Friday, October 23, 2015

"Did I offend you? Good." : The Perversity of Inverse Wishful Thinking.

Recently my evangelical Christian brother, and often theological sparring partner, asked a stimulating question; Is substitutionary atonement the most offensive idea in Christianity?

Substitutionary atonement is pretty much the theologically nerdy way of describing the idea that Jesus died for our sins. In substitutionary atonement Jesus death serves as a human sacrifice on our behalf.  It is understood by its adherents as a necessary adoption of the punishment incurred by our sinfulness in order for us to be at one (or atoned) with God. Within the theology of substitutionary atonement you can understand our sinfulness as the commission of bad acts by each of us individually or a corporate human responsibility for Adam and Eve’s garden folly or even an inherited corrupted nature that we can do nothing about. 

What intrigued me about my brothers question however was that he didn’t find substitutionary atonement offensive. He didn’t mean to ask his question in a way that was critical of Christianity or this idea in particular. He likes the idea of substitutionary atonement. In fact he meant to pin to subsititutionary atonement the mark of “offensiveness” as a badge of honour. That is interesting. What assumptions are behind this idea that offensiveness is somehow a virtue?

This inverse use of offensiveness is not unique to either my brother or his theology although it is evangelical Christianity where I have encountered this useage most commonly. When I googled “the offensiveness of the cross” and “offensiveness of the gospel” (both autocomplete entries on my google account) I received results that were only pro-cross and pro-gospel. Offensiveness was always a good thing; a measure of the truth of the message. Nobody after all likes to hear the truth.

This way of thinking has a danger. Even if nobody likes to hear the truth this doesn’t mean that the truth is whatever nobody likes to hear. The truth may be that I am not a great writer. I don’t want to hear that. I also however don’t want to hear that my head is a bum - which it is not. If we take offensiveness as a virtue too far we enter the ridiculous; “Methinks he doth protest too much” makes any opposition to our position evidence for it.

I have personally encountered Christian evangelists who take this stance. Their argument for their faith largely consists of highlighting how unlikeable the prospect of having to submit ones life to judgement by God is. It assails our pride. It is offensive. Therefore by implication all opposition to this idea is basically self-serving while believing in this idea, because it is not self-serving must be because it is true. Scary logic.

But these evangelists are sometimes mirrored by their opponents.  Who hasn’t heard the characterization of belief in God as a crutch to lean on. The implication is that an atheist universe is just too hard to bear for the religious. Again by implication all opposition to this atheism is basically self-serving whereas atheism, because it is not self-serving, means it is true.  The burden of atheism is cast as its virtue – it is correct precisely because it is unpalatable.

I call these arguments the inverse wishful thinking arguments. Arguments from wishful thinking argue for what is on the basis of what would be nice. Inverse wishful arguments reverse this illogic but are no better. They are however extreme and maybe even strawman versions of the sort of thing my brother was doing with his question. I don’t mean to insinuate that he was suggesting the offensiveness of substitutionary atonement was a proof of it, merely some kind of “badge of honour” unrelated to its correctness.

But I wondered as I read my brothers question, “Shouldn’t what we find offensiveness be a default guide to the wrongness of an idea? Not an exclusive or perfect guide but a nudge in the other direction? A negative quality, rather than a positive? In the absence of anything else to go on shouldn’t offensiveness tip us away from an option rather than make it attractive?”.

That assumption of mine seemed so culturally at odds with my brother’s question. And when I googled those phrases, “the offensiveness of the cross” or the gospel, I asked myself, “How is it that offensiveness is celebrated in every one of these evangelical Christian blogs and articles? Shouldn’t it be atheists making this claim?”

I guess I am saying that while arguments from wishful thinking are not really arguments at all they still seem better non-arguments than their inverse. It seems less perverse to fall into the trap of wishful thinking than the trap of making offensiveness into something good. Further if we are talking about God and God’s plan then maybe this permits us some entertainment that the ideal is a map for reality. If God is perfection then what would be nice maybe ought to be closer to what is true than what offends us as yucky or dumb. Even if not, doesn’t it seem sensible to err in that direction?

