This is the script from my video debunking believe-or-burn. It was written to be read aloud, but it should be pretty readable. Or you could just listen to it.
Today we’re going to be looking at how abysmally wrong the idea of “believe or burn”, which I prefer to render as, “say the magic words or burn,” is. And to be clear, I mean wrong, not that I don’t like it or this isn’t my opinion. I’m Catholic, not evangelical, so I’m talking about how it contradicts the consistent teaching of the church since its inception 2000 years ago (and hence is also the position of the Eastern Orthodox, the Kopts, etc), and moreover how one can rationally see why “say the magic words or burn” cannot be true.
I’m not going to spend time explaining why non-Christian religions don’t believe you have to say the magic words or burn because for most of them, it’s not even relevant. In Hinduism, heavens and hells are related to your karma, not to your beliefs, and they’re all temporary anyway—as the story goes, the ants have all been Indra at some point. In Buddhism you’re trapped in the cycle of reincarnation and the whole point is to escape. To the degree that there even is a concept of hell in Buddhism, you’re there now and maybe you can get out. Many forms of paganism don’t even believe in an afterlife, and where they do—and what you do in life affects what happens to you in the afterlife—what happens to you is largely based on how virtuously you lived in society, not on worshipping any particular gods. Animistic religions are either often similar to pagan religions or they hold that the dead stick around as spirits and watch over the living. For the monotheistic religions, few of them have a well-defined theology on this point. Their attitude tends to be, “here is the way to be good, it’s bad to be evil, and for everyone else, well, that’s not a practical question.” For most of the world’s religions, “say the magic words or burn,” isn’t even wrong. And Islam is something of an exception to this, but I’m not going to get into Islam because the Quran doesn’t unambiguously answer this question and after Al Ghazali’s triumph over the philosophers in the 11th century, there really isn’t such thing as Islamic theology in the same sense that you have Christian theology. Christianity holds human reason, being finite, to be unable to comprehend God, but to be able to reason correctly about God within its limits. Since Al-Ghazali wrote The Incoherence of the Philosophers, the trend in Islam has been to deny human reason can say anything about God, past what he said about himself in the Quran. As such, any question not directly and unambiguously answered in the Quran—which, recall, is poetry—is not really something you can reason about. So as a matter of practicality I think Islam should be grouped with the other monotheisms who hold the question of what happens to non-believers acting in good faith to be impractical. And in any event there are hadith and a passage in the Quran which do talk about some Jews and Christians entering paradise, so make of that what you will.
There isn’t an official name for the doctrine of “say the magic words or burn”, but I think it’s best known because of fundamentalists who say that anyone who doesn’t believe will burn in hell. I think that the usual form is saying that everyone who isn’t a Christian will burn in hell, for some definition of Christian that excludes Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, and anyone else who doesn’t think that the King James version of the bible was faxed down from heaven and is the sole authority in human affairs. You generally prove that you’re a Christian in this sense by saying, “Jesus Christ is my personal lord and savior”, but there’s no requirement that you understand what any of that means, so it functions exactly like a magical incantation.
As I discussed in my video on fundamentalists, when they demand people speak the magic words, what they’re asking for is not in any sense a real religious formulation, but actually a loyalty pledge to the dominant local culture. (Which is fundamentalist—all tribes have a way of pledging loyalty.) But the concept of “say the magic words or burn,” has a broader background than fundamentalists, going all the way back to the earliest Protestant reformers and being, more or less, a direct consequence of how Martin Luther and John Calvin meant the doctrine of Sola Fide.
Before I get into the origin of “say the magic words or burn”, let me give an overly brief explanation of what salvation actually means, to make sure we’re on the same page. And to do that, I have to start with what sin is: sin means that we have made ourselves less than what we are. For example, we were given language so that we could communicate truth. When we lie, not only do we fail in living up to the good we can do, we also damage our ability to tell the truth in the future. Lying (and all vices) all too easily become habits. We have hurt others and damaged ourselves. Happiness consists of being fully ourselves, and so in order to be happy we must be fixed. This is, over-simplified, what it means to say that we need salvation. Christianity holds that Jesus has done the work of that salvation, which after death we will be united with, if we accept God’s offer, and so we will become fixed, and thus being perfect, will be capable of eternal happiness. That’s salvation. Some amount of belief is obviously necessary to this, because if you don’t believe the world is good, you will not seek to be yourself. This is why nihilists like pickup artists are so miserable. They are human but trying to live life like some sort of sex-machine. They do lots of things that do them no good, and leave off doing lots of things that would do them good. Action follows belief, and so belief helps to live life well. We all have at least some sense of what is true, though, or in more classical language the natural law is written on all men’s hearts. It is thus possible for a person to do his best to be good, under the limitations of what he knows to be good. God desires the good of all of his creatures, and while we may not be able to see how a person doing some good, and some evil things under the misapprehension that they are good, can be saved, we have faith in God that he can do what men can’t. Besides, it doesn’t seem likely that God would permit errors to occur if they couldn’t be overcome. While we don’t know who will be saved, it is permissible to hope that all will be saved. As it says in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation.”
OK, so given that, where did the evil and insane idea of “say the magic words or burn” come from? Well, Sola Fide originated with Martin Luther, who as legend has it was scrupulous and couldn’t see how he could ever be good enough to enter heaven (I say, “as legend has it” because this may be an overly sympathetic telling). For some reason he couldn’t do his best and trust God for the rest, so he needed some alternative to make himself feel better. Unfortunately being Christian he was stuck with the word faith, which in the context of Christianity means trusting God. Martin Luther’s solution was to redefine the word faith to mean—well, he wasn’t exactly consistent, but at least much of the time he used it to mean something to the effect of “a pledge of allegiance”—basically, a promise of loyalty. The problem with that is that pledging your allegiance is just words. There’s even a parable Jesus told about this very thing: a man had two sons and told them go to work in his fields. The one son said no, but later thought better of it and went to work in the fields. The other said, “yes, sir” but didn’t go. Which did his father’s will? And please note, I’m not citing that to proof-text that Martin Luther was wrong. One bible passage with no context proves nothing. No, Martin Luther was obviously wrong. I’m just mentioning this parable because it’s an excellent illustration of the point about actions versus words. But as a side-note, it’s also an excellent illustration of why mainline protestants often have relatively little in common with Martin Luther and why it was left to the fundamentalists to really go whole-hog on Martin Luther’s theology: it was a direct contradiction of what Jesus himself taught.
John Calvin also had a hand in “say the magic words or burn”, though it was a bit different from the influence of Martin Luther. Though Luther and Calvin did agree on many points, they tended to agree for different reasons. While Martin Luther simply repudiated free will and the efficacy of reason—more or less believing that they never existed—John Calvin denied them because of the fall of man. According to Calvin man was free and and his reason worked before the first sin, but all that was destroyed with the first sin, resulting in the total depravity of man. Whereas Martin Luther thought that free will was nonsensical even as a concept, John Calvin understood what it meant but merely denied it. Ironically, John Calvin’s doctrines being a little more moderate than Martin Luther’s probably resulted in them having a much larger impact on the world; you had to be basically crazy to agree with Martin Luther, while you only needed to be deeply pessimistic to agree with John Calvin. Luther held that God was the author of evil, while Calvin at least said that all of the evil was a just punishment for how bad the first sin was. If outsiders can’t readily tell the difference between Calvin’s idea of God and the orthodox idea of the devil, insiders can’t even tell the difference between them in Martin Luther’s theology. Luther literally said that he had more faith than anyone else because he could believe that God is good despite choosing to damn so many and save so few. The rest of us, who don’t even try to believe blatant logical contradictions about God, just didn’t measure up. In the history of the world, Martin Luther is truly something special.
However, since both Luther and Calvin denied that there was such a thing as free will these days, Sola Fide necessarily took on a very strange meaning. Even a pledge of allegiance can’t do anything if you’re not the one who made it. So faith ends up becoming, especially for Calvin, just a sign that you will be saved. The thing is, while this is logically consistent—I mean, it may contradict common sense, but it doesn’t contradict itself—it isn’t psychologically stable. No one takes determinism seriously. The closest idea which is at least a little psychologically stable is that God is really just a god, if a really powerful god, so pledging allegiance is like becoming a citizen of a powerful, wealthy country. You’ll probably be safe and rich, but if you commit a crime you might spend some time in jail or even be deported. I realize that’s not the typical metaphor, but it’s fairly apt, and anyone born in the last several hundred years doesn’t have an intuitive understanding for what a feudal overlord is. This understanding of Sola Fide can’t be reconciled with Christianity, the whole point of which is to take seriously that God is the creator of the entire world and thus stands apart from it and loves it all. But this understanding of Sola Fide can plug into our instinct to be part of a tribe, which is why if you don’t think about it, it can be a stable belief.
So we come again to the loyalty pledge to the group—in a sense we have to because that is all a statement of belief without underlying intellectual belief ever can be—but with this crucial difference: whereas the fundamentalist generally is demanding loyalty to the immediate secular culture, the calvinist-inspired person can be pledging loyalty to something which transcends the immediate culture. I don’t want to oversell this because every culture—specific enough that a person can live in it—is always a subculture in a larger culture. But even so the calvinist-inspired magic-words-or-burn approach is not necessarily local. It is possible to be the only person who is on the team in an entire city, just like it’s possible to be the only Frenchman in Detroit. As such this form of magic-words-or-burn can have a strong appeal to anyone who feels themselves an outsider.
And the two forms of magic-words-or-burn are not very far apart and can easily become the other as circumstances dictate. And it should be borne in mind that one of those circumstances is raising children, because a problem which every parent has is teaching their children to be a part of their culture. In this fallen world, no culture is fully human, and equally problematic is that no human is fully human, so the result is that child and culture will always conflict. Beatings work somewhat, but getting buy-in from the child is much easier on the arms and vocal cords, and in the hands of less-than-perfect parents, anything which can be used to tame their children probably will be.
This would normally, I think, be a suitable conclusion to this video, but unfortunately it seems like salvation is a subject on which people are desperate to make some sort of error of exaggeration, so if we rule out the idea that beliefs are the only things that matter, many people will start running for the opposite side and try to jump off the cliff of beliefs not mattering at all. Or in other words, if salvation is possible to pagans, why should a Christian preach to them?
The short answer is that the truth is better for people than mistakes, even if mistakes aren’t deadly. This is because happiness consists in being maximally ourselves, and the only thing which allows us to do that is the truth. Silly examples are always clearer, so consider a man who thinks that he’s a tree and so stands outside with his bare feet in the dirt, arms outspread, motionless, trying to absorb water and nutrients through his toes and photosynthesize through his fingers. After a day or two, he will be very unhappy and a few days later he will die if he doesn’t repent of his mistake. Of course very few people make a mistake this stark—if nothing else anyone who does will die almost immediately, leaving only those who don’t make mistakes this extreme around. But the difference between this and thinking that life is about having sex with as many people as possible is a matter of degree, not of kind. You won’t die of thirst and starvation being a sex-maniac, and it will take you longer than a few days to become noticeably miserable, but it will happen with those who think they’re mindless sex machines as reliably as it will those who think they’re trees.
Pagans are in a similar situation to the pick-up-artists who think they’re mindless sex robots. Because paganism was a more widespread belief system that lasted much longer, it was more workable than pick-up-artistry, which is to say that it was nearer to the truth, but it was still wrong in ways that seriously affect human happiness. It varied with place and time, of course, but common mistakes were a focus on glory, the disposability of the individual, the inability of people to redeem themselves from errors, and so on. The same is true of other mistaken religions; they each have their mistakes, some more than others, and tend toward unhappiness to the degree that they’re wrong.
There is a second side to the importance of preaching Christianity to those who aren’t Christian, which is that life is real and salvation is about living life to the full, not skating by on the bare minimum. Far too many people think of this life as something unrelated to eternal life, as if once you make it to heaven you start over. What we are doing now is building creation up moment by moment. People who have been deceived will necessarily be getting things wrong and doing harm where they meant to help, and failing to help where they could have; it is not possible to be mistaken about reality and get everything right. That’s asking a person with vision problems to be an excellent marksman. A person who causes harm where they meant to help may not be morally culpable for the harm they do, but when all is made clear, they cannot be happy about the harm they did, while they will be able to be happy about the good they did. To give people the truth is to give them the opportunity to be happier. That is a duty precisely because we are supposed to love people and not merely tolerate them. Though I suppose I should also mention the balancing point that we’re supposed to give people the truth, not force it down their throats. Having given it to them, if they won’t take it, our job is done.
OK, I think I can conclude this video now. Until next time, may you hit everything you aim at.