Finding Fulfilment

Last week I received an email from a relative, bearing the sad news that he and his wife of nearly 20 years were separating. He said that when they got married, he had “hoped to make her happy”, but admitted that “over the years I have failed.”

And then, Ex-Mozilla user experience intern Wei Zhou blogged about how to find fulfilment and satisfaction. She gives five possible primary motivations, based on which of the following you find more important: power, status, pleasure, creation, or quality.

  • The Autocrat seeks power and control
  • The Narcissist seeks attention, status and fame
  • The Hedonist seeks pleasure and enjoyment of material goods
  • The Architect seeks to create and shape the world
  • The Craftsman seeks to enjoy their work by producing quality

This made me think about where true happiness and fulfilment is found. My relative took upon himself the burden of making someone happy – and that is a crushing burden. His wife looked to him to make her happy – and this will inevitably lead to disappointment.

Wei concludes that “not all of these [five] primary motivations lead to a lasting sense of personal satisfaction and fulfillment”, but argues that being a Craftsman – being concerned with quality – gives one the best shot at finding “personal satisfaction and fulfillment”. She wisely notes that “it frees us from the perception that our self-worth depends on [power, status, pleasure, or world-changing achievement]”.

But I don’t think being a Craftsman is the answer either – if you are a craftsman, there will always be levels of skill you cannot attain – and most skills, after a certain point, decline with age. As one of her commenters points out, “your execution will always be flawed”. If your self-worth depends on the quality of your work, you are also going to be disappointed.

So how can one find true fulfilment? I think she has missed a primary motivation:

#6: The Christian

The Christian’s primary motivation is love of God and a desire to obey His commands. Common behaviors include “love your neighbour as yourself“, “take up your cross daily” and “go and make disciples of all nations“. They are those who have learned to “be content whatever the situation.“[0] Examples: missionaries like David Brainerd (missionary to the Native Americans; died at 29), William Wilberforce (anti-slavery campaigner), and millions upon millions of ordinary people.

Christians do not obsess about controlling others like the Autocrat, because they know God is in control, and works all things for their good. They do not seek attention, status and fame like the Narcissist, because they know their value is in being a child of God, not in the approval of others. They do not make an idol of pleasure, like the Hedonist, because at God’s right hand are pleasures forevermore, and it is through him that true and lasting happiness is found. They do not create their own vision of what the world should look like as the Architect does, because they know that God’s vision is the best one, and they should pursue that. They do enjoy their work, like the Craftsman, but it is a subsidiary goal to that of pleasing God in all things.

People do make a choice “about what they’re ultimately working for”. But it depends what you mean by “ultimate”. In the long run, as the saying goes, we’re all dead – and the ultimate question is “what happens next?”

[0] “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:12-13)

44 thoughts on “Finding Fulfilment

  1. That sounds rather like the Architect’s vision of “shaping the world” — especially the bit about making disciples of *all nations*. Aren’t you just abstracting away the motivation to someone else? You even say they “know God’s vision is the best one, and they should pursue that” — but from an outside perspective, that just means pursuing their own vision. People don’t become Christian if they disagree with the Christian ideal, and whatever they interpret that ideal to be is what they will pursue.

  2. “Christians do not obsess about controlling others”

    Except when they scream bloody murder if the government doesn’t pass every single law they insist on. Tell me, how is that anti-blasphemy law in Ireland that was endorsed by and pushed for by Christians not a clear counterexample? Or how are all the blue laws that exist all over the United States not clear counterexamples? Or the recent example of the Texas Board of Education (led by and controlled by outspoken Christians) removing Enlightenment figures from the American Revolution section in the history syllabus and replacing them with Reformation figures, explicitly because the former were not Christian enough?

    Eevee: “Aren’t you just abstracting away the motivation to someone else?” That is exactly what they’re doing (“It’s not me doing the controlling, I’m just following God’s commands”). But it doesn’t stop at the Architect. They continue to “power and control” as the Autocrat because under their belief system, _everyone_ must follow their Christian laws, even if they don’t actually convert to Christianity.

  3. I’m sorry, but I can’t choose to believe in man-made magical beings, even if it does lead me to happiness.

  4. I do not believe that “love of God and a desire to obey His commands” is something that gives you a sense of fulfillment or satisfaction. I might be wrong, but you will have to convince me that loving something (or even someone) give you that feeling. Love is not the same as fulfillment.

  5. It’s a delusion to think that Christians are somehow different from other people, or that they are motivated by different things.

  6. As someone who has suffered through a marital separation and found fulfillment in the love of God and after becoming a new creature, the desire to obey his commands I would have to agree with Gerv.

    For me, in the “craftsman” side of me, I do find pieces of fulfillment in producing quality code and solutions to problems. I think the reason I find them is because I have a desired goal and attaining that goal helps me feel worth. With my relationship with God, I see that there is nothing I can do that would make him love me more, nothing that I can do to anything more than I am: someone who has disobeyed his commands and deserves to be eternally apart from him. The beautiful thing is that Christ paid for all of the times I have disobeyed his commands. Christ took the bullet for me and made it possible for me to even be here today typing this. God loved me (the worst of all people) so much that he did something he’s never done before, became a fragile human being and died for me. So when I rest in knowing that God’s love for me is so much greater than I can even comprehend and I focus on actually making my life reflect that amazing miracle in my life.. it does bring fulfillment to me. It makes me feel like I am doing the work of someone who loves me so much.

