The Black and White Fallacy, and the Christian Gospel
It’s a little hard to believe that life is really just about a single choice. Actually, sometimes it’s impossible to believe—because often there is a third way. But what the Christian Gospel claims is that there is no third way, that among the millions of layers of complexity in life, there really are only two paths you can take. This, to the secularist, is illogical—the perfect example of the black and white logical fallacy.
Logical fallacies are patterned errors in logic that occur regularly enough to name. The straw-man fallacy, the red-herring fallacy, the fallacy fallacy…the list goes on. But the black and white fallacy is an error in logic that secularists apply to religions, especially the exclusive claims of Christianity. They say we religious folk are over-simplifying the complexity of life into merely two options (heaven and hell; God and Satan; good and evil), while there are really an infinite number of possible paths in life. They say our religion is like shoving an odd number of people onto an imbalanced teeter-totter and calling it good.
George W. Bush is said to have committed this logical fallacy when he gave his moving speech after the tragedy of 9/11. He said, “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Us or them: binary. But what about Scandinavia or Australia or South Africa? Were they really faced with this binary decision? Not so much. In his passion to communicate the severity of his war on terrorism, he saw the world as only giving two options, when in reality there were more (e.g., staying out of it).
So while Bush committed the black and white (or “false binary”) logical fallacy, my question is, does the Gospel do the same?
The Gospel: Is the World a Binary or No?
This is one of the main arguments against the Gospel that I hear: not that it isn’t interesting or beneficial or good or maybe true, but that it is too black and white. It claims to gather all the complexities of life and funnel them into two divergent paths in the woods. Which very well could be a logical fallacy.
The idea that all the entangling complexities of life can be traced back to a single (theological binary) root is something you’d only find in the jungle or in the mystical aborigines in a film (like Avatar). Believing life comes down to simply two options is something the Enlightened modern man simply can’t believe without committing intellectual suicide.
But that’s what the Gospel claims. And that’s what makes it so, well, embarrassing.
The Temptation to Distrust The Binary
What’s so important about this logical fallacy, to me, is that it represents Satan’s strongest and most-used argument against the Christian Gospel. Ever since the beginning he has set his agenda to turn God’s black and white words to gray. God told Eve that if they ate of the fruit of the one tree in the middle of the garden, she would die. Satan didn’t tempt Eve on the physical level of hunger, or even of curiosity, but on the intellectual level of logical rebellion and distrust. He doesn’t ask her the question as a binary, but gets her thinking about a third way—that maybe God wasn’t totally honest in painting the picture as black and white, that maybe there was gray too. He tempts her to think that God didn’t reveal the whole truth to them but only gave them two options. And there is nothing that appeals to our inner human nature than the idea that maybe, somewhere somehow, we’re being had. Taken for a fool.
In the same way, doubting the Gospel is appealing to us, because it makes us feel intelligent. And believing the Gospel is difficult because it’s embarrassing. It’s embarrassing to appear crazy; and there’s nothing crazier than telling a person that underneath every single thing in existence there lies only two options. It is naive.
The Binary Gospel
And yet is it? The Gospel is glaring simple; it’s true. But is simplicity always naivety?
The only reason the Gospel is embarrassing is because our culture is snobbish. We worship human ability in the guise of promoting “science”, and we trip over ourselves as we try to simplify and bring coherence and meaning to life. But it alludes us. Over 300,000 books were published just last year; 50,000 books have been published just as commentary on one man (Dante). Scientific discoveries are through the roof, and yet most of those discoveries are wrong—all we are left with is greater complexity and confusion. For all our efforts, the thing we seek most (a unifying theme and message and purpose in life) alludes us.
And yet it’s right in front of us, made immune by our pride in the face of the black and white fallacy.
The Gospel brings simplicity to the complexity, but it does so theologically, bearing a heavy message most are unwilling to accept. The Gospel is the story about life—it’s public truth—and if it’s not true about everything ever existing, it’s not true about anything. The Gospel is a narrative that encapsulates all of life and ties everything together into one single theological purpose—a cosmic struggle between good and evil (or, to put it more accurately, a cosmic destruction of evil in the renewing power of the Good).1
At the end of the day, I’m convinced that the main thing that keeps the lost of our day, in our culture, from believing, is intellectual pride. Believing the Gospel would be like getting caught with your pants around your intellectual ankles. Until you feel the weight of that embarrassment, you can’t appreciate what Paul wrote: “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation” (Rom 1:16). Until you’re willing to be embarrassed in front of the entire cosmos for what appears foolish, you are not ready to receive the glory that awaits an eternal soul redeemed by its Maker.
So it’s true: the Gospel is simple. But it isn’t simplistic. Oliver Wendell Holmes distinguished the two well: “I would not give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” The Gospel doesn’t leave anything out of its simplicity. It brings an all-inclusive simplicity to life that can absolutely be trusted. Nothing was left out. No third way is looming. When you doubt your faith and wonder if there’s something you’re missing, don’t. If your faith were a product of your ability as a scientist to synthesize and simplify, then you’d have a right to feel that way—but it’s not. It’s a product of the Maker Himself who handed down to you the center of His divine knowledge. Any doubting that is doubting Him.
George W. Bush committed this logical fallacy in his passion and haste, and no one blames him for it. But the Christian Gospel isn’t a speech made by man, it’s not hasty or intellectually inferior. It’s the Big Story of Life that makes sense of it all, and the sheer magnitude of its power is proof it is not made by the human mind. There was a time when I was ashamed of it—it’s neat and tidy structure and fairy-tale ending—but I’ve matured through that to see it for what it is: the power of God unto salvation (Rom 1:16), the wisdom of God in the foolishness of men (1 Cor 1:18).
- After all, let’s face it, evil never had a chance. ↩︎