XFiles: Targeted recruiting

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 15.)

We’ve made it at last to Chapter 15, the traditional “altar call” with which many preachers end their Sunday sermon. Without any hint of intentional irony, Geisler and Turek are going to end I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an Atheist by urging us to have faith in Jesus. And they base this appeal, not on verifiable evidence or rational logic, but on emotion. And a rather selfish emotion at that.

A young man is brought before a judge for drunk driving. When his name is announced by the bailiff, there’s a gasp in the courtroom—the defendant is the judge’s son! The judge hopes his son is innocent, but the evidence is irrefutable. He’s guilty.

What can the judge do? He’s caught in a dilemma between justice and love. Since his son is guilty, he deserves punishment. But the judge doesn’t want to punish his son because of his great love for him.

There’s a lot that’s wrong with this story already, parable or not. For example, the honest thing for this judge to do would be to recuse himself from the case. There’s a clear conflict of interest here, and whatever decision the judge makes, it’s not going to be impartial. For the judge to proceed is unethical and unfair, both to society and to his son.

Secondly, notice what a terrible parenting philosophy is expressed in that last line. The judge loves his son, therefore he does not want his son to receive a fair punishment for his genuine offenses? Whatever happened to “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him”? Not that I would recommend corporal punishment, of course, (there are much better alternatives available), but still, if a parent has to object to the idea of punishing his kid, then there’s something wrong with either the punishment or the parent.

The story doesn’t stop here, of course. The judge is about to do something “wonderful.”

He reluctantly announces the sentence. “Son, you can either pay a $5,000 fine or go to jail.”

The son looks up at the judge and says, “But Dad, I promise to be good from now on. I’ll volunteer at the soup kitchens. I’ll visit the elderly. I’ll even open a home to care for abused children. And I’ll never do anything wrong again! Please let me go!”

At this point, the judge asks, “Are you still drunk? You can’t do all of that. But even if you could, your future good deeds can’t change the fact that you’re already guilty of drunk driving.” Indeed, the judge realizes that good works cannot cancel bad works! Perfect justice demands that his son be punished for what he has done.

So the judge repeats, “I’m sorry, Son. As much as I’d like to allow you to go, I’m bound by the law. The punishment for this crime is $5,000 or you go to jail.”

The son pleads with his father, “But, Dad, you know I don’t have $5,000. There has to be another way.”

I’ll spare you the full force of G&T’s fiction-writing skills, but in summary, the judge very dramatically gets down from the bench, takes off his robe, and hands his son $5,000 so that he can get out of jail free. In a presumably tearful and moving moment, the son accepts the money and realizes the point the authors of his story are trying to make:

There’s nothing else he can do. Good works or promises of good works cannot set him free. Only the acceptance of his father’s free gift can save the son from certain punishment.

At this point, we the readers are expected to identify with the son. We’re supposed to feel like we’re undeniably guilty and that we’re facing a just and fearsome punishment, and that God, our Heavenly Father is offering us a chance to escape the just consequences of our own deeds.

Let’s just think about that for a minute. This is the altar call. This is the fisherman casting his nets and seeing who he can reel in. This is 2,000 years’ worth of Christian experience in attracting the sort of believer who is most likely to respond and convert. And it’s targeted at people who identify with the drunk driver who, despite his undeniable guilt, wants to walk out of court a free man.

Who is likely to respond to this appeal? Is this going to attract the sort of person whose standards of morality and ethics are offended by a judge deliberately “gaming the system” in order to obtain benefits for some defendants that he would not bestow on others? No. This particular appeal is aimed at people who take selfish pleasure in the idea of escaping the just consequences of their own evil deeds. Makes you wonder about prison ministries, doesn’t it?

There’s lots we could say about the ethical, moral and judicial implications of the judge’s actions in this story. For example, are the judge’s actions good? If they are, why don’t we try it on all drunk drivers? Bring them in, and tell them that if they plead guilty, they will be assessed an unaffordably large fine, which some employee of the state will then freely give them the money to pay so that they can go home free. Wouldn’t that be great?

Or there’s the question of the judge’s degree of guilt for the consequences if his own actions. Suppose that, early the next morning, while returning from the bar where he was celebrating his narrow escape from justice, the son drunkenly swerves across the center line and head-on into a minivan, killing seven young schoolchildren coming home late from a multi-day field trip. Does the judge bear any moral accountability for enabling his son’s behavior and sparing him a jail term in which he might have had time to think about his situation and enroll in some kind of self-help program?

None of those ethical, moral, or intellectual issues are of any concern to Geisler and Turek. This is an emotional appeal. You’re not supposed to think about it. You’re supposed to dwell on your own feelings of guiltiness, and your own desire to escape justice. You’re supposed to be feeling the elation of believing that God has found some way to let you escape accountability for your own actions and choices, by appealing to the principle of “negotiable guilt.”

What’s the only way God can remain just but not punish us for our sins? He must punish a sinless substitute who voluntarily takes our punishment for us (sinless because the substitute must pay for our sins, not for his own; and voluntary because it would be unjust to punish the substitute against his will).