    When the things I care about and live my life for change, I do become motivated by different things. When it is the desire of my heart to show love to those around me and to never put myself first.. that is a different motivation than what I experienced in my life before knowing Christ. I still struggle with putting myself first many times but it is a daily decision to “take up the cross”.

    Thank you for letting me share.

  7. Some really interesting comments :-)

    Eevee: but the Christian aim for the world is not an infinitely malleable thing that you can just reshape to fit your own desires. The Bible is pretty clear about how God wants his disciples to behave. And those who are made disciples are supposed to be following Jesus, not the person who told them about Jesus – so if that person tries to manipulate them, they can say “but the Bible doesn’t say I should do that”.

    Lisa: clearly the behaviour of Christians with respect to their national governments is a very country-specific thing. But in general terms, don’t Christians have just as much right to argue for laws they want as anyone else? The big difference is that if a Christian acquires power, they are commanded not to use it for personal gain, but to serve others. Leadership for the Christian is servanthood. Unlike the Autocrat, who is pursuing his own personal fulfilment through the exercise of power.

    Baka_toroi: This post was not written as evidence for the existence of God. There’s loads of that, but this is not it. I am not saying “believe in God in order to find happiness” – that would just be another way of people being self-centred.

    Benjamin Otte: I agree that love is not the same as fulfilment. My argument is that loving and obeying God is what humans were designed and made to do, and therefore true fulfilment is found in doing it. You don’t agree with my conclusion – but that’s because you don’t agree with my starting point :-) Of course, if you are an atheist, then you have to believe that humans weren’t designed or made to do anything – we have no purpose. We are the result of time and chance.

    Bastiaan: from an atheistic standpoint, I can see why you might think that – but then your statement reduces to “Christianity is a delusion”. Of course, I don’t agree – I think atheism is what requires blind faith, as it’s a far less likely explanation for the existence of the universe than Christianity is.

    Orrin: Thanks for sharing :-)

  8. Gerv, there is nothing I can say that will change your mind, nor do I care to. Really, truly, I’m glad you find comfort and guidance in the Bible. But when you say, “The Bible is pretty clear about how God wants his disciples to behave,” as a lifelong atheist who was raised Catholic (five years an altar boy at that), I have to laugh.

    Everyone who reads the Bible thinks its message is clear, yet each has a different take. When the bible-thumpers knock on my door I ask them to return only when all the believers agree on one story. Even the Christians can’t agree on important details of their own branch of theology.

  9. I think that ideally this is true of Christians. However in practice it’s hard to say that. It depends on what you mean by the words Christian and fulfillment.

    As a Christian myself I’d say I have my own periods of not being fulfilled. I suppose it’s because of confusion in what Gods commands are but I tend to feel like a failure when it comes to obeying them. I still feel love from God but I don’t feel like I’m fulfilling God’s purpose for me. This period of feeling unfulfilled has lasted longer than I want to acknowledge.

  10. When the bible-thumpers knock on my door I ask them to return only when all the believers agree on one story.

    Anyone who is reading their Bible as well as thumping it would agree that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

    “Christian can’t agree” => “God does not exist” is a logical fallacy. Isn’t it?

    Jeffrey: we all fail at obeying God’s commands. Which is why his grace and forgiveness is such good news :-) If you think you aren’t fulfilling God’s purpose for you, you must know what that purpose is. Or do you just have a sense of vague unease?

  11. “I think atheism is what requires blind faith, as it’s a far less likely explanation for the existence of the universe than Christianity is.”

    How does the story of a leader of a Jewish end time sect in a province of the Roman Empire 2000 years ago explain the the existence of the universe?

  12. Gerv, stop moving the goalposts. You said: “Christians do not obsess about controlling others like the Autocrat”. I gave you multiple examples of Christians doing exactly that and using their Christianity as the sole motivating reason for wanting to control the behavior of others (and I didn’t even mention the Ugandan anti-gay laws that were in the news just recently, supported by both Ugandan Christian groups as well as several Christian groups from _other_ countries).

    “Christians have just as much right to argue for laws they want as anyone else.” Yes, they do, but it is completely farcical of you to then state that they’re arguing for XYZ laws because they think it’s right, not because they wish to impose their brand of Christianity on others, when they explicitly have stated that their rationale for arguing for those laws is based on Christianity. So I ask you again, explicitly, how are those examples I have provided, of Christians pushing Christian based laws onto others, as well as demands that only Christians can serve in government, not autocratic seeking control of the behavior of others?

    Orrin, I know as many people who have found fulfillment in their lives as Craftsman (using Gerv’s strawmen categories) who are atheists as those who are Christian (and just as many Hindi and other non-western religions). I’m glad you feel whole again. But to accept Gerv’s argument is to say that only Christians can ever produce quality, when the evidence clearly shows they are not the unique group Gerv claim themselves to be.

    Gerv, ask a Mormon Christian about “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.” Then get back and answer Jim B’s question. Heck, ask a Seventh Day Adventist as well and tell us how much they consider Anglicans to be Christians.

  13. Really, I don’t know what his purpose for me is. Every once in a while I think I do but then I find out I was wrong or mislead. I understand the concept of works not bringing me in his favor. I just have a vague idea of how it fits in with me functioning as I was meant to. It seems that I have to be able to be non-functioning and still fulfilled because God love me. But it still sucks being non-functioning.

    I guess I still feel like I still have to do something myself to fulfill Gods purpose for me when really I need to let God do stuff through me. Of course that’s faster said than done.

