Saturday, February 23, 2008

What if You’re Wrong?

What if You’re Wrong?

Recently Jake & Elwood Blues asked the question What if you are Wrong? The Barefoot Bum responded with an excellent blog on the subject.

Here’s my .02…

I am wrong all the time. Just yesterday I made the perennial mistake of choosing the wrong grocery line. In one was a woman with what looked like 15-20 items and in the other was a woman with only a few. I chose to stand behind the woman with a few. Who needed a price check. On the last item in the store, apparently. I watched the other woman complete her purchases and walk out while still waiting.

What happened when I was wrong? I had to wait a little longer and exert some patience.

In my professional life, I am faced with clients who have significant problems. The worst thing I could do is not file their suit in time. To miss the Statute of Limitations. (We typically call this “Blowing the Statute.”) It is malpractice, and will cost my client the value of their case. In some situations, literally millions of dollars. And I am very likely to be sued for malpractice.

What happens if I am wrong? I will potentially harm lives, and suffer financial lose.

See, inherent in the question “What if You’re Wrong?” is a fear of the consequences. The lesser the fear; the lesser the worry if you are wrong. If being wrong means you have to turn your car around because you missed the turn—this is of little consequence. If being wrong means your child is severely harmed or killed, this has far, far greater consequences.

We all know what this question means when posed in the theist/non-theist debate. It is a question about an after-life that divides people between eternal reward and eternal damnation. I have never seen a Universalist ask this question. I don’t recall a non-believer asking this question. Why? Because the consequences are not as great as to a theist thinking a person could either miss out on heaven, or be damned to hell.

They aren’t asking me, “What if you’re wrong?” when I question the authenticity of Mark 16:9-20. Or if I am a Calvinist as compared to a partial Calvinist. The fear here is “What if you are wrong about hell?”

But here is the problem—in order for us to consider the consequences significant enough to contemplate the question we would have to believe the consequences actually exist. First you have to convince us hell exists before we worry about the question, “What if you’re wrong?”

Imagine tomorrow a man in a sandwich board boldly claiming, “The End is Near” accosts you, proclaiming a nuclear war will happen within 30 days, and you must prepare a bomb shelter. As you pass by, thinking this fellow is a nut; he shouts out, “What if You’re Wrong?” Good question. If you are then you will seriously regret not barricading yourself in a bomb shelter.

The obvious problem is that you probably don’t believe it. You are not concerned about “What if You’re Wrong?” because you don’t believe the consequences.

We see this all the time. A person who has been hurt in a relationship will advise caution to others. Why? Because they have greater empathy to the question, “What if You’re Wrong?” The consequences are more poignant to them. Or a person who has had bad sushi. They will recommend you avoid a particular restaurant.

To the theist; we don’t care about being “wrong” because we are persuaded we have a snowball’s chance in hell of there being a hell for a snowball to be in.

To the non-believer: this is actually a genuine question out of concern for us. Believe it or not.

I was once a firm believer in hell. The eternal torment, darkness, screaming pain of being burned with no comfort. It was as real to me as the fact I was losing my hair. An unavoidable reality.

Obviously I did not want anyone going there. And I could not imagine jeopardizing one’s eternal future by daring to believe anything but.

It was as if we had a time machine that could take us back to September 10, 2001. And we were running around, telling the U.S. government to restrict air travel because of the terrible tragedy that was about to occur. And being mostly ignored. Telling people in New York to NOT go to work tomorrow. And being mostly ignored.

Telegramming airlines with no success. Taking out T.V. ads, and radio spots trying to warn the world of what was about to happen. And being treated like a man in a sandwich board with the sign, “The End is Near.” And fully expecting (because we know the future) that on the evening of September 11, 2001 to have the world lamenting, “Oh, if only we had listened.”

In the exact way, I expected people I knew to, in 100 years or so, saying “Oh, if only we had listened.” To realize the full consequences of being wrong.

When, as a Christian, I asked, “What if You’re wrong?” It was because I was scared of hell and thought you should be too. The fact you did not believe in hell was both incomprehensible to me, and compelled me to even more firmly convince you of the existence, so you too could be as afraid as I am. (There is the threat The Barefoot Bum is talking about.)
The person who asks, “What if You’re Wrong?” is more scared of the consequences than the person being asked.

At one time I looked forward to the Judgment seat. While I would regret all the things I did incorrectly—I was entering an eternal reward. As a new deconvert, I figured if there was a judgment, I would tell God exactly all the things I did in my search for him (to satisfy myself, if no other reason) and ask why he failed to respond.

