23 Jun 2013

How Strongly Do Believers Believe?

Religious 44 Comments

David Friedman had a post recently asking this question. I didn’t have a problem with David’s thoughts, but one commenter struck me who wrote:

I find it utterly fascinating that most people who believe there is a heavenly paradise to reward the virtuous in the afterlife, nevertheless think the death of a virtuous person or small child, is a bad thing. How could it be bad that someone virtuous has died and entered paradise for eternity?

I found this observation itself to be utterly fascinating, for its implied critique of believers. For one thing, the Christian view is more nuanced than saying a “virtuous person or small child” goes to paradise when he or she dies.

Yet put that aside, and it’s still fascinating. Switch contexts: My son’s teacher (2nd grade) broke down in tears at the graduation ceremony. Should I marvel at the fact that she is sad that she did a good job and all her students will go on to 3rd grade now? Is this really so hard to understand?

Last thing: I’m not saying this particular guy is guilty of contradiction, but notice how Christians get it both ways. On the one hand, we are jerks for believing in a God who would ever let a child die. On the other hand, we must not actually believe what we say, because we’re sad when a child dies.

44 Responses to “How Strongly Do Believers Believe?”

  1. Z says:

    Bob, do you believe in such a thing as animal heaven? Do good dogs and cats go somewhere? How about good pet rats?

  2. Ken B says:

    I think the critique is also more nuanced than you portray it Bob, so let’s try a refinement. Why should you lament the death of a baptized infant who has committed no sins and whom you believe to be in a state of grace? They might after all grow to be an unrepentant sinner or unbeliever or convert to some other religion. Considering the *infinite* cost to the child of any of those errors of free will, shouldn’t you feel that early death is a safer, better, path?

    • Bob Murphy says:

      Ken B.,

      Considering the *infinite* cost to the child of any of those errors of free will, shouldn’t you feel that early death is a safer, better, path?

      Did I somehow give the impression that I think heaven is a bad outcome for some people?! Do you think my son’s teacher thinks going to 3rd grade is a riskier, inferior path for him, than staying in 2nd grade with her forever would be?

      To be clear: I am saying there is nothing weird or irrational or hypocritical about a Christian believing his or her child is now with Jesus in paradise, and feeling sad that it may be decades before being able to be with the child again.

      This is crystal clear in a secular context.

      • Yosef says:

        Bob, you are slightly changing what that commenter said. He said that (some) religious people thing the death of a child is *bad* (his word) while you are talking about it being *sad* (your word).

        If your son (God forbid!) was dying, you would beg God to let him live, maybe as Him to take you instead [If I die/ Let me die/ Let him live]. Your son’s teacher would never say “Oh please God, let me graduate instead, I’ll take 3rd grade!”

        • Ken B says:


          You really are not addressing the actual objection Bob. I assume for instnace that most Christians would try to catch they hypothetical infnat if he were about to fall 100 feet to his death, because they view the death as a bad not just a saddening thing.

          • integral says:

            Why wouldn’t they view the death as a bad thing?

    • Gene Callahan says:

      “Why should you lament the death of a baptized infant who has committed no sins and whom you believe to be in a state of grace?”

      Because we miss them?!

      Atheism involves a lot of willful idiocy, doesn’t it?

      • Ken B says:

        Once again, a dodge, deliberately conflating a subjective feeling of personal loss with an evident belief that something bad happened to the child. Christians generally behave like they want to save infants from *harm* when they save them. And you and Bob would howl in protest if I argued you would only save children for *selfish*reasons like not missing them.

        The argument is not that Christians should rejoice, only that their theological claims implies they should. I am glad you are not actually so lost as to believe what you claim!

      • Yosef says:

        Gene, if the issue were just that you miss them, would you also not try to prevent them from dying? I like Bob’s analogy, so I am trying to stick with it.