  14. Gerv said in response to me:

    “Christian can’t agree” => “God does not exist” is a logical fallacy. Isn’t it?

    That isn’t a logical fallacy; that is called a non sequitur, but this isn’t what I said. Disclosing I am an atheist is just to let you know my position, but it has no bearing on the point I was making.

    The point I *was* making: the Bible is interpreted many different ways by many different people. Your claim that God’s wishes for us is very clear is contradicted by the fact so many Christian sects disagree on some fundamental things, for instance, the importance of acts vs faith.

    Gerv also said:

    Anyone who is reading their Bible as well as thumping it would agree that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

    You haven’t met any evangelical Baptists, have you? Catholics certainly consider themselves Christians, and believe that God so loved the world, etc, but I’ve had people tell me in all seriousness that Catholics are bound for hell.

  15. What is a Christian?

    I see so many self-styled “Christians” going right against what (according to the Gospels) Jesus taught his disciples, that it baffles me. So many people praying ostentatiously in church, loudly singing verbose prayers (including carols), “in order to be seen”, or throwing disdain and scorn at anyone whom “they didn’t see in church”, right against what Jesus said as context to the Lord’s Prayer (see the beginning of Matthew 6), namely, that the only effective prayer is a simple prayer without verbose repetitions, done in one’s “secret place” (e.g., when alone in one’s room, after going home, into one’s own room, and closing the door). So many people turning the Father’s House into a house of commerce (selling candles or even postcards inside churches, or playing bingo on church premises), right against what Jesus said when he chased the merchants away from the Temple (and yet those merchants only sold animals to be offered in sacrifice according to Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and not in the temple itself but on Temple Square)… And so on and so forth.

    I may or may not be a Christian depending on how one defines the word. I certainly admire Jesus of Nazareth and the ideals he preached. But I just as certainly belong to none of today’s churches, many of which, IMHO, go right against what Jesus taught.

  16. I think Gerv’s message could be improved by clarifying that “Christians do/do not …” should be read as “Christians should/should not …” or “Good Christians do/do not …” Still, thanks a lot for writing this, Gerv.

    I would also say that “seeking fulfillment” is a fundamentally self-centered approach to life. It might lead you to something good (like Jesus), but I think at some point you’ll have to let go of it and seek God directly. Fulfillment will come as a side effect.

    Tony: I think it’s overstating Matthew 6 to say that secret prayers without repetition are the *only* effective prayers. There are certainly plenty of examples of Jesus praying in the presence of his disciples, and community prayer has a rich and spiritually valuable heritage in the church. It seems to me that in Matthew 6 Jesus condemns the motivation, not the mode, and recommends secret prayers because then there can be no question about the motivation. I agree there’s a lot of sinful ostentation in many congregations., and that’s not a good thing, but even so, I’d rather be with other sinners than walk alone.

    The comments about Christian (dis)unity are interesting. On one hand, Jesus did pray for unity among his followers “so that the world may know”, and we’ve failed to live up to that goal, so some of the scorn we get is deserved. On the other hand, it’s ridiculous to expect unanimity among those who call themselves Christians. Any malicious or deluded group can make that impossible just by calling themselves Christians — and have! Same goes if you replace ‘Christian’ with any other label.

    For many of the the theological disputes between Christians, I like C.S. Lewis’s quote in “The Screwtape Letters”:
    > The real fun is working up hatred between those who say
    > “mass” and those who say “holy communion” when neither party could possibly
    > state the difference between, say, Hooker’s doctrine and Thomas Aquinas’, in
    > any form which would hold water for five minutes.

  17. Peter: read it and find out :-) Jesus claimed to be God, the creator of the universe, and validated that claim by rising from the dead. (Not just any old “leader of a Jewish end-time sect”, then…). The only alternative, because of the “fine tuning” argument about the carefully-set values of the universe’s fundamental constants, involved postulating a near-infinite set of barren parallel universes with different values for the constants, each of which is (by definition) unobservable and unverifiable by science. Lots of faith required there, IMO.

    Lisa: I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to move the goalposts. I was just trying to better articulate what I meant by distinguishing a Christian position from an autocratic one.

    Let me have more of a think about this one, and I’ll add another comment later. :-)

    Jim B: the text I used is a direct quote from the Bible (John 3:16). So I would hope your evangelical Baptists would agree with it! Their disagreement with Catholicism is precisely because “whoever believes in him” is not what it teaches. Catholic teaching is that salvation is ensured by a complex mixture of faith and works (deeds).

    I’m sure many of those who call themselves Catholic will be saved. But if someone believes all the teachings of the Catholic Magisterium, then they are relying (at least in part) on their own efforts to save you, and those efforts will fail them. Perhaps your evangelical Baptists are assuming that all Catholics do that – but (praise God) I don’t think that’s true.

    As for Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists, who Lisa mentioned, they both believe that there is no salvation outside their particular group. Which is directly contrary to the “whoever believes in him” part.

    Tony: it makes me sad too. But the very fact that you are comparing their behaviour with Jesus’ teaching shows that correct behaviour for a Christian is not arbitrary. However, we are not called to compare ourselves with others (“at least I’m better than those ostentatiously-praying Christians”) but with what Jesus calls us to do.

