Preaching Doesn’t Help

A while back, there was someone at my college yelling, quoting Bible verses, and saying people were going to Hell. He (or maybe someone else with him, I forget) was holding up a black sign that said “NO [long list of various nouns] will inherit the kingdom of Heaven.”

When I got to class shortly after passing by him, I heard my classmates joking around about how they were going to Hell, but that was OK with them.

Today again, there was an old man (or maybe middle-aged, I forget) in a black suit with a bunch of white writing about Jesus and such on it, going on about rock-and-roll dudes, queers and sorority girls looking to steal people’s virginity.

One of the people he was preaching at responded, “They already took my virginity, and it was great!” He then turned to his friends and said something about sorority girls being promiscuous like rabbits and how we need more girls like that.

Now, there are so many things wrong with these situations that I hardly know where to begin.

First, these preachers are appealing to emotions to get people to convert. Emotions are not the best part of humanity. A conversion based on emotion is going to fade away as the emotion fades away. To inspire a lasting conversion, you have to appeal to reason; what someone feels changes depending on the situation, but what one believes is true is much more stable.

Second, these preachers were appealing to fear, and that is a rhetorical blunder in this situation. Emotions are inherently reactive; you feel happy because you’re eating your favorite dessert on your birthday, or you feel angry because someone insulted your mother, or you feel desire because you saw a commercial for the new Zelda game, or you feel fear because you’re face to face with a lion, etc. People don’t feel anything about something that doesn’t seem real to them. But if you’re preaching to people, then your audience presumably doesn’t believe in your religion. So what’s the point telling people who don’t believe in Hell how scary Hell is? To them, you just look like a child rambling on about the monster in his closet. First convince your audience that Hell exists, then tell them about how scary it is.

Third, this preacher clearly wasn’t taking into account the reputation of Christianity among the general population. In modern-day America, Christians are considered archetypes of prudishness and excessive seriousness. So if you stand there going on about Bible verses and Hell, then your audience will conclude that they were right in thinking of Christians as a bunch of party-pooping alcoholophobic virgins, unable to keep up with science, who enforce a slew of rules without putting any thought into it just because their parents said so. Yes, Christianity is not of this world, which means that you’re going to have to distance yourself from modern culture with all its promiscuity etc. But the way you present your message has to seem, if not palatable, at least reasonable to your audience if you don’t want to be laughed off your soapbox. Rhetoric doesn’t happen in a vacuum; you have to take context into account, as Aristotle realized 2000 friggin’ years ago. Yes, I understand that people tend to be too complacent and probably need a shock to get them to do any sort of reforming of their lives. But you can’t make a good movie with nothing but a climax; you have to build up an emotional connection with the audience in order for the climax to mean anything to them. Go ahead and tell them how scary Hell is, but tell it to them after you’ve convinced them that human nature is real, that therefore morality is real, that God exists, that it’s right to worship Him, that worshiping God entails not just praying but also ordering the rest of one’s life in a proper way, etc.

Fourth, these preachers were framing their arguments in a way that portrayed their own group as the one that would go to Heaven and their audience as the group that would go to Hell. Socially, this is implying that their group is superior to their audiences’. This is just begging for their audiences to get mad at them, or at least see them as enemies. That just is the thing that happens when you act like you’re better than someone, just as falling just is the thing that happens when you drop something, and just as saving 15% or more on car insurance just is the thing that happens when you switch to Geico. This is as directly contrary to their purpose as it’s going to get. They’re supposed to be getting people to join their church. How can you get people to join your church by making enemies of them?

And really, just what are these people expecting to accomplish? How many people come up to them while they’re preaching and say, “You’re so right, I’m going to change my ways and attend your church from now on”? Do they not see their audience laughing at them? What made that old man think it was a good idea to tell a bunch of college guys to watch out for their virginity? How many of them does he think are virgins?

Their whole project is poorly thought out from start to finish, and it just plain doesn’t help.

Some Thoughts on the Garden of Eden

This past fall, I took an English literature class in which we studied Milton’s Paradise Lost. And my professor began one lecture by saying that he would convince us that if God were in an American court of law, He would find it very hard to defend himself for His actions in the Garden of Eden. He then proceeded to explain how, if you leave something dangerous out and someone else gets injured by it, then you’re responsible for it by law. He also called into question the justness of withholding from Adam and Eve the knowledge of good and evil (because the forbidden tree is called “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” and God forbids them from eating of it).

