Gospel Disproof #54: The wages of sin

There’s an old saying (frequently attributed to Mark Twain) that goes something like this: “Tell the truth. It’s easier.” Or alternately, “Tell the truth, there’s less to remember.” The trouble with untruths is that they never quite line up with reality, which means you have to keep lying in order to cover up the discrepancies. And even then you still have problems. It’s just too darn hard to keep one lie from exposing another.

Take, for example, Romans 6:23: “The wages of sin is death.” According to the Bible, we’re all sinners, and that means we all deserve to die. But (the Gospel tells us) we can escape God’s judgment because Jesus paid the price for us, by dying in our place. His death pays the penalty for our sins, so now we can go to Heaven essentially for free. In fact, that’s the whole reason Jesus died in the first place: because he wanted us to go to Heaven, and that couldn’t happen unless there was a death to pay for our sins.

There’s just one little problem with this simple, appealing story. We still die. Believers die, unbelievers die, agnostics die, everybody dies. And that means everybody pays the price of sin anyway, even without Jesus’s help. So what do we need Jesus for?

Some people try to get around this issue by saying that true death isn’t mere mortal death, i.e. mere separation of the soul from the physical body. True death, the death that is the wages of sin, means spiritual death, i.e. everlasting separation from God. Thus, you can’t go to Heaven because by sinning, you have incurred the necessity of a payment in the form of everlasting separation from God. Unless that debt is paid, you must go to Hell in order to fulfill your debt, since (in more liberalized versions of the Gospel) Hell essentially is separation from God.

This is where Mark Twain comes in. We’ve been told a story in which the evangelist assures us that there must be a death in order to pay for our sins, and therefore we need Jesus to die for us. But there’s a discrepancy in that story, because we can die just fine on our own. If a death is the wages of sin, then by the time we get to any future resurrection, we’ve already paid the wages we owed. So the evangelist has to elaborate on the original story, and spin us a new tale to cover the problems with the original one.

Unfortunately this new tale has even worse problems than the original, because if the wages of sin is eternal separation from God, then Jesus didn’t pay it either. The death of Jesus, so the Bible assures us, was only a temporary separation from his physical body. In fact, anybody who dies more than three days ahead of the Last Judgment is going to be dead a lot longer than Jesus was. Jesus not only failed to pay any penalty of eternal separation from God, he barely counts as having experienced any significant physical death relative to how long everybody else stays dead.

What’s more, if we can’t be forgiven until the wages of sin are paid, then nobody can ever be paid. There’s no such thing as after eternal separation from God. By definition, it goes on forever, so you can never say you’ve paid the debt in full. Even if Jesus had died and stayed in Hell for 2,000 years and counting, that’s nothing compared to an eternity of separation from God. So if sin requires eternal separation from God, then that debt has not been fully paid and never will be fully paid, by Jesus or anyone else.

And even that’s not the end of it, because according to post-Nicene orthodox Christian teaching, Jesus is God, so he can’t be separated from God at all. If the wages of sin is any amount of separation from God, then a divine Jesus is the last person who could ever pay that penalty on our behalf. Jesus cannot be separated from Jesus for any amount of time, and certainly not for all of time, or else he’s not really Jesus.

At this point the evangelist will try, like Pinocchio, to extend his story even further to try and cover up the holes. In fact, different evangelists will invent different stories, only to find, like the famous puppet, that “a lie keeps on growing until it’s as plain as the nose on your face.”

So you’ll have an evangelist tell you that, no, Jesus could not, of course, be separated from God, but he might suffer from a form of temporary insanity which caused him to sincerely believe he had been separated from God. That’s a nice sounding story, and it fits in well with the other story about Jesus crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” on the cross. The only problem is, the original story declared that the wages of sin is death. Not a false perception of being dead when you really aren’t. Death. Temporary insanity isn’t going to meet the requirements. Or if it does, just give us all a bout of temporary insanity, and fix the Bible so it says “The wages of sin is a brief period temporary insanity causing you to believe you’re dead when you’re not.”

Some other evangelist might prefer to spin a web of misdirected abstractions, trying to dazzle us with undefined metaphysical speculations that boil down to saying true is false, up is down, and good is evil, so of course Jesus can both be God and be “eternally” separated from God for about 3 days. It’s all just a mystery, you see, which means that you must believe whatever I tell you, even when—no, especially when I contradict myself. The contradictions are a sign it’s from a marvelous and wonderful God who is so great He transcends and confounds our understanding…and why are you all staring at my nose like that?

Other evangelists might try to distract us with stories about how full they are of the Holy Spirit, and who cares what all these fancy pants theologians are arguing about anyway, cause it doesn’t mean nothing if you ain’t got the Holy Ghost. Or in other words, pay no attention to that man behind the curtain, and just look at these sparkly mirrors I’ve got over here. And so on and so on.