    I’m glad you admire Jesus. But he doesn’t call us to admire him – but to follow and worship him. If you don’t do that, then you and he actually have very different values and ideals. He claimed to be God – do you believe him? If so, respond to that. If not, how can you believe anything he said at all? He must have been nuts…

  18. > Jesus claimed to be God, the creator of the universe, and validated that claim by rising from the dead.

    No, a book claims these things.

    > The only alternative

    …is Deism or thousands of other religions.

    > because of the “fine tuning” argument

    1. An allmighty god doesn’t need to fine tune anything.
    2. A world where 0.000000000000000000000000000000001% of its space is inhabitable is not “fine tuned for life”.

  19. Robert O’Callahan said:

    The comments about Christian (dis)unity are interesting. … On the other hand, it’s ridiculous to expect unanimity among those who call themselves Christians. Any malicious or deluded group can make that impossible just by calling themselves Christians — and have! Same goes if you replace ‘Christian’ with any other label.

    I think you have dodged my point by looking only at the fringes. How about this: Catholics and Protestants don’t agree on some things fundamental to Christian faith, yet they read the same Bible. Which one is the deluded group?

    Again, don’t get me wrong: I’m not arguing that this inconsistency makes either one wrong — I’m arguing that Gerv’s claim that the Bible’s wishes are clear to anyone who reads it is bunk. People cite the parts they like; they ignore the things they disagree with, and the stuff which is gray, they interpret to their liking.

  20. On the issues of “how Jesus wants his disciples to behave”, by which I think Gerv meant the moral law, I think *evangelical* (that is, those who consider the Bible an authority) Protestants and Catholics agree very strongly. In fact evangelical Protestants tend to agree more strongly with evangelical Catholics than they do with non-evangelical Protestants!

    The Protestant/Catholic disagreement on soteriology is significant but I think it tends to be overstated. In practice, lots of Catholics have saving grace, and lots of Protestants are at least partly relying on their own efforts to save them. And doctrinally, if you dig deep into it, the differences are more subtle than they appear. For example, I think the statement “Catholics think that works are necessary for salvation, and Protestants don’t” isn’t accurate in either direction. I’m pretty sure Catholics agree that the penitent thief was saved without a chance to do works, and most Protestant groups agree with James that while works are not a *precondition* for salvation, they are a necessary *result*. Cue the Lewis quote I mentioned above…

    Peter: A world where 0.000000000000000000000000000000001% of its space is inhabitable is extravagant and wonderful, but it’s still fine tuned for life in many critical ways (like the fact that we’re lucky to have anything other than hydrogen). I don’t see why God would be required to conserve space…

  21. Robert O’Callahan, you’ve basically covered the existence of 0-100% of the universe being inhabitable as somehow relevant to religion. You realise that if it were 0% we wouldn’t be here to say anything?

    To most sane people, the fact that the near entirety of the Universe is deadly to us is probably reason to suggest it’s not really designed “for” us.

  22. > You realise that if it were 0% we wouldn’t be here to say anything?

    Yes, of course I realize that. Are you invoking the anthropic principle and assuming a multiverse?

    > you’ve basically covered the existence of 0-100% of the universe being
    > inhabitable as somehow relevant to religion.

    I’m not sure what you’re saying. I don’t think the fraction of the universe which is habitable is relevant to anything. I don’t see why one would expect God to make the universe “just big enough” for human life.

  23. “People cite the parts they like; they ignore the things they disagree with, and the stuff which is gray, they interpret to their liking.”

    People tend to ignore that Christ did not come to this word to condemn it, but to save it. People tend to ignore that the sacrifice of only God’s son has paid the full price of all of our sin (which separates us from God, being perfectly holy and just). I agree with you that they ignore these things because they disagree with them, because many times it threatens idols of self-worship which tell us that we should submit to no one/thing. Yet we submit to that idol all the time. As Gerv has said, Christ calls us to worship him and him alone.

    I can not pretend to have perfect understanding of everything in the Bible. I believe that when a believer reads the Bible, God opens our eyes to the text and allows us to understand it. It even predicts that people will read it and not understand it. I think sometimes we have different interpretations of scripture because not everyone who reads it believes if (even if they are a pastor/priest/clergy). If a person who can only read English decides to read a French book, they might come out with a different interpretation than someone who can read French.

    Thank you.

  24. “Christians do not obsess about controlling others like the Autocrat”

    Maybe in an ideal world… that is definitely not reality by any measure.

  25. I am glad to hear that you have found fulfilment. I find the apparent rage of some atheists at those who find fulfilment through Christianity (‘some Christians do bad things; and anyway it’s not TRUE’) a bit baffling. As an example, it’s apparent that many would rather that alcoholics drink themselves to death than be ‘taken advantage of’ by member of organised religion as a route to sobriety.

    Anyway, the argument for Christianity is that Jesus died to save our sins, and was resurrected. However…. Josephus, cited in support of this, appears to have been tampered with. 1 Corinthians 15:6, reads that he was seen by 500, but it is clear that the current ‘bible’ is an imperfect record, and that certain passages, once accepted, are now seen as doubtful interpolations by later scribes. The oldest surving copy of 1 Corinthians is at least 100 years, and certainly wouldn’t match the original, just as Mark 16:9-20 appears to have been added to support the developing creed, it’s reasonable to assume that other aspects of the Biblical canon were embroidered upon over time. The existence of a certain passage in a given ancient text cannot be taken to prove that that passage had 100% acceptance at that time, given that other, since lost or destroyed (often deliberately) texts may have not included the passage.