We seem to be generally attracted to making life hard for ourselves. Not only offensiveness  but also difficulty is swallowed dutifully as if it was a foul tasting medicine. One option over another can be discredited by alleging it is “the easy way out” or the “soft option”.  Yet surely, excluding all other factors, the easiest route is the best one to take. We don't exit rooms by the windows.

Psychologically inverse wishful thinking comes across as self-hating. Supposedly this is the me generation. This is the age of entitlement, just ending, according to some. I’m not so sure that’s true or at least we keep our self-flagellation tools close at hand. Otherwise why would inoffensive sound like an insult? Why do we extol the hard road? Yes, I see it as silly but I do it too.

Perhaps it's that the desire for the difficult and unpleasant is perennially justified. We do regularly let ourselves and others down. We feel bad about it. Thus a world that would be mean and disappointing to us would balance things somewhat. Which I guess makes inverse wishful thinking just normal wishful thinking after all. 


  1. Hey Tony,

    At first I wasn't happy with your portrayal of my position. You said: "He likes the idea of substitutionary atonement. In fact he meant to pin to subsititutionary atonement the mark of “offensiveness” as a badge of honour." That is your interpretation of my thoughts and my meaning, but I disagree. I think it would have been fairer for you to say that this is what you presume or how you interpret my ideas, as you definitely aren't quoting me. Better still, you could have just asked me if this is what I think. That wouldn't have been hard and would have saved me having to clarify my position.

    There is an element in which I do "like" the atonement, but only because of it's benefits. It is similar to the way that a cancer patient might say that they like that there is chemotherapy. For them, chemo is life and for me, so is the cross. But like that cancer patient, I would love to live in a world where the atonement was not necessary. The atonement is horrible and it grieves me that Christ died for me, even as I am grateful for it. I do not like that Jesus died in my place. I do not like that I sin and I do not like that he suffered the condemnation and death that my sin deserves. Substitutionary atonement does not "offend" me, but it is wrong to say that I like it.

    Also, I do not see the offensiveness of the atonement as a "badge of honour". I posted that comment, not because I think it's so cool that everyone is offended the atonement, but because I have genuinely encountered that offense. I had also heard someone talk on that topic and thought it was a worthy topic to discuss, and so I posted it on Facebook.

    In fact, my facebook post was not a statement, it was a question:

    "Substitutionary atonement is the most offensive idea in Christianity."
    Do you think that's true? If so, why?

    I do think that the idea that people are sinful and their sins deserve condemnation and death by a Holy God, is an offensive idea to most people who generally think they are an ok bloke. I remember you once telling me, if you discover God exists when you die, you look forward to sitting down with God over a cup of tea and chatting about stuff. The fact that you could think that might be a reasonable scenario shows you have no concept of God's holiness and no concept of your sin. Even in your comment on a recent post, you proposed that the gospel ("good news") might be that "God has never been at war with us". The prospect that you are facing the judgement of God, both now and eternally when you die, is an offensive, or at least, foreign concept. The atonement is, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1:18, "foolish" to you.

    I am not proud that the cross is offensive. I do not wear it as a "badge of honour". I am not proud of its offensiveness. I am devastated by it. I wish it were not so. It should not be so. Our knowledge of God's holiness should be so that we see our need for forgiveness as clear as day. But we do not have that knowledge naturally. That is a gift God gives, and so, while people see the atonement as offensive or foolish, I am not proud of that fact.

  2. Having said all that, I do understand the principle you move on to talking about. I have seen in myself and others the idea that if a truth is hard or unpalatable or brings suffering, it must be more virtuous to believe it and therefore it must be more "true". Most recently, I have seen that in the first few months of Dorothy being conceived. Cat & I basically expected that we would have a miscarriage or have a disabled child, just because we thought that it would be virtuous for us to be given such suffering. We soon realised this and remembered that God is kind and, although he may allow us to have that common suffering, we shouldn't expect it as the more nobler path.

