Two ways to live

robhu made a post on the Two Ways to Live presentation, which summarises the important points of evangelical Christianity. That particular posting’s intended to be evangelistic without getting de-railed by knowledgeable atheists, so I’ve move my original comment on it from there to here at Rob’s request. This posting remains open for whatever discussion you’d like to have on it (as do most of Rob’s), subject to my comment policy. Here’s my comment:

Serious points about the video, rather than silly ones, in no particular order:

The video doesn’t summarise Christianity, it summarises evangelical Christianity. You won’t find many universalists or liberals agreeing with it, and I think the Catholics would at least take a different slant on it. So I think it’s a mistake to leave out the “evangelical” qualification when talking about TWTL, unless you really do think those people aren’t Christians (which I don’t think you do).

<lj-cut text=”And another thing…”>TWTL assumes the hearer is prepared to accept that God exists in the first place, and that reading the Bible the evangelical way is a good way to find out what God thinks. This isn’t a problem if the intention is to summarise evangelical Christianity, but it is a problem if your intention is to persuade other people to believe it (which is usually what TWTL is for), because you’re not presenting any evidence.

There’s a difference between creating an inanimate object (like a mug) for a purpose and creating a person. People develop their own ideas about what their purpose is, and we don’t accord their creators (parents) the absolute right to determine it. Of course, a Christian could respond that God is supposed to be much greater than human parents, but in that case he stands in relation to us as a parent does to a very young child, or to an animal. In that case, we’d accept his right to bring us up how he wanted, but the way he ignores some children in favour of others and his eventual decision to shove those who aren’t his favourites in an oven when he’s tired of being patient with them would then become a matter for the NSPCC.

Penal substitutionary atonement doesn’t make an awful lot of sense. God is supposed to be so keen on justice that someone must pay for sin, but not so keen on justice that it matters whether he punishes the right person. Furthermore, in the Trinitarian understanding, Jesus is himself God, so the action of punishing himself starts to look like a game of solitaire. As gjm11 says, sin is so trifling that turning to Jesus can get you off, but so grave that an omnipotent God really has to send people to Hell if they don’t turn to Jesus.

The video guy repeats the claim that we shouldn’t wish God to deal with evil in case he zaps us right now, making God out to be about as clever as George Bush, with shock and awe the only thing in his toolbox. As we’ve discussed before, that argument doesn’t hold up.

20 Comments on "Two ways to live"

  1. The post is evangelistic, in that evangelism means communicating the gospel (good news) about Christianity.

    I want to tell people this good news, in this case simple basic core facts about Christianity – and open a discussion with (the majority) of my readership who are not former Christians with a very strong belief that Christianity cannot possibly be true. There is a place for that kind of discussion, and I’d hope the many posts with extremely many comments show that there is also a place for deep detailed discussion with former Christians. I welcome and enjoy both types of debate, but the former is extremely neglected. It may be that it’s unreasonable to try to have place for both in my blog – that I should just accept that every time I say anything even as simple and basic as these things that the committed former Christian atheists will come along and argue every single point.

    If I made a post that said “Christians believe in God” I can almost imagine someone coming along and telling me that just isn’t true, and entering in to a big debate about that. There is some value in that kind of debate, but it can easily drown out there more basic simple discussions that others might want to have, and perhaps wouldn’t be a very good use of time.


  2. I stand by my statement that these are core truths of Christianity. The gospel message is not unique to Evangelical Christians, and neither is it a uniquely modern idea. Indeed the whole point of Evangelicalism is to point people back at what the original Christians (that wrote the canonical texts) thought. Evangelicalism by it’s very nature seeks not to point to itself and it’s own ideas, but draw people back to the original texts themselves, and that happens not only in churches but in theological colleges where wider more academic issues are taken in to account.

