Posted by: arthenor | June 18, 2010

On Merit and Rational Faith

Cameron responded on Facebook to Response to the Reformed 2 focusing on my discussion on merit, providing a counter-example.

Seems to me that the example is flawed. I believe a better one is: Person A works hard and earns $1000. He offers to gift it to person B. Person B has only just heard of this man, who comes from Niger, who tells him all he has to do is believe him to get this free money. However, if he accepts his free money, he is no longer allowed to accept … See Moreanyone else’s free money. Oh, and there may not actually be in free money if this person A is in fact not real. And the downside of choosing wrong is loss of limited time that you have on this earth / eternal torment if you chose the wrong one and one of the other “You can only accept my free money” people are right.

So, basically, you have something to lose if you take the “gift,” which says to me it’s a reward for risking/taking it, not just a free 1000 dollars that you only have to “accept”. – Cameron

This counter-example is based on two key assumptions: there is no rational basis to accept or reject the gift and making such an irrational choice can merit salvation.


The second premise seems to me to be the most poorly founded and essentially denies any reasonable understanding of unmerited gifts. the basic argument here seems to be that one does x and afterwards receives y, therefore y is merited. No real difference is admitted between a man who works hard all week for $1000 and a man who does nothing and is gifted $1000, because the second man “earns” the $1000 by receiving it. Even if we accept Cameron’s argument that in the case of the gospel faith is more of a gamble than a gift, the argument still implies that a man who wins $1,000,000 at a slot machine has earned that money just as a man who works hard for years can be said to have earned that money. Clearly, there is a different here which can not simply be ignored.


The first premise is central to Kierkegaard’s existential Christianity. Kierkegaard focused on the record of Abraham’s decision to sacrifice his son Isaac. He argued that there was no rational reason for Abraham to do what he did. Rather, Abraham was called to take an irrational leap of faith in God and so should we. However, this premise is false. Abraham had multiple dealings with God before this event. God had promised to take care of Abraham in a foreign land and provide a son to be his heir. God had kept both of those promises, providing a rational basis for trust in his relationship with Abraham. God had even specified that Isaac was that son of promise. Therefore, while Abraham did not know all of God’s plan, he had reason to trust.

The same is true of the gospel message and it’s offer of salvation through Jesus Christ. The offer is not posed in a void but within the context of much evidence I have discussed elsewhere on my blog. For example, the General Revelation of Creation, Conscience, and the Inner Light. and the historicity of the Bible, which I have discussed with particular emphasis on the historicity of the gospels. The Bible is not a book which asks for irrational trust and condemns those who ask for proof. Consider the story of Gideon:

Jdg 6:36-40 And Gideon said unto God, If thou wilt save Israel by mine hand, as thou hast said, Behold, I will put a fleece of wool in the floor; and if the dew be on the fleece only, and it be dry upon all the earth beside, then shall I know that thou wilt save Israel by mine hand, as thou hast said. And it was so: for he rose up early on the morrow, and thrust the fleece together, and wringed the dew out of the fleece, a bowl full of water. And Gideon said unto God, Let not thine anger be hot against me, and I will speak but this once: let me prove, I pray thee, but this once with the fleece; let it now be dry only upon the fleece, and upon all the ground let there be dew. And God did so that night: for it was dry upon the fleece only, and there was dew on all the ground.

when Gideon asked honestly for a sign, God did not condemn him to hell, but provided evidence. Similarly, the Bible challenges us to seek and to question, saying:

Isa 1:18 Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.

Mat 7:7-11 Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?

God does not ask for irrational choices. Rather, He challenges us to ask and seek answers.



  1. God does not ask for irrational choices. Rather, He challenges us to ask and seek answers.

    It seems you’re omitting a critical and relevant piece of the challenge:

    “…and if you don’t arrive at the right answer, you’ll be eternally and horrifically tortured for eternity.”

    With such a gun pointed at our head, I submit God is demanding our irrational trust. If I’m invited to reason, and I reason that the gospel is a sham, this will not save me from getting my brains blown out. There is only one choice to make, and that is to accept the gospel…or else. To invite reason is to open the door to making a mistake. But with such terrible consequences for being reasonably mistaken, such a path is effectively closed to us.

  2. I’m not exactly sure what the argument under merit is? But lets go with another example. Did a person who invested in a business gamble? Most people would say yes, because it is not a 100% guaranteed return. There is some level of faith involved the person running the business not running it into the ground, but that doesn’t somehow make it free. Did the person who invested the money earn it? Well, thats up to debate. Capitalists would say yes, socialists would probably say no. Someone took some level of risk, and now has to ignore other opportunities (because the money is now sunk into the business). Basically, as far as I can tell, your argument is that because of the fact Christianity is definitely the right answer, it’s a gift. Honestly, that seems reasonable, if you believe that. However, for those of us that don’t, it’s a gamble / risk / etc just like all of the other religions. Maybe it has better odds, but that doesn’t make it a sure thing.

    So by risking one path down the belief choice, your closing the other ones. Your losing something to gain something. A accepting a gift implies that you are losing nothing to gain something.

    In this case, Jesus (Person A) lost his life (time in your example) to gain eternal life to give away for free (the $1000). The accepter (Person B) accepts the gift (the $1000) in exchange for not worshiping the other gods / the time to research what he should do / the time to do what the good book tells him to do / the freedom to do misc things (I don’t want to get into an ethics argument) / take the gamble / chance that he is not actually the one true savior, and it turns out the 1.2 billion islamic / 1 billion hindu’s are correct. You are giving up options / time / something in exchange for this “gift.” That to me says you are giving some sort of compensation for your gift, because it is expected of you to do these things.

  3. It seems to me that the responses here rest on two primary ideas: taking a risk is inherently meritorious and the offer of salvation is inherently a gamble because all views are equally reasonable or impossible to evaluate.

    First, regarding risk and merit, Cameron appeals to the notion of risk in investment. However, the argument in favor of recognizing capitol investment as earning repayment and profit is not based on rewarding risk itself, but rewarding those that provide a desirable service. Risk is involved in investment, but profit merit from investment is not derived directly from risk. If it was, any one who took a risk would deserve a payoff.

    Second, the premise that there is no way to evaluate world views and therefore being “right” can only be viewed as a probabalistic gamble is far from justified. I have already provided some justification for concluding otherwise and those points have so far been unaddressed. I am not arguing that the truth is obvious or that such an investigation will be easy. However, I am arguing that such an evaluation is possible and given the high stakes which both of you have identified, necessary.

    In closing, consider these stakes:

    Unless materialism is true or the entrance criterion for heaven or whatever the desirable afterlife is known as is set at “any generally good person by the world’s standard” in which case Christianity is not a particularly huge risk, what are the odds that the divine being is going to accept the justification that “finding the right way seemed too hard so I did not bother and you owe me because that was your fault”?

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