Tuesday, October 26, 2021

The corrupting influence of Hell

I have two problems with the church today. The first is the Doctrine of Hell, which I believe is toxic to the Christian faith. Second is the overemphasis on 'belief' as the very defining characteristic of the entire religion.

The Doctrine of Hell, or the idea that God sends "non-believers" to a place of eternal torment and separation while the "believers" go to a place of eternal bliss called Heaven, has had a corrosive effect on the Christian religion. I believe it has driven many people away from organized faith and barred many more from ever joining. 

Hell was initially conceived as a place where "bad" people go, and many people still adhere to that view. However, in the church community it has become mainly a place for 'non-believers'. Whether a person is 'good' or 'bad' has little to do with it anymore due to the church doctrine of sola fide or faith alone - meaning one is saved by faith alone and not as a result of good works or works righteousness. This simple formula has elevated the concept of faith or belief above all else. If someone is bad or does something that is sinful, that is OK because they can still be forgiven. But lack of faith or unbelief has become the unforgivable sin in this construct.

Recently, I had an online spat with a friend who has a degree in 'Christian apologetics.' He had posted about his approval of a conservative priest denying communion to people who support abortion and/or gay rights. I expressed my belief that communion should be open to everyone and not restricted to a few pious people who swear allegiance to certain politico-religious doctrines or creeds. My friend then leaped to the conclusion that people who share my views and reject his views are in danger of going to hell. 
I was rather taken aback that our disagreement had devolved so quickly into threats of eternal condemnation. But that is what churches teach today and millions of Christians have it ingrained in their sub-conscience such that they rarely reflect on its logical inconsistencies and moral repugnance. 

It's not that I think there will be no judgement or punishment for wickedness. The Bible is filled with passages warning of final judgement and people being cast into darkness or flames that never go out.
In nearly every case, the judgement is based on what someone did, not on what they believed. But these passages are cast aside when the church teaches that there is nothing we can 'do' to achieve our 'salvation' and that our only hope is based on what we BELIEVE. As long as we BELIEVE the correct dogma, our sins will be forgiven and we will be welcomed into God's Kingdom. Failure to BELIEVE, however, will unleash God's holy wrath on us for all of our subsequently unforgiven sins, regardless of all the good works we might have done during our life.

When the full realization of this church teaching hit me as a young man, I knew then that it was wrong. Based on this understanding of the faith, there would be billions and billions of people pouring into hell for the sole crime of not believing the correct dogma.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

The only thing that counts....

Galatians 5:6 (the latter half) gives some badly needed clarification to the overly vague idea of "having faith in Jesus" which has become the core of the Christian religious tradition.
I've struggled for years with the disconnect between the church orthodoxy on being "saved by grace" through faith and Christ's command that we love our neighbor.
But this verse ties it all together....
"The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love."

Faith is an intangible. You can't see it or feel it. If someone says they have faith, the only way you can know is if they show it. Yet, the church puts ALL the emphasis on the intangible. Whether or not someone is a "Christian" and thus "saved" depends not on their love of others, but on their professions of "faith" as determined by their acceptance or rejection of various creeds and dogmas of the church. They put a period after 'faith', so that it reads "The only thing that counts is faith...." And they leave off the rest of the sentence.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Thoughts on Annihilationism