    It’s true that if you spoke to other Christians you’d get a different emphasis, and that there are those who would disagree that it is completely untrue. If you spoke to Bishop Spong he’d essentially give you a message of atheism dressed up in the clothes of Christianity, but that doesn’t mean that if I were to say that Christians believe that God is real that I need to clarify that not all Christians believe this. Some of those who have the label Christian will be wrong. It’s also true that if you spoke to Christians from other denominations you’d hear the core truths of Two Ways To Live with different emphases, or perhaps with different things tacked on – that doesn’t mean that Christians fundamentally disagree, for example you have argued at length elsewhere that N.T. Wright disagrees that 2WTL is ‘the gospel’, Wright would have different emphasis in his message and would say that Paul meant something slightly different when he talks about the gospel (essentially it’s a big argument about semantics), that doesn’t mean that he would disagree that the content of 2WTL is Biblical and a core thing that everyone needs to understand.

    You’re right that I don’t confine the term Christian to Evangelical Christians, and I’d be cautious of coming up with a tightly reigned in list of what things are necessary to be a Christian. At the very least I’d say that believing that there was a Christ and that the person follows them is necessary (by simple linguistic definition), I’d also want to say there is a good deal more than that to it. As you know the various creeds created by Christians in the past have not only been about what they as Christians do believe, but also what they don’t believe (I know you’ve blogged about this in the past). Christians have by necessity had to create creeds to define what Christianity isn’t both because they have lacked the ability to create an absolute all encompassing creed to start with, but also because new heresies pop up all the time. Mike Reeves covers this in more detail in his article Why do we have a declaration of belief?

    So when you state that I don’t mean to say that only Evangelicals are Christians you’re right. I don’t rule universalists or liberals out of being Christians in the same way that I don’t rule them in. I think universalism is false (as you know Jesus talked about hell repeatedly, and referred to it as a place of torment that has no crossing so that people may return from it), and that fundamentally liberalism is also flawed. Obviously to deal with all the different emphases that Christians might give, the kind of things liberals and atheists like Spong might say, and so on, would make for an incredibly large, unwieldy, and un-useful post. At best what I can I do is communicate what I think are authentically Christian beliefs. I’d encourage anyone who is interested to look at the passages (and their wider context) in the Bible for themselves. This isn’t an exercise where I merely state what I think is true and have the original source documents locked up in my private safe, the Bible is easily accessible to anyone.


  3. TWTL does assume that the Evangelical approach of referring to the Bible is a good way of determining what Christianity is (and so what God thinks). Obviously it doesn’t go in to great detail over why that is a reasonable thing to do, or why the Bible is reliable. TWTL is a piece of a much larger puzzle for understanding and determining that Christianity is true (or not). It’s a central piece, an introduction to core things about Christianity. Other pieces exist to communicate why the New Testament documents are reliable, and so on.

    There are a good number of people like you and I who want not just to be presented with the basic theology of Christianity but also want to know about the historical evidence, the philosophical issues, the history of the church, and so on. Other texts and forums for discussion exist for that purpose. Different people come with different assumptions about the world, and different perspectives on what kinds of evidence they personally would require. When I became a Christian again recently for various reasons I wanted to read about the reliability of the New Testament, look at the philosophical issues, and some other things, that’s where I was and matched the concerns and disagreements that I had. Others will come with a different set of questions. Different people see and experience the world in different ways, and I don’t want to say that only my approach is valid. In saying that I’m not saying that any approach is valid, or that Christianity can in some sense be true for one person who feels they find God in some very different way to me, but false for another because it does not speak the language and of truth unique to them. Christianity must ultimately be either true or false, but how we come to work that out will differ from individual to individual.

    I also don’t want to discount those people who do not need detailed theology or lengthy apologetics before they become convinced that Christianity is true. While now I’m an example of the kind of person who has gone through those things, originally I wasn’t. When I originally became a Christian back at university my experience was entirely different. Essentially I went along to a CU meeting, thought everyone was crazy, accidentally agreed to go to a church visit, went to the church visit, heard the gospel presented, and had my understanding supernaturally illuminated by God. I didn’t originally become a Christian after years of detailed thought and investigation, I went to church and got ‘hit by spiritual lightning’, a die hard atheist one moment and a die hard Christian the next. God deals with different people in different ways according to each persons unique nature and the unique plan that he has for them. I know that some will hear the gospel and have that inner revelation provided by the Holy Spirit. Others won’t. TWTL caters for one group of people very well, while for others it is just a piece of the jigsaw.