    It semes that we don’t have any greater certainty, in the form of historical texts, that Jesus was resurrected than we do that Caesar was a descendant of Venus…..

  26. Jim B is spot on here i’m afraid, however much i would like things to be different. ignoring other obvious contention, Gerv’s assertion that “Christianity” provides a clear path to fulfillment fails to define “Christianity” – there are so many different strains. even those who agree that the bible alone is the definitive record (i don’t really want to get dragged into THAT debate but these are substantially in the minority of Christians worldwide i think) are divided into literally hundreds of rival sects.

    Gerv, how do you deal with the obvious ideological rivalries within Christianity which have prevented self-fulfilment in, for example, generations of northern irish?

    as alluded to by matthew breasley above, there is not even consensus on what is in the bible – an easier example perhaps is what we now call the “apocrypha” – books which used to be in “the bible” and now aren’t.

    Gerv, which edition of the bible do you consider definitive?

  27. Lisa: OK, I’ve been having a think :-) Your question gets to the heart of an issue on which Christians disagree – what is the right amount to be involved in politics?

    From a Christian perspective, we know that living God’s way is better for everyone. The trouble is, not everyone recognises that. So the question is: how much of God’s law should be reflected in the law of the land? At one extreme, one could never legislate against covetousness (10th commandment). At the other extreme, most societies legislate against murder (6th commandment). There is a difference between a sin and a crime. All crimes (in a God-honouring legal framework) are sins, but not all sins should be crimes. Where is the line drawn?

    Clearly, it can’t be “things we all agree on” – because there’s nothing that everyone agrees on. There are also issues with “whatever the majority wants must be right, and others should just put up with it” – 1940s Germany being the obvious problem there.

    Except when they scream bloody murder if the government doesn’t pass every single law they insist on.

    I think that’s unfairly perjorative. Lots of groups get upset if they don’t get their way in law. The homosexual lobby in the UK is currently upset about the possibility that they won’t get a law forcing places of religious worship to let them form civil partnerships there (despite the fact that, when such partnerships were introduced, those who introduced them were clear that this is ‘not gay marriage’). They’ve been just as or more outspoken about this ‘injustice’ as Christians ever are on matters they care about.

    So, on reflection, I don’t think the difference between the Christian and the Autocrat is on whether they try and make the law reflect their beliefs about the way the world should work, or not. Pretty much everyone does that. The difference is, I think, in motivation. Christians should (thank you, roc, for that language corrective) not seek power for their own gain or fulfilment, as the Autocrat in Wei’s categorization does. Jesus modelled leadership as servanthood. If they acquire power, it should be used to serve others, and do them good.

    Of course, even if that is their motivation (which, sadly, it probably isn’t always) you may not feel that Christians pushing for particular laws are doing it for your good – just as the burglar doesn’t necessarily feel he’s being restrained for his own good. And I guess all that can be said at that stage is “Sorry you don’t feel that way”.

  28. Ed: Welcome back :-) Long time no see.

    The Northern Irish Christians I know would tell you that the conflicts there are primarily about politics, tribe and land. The religious division only happens to fall along much the same lines as the political one, and it’s a convenient cover and justification.

    You’ve got it the wrong way round about the Apocrypha. As the canon developed, they were relegated to a position of secondary importance. It’s only since the Council of Trent in 1546 that the Catholic Church (and only that church) officially included them in the Canon – because they said some very useful things which supported their side in the Reformation debates.

    I don’t think the fact that Christians took time to discern God speaking is something to be embarrassed about. The Apocrypha contains errors (randomly Googled link), so it cannot be the infallible word of God. And I think every translation and copy of the Bible you could possibly find would tell you the true way of salvation. Read John 3:16 and Ephesians 2:8-10.

    Developing what I said to Jim, “Christian can’t agree on everything” => “the Christian God does not exist” is a non-sequitur. Isn’t it?

  29. Matthew: I wouldn’t cite Josephus to prove Jesus existed or rose from the dead, I’d cite the Bible. And you will need to do better than handwaving “clearlys” and “reasonable to assumes”. How do we know the ending of Mark (and the bit in John 8) is a later addition? Because the textual evidence for the integrity of the rest of the New Testament is so strong. Challenging one passage in Corinthians is not going to remove the NT claim that Jesus rose from the dead. The entire NT is suffused with the idea.

  30. Gerv: Actually Jesus himself very rarely, if ever, claimed to be God. Most often he called himself “the son of man”. When asked by Pilatus (“Are you the anointed?” IIRC, where “anointed” is the English equivalent of Greek “christos” or Hebrew “mashiaĥ”), he answered “You say it”, which can just as well be understood as “You are the one saying it” as as an approval. (I don’t have the Greek originals of the Gospels here at hand.)

    Do I believe that Jesus is God? Once upon a time I did. Now I don’t know. I left the church of my youth when the pastor made it clear that “the congregation” would accept no other answer to the questions in Luther’s Smaller Catechism than the answers in the book, word for word and not in paraphrase; to me knowing by rote isn’t knowing. After that I was long an agnostic, then I “met” what I called the Holy Spirit, in circumstances which my rationalist friends would label “unscientific”.

    According to the Gospels, Jesus and his early disciples christened by the Holy Spirit, a “new baptism” which was more than John’s baptism (by water). How many people can say nowadays that they found the Holy Spirit when the priest sprinkled water over their heads? In my country, most babies are “christened” a few days after their birth: that can hardly matter to the baby, and if it does, I guess it is more as a disagreeable experience than as an ecstatic one.

    Immanuel Kant said that the proof of God’s existence lies in the observed fact that there are unbelievers, even atheists, who behave morally, because a believer can always be suspected of selfish motives — such as hoping for a reward in some afterlife. I don’t fully follow Kant in this reasoning, but I’m content to assess people (when I do) according to what they do, not to the motives they invoke for doing it.

  31. But the Bible is not the ‘infallible’ word of God either. Two critical texts in compiling the modern New Testament are the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaitucus. These were produced ~300 years after Jesus’ death, copied from text to text by scribes who might each have put their own gloss on the Bible.

    Until recent times the King James Bible was the only game in town, it contains the text (Luke 23):

    “(33) And when they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left.

    (34) Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

    However Luke 23:34 is absent from both manuscripts (as is the end of Mark). The only earlier text known of Luke also lacks Luke 23:34.

    This hardly shatters the Christian faith, but it’s clear that the text was added in by some later scribe and is probably inauthentic. Infallible? No. There has been the tendency to interpolate between texts, it appears that passages in certain books were added in by scribes based on ‘agreement’ with other books, while the gospels of Matthew and Luke appear textually to have been based on an earlier document that doesn’t survive.

    Unfortunately there were no documentary makers in the first century, no blogs with comments. What there was, was a credulous society, with a widely held belief in resurrection. Early texts no longer survive, and their authors didn’t document their process of authorship. The Book of Mormon was written much more recently, has its adherents, yet it’s uncontroversial, outside of Mormon circles, to say that it does not represent any truth. Going back much further, to 2000 years ago, considering that the earliest surviving text of ANY part of the New Testatement dates to 100 years after Jesus’ death, we cannot possibly know the historicity of many aspects of the Bible, or their sources.

    It’s hardly as if there are any shortage of people today with a belief in UFOs/spiritualism/[insert your choice of whacky idea] here; the evidence for the resurrection rests on such a woman, Mary Magdalene, and the Biblical texts that grew up around this.

    As Tony notes, it is quite likely that Jesus claimed only to be a teacher, and a mortal man. Another aspect of the modern view of Jesus, the virgin birth, rests on a particular reading of the Greek.

    It seems reasonable to assume that Jesus was a preacher, seen as subversive, and after his untimely death a cult grew up around him, miracles were ascribed to him (just as in modern times miracles are ascribed to modern-day saints, all of which lack independent scientific verification). Even now, rock stars who die young attract a cult following, let alone 2000 years ago.

    Kant’s argument for the existence of God is one of dozens similar. The trouble with them, is that they do not lead you to Christianity or to Islam or to Judaism, merely, at best, to the existence of a God. These arguments for the existence of God are fundamental, whereas the arguments for a specifically Christian God rest on the accuracy of aspects of the New Testament, and unlike the ‘God must exist’-type arguments, it is impossible to say that the Christian bible, written by man, must represent an accurate description of that God.

  32. I really shouldn’t respond to this, because it isn’t the point I was challenging, but it is a point that has always bothered me. Orrin said:

    People tend to ignore that the sacrifice of only God’s son has paid the full price of all of our sin (which separates us from God, being perfectly holy and just).

    Let’s take a step back here. Let’s say the Bible is correct in every detail. Was Jesus’ sacrifice really all that great? Aren’t there ordinary people walking the earth who make greater sacrifices?

    Jesus was God, knew he was immortal, knew he was doing something great, knew he was going to be worshiped by billions of people (ignore that stupid moment of doubt thing about God forsaking him(self) … it makes no sense). What exactly was Jesus losing? God created a stunt double who came to earth, “died” (not really, he was resurrected), and barely had time to get cold before he was back in heaven. I’ve had camping trips more unpleasant than that. :-)

    There are real, ordinary people, people who make greater sacrifices without any assurance or reward, without that warm, fuzzy feeling that can only come form knowing that one is God. I’m far more impressed by the guy crossing the street who dives in front of a bus to push a stranger’s child out of harms way, giving up his own life, or the woman who devotedly stays with her husband for decades after he has a stroke and takes care of him to the exclusion of her own needs. That is sacrifice.

  33. Jim B: the point is not that people’s sacrifices are not great, but that Jesus, as God, is perfect – the unsurpassable sacrifice. God didn’t have to forgive us our sins, but he did.

  34. Tony: as I’m sure you know, “Son of Man” is a reference to Daniel 7 – and the figure there is clearly more then just an ordinary man. But there are several references to Jesus claiming to be God – and the Jews are accordingly offended. John 8:58 is one I was reading just this morning.

    The giving of the Holy Spirit happens when someone becomes a Christian – you are right to say that this is not necessarily at the same time as water baptism (and the Bible doesn’t make that link). If this has happened to you, then you need to act in accordance with it, and worship Jesus, whose Spirit he is.

    matthew: nothing you say about the text of the Bible is in any way embarrassing. It makes no sense to dismiss the Christian message because there is the odd sentence here and there (and that’s really all it is) whose original words are in question. I think your claim that “we cannot possibly know the historicity” of Biblical events would be denied by most historians – who are used to working with copies of text far further removed from the time, and in far smaller numbers than, the New Testament (of which there are thousands of copies from all around the Mediterranean, in overwhelming agreement with each other).

    The “subversive preacher” theory just doesn’t fit the facts. If Jesus stayed dead, why didn’t the Roman authorities produce the body and crush the story of his resurrection? Why did many of his disciples die horrible deaths for refusing to deny something they would have known was a lie, if they’d cooked it all up? Why did those, like the gospel author Luke, who looked into the question carefully not rumble the ruse?

    Jim B: the “stupid moment of doubt” thing which you say makes no sense is why you don’t understand the crucifixion. :-) Each of us has rejected God, our maker, and justice says we should be punished. The sentence for rebelling against him is separation – and he is the source of all that is good and pleasing in the world, so that’s a terrible punishment. Jesus took that punishment for all of us – at once, in one day – when he suffered and died on the cross. He was spiritually separated from God his Father – which is exactly what he said. It wasn’t a moment of doubt, it was a recognition of spiritual reality. The Trinity was rent in two. Can you imagine how painful that must have been? How can you say that this was a fairly weak sacrifice?

  35. Actually lots of historians deny important aspects of the historicity of the Biblical account of Jesus. See for instance and

    Quoting from the latter:

    ‘The Jesus Seminar concluded: “In the view of the Seminar, he did not rise bodily from the dead; the resurrection is based instead on visionary experiences of Peter, Paul, and Mary.”‘

    ‘Most scholars believe supernatural events cannot be reconstructed using empirical methods, and thus consider the resurrection a non-historical question but instead a philosophical or theological question’

  36. Gerv, the story has some serious continuity problems. :-) On the one hand, God is perfect and unblemished in every way, and Jesus is too because he really is God. But at a moment of duress, God has doubts that he really is there fulfill a narrative that He created and to receive Himself when He “dies.” I’ve always heard the phrase, “moment of doubt,” but you describe it as “it was a recognition of spiritual reality”. What does that mean? God/Jesus wasn’t in touch with reality before that moment?

    Sacrifice involves voluntarily giving up something of value. If I give a beggar a dollar, it isn’t sacrifice on my part because I have a wallet full of them. What did God give up that he couldn’t replace? So, no, Jesus didn’t make a great sacrifice.

    The Trinity was rent in two. Can you imagine how painful that must have been?

    Gerv, you are a heretic — God is perfect in every way, the trinity can’t be less than perfect either. :-P

    No, I can’t imagine how painful it would be for a deity, because He is a deity and I’m not and I’ve never had my trinity rent in two. If Jesus was “fully human,” then the suffering He experienced was bounded. If you put me in a vat of boiling oil at 400 degrees, I don’t think it would be any more painful to be put in a vat of molten metal at 2000 degrees. Ordinary people suffer such pain all the time, and they don’t have the benefit of knowing that their suffering will serve some great purpose.

    Any time something tricky comes along apologists trot out, “Oh, God is supreme and unknowable, we can’t understand why He does what He does and must just accept that there is a reason and that everything works out like it should in the end.” But the same people can tell you with quite some precision what Jesus/God feels and thinks about all sorts of arcane topics, such as what was going through His head during the crucifixion.

    Earlier you also said:

    I think atheism is what requires blind faith, as it’s a far less likely explanation for the existence of the universe than Christianity is.

    This is looking glass territory; you can state that, but it isn’t true in the least. Atheism has nothing to do with faith, and everything to do with evidence. Nobody thinks the scientific theories of the origin of the universe are other than highly speculative. Even if all these theories are utterly wrong, it adds zero support to the idea that the Christian creation story (of thousands of creation stories) is correct. Following the evidence means that if God wasn’t so intent on hiding Himself, atheists would become believers.

    In contrast, believers make faith paramount, and any evidence which challenges their beliefs is to be ignored, and the more irrational the rejection, the bigger the proof that one has faith. Luther said, “Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has.”

    Science can’t prove everything, of course, but it provides a mechanism for telling apart the right from the wrong. Religion claims to explain things, but given the reliance on faith over evidence, by what mechanism can the believer distinguish right faith from false faith? The facile answer is, “Duh, the Bible,” but you are still simply relying on faith that what it says is right. What if Satan played the trick of creating it?

    However, this is really getting away from the reason I wrote originally, as this isn’t a great forum for discussing belief vs atheism. I guess there is no getting past this: you and many others accept that the Bible is divinely inspired and trustworthy. I believe it was written by real people without divine guidance, shaped both by beliefs and unseemly human motivations, and is not a trustworthy historic record. You may claim that evidence of God is all around us but I refuse to see it, yet there are hundreds of religions making the same claim, so why should I believe one over the other?

  37. Jim, there are two ways of looking at the Jesus sacrifice – firstly, is a billion dollars a bigger sacrifice than a dollar? Yes, it can do much greater things.

    BUT, is a billion dollars a bigger sacrifice to Bill Gates than a dollar is to a starving African – no.

    Whether or not God was giving up anything, the sacrifice he made was infinitely valuable (thinking in dollar terms here) and therefore unsurpassable.

  38. matthew: clearly people who have an a priori commitment to the non-existence of the supernatural are going to say that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. Did you expect consensus that he did? Clearly, people are going to want to avoid that conclusion, because it has significant impact on their lives which they’d rather not deal with.

    Jim: let me try and explain better. When Jesus said “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me”, that was not a “moment of doubt” – he was describing what was actually happening at the time, and he understood it perfectly. That’s what I meant by “a recognition of reality” – perhaps “a description of the truth” would have been a better phrase. His relationship with God the Father was sundered, because that’s the punishment we all deserve for our rejection of God, and it’s the punishment he was bearing. He was genuinely forsaken by God, just as he said. Jesus knew this was going to happen, and didn’t look forward to it – see what happened in the Garden of Gethsemane – but he went through with it because he loves us, and that is what he and the Father had agreed. Human sin matters – it can’t just be waved away.

