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Moral Certitude, Martyrdom, and Hope

I sometimes wonder about the statements of conviction we make.  I’m firm believer in making very few commitments quickly while making damn sure you always keep the ones you do make.  But absolute statements, declarations, and manifestos are some of the most easy things to say.  They role right off the tongue and theological books are full of them.  For example, I offer this statement:

I would rather die than end up unfaithful to my wife; I would rather die than deny by a profligate life what I have taught in my books; I would rather die than deny or disown the gospel. (D. A. Carson, How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990], 120).

Based on this, I think only two conclusions about D.A. Carson are possible.  Either he is far more mature as a Christian and a person than I shall likely ever be (which is certainly possible) or he is just making sentimental statements that make for well-selling evangelical devotional books (which, I think may also be possible, but I hope, less likely).

Now I’ll just be honest here, I would damn well rather cheat on my wife and deal with the horror that would unfold from that than get killed.  Certainly I know that wouldn’t be a moral act in any sense, but I know good and well that if someone put a gun to my head and presented me with that alternative that I’d most likely cave.  Maybe I’m underestimating the power of my own affections here, but I don’t think so.  I’d certainly rather live at variance from my writings than cease to live.  Disown the gospel?  I think on something that stark I might have a chance, but for all I know I’d end up going through a series of denials and recantations not unlike the Anabaptist martyr Balthasar Hubmaier.

Now certainly I agree that in all of the examples that Carson offers I agree that we should rather die than give in to such forms of sin and compromise.  And maybe Carson has had experiences in which these convictions have been tested.  I have not and as such I feel very uncomfortable making statements about myself with such boldness.  I fear such statements tends very quickly towards bravado and reflect a sort of fanciful self-construction.  Or at least I know that that’s what I’d be doing if I made those statements.

Do we not end up conjuring up notions of our own indefectability with statements like this?  We seem to implicitly claim to have come to some sort of indubitable self-knowledge and are certain that we are the kind of persons who above all would never do this.  Is not the message of the gospel often that we will indeed do exactly this?  Does not the message of gospel constantly remind us that we are the betrayers of the truth?  Statements of the sort that Carson makes seem to bear within themselves a grammar that is inappropriate to the whole discourse of Christian discipleship.  To say something like “I would rather die than deny the gospel” is often really saying “I am a person who cannot be shaken and I know it.”  Such statements sound far too bold for me.  “Even if everyone else deserts you, I will never desert you!”

I for one am terrified of death and can’t stand acute pain in the least. (People, if the persecution starts you all need to go into hiding immediately.  I am going to break fast if the torture starts.)  I have no confidence in my ability to become a faithful martyr of the Christian confession.  I cannot imagine writing down in a book that I would rather die than disown the gospel.  I do not find the resources of moral certainty in myself that Carson seems to find within (Let me emphasize, I hesitate to impute duplicity to him; I just know what those lines would mean if I were to write them).  If I were to make statements about my own moral resolve on the basis of the gospel I don’t know any other way to state them than in the interrogative:  “Can these dry bones live?”

I wonder if a truly biblical spirituality should perhaps avoid the indicative mood altogether?  The indicative makes statements about the reality of the present, but the faith of the resurrection is premised on the horror of the past and the promise of the future fracturing the givenness of the present and suffusing it with apocalyptic hope.  A faith that lives between promise and hope exists in the linguistic mode of supplication, of trembling, of desperate hope in the future of the one who has promised that his Life will be the end of all things.  We are called, not into moral certitude and self-confidence in our development as Christians, but rather to the wild patience of those who follow one who always remains beyond our grasp.

We must begin, not with an assertion of our own indefectability, however well-founded our confidence might be.  The mystery of salvation includes the claim that those closest to Jesus often refuse to be found alongside him in his sufferings.  We must begin, rather in the assertion of our radical defectability.  Only then can we embrace the hope that lies precisely outside of ourselves in Christ and the promise of his apocalypse.  “If we are faithless he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself.”


  1. Ben Myers wrote:

    Great post, Halden.

    “I know if someone put a gun to my head and presented me with that alternative that I’d most likely cave” — and if the alternative was Monica Bellucci, I’d cave very quickly (probably while they were still loading the gun).

