The Idiot’s Guide to Salvation
The Spaniards in Mexico and Peru used to baptize Indian infants and then immediately dash their brains out: by this means they secured that these infants went to Heaven. No orthodox Christian can find any logical reason for condemning their action, although all nowadays do so.
–Bertrand Russell, Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization?
In Italy there is a particular form of revenge known as la gran vendetta designed to inflict maximum punishment on a person by bringing about death and eternal damnation. The tactic is to wait for the victim to commit, or to lure the victim into committing, a mortal sin and then assassinate that person before she or he repents. Later, the avenger can repent and still achieve eternal reward, thus completing the scheme of ultimate retribution.
If one accepts standard Christian soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) with respect to divine judgment and eternal damnation for the unrepentant mortal sinner, then the logic of la gran vendetta is unassailable. But what if one wants to ensure the eternal happiness of an individual? If standard Christian soteriology is true, then a logically compelling case can be made for the rationality of abortion and infanticide–which, in turn, undermines the plausibility of that soteriology and the Christianity of which it is an integral part.
Standard Christian soteriology holds that our life is in part a trial whose verdict, rendered by God, irrevocably determines our eternal postmortem fate. If our lives satisfy a certain standard, then we receive from God a reward of eternal heavenly bliss. If our lives fail to satisfy the standard, then we forfeit heaven and, according to most Christian interpretations, receive the eternal damnation of hell. Clearly the stakes involved in living properly are high indeed for Christians.
All good parents want their children to attain goals that are in the children’s best interests. The most important goal for Christians–the so-called summum bonum–is to attain eternal salvation and, concomitantly, to avoid eternal damnation. The gospels of Mark and Matthew make this point emphatically: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36; Matthew 16:26). Thus, good Christian parents should, above all else, want their children to attain eternal salvation and avoid eternal damnation.
The most commonly claimed Christian requirements for salvation are the performance of good deeds, the acknowledgment of Jesus as the true savior, and repentance of one’s sins. But clearly these can only be requirements for those who have attained the age of moral and rational accountability (no earlier than seven years of age). They cannot be satisfied by those who are nonaccountable, such as preborns (zygotes, embryos, and fetuses), infants, and young children. It only seems reasonable that a perfectly good God would waive the salvific requirements for non-accountables. As a result, all preborns, infants, and young children who die at that stage of their development should be guaranteed eternal salvation from a totally benevolent God.
In today’s world, most preborns, infants, and young children do not die at that stage of their development. Parents, however, could bring about this by practicing abortion or infanticide on them. This would guarantee eternal salvation for their offspring which, as was already pointed out, is the paramount Christian goal. Therefore, if Christian soteriology is true, good Christian parents should practice abortion or infanticide. Let’s call the argument leading to this conclusion A and examine some objections and responses:
Objection 1: God would find A’s cost-benefit approach to salvation odious and would never reward such base calculations.
Response: The carrot of eternal reward and the stick of eternal punishment have long been staples of Christian proselytizing. Christians have never been shy about attracting adherents by advertising that the benefits of being a Christian (eternal salvation) far exceed the costs, nor have they held that conversions based on anticipated eternal salvation are unacceptable to God. In fact, Christian apologists have explicitly affirmed its acceptability in what has become known as Pascal’s Wager: in essence, we should believe in God because from a cost-benefit perspective it is more profitable to do so than not; because if God does exist belief would gain us eternal salvation, while if he doesn’t exist belief would cost us hardly anything. It would be inconsistent to accept Pascal’s Wager and yet reject A.
Objection 2: Abortion and infanticide violate God’s will by taking innocent lives.
Response: First, these transgressions cannot harm God since, as the most perfect being possible, he is quite beyond harm. Moreover, abortion and infanticide contribute to the realization of an end that God desires–namely, that all people be saved. “For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:3-4).
Second, if Christian soteriology is true, then abortion and infanticide would not ultimately harm the offspring but, rather, guarantee their eternal happiness.
Objection 3: Practicing abortion or infanticide would harm the parents by bringing about their eternal damnation.
Response: First, the offspring would still receive their salvation even if this objection were sustained. Second, in the Christian tradition the only unforgivable sin is blasphemy of the spirit, which is deliberate resistance to the Holy Ghost (Matthew 12:31). Since the parents’ sin is not blasphemy of the spirit, they could, like the avengers practicing la gran vendetta, repent later and seek God’s forgiveness. Furthermore, there is at least some reason to think they could receive that forgiveness. After all, Christian scripture says, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). If parents would be willing to trade not only their own lives but also their own chances of salvation for the eternal happiness of their children, this should strengthen their case for forgiveness from a loving and compassionate God who could not fail to see the selfless quality of such willingness.
Objection 4: True repentance necessary for God’s forgiveness requires that sinners totally reject their sinful actions. But parents could not plausibly claim total rejection of their sinful actions in this matter since they committed them with the intention of subsequently renouncing them. God would realize such renunciations were programmed and would therefore withhold his forgiveness. Thus, parents would indeed lose salvation and suffer damnation.
Response: Don’t most sinners reason that they will sin now and repent later? The New Testament nowhere holds this attitude to be an insurmountable impediment to divine forgiveness. No less a Christian luminary than St. Augustine prayed, “[God] give me chastity and continency; only not yet,” suggesting his intention not to repent until his passions sufficiently abated. Christians believe that he eventually received forgiveness as indicated by his elevation to sainthood and by his status as one of the most universally revered church fathers. Therefore, performing sinful actions with the intention of repenting later does not appear to preclude obtaining forgiveness from God.