    The reason Jesus suffered more than anyone else is because his suffering was not just physical. Read the gospels – notice they don’t dwell on Jesus’ physical suffering as, say, the Passion of the Christ movie does. Why not? Because it’s not the most important part.

    Atheism has nothing to do with faith, and everything to do with evidence.

    It has plenty to do with faith. “God does not exist” is clearly a faith position. It cannot be proved. But you are wrong in saying that “faith is an irrational trust in something in the teeth of the evidence”. That’s not what the Bible defines faith as. Faith is being certain of the unseen, yes – but in line with the evidence, not in the teeth of it. “We can’t understand it, so we must have faith” has a small place in the pantheon of answers, as there are some things God has seen fit not to reveal to us. But under-pressure Sunday school teachers and badly-taught Christians over-use it out of pride.

    As for your Luther quote, a single sentence can’t sum up his opinions on reason. You need to read all he had to say of the subject, some of which is quoted here, although I tend not to trust Wikipedia on religious matters. There’s no such thing as NPOV for anything, and particularly not when it comes to this. Neutrality is an illusion.

  39. I don’t know why you think the impact on non-believers is so significant. Modern churches make Christianity pretty accessible, with live music, dinner party get-togethers and the like. For the average British family, the commitment is not such a big one.

    It seems to me reasonable, given the absence of any historical accounts of Jesus during his life time, to assume that Christianity grew out of the ‘martyr effect’ engendered by his crucifixion, and that he had not previously been performing anything more than preaching (i.e. that the miracles attributed to him are false).

  40. gerv said:

    clearly people who have an a priori commitment to the non-existence of the supernatural are going to say that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead.

    That is a true statement. But are you imputing that non-believers have an a priori commitment to non-belief? Can you not see that many people have come to a non-belief position after considering the matter? In fact in the western world (and certainly in the US, where I am), most children are programmed by their parents and by culture into a Christian belief system.

    It is true, following the tenets of the Bible would be extremely inconvenient for me, but it would also be inconvenient for you to spend hours a day in meditation to achieve Nirvana, and it would be inconvenient for me to make the animal sacrifices required by Santeria, etc. I ignore all of these requirements; you ignore most of them. Do you not observe these other requirements because they are inconvenient, or because you believe them to be untrue?

    “God does not exist” is clearly a faith position. It cannot be proved.

    But surely it might be disproved, but God is playing hide and seek.

    As I said before, atheists in general are driven do their conclusion by lack of evidence. “God does not exist” is shorthand for “I see no reason to believe God exists,” and not “I know God can’t exist and nothing can change my mind.” No doubt there are a few people who might make the latter claim, but they are rare and stupid.

    The strongest argument for the existence of some creator is the fact that the universe is here, yet that in no way validates the Christian story is right. Physics has some ideas, all speculative of course, how a creator isn’t required at all. So although there is no clear answer (yet), at least the scientific theories have to conform to existing evidence. The Christian creation story has little to support it, and the only way to know is for God to make himself manifest or for some other God shows up and claim credit.

    I read that wiki article, the section on Protestantism. It doesn’t seem different than what I claimed: Luther rejected reason if it presented a challenge to his faith. Such people scare me. In the last US election, candidate Mike Huckabee (Republican runner up to John McCain), said that the Bible (no doubt specifically his interpretation of it) takes priority over whatever science might say. Had he won, I guess hospitals would have tossed out their antibiotics and replaced them with Myrrh.

  41. Gerv
    that’s interesting about the apocrypha, i had no idea. there is other textual contention which is true(!) though, some of which above.

    what is certainly true is that there is no longer such a thing as “the original” copy of the NT (and probably never was, really, it was just a collection of texts after the event), and there is significant variation in interpretation of what we do have – this doesn’t invalidate at all the christian lifestyle but unfortunately does impact negatively on the whole “self fulfilment is simply the result of following the bible” argument.

    you said that God was pretty clear about how he wants his disciples to behave. if you think so, maybe you should explain which strains of christianity you think are managing to do it right? why aren’t they unified in their beliefs if God is clear? did Jesus want his disciples to spend the next 2000 years bickering about minor points? howcome there is more contention now than there was 1000 years ago?

    i’m not arguing against the existence of God at all, but generally the more confident the assertions of religious types, the more suspicious i get about their motivations and accuracy.

  42. ed:

    why aren’t they unified in their beliefs if God is clear?

    Because men are sinful. Including me. And we do our best to avoid what God has said. So you are quite right in your last para if you are suggesting that humility should be the hallmark of Christians – and sadly, too often, it isn’t. But humility is not the same thing as lack of confidence in God and his ability to reveal himself.

    BTW, my argument is very far from “self fulfilment is simply the result of following the bible”. Self-fulfilment is the ultimate, if not necessarily the immediate result of a relationship with God – because we are doing what we were made to do. Following the Bible is what Christians do out of gratitude to and love for God for what he has done for us. The cause and effect relationship is not “following the Bible -> self-fulfilment”, it is something more like “relationship with God -> following the Bible -> life lived as it is meant to be lived -> joy”.

    Remembering to revisit old blog posts gets a pain after a while; I’d love to carry this on by email, if you are willing to drop me a line ( with your real address :-)

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