The truth, if there is any truth behind this story, is going to be far simpler than these never-ending improvisations and contradictions. Jesus, if he ever existed, probably just died unexpectedly and unjustly, and his disciples, in grief and bewilderment, took refuge in the thought that his death might have served some higher purpose. So they just made up a story about his death being a sacrifice that saves everyone. That’s all.

That may or may not be historically accurate. Perhaps there never was any real Jesus to begin with. But it’s a lot simpler than spinning a story about paying wages (to whom?) for all the sins we’re supposed to have committed, and then trying to explain how one temporary death does a better job of that than the more permanent variety we all experience sooner or later.

Just tell the truth. It’s easier, because there’s nothing to invent, and therefore less to remember.


  1. frankb says

    There’s the saying that a lie can travel around the world before the truth can put it’s pants on. What about that, huh.

    But seriously, I remember when I was young I discovered the humor of Mark Twain. My dad who was a forth generation minister just said that Mark Twain was bitter. But twain’s observations were too insightful and too true.

  2. says

    Nice. And of course that’s just one aspect of doctrine that’s had to be expanded on, renovated and retrofitted endlessly in order to make it saleable.

    My usual question regarding Jesus’ alleged sacrifice is, simply: how the hell does it work? How is someone else supposed to assume my culpability?

    If I commit a crime, I could hypothetically allow someone to volunteer to receive punishment in my stead, but that doesn’t magically remove my criminal action and its consequences. And not only do I still bear the guilt, my guilt is now compounded by allowing an innocent to be punished! I wonder sometimes how moderate, modern Christians allow themselves to accept this arrangement; whatever grace and selflessness may be contained in Jesus volunteering to be humanity’s scapegoat is surely instantly countered by the sheer immorality of allowing an innocent man to suffer in your place. And then of course, as you stated, it just gets incoherent when you consider said innocent was an immortal deity who only suffered and died for a single weekend two thousand years ago.

    “How does it work?” may seem like an obvious, even trite question to ask, but every time I ask it of a Christian I end the conversation no better informed than when I started – except regarding the limits of theological contortionism.

    • Sines says

      Duncan addresses something breifly in that post, though not in as much detail as he could have. One of the most common responses to the idea of negotiable guilt is to compare it to someone paying a parking fine for you. Usually, to complete the metaphor, this is the judge himself (who ceremoniously takes off his judges robes to indicate that he’s doing this as himself, not through his position).

      The Judge comes up with a loophole. When the government fines you cash, it doesn’t matter where you got the cash from, so the reluctant judge fining his son $500 for traffic violations just hands him the cash.

      It’s a sleight of hand, of course. It tries to pass off God’s Moral Law as God’s Legal Law, wherein some outside constraint beyond his control is forcing him to act in ways he doesn’t want to. And the child here got off free, and may not learn any lesson, as he’s been taught that his dad will cover any law breaking he does. Now, the son may get a “And I’m never doing that for you again, young man. You do that again, and you’re going to jail, and I won’t do anything to stop it,” speech. But humans get no such lecture, we’re allowed to sin as much as we want, and never learn our lesson. As long as we selfishly accept Jesus’ torturous death, there’s no limit to our crimes.

      Still, it’s the best ‘explanation’ I’ve ever heard. It sounds just plausible enough to satisfy surface questions. Sure some parts of the metaphor don’t fit entirely, but it’s a metaphor and no metaphor is perfect. That attitude is just enough to get them to not see that those parts of the metaphor that don’t fit are exactly the problems they may have had in the first place.

      The most honest response to the question of how Jesus’ death works, that doesn’t involve chucking the whole notion, was said by (I believe) C.S. Lewis. “It doesn’t matter HOW it works, just that it works.” Of course CS Lewis never actually demonstrates THAT it works (In Mere Christianity, he barely touches upon proving Christianity specifically any more than the basics needed to rule out Islam and Judaism), but at least it’s an admission that it doesn’t make any sense. CS Lewis explicitly says the ‘debt’ metaphor doesn’t work (more or less for the reasons I noted).

      If you ever want to check out an honest apologist for Christianity (albeit, one who still has bad arguments) then CS Lewis is your best bet. If you want to listen to the most honest theologians, ignore the Christians and Muslims, and listen to some Rabbis. Their tradition of being allowed to argue about most points without being branded heretics and killed means that they’ve got much fewer knots to tie themselves in when defending their beliefs.

      • Deacon Duncan says

        I have also used the illustration of a man convicted of vehicular homicide after killing someone in a drunk driving incident. His father, the judge, sentences himself to a long prison term, enabling his son to go free, just like in the other parable. And a week later the son goes drinking and driving and kills an entire family. There’s nothing any less plausible about this story than the other one, which goes to show how morally foolish it is to make an innocent person suffer for the sins of the guilty. Theatrical shenanigans aside, guilt belongs to the one that did wrong.