It’s a good thing we’re not thinking, and are merely wallowing in our own guilt and despair, because if we were thinking we might realize that this kind of “negotiable guilt” is about as corrupt a system as you could come up with. What on earth is the point of justice if it’s not going to punish those who are, in fact, the true perpetrators of the offense that’s being punished? What is the purpose of punishment if it is merely bad things happening to people who have done nothing to deserve them?

What we have here is neither a system of justice nor a system of morals. All we have are guilty people who are not being punished, and innocent people who are. Geisler and Turek make the stipulation that the victims have to volunteer (as though suicide were some sort of virtue), but does that really matter? If the whole system so corrupt that it harms the innocent to benefit the guilty, then is it really an act of virtue to volunteer to help?

Geisler and Turek drive on, oblivious to the moral implications of what they are saying.

Where can God find a sinless substitute? Not from sinful humanity, but only from himself. Indeed, God himself is the substitute. Just as the judge came down from his bench to save his child, God came down from heaven to save you and me from punishment. And we all deserve punishment. I do. You do.

Let’s try and look past the outright creepiness of those last three sentences and think back to the parable Geisler and Turek are telling. In the parable, the child is guilty, and the father/judge pronounces a sentence, and then personally pays the fine that he himself just imposed. But why the elaborate sham? Why not just say, “Son, tell you what, I know you can’t pay this fine, so you don’t have to. I’ll just let you go free.”

In real life we’d say, “The judge has no power or authority to do that; he has to obey the law.” The judge, you see, is not the source of the law, but is merely an officer of a higher authority. But Geisler and Turek are using this judge to represent God, who supposedly is the source of all laws and is himself the highest possible authority. What higher authority is there Who is telling God that He can and must harm somebody, whether or not they’re guilty? Who is the greater God Who is telling God that once some innocent person has suffered, it’s ok for Him to let the guilty off the hook?

In the story, the judge gives the son the money to pay the fine, thus subverting the law while maintaining the outward appearance of upholding it. In real life, this money would be paid to the higher authority, i.e. the state. If the judge is really God, though, then what higher authority does He pay the fine to? If He must pay it to Himself, then has the fine really been paid? If I write a check from myself to myself, has any actual money changed hands? Again, it’s a sham, a fake transaction designed to give the appearance of upholding the law while actually subverting it.

Amazingly, Geisler and Turek take it even further.

[A] perfectly just God must punish bad deeds regardless of how many good ones someone has performed. Once we’ve sinned against an eternal Being—and we all have—we deserve eternal punishment, and no good deed can change that fact.

As if their legal and moral system wasn’t already corrupt enough, Geisler and Turek now propose that punishments be based, not on the seriousness of the crime, or on the harm it causes to others, but on the duration of the person taking offense at what you’ve done. You and I, according to Geisler and Turek, deserve eternal punishment, not because we’re guilty of offenses we kept committing for all of eternity, but merely because the Person we’ve offended is an eternal Being. A truly amazing legal principle, and so self-evident. That’s why crimes against the elderly deserve to be punished so much more than crimes against infants, doncha know. (Sheesh!)

This is what superstition leads to. When you base your concept of justice and morality on the confused conclusions that primitive people jumped to whenever they didn’t understand how the world works, you end up with a confused and superstitious system of morality and justice. You end up recruiting people by offering them a chance to scam the system, using a ploy that benefits the guilty by punishing the innocent, who suicidally volunteer to help you pull it off by arranging their own deaths. And then you see what kind of people respond to this sort of appeal, and what kind of people you end up with in the church, and you wonder why they have such serious problems with morality and justice. Go figure, eh?

Not that Christians are any worse people than anyone else, of course. It’s not that the people themselves are bad (despite Geisler and Turek’s insistence to the contrary). But the church is promoting a corrupt moral system that is the foundational basis for everything else they preach, and they’re appealing to people based on that corrupt moral system. By responding and converting based on the appeal of that system, people are committing themselves to a path that cannot escape the corruption of its own foundation. Especially when it is continually preached, via pulpits, books, broadcasts, and Internet, as the core of what Christians believe.

Christians, like most people, are basically good, but even good people can be led astray by corrupt and superstitious systems. The first step in recovery is to acknowledge the problem. And this story of the subversive judge, and his unjust treatment of his own son, is a fairly typical example of the Christian problem.

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Posted in IDHEFTBA, Unapologetics, XFiles. 12 Comments »

12 Responses to “XFiles: Targeted recruiting”

  1. Harvey Says:

    I wonder if any of this long and carefully thought out rebuttal will have any impact at all upon the authors, let alone their readers? Unfortunately, none of the above are likely to read it, let alone think about the illogic and falsehoods you have pointed out. This last post should be required reading by every pastor and apologist in Christianity!

  2. Tacroy Says:

    What’s really horrible is that since we’re talking about an equivalent to original sin, the judge also left the good booze and car keys out on the kitchen table and said “don’t use those while I’m out of town next week”.

    Which makes it look like the judge is trying to cover for the fact that he’s such a terrible parent. I guess this metaphor works pretty well, actually.

