Why points based systems cannot work

There is a scene in The Good Place that outlines the absurdity of points-based legal systems so far as salvation is concerned. Here is a snippet:

It rightly points out that the world is so complicated that almost any action results in unintended consequences. The example given in the clip may be true, but the issue extends well beyond it. Sometimes, any action you might do or not do will have such consequences.

Think of our push to electric cars. If we don’t do it, there may well be environmental impacts that lead to flooding and extreme heat in certain regions that will lead to massive people displacement across the globe. But few want to talk about the issue of cobalt mining and the less than excellent means some employ to get battery materials nor do they spend much time talking about the jobs that will be lost in the oil and gas sectors as we move away from those fuels. This would be one of those issues where both doing and not doing the thing will have some negative consequences.

Consider the various hair-brained schemes of the current UK government to “stop the boats”. On the one hand, there are criminal people traffickers involved and it should be right to stop them. On the other, we are stopping desperate people finding safe haven. On the one hand, if we welcome in every asylum seeker under the sun, we will have to contend with issues of amenities and finances that must come from somewhere and our already poorest people will find they receive even less support. On the other hand, to turn people away is potentially to send them back to countries where their own lives are in danger and to reject those who may be even more abjectly poor than our own citizens. Again, there are negative consequences to whatever you do in this case and you are, in effect, forced into choosing a least bad option (and you can search my blog to find out what I think that may be in this case).

Even something as basic as buying clothes for your children, you have no idea whether those clothes have been made in sweat shops using exploited labour. But, in their wisdom, those who have found such things out and insisted companies do something about this appalling practice, soon discover that those factories get closed and moved and local who had jobs – albeit sub-standard ones – are less than pleased with your “help” because they now have no jobs and no access to a safety net. In our globalised economy, the tiniest of decisions have ramifications that spread across the world, with unintended consequences, and very often any choice you make – whether you do the thing or you don’t – will have negative impact.

For this reason, The Good Place rightly recognise that a points system is doomed. And it recognises that purely on a legal system that is only concerned with outward actions and consequences. It says nothing about the system of law overseen by a divine being who can see into your heart and is concerned about your thoughts and intentions as much as your outward actions. As one of my friends said when talking to his Hindu friend, if that points-based system of reincarnation is right, then we’re all coming back as dung beetles!

We live in a complex world in which even our best laid plans and intentions can and will have negative impacts on somebody, somewhere. If we are judged solely by external consequences, we are doomed simply by virtue of the world in which we live where we can’t do right for doing wrong. But if we are also judged by the full extent of our thought-life and the intentions of our hearts as well, that really doesn’t help us much either. When we are honest with ourselves, we know that the thoughts and intentions of our hearts will not serve us well on a points-based system. We only have to ask, honestly, would we be happy for the world to see every thoughts we have ever had and every intent of our heart laid bare for them to see. We all know we have things that we would not be comfortable showing the world. Even our own hearts condemn us.

When Jesus addresses such a system of law in the Sermon on the Mount, he is largely addressing the Pharisees and their view of the law. In effect, Jesus says, if you think you are righteous by law, here is what the law really demands of you. After giving a bunch of specific examples in which the law reaches beyond external actions, he sums up the issue this way: ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ (Matthew 5:48). The only way to ensure safety and salvation on a points-based system is to be perfect. But the world we live in makes that impossible on purely outward consequentialism and our own hearts make it impossible when it comes to judging our thoughts and intentions also.

What Matthew goes on to show following the Sermon on the Mount is that, if a points-based legal system is inevitably flawed, Jesus has come to instal a new and better way. He had not come to abolish the law and the prophets – as he said in the sermon – but to fulfil them. The law served two basic purposes. Paul tells us in Romans 3:20 tells us, the law exists to show us our sin. He says the same in Romans 7. It is not a problem with the law that the law shows us our sin. That was its very purpose. Hebrews 10:1-4 makes the same case. The law did not exist to take away sin, but to remind the people they were sinners. Which, Hebrews goes on to say, leads to the second purpose of the law: to show people their need of a saviour. Salvation was always, of necessity, by faith. The law highlights the fact that we are all sinners and under God’s just condemnations and, as a result, salvation has always been and can only ever be by grace through faith in the promised messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. A points-based legal system is so flawed nobody would ever attain salvation. Which is why God has always saved by grace through faith.

This is good news for us. We don’t have to strive to attain points. Jesus calls us, instead, to cease from striving and to enter his rest. We don’t have to worry if we have been good enough – knowing in reality that none of us have been – but can trust in Jesus’ perfect life and death on our behalf. We have a God who understands our frailties and weaknesses, he knows what we are and are not able to do, and he sent Jesus and operates not on points, but on grace, because he knows well apart from him doing all the running, nobody is getting to glory.

One comment

  1. “On the other hand, to turn people away is potentially to send them back to countries where their own lives are in danger”

    France? The French aren’t that bad.

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