  4. There is a sense in which I want to agree wholeheartedly with your comments about purpose. We’d rightly be concerned about a parent who told their child that their purpose was X when a child wanted to live for purpose Y. Freedom of choice in how we live our lives, and the guiding purpose we define for it are important things that you and I would both want to be free choices for the individual. In a very real sense though this is what God allows for us – God love us so much that He does not constrain our purpose in the sense of how we choose to live our life, He gives us more or less free reign in what we do, and we use this freedom to rebel against Him both by not loving our fellow man and by not loving Him.

    As you suggest, I think the answer is in how appropriate the relation between parent and child and God and humanity is. While God refers to us as his children in some sense, it also refers to us as his creations and him as our maker. Now it’s also true that in a sense parents are the creators of children, but parents do not design their children with intentionality as to their nature, parents are driven by a desire to make copies of themselves, the sense in which they create children is a much lesser sense that the way in which God made humanity. God as omniscient creator did not merely make a kind of (inferior) copy of Himself in man, but carefully planned out all of the aspects of man’s nature.

    People are by nature replicating genetic machines, generally speaking they have an inbuilt desire to make genetic copies of themselves. Some people for whatever reason will have a lesser sense of this desire, and many will not successfully replicate, but that doesn’t mean that in a sense people lack that purpose. Obviously I’m not saying that there is intentionality in evolution that bestows this purpose on people, the point I’m trying to make is that people can’t by choice alter their fundamental nature – they can deny it and fail to achieve it, but the general nature of man as a replicating genetic machine remains.

    Similarly men and women are created to worship, glorify, love, and be in relation with God. That many choose not to or fail to achieve this ideal state of humanity, and so never achieve the utmost of human purpose does not alter the fact that they were created for that purpose.

    Essentially I’m saying that this disagreement may just be an issue of semantics (with purpose having different levels of meaning), but that human free will does not negate pre-existing natural purpose.


  5. In terms of God punishing sin. I don’t disagree that there other models we can consider where God wouldn’t need to punish for sin (such as if there were no fall for instance), and that the reasons why God might need to do things as Christians believe he did (sending His Son to die in our place) are not fully explained. I don’t claim that the gospel does not contain mysteries (when thought of most favorably). I don’t claim that I have all the answers – but what I do have (but am probably incapable of completely communicating) are sufficient answers to questions that Christianity seems very reasonable to me. I know that issues like the atonement and the nature of sin are things that Christians (and other theists) have thought about for thousands of years, that there are multitude of books and papers on the subjects, looking at them from different angles. I could say “but God is like this…” or “well that’s only an analogy, which is deficient because…”. I freely admit that I do not have the background to provide detailed answers to the nature of the atonement or sin, but there are things out there that you could read.

    In a sense God doesn’t explain the mechanics of everything – the revelation given in the Bible is limited, it doesn’t answer all the questions that theologians and well informed lay people have. However if it did answer those questions I suspect that behind those answers would be even grander questions. Unless the nature of God is like the supposed Grand Unified Theory there might be an infinite series of ever more complex questions required.

    I agree with the guy in the video, that if God were to deal with evil in the way that people suggest we would find ourselves as targets of the heavenly artillery barrage. God clearly could solve the problem of evil in other ways, but those other ways have other consequences. God could have prevented evil by not giving man free will – but in doing so we would have been unable to love him, which is something he desires. Also I have to say I think having free will is higher in some sense than being an automaton, I prefer having free will, although I can’t provide a clever philosophical justification for it.

    The point is that God has got a plan for dealing with evil, and it’s a whole lot more nuanced than the “why doesn’t God just stop all evil now” strategy that people suggest. His plan takes account of the freedom which God has provided to us at incredible cost to Himself, it is a plan where He takes the punishment we deserve, and all we have to do to receive that redemption is to choose to accept it and follow Him.


