It is customary in my field to declare any conflict of interest when publishing an article; alas, as an evangelical Christian I must admit a slight bias not to present Christian Theology as morally intolerable. Nevertheless, I would like to show that Paula Kirby’s moral objections to Christianity are not insuperable, and maintain rational integrity while doing so. I offer my apologies in advance for lack of structure: this will essentially be an immediate elaboration on each of the points I noted down during the talk.
There was a lot I enjoyed about the talk. Before the event, I was hoping that it would not just be a list of ecclesiastical atrocities. Kirby obliged and went further in noting that, in particular, debates about the religious/irreligious beliefs and motivations of Hitler and Stalin trivialise the suffering of their victims. I found this quite profound, and was grateful for a discussion of the morality of Christian (or, in some cases, pseudo-Christian) Theology rather than a repetition of moral failures by those proclaiming Christ, of which we are all well aware.
I also empathised with Kirby on many points. For example, it is my conviction that a theology which makes life simply a test for the rest of eternity, or which undermines the importance of this life in its view of the afterlife, is one of the most abominable things to have ever come from the Church. Kirby also did well to, on the whole, distinguish between those features which she thought were central to Christianity and those which were peripheral issues.
Kirby did, however, propose a ‘Terrible Trinity’ of Christianity’s moral failings - the doctrines of original sin, hell, and substitutionary atonement - at least two of which she claimed were core Christian doctrines. It is these which I will address in this shortened response (full version).
I am glad that Kirby offered a slightly more sophisticated version of original sin than most critics (and proponents, for that matter), exploring it as a disease and proclivity towards evil rather than simply confusing original sin with original or inherited guilt. Original guilt, by the way, being a quite distinctly Augustinian and Roman Catholic initiative – it’s certainly rejected by many Protestants and was barely present, if at all, in the writings of other (earlier) Church Fathers - Irenaeus is a good example of a theologian who wrote quite extensively on the idea of original sin [if not by name] without really implying our guilt from birth at all.
Kirby still, however, presents a picture of original sin which not all Christians accept, in arguing that original sin is the belief that everyone is prone to do evil from the moment of birth. I need not even refer to particularly liberal Christians; I know several conservative, fundamentalist (self-identified) Christians who believe that the category of original sin only applies to the cognizant, and that talking of babies having original sin is thus a category error. Nor do all accept that original sin necessarily involves being prone to doing evil in the sense of committing moral atrocities – many would see it simply as not being fully oriented towards God from the beginning, which seems much less objectionable. (On this point, I believe that Kirby also included the description ‘meriting an eternity in hell’. I do not know if she saw this as essential to the doctrine, but if she did, then the same applies to this clause).
While original sin is a core part of Christianity, Kirby’s ‘grossly immoral’ conception of it is not. Kirby argues for the intrinsic immorality of Christian theology on the basis that, without original sin, there is no reason for us to need salvation. But when we consider that behind this premise is a very precise and non-universal conception of original sin, we realise that there may yet be abundant reason for us to need salvation other than simply a proclivity towards evil, and that the Christian can therefore still hold to original sin as a core component of his or faith while at the same time rejecting those non-essential aspects of the doctrine which Kirby emphasises. Given that sin is not necessarily seen as the sum total of evil acts or thoughts (in fact, I would go further; it is rarely seen as the sum total of evil acts or thoughts) but rather, minimally, a particular attitude towards God, there is a lot to be desired in terms of the reasoning for thinking that original sin is a grossly immoral doctrine. Of course, it may be that this conception, Kirby’s conception, or any other conceptions of original sin are immoral. But it was not made at all clear why we should think that any of them are, other than a crude appeal to prima facie disgust. Incidentally, while we’re discussing the morality of beliefs, it would be interesting to see what is meant by calling a belief immoral. Is there not the possibility that it is a true belief? If so, would it still be morally abominable?