    I also agree that people can gravitate to difficult paths of life or of theology, out of what you nicely call "inverse wishful thinking". I agree that the hardness of an idea doesn't give any weight to it truthfulness.

    I am sorry that you believe that's how I think about the atonement. I don't think it's true because it's hard. For me, its truthfulness is based on the words of Jesus and the New Testament writers, both of which I believe are trustworthy, whether you find them easy or hard.

    1. To quote myself from this blog "I don’t mean to insinuate that he (meaning you Simon) was suggesting the offensiveness of substitutionary atonement was a proof of it, merely some kind of “badge of honour” unrelated to its correctness."

      I don't see anything you've said either here or on facebook to change this opinion. I do however accept that my statement of "He likes substitutionary atonement" is glib and trite and misrepresents your tone.

      I did ask you directly whether you found substitutionary atonement offensive and you said you didn't with some length to your reply. I still now read your words as saying that the two motivations behind taking offense with substitutionary atonement are to exalt our own goodness or to minimise God's standards and our sin. Both suggestions seem to me to be clearly intended to praise this doctrine for its offensiveness ( a bit like saying a person doesn't like a tv show because it confronts them with their prejudice to use another example). So I feel I did check your opinion on this.

      I wonder if you find it as remarkable as I did that my search for the offensiveness of the cross or gospel will get you a bundle of Christian views which in fact are praising this theology for its offence. I do think its impolite of me to single you out for some facebook comments of some day in a way that risks mischaracterisation. I could have chosen one of those search results for my example.

      I referred to you in this post simply because you prompted my writing and in fact I am grateful for you drawing a post out of me after a long break. Truly I am.

  3. You have claimed that I have said that "the two motivations behind taking offense with substitutionary atonement are to exalt our own goodness or to minimise God's standards and our sin. Both suggestions seem to me to be clearly intended to praise this doctrine for its offensiveness."

    Firstly, I never said that there are only two motivations for taking offense at the atonement. I can name several others that people raise, such as the suggestion that it is unjust for someone else to take our punishment, or the suggestion that the atonement is akin to divine child abuse, evoking the image of an angry father beating an innocent son. I think there may be several reasons why people could get offended by the idea of the atonement. I simply mentioned two of them. They are the two heart motivations that I see in many people I talk to, but they are by no means exhaustive.

    But even if I was saying that every person is offended at the atonement because of what it reveals about their own heart, that is still not necessarily praising the doctrine for its offensiveness. It offensiveness is not the reason why the atonement is praiseworthy. The atonement would and should be praiseworthy even if no one was offended by it and everyone accepted both it and what it says about our need for forgiveness. To think that I am happy and even proud of the atonement's offensiveness like some "badge of honour" is to miss my intended tone again.
    The offensiveness of the atonement is cause for weeping and prayer, not pride. If I have come across as praising the death of Christ, purely on the basis that it offends people, then I am very sorry that my praise has been so unclear and misconstrued.

    I'm not saying that that way of thinking is not out there. I'm sure it is. Though forgive me if I don't find it remarkable that a Google search will find a whole lot of unhelpful or unhealthy religious ideas. I wonder if you find it remarkable that if I type "Moon landing hoax" into Google, I get over 1 million hits.

    Also, the idea of the "offensiveness of the cross" is actually a biblical idea, though it's not exactly what you are referring to. Some of those articles that you may have scanned, could be trying to understand Paul's words in Galatians 5:11... "Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished." In this verse, Paul is talking about how the cross' free offer of amnesty was offensive to the "circumcision group", a group of false teachers who believed that obeying the Old Testament law made you right with God. Not sure if that adds anything to your thoughts on this topic. Just thought I'd point you to it.

    In any case, please don't lump me in with those who would praise the cross purely due to its potential offensiveness. There are so many other reasons to praise the work that Jesus did on our behalf, and my praise would only increase the less people found it offensive and the more people embraced it.