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The Editor Goes to Church
by Farrell Till

1996 / March-April

Yes, it's true. I confess. I recently went to church. A friend, who constantly reminds me that he is praying for me and seems supremely confident that someday I will see the error of my way, repent, and return to the fold, asked me to attend his church on the occasion of its special Friendship-Day Services. In a moment of weakness, pity, or something, I accepted the invitation, and the following Sunday found me sitting beside him in a pew. Except for the few times I have had debates scheduled as part of church services, this was my first time to "go to church" since September 1963 when, after preaching a sermon on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona, I decided that I could no longer endure the hypocrisy of preaching what I knew I didn't believe anymore. Well, this wasn't really my first time to go to church since then, but another occasion when I tried to go can't be counted. On a Sunday perhaps four or five years ago, I went to the local Church of Christ hoping to meet in person its preacher, whom I had been corresponding with. When he learned I was in the audience, he stood in the pulpit and announced that the services would not continue until I had left. So much for seeking and saving the lost.

At any rate, I recently went to church with my friend, and it was an experience worth telling about. The sermon was about friendship, a subject the preacher had no doubt selected to fit the occasion. It began with the reading of a text in 1 Samuel 18:1-5, which relates an incident in the friendship of David and Jonathan, the son of King Saul. The preacher elaborated on the depth of the friendship between David and Jonathan and related some of their experiences to illustrate what true friends are willing to do for each other.

Of course, it didn't take a genius to guess where the preacher was going with his sermon topic, so I reached for a hymnal, checked the index, then opened the book to "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," and showed it to my friend, who grinned weakly. Sure enough, the preacher eventually got around to assuring us that we have a friend in Jesus, whose friendship is greater than any we could ever expect to experience. How can we know this? Well, Jesus himself told us, "Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends" (John 15:13). Jesus laid down his life for us, so what better friendship could we ask for? Of course, this part of the sermon was spiced with references to the pain and agony that Jesus suffered on the cross and the great love that God must have had for mankind to allow his only son to endure such an experience.

From a religious point of view, it was an impressive and emotional sermon, and there was even one "altar call" before the preacher had finished. I probably was the only person in the audience who wasn't impressed, and during a friendship luncheon following the services, the preacher sat with my friend and me, so I had the opportunity to talk to him and explain why I wasn't impressed.

I pointed out that the entire sermon had been based on anthropomorphic premises that assumed what is true of people must also be true of God. I used myself as an example and asked the preacher to imagine a scenario in which he is about to be executed by a despotic government. If in such a case, I went to the leader of this government and offered myself as a substitute for the preacher and my offer was accepted, one could truly say that my act would constitute a remarkable expression of friendship and love. "But what if I knew that I was eternal and omnipotent," I asked the preacher, "and that my death would be only a temporary thing and less than three days later, I would be restored to life never to die again. Wouldn't that take something away from the remarkableness of my gesture on your behalf?" Indeed, if I knew that I possessed eternalness and omnipotence, it would be rather despicable of me if I refused to offer myself as a substitute for a friend who was about to be executed. Even so, "Kill me instead" in such a scenario would not be a noble gesture at all; it would actually be sort of an obligation that the omnipotent one should feel duty bound to discharge. I suggested to the preacher that these are ideas that seem to escape gullible pulpit audiences, and I can't recall that he had any satisfactory response to make to my comments.

I was reminded of that sermon just the day before I sat down to write this article. On the way to K-Mart, I had remembered to check out the latest message on the yard sign of a church that always has some simplistic religious platitude posted. You have probably seen these yourselves, something like, "God Sent His Son to Man to Make Men God's Sons" or such like. That day the message was, "God's Xmas Gift to Men Was His Son." My first reaction to the message was surprise that it had taken Christ out of Christmas, and then it reminded me of the friendship sermon on the day I went to church. Here again was the idea that God's gift of his only begotten son to die for the sins of mankind was some supremely noble gesture, but I just can't buy the idea.

I have two sons, and I would never agree to offer either of them as a substitute for anyone under sentence of death. However, let's just suppose that I were an eternally omniscient and omnipotent entity, and so I would necessarily know that if I offered one of my sons as a substitute for someone else, his death would be only temporary and three days later he would be alive again nevermore to die. What would be the big deal about my gesture?

Let's further complicate this scenario by assuming that my son is a chip off the old block who possesses my same characteristics of eternalness, omniscience, and omnipotence. These characteristics would necessarily remove any reason for him to be concerned about my decision to offer him as a substitute in death for others. If he were truly omniscient, then he would know that he was also eternal and omnipotent. Therefore, he would know that his death would be merely temporary. He would also know that he was incapable of suffering any real harm, because omnipotence would not be subject to physical harm. This logical consequence of omnipotence, in fact, often makes me wonder how those who crucified Jesus managed to kill him. How could something eternal and omnipotent be killed even temporarily? I suppose the same inerrantists who tell us that in the nature of deities it is possible for 1+1+1 to equal one will now tell us something about Jesus's being "wholly God" and "wholly man," and so it was the "wholly man" part of him that the ordeal of the cross killed, as if it isn't ridiculously contradictory to talk about something being "wholly" one thing while simultaneously being "wholly" something else. When I hear such as this, I have to wonder if theologians ever study logic.

So just what is the big deal that theologians make about the "supreme" sacrifice that God made for man in offering up his son? In the scenario hypothesized above, there wouldn't be anything to write home about if I, as an eternal, omniscient, omnipotent person, should offer up one of my sons if he too possessed the same characteristics. So why get all teary-eyed and grovel in guilt and shame when we hear preachers wail about the supreme love that God showed for mankind in sending his son to die for the miserable creatures that we are?

At any rate, I went to church, and all that the experience did was confirm that I had made the right decision 32 years ago when I walked away from a belief system that couldn't be any more illogical if someone had deliberately tried to make it so. If Christians want to go to church and weep over their sins when they hear preachers wailing about an omniscient, omnipotent deity who for some inexplicable reason prayed feverishly in the Garden of Gethsemane (while sweating "as it were great drops of blood") to be spared the ordeal of something that wasn't going to hurt him all that much anyway (and if it hurt him at all, it was his own fault, because an omnipotent person could anesthetize himself to pain), that's their privilege. There is no law against superstitious ignorance. As for me, I have better things to do with my time.

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