The second of her ‘Terrible Trinity’ was the centrality of hell in Christian orthodoxy. Her treatment of hell, however, suffered the same difficulties as her treatment of original sin; namely, that while hell (that is, a temporally unspecified state of disunity with God) as a reality is indeed central to Christianity, her idea of it is not. Kirby discussed hell as eternal torture and punishment before noting that she was well aware that many Christians do not believe in hell. She dismissed this as a possible Christian position on the basis that, unless hell ‘exists’, there is nothing for us to be saved from. Yet, interestingly, she provided no discussion of hell as something other than eternal torture and punishment (as I suggested above), thereby setting up a false dichotomy between believing in her conception of hell or rejecting a core Christian belief. With only a straw man of the ‘core’ Christian position attacked as immoral, then, we have been given no reason to believe that Christianity is fundamentally immoral on this basis.
Kirby’s point about hell’s being used a scare tactic as a moral deplorability is true, of course. Whether the citation of an anonymous American theologian who claimed that most of the teaching about hell comes from the lips of Jesus himself can be trusted, is debatable. Of course, I do not doubt that an American theologian said such a thing. But we ought to ask for more substantiation than the word ‘hell’ appearing in our English Gospels and being attributed to Jesus to also attribute to him the conception of hell that Kirby describes, and which we both deplore. The word Jesus used which is translated as ‘hell’ in our Bibles is γέεννα (known as Gehenna in English), which was the name of a place just outside Jerusalem where, for example, children were sacrificed. It came to be used as a metaphor for the destination of the wicked but was, on the whole in Rabbinical literature, not eternal, and not a place of torture. The Old Testament does not give it an eschatological dimension at all, and it didn’t always have an eschatological dimension in Jesus’ time either (hence him calling the Pharisees ‘children of Gehenna’ without making any claim on their eternal destiny). Now, it may be that Jesus believed in eternal torture, but it certainly needs more substantiation than, “Jesus talked about hell a lot”. So it does not seem clear to me that Kirby has effectively argued that her conception of hell is a core Christian belief.
In the third part of the ‘Terrible Trinity’, Kirby claims to be attacking substitutionary atonement, but in fact ends up attacking an even more particular theory, that of penal substitution. While substitutionary atonement, that is, Jesus mediating reconciliation by doing something we could or did not do, is a key theme in Christianity, simplistic expressions of penal substitution are not. Penal substitution goes further than normal substitutionary atonement by saying that Jesus took our punishment for us, rather than just doing something in place of us. Now, it does not seem as if there is anything particularly immoral about Jesus doing something on behalf of us, so it seems that we can remain content with core Christian belief on this issue. Instead, we must turn to the difficulty with portraying penal substitution as a key Christian teaching on atonement, since this seems to be what Kirby finds morally disturbing. The difficulty, essentially, is this: penal substitution, especially as the primary expression of atonement theology, is a relatively modern innovation. It has roots in the medieval period, building on Anselm’s satisfaction model of the atonement, which itself was a modern, parochial interpretation formed to explain atonement in a very particular context, namely, feudal 11th century England. It was not until centuries after that that penal substitution, in a culture with a penance and retribution-based criminal justice system, that penal substitution really began to flourish and become dominant among evangelical theologians. There have always been, and continue to be, other theories of atonement which, other than in the last couple of centuries’ evangelical traditions, have been more popular (cf. Irenaeus and Gregory of Nyssa on Christus Victor as recapitulation and ransom respectively, or Abelard on the moral influence model, for some examples). Many theologians today reject penal substitution, at the same time holding to the truth of a substitutionary model of the atonement and keeping their orthodoxy intact.
In summary, Kirby’s failure to provide a rigorous formative basis for Christian orthodoxy and ethics led to a number of problems, particularly when she aimed to criticise what she claimed were ‘core’ Christian beliefs. This is most clearly manifest in her treatment of original sin and hell. Essentially, it led her to claim that either babies are prone to evil and deserve eternal emotional, physical and mental torture, or that there is no need of any form of salvation and so “the whole thing falls apart”. She failed to justify her rendition of original sin, hell or penal substitution as core parts of Christianity, confusing substitutionary and penal substitutionary theories of atonement and failing to appreciate the modern roots of the latter while giving no mention to the theories which have been much more prominent historically.
I therefore conclude not that Christianity is morally good, or morally superior, but that Kirby gave us no adequate reason to believe that Christianity is inherently immoral.