        The teacher is sad that Bob’s son graduates, and a parent is sad when a child dies. Fine. But the teacher will not try to prevent the child from graduating, try to stop the graduation, or ask and beg to be graduated herself. The parent will try to prevent, stop, or die in the child’s place. Why this difference? It can’t be just sadness that the child will be missed, because that is the same in both cases. The original commenter, Ken B. (I think), and I are saying that the difference is that the parent thinks the child dying is *bad* and so wants to prevent it. Yet this designation of the death as *bad* seems at odds with religious belief.

        • Ken B says:

          Yes Yosef you are reading me correctly. Of course I expect you are trying to.
          Gene would miss the infant just as much if he sent it off to safety from a war zone and would prefer that to its death. So this miss it stuff does not address the point. They see death as bad for the infant. The logic of their theology implies they should not.

        • Richard Moss says:

          I think your position implies that because a person does everything they can to prevent the death of a loved one, they are somehow going against God’s purpose, and that does not follow.

          In the teacher case, yes, keeping a child back just because they miss them would be objectively bad. Most understand well the criteria for advancing a child to the next grade. But do we all understand well God’s purpose? If a child is very ill, is God saying “let him die – I need him”? in the same way a student with good grades gets to go to the next grade? I don’t think so.

  3. Yosef says:

    Bob, both the religious person and your son’s teacher cry when a person passes on (either in life or to another grade). However, when a person doesn’t pass on in life, say is saved after an accident or from a natural disaster, the religious person thanks God and calls it miracle. But if your son, miracle of miracles, didn’t pass his class, your teacher would not be thankful and happy. The point of the commenter isn’t that people are sad when someone dies, but that they think it is actually *bad* that they have died.

    • Dan says:

      So you believe the commenter thinks Christians believe it is bad that the person died and went to heaven? I’d give the commenter more credit than that.

      • Yosef says:

        Dan, read his comment. He uses the word bad. Twice. I believe that people mean what they write, not what I wish they meant.

        • Dan says:

          OK, then the commenters point is beyond stupid.

          • Ken B says:

            Well I don’t think Bob gets it, but it’s harsh to call him stupid.

  4. whiskey1bravo says:

    I had a sort of interesting conversation a week ago with my very religious grandmother. I was trying to explain the NAP to her and we sort of wandered off in to personal defense. It was an obscure crossroad, she kept saying the “God has a plan for everyone, when it’s your time it’s your time” but I was stuck on trying to convince her that it was impossible for God to literally come down and stop an intruder in my home who is about to take my life. True, maybe it would be “my time” and that was all in God’s plan. But there are numerous things that I can do to prevent that scenario from playing out. Alarm systems, dogs,an arsenal of my own or self-defense classes, heck even a 24-hour bodyguard service.

    Anyways, related to death and the afterlife. People are usually sad when a loved one passes away. That has nothing to do with religion, it’s human emotions.

  5. RPLong says:

    I’m not a believer, but I’m with Bob on this one. Why do you wince when they stick the vaccination needle in your arm? After all, the vaccine is there to help you! Obviously it’s good when the virtuous are rewarded for their virtue and bad when the virtuous reach an untimely demise. No contradiction in those two beliefs at all.

    • Ken B says:

      Your wince isn’t a judgment though. The question is not, why are Christians *sad* but why do they view a child’s death as a bad thing, such a bad thing many will try to *avert* it. No averting in your vaccination example.

      Incidentally I am not confident this is the right blog to tempt the vaccers on! Your chances of finding a vaccine denier or autism theorist are pretty high here!

      • Matt Tanous says:

        This binary view of good and bad is incredibly ridiculous, given that we are talking about subjective preferences. I know of no believer who has ever said that death of a virtuous person or small child is unilaterally “bad”. It might be “bad” because it brings with it sadness, or takes away a person from the world who helped others, or some other goal or joy that is now unsatisfied or missing. This is not a moral judgement, but one based on subjective desire.

        • Ken B says:

          What binary view? I note that most Christians will try to avert the death of an infant. That indicates they think the death is a bad thing, something better averted. Do you dispute that? And so a question is, what does that fact tell us about what they claim to believe? That there’s a mismatch.
          It’s pretty simple. Imagine I say that the most important thing in life is to wear red shirts. But I rarely wear a red shirt. You ask why. I reply because I look better in blue. Then I think you can legitimately doubt that I *really* believe wearing red shirts is the *most important thing*.

