believe in a "God" that would punish me for trying to find the truth, and I carry on a bit of that truth-seeking conversation every day of my life.

13 Responses to "The Whole ‘Forgivness’ Thing"

  1. I saw that before and thought it was a little interesting, but also sort of sloppy. Does Penn really think that freedom of religion is as pointless as "freedom of having an invisible best friend"? Is there some reason that you can't still savor this life, even when you think there's another one coming up? Does believing in religion really make it impossible to try new ideas, while believe in not-religion makes it easy? (This might come as news to any religious scientists or inventors... and to friends of closed minded athiests.) Does God not existing really make it more likely that we can remove suffering? (I find this claim especially wide of the mark: evolution wants to be unhappy whenever we're not spreading our genes. It's unlikely that will change. If people are content enough, they won't have an incentive to survive.)

    Also, your theology is a bit misrepresentative. In most Protestant forms of Christianty, "once saved, always saved," meaning that you can't go to hell because of some last minute sin. Either you freely accepted Christ's forgiveness sometime before that or you didn't. Good works don't enter into helping you in the afterlife, they just help you enjoy this one.

  2. Let me preface my further remarks by saying I don't agree with all he said.

    That out of the way, I can say that I don't think he thinks religious freedom is as cheap as his comparison, nor do I believe he feels that you can't savor two lives, in effect. I think he's seen a lot of people use religion as a crutch, an excuse to be lazy, etc.

    My theology cannot be summarized in a sentence or two, of course. "Forgiveness" still bugs me, and I made sure not to classify my description as that of all forms of Christianity. However, to the best of my knowledge, the simple fact that everyone can be forgiven at some point in time and experience eternal bliss (whether you call it heaven or not) despite, for example, killing people, stealing, raping, etc. - right alongside someone who led an honest, good life bothers me.

    I do realize that the concept of forgiveness is one of the things that draws people to Christianity, but it's a turn-off to me, despite the fact that I can't quite put my finger on the "why." Forgiveness in and of itself is admirable, after all, and I suppose that a God would know whether the rapist murderer was serious or whether he was just trying to pretend he'd asked for forgiveness (or whatever is required). Yet something still bothers me.

  3. First off, the mass murder may "ask for forgiveness", but is he sincere? I'll leave that one there.

    Viewed from the outside, I think the notion of forgiveness might be one of the strangest Christian doctrines. You can find a certain amount of common ground between different ethical systems, but perhaps not there.

    Just the other day, strangely enough, I had a mind to listen to Charles Kingsley's _The Water Babies_. I'd come across some "free" audiobooks on the web, noticed it there, half-remembered it from childhood, and wanted to experience Kingsley fleshing out these doctrines in imaginative form. Mrs Be-done-by-as-you-did and Mrs Do-as-you-would-be-done-by, IIRC. Unfortunately, the only "free" version was very low bitrate and you had to sign up for that ...

    I haven't gone to church for years and I'd not regard myself as a Christian now, but I think I'd know what the theological response would be. I think it would probably be "you don't *earn* salvation; it's a free gift". I think there are a number of parables that would be relevant.

    Luke 18:10

    There is also the parable of the labourers in the vineyard. However late in the day they arrive, they are given the same pay. Their trade union should be outraged, right? But actually the pay represents being given *what you need* and no-one should resent another's getting that.

    I suppose another way of tackling the problem might be to say that one should be careful not to take a too literal understanding. Here's a Zen Buddhist non-literal understanding of paradise:

    From such a viewpoint one might say "paradise is *here* *now*". It's there if you want it: much of the time, most of us actually don't.

    However one understands it, I think it can still seem a strange doctrine. I think it is probably important for any society to remember that it is a Christian doctrine and, if it does make sense, it makes sense in a theological framework. I think in post-Christian societies (the UK would be a good example here) there is a kind of vague cultural memory of "forgiveness" and it remerges in a somewhat strange secularized form among "progressive persons". Anyone who's not conservative-minded please "forgive" me for the slightly derogatory use of the term "progressive". 🙂

    Your mass murderer may be genuinely repentant and may achieve some form of spiritual peace; but, in my view, it is not up to the progressive/society/the state/us to apply some notion of "forgiveness" on behalf of someone else.

    That would be a task for the victim - or perhaps for God. And "forgiveness" here should not mean releasing him from jail, which may give him the opportunity to do more harm.

  4. When I read the post, I immediate thought of the parable of the workers in the field.

    The lesson is quite simple. God's forgiveness is HIS to give, not you. Just as I can't expect YOU forgive someone else, it's wrong of you to impose your rules of forgiveness of God.

    You said the "forgiveness" feature in Christianity turns you off. Christ wanted people to LET GO of the hate in their hearts. Hating someone is not a healthy thing. It makes you miserable.

    According to some poet, home is the place they always take you in. You child may run away from home, but you'll always welcome him/her home. God forgiveness is the same way. You may have screwed up royally, but of you sincerely ask for forgiveness, you'll be forgiven.

