Faith without works

“Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead” — James 2:17

There’s a maxim in Christian circles, “faith without works is dead”. It’s a paraphrase of the verse above. The entire passage is interesting to me for two reasons. The first is that it stands in direct contradiction to Ephesians 2:8. The second is more interesting and is the subject of a recent conversation between myself and a number of evangelical friends and family members. Isn’t Facebook wonderful?

The debate was triggered by this Slate article. My contention is that if faith without works is dead then a statistical analysis of a Christian nation examining the works of faith should show a statistical difference to similar non-Christian nations. This is essentially the point of the article and it’s one with which I agree.

In the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46) Jesus specifically told his disciples:

“‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’” — Matthew 25:41-43

He goes on to state that if anyone did not do those things for the least of the people they did not do them for Jesus. The message is clear, do these things or you are not a Christian.

Logically therefore a Christian nation should have excellent services (government, volunteer or charity) to support the poor, the sick and the homeless. By comparison a non-Christian nation (one where there is no such mandate) should be expected to be poorer in this regard. What the article makes clear is that the USA, the most nominally Christian developed nation, fares very badly in such a comparison with many more secular nations.

But what conclusions can we, or should we, draw from this evidence? I see three possible conclusions.

The first is that perhaps the evaluation is wrong. If it were one or two metrics I could agree. However his trend holds true on a wide range of comparisons. Whichever way you look at it America is not very supportive of or caring towards the poor and the sick. The country lives by and is quite proud of an independent “look out for yourself” mantra quite at odds with Jesus’ teaching.

The second is that perhaps the Christians aren’t really Christian. This is a serious contention. Christian groups down the ages have been arguing that other Christian groups aren’t real Christians. The problem with this is that just taking into account nominal Christians it is clear that God created mankind with the full knowledge that the majority would be damned to eternal fire. If one further limits Christianity to some smaller, presumably much much smaller, and ill-defined sub-group God must be planning on burning far more people than previously thought. Furthermore it’s extremely hard to argue that so many millions of Americans are either deliberately misleading the world or are completely misled as to their eventual salvation.

The final alternative of course is that, despite its claim to be a personal relationship with the creator of the Universe, Christianity has as little positive impact on people’s behavior as any other religion. That it is as dead as it tells us it must be given the lack of works by which to judge it alive.

The Christian response to this article was pretty negative even before I detailed by conclusions. I think this is because it’s pretty clear that nominally Christian societies are not noticeably kinder and more supportive of the poor, sick and needy than secular ones. This, left unchallenged, leaves Christianity looking pretty meaningless as explained above.

The lack of any statistical evidence for the effect of faith (or for that matter of intercessory prayer) is another of my reasons not to believe. I can not fathom that having a personal relationship with the creator of the entire Universe would not fundamentally alter one’s outlook. If one truly believes what it says in the Bible then surely one would be compelled to dedicate every aspect of one’s life to it. As I went through my deconversion process the fact that the overwhelming number of Christians in the world do not appear to be fundamentally altered by their faith was a major concern and a serious reason why I believe Christianity is no different to every other religion in the world.

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