          • JSR08 says:

            Your shirt analogy does not work. You are comparing a “journey” (wearing a shirt day-in day-out) to a destination (arriving in Heaven).

            An untimely death (from a parent’s perspective) of a baby is something to be mourned because of the loss of potential, both known (life long companionship) and unknown. The belief that the baby goes straight to Heaven brings some solace, but does not relieve the loss of potential of that baby’s life.

            Thinking about it another way, living a long, happy life and going to Heaven are not mutually exclusive experiences. For Christians, it is preferable that the entire life of a human being be experienced, from birth to death and then to Heaven. I do not think this is unusual, as God gave us life, bodies, and a material world to live in. Naturally He would give us the desire to live in this world while still also looking forward to the next.

            • Ken B says:

              No, I am only noting expressed and revealed preferences can differ. Anyway now your argument gives you a different problem: god has cheated this child and family of the fullness you speak of.

              • JSR08 says:

                My argument does not create a new problem: I specifically said that from the parent’s perspective the loss of a child is bad, end of story. But then, and this is hard to say given that I have loved ones myself, even in supreme grief who are we to question God if He takes them away or allows them to die on a different timetable than we would prefer?

                The point is, from the human Christian perspective, we are consistent in our feelings on this subject.

      • RPLong says:

        Not all of them do. Haven’t you ever heard a Christian say something to the effect of, “We’ll miss our little Johnny, but the Lord needed him up in heaven.”?

        I hear that kind of thing all the time. I feel that it represents that majority viewpoint. My understanding is that it’s God’s role to determine when someone has lived long enough on Earth. Human grief and tragedy is real, but most believers I know lean more heavily on the “it is God’s will” theory than the “God did something wrong” theory.

        Wouldn’t you say?

        • Ken B says:

          I would mostly, yes. But that’s still post hoc rationalizing/reconciling. They would still try to avert the death, etc. Look at prospective behavior not retrospective comments.

          It’s like Yosef’s point about graduating. The 3rd grade teacher might miss her pupil, and might feel “grade 4 needed her more” etc. But she wouldn’t try to avert the graduation. Most Chrisitans do not see death like graduation, no matter what their religion teaches. (I grant that some probably do. Christian scientitsts letting their baby die for lack of medicine surely are true believers.)

          • Richard Moss says:

            (I grant that some probably do. Christian scientitsts letting their baby die for lack of medicine surely are true believers.)

            Do they? Don’t they pray to God to please heal their child, and do so because they done’t wish to see their child die?

            Anyway, I don’t see how trying to ‘avert’ the death of a loved one would go against the supposed purpose of God. Just because a person is ill, severly injured etc doesn’t necessarily mean God wants them to die. That people want a loved one to recover may be ‘selfish’ on their part, but it does not mean it also wasn’t God’s purpose that they do recover.

            We know the ‘objective’ criteria for moving a child from one grade level to the next. One doesn’t know the criteria by which God decides life and death. Why should one assume God wants a loved one in heaven becasue they are ill or otherwise facing death?

            • Ken B says:

              “Do they? Don’t they pray to God to please heal their child, and do so because they done’t wish to see their child die?”

              Let me clarify as I don’t think you are getting my point here. I think there is good reason to think they really believe in the proscription their religion teaches about medicine. They really believe its wrong to give their sick child penicillin, and they demonstrate that belief.

              • Richard Moss says:

                I thought this is about why Christians should try and avert the death of a loved one if death isn’t bad.

                You said Christian Scientists demonstrate this belief – but I don’t think they do. They do do things to try and avert he death of a loved one – presumably because death is ‘bad’.

              • Ken B says:

                Well maybe I was unclear but that’s not what I was saying. I remarked most christians seem not to act as if they really believed some of the teachings. The scientists who let their kids though probably do act as if they believe the teachings. They certainly seem to believe the one about medicine!
                If you want to argue that EVEN the CS seem not to believe the consequences of the teachings on death I won’t object.