Objection 5: All humans are biologically conceived participating in the original sin of Adam and Eve. Consequently, abortion or infanticide would, in fact, doom preborns, infants, and young children to eternal damnation.
Response: Putting aside, for the sake of argument, the implausibility of inheriting moral culpability, two responses are in order here. First, this objection would, at most, only be a problem for preborns, given that infants and young children could be baptized first, thereby, according to most Christian traditions, freeing them from the taint of original sin.
Second, it would seem that an all-good God could not condemn the unbaptized for something for which they are not responsible. The synoptic gospels certainly emphasize Jesus’ concern for infants and young children: “And they brought unto him also infants, that he would touch them: but when his disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them unto him, and said, `Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for such is the kingdom of God'” (Luke 18:15-16; see also Matthew 18:1-6 and Mark 9:36-39, 10:13-16). There is no reason to think God would have any less concern for abortees. Thus, one could reasonably conclude that abortees would not be denied salvation because of original sin.
Objection 6: All or most Christians will be saved anyway, therefore abortion and infanticide need not be used for achieving salvation.
Response: It is not clear that all or most Christians will be saved. Jesus in fact suggested that many will not be saved: “Then said one unto him, `Lord, are there few that be saved?’ And he said unto them, `Strive to enter in at the strait gate: for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able'” (Luke 13:23-24; see also Matthew 7:14-15).
Moreover, it would be irrational to eschew a course of action that would guarantee an outcome of infinite value (eternal reward), even if the chances were decent, though not certain, that the outcome could be achieved without action.
Objection 7: If everyone were to commit abortion or infanticide, the human race would soon die out.
Response: First, the “what if everyone …” line of reasoning is notoriously weak in that, if it proves anything, it proves too much. This line of reasoning, for example, could equally well “prove” the unreasonable claim that being a Catholic priest or nun is immoral since that, too, would result in the end of the human race if everyone were to do it.
Second, it is extremely unlikely any time soon that everyone would agree to have an abortion or commit infanticide. Certainly, non-Christians, who still constitute a significant majority of the human race two millennia after the founding of Christianity, would undoubtedly reject the Christian soteriology that supports the otherwise unsavory behavior directed by conclusion A.
Third, on the one hand, one might simply respond, “So be it!” According to Christian eschatology, God never intended the human race’s tenure on Earth to be endless anyway. True, if all parents were to act as A specifies, this might preempt God’s preferred plan for the human race, but that is a danger incurred by endowing one’s creations with free will. This would not be the first time humans have forced a change in divine plans. Christians hold that God did not intend that Adam and Eve should commit the original sin that removed them from paradise. On the other hand, how can one be sure that the practices specified by A aren’t, in fact, part of God’s plan? Christians are fond of remarking that God works in mysterious ways.
There are three important conclusions I wish to draw from the preceding analysis; one is logical, one moral, and one psychological.
The logical point. My defense of the soundness of A is meant as a reductio ad absurdum argument against the plausibility of standard Christian soteriology and, by extension, against standard Christianity itself. That is, since A shows that standard Christian soteriology unavoidably leads to the horrific conclusion that it is rationally justified and desirable for all parents to abort all pregnancies or commit infanticide on all children under the age of accountability, then standard Christian soteriology is implausible, as well as inconsistent with other doctrines of Christianity. But since this soteriology is an indispensable part of standard Christianity, then standard Christianity is also seriously flawed.
The reason A is such an effective reductio argument is that, although Christianity prides itself as ultimately grounded in love of God, its soteriology is teleological–that is, goal-oriented toward achieving the summum bonum of eternal happiness. Try as it may by emphasizing agape (altruistic love), Christianity cannot escape the fatal weakness of teleology–namely, that the end, salvation, always justifies the means, in this case abortion and infanticide. In effect, Christianity is hoist with its own marketing petard. The Christian soteriology that attracts so many is also the soteriology that exposes Christianity’s implicit implausibility.
The moral point. In recent battles over induced abortion, conservative Christians have led the opposition to its moral and legal acceptance. However, if the essence of immorality is to cause unwarranted harm to another, then A shows that it is inconsistent for Christians to judge abortion to be immoral. For, given Christian soteriology, abortion causes no harm. On the contrary, it guarantees the eternal salvation of the aborted, enhances the good of Christian parents by satisfying their highest parental aspiration of securing salvation for their offspring, and pleases God insofar as he wants all to be saved. Thus, the Christian claim of abortion’s immorality is undermined.
The psychological point. It seems safe to say that under virtually no circumstances would the vast majority of Christian parents ever act on A’s conclusion. If one’s true degree of conviction about something is most accurately reflected in high-stakes decisions about it –for example, (supposedly) no atheists in foxholes–then the reticence of Christian parents to follow A may be read as a candid indication of their lack of conviction about the truth of Christianity’s faith-based soteriological claims.
In summary, I have tried to show that Christian soteriology is incoherent. It leads to the conclusion that abortion and infanticide, which Christianity otherwise condemns, are, in fact, the most certain means of achieving a Christian’s highest good: eternal salvation. I conclude, therefore, that Christian soteriology and the Christianity which fosters it are quite implausible views.
Richard Schoenig is professor of philosophy at San Antonio College in San Antonio, Texas, and has a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Notre Dame and a Ph.D. in philosophy from Indiana University at Bloomington.
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