Now? If (and it is only a momentary passing fantasy) there could possibly be a judgment before a god or gods, I would merely shrug and say, “Commend me or condemn me; it makes no difference. Either way I did the best I could with what knowledge I had.”
“What if I am Wrong?” I have to fear the consequences before I fear the question.


  1. Hi dagoods
    A theist can say they believe in the truth of God and if they are wrong, nothing happens anyway.

    Either there is truth or no truth. What some atheists are asking for is freedom from the truth. You said you can't be blamed for your conclusions but can anyone say "You can't blame me?"

    It seems to me that we are all slaves to the truth, whatever that is. And if there is no truth, no slavery. But wasn't Jesus' mission precisely that, to give us a way to live at peace with the truth and that the truth could set us free?

    What are your thoughts on this approach?

  2. Jim Jordan,

    Depends on the God. If you believe in the Triune Christian God, and “truth” turns out to be Allah—you are screwed. Or if “truth” turns out to be Odin and Loki—you are out of luck. Or if “truth” turns out to be the Hindu pantheon—you are boned.

    Do you see what I am saying? “Believing” is not enough, no matter how hard you believe. Far more important to get it right. If you are wrong, it isn’t as if “nothing happens.” You and I could both end up being reincarnated as slugs—‘cause we were both wrong.

    I’m not so much saying “You can’t blame me” as to say I did the best I can with what I have. If you and your God want to consider this an insufficient response—so be it.

    Jim Jordan: But wasn't Jesus' mission precisely that, to give us a way to live at peace with the truth and that the truth could set us free?

    Not according to Jesus, it wasn’t. The author of Mark records Jesus as saying his mission was to deliberately only provide truth to a select chosen few, and to deliberately withhold the truth from others which would have granted them freedom. Mark 4:11-12.

    Further, the Bible records repeated instances where God/Jesus deliberately withholds the truth, or sends a lie via agents. 2 Thess. 2:11, 1 Kg 22:23; Ezk 14:9.

    Apparently your God is not interested in having “truth” set everyone free.

  3. Good comeback. I would disagree that Odin and Loki and even Allah with his celestial harem in waiting is possibly what we would see in the afterlife. But the question is not which god but that there is a God at all.

    The God of Exodus 3:14 puts Himself at the exact interseccion that you would have to find Him, the core of existence itself. I find it a poor bet to dismiss that God, even if the rest of the Bible doesn't always do Him justice.

    In the end the difference isn't between inerrancy and errancy of the biblical God of scripture, anyone can claim they couldn't have known, but the big error is the problem. How could you walk the earth for 90 years or so and conclude there is no God, no "I Am that I am"?

    Apparently your God is not interested in having “truth” set everyone free

    Perhaps not yet....

  4. As I wrote on The Barefoot Bum’s blog—for the theist it is easy. When I say “god” their mind defaults to their particular God. I say “creator” you think of Exodus 3:14. Yet to a Muslim, the term “god” or “creator” invokes an image of Allah. To a Hindu—a pantheon.

    I have no default god, Jim Jordan. ALL gods are equally possible for me. So to determine “which God” does not provide any default possibility. Worse, because of my study of the Christian God—that particular concept of god has less likelihood. I understand, because of your “default position” you cannot conceive how I could dismiss that concoction, since it is so readily evident to you. Yet I can.

    And no, the question of “What if you’re wrong?” is usually focused on the type of god—not whether there is a god or not. No universalist cares if I believe in a god or not—‘cause my being wrong will make little difference. A person who believes god judges on character would not care either. It is only one who thinks I can make a choice in this life impacting some type of afterlife who is concerned about being wrong.

  5. Here's the thing I've never understood. There are sections in the Bible where Jesus is shown as presenting the truth, with truth being a great thing to have and so forth. Honesty is also good.

    Since God is truth, and loves truth, how can someone be punished for honestly stating that the evidence is not enough to convince them of any sort of God? They're holding to the truth as they know it, and they're being honest. The person isn't doing so out of pride, or for a sin-rush. They simply don't believe.

    I know the whole standard thing of Romans tells us that everyone knows there's a God, or the idea that God is jealous. But that section doesn't add up with atheists I've talked to. And so it would come down to my having more faith in my interpretation of the Bible, or respecting a person enough to take them at their word. I'll go with the latter.

  6. Dagoods,
    Read Romans 1 again. The atheist is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, to say the least. But you will be judged by what you do. There is hope. It's not just a question of intellectual assent. Rev 20:12 - The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books

    Indeed the harshest rebukes by Jesus were for the "wolves in sheeps' clothing".

  7. Read Romans 1 again. The atheist is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, to say the least.

    Worthless comment. Strike that. I was getting sleepy and cranky. My apologies.