So I have this problem with Christian pat answers.
I recently watched a clip of footage from a conference where a panel of experts (or so I assume) was addressing pastoral, moral and theological questions. This question was basically: My brother isn’t a Christian. He doesn’t believe that there’s any such thing as sin, so we don’t need to be saved from it. What should I say to him?
Listen to the answer for yourself:
Steal his wallet.
A room full of Christian adults, along with the panelists, laughs as though this is a brilliant, succinct takedown by R C Sproul. Links to this clip in social media reveal that plenty of Christians, even Christians who take themselves to be intellectually sharp and involved in apologetics, think that there’s a great argument going on here.
There isn’t. This isn’t “BRILLIANT!” as some commenters are saying. This is a terrible pat answer that should make you roll your eyes and which may doom your chances of ever getting your brother to listen to you again on this subject. Don’t do this.
A person who claims that there’s no such thing as sin might mean a couple of things. He might believe that there are moral facts – some things are right and others wrong – but that immoral actions aren’t “sins” because “sins” implies that they are offences against God, and he doesn’t believe in God. He’s wrong, that’s not what “sin” necessarily means, but in any event, stealing his wallet is clearly not going to change his mind. He’ll just think you did something wrong and he’ll want his wallet back. And now he’ll think you’re a jerk, which is hardly what the person who asked this question is aiming for.
Or, this guy might mean that there really aren’t any moral facts. This is called an error theory of morality: Moral judgements are all false because there are no moral facts. However, there are things that I don’t like and things that other people don’t like because those things hurt us and are generally bad for a functional society, so we’ve formed these conventions called laws – including laws against stealing. But they are just conventions – they don’t refer to any truths beyond the fact that we’ve just agreed to enforce our preferences and that is that. Some error theorists might not word things that way, but this at least is coherent.
Now, what happens if we steal this guy’s wallet? Is he suddenly going to realise that there are moral facts after all? Hardly. He already knew that people’s wallets got stolen – that’s why these preferences need to be enshrined in law, backed up with the threat of force. All he will think is: You’re a jerk (again) and your behaviour is not compatible with the sort of society that I want to live in.
It’s a silly pat answer. Here’s some advice to any Christians who want to present themselves as apologists: Don’t engage in this sort of pat answering of questions. Somebody sent in this question hoping for a serious answer. He didn’t get one.
So what would have been a good answer? Well, it wouldn’t be as snappy or memorable that’s for sure. If your brother meant the first option: That there are moral truths but there are no sins because there’s no God, then my suggestion would be to suggest a moral argument for God’s existence. I’ve suggested a way of doing this elsewhere.
But what if your brother means that there are no moral facts. How do you convince him using an argument that there really are moral facts? That’s not easy. Frankly I would doubt his claim and I would think that he really does believe in moral facts and acts as though that belief is true. But if somebody digs their toes in and tells you that black is white, what do you do (and no, the difficulty of the argument does not justify the use of a pat answer like “steal his wallet”)? Perhaps it would involve asking your brother to entertain a thought experiment about an alternative society that was perfectly functional but tortured and killed children who became too freckly. Most people aren’t too freckly so the society was stable and durable. They all just really, really hated freckles. Although we might not like living in a society like that, are they really doing nothing wrong? Maybe it’s not compassionate, but we’re not required by anything above and beyond ourselves to be compassionate, right? Or come up with another thought experiment, but essentially we’re testing the professed belief about there being no moral truths.
My experience is that this type of conversation, over time, can soften a person’s resistance to the existence of moral truths. But if they are completely entrenched and won’t budge, then this isn’t the way to go. If you’re going to talk to them about God, you’ll have to do it some other way, for example by talking to them about the historic person Jesus of Nazareth and the resurrection. Then, once they more open to the reality of God (and let’s face it, that may never happen), you might want to ask them to reconsider the question of sin.
But please, don’t just serve up a pat answer like this that can be uttered in two seconds. There are enough people laughing at Christian apologetics and the truths we mean to convey for bad reasons – don’t give them a good reason.