Now, first of all, there’s the claim that God is not allowed to leave dangerous things out where people can get hurt by them. This is the type of thing that’s deep enough that you can write entire books about it, so I don’t claim to have a complete answer here. But suffice it to say, this claim presupposes a moral obligation on God on the model of human moral obligations. However, as Just Thomism points out in many places (such as here, here, part 4 in here, and here), God is completely different from humans. There is no reason to think that God’s moral obligations are the same as those of humans.

Consider, for example, how much moral obligations vary between people in different social positions. If a child hits another child, the parent would scold him. But the parent is allowed to spank the child if he deems it necessary. The owner of a store can decide what to name the store and how to advertise it, how to organize workers, what price to sell merchandise at, etc., things that regular employees aren’t allowed to do. Taking it up to higher levels of authority, the difference becomes greater. A civilian isn’t allowed to force someone else to sell his house to him, but the state can do essentially the same thing under eminent domain. A civilian isn’t allowed to kill someone for revenge, but a court of law can with due process. If, then, people’s moral status varies so much with each increase of authority even within one species, how much more will the moral status of God (Who isn’t just one limited authority among many, but infinite authority and the source of all other authority) be different from ours?

Further, what it means for something to be good varies according to what that thing is. For an engine, being good is making things move; for a squirrel, being good is eating nuts, storing food for the winter, etc.; and for a black widow, being good includes eating the male after mating. Now, we humans are fragile creatures who can’t survive without the help of others, so it makes sense that it would be in our nature to desire the good of others and help people when we can. But God is in no such position. God contains all the goodness and therefore all the powers of every nature that exists or could exist. He has no other people that share His species, and He certainly doesn’t depend on other people to survive. So there’s no reason to think that it’s a necessary part of being good for God that He do every single good deed He lays eyes on in the same way that it’s a necessary part of being good for a human to do good deeds whenever it’s reasonable. The conditions that cause that obligation to fall on humans just aren’t present with God.

As for the claim that God was unjust in withholding the knowledge of good and evil from Adam and Eve… I would say He wasn’t withholding the knowledge of good and evil from them at all. First of all, good and evil aren’t something you need a magical fruit to understand; the unaided intellect can see that an eye that can’t see is a bad eye, and a parent who kills his children is a bad parent. So the moment God gave us intellects, I think it became impossible for Him to keep us from the knowledge of good and evil.

Second, I doubt that the name of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil necessarily carries any information about the tree in itself. In the Bible, you often find passages where God speaks in terms of effects rather than causes as though they were primary. Thus in Isaiah, we see God saying, “Go, make this people’s eyes heavy and their ears fat, lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and turn for me to heal them.” But is that really what He wants? No; what He’s really telling Isaiah is, “Go, tell the people to repent; but I know that, when they hear you, they will close their eyes and ears to you and refuse to repent.” The effect of the action is spoken of as though it were the primary action.

I think the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is the same. The tree’s fruit in and of itself doesn’t cause Adam and Eve to understand good and evil. But because they eat it, they will end up learning good and evil the hard way, through experience, rather than through reflection and observation. The fruit’s name doesn’t tell us that the fruit has any special powers by virtue of itself; rather, it’s the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil by virtue of a purpose that God imposed on it. So by telling Adam and Eve not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, I don’t think God was literally depriving them of the knowledge of good and evil.

And third and most importantly, by the mere act of giving Adam and Eve a command, God is already forcing Adam and Eve to contemplate good and evil. A command presents a kind of choice: You can choose to follow the command, or to break it. And a choice is a weighing of the good and bad points of a given course of action. You can decide that it’s good to follow the command and evil to rebel against your Creator, or you can decide that it’s good to follow your own desires and bad to be tied down by authority. By presenting Adam and Eve with a command, God is asking them to consider these possibilities. So far from depriving them of the knowledge of good and evil, He is forcing them to contemplate them.

By the way, on an unrelated note, one of the things I find most interesting about the story of the Garden of Eden is that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is actually a foreshadowing of Christ by inversion. My Scripture teacher in high school pointed this out to the class:

-The tree in the garden is a living tree, and its fruit is beautiful to look at (Gen. 3:6).
-The Cross is a dead tree, and its “fruit” (Jesus Himself) is mangled and bloody.

-By eating of the fruit of the tree in the garden, Adam and Eve brought death into the world.
-By eating of the fruit of the Cross, Jesus’s Body, we gain eternal life.

So already within the first three chapters of the Bible, we have some subtle hints at Jesus.