    Let’s face it, most of our Christian morality is due to the social restraints that (mercifully) surround us, not to our own unshakable inner power.

    Tuesday, May 13, 2008 at 5:47 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    “Let’s face it, most of our Christian morality is due to the social restraints that (mercifully) surround us, not to our own unshakable inner power.”


    Tuesday, May 13, 2008 at 5:50 pm | Permalink
  3. Jon wrote:

    I don’t always believe what the Creed teaches. Certainly I accept it mentally, and often do have sincere faith in what it says. But I don’t always manifest those truths in my life, and I certainly have times when I don’t “feel like believing”. I’m not just talking the common doubts we all have as people of faith, but of the reality that most of the time we are simply unfaithful sinners, and when we confess the Creed we don’t always believe everything we’re saying.

    Because we’re sinners. Because we’re human. Because we’re hypocrites.

    So in light of that, maybe I confess the Creed not so much for saying where I am now but where I have hope the Holy Spirit will take me. I pray that the Spirit makes me a faithful person, “Lord I believe! Help me with my unbelief!”

    I can say “I would rather die than deny Christ.” Even though I am all too aware of my own inner weaknesses, and there is a great chance that if that should that moment come, I am just as likely to become a traitor to the One I call Lord as anything else. Lord I believe! Help me with my unbelief!

    So, with that in mind, perhaps we proclaim Creeds, and make statements, and write manifestos, not so much of where we presently are now, but where we pray and hope the Spirit will take us.

    Tuesday, May 13, 2008 at 6:22 pm | Permalink
  4. paroikos wrote:

    Thanks for another great post Halden, and while i would afirm your critique of Carson-esque ‘death before dishonour’ type phrases being totally innapropriate for Christians, i think you have missed the role of the Spirit, who as scripture promises and history confirms is more than able to give the weediest believer unflinching faith in the face of torture and death.

    That being said is carson actually talking about martyrdom, and not more about his strength of feeling towards these issues? If he was it seems a rather acadmeic and pointless exercise to say what if someone held a gun to my head and demanded i was unfaithful to my wife, as such a situation is plainly ludicrous. (not to mention the difficulties of performing under such circumstances) The same goes for the ‘profligate life.’ The last statement could be interpreted as martydom but in light of the previous two sounds more like hyperbole. But not having read the book i must bow to your more informed exegesis ;)

    Tuesday, May 13, 2008 at 7:43 pm | Permalink
  5. PaulW wrote:

    Now I’ll just be honest here, I would damn well rather cheat on my wife and deal with the horror that would unfold from that than get killed. Certainly I know that wouldn’t be a moral act in any sense, but I know good and well that if someone put a gun to my head and presented me with that alternative that I’d most likely cave…

    If someone put a gun to my head, I’d be too busy pooing my pants to cheat.

    Tuesday, May 13, 2008 at 7:47 pm | Permalink
  6. Jon Stock wrote:

    Thanks for the reflection Halden. It certainly does seem like statements like Carson’s fall under the category of “noble sentiment.” One might call them quandary ethics, but it seems that quandary is not only unrealistic, but loaded toward sentimentality.
    I would much rather see my wife, Cindy, give her body to another man than die. In fact, I would be quite upset that she had chosen her own moral purity (or her narrow vision of our vows) over the continued possibility of life together with me (I may be too Niebuhrian in this?). Of course, the issue is even more complex than this, which only clarifies how problematic sentimentality is for the Christian life.

    Wednesday, May 14, 2008 at 8:36 am | Permalink
  7. Thom Stark wrote:

    Not that I have any investment in defending Carson, but it seems to me his statement (wait, what were you doing reading Carson anyway?) need be nothing more than the expression of a desire. For all my disagreements with him, I’ve no doubt Carson and I agree that Carson is just as susceptible to temptation as the next guy. But I believe Carson is genuine when he says that he would ratherdie than deny. The expression of the desire orients the self along a trajectory in which the desire is fulfilled, but it does not claim fulfillment for itself.