    • Sines says

      That’s one I’ve thought of myself.

      Christian: “Isn’t it wonderful that God has forgiven us all our sins and absolved us of punishment!”

      Me: “Well, I guess. But if you think the ultimate good is forgiving anyone and everyone, you’re in favor of letting all the serial killers out of jail then, am I right?”

      The only reason the idea of blanket forgiving someone of all their crimes sounds like a good idea, is because no-one actually thinks people deserve to be tortured forever for not being perfect. Gods forgiveness sounds good, but only because God is now behaving the way he should have in the first place. If our disobediance was so horrible that it deserved eternal torment, it would be worse than murder (which we only punish with lifetime imprisonment, in conditions that aren’t great, but not exactly deliberate torture). So it follows that if an eternal God is good when he absolves people of their eternal punishment, then it should be good (and down to scale) when use temporal humans absolve another human of a temporal punishment.

      The very fact that basically all Christians respond with joy to the idea of being forgiven, rather than guilt at the notion that they don’t deserve such forgiveness, and voluntarily going to Hell to serve the sentence they deserve, is proof that they know they don’t deserve such a fate. Or that they’re all selfish jerks who don’t care about justice, just their own need to not be punished.

      Ugh, I hate Christian doctrine. I don’t think there is a more convoluted religion out there. Is that a bug or a feature, I wonder? I guess it’s majority share of the population of the planet has more to do with the strength of arms of it’s empire-building believers, but part of me wonders if the insanity of it somehow played a role in it becoming so influential. Well, perhaps the pure selfishness of it did, who wouldn’t want to lead a life of debauchery and murder, and then get ‘saved’ at the last moment, eh Constantine?

  3. robnyny says

    Jesus wasn’t dead even three days. Friday at sundown to Sunday morning at dawn is about 36 hours, 1-/2 days. Not three days.

    • says

      But even if we accept the story at face value, we have no idea how long he was “dead”. The alleged witnesses (whoever they may have been, depending on which gospel you cite) didn’t see him come back to life, they encountered him already reanimated (or simply absent). He might have been “dead” only an hour! There’s nothing in the story to suggest otherwise.

      [I put “dead” in scare quotes because I think we can all agree that dead means does not live any more. Jesus wasn’t dead; at worst, he was only “dead”.]

  4. Al Dente says

    Hank_Says @2

    There’s the further point that Jesus didn’t really die. He spent a lousy afternoon hanging around the cross and a day and a half later he’s good to go again. Not much of a sacrifice.

  5. says

    @Al Dente, that too. I should’ve used scare quotes for “died” in my third paragraph.

    And yep, a day and a half is about right – he “dies” Friday afternoon/evening and sometime in the wee hours of Sunday he bails (that’s assuming he didn’t bugger off as soon as they’d sealed the tomb).

    So, two nights dead, tops. Out of the entirety of eternity that’s, like, not even homeopathically dead.

  6. says

    And of course in terms of actual, full days dead: just Saturday. One day! We’re expected to believe that an immortal being giving up one single fucking solitary day to somehow magically assume others’ guilt is the most supremely selfless sacrifice imaginable – and that’s not even taking into account how supremely non-unconditional the arrangement is and how it’s being forced upon us on pain of eternal trident-pokings. I call shenanigans.

  7. tbrandt says

    Don’t forget that these rationalizations started with Paul. The original idea was that Jesus had indeed died for our sins and was coming imminently, and many (most?) of the first Christians believed that they would never die. Obviously, Jesus didn’t show and members of the congregations did die. Paul had to address this, and he did so in 1 Thessalonians, likely his first letter. In Chapter 4, verses 13-18, Paul said that the dead in Christ will be raised first (so it’s all ok), then the living in Christ (so Jesus is still coming very soon, within a decade or two), and everyone will meet Jesus in the air (the Rapture). We really meant everything about Adam and Eve, sin, death, the resurrection, Hell, etc., but it will happen later, real soon now.

  8. Ed says

    I love the constantly shifting goalposts when defending or even defining doctrines like this.
    Priests and their parishioners must go around in circles over this one.

    –“Isn’t it wonderful! God has given us eternal life even though we deserve to die.”
    **”But we die just like everyone else.”

    –“You silly person. You don’t understand what it really means. That’s mere physical death. An unbeliever experiences spiritual death in the form of eternal damnation as well”.
    **”Oh, I think I get it now. The death of the physical body is no big deal. All that matters is the spirit?”

    –“No!! That’s the Manicheian heresy! The only reason our bodies die is because of sin.”
    **”But you just said …..”

  9. Nick Gotts says

    “The wages of sin is death.”

    Yes, but the General Union of Sinners, Reprobates and Allied Trades (GUSRAT) is currently balloting its members on industrial action.

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