 The Bible is full of passages of God punishing the wicked. And that is understandable. The people who wrote the Bible were constantly beset by enemies who would march into their towns, kill their men, rape their women, enslave their children, steal their livestock, burn their homes and desecrate their temples. 
When they talked about 'salvation,' they didn't mean getting into heaven after they die, they meant save us from these enemy hordes that are killing us!
What they wanted from God was not just 'salvation' but also 'justice'! The wicked need to be punished! If not in this life, then in the next one!
So when Jesus comes along with his message of "love your enemies' and "pray for those who persecute you," can you imagine how radical and disconcerting that would have been? Excuse me? What do you mean 'love our enemies'?? We don't want to love them, we want you to smite them!
I don't think we have ever fully accepted this teaching from Jesus. Instead, we are like "Oh, right. Sure, Jesus. We will 'love our enemies' (wink-wink) with the full understanding that you will smite them later on like they deserve!"
People today are very serious about this afterlife smiting of the "wicked." For years, many people have readily believed that eternal conscience torment is the way that "justice" is served in the afterlife. Suggestions of a future reconciliation are usually dismissed with disdain. But now there is broadening acceptance of a third alternative - annihilationism. Instead of torturing people forever, they just get 'poofed' out of existence. That's still not enough for some people who still want the wicked folks to be smited before they get poofed. But overall, poofing seems to be catching on. That way the rest of us can enjoy our time in Heaven without any guilt about the people suffering in Hell. 
But who are these "wicked" people who are so deserving of this fate? Unbelievers? Unbelievers who do bad things? Unbelievers who do bad. things and aren't sorry about it? People who 'reject God'? In the Bible, as noted above, the wicked are typically the enemies of the protagonists, the Hebrews. Whoever is making their lives miserable at the moment be it the Moabites, the Ammonites, the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Persians, the Romans, etc. But what about later in the story when the Hebrews are ascendent and start ransacking towns, committing mass genocide and so forth in order to claim lands they say that God has granted to them? Are they not being wicked at that point? 
Is there such a thing as 'wicked' people who are irredeemably bad and never good? Don't we all have a little wickedness inside of us? How then can we be divided neatly into 'goats and sheep' or 'wheat and tares'? And is that the way that God sees us? All good or all bad? Or does God see in each of us both the good and the bad?
If God is outside of time, as some are apt to speculate, wouldn't that mean that he sees each of us at every stage of our life all at the same time? He would see me as a baby, an infant, a toddler, a child, a teen, a young adult, a middle-aged man and an elderly man all at the same time! So if the 50-year-old version of me commits a terrible sin, does the baby version of me have to be punished as well? Is God going to poof this baby version of me out of existence? God created a life and now regrets it and doesn't want to deal with the consequences so he is going to end it.
Hmmm. Maybe we need to change the name. Rather than calling it annihilation, we could call it soul abortions. That would probably make it a less attractive alternative, but would it be unfair?

Biblical Authority

 My views on Biblical authority are decidedly mixed. I don’t have a problem with having a “high view” of the Bible except when it runs contrary to my “high view” of God. The thing is, I get my high view of God from the Bible - mainly through the lens of Jesus. And I feel that this view is confirmed in me through my own personal relationship with God through the Holy Spirit. What I will not do is to allow this high view of God to be watered down by what I would call biblicism - a view of the Bible as inerrant, infallible, etc.

I once had someone quote a dark passage from the Old Testament to me (I can’t remember now what it was about) and I countered with a quote from Jesus. But the person then told me that since the entire Bible is God-breathed that means that every part of the Bible is like a quote from Jesus.  People with that attitude can pretty much justify anything they want with the Bible.

I think the story of Jesus resonates with people because we already know in our hearts that what he is teaching is right and true. Jesus gave us a new way to see God as a loving father, rather than as a stern and vindictive king. I believe that God is the creator of the universe and thus is the father of everyone. As a father, I could never turn my back or give up on any of my children no matter what they did. So I cannot imagine that God would ever give up on any of his children for any reason. I don’t doubt that people can demonstrate that some of the biblical authors had a view of God as punishing wicked people with annihilation. But every view of God in the Bible is a step along a path and not the final word. 

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Romans 2

  I remember the first time I read Romans 2 I was so excited because it affirmed what I had been thinking for a long time - that God is at work in the hearts of all people, regardless of what culture or religion they are part of. But when I went to look up the passages in various Romans commentaries I found that they either gave it very cursory treatment or ignored it altogether. I wish people were exposed to this text at least half as much as they are to John 3:16.
One thing I think we should do when reading Paul’s letters where he makes the contrast between Jews and Gentiles is to read it as Believers and Non-Believers. Because that is essentially what it was at that time except for a small handful of Gentile converts. Jews were the ones who believed in Yaweh, the God of the Jews, while Gentiles were essentially everyone else, the people who believed in other gods. We have such a hang-up today with those terms that I think it would be good if we recognize that Paul does not approach it in the same way. He does not assume that all non-believers are bound for hell. He does not insist that all non-believers become believers before they can be accepted. His message is that Jesus has come to establish a new kingdom for Jews and Gentiles alike and God does not show favoritism based on which culture you grew up in. People already know how to gain entrance to the kingdom - those laws are written on their hearts. One must be humble and meek and kind and loving and gracious and forgiving and repentant. Today we act like none of that is important. The only important thing is that you “believe” the doctrine and swear that Jesus is “your lord and savior” even if you don’t know what any of that means. All the rest is just frosting on the cake as far as we’re concerned. Nice if you want to do it, but not really necessary. 