    1. On a similar note, “Half Hour Video: Didn’t Watch”.

      I’m not committing half an hour of my time to watching a video, when there’s an excellent chance that it won’t be telling me a lot I hadn’t already heard in other contexts. If there were a written transcript somewhere conveniently available, I’d be prepared to read that or at least skim it, to see what sort of thing it was talking about for purposes of this discussion. I’m confident that I could get the general gist in a lot less time than it would take to watch the video, and in particular that I could skip over any section which I recognised as something I’d heard before without risking missing a new bit later on.

      (I’m reminded of the LJ phone post mechanism, where the first person to encounter something presented in an inconvenient medium can type up a transcript if they’re feeling helpful, so that the next forty-nine don’t have to sit through the original.)

      eta: sorry, that turned out more negative than I’d intended. What I meant to say was that I’d be interested to know what was going on in that video, but not quite interested enough to spend half an hour finding out, so it’s a bit of a shame it was presented in that form.


      1. Time was, a link to “an interesting talk” took you to a transcript or, if you were unlucky, a set of slides. These days it almost always means a video l-(


      2. Who needs a video to explain what Christians believe, when somebody already wrote Mere Christianity?



  6. The god described in the Two Ways to Live presentation is a nasty piece of work. He reminds me of a plantation owner: he looks down upon the slaves working in his cotton fields with proprietorial love so long as they do what he says, but when they rebel he shakes his head and gets out the noose — more in sorrow than in anger, he claims.


    1. The presenters note two problems with that analogy:

      1. Creator: created:: plantation owner: slave??

      2. What’s notable is that God does not, as a rule, get out the noose when the slaves rebel. Even in the Adam and Eve story, God promises them death for disobedience but doesn’t actually slay the disobedient – no one dies until one human being sees fit (against God’s sage advice) to kill another.

      The problem is not that we have to regard a morally dubious God and pretend that He is actually wonderful. The problem is coming to terms with our inevitable ignorance and confusion in the face of a transcendent God (whose morals we are probably obliged to find doubtful at one point or another).


      1. No analogy is perfect in all its details.

        The phrase “He made it [the world], and he owns it” appears on page 2 of the presentation. Ownership is not a matter of fact, but one of social and legal convention, and yet surely in the Christian worldview God is not subject to any kind of social or legal constraint? So why does the presentation bring up this idea of ownership? It seems like a rhetorical appeal to people who live in a capitalist society and believe that ownership is a fundamental feature of the moral universe, so that ownership unquestionably justifies a whole panoply of rights by the owner over the possession. The same kind of rhetorical appeal that was used to justify slavery.

        Then the presentation goes on to stress the idea of “rebellion”, and repeatedly exhort the reader to obey, to be ruled, to submit. I’m sure you can see how the analogy suggests itself.

        I’m not saying that my analogy is a fair summary of Christianity. But it’s a fair summary of my reaction to the presentation.


  7. but not so keen on justice that it matters whether he punishes the right person

    I think this is a reasonable criticism of how penal substitution is often presented. It is (obviously) unfair to punish someone else for the crimes of another.

    Luckily, that is not what Christianity claims. Christ is not an arbitrary substitute for people, but is a substitute for those who are “in Christ” and “have Christ within them”. The exact mechanisms of what this means are mysterious, but the Christian claim is that there is a real identity between the Christian and Christ. Hence it is meaningful, and just, to speak of my sins being punished on the cross, as I am in Christ and he in me.



    1. Thank you.

      A good metaphor for sins is “debts.” In the case of a debt – this is very much on my mind because of the mortgage mess in the States – it can make a lot of sense for someone who is wealthy to pay the debt of someone who is bankrupt. It not only saves the debtor their house, but in the aggregate it can save the whole system from collapsing under the weight of its poor choices. The global economy does not care who pays the debts, but cares very much whether or not they are paid.


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