So I have this problem with Christian pat answers, and I’m going to blog about them more often.
I recently watched a clip of footage from a conference where a panel of experts (or so I assume) was addressing pastoral, moral and theological questions. This question was basically: My brother isn’t a Christian. He doesn’t believe that there’s any such thing as sin, so we don’t need to be saved from it. What should I say to him?
Listen to the answer for yourself:
Steal his wallet.
A room full of Christian adults, along with the panelists, laughs as though this is a brilliant, succinct takedown by R C Sproul. Links to this clip in social media reveal that plenty of Christians, even Christians who take themselves to be intellectually sharp and involved in apologetics, think that there’s a great argument going on here.
There isn’t. This isn’t “BRILLIANT!” as some commenters are saying. This is a terrible pat answer that should make you roll your eyes and which may doom your chances of ever getting your brother to listen to you again on this subject. Don’t do this.
A person who claims that there’s no such thing as sin might mean a couple of things. He might believe that there are moral facts – some things are right and others wrong – but that immoral actions aren’t “sins” because “sins” implies that they are offences against God, and he doesn’t believe in God. He’s wrong, that’s not what “sin” necessarily means, but in any event, stealing his wallet is clearly not going to change his mind. He’ll just think you did something wrong and he’ll want his wallet back. And now he’ll think you’re a jerk, which is hardly what the person who asked this question is aiming for.
Or, this guy might mean that there really aren’t any moral facts. This is called an error theory of morality: Moral judgements are all false because there are no moral facts. However, there are things that I don’t like and things that other people don’t like because those things hurt us and are generally bad for a functional society, so we’ve formed these conventions called laws – including laws against stealing. But they are just conventions – they don’t refer to any truths beyond the fact that we’ve just agreed to enforce our preferences and that is that. Some error theorists might not word things that way, but this at least is coherent.
Now, what happens if we steal this guy’s wallet? Is he suddenly going to realise that there are moral facts after all? Hardly. He already knew that people’s wallets got stolen – that’s why these preferences need to be enshrined in law, backed up with the threat of force. All he will think is: You’re a jerk (again) and your behaviour is not compatible with the sort of society that I want to live in.
It’s a silly pat answer. Here’s some advice to any Christians who want to present themselves as apologists: Don’t engage in this sort of pat answering of questions. Somebody sent in this question hoping for a serious answer. He didn’t get one.
So what would have been a good answer? Well, it wouldn’t be as snappy or memorable that’s for sure. If your brother meant the first option: That there are moral truths but there are no sins because there’s no God, then my suggestion would be to suggest a moral argument for God’s existence. I’ve suggested a way of doing this elsewhere.
But what if your brother means that there are no moral facts. How do you convince him using an argument that there really are moral facts? That’s not easy. Frankly I would doubt his claim and I would think that he really does believe in moral facts and acts as though that belief is true. But if somebody digs their toes in and tells you that black is white, what do you do (and no, the difficulty of the argument does not justify the use of a pat answer like “steal his wallet”)? Perhaps it would involve asking your brother to entertain a thought experiment about an alternative society that was perfectly functional but tortured and killed children who became too freckly. Most people aren’t too freckly so the society was stable and durable. They all just really, really hated freckles. Although we might not like living in a society like that, are they really doing nothing wrong? Maybe it’s not compassionate, but we’re not required by anything above and beyond ourselves to be compassionate, right? Or come up with another thought experiment, but essentially we’re testing the professed belief about there being no moral truths.
My experience is that this type of conversation, over time, can soften a person’s resistance to the existence of moral truths. But if they are completely entrenched and won’t budge, then this isn’t the way to go. If you’re going to talk to them about God, you’ll have to do it some other way, for example by talking to them about the historic person Jesus of Nazareth and the resurrection. Then, once they more open to the reality of God (and let’s face it, that may never happen), you might want to ask them to reconsider the question of sin.
But please, don’t just serve up a pat answer like this that can be uttered in two seconds. There are enough people laughing at Christian apologetics and the truths we mean to convey for bad reasons – don’t give them a good reason.
- Divine Command Ethics: Ontology versus epistemology
- Laws of logic, laws of morality
- Public Lecture: The New Atheism, Science and Morality
- An Ash Wednesday Reflection 2015
- Arif Ahmed, morality and empiricism
- Episode 041: The Epistemological Objection to Divine Command Ethics