When Christians say things like that (believe and you will be saved) non-Christians tend to roll their eyes. From the outside it seems like a classic case of delusional wishful thinking: say three Hail Mary’s, turn around and touch the ground and you’ll go to heaven when you die. It seems a bit like people with chronic OCD who need to tap the door seven times before they open it otherwise something terrible might happen.
Except in the Christian case, it’s not a magic incantation or a special rite that will “save” you: it’s not something you say or do, not any particular Mumbo Jumbo or bizarre religious observance (pulling out a virgin’s heart on a sacrificial altar being an old favourite). It’s what you believe, not what you do. This is why Christianity, unlike Judaism and Islam, is more interested in orthodoxy (right belief) than orthopraxy (right practice).
It’s why Saint Paul keeps on about grace being more important than works:
And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work. (Romans 11:6)
And Saint John has this:
For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. (John 1:10)
So what is grace? It seems to be something like a gratuitous gift from God, freely given, rather than a reward or payment for doing something good. The “law” of Moses can be understood in the broadest sense as akin to the law of karma: what goes around comes around: do good works and good things will come back to you. In the Eastern religions, this is understood as an impersonal cosmic law, something like Newton’s third law in the physical realm. In the Jewish tradition, it is referred back to the source of all good things and all right justice, JHWH.
So in the game of life, Christians have a “cheat mode”. They don’t need to notch up Brownie points and live faultless lives in order to impress Saint Peter and persuade him to let them through the pearly gates on the last day. They have this special thing called “grace”. And how do they get this grace? It seems that all they have to do is “believe”. This is where the eye-rolling really gets going. Really? You just have to believe and shazam kazaam? So if you want to be rich you just have to believe that there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, I suppose?
And what do you have to believe? You have to believe that this man called Jesus was crucified, died and after three days rose from the dead and ascended up to heaven, and now sits at the right hand of God, and that he died for you, for the forgiveness of sins and for your eternal salvation. Just believe that if you can and you’re good to go! But how on Earth can Christians be so gullible to believe that if they believe that then they automatically receive this amazing saving grace? And why do they need to be saved anyway? It’s crackers!
When non-Christians hear these kinds of things from Christians, this kind of reaction is perfectly understandable. Not only do Christians seem crazy and deluded, but also self-satisfied and smug. They seem to honestly believe that just because they believe this bag of nonsense, they are somehow better than everyone else. They are saved because they believe, and so it follows as night follows day that everyone else who doesn’t believe must therefore be damned. Really? Eternal hellfire and damnation just for being rational and sane? What kind of a sick God is this anyway?
If you read my post Tripping is Believing, you will know that there are two different modes of belief related to the two brain hemispheres. Left hemisphere belief is about explicit assent to a factual proposition, which may or may not be true. For example, I believe that we’ve run out of milk (but I’m not 100% sure). Right hemisphere belief is about implicit trust in an unverifiable proposition. For example, I believe in my mind’s ability to grasp truth (something that cannot be objectively demonstrated).
Sometimes it seems as though Christians are talking about left hemisphere belief (especially certain Evangelical Christians and Fundamentalists). This is infuriating for non-Christians, but also for other Christians. What do you mean you literally believe this story, just so you can count yourself among the elect? Isn’t that totally mercenary? Aren’t you essentially being dishonest in believing something unbelievable just for personal gain? Does being in the Church give you benefits? Friends maybe? A sense of community? What if you had to believe in a Spaghetti Monster instead? Would you do it?
This common atheist critique carries with it a certain amount of outrage against the apparent violation of the elementary principles of rationality in favour of some superstitious nonsense. What flagrant disregard for reason, surely our highest and most prized human faculty. People don’t come back from the dead. And they certainly don’t float up into the sky. Surely any hope for the future of humanity lies in unswerving fidelity to Truth, which means at the very least that we should only believe things that are reasonable and not flat-out insane?
Fair enough. To believe that Jesus literally died and rose again and ascended into heaven and that by believing that you will get your golden ticket to go to heaven too might be excusable for a five year old child, but surely not for a rational adult. But what else is there? Please don’t tell me it’s all just symbolic!
Well here’s my ha’penny’s worth. Religious belief is not what we ordinarily think of as “belief”. In other words, it’s not left hemisphere belief. Grace is not what we ordinarily think of as grace. And salvation is not what we ordinarily think of as salvation. To understand how the title of this post can be literally true and not arbitrarily crazy, you must shift the direction of your gaze from the future to the present. We can’t help instinctively thinking about the Christian faith within the framework of the “law”, which is about punishment or reward in the future for present behaviour, and so miss the real meaning. We are stuck in a karmic paradigm.
The statement “believe and you will be saved” is not a promise or a prediction about the future. It is a description of what happens in the present if you believe. It’s not just a hypothesis or theory. It’s not wishful thinking. If I do something now which has no discernible effect on me (take communion and accept Jesus Christ as my personal saviour for example) in the hope that this will magically safeguard my future in this life and the next, that’s wishful thinking. However, if I do something now which utterly transforms me and turns my life upside down, that’s not wishful thinking. That’s real.
The fact is, as countless Christians have attested, if you truly believe, if you truly repent, if you truly trust in God, and if you do this existentially, which is to say, not just abstractly, left hemisphere style, you will receive abundant grace and eternal life here and now, not in some hypothetical future there and then. You will be saved from the endless rounds of the ego-driven Wheel of Life. You will be saved from yourself. How does this happen? I have no idea. But that’s no reason not to believe my own experience and the testimony of millions of people throughout the ages.
The proof is in the pudding and by their fruits shall ye know them.