In Christ alone Part 2

  I think our whole understanding of salvation is flawed because of our emphasis on ‘belief’ and ‘faith’ over ‘love’ and ‘grace’. We have turned the whole gospel story into a rehash of Noah’s Ark with all of humanity dangling over a pit of fire and only a small number who can be saved by climbing aboard a boat, which in this case is the church. 
If that is our idea of “good news” then it’s a pretty hard sell. But I believe that is a fundamental misreading of the role of the church. It should not be viewed as a boat to collect up all the lost souls and save them from drowning or burning in hell. Rather, it is God’s outreach station to the rest of the world. Joining the church should not be seen as the end goal, but just the beginning. Rather than seeing it as crossing a finishing line, I got my ticket to heaven and now I can relax…. How about seeing it as God’s version of the Peace Corps and now it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get to work spreading God’s love and grace to the rest of the world?
But back to our current reality…. It’s understandable that people would recoil from the hardline exclusionist doctrine with horrifying visions of infant damnation, but when you still insist on maintaining the idea that God’s default is to send everyone to hell unless they ace their correct dogma belief test then efforts to carve out exceptions inevitably creates more problems. For example, if we are going to say that the unborn and babies are exceptions, then we have to determine where the cutoff is. Where do you draw the line? What age is the point where your protection from God’s wrath is withdrawn and you become susceptible to the ‘believe in me or else’ rule? And if we set an age limit… 12? 14? 16? 18? 21? …. what is to prevent tragic situations where a mother decides to kill all of her children before they reach that age so that she can guarantee they will go to heaven? I mean why risk having them get older and tempted to do something bad and then end up in eternal hell? Even if it means she sacrifices herself to a hellish fate, who could blame her?
Or what about people who never heard the gospel? Do they get an exception? And if so, then does presenting them with the gospel just risk their damnation if they don’t immediately accept it? How is any of this supposed to be good news?
It’s not. That’s why I think there is more to the story than this. 

Augustine’s emphasis on the sins of the first Adam over the saving act of the second Adam is a key problem. I think we can see the results of that in the church today where we treat Original Sin as something that is much more powerful than the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. How so? Consider that original sin infects everyone regardless. No one gets a choice in the matter. You are just born with it and it is very difficult to get rid of. It envelops and blankets the entire world and sends 69% of the world population straight to Hell - according to Augustine. By comparison, Jesus’ saving act of grace on the cross is very weak and ineffectual. It does not apply to everyone automatically. You first have to jump through a series of hoops and “believe” in the correct dogma. In some cases you have to get baptized and confess your sins and belong to the correct church. And unlike original sin which is nearly impossible to get rid of it is easy to lose your salvation by doing something wrong later in life and failing to seek forgiveness or sanctification.
Original Sin is the iceberg that sank the Titanic while Jesus’ sacrifice is the lifeboat that only held a handful of people. At least, that is how we look at it today if we are being honest.

In Christ alone Part 1

  I think a lot of people struggle with this issue but are too intimidated to talk about it. 
I think I have been some kind of Christian universalist for as long as I can remember, long before I had ever heard of Rob Bell or David Bentley Hart. The idea that God would send billions and billions of people to eternal hellish torment simply because they were born in the wrong part of the world and grew up in the wrong religious tradition has always repulsed me. I was raised in traditional, mainline Baptist and Methodist churches. There was never a time when I did not believe in God or Jesus. The first time I remember this being an issue for me was when I was in junior high and a friend who was Catholic told me that anyone who did not believe in Jesus was going to hell. My immediate reaction was to say “What about Moses?” My friend didn’t have an answer for that.
A few years later when I was in high school I went to a church camp and someone was passing out those little Chick Tract comics that had cartoon images of angels throwing hundreds of people into a huge lake of fire because they didn’t “believe” in Jesus. Once again, I was repulsed. I did not find it at all persuasive and rejected it. But I did not reject my faith, just this interpretation that kept being thrown at me. 
It was hard enough trying to rationalize a place of eternal damnation for truly bad people - I mean, how many years do you need to torture Hitler? A million years? A billion years? - but now it was not just bad people going to hell but lots of good people too whose only crime was not believing the correct political dogma. The unforgivable sin of incorrect belief! That just didn’t seem right. Is that really why we are here? To ‘believe’ the correct dogma so we can get an A on our test and earn our golden ticket to heaven? Nonsense!
As I went through my deconstruction/reconstruction phase over the next few years I held firm to my belief in God - life doesn’t make sense without a creator - and to my love of Jesus. But where I finally landed was the determination that love is ultimately the most important thing - more so than faith or belief or anything else we try to prioritize ahead of it - just as Paul states in 1st Corinthians 13:13. God wants our love most of all. He is not that concerned with what we think we believe about things. The Great Commandment is in two parts for a reason. The first part is to love God. But how does one love God? That’s where part 2 comes in - Love your neighbor. If you do that, then you are showing your love for God. You are following the Great Commandment. You are, in essence, “in Christ”.