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An essay donated by Associated Editor Susan Humphreys:

What matters most in life?
What you are or what you do?

Punishing the innocent for the sins of others.

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I picked up a copy of Rick Warren’s book "The Purpose Driven Life" at a garage sale. After reading only the first three chapters, I found it to be a very disturbing book. 1

My initial impression from these first chapters is that he never stopped to think what his words mean to the child born with profound disabling birth defects and to his/her parents.

On page 22 he says "God prescribed every single detail of your body. He deliberately chose your race, the color of your skin, your hair, and every other feature".

With that line he is implying that God decided that some pregnant women would become infected with the Zika virus so their babies would be born with hydrocephaly. In earlier times it was about a pregnant woman catching the measles and the effect that disease would have on her fetus. Now it is also about fetal alcohol syndrome and drug addicted babies.

What about the parents of a child born with birth defects who did everything right? The mother didn’t drink or smoke or do drugs. She got prenatal care and was looking forward to having a child. Yet something still went horribly wrong with her pregnancy. Has he ever stopped to look at his words through her eyes?

Has he ever stopped to think what his words mean to the severely disabled person or their loved ones? On page 23 he says:

"Because God made you for a reason, he also decided when you would be born and how long you would live. He planned the days of your life in advance, choosing the exact time of your birth and death."

"God also planned where you’d be born and where you’d live for his purpose."

With those lines he is saying that God decided before some children were born that they would die a painful slow death from starvation reaching their first birthday. He is saying that God decided that some children would spend their short lives terrified by bombs, and then be blown to bits in front of their parents' eyes, or have their parents or siblings blown to bits before their eyes, or have them be horribly maimed for life because they live in Syria, or Afghanistan, or the USA.

Has he ever stopped to think what his words mean to the homosexual, or the transgender person? Did God create them or did He not? Why would He condemn someone to a life of loneliness and public contempt who He himself created? They will tell you their feelings are part and parcel of who they are as a person. They didn’t choose their sexual orientation or gender identity. It is simply the way they are. But I suspect that Mr. Warren has never really bothered to educate himself about biology.

His Theology is full of holes!

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Any God that feels the need to scapegoat -- to punish the innocent for the sins of the parents OR for some other "unknown" purpose -- is a God unworthy of the title and unworthy of being worshipped.

IF God is as perfect as Mr. Warren seems to think He is, then God would be able to teach people the life lessons they need to learn without causing such grave suffering and disability. He would never have sacrificed His son for a blood atonement. Such a thought would have been an anathema to him.

I also wonder if Mr. Warren ever stopped to consider that IF what he says is true than God decided that I would be a happy, moral, ethical, responsible, compassionate, "good" Atheist who writes essays exposing the flaws in Christian theology! For me to be otherwise would be to defy God!

Christian Theologians and others from other faith traditions and philosophers have long struggled with the problem of Theodicy: why bad things happen to good people -- and the opposite: why good things happen to bad people. Theodicy exposes fatal flaws in Christian doctrines/theology.  I have the impression that rather than address the conflicts and problems many Theologians and preachers simply pretend they don’t exist!

The problem isn’t with the reality that there is evil in this world and that bad things happen. The problem arises because of the claims Theologians make about God.  If God isn’t all knowing, all seeing, all powerful, in control of everything at all times, perfect in everyway, then the problem with Theodicy goes away. But then the Christian God wouldn’t be any better or worse than any of the other Gods, he would just be another tribal God.

Then, on page 25, Warren said:

"If there was no God, we would all be ‘accidents’, the result of astronomical random chance in the universe. You could stop reading this book, because life would have no purpose or meaning or significance. There would be no right or wrong, and no hope beyond your brief years here on earth."

First: We are all accidents, the luck of the draw. To believe otherwise is ignore the tragedy of birth defects and to succumb to the self-righteousness that can come from the luck of being born without defect and the belief in Christian exceptionalism.

Second: He claims that, with without a belief in God, there would be no purpose, meaning or significance in life. There would be no right or wrong. He implies that the Atheist has no purpose, meaning or significance, concept of right or wrong, morals or ethics. That is a blatant LIE. Atheists have purpose, meaning and significance in their lives and have concepts of right and wrong just like Christians. When you have to lie to prove your truth, your truth is nothing but a lie.

Life with all its ups and downs, joys and sorrows, successes and failures is its own purpose. This we know as a fact from Biology. All life strives for the same thing. From the tiniest amoeba to the mighty oak to salamanders, monkeys and humans, and viruses (which really aren’t alive but that is another story). We all strive, our sole purpose is to become the best that we can be. This is partially what evolution teaches us and why evolution is such a marvelous mechanism, it enables living things, over time, to modify their DNA, to adapt to new or changing circumstances so they can make the most of where they are planted, and so the next generation has greater opportunities to thrive.

I have been writing essays for the Religious Tolerance organization website since 2009.  Earlier this year I wrote one about "Finding meaning and purpose in a rapidly changing world," and "Science's Achilles Heel: Is it really unable to explain why stuff matters?" One of the first essays I wrote was "Misperceptions about Atheists" in which I point out that "Morality and ethics stem from an understanding of our common humanity -- that we are all in this together."