- Laws of logic, laws of morality
- Divine Command Ethics: Ontology versus epistemology
- Public Lecture: The New Atheism, Science and Morality
- Bradley on the alleged contradiction of Christian ethics
- Aquinas and his “Moral Argument”
19 thoughts on “Pat answers: No, do not steal his wallet”
The question was not whether this person had sinned, but whether sin exists at all. On that basis, I thought the trite answer was entirely legitimate. Saying there’s no such thing as sin is a bit like saying there’s no such thing as oxygen. It’s demonstrably false. I mean, do bad things happen in the world or not? There’s your answer, and that’s pretty much what they were saying. At some point in apologetics, you just have to call out ridiculous premises for what they are, and I think you’re trying to make the definition of sin too complicated. “Hamartia” , translated to English as “sin”, is not restricted to the intellectual domain of moral law, it’s an archery term for failing to hit the target. CS Lewis expounds on it pretty well in the first chapter of Mere Christianity. Is there anyone living or dead who has not failed to “hit the target” at some point? If someone steals your wallet, then sin exists, and if that’s a concept that someone is too blind to grasp, then nothing but prayer is going to snap them out of that and open their eyes.
“The question was not whether this person had sinned, but whether sin exists at all.”
Right, and that’s what I said. “If someone steals your wallet, then sin exists”
Only if stealing wallets is a sin. But I’ve already commented on why this is an inadequate reply. The person in question already knows that wallets get stolen, but he doesn’t believe it’s a sin. So either he knows it’s wrong, but doesn’t think it’s a sin because sin is a religious concept involving God, or else he doesn’t believe in objective right and wrong. But he knows that wallets get stolen.
Blair, It’s not a ridiculous way of thinking according to his brother so it requires a sensible response. Try being open to the idea that other people think differently to you and believe that they do so legitimately, even if you believe them incorrect. Lead them from their position to yours, don’t just call it ridiculous.
The (lack of) response from the rest of the panel is truly sad. The questioner is no better equipped than before.
On the information given I’d have to agree with Blair and the original “pat answer”… at least as a conversation starter.
If a person is questioning sin maybe they don’t recognise right and wrong or maybe they don’t acknowledge God’s existence. Proposing to steal his wallet will help clarify what the person’s objection is.
“Proposing to steal his wallet will help clarify what the person’s objection is.”
I can think of another way: Ask him what his claim is. Stealing his wallet neither shows him that he is wrong nor serves as an endearing apologetic.
So either he knows it’s wrong, but doesn’t think it’s a sin because sin is a religious concept involving God, or else he doesn’t believe in objective right and wrong. But he knows that wallets get stolen.
Yes, but that’s the point – to broaden the narrow view of sin as being a “religious concept” into one which is a phenomenon of the world as it exists. Because we know (or I hope we do), that sin is not *just* a religious concept or an intellectual idea, but far broader than that. The comment “steal his wallet” makes that point perfectly adequately. Nobody is literally expecting the questioner to do that. But hopefully the questioner will take the comment and use it to expound on the broader definition of sin that it implies.
Nathan – some beliefs are simply objectively ridiculous, and mocking them may be the best way to snap people out of them. I don’t buy this nonsense that we must respect every single belief that people hold. Christ Himself was quite scathing of intellectual ignorance when He came across it.
“to broaden the narrow view of sin as being a “religious concept” into one which is a phenomenon of the world as it exists.”
But he already knows that wallets get stolen in the world. I’m not following this.
“Stealing his wallet neither shows him that he is wrong nor serves as an endearing apologetic.”
What do you expect will happen? That the questioner will actually steal the guy’s wallet? It would be wrong to take the answerer literally.
The questioner, if he is sensible, will go home and tell his friend about the suggestion of stealing the wallet and have a laugh about the incongruous suggestion. I think everyone (even psychopaths) would recognise that a thief wrongs them by stealing their wallet. Having your wallet stolen is being sinned against.
If someone denies the existence of water you just need to identify some water for him (maybe bring him a glass of water)… he doesn’t need a science lesson.
Reed, it looks like you are saying that a moral antirealist, if somebody sins against him, will change his mind and become a moral realist.
But this is empirically proven false every day. So why do you believe it?
To the best of my knowledge I’ve never met anyone that wouldn’t think they had been wronged (i.e. sinned against) if their wallet were stolen.
Can you find someone for this discussion that actually believes they are not wronged by having their wallet stolen?
[Aside: “… So why do you believe it?” – I’m not sure I even believe in moral antirealists. ]
Reed, a person who is a moral antirealist will be annoyed if you steal their wallet. They will deem it bad for them, illegal, undesirable, harmful and so on. So of course they will not just say “oh well, that’s fine.”
