Wednesday, February 20, 2013

What Does the New Testament Say About Binary Thinking?

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I have recently finished reading the New Testament and I am collecting my thoughts about what I read in this series of posts. Today I am writing about what the New Testament says about Binary Thinking. Other entries in this series:
  1. Slavery
  2. The Apocalypse
  3. Women
  4. Violence
  5. Sexuality
  6. Obedience
  7. Fear
  8. Blasphemy
  9. Wealth
This is a topic that has bothered me since I started reading the bible, but I never really know how to categorize it. I have called it binary thinking here, alternative ideas for labeling are "black and white" and "all or nothing". Unfortunately, since I have trouble categorizing it, and my reasons for keeping track of verses was not well formed until fairly recently, I'm pretty sure I have missed quite a number of verses that would fit quite nicely into this post. But don't worry, I have enough material to make my point, I just am pretty sure there are many more verses out there that support this argument.

A perfect example of this type of thinking is the idea that people are either good or bad. In reality people are complicated, everyone does some good things and some bad things. But this is not the picture we get from the bible, it likes to break people up into nice, neat groups. People are either good or bad, righteous or evil. In Luke 6:43-45, Jesus tells us that good trees bear good fruit and bad trees bear bad fruit. The message being that good people have a good heart and bad people a bad heart. There is no room here for a complicated person, just a caricature that we might find in a poor work of fiction. Another example is in 1 Timothy 1:9, where Paul says that the law is laid down for the lawless, but not for good people. Again, we are dividing people into 2 groups, those who need the law because they are so evil, and those who are good to the point that they will know how to behave with no instruction. 

Another example of this type of binary thinking is with the idea that all crimes are equally bad. This is put simply in James 2:10 where it says that anyone who breaks any one portion of the law is held accountable for all of it. The obvious implication here is that a little white lie is just as bad as murder or rape. Although this is the most extreme example that comes right to mind for me, there is an even more egregious version of this in the bible itself. What is a more mild crime than a little white lie? A thought-crime! 1 John 3:15 makes the bold statement that hate is equally bad as murder. Apparently in the eyes of God, thinking bad thoughts of someone is equal to taking their life. Matthew 5:21-22 says this as well, although in addition to murder and hate, it includes calling someone a fool in it's list of crimes which all result in the same punishment of an eternity in hell.

The final example of this type of thinking I want to discuss is the idea that if you are not a follower of God you are evil, and if you are then you are blameless. Usually this is simply expressed as anyone not in our religion is bad. Ephesians 4:17-19Philippians 3:18-191 Timothy 1:41 Timothy 4:11 Timothy 4:7, 1 Timothy 6:3-4, and Titus 1:12-13 put it simply and say that anyone who isn't a Christian is evil. 1 Peter 4:3 makes a similar statement by saying that all gentiles engage in sex and drinking, which are bad things. Titus 1:10, 14, 16 and Titus 1:11 get a little more specific by targeting Jews, but it is the same message, non-Christians are bad people. 1 John 5:18 takes the opposite side of the ridiculous argument and says that Christians do not sin. But this binary way of thinking is perfectly exemplified in Colossians 1:21-22 where it is talking about the same people on both sides of it. When referring to people who used to be non-Christians but eventually joined the flock, it says that they used to be evil, but now they are holy. Of course this is the only conclusion we can draw given the pieces we have in front of us, but it is funny to see it spelled out in front of us like this. Are we really supposed to think they changed that much here? They are the same people, but they went from evil to good in one shot? No, as with most things in life, we all live on a spectrum.  There may be some people out there who are cartoonishly good or evil, but most of us live somewhere in between.


  1. Great examples Hausdorff! Makes me remember back to my curious childhood trying to figure out if I had thunk a venial sin or a mortal one. I used to drive the priest bonkers in the confessional every Saturday confessing every kind of sin I thought I had thought during the week. He would usually interrupt me with, "That's enough...for your penance say five Hell Mary's."

    Those prayer penances I could whip out in less than a minute always made me feel it was worth sinning I did.

    1. I love stories of people who overwhelmed their religious leaders as a kid. I wish I could say I have some of my own, but I usually just internalized all of my issues with the religion.

      It's great that you were able to do a cost benefit analysis. "All of this sinning is totally worth a minute's worth of penance!"

  2. Another great summary Hausdorff. These types of verse are the platform for all sorts of wrongs, because when everyone else is evil, why should you treat them humanely?

    1. That's a good point, I bet it plays a big role in people who disown their kids for things like being gay. If you think they are now in the "evil" group of people, who knows how much stuff you can justify doing to them.

  3. I hope the fact that our entertainment depicts more realistic good vs. bad stories is a reflection of an enlightened culture. Now the heroes have vices and the villains do bad things for somewhat good reasons. The bible stories don't seem to have much of that.

    1. I'd like to think so. The simple hero who is perfect and villain who is completely evil would seem to be easier for children to understand. More complicated characters make for much more interesting stories but may be difficult for a simple mind to grasp what is going on. I know for myself, if the villain in a story is just evil, and there is no perspective from which his actions make some kind of logical sense I usually get annoyed or bored.

    2. Also worth noting that some shows now lead you to root for the villain. Breaking Bad turned out that way, the new show House of Cards is like that, and so are Dexter and the Following if I'm not mistaken.

      This has nothing to do with this post, just an observation.

    3. Oh yeah, I love shows that make me root for the villain. The Shield was a good one for that, I remember going back and forth between hating him and wanting him to win. Great writing.


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