A Straw Man Emerges From An Igloo

15 Jul

There is an image which has become popular on the internet. It shows the picture of an indigenous person from the Arctic region with the following text reconstructed from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek:

Eskimo: “If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?
Priest: “No, not if you didn’t know.
Eskimo: “Then why did you tell me?

Setting aside the fact that most of the indigenous people of the Arctic find the term “Eskimo” offensive, the argument is a straw man used by atheists to justify their non-belief, claiming that “it brings into question the existence of a benevolent god.”

The imaginary Inuk’s question is perfectly valid, but the priest’s reply shows a poor grasp of Christian theology. The correct answer is “perhaps”. The priest has not been appointed to judge the enquirer (I Corinthians 4:5; 5:12-13) but to instruct him/her as to a better way. The initial question implies that one only is punished when one knows about sin and that the speaker was at one time ignorant. This is a false premise, as we shall see.

If we were to change the initial question to “If I did not know about the speed limit, would I receive a penalty?”, no police officer, or lawyer, would give the supposed priest’s answer, as ignorance of a law is neither an excuse nor a defence in law. The action, whether you knew it to be wrong or not, has a legal consequence. All actions, both good and bad, have consequences.  Most societies (including those of the Arctic Peoples) have this as a tenet in some form or another.

Christian theology starts with the premise that, just as in physics, there are natural laws that are self-evident. Even if I do not know about gravity I am subject to its effects whether I want to be or not. If I jump off a high building, I will suffer the consequence of my ignorance (or wilful disregard) of the laws of gravity. If I commit a sin, it will have a consequence whether it was committed in ignorance or wilfully – the judgement handed down may be different (just as premeditated murder is judged differently from accidental killing).

Christians (following Jewish theology) see God’s nature as being dual; the merciful and loving “Chesed” is matched by the justice “mishpat” which arises from His holiness (“qodesh”) – two sides of the same coin. Without justice there can be no love. Notice the word is justice, not divine retribution – God is not acting out of character in allowing people to suffer consequences for their actions.

Parents usually will punish their children for breaking family codes and rules – therefore, to take the argument to logical absurdity, there is no such thing as a loving (benevolent) parent or they would never punish their children no matter what they did. Would that be a loving response? Of course not. And should a child reach out to touch a hot object (like an iron), a loving parent surely warns the child rather than letting him/her find out through experience. Yet the vignette suggests the opposite to be appropriate.

So let’s return to our imaginary enquirer. Was he really unaware of sin (or of a deity?) before the priest came? Did the people not have laws and social regulation before the missionary priest brought the gospel? Of course they did. This was in fact argued by St Paul in two passages in his letter to the Romans. In the first, he argues that God is revealed in his creation:

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; 21 for though they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools; 23 and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. [Romans 1:18-23]

And in the second passage, Paul claims that even people who don’t know God have consciences to guide them:

12 All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. 14 (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.) 16 This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares. [Romans 2:12-16].

According to St Paul, our Inuk, will, like Christians, Jews and all other people be judged, but also that through Jesus Christ a way out from punishment has been provided (see his many epistles for examples). This is reaffirmed in the first epistle of St John:

1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2 and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (I John 2:1-2)

It should be noted that the words “atoning sacrifice” – ἱλασμός (hilasmos) in the original Greek – were often, in older versions of the Bible, rendered as “expiation” or “propitiation”.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines expiation as “The act of making amends or reparation for guilt or wrongdoing; atonement” and propitiate as “Win or regain the favour of (a god, spirit, or person) by doing something that pleases them.” As the verses above make clear, it is not the believer who “makes amends or reparation” or “wins or regains favour” but Christ alone.

This brings me to the problem of the apparent claim by Jesus that he is the only way [John 14:6]). This is simply a problem of hermeneutics. Many Christians are guilty of lifting this verse out of both its time and context and presenting it as though it were a universal statement.

So let’s apply hermeneutics to it.

To whom was Jesus speaking? To our representative of the Arctic Peoples? To professor Richard Dawkins? To the Jews? To the Church? No – he was answering a question asked by St Thomas (v 5); in its wider context, he was giving words of comfort to his disciples (vv 1-4) and preparing them for what is ahead leading to the promise of the Holy Spirit (vv 15-17). By extension, this promise applies to all who would be his disciples. But there is no indication that Jesus meant it to apply universally – if he had, surely he would have proclaimed it to the crowds and it would have been found, not just in St John, but in all 4 gospels and the teaching of St Paul as well.

The problem is not one of “judgement” per se, but one of our wanting others to be punished while we are let off. We love to try and grade sin (just as we do crime) so as to claim that we are not so bad; but a crime is a crime and anyone breaking the law (even speeding) is a criminal in the eyes of the law.  Likewise, anyone who breaks the divine laws is a sinner (remember these laws are not arbitrarily set by God but arise naturally out of his holiness). Because this holiness is perfect “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” [Romans 3:23]. So to just punish some and not others is neither loving nor just.  However, paying the price due on behalf of another satisfies both God’s loving kindness and justice.  This God accomplished through Christ’s death on the cross.

The Bible tells us that sin breaks the relationship with a caring God. This is a God that loves the world enough, first, to not make us slavish robots who have no choice but to obey but to have the freewill to make our own choices and face the consequences of those choices (you don’t have to speed just because everyone else is – you choose to do it); and second, that the relationship is important enough for Him to pay the price that is the just consequence of sins which are rightfully ours. This is the benevolence.

Why did the missionary priests (often at great personal risk and cost) carry the gospel to the ends of the earth? Two reasons: one, we Christians have a message of hope and forgiveness that can (and does) transform lives; two, we are instructed to do so as that is the only way people like the Inuk in the story will hear about Christ’s propitiation of his sin on the cross and the salvation it offers on the day when, “2 Everything that is secret will be brought out into the open. Everything that is hidden will be uncovered. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight. What you have whispered to someone behind closed doors will be shouted from the rooftops.“[Luke 12:2-3].

However, there is no compunction on anyone to accept the salvation offered by Christ, but equally there is no excuse by which anyone can evade judgement that is a consequence of their sins if they do not.


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