Facts not in Evidence
David has a provocative little entry in his blog titled Faith and Righteousness. It is so short that I can quote it in full:
Two people do the same good deed—the first believes they will be rewarded, while the second is unsure. Which deed is more righteous?
Two people live equally charitable lives—the first is a Christian with a strong faith, the second is an agnostic. Which person is more righteous?
I ran these questions by a friend, and he didn't have an immediate answer, even though this friend is a knowledgable Christian. So my first reaction is, "good job, you found a difficult point." On second thought, my response to these two questions is, "you are assuming facts not in evidence."
First, for my own assumption: since the two questions are posed by themselves, with parallel construction, I assume that David means to assert an equivalence between the first question and the second one. In other words, his implication is that Christians are less righteous than agnostics even when they do good things, because Christians believe that their acts of righteousness will be rewarded. This is what I'm assuming the argument is here.
Second, let me give this argument its due. It's a strong emotional argument. It captures the situation -- played out in countless dramas real and imagined -- of someone who has figured out a hidden evaluation and games it. Mom and Dad are looking to see who will spontaneously clean their room to find out who gets to choose where they go out for dinner. So one child, overhearing the conversation, and knowing that the command to clean the room is not far behind, gets the jump and gets the choice. The whole situation seems unfair -- the one child knew something the others did not and was acting not virtuously, but in self-interest. No one likes that kind of kid.
Emotional -- yes. Powerful -- maybe. Valid -- no. The argument assumes that a "righteous act" is the same thing for a believer and unbeliever. This is simply not true. It assumes a fact that is not in evidence. It is beyond a simple preliminary answer like this one to explore the definition of a righteous act in full. It is complicated enough, though, that this emotional argument -- implying that believers are rasacally children who have overheard some secret to finding divine favor -- simply does not hold water.
We just read an appointed Gospel lesson in church that relates directly to this claim and situation. In Matthew 25, Jesus is describing judgment day, as the people of the world are separated into two groups. The king's interaction with the righteous includes this portion:
34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016).
If, in fact, life is some kind of trial where people are to be evaluated on the ethics they achieved and rewarded with eternal pleasure or punished forever, then this passage is a giant joke. When it happens, what is the Christian going to be thinking? "Ah, here is the King, just like the story, and now I'm supposed to pretend I didn't know I was doing good things to Him while I did them for some hapless unfortunate"? The fact is, everyone knows this story, even millions of unbelievers. How many people took every opportunity to visit a stranger? And, conversely, how many were so callous that they never took a single opportunity to do so? A simple reading of this situation leads to a ludicrous result. It's as if all of heaven is to be populated by Eddy Haskells.
In reality, Christianity is a relationship, not merely an ethical standard. Ethics are certainly a part of faith, but faith transcends ethics. There are plenty of reasons to be good, and plenty of reasons to encourage others to be good. If, however, the agnostic is to be considered more virtuous than the Christian because of these encouragements (both human and divine), then one must assume that the agnostic herself is not merely acting to mollify her own conscience and achieve some inner self acceptance. How is this any more virtuous than trying to please a god?
The account of the sheep and the goats, if anything, shows how little these acts of righteousness mean to God, when they get noticed on earth. To quote from the other end of Matthew, "when doing your acts of righteousness, do not let your left hand know what the right hand is doing." The only way to keep a secret from oneself is to do it so naturally that it is unconscious.
My buddy Ely preached on this text just last Sunday, and if you are willing to hear the whole thing, I think he makes this point pretty well:<iframe width="853" height="480" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/CzQvvFr1qo8" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe>
So, in summary, I'd say that this argument sounds compelling emotionally, but founders on assumptions of facts not in evidence.