              • Richard Moss says:

                Well, as I explained above I think you are wrong that Christians act contrary to their beliefs wrt to death, so I am not sure why I should argue the actions of CSs actually prove your point.

          • RPLong says:

            The real question you ought to ask is, assuming the Christian god is the real god, why does life exist at all? Why should we have to go through a process of not knowing or understanding God, undergo years of suffering and difficulty, die painfully, leave our loved ones behind, etc…. only to find God at the end of the road? A truly merciful god would spare us all this nonsense and simply love us without subjecting us to an Earthly life.

            So the real question is not “Why is death bad?” The real question is “Why life at all?”

            But, if you accept the notion that life is something of a trial to determine our worthiness of god’s love, then there is no real contradiction. We all play a role. Someone who dies as an infant might well be an angel for all we know. That being’s whole purpose on Earth might not have been to live a life susceptible to sin, but rather to present a challenge to the rest of us.

            The point is, if you don’t understand how to rationalize this, then you don’t understand Christianity at all. You might not want to, and that is fine. But there is no contradiction here with respect to Christianity.

  6. Innocent says:

    People are sad because you no longer get the fellowship of the person. In the case of a child dying it is sad because parents and siblings will miss out on many parts of life that they had planned to share with them. It is not a rational feeling it is an emotional one.

    Not to open things up to more criticism but when I was nine years old my baby sister died. I was angry with God and distraught beyond belief.I remember very vividly casting myself down on my bed and praying to God asking Him, ‘Why’, ‘Why would you take my sister from me’

    The answer I received echos in my mind today. I will never be able to deny God exists. A voice, within my own mind is as best I can describe it, uttered these few words. ‘My son, my son, be at peace for she is with me and it is wisdom in me that these things have been done.”

    It still hurt. Even today the lose is still. O thef time I do not get to spend with her. But what more can I say. In the very act of asking why I found God in a way I can never, ever deny. Was it wisdom in Him? I do not know, but I can not deny what I have heard.

    What is the wisdom? I do not know. Perhaps it was so that I would have something when times get rough to remember the sweet sound of pure love which accompanied those words. Perhaps it was so that I would be able to stand and relate the story for you today. I do not know.

    I wish I could explain God to others in a way that made sense. Perhaps some day we will be able to see ‘God’ with science. But one thing I know. God is. I wish that I could simply give the experience I have had to others. I cannot, and words fail to convey what actually happened that day. I know what happened, and it was marvelous.

  7. joe says:

    They are crying because the kid is not going into heaven, not making the cut. The kid violates the 10 Commandments and covets others toys or commits one of the 7 deadly sins, watches too much Capt Kangaroo (slothful), that kid is going to hell for eternity.

  8. Bob Murphy says:

    Ken B. et al.: Why stop there? Isn’t it crazy that Jesus went around healing people of sickness? He even brought Lazarus back from the dead. If Jesus wanted to be a miracle maker *and* consistent with (your understanding of) Christianity, Jesus should have poisoned 5,000 people with a mere few loaves of bread.


    • Yosef says:

      Actually Bob, I do think it’s a bit weird that Jesus healed people of sickness that His Father made. These aren’t sicknesses that just exist; within the religious system they are the direct results of God’s work. So God [Father] makes people sick and then God [Jesus] heals some of them?

      (Maybe Jesus is just a rebel going against His Father. A demi-God son correcting the acts of a capricious God? Now this one I know.)

      As to Lazarus: So dying is not bad, but being revived is good? Dying is not bad, but if you follow Jesus you don’t have to die? The reason the raising of Lazarus is so compelling is because we fear death and think of it as bad, and so when Jesus says all those who live and believe in him will never die, people react positively. That positive reaction is because death is so negative.

      No Bob, my understanding of Christianity is not that Jesus should have poisoned 5,000 people, but that he should have told those people that death is not to be feared not to be shuddered against. To say that the last enemy that shall be defeated is death is to say that death is an enemy, this suggests that death is not some benign thing that Christians accept and simply mourn. It is an enemy. To be destroyed. Your son’s graduating is not viewed that way.