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I kept reading his book. On page 172 he wrote:

"The Bible says that all people, not just believers, possess part of the image of God; that is why murder and abortion are wrong."

I looked up the references he cited in the notes at the end of the book. I wonder how many people bother to check his references?

Only when you do check them do you realize that he says his Biblical quotes are paraphrases, in other words his interpretation of the passage, not direct quotes.  I use a New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. He claims his citations come from many different versions of the Bible and shows which version he refers to with each citation.

The first citation, Genesis 9:6, is the only citation that mentions the shedding of blood:

"Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind."

Note this passage mentions "shedding of blood", it doesn’t use the word murder. This exposes a flaw with his Theology. IF murder is wrong because humans are made in God’s image than any shedding of blood should be wrong -- even when it is shed by a policeman or soldier in the line of duty, or a person in self-defense, or even in an accident!

The next citation is about being formed in God’s image, not about murder, abortion, bloodshed. Check the citations for yourself, Psalm 139:13-16.

The third citation, James 3: 9 says

"With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God."

In order to understand that line you should start at the beginning of 3 and read to the end of line 12. Again nothing about murder, abortion, or bloodshed.

Many of the citations he mentions in the book are like this. They actually have nothing or little relation to the subject he is addressing.

At this point I realized that much of what he preaches is self-contradictory. The clincher for this thought came on page 177 in the box at the side of the page which says:

"God is more interested in what you are than in what you do."

One problem with the statement is that if God is more interested in "what we are" why would he care about whether you were a Christian or belonged to some other religion or were an Atheist? Wouldn’t he only care whether we are "good" people?

A larger problem with the statement is this: Isn’t "what we are" shown quite clearly by "what we do?"  Don’t our day-to-day words and actions -- how we treat other people, how we treat other living things (plants, animals, our planet), and how we treat our selves, -- demonstrate to all who see or hear the kind of person that we are -- the state of our soul or spirit?

I think this realization is what has led to the reconciliation of some Protestant churches with the Catholic Church over the dispute first presented by Martin Luther over justification by Faith alone or by Faith and works.

I was pleased and surprised to see an article on the Religion News Service website "Reformed churches endorse Catholic-Lutheran accord on key Reformation dispute." 2

In the article I discovered that several Protestant churches had already endorsed the accord -- the World Methodist Council did this as early as 2006.

The dispute arose with Martin Luther's letter to Pope Leo X in the 16th century CE. 3 In the letter, he outlined his argument for justification (salvation) by Faith alone. 3 Luther's belief was quite simple that becoming a Christian, putting your Faith in God and Jesus as his only begotten son, completely transformed the person. They could no longer do any wrong; they couldn’t sin.

The Catholic church formally rejected his argument insisting that justification came from Faith and good works (what we might call right behavior).

This doctrinal dispute is one of the areas where I think Protestant Christianity took a wrong turn! You can see the problems it has caused in many places.

Rick Warren seems to imply in the first few chapters of his book that he believes firmly in justification by Faith alone.

Yet on page 38 he says:

"... there are eternal consequences to everything you do on earth. Every act of our lives strikes some chord that will vibrate in eternity."

So what is it? Do you just need to have Faith or do you need to clean up your act, and watch how you behave?

The belief in Justification by Faith alone sparked other doctrinal disputes. One being an argument about whether once you are saved can you become unsaved by your bad behavior? Some insist that once saved forever saved. This seems to have spawned a belief in some that they can then do whatever they want, they might have to apologize, say they are sorry to God, now and then, but their salvation is assured no matter what they do!

So this announcement that some Protestant denominations have now changed their doctrinal position is a BIG deal, and I think a step in the right direction, though it may be a step taken too late to save Christianity from further decline. 4

What does the joint declaration actually say?

"By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, ... we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping us and calling us to good works."

People should start wondering what constitutes a "good work"?

Rick Warren, in my opinion, preaches to the choir with his book. People who have already bought into the idea of Christian exceptionalism will probably find it inspiring. People who bother to check the citations, and read the book thoughtfully and critically will see the blatant flaws and contradictions with his theology.

I think Mr. Warren needs to go back and read his own book and decide for himself if he really believes that "God" is more interested in "what you are, than in what you do"? His words in this book are an example of what he has done. They give us a good picture of what he is as a human being.

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Some related essays and sections on this web site that may interest you:

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. book cover Rick Warren, "What on Earth Am I Here For? Expanded Edition (The Purpose Driven Life)," Zondervan (2012). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  2. Tom Heneghan, "Reformed churches endorse Catholic-Lutheran accord on key Reformation dispute." Religion News Service (RNS), 2017-JUL-06, at:
  3. Paul Halsall, "Martin Luther: On the Freedom of a Christian," Fordam University, "Modern History Sourcebook, 1998, at:
  4. The percentage of U.S. adults who say they are affiliated with a Christian denomination is dropping about 0.6 percentage point per year: from 86% in 1990 to 77% in 2001, according to ARIS polls. Pew Forum polls show that it reached 70.6% in 2014. It is apparently continuing to decline.

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Author: Susan Humphreys
Originally posted on: 2017-OCT-11
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