The Problem With Forgiveness

One of my favourite bloggers to debate with is Prayson Daniel, an Evangelical Christian who I have been interacting with since I first set up my blog. Despite our differences we still respect each other and keep it civil. Surprisingly, he was open enough to ask me to write a guest post on his blog and an Atheist one at that. Fair play to him for that and his blog is well work checking out regardless of your religious beliefs.

With All I Am

Cross Nails

Probably the core belief of Christianity is the concept of forgiveness. It is the central teaching of Jesus and held aloft as the prime virtue of God himself. However nice a virtue it is in small doses, it is completely impracticable and worse still undesirable even if it was possible. Both the forgiveness Jesus told us to show to one another and the forgiveness God supposedly has for us are fundamentally flawed and rife with problems.

If I was to ask a random person what the most important teaching of Jesus was, they would probably answer the importance of forgiveness. The quotes are well know, “Treat others as you would like them to treat you” (Luke 6:31) and “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well” (Matthew…

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17 thoughts on “The Problem With Forgiveness”

  1. I find this an interesting comment because my problem with Christian teaching is the exact opposite — the idea of a merciless deity who would condemn human beings to eternal pain for sins committed in a finite lifetime.

    The idea of forgiveness comes from the conception of God not as a stern and impartial judge, but as a loving father, who wants his children to love him and do good. Forgiveness within Christianity is always within the context of the repentant sinner desiring to change his life, and do better. The idea that no matter how bad you are, no matter how deeply you are sunk into addiction to certain behaviors, you can wipe the slate clean and start over—this is a very powerful force for good, and has helped many people turn their lives around.

    Imagine a world with no forgiveness. Imagine living in one of the world’s cultures in which your primary moral duty was taking revenge. When would the cycle of hatred ever end?

    I agree that in order for there to be an orderly society, there has to be some sort of retribution for crime. And I agree that the ethic of Jesus is impossible for most people in its pure form. But there has to be some forgiveness, some limit on revenge, or else we all would destroy each other.

    1. I agree that Christianity is a mess of contradictions which is simultaneously full of infinite forgiveness and mercy yet at the same time capable of infinite cruelty in the fires of Hell. I’m not going to pretend it makes sense.

      “this is a very powerful force for good”
      Not necessarily. I think many people justify crimes to themselves by arguing that God will understand and forgive them or if they only go to confession then it will be ok. I think its double edged sword.

      “Imagine a world with no forgiveness.”
      That would be just as terrible as a world with infinite forgiveness. My point is that neither is desirable and a middle ground is preferable. I’m not arguing against forgiveness, just the way in which Christianity takes it to an extreme.

  2. When I was growing up in a small town in Maryland, all of us Protestants thought Catholics were immoral because they could sin all they wanted on Saturday night and wipe the slate clean on Sunday. The Catholics thought we Protestants were immoral because we believed in faith not works, so we supposedly could sin all we wanted to so long as we thought we had the correct faith.

    The fallacy of both these beliefs was that a Catholic who made a real confession and a Protestant who had real faith would regret the wrong they did and want to do good.

    The problem with a religious teaching that does not allow for repentance and forgiveness is that once you fall, there is no getting back up. If you are damned for committing a robbery, there is no reason not to commit a murder, or multiple murders.

    I think the person who is helped most by the Christian teaching of forgiveness is the weak person, such as an alcoholic or compulsive shoplifter, who knows what they are doing is wrong, but can’t resist the impulse to drink or to steal. For such a person, each drink or theft makes it harder to resist the impulse to drink or shoplift another time. Through repentance, a person can (in their mind) get back to the original state of innocence and stay that way—rather than thinking I’m already a drunk and a thief, so what does one more matter.

    I know quite a few people who’ve turned their lives around through membership in Alcoholics Anonymous, which is not specifically Christian but has the same psychological dynamic.

    To be clear, I do not consider myself a Christian and I do not believe in Christian creeds, but neither do I think Christianity absurd nor do I think Christians fools.

    1. If there is no forgiveness then people are likely to go for broke (though this isn’t a hugely serious problem under our legal system). On the other hand if there is unlimited forgiveness then we have a moral hazard problem where people who would otherwise lead good lives are encouraged to sin.

      Religion may be good for the fallen, but most people are not in that sort of desperate state so the effect is different. I have no personal experience of AA but I looked over their 12 steps which seem to be little more than praying to God to cure them, an approach I don’t feel is helpful.

  3. You clearly do not understand Christianity, so why do you bother with your mostly incorrect assertions? May I respectfully suggest that if you desire to continue wanting to make ‘informed’ statements about Christianity you find a good teacher who could help – maybe a Catholic teacher who correct your often ill-quoted feelings and statements about what Catholics believe and practice.

    1. “You clearly do not understand Christianity, so why do you bother with your mostly incorrect assertions?”

      Well I raised a Christian and was one for most of my life so I’d say I’ve as good an idea as anyone else. May I suggest that you engage in debate and point out where you disagree with me rather than just making insults?

      1. First of all, you answer my comments/questions perfectly, and if you feel I have insulted you then may I suggest you read again my contribution.
        Such expressions as “infinite cruelty in the fires of Hell” have no place in modern Christianity – I cannot begin to imagine from where you gather such nonsense. If your upbringing and understandings of Christianity are based on that sort of medieval tripe, then again I suggest, think again- have someone share serious Christianity with you, not superstitious mythical mumbo jumbo.