      • RPLong says:

        Death before Christ is quite different from death after Christ. You understand that, right? Thanks to the life of Christ, death is no longer something to be feared, so long as one is a true believer. But that statement does not apply to Lazarus, who lived during a time when the core foundation of Christianity had yet to be satisfied.

        It’s not really as simple as you’re making it out to be. Again, I’m not a believer, but if you’re going to criticize Christianity, you have to at least understand what you’re criticizing.

    • Ken B says:

      You’re not even trying here Bob. For one thing the issue is not internal inconsistencies in your religion –another day –but if modern Christians actually believe its teachings. Changing the topic to its internal contradictions is a bold move but a weak one.

      It’s not my understanding of the faith there Bob. My understanding is that its false. So by my understanding he’d be a murderer.

  9. AdrianC92 says:

    So tears of joy= mourning kids death. Interesting.

  10. Egoist says:

    Christianity holds that we are to take up the cause of truth and love, and that God is truth and love itself. God therefore serves himself. God is the Ego. God cares only for what is his, busies himself only with himself, thinks only of himself, and has only himself before his eyes; woe to all that is not well-pleasing to him. He serves no higher person, and satisfies only himself. His cause is – a purely egoistic cause.

    Attempting to reconcile the mortal egoist life, and the infinite Ego afterlife, leads to an antinomy, as revealed in this thread. The death of a baptized infant is bad and it is good. Bad because the selfish Ego desires to own it, not lose it, and to love it, in the mortal life, and good because in death the infant reabsorbs into truth and love itself, with infinite life, with God.

    I am amused at the egoistic Christians lamenting the death of an infant who has committed no sins, not realizing that their desires are clashing with the God they serve.

  11. Sam Geoghegan says:

    Hi Bob, you might like this article. It’s about materialism, and it also mentions Brad DeLong, so it’s slightly in keeping with this blog 😉

  12. Sam Geoghegan says:

    Hey smiley, get back over there

  13. Nicholas J. Gausling says:

    There is a fundamental misunderstanding of the Biblical Gospel that some people involved in this discussion don’t seem to get. The Bible does not teach that “good people” go to Heaven. The Bible teaches that mankind is in all-out war against Almighty God, and that there is no such thing as a “good person” as far as God is concerned. People go to Hell on their own merit. People go to Heaven on Christ’s merit, by grace. Just because I’m a Christian doesn’t mean that I’m a better man than any unbeliever; in many cases I may be a worse man, but I’m BETTER OFF because God gave me grace.

    We could go around in circles talking about what this preacher or that preacher said, so why not just go to the source? I challenge those who are interested in this subject to read the Book of Romans. It won’t take that long; it’s only 16 short chapters. It was a letter written by the Apostle Paul to the Christians in Rome; as a letter, it was intended to be read in a single sitting. If you have time to engage in online debate, you have time to read Romans. Here it is: http://www.esvbible.org/Romans+1/

  14. Travis says:

    This is another point where I think Orthodox Christianity has some insight to offer. Bob, you’re right in that this is a common critique of Christians and the issue of death is much more nuanced in Christian thought than most critics would think. That said, I think this particular criticism is easier to level against Western Christians than Eastern Orthodox because Western Christian thought tends to lean more towards dualism due to the fact that they generally see humanity as totally depraved and the created universe as unredeemed, fallen, and totally broken. Orthodox, on the other hand, see human beings as essentially good and still bearing the image of God. The same applies to created matter – the universe is good and will ultimately be transfigured, not destroyed. So this is why in Orthodox Services – including the funeral services – we affirm that the body and all life is sacred. We mourn the death of our fellow human beings – especially our loved ones – because Christ mourned over the death of people He cared about and even He wanted to avoid death. At the same time, we affirm our hope in God because Jesus Christ rose from the dead, “trampling down death by death.” He is our Living Hope because we are promised to rise from the dead just as our Lord did, and live forever in a transfigured universe in the Presence of the Holy Trinity.

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