Lately I have observed a great deal of discussion among Christians concerning who is “true” in the faith and who is not. It stems from a desire to sift the negative from the positive and discern one from the other. This is a noble goal, but it has the potential to become divisive if taken too far.
The topic usually surfaces when someone is offended by the way a Christian has behaved, and other believers remind the person that anyone who acts in such a way is not a “true” Christian and thus doesn’t represent Christianity. The basis of this argument is that one bad apple shouldn’t spoil the whole bunch. (This is an appropriate analogy, considering the Biblical context. We ought not to let one bad fruit poison the whole tree, or allow it to lead us into the temptation of retaliation.) That’s fair enough, and I agree with the claim. However, further classification of who is a “true” Christian often proceeds to splinter a group rather than unify it.
What classifies someone as authentic in their faith? Some would say a person is genuinely Christian only if they believe all the “right” things and hold to all the “correct” doctrines. Some say there is room for disagreement in nonessentials of the faith, but the definition of essentials is highly subjective. Some assert that belief in the trinity is an essential, while others disagree. Some state that it’s imperative to believe in justification through faith alone, while others say you can be saved if you believe in salvation through works as well as faith. Some insist that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is an essential, and others deny that it is.
If doctrine alone doesn’t determine who is a “real” Christian, what about behavior? It’s perfectly possible to believe all the traditional teachings without acting on them. It’s possible to view the Bible from a completely literal fundamentalist perspective while maintaining a hateful attitude. I’ve seen it countless times. Now, it’s easy to see why such hostile believers are doing much more harm than good for the Christian movement. Some may deny that such people are “real” Christians, but I disagree. They all worship Jesus as Lord. They all strive to live like him. However, they’ve come to very drastic and unhealthy conclusions about what it means to follow his example. They don’t represent all fundamentalist Christians by any means. I am fortunate to know fundamentalists who are gracious, pleasant, and receptive to open discussion. Nonetheless, the negative people show that fundamentalist Christianity is not guaranteed to provide spiritual enlightenment or to improve one’s character. It isn’t guaranteed not to help, but it isn’t guaranteed to help, either.
Others will probably say that one’s religious standpoint isn’t to blame. I understand that people can grossly misinterpret Scripture and use it to justify atrocities, but after a while, I start associating beliefs with behavior and see that it forms a pattern. Who orchestrated the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the “witch” burnings, and the Planned Parenthood bombings? Who beat and murdered gay people in an attempt to make them into examples? Who shows support for such activities? Pacifistic Christians are not to blame. These were the actions of Christians who believed their Scriptures to be completely inerrant, who insisted that the world had no place for deviating beliefs, and who proclaimed that anyone of a separate faith deserved to be eternally tortured in a fiery pit of doom.
So much of this is driven by the belief in hell. Hell, used as a terror-instilling personal threat. Hell, viewed as an instrument of righteous vengeance to be inflicted upon one’s enemies. This is why I think that hell is the single most toxic doctrine to ever taint the Christian faith.
There are numerous reasons why I trust that we can be redeemed after death regardless of the beliefs we hold during life, why I’m certain that God will eventually save the whole of humanity, and why I disbelieve the existence of hell altogether. I detailed some of them in one of my past essays, “Faith and Reason: A Crucial Balance (Part 2).” I will now explain them further. Some are statements and others are questions, but they all lead up to my conclusions.
Let’s begin here.
(Continued in Part 2)
(Continued in Part 2)