    You’re right that we can fool ourselves by abstracting our faithfulness from reality, but we can also fool ourselves by focusing on our incompetence.

    I would rather express my desire to die-rather-than-deny than to express my incapacity to die-rather-than-deny. The former is more hopeful. It need not be arrogant or sinister.

    Wednesday, May 14, 2008 at 9:48 am | Permalink
  8. mdagle wrote:

    That’s a good word Thom and pretty much what my comments was gearing up to be.

    There’s no reason to view statements like these as anything more than desires that you hope your will can fulfill.

    Although Jon Stock presents a pretty interesting counter example to its being obvious that choosing death over cheating is the higher moral ground. There is the pesky problem of those you would leave behind.

    Wednesday, May 14, 2008 at 10:15 am | Permalink
  9. Halden wrote:

    Well, I think there’s a difference between saying “I want to be the sort of person who would chose death over compromise” and “I would rather die than…” The second statement seems stronger. It seems to me that to say that “I would rather die than…” is to make a statement about what one’s own character is. The former statement is different in that it expressions a hope about what one may become.

    Also, I think statements of desire are implicitly statements of identity. We all do what we desire. If I desire to die rather than to betray the gospel that is what I will do.

    Again, as I said in the post, I’m not trying to levy a hermeneutic of suspicion against Carson. All I’m saying is that I can’t imagine those words on my lips and them not being bullshit.

    Wednesday, May 14, 2008 at 10:22 am | Permalink
  10. Christian wrote:

    This is an interesting dilemma: Are we to approach life knowing that we’re failures or are we to approach life trying to not be failures, even though the story indicates that we will fail?

    I mean, when Peter vows that he will never desert Jesus, was he wrongheaded? Of course he did deny him, but this failure revealed the power inherent in the drama of the Gospel. But, what if Peter had told Jesus, I want to be the sort of person who would choose death of deserting you”? Would the drama not have lost (at least some of) its power.

    Wednesday, May 14, 2008 at 2:57 pm | Permalink
  11. Ben Myers wrote:

    Ahem, just reminding you, Halden, that you still haven’t answered Thom’s most important question: “wait, what were you doing reading Carson anyway?”

    We’re waiting with bated breath.

    Wednesday, May 14, 2008 at 4:19 pm | Permalink
  12. Samuel wrote:


    Is it not possible that your (and, “our”) response to Carson’s words reflects a great deal more of our culture and personal formation than anything specifically theological?

    Historically, there have been countless people who chose death over faithlessness, even to finite goods, like family and country. I’m sure some people did whatever they could to avoid the risk of dying in WWII. Yet many people willingly and knowing put themselves into certain death situations for “causes” or goods of less value that God. In light of history, then, I think it alarming that Christians are not willing, in principle, to die for God rather than deny their faith.

    Does not Christ directly indicate (e.g. Luke 9:23) that following him entails the risk of torture and death? And, in many countries, people who profess Christ and are baptized are literally sacrificing their family and putting themselves in real danger of being killed. I suspect their reaction to Carson’s words would be rather different than your own, which I admit is an accurate reflection of many of us. By being baptized many people today are making just such a confession: they are identifying with Christ and acknowledging that the teacher is not above his master.

    Radical defectability is undoubtedly important. If all you mean is that we ought to confess our own frailty and sinfulness, well and good. But how that applies in this situation is difficult to understand, unless you are implying Carson to be making claims to be indefectablility.

    Presumably, however, the God we worship, who has called us and given us promises, is indefectable, and I took Carson to be grounding his desires in the reality of the unfailing character of his God, not the indefectability of his flesh.

    Wednesday, May 14, 2008 at 7:42 pm | Permalink
  13. Samuel wrote:

    Edit: the last line of my third paragraph should read “acknowledging that the disciple is not above his master.”

    Wednesday, May 14, 2008 at 7:44 pm | Permalink
  14. roflyer wrote:

    Yeah, dude, Carson?

    Thursday, May 15, 2008 at 8:32 pm | Permalink
  15. Halden wrote:

    I ran across the quote in an article I believe. Don’t worry overmuch you guys, I’m not reading Carson with any sort of regularity!

    Thursday, May 15, 2008 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

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