  5. Often I'm uncomfortable entering into these kind of discussions because I don't want to come across as someone who thinks they know better than anyone else. Christians can be pretty obnoxious in this regard. Having said that, I'll try to off some of my thoughts on the subject. 😉

    I think it's important to understand the Christian conception of forgiveness. Christ didn't die on a cross for individual sins, he died and rose again to rescue us from our sinful nature. According to the messege of the Bible we're sinners not because we sin, we're sinners because something is inherantly wrong in our hearts.

    According to a Biblical world-view people aren't forgiven because they lived a good life, helped people, were generous or anything like this. These things are good and should be celebrated, but the only thing that can make a person right before God is trusting in Christ's sacrifice on the cross for the forgiveness of our sinful nature.

    I guess I don't really know how to respond to the coke stealer vs the murderer. The only way I can put it is that we aren't punished or rewarded for our performance (good or bad)... we are punished or rewarded by whether or not we completely trust in the finished work of Christ on the cross.

    Forgiveness is the most compelling part of Christianity to me. I mean, I've lived a pretty good life by the world's standards. I've tried to make a difference in people's lives, I've sacrificed a great deal to please God, and I've made helping people my vocation. But I see that even my goodness isn't all that good. I'm short with my wife when I shouldn't be, I don't always treat people with the respect they deserve, and my thoughts are often very selfish. Having siad that, I feel that I'm right with God, not because the good outweighs the bad in my life, but simply because I trust Jesus Christ has made me pure before God because of what he did. That free gift is available to everyone: The good kid, the rebel, the criminal next to Jesus on a cross, the rich, and the poor. Everyone.

    I suppose that is the point which is so offensive to people who have "lived a pretty good life." Jesus will take anyone who is willing to realize that God's holiness is too high a standard to meet on a human level... we must trust what he's done for us, not what we can do for him.

    Anyway, thats my two cents... I have so many questions myself about these things and sometimes, like you, I feel that a double standard exists. I really feel that I don't have it all figured out. I just know that I'm clingning to Christ to make me right with God.

  6. I'm a pantheist-panpsychist, and I do not believe that God (a.k.a. Everything) punishes Itself or has a need to forgive Itself. Nevertheless, a person who knows God would not commit most of what we call "sins," not out of fear of punishment, but because she knows that she is One with Everything, and that hurting another is hurting oneself.

  7. Just thought I'd throw in a little mormon theology:

    The atonement of Christ is a infinite and eternal. When at the judgement seat, the act of accepting or rejecting the atonement determines your eternal forgiveness. God is a benevolent being, and doesn't want anyone to have to suffer, and even those who have done a large measure of evil will be afforded a comfort greater than that of this earthly life on acceptance of the atonement. The atonement will keep them from eternal darkness, but only those who try in earnest to perfect themselves and do good works will achieve the most desirable level of heaven. This is just a synopsis, but thats the basic idea.

    The aforementioned murderer may be truly repentant, but I believe that his forgiveness as far as his eternal progression is concerned, does not lie in the voice of the people.

  8. This fun reminder might help it all make more sense to you...

    Life isn't fair

    I think that's a one-liner that you might appreciate in many situations. Why not apply it here too?

  9. Because that's stupid.

  10. Believing there's no God means you can't really be forgiven except by kindness and faulty memories? Is there "really" forgiveness in faulty memories or even death? No. And how can you be forgiven by anything other than kindness? You can't -- forgiveness is a definite act of kindness. Let's edit that quote.

    "You can't really be forgiven except by kindness. That's good; it makes me want to be more thoughtful. I have to try to treat people right the first time around."

    Sure thing - since you shouldn't expect kindness from people, try to get it right the first time. And since the only way you'll be forgiven is if people practice forgiveness, I would hope that thought makes us want to forgive others as well.

    I hope writing this is helping Penn sort things out, because these are really important issues to think about.

  11. nice

  12. God's forgiveness does not depend on your inability to be sinless. Otherwise, no-one could be forgiven and granted eternal life. Forgiveness is a gift which you accept by faith. Forgiveness is a legal postion; it does not 'come and go'. I recommend that you listen to the following sermons, if you genuinely want to learn about true forgiveness; the forgiveness which God offers to all who will repent and believe in the atoning death, burial and resurrection of his son, Jesus Christ. Read the bible to understand what God means by forgiveness. Don't listen to the religious maniacs of the day.

  13. Further to my previous comment. I see that you have trouble accepting that we have all sinned and fallen short of God's requirements. Have you ever lied, lusted, not kept your word? Then you're as guilty as a murderer, without God's forgiveness. We are all guilty, and cannot save ourselves. Salvation is by God's grace alone.

    Our minister, John de Hoog, preached a sermon addressing the matter of our sin and God's judgement, titled, "Know That God Is Holy, He Judges Sinners". You can find it at: