Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Good Person Test

I took the “Good Person” test the other day. Have you ever heard of it? It’s an evangelical tool created by Ray Comfort’s “Way of the Master” series of apologetics/evangelizing organization. Ray Comfort, some of you might know, is the ignoramus who suggested the banana is evidence of a divine creator (enjoy this entertaining source video with included rebuttal:

Anyway, this guy has created the “Good Person” test. It’s a relatively clever series of questions that get the interviewee to admit to a slew of sins, or crimes against God, and force the person into the uncomfortable realization that, according to his own admission, he should probably be going to hell.
Here’s an example of Comfort using this method on a poor, and unwitting kid:

Typing in “good person test” in YouTube yields a number of examples with some, more charismatic, evangelists pointing out that a person who steals is a “thief” and not a “stealer. The Steelers are a football team.” Quid pro quo, you feisty theists!

Needless to say I was fortunate enough to run by a booth of campus crusaders running the “Good Person” test and giving away free bibles. So, I took it. Under one condition: I would take the test exactly the way they wanted if they were able to answer a few of my questions afterwards.
By the end of the test, I came to the conclusion that most people do: I am a liar, adulterer, murderer (this is debatable depending on how angry you have to be at someone for it to qualify as hatred), thief, blasphemer, and disobedient child. They didn’t bother asking, but I also don’t keep the Sabbath holy, probably qualify as an idolater, and certainly haven’t kept the first (most important) commandment.
At this point he was put off with how candid and unapologetic I was. “Doesn’t it bother you that you are going to Hell by your own admission? How come you are smiling?”
“The night is young…” I replied (In fairness, I was a bit too smug).

But there is good news, he told me. If I were set before a judge, the good judge would have to condemn me. However Jesus pays my “million dollar fine” (as he put it) and all I have to do is repent and accept his gift of salvation (though, if you read the fine print there are plenty of catches to this arrangement).

Forgetting about our earlier agreement he started to pursue another rhetorical line (about how I might go about receiving this salvation) when I interrupted him. “Wait, I think it’s my turn to ask a few questions.” He nodded, “Sure.”

First, I decided to counter his test question premises. I asked him if, at any point during his childhood if he wet his bed. “Sure,” he said, “all kids do it at some point.” “Okay,” I replied, “what does that make you?” He laughed at this point, “A bed wetter…?” “I guess it does. How about picking your nose. Have you ever done that?” “I don’t do it now.” “Well, have you ever picked your nose, Craig? (his name was Craig, by the way)” “Yeah, I guess I have when I was a kid.” “Okay, what does that make you?” I asked. “It makes me a nose picker?” We were both enjoying the absurd nature of my questions, but I suspected that he was picking up my point when he asked, “What’s important about that, anyway?”

“Because, I don’t think you are a bed wetter or nose picker any more than I’m a thief, blasphemer, or liar. Your argument mistakes permanent or compulsive character attributes with the temporary lapses in moral judgment that we all make. In order for me to honestly say that I’m a liar and that is a defining attribute of my person, I would have to assume some pathology or compulsiveness to the behavior. I don’t naturally assume people are liars unless they frequently lie. There is a big difference between these two things.”

He milled over my point. “Well, okay. But Sin (capital “S”) is broken forever until it’s re-paid by Jesus. (sic, I’m sure he meant to phrase this with more theological eloquence, but you get the point. I’m trying not to alter his words)”

“I’m not sure that it is a morally good thing to receive vicarious fulfillment of punishment. Take your example of the Judge. Let’s say a vicious murderer killed your parents and he was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. Now, let’s say some self-sacrificing Jesus figure walks into the courtroom and says, ‘Judge, let me take the punishment’ and the judge agrees. Would you say that is just for the Judge to let the murderer go free?”

I could tell he was deflecting his argument when he replied with, “But Jesus forgives you no matter what you did.”

“That’s fine if you believe that, but it doesn’t sound like justice to me. You would probably stand up and demand that the punishment fit the criminal. What’s even more absurd is that you get the same punishment, Hell, for a relatively benign set of crimes such as ogling girls and telling the occasional lie, or stealing a book from Barnes and Nobles.”

“No one gets into heaven who doesn’t want to go to heaven. Sinners don’t want to go to heaven because they’d rather sin.”

“Really?” I asked, honestly incredulous. Had he really thought about this statement before saying it? “I doubt that anyone given a vision of their judgment at the hands of God would choose eternal torment over eternal happiness.”

He was excited to reply to this one, “That’s why we have to repent while we are on Earth and have faith, so we can get into heaven.”

“So if we don’t repent before we die, we’ve sealed our fate?”

“Nothing that man can do can repay the debt of sin.”

“I can think of one example: say you steal one hundred dollars from someone. One way you could repay the debt is by giving the one hundred dollars back with a sincere apology. Besides, you are also presupposing that your God is the judge that we’re facing after we die. Do you keep to the five pillars of Islam? Do you worry about your Dharma? What if you end up in front of a judge you didn’t expect to with a whole list of crimes you didn’t know you committed?”

“I can see this isn’t going anywhere,” he interjected. Right when it started getting good, damn. “Just do me a favor, Jordan. Pray that God shows Himself to you.”

I shook his hand, “Craig, do me a favor and think about it.”

I think I passed.

There are plenty of other logical problems with the good person test. For example, the whole example of the judge falls apart when you accept the Christian premise that we can’t repay our debt. If you are found guilty by our courts, you might face a fine, a misdemeanor and maybe even some jail time or probation. But when you finish out your punishment, you have (according to the philosophy of our legal system) paid off your debt to society. However, the Christian God doesn’t let you do this. “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ the Lord” Romans 6:23. If you’ve sinned, your only hope is Jesus… and breaking God’s law (of which the Ten Commandments is a part of) is sinning. Doesn’t this strike you as unjust? Why can’t it be that I forgive the man who lies against me, or better yet… forget the occasional and trivial lie and focus on more important moral malfeasance.
This leads to my last point. If you examine the Ten Commandments, only 6, 7, 8, and 9 are actually moral. And while Jesus was a remarkable moral figure who radically improved, for the most part, the moral standards of his progenitors, I have to disagree with the argument that looking at a person with hate is “murder” and a women with lust is “adultery”. This is complete hyperbole and a perfect God should be able to make the distinction that we ALL can make.

Test it yourself…
Do you make the distinction?
Let’s say you have to CHOOSE one of the two options.
1. Joe from across the street hates you so much that he’s posted a sign in his yard to that effect, reading “__insert name___ is an asshole. You should hat him too.” To add insult to advertisement, he openly calls you a “fool” every time he sees you in person.
2. Joe kills you with his 12-gague.
Keep in mind that Jesus doesn’t make the distinction between these two scenarios (according to the WOTM evangelists).

Try this other scenario:
1. Your wife or husband eyes your best friend and you catch him/her saying to a mutual friend that he/she would love to jump your friend’s bones if he/she wasn’t married.
2. Your wife or husband has sex with your best friend.
Obviously for both scenarios we wish that there was a third option, “None of the above”. For the fortunate, life works out that neither scenario plays out. But the point stands. I think what Jesus was trying to say, and pardon my non-literal interpretation was: Don’t be a dick and try to tame your horndog tendencies at least for the sake of your significant other.

Think about it.

1 comment:

Clayton said...


I like this note. It is elegant.

However, let me do a bit of "hell" raising of my own if you don't mind.

You start off the note making a distinction between once-for-all minor offenses and ongoing faults, something which the individual behind the evangelization counter failed to do. We'll come back to the reasons behind him not making a distinction later on, reasons that he probably doesn't understand. However, later on, you reject vicarious or substitutionary justice on these grounds: justice would not be fulfilled if a murder were let go after someone else took the punishment. Yet, in this case, you are yourself leaving out vital details. Is the murderer ever going to murder again? Is the murderer's freedom going to result in further crime? The answer to these questions is important precisely because, if only habitual, and not singular crimes are to be punished, then you have no grounds for rejecting vicarious punishment on the simple grounds that it might let a murderer go free. That would require that "letting a 'murderer' (I note that you use the term 'murderer' in the same way as your evangelist used 'blasphemer' or 'adulterer') go free is unacceptably wrong. In other words, it begs the question.

But let's narrow this inquiry down a little further. There is a reason why a young evangelical might buy into the idea that "Sin is broken forever until it's repaid by Jesus." As your thought experiment proved, it couldn't be because God was worried about repeat offenses (he could, of course, prevent those) or that God was mistaking a singular fault for a greater sin; therefore we have to look deeper for the ground of sin. Here it is helpful to think about the tragic heroes of Classical Literature. Now, in each case, a character commits some act of hubris or uncleanness, even if it was somewhat unknowingly, and, in order for balance to be restored, the tragic hero must endure far greater punishment than the act itself required.

He must pay not only for the sin which he committed, however slight, but also for all the ill effects of that sin. It is not his justice which is at stake, but the reputation and honor shown to the Gods. Why? Because if there were not someone who suffered to demonstrate the wrath of the gods, who could embody all of their anger and be the object of their wrath, that wrath would continue to be experienced by everyone around them until the impurity was cleansed. In fact, this was precisely the concept of justice in the ancient world, of the society being cleansed rather than the guilty being punished.

I would argue that, by analogy, we can understand this to be the root of your evangelist's concept of sin. He believes that sin is an offense against God, not merely a human fault against other humans, which must be avenged by God in some way, in order for God's glory to remain unblemished by human fault. In this sense, it little matters whether or not the victim is the person guilty of the fault, or even something of a completely different nature than the one at fault (a ram, a goat, a bull, etc.) as long as the conclusion is that "God is glorious, now and forever."

An important distinction to be made comes from the weakness of the "judge and executioner" analogy of God. God is the judge, yes, but he is a judge in the biblical sense of the term, where the judge is either a king or the voice of the king exercising prudence from his own majesty to your helpless situation. (If you know much about common law, think about God as the Court of Chancery and Equity). From this distinction we ought to at least conclude that when God forgives someone, or accepts a particular sacrifice in exchange for punishment, he does so solely as the person whose order, whose property, whose dignity has been maligned.

Imagine if someone stole a hundred dollars from you, then came up to you and offered to take you out to dinner in exchange (after all, he had already spent the money). You know that the dinner is not worth $100, and you are fully within your rights still to report him to the law as a thief and demand back your money, but you accept his offer. The relationship is worth more to you. Are you not within your rights, as the one wronged, to accept this in return for the money? Most likely, as long as the individual will not continue this behaviour towards others (then it is a matter of the society). This situation is an example of one in which your mercy is not in contradiction to justice, but instead reinforces justice by surpassing it with mercy (at the end of the day, your rights over the $100 dollars have been reinforced by your acceptance of one or another thing in lieu of it...yes, that's why we have equity in our court system...a relic from Church involvement in politics).

Now, as I draw these distinctions I am not defending the man behind the counter. His test is silly and his approach is much sillier. For one thing, these evangelicals always assume that it is reasonable to posit a Redeemer (or, really Redemptive Sacrificial Victim) who, as it were, removes one from having to worry about whether this or that action is or is not a sin. However, at least from an ethical perspective, this would lead away from our human need, in my opinion, created by God, to inquire at all into what is just and equitable. Surely place must still be left for reason? No wonder evangelicalism is the most anti-intellectual force in this country! It also makes me seriously question why so many religious writers and thinkers, including the evangelists and St. Paul, wrote so long about personal ethics and standards to be kept among their believers if all that was really needed was spiritual fix-a-flat. I consider Jesus far more insightful into human nature than that