        1. “Such expressions as “infinite cruelty in the fires of Hell” have no place in modern Christianity – I cannot begin to imagine from where you gather such nonsense.”

          So Hell doesn’t exist anymore? Are you just pretending that was never a thing? Every Christian I’ve ever met will tell you that Hell is just as real as Heaven.

          1. Of course hell exists, but the imagery of a place of fire is totally wrong. However, the ‘debate’ you ask for was centred on my question that if Christianity is of no importance to you why do you feel the need to be constantly discussing? What is deep within your heart that you cannot leave it alone, ( leave it for those who believe ) ?

            1. “Of course hell exists, but the imagery of a place of fire is totally wrong.”

              What you mean is that some Christians believe in it and others do not, which can be said about any piece of Christian theology.

              “if Christianity is of no importance to you why do you feel the need to be constantly discussing?”

              Because it greatly affects our world whether we like it or not. Plus the majority of people in Ireland believe it, so I want to try and convince them otherwise.

              “What is deep within your heart that you cannot leave it alone, ( leave it for those who believe ) ?”

              I think libertarianism too is completely wrong, but why do I not leave it alone for those who believe in it? Because what other people believe has a great influence on the country and my life. These people vote and use their beliefs as a guide to who they vote for and the country we will have.

              1. It somewhat concerns me that your objectiveness towards Christianity is built on a quite narrow concept ( and opinions of others ) of a rather narrow and old fashioned outlook/tradition.
                If your desire is move people away from cult religion, then I can only but commend your efforts. However, for many a serious 21st century approach to age old faiths is quite another matter. Perhaps you might listen to more of that!
                Me thinks you are a frustrated politician – perhaps that is your vocation?

                1. “of a rather narrow and old fashioned outlook/tradition.”

                  Tell me, has the Bible changed in the last few decades? Have we uncovered new words of Jesus? Has the Church made any fundamental change to the way it views the above? If not, then how can religion be said to have changed? Religion is based on the bible and it cannot change unless the other does.

                  Religion isn’t like a car were new updates are installed every year and new discoveries are made that completely changes its look. The entire point is that it has changed as little as possible in the last 2000 years.

                  “Me thinks you are a frustrated politician – perhaps that is your vocation?”

                  Again with the insults, you really can’t stay away from them can you? Notice how the entire time I have avoided personalising my comments in the least bit, is it too much to ask you to do the same?

                  1. I’m very sorry that you took my words as an insult. They were not meant as anything of the kind, quite the opposite. I have great admiration for your writings, even if I do not agree with all that you say. There has never, ever, been any intention to insult.
                    The books of the Bible are not dead, static, writings – they are alive with the Spirit of interpretation and contemplative wisdom. I believe your metaphor is partly right – all religion can be like a car, it needs the occasional new warrant of fitness, and I think that is what is happening in the Christian church right now – and it is people such as your goodly self who shake it about a bit that help with renewal – new parts replacing the worn and torn. Perhaps I wish there were more Robert Nielsen’s challenging the status quo!?

  4. @Graywillis truly has a point, just look at the countless denominations of just christianity alone, the relevancy placed on the old testament, or the new testament.

    In the old testament, I believe is where there are instructions on how to treat slaves for example, but its entirely irrelevant now, or just look at jesus’s teachings, which were radical and new, they challenged the ways of the past, jesus did not kill like, thousands of people like david, he didnt lift one finger against anyone.

    The bible contradicts itself, especailly in different books, thats because the morality changed, the definition of ‘God’ therefore changed, and it will likely continue.

    My own grandfather was somewhat racist, and didnt think kindly of homosexuals, but I share the beliefs, yet desperately hope to see gay marriage a reality, I want to love everyone just like jesus preached, and if nothing else, hold on to that greater substance in my life, and pass it on so long as it may live.

    Less and less people take the literal word of the bible, I take inspiration and little more, and hope to see further change brought to the world

  5. No where does the bible say that Yahweh or Jesus is all loving and all forgiving. The idea of an Omnibenevolent Deity is a creation of Atheists and certain Philosophers not fundamentalist Christians. (you could toss a few new-agey Christian sects in there I guess)

    Exodus 34:6 And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed, The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, 7 Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.

    Jesus in the new testament says only forgive someone the same offence 7×70 or 490 times. that is a lot but it is still not unlimited forgiveness.

    Even Paul in romans 13 says that Love is “slow to anger”. It does not say its never angry.

    The God presented in the Bible is not the one created in minds of theologians.

    1. I don’t think Robert was saying that. It might have been better if he had said, “It is ‘a’ central teaching.” And one must always be careful how the Greek of the NT is translated/interpreted.

  6. If you can not forgive then you will not be forgiven. What happens when one doesn’t forgive? They have negative feelings when they think about the negative feelings they harbor. So they feel angry or regretful.
    That is no way to live.

    If you want to live in the past continue to be pissed off or sad by not forgiving. If you continue to be angry by making excuses or placing blame you do not learn any lesson as you would if you took responsibility. Instead you will live out of control in your negative feelings and you will fell hopeless which is the feeling that everything is out of your control. This is slavery and only a semblance of free will.

    If you want to live positively and be the master of your destiny which is true free will you must to forgive and accept forgiveness which is called acceptance. Taking responsibility for your actions, learning lessons from your mistakes is forgiving others for the blame you placed on them. Then Love will forgive you and you will feel good.

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