Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Salvation Misses the Point

For many Christians the focus of Christianity is forgiveness and salvation through Jesus. But, when considering the whole plot of the Bible, if we focus only on salvation then we are missing the point. Jesus and salvation are indeed the climax of the plot of the Bible. But to understand the overall point of the Bible we need to focus on the problems identified at the beginning of the story and the goal that God is apparently working to reach at the end of the story.

The Plot of the Bible
God is the ultimate engineer and he has set things up to be as good as possible. But of course there are always logical/engineering trade offs to be made. God created mankind and set up the structures needed for a "good" society, i.e. a place where people only do "good" things. And the designer is the one who determines what is "good".

Garden of Eden and the New Jerusalem
There were only two people back then, so of course the setting was a country "garden" setting. Things were very good. There were no dishes or laundry to do. But as those people had descendants then of course the setting would have changed to be more of a city setting, but still very good. We see that the ultimate destination for those who follow the designer is the "New Jerusalem", which is talked about in terms of being the restored Garden of Eden.

Free Choice and a Good Society
The problem is that apparently the best of all possible worlds includes giving humans the ability to have free choice (at least from the human perspective). To give humans free choice includes the likelihood that they will make some bad choices. And over an extremely long period of time it becomes more and more likely that people make bad choices causing a bad society as a result. So, how could God engineer a world that includes both free choice and where people only make good choices? How would you deal with these seeming irreconcilable goals?

The world doesn't work quite right any more
Apparently God's answer was to start out by giving everyone free choice knowing that they would eventually choose badly. Then when bad choices were made (choices that went against what God said was best), God changed the world to no longer work perfectly so that humans would constantly be reminded that we rely on the designer/sustainer for everything in the world around us. If everything worked perfectly, it would be easy to forget that God created and upholds everything and there would be no problems to cause us to strongly desire God to correct the problems.

The Problem of Pain
So, the problem of pain comes from two sources: from the bad choices of humanity and from God's changing the world to not work quite right. The good news is that both issues will apparently be resolved in the New Jerusalem.

The Answer is Sacrifice
How does God allow free choice (from our perspective) and still have everyone in society always choose rightly over the long term? The missing piece of the puzzle seems to be self sacrifice. When people choose wrongly, they are basically saying that their interpretation of what is best is more accurate than the interpretation of the designer of the world. So, by allowing pain and death in the world, God has also given us the ability to make sacrifices to help others and to do what is right. The sacrifice of Jesus is important because he sacrificed himself to show us the way of self sacrifice. Mankind owes God everything but people were unwilling/unable to sacrifice themselves, so Jesus sacrificed himself and paid the debt the we were unwilling/unable to pay. Someone who is willing to ultimately sacrifice themselves to do what is right will be able to live indefinitely without choosing badly, thereby enabling a good society to endure over the long term.

The Necessity of Hell
The Bible says that people who choose to follow themselves will be separated out and sent away from those people who are willing to sacrifice themselves to follow God. People assume Hell is a place of externally imposed torture by God because of the passages that imply extreme pain for those in Hell. But it seems that a place without the influence of people following God and his laws, where the residents are more free to openly follow their bad choices, and a place that God may make work even less perfectly than the current world does (since He has no obligation to make the world work perfectly for those who arrogantly think they could design the world better), that place would inherently be a very painful place to live (IS 57:20-21). So, the two existing sources of pain in this life could be intensified in Hell rather than having an external source of torture, though the net result could be like torture.

It will be a good thing when God separates out those who don't want to follow him from those who do, since they would actually prefer to not be under God's leadership. So, people in Heaven will not need to mourn for those in Hell because, while the people in Hell will strongly desire both the goodness of Heaven and the ability to not follow God's design, if they had to choose between the two they would still choose to not follow God over the long term. That is in stark contrast to those in Heaven who would always choose to follow God, even when His design does not seem to make sense at first. Therefore, as very painful as Hell is, people will be there by their own free choice. There will be no need to mourn for their choice.

So, bad choices by some people are an inevitable result of free choice and to create a New Jerusalem, where only good choices are made, requires a hell to put people who don't want to always choose to follow God's definition of what is "good".

The Point of This Life
So, the point of our existence is to be what God created: people who choose rightly and have a good society. Evil, pain and hell seem to be engineering trade offs that are required in order to have both free choice and a society where people always choose rightly.

Salvation and forgiveness are needed to get us to the place where, somehow, we will ultimately choose rightly forever while still having free choice. By being willing to follow Jesus and give up everything, even to death, to do what is right, we are demonstrating that we somehow will have what it takes to choose rightly in the New Jerusalem. It is our decision to have the faith to follow Jesus, not our actions, that make us the kind of people who can go there without messing up the place. But the end results of our faith is that somehow our actions will be changed so that we will always make good choices in the New Jerusalem.

So, the point of this life is not really salvation in and of itself, though that is a necessary part of this life, but rather the point of this life is preparation for us to live together in a society (the New Jerusalem) as God has designed it. Salvation and forgiveness may be the key to the door, but it is not the house we live in. To understand the plot of the Bible and this life we need to focus on how we were created, why we are here and where we are ultimately going.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Scam of Matching Gifts

There is a method of fund raising called "matching gifts" where one giver says "I will give X amount of dollars if others will give the same amount within a given time period". A variation of matching gifts says "If others will give X amount of dollars within a given time, I will give three times that amount". Another variation is something like: if you pay the shipping of $20, we can ship $1000 of supplies to needy people.

Psychological Manipulation
While this is a common method of fund raising that seems culturally acceptable, it is little more than a psychological ploy to trick people into giving more. Because of the worthiness of the given charity we overlook this manipulation and call it acceptable.

Are there really people out there that are so cold hearted that they say to themselves and the world "this is a very good charity, so I want to give X dollars" but then if the matching funds are not raised they decide that the charity is no longer worthy of the gift? Not at all.

Now, I would understand if there were a large project, such as a building, that someone wanted to give to but would want to give only if the project went forward. So, I could see a donor honestly saying they they would want to give $1M towards a $2M building project, but only if the organization was able to raise the additional $1M in order for the project to go forward. It is possible that may have been how the "matching gifts" concept was initially deemed socially acceptable, but note that is not the situation in the vast majority of cases today (there is no project that will not go forward a specific gift is not matched).

Actually, at least as it is normally practiced today, people and companies who give matching fund gifts know perfectly well what they are doing. They want people to feel like if they give say $20, that they have effectively given some larger amount. That way people are more likely to give and more funds will be raised.

The Lottery Connection
That psychology is not far removed from the psychology of the lottery, which many states use now to raise funds for good causes such as education. Because of the lack of knowledge of statistics and heavy advertising of large wins, people are effectively tricked into giving their money away to the lottery. The lottery is effectively a tax on the statistically illiterate. I would feel much more comfortable with the lottery if the chances of, say, getting hit by lightning (one estimate being 1 in 700,000) were listed at the checkout so buyers could make a statistically informed choice. Just as the lottery artificially inflates in the buyer's mind the chances of their winning a large amount, matching gifts artificially inflates in the givers mind the amount they are effectively giving.

So, it is amazing to me that people who rightfully condemn the lottery as unethical turn around and use methods like "matching funds" to psychologically manipulate people into giving more. And they use the very same reasoning of "if we raise more money we can do more good, so please don't worry about this little issue of the methods we use. It is only marketing".

I say, tell the people what you can do with the money they give. Don't make them feel they have given more than they have. These are generous people and the least a fund raiser can do is to be straight and honest with them. Ethical marketing: Yes. Psychological manipulation: No.