• Guest post: The problem with when you are born

    Thanks to “sam” for this guest post which he created based on one of his comments the other day:

    In Jonathan’s post titled, “Inter-Testamental Moral Relativism,” a hypothetical exchange between an atheist and an Xian highlights the morally relativistic nature of a fundamentalist worldview that defends the idea that executing a man for picking up sticks on a Saturday is obligatory at time T, but morally impermissible at T+1. In the exchange, the snarky hypothetical atheist wants to know exactly when T occurred in order to know exactly when people became morally obliged to refrain from executing Sabbath breakers.

    In order to properly hold accountable those subject to a new ethic, one should identify what these subjects knew and when they knew it. These thought experiments only further highlight the absurdity of the worldview, however. Imagine a 7th century CE Chinese man, a man whose ancestors were never under YHWH’s Torah, being instructed that he can now eat shellfish but he must first accept the missionary’s Xian orthodoxy. It brings to mind the famous anecdote (I believe attributed to author Annie Dillard) of the Inuit hunter asking the local missionary priest, “If I did not know about the Xian message, would I go to Hell?” “No, not if you did not know,” says the priest. “Then why did you tell me?” replies the hunter.

    Clearly, ignorance truly is preferable to the spatially and temporally arbitrary and relativistic moral system known as fundamentalist Xianity. What might surprise you is that some of the Biblical authors, if taken at face value, would agree. What they cannot seem to agree on is exactly when a person could live and die in ignorance and not be held accountable and sent to Hell.

    The author of Luke/Acts seems to believe that as long as a person died before the Resurrection, before YHWH gave proof of his future judgment, then he would overlook ignorance of YHWH (Acts 17:30).

    The author of John seems to think that one would have to die a few years earlier, before Jesus came, spoke to men and performed works, in order to not be guilty of sin (John 15:22,24).

    Paul seems to believe that one would have to die centuries before Jesus, before Moses gave the Law, when no account of sins was kept (Romans 5:13).

    Of course, maybe it is preferable that a person not be born at all (Ecclesiastes 4:2-3) and thus risk betraying the ‘son of man’ (Mark 15:20). At least one early Church Father, Origen, believed that human souls exist prior to conception. His excuse for why YHWH would ensoul human flesh and thus open them to the risk of betraying the ‘son of man’ remains deeply unsatisfying.

    Finally, for those of us who are unfortunately born and conceived well after these events were said to have occurred, it might be preferable that we not escape the corruption of the world by knowing Jesus, and thus risk crucifying him all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace (Hebrews 6:4-6) by falling away, as we would be worse off at the end than we were at the beginning (before knowing Jesus). It would have been better for us not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn our backs on the sacred command that was passed on to us (2 Peter 2:20).

    Unfortunately for many of us, due to parental, cultural and environmental pressures out of our control, we fail to qualify for those safeguards as well.

    Category: AtheismBiblical ExegesisFeaturedPhilosophy of ReligionProblem of EvilTheology


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce

    • Interesting!

      The Orthodox Christian doctrine on the matter (partially corroborated by 1 Peter 3:19-20) is that when Jesus died, he descended to Hades where he preached to all those who had died without having known him. This is the reason that in Orthodox iconography you won’t find the typical image of Jesus emerging from the tomb before stupefied soldiers, but Jesus breaking the doors of Hades, dragging Adam and Eve from their graves (example).

      While I haven’t seen it being argued, it wound’t be too far a stretch to argue that this process happens still, though there would be no biblical support for this (which, in Orthodox Christianity is hardly a problem, since the Holy Tradition is in equal standing to the Bible; a particularly vexing problem for us brought up in an Orthodox environment).

    • Although it happens to be a misdemeanor where I live, I was taught as a youth that Sabbath-breaking was only ever a divinely ordained capital crime for those born into the Hebrew theocracy.

      Presumably this all changed, according to Xn theology, whenever the “New Covenant” first kicked in and replaced the old one. This varies from one denomination tot another, but I’m going to say no later than the first Easter.

      • sam

        “I was taught as a youth that Sabbath-breaking was only ever a divinely ordained capital crime for those born into the Hebrew theocracy.”

        Hi Damion. Check out EX 20:8-11. “On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female _slave_, nor your animals, _nor any foreigner residing in your towns_.”

        One need not have been born a Hebrew to be executed (EX 31:14-17) for working on a Saturday.

        • I stand corrected, sort of. Strike “born into” replace with “living within.”

          The command in question remains moot for anyone outside of Judæa though, which includes almost everyone reading English philosophers like JP.

          • sam

            “The command in question remains moot for anyone outside of Judæa though…”

            With one small exception*, I agree, but this serves to highlight the larger point of ethical relativism. If the 4th commandment didn’t apply to non-Israelites, then neither did the 6th or 8th. It’s a very strange sort of Absolute, Universal, Objective moral Law-giver who has no interest in prohibiting murder and looting among those with whom he made no agreement (i.e. most of humanity).

            * Since yhwh commanded that permanent slaves be taken only from foreign people and their children (Lev 25:44-46), foreigners were often kidnapped from their homelands and enslaved within Judea, at which point they could be executed for picking up sticks on a Saturday. Or even more reprehensibly, yhwh could force people to forget sabbath observance out of wrath (Lam 2:6) and then have them killed for forgetting (EX 31:14-17).

    • Jeff Pinner

      “Unfortunately for many of us, due to parental, cultural and environmental pressures out of our control, we fail to qualify for those safeguards as well.”

      Interesting, sir. Am I to assume that parental, cultural and environmental pressures can include things like, oh… Rational Thought? Oh, yeah, I guess it does, as this was something that yhwh gave us the capability, then commands that we not use it.