  3. EdW Says:

    Thanks for the XFiles series, I definitely enjoyed following along over the last few months. I’ve been thinking about doing something similar with a “Guide for New Christians” I found online. I think these kinds of long-form criticisms are incredibly enlightening and important for the well-informed skeptic.

  4. mikespeir Says:


    Would you consider putting this whole series together as a down-loadable .pdf (or even text) file? It sure would be handy to have it easily available to show, uh, certain folks. I promise I won’t step on your copyright.

  5. Chris Says:

    The analogy fails on several counts, many of which you have already enumerated in this blog.

    Realistically, it’s basically a form of nepotism: as long as you have a relationship with the father-figure, you will enter into his inheritance, which is eternal life and riches.

    However, the objective critique of this moral policy is actually lost on most Christians, however, as I know it would have been lost on me a few years ago. Most Christians with whom I am acquainted would never generalize such a policy to human ethical considerations. Actually, god is often the exception to the ethical rule. One will often receive the rebuttal “because he’s god” (thus invoking the whole Euthyphro dilemma) to one’s ethical qualms with Christianity rather than substantive debate as to where what they think should logically lead. It even gets more prickly when one considers the spectrum of Calvinism vs. Arminianism.

    But really, the two authors do somewhat shoot themselves in the feet, for they reduce the punishment in the analogy to that is menial compared to that has always been the clincher for Christians by and large–that someone had to die for the sinner. It is the overwhelming emotional draw of substitutionary atonement that circumvents things like reason that has seemed to persuade so many.

  6. Roi des Faux Says:

    It seems to me that the “eternal Being” issue also applies to other humans. Don’t we have immortal souls? Therefore, any offense committed against another person is deserving of eternal punishment.

  7. mikespeir Says:


    I can’t buy that reasoning. I can’t because punishment should agree with the harm actually done.

    We consider a threat against the President as a greater crime than a threat against the average citizen. Why? Well, it’s not because he’s a superior kind of person to the rest of us. It’s because he represents an entire nation. In an abstract sense (symbolic, at least), he’s the embodiment of us all. Thus, to harm the President is to do injury to the whole country. That’s why we view a crime against the President as more heinous than a crime against you and me. In other words, it’s a worse crime because it does more harm.

    Following that, just harming an eternal being doesn’t automatically merit eternal punishment. The way to merit eternal punishment is to do eternal harm to an eternal being. To show that eternal punishment is justified, then, you’ll need to demonstrate that 1) humans are eternal beings and 2) that eternal harm is being done to them.

  8. Lenoxus Says:

    mikespeir: “The way to merit eternal punishment is to do eternal harm to an eternal being. To show that eternal punishment is justified, then, you’ll need to demonstrate that 1) humans are eternal beings and 2) that eternal harm is being done to them.”

    Until I reached this point, mikespeir, I thought I was reading a standard Hell apologetic I’ve seen many, many times. “We punish you more the more Important your crime’s victim is. Logically, when the victim is God, we punish you infinitely!”

    But once I reached that point, I knew you were clarifying why the notion of harming an eternal, all-powerful being is nonsense to begin with. Right?

    I mean, even if we have eternal souls, it couldn’t possibly follow that we have each, upon the moment of death, managed to commit an “eternal” amount of evil. Yet that’s just what any justification for Hell must essentially argue, if the punishment is to fit the crime.

    Oh, and by the way, when it comes to the law and not just national grief, you’re incorrect about the hypothetical assassination of a President. There is no special category of law in any state that deems murder of elected officials of any kind a higher offense — as well there shouldn’t be, equal protection and all that. Instead, the law distinguishes harshness of crime based on motive and intent and such things.

    Also, when it comes to the identity of the victim making a difference, we just as often use an opposite metric, in our minds/emotions if not the law — the younger and more powerless the victim, the worse the crime. Murdering a child, many would argue, is worse than murdering a senator, if the comparison even must be made in the first place.

    And I’ve yet to see anyone manage to hurt God even the tiniest bit.

  9. Lenoxus Says:

    I’m sorry, I think I was a tad harsh in my last post. I was exactly-half-assuming that Mikespeir was genuinely defending Hell on the basis of God’s supreme greatness being impugned by every sin.

    Also, I still stand by my opinions on the comparative immorality of various crimes, but perhaps my flat “you’re incorrect” wasn’t called for, because (a) I don’t know it for an absolute fact, and (b) Mikespeir wasn’t asserting anything in contradiction to what I wrote.

  10. mikespeir Says:

    No need to apologize, Lenoxus. Clearly, I didn’t make myself, uh, clear.

    There is no special category of law in any state that deems murder of elected officials of any kind a higher offense — as well there shouldn’t be, equal protection and all that.

    That’s why I didn’t frame it in terms of what the law says. I simply said that we consider harming a President a greater crime than harming the average citizen. We do, not because of the person of the President, but because of what the President represents.

  11. Korou Says:

    Thank you very much for the whole series. I’ve really enjoyed reading it.

  12. Ken Browning Says:

    So, according to this story, the just punishment for drunk driving is an eternity of torture or $5000 or a day dying on a cross. Or I make a mind fist and conjure up faith that these are all the same.