But if you ask them whether you had violated an objective moral duty, the answer is no. I have no need to run off and find somebody for you who says this. Just read some of the literature on meta-ethics. Mackie or Nietzsche would serve the purpose.
Your objection to the “pat answer” relies on there being people who believe they are not wronged by having their wallets stolen. I (and you) doubt any people like this really exist.
Do Mackie or Nietzsche argue that *they* could not be wronged? (Note: this is not a question of fineness or objective moral duties.)
Reed, that comment seems not to take into account my previous reply. I’ve explained why their objecting to having their wallet stolen doesn’t imply that they really believe in sin.
If being wronged just means having anything done to you that you don’t appreciate, then of course we all believe that we can be wronged. But just asserting that this matter has nothing to do with objective moral wrongness is simply a way of saying that you don’t want to talk about what’s actually at issue here. Which is fine I guess!
“Reed, that comment seems not to take into account my previous reply.”
Your previous reply changed the agent. “Can a person be wronged?” is a different question from “can a person commit wrong?” One might infer the other but violating an objective moral duty is not the same as being wronged.
A person might recognise his own authority over his own wallet. He could recognise a violation of that authority without recognising any objective moral duty (on the part of the violator). Having your authority violated would be being wronged in a moral sense (Note: this is not about fineness, annoyance or objective moral duties.).
Reed, the answer to all of these questions is sitting there in this thread. I don’t see the source of the problem.
My first answer kept the victim as the subject: ‘Reed, a person who is a moral antirealist will be annoyed if you steal their wallet. They will deem it bad for them, illegal, undesirable, harmful and so on. So of course they will not just say “oh well, that’s fine.”’
So sure, they will experience something and they will not like it, and they will deem it to be the various things that I listed. But that’s nor about moral truths.
But if by “wronged” you meant the victim of an objective wrongdoing, then I’ve answered that, too. If they do not believe in objective moral truths, then the answer is foregone.
And this is indeed about objective moral wrongdoing. As long as you say it’s not, we are not meeting in the middle. As long as you’re not talking about moral truth, I don’t even know what you are talking about when you say that a person might recognise his authority over his wallet. What kind of authority? Legal? Yes. But what else? I recognise my moral authority over my wallet, but then I believe in moral truths.
So what do you mean?
> A person who claims that there’s no such thing as sin might mean a couple of things.
A person who claims that there’s no such thing as sin might “mean” any number of things. (People don’t mean things, words do.)
As suggested by Blair, the brother might think that ‘sin’ means falling short of the mark. If he believes that there’s no such thing as sin, then he ought also to believe either that there is no mark, or that nothing falls short of it. Or else harbour a contradiction.
Blair, I didn’t say you had to respect anything. Whether their view is valid or not, it’s still the view in which they operate, and includes all the reference points associated with it. In terms of explaining what the questioner has asked, stealing the guy’s wallet really does only achieve one thing: the theft of his wallet. When his wallet is stolen he will interpret that action within his own terms of reference, not someone else’s. The brother will be none the wiser on what sin is after his wallet is gone because within his view, stealing a wallet is already wrong. At best it proves what he already knows.
It’s subtle, but important. The brother needs his moral horizon expanded. Stealing his wallet will not do that.
Nobody is literally stealing any freaking wallets. The only people who think so seem to be on this page.
The purpose of the comment is not to convince anyone that sin is an objective moral truth. We ourselves know that it is, but it is completely unnecessary to talk about. It’s pearls before swine. It’s climbing the mountain to get to the destination instead of taking the tunnel.
Sin is people doing bad things. We don’t need to elaborate on what is objectively bad. It’s entirely enough to know that bad things happen. If bad things happen, we need the Good News to redeem humanity. It might keep theologians in jobs and speaking engagements to pretend apologetics is more complicated than that, but it isn’t.
“Nobody is literally stealing any freaking wallets. The only people who think so seem to be on this page.”
Er, no, nobody on this thread has said so. Of course he won’t follow through and do this. But Sproul’s suggestion is that this would have taught him something (if that isn’t what Sproul meant then he’s not a very good communicator). Sproul was wrong.
“Sin is people doing bad things.” The person in this scenario who said that there is no sin already knows that things happen that can be called bad in some way. If you just show him that bad things happen, he’ll say “Well obviously. I knew that.”
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