Friday, June 10, 2011

The Divided Waters (Part 4)

         These passages won’t persuade everyone. Some will continue to adhere to the doctrine of hell, regardless of what they read. I think some people will continue to believe in hell because they are afraid they’ll be sent there unless they believe in it (though no Bible verse validates such a fear.) For many, the doctrine is simply ingrained too deeply. Some are unwilling to accept the notion that salvation has already been attained because they think it would render all their efforts meaningless. Still others may continue to believe in perdition because they relish the idea of their enemies perishing. People who want those who disagree with them to be eternally damned are the ones I struggle not to hate. If I despise them, I am no better. If I strive to preach tolerance in an un-hypocritical way, I need to make an effort to tolerate the intolerant. I accept those who reject universalism. However, it’s hard to release the bitterness I feel toward those who have rejected me on account of my views.
            I am inclined to feel completely disgusted by people such as Fred Phelps and the other members of the Westboro Baptist Church. They’re easy to hate because they’re hateful. However, it’s important to remember that they are victims too. Fred Phelps abused his children so severely that their rage has never abated, and they must turn their fury against the outside world rather than against their father. They are deeply damaged people who were never able to heal. This doesn’t excuse their atrocious behavior, but I think it’s important to make an effort to understand their attitudes. Instead of seething over them, I need to pray for them and for others with a similar mentality.
            I’ve come across an alarming number of Christians who are not far removed from the religious mania expressed by the WBC. I notice a common trend among such believers: they are disinclined to trust good news. Many seem to think that a sermon can only be genuine or profound if it sounds grim. We don’t need to be cynical about how far God’s love reaches. To me, faith means trusting that a message is good enough to be true.
            My experiences with militantly exclusive Christians have taught me some painful but valuable lessons. I’ve learned that people who say they are “full of God” are deifying themselves in a sense. They may deny it, claiming that they are insignificant and God is everything. But if they truly believe themselves to be God-suffused, then they view themselves as representations of Him. After all, if they are so diminished that “God” is occupying most of their identity, who do they think their peers are really interacting with? Such people may profess humility, but even this can become boastful. It’s a paradox, but I’ve seen it happen: People can brag about their humility. The militant-minded also have a tendency to say they care more about pleasing God than assuaging others’ feelings, but I’ve noticed this is often used to justify tactless behavior or to avoid looking out for others. The Bible discourages us from such an attitude (2 Corinthians 8:20-21, 13:10; Galatians 6:1; Ephesians 4:2, 31-32; Colossians 3:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:11; 2 Timothy 2:24-25; Titus 3:1-2; Hebrews 12:14). It’s easy to neglect other people if one is convinced that he or she is pursuing a loftier goal. I’ve even heard some say, “We have to believe in hell. If there’s no hell, why shouldn’t we run around committing crime?” If fear of hell is the only barrier preventing someone from committing rape or armed robbery, I can’t help but feel uneasy about them.
            I’ve found quite a bit of misinformation in exclusivist Christian literature. From what I’ve seen, such media tends to spread false information about abortion. Wherever you stand on the abortion issue, most of us can agree that it’s wrong to show pictures of miscarried fetuses and try to pass them off as aborted ones. The use of gory images is also misguided and manipulative. The fact that something is unpleasant to look at doesn’t make it immoral. (It could be immoral for other reasons, but the mere fact that it’s messy is unrelated.) One could have the same visceral reaction to a photo of open heart surgery, but that doesn’t determine its ethical value. I’ve also heard that Christian family-planning clinics regularly misrepresent themselves and let patients assume they are mainstream abortion-performing clinics. They tend to mislead women in an effort to attract more business.
            In evangelical media, I notice false information about evolution as well. Many Christian apologetics claim that evolution teaches a slow formation of each body part, which would render the parts useless until fully developed. However, modern evolutionary theory doesn’t teach this at all. A lot of people (both religious and non-religious) presume that Christianity and evolution are mutually exclusive. Even a biblical fundamentalist can believe in evolution, though. The Bible says that God created the universe, but never explicitly states how. Many fundamentalists have rejected the literal six-day creation theory, since God’s time is said to be entirely different from ours. The only biblically incompatible teaching is the theory of men evolving from apes, and a fundamentalist could simply choose to dismiss that facet of evolution while accepting all the others.
            Basically, I think God becomes limited to us when we can’t stretch our perception of Him. Our minds are finite, but God is not. As my aunt Tina once said, “Let's face it—would you want to believe in a God who was so simplistic that we could fully understand him? If that were so, who would truly be the superior being?”
            My understanding of God is encapsulated in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” Since God is love, He contains all of these qualities. I am sure of this, but I don’t think I have a full understanding of God by any means. I don’t know what it’s like to be fully loving, selfless, or completely forgiving. It’s easier for us to envision God as bitter and resentful because humans can better relate to those qualities.
            I perceive the exclusivist mentality as somewhat related to Gnosticism in that it can easily regress into elitism. It can quickly become a doctrine which teaches that you can only be “saved” with the correct knowledge. A clubhouse is a lot more enticing if you need to know the secret password in order to enter, and there’s only enough room for a few.
            Some will say that you can’t understand Scripture unless you’re “moved by the Spirit,” but I’m doubtful about this. Multitudes of people genuinely believe themselves to be influenced by the Holy Spirit, yet their interpretations of the Bible vary greatly from one another. It also can become circular logic. Many believe this teaching because it’s included in the Bible, but they only trust the Bible because it claims to be truthful. It’s the same old argument of “it’s true because it says it’s true.” We need to reset the skipping record and listen to the rest of the song. There’s nothing wrong with trusting Bible verses, but we ought to base our trust on reason instead of blind faith. Doctrine is an excellent tool for understanding Scripture, but it’s not a god in itself. Over-reliance on it can lead us to overlook the larger picture, and to only define Christianity as a rigid sum of fixed beliefs.
            When we obsess over doctrinal details, we’re often too focused on rituals and technicalities to feel compassion. Such issues are so trivial in the grand scheme of things. They distract us from providing medical care and education to the underprivileged. They distract us from counseling people, donating to the needy, and protecting the environment. When you become overly fixated on small details, it’s easy to become frustrated with people because it can start to feel like you’re working diligently while most others are languishing on God’s property without even pitching in to pay rent. This attitude stunts the growth of empathy.
            When I question the relevance and weight of certain doctrines, I know some will probably ask, “Who are you to question God?” My answer is that I am a human being, and humans are bestowed with the wonderful ability to exercise logic and reason. In the Bible people question God all the time, and He responds by eagerly engaging them in dialogue. Moses questioned God continuously. David questioned Him, as did Job and Lot. If you’re looking for passages in which people question God, read Jeremiah. Read Isaiah 63:17. These passages portray a God who welcomes questions. If we don’t allow for them, we end up slamming the Bible shut in peoples’ faces like a door. The Bible needs to remain an open door and an open book.
            The idea of a completely static Bible is not even a Scriptural teaching. It’s a human-taught doctrine. It’s valuable to know the origins of doctrines so we don’t assume they can never be questioned. In the first centuries of Christianity, the beliefs were even more diverse than they are now. Some early Christians believed Jesus was fully human. Others believed he was fully divine. Some thought he rose from the dead, while others believed he never died at all. They didn’t settle these matters by consulting their Bible, because they had no Bible to refer to. The Gospels had been written by this point, but numerous other texts were being circulated which also claimed to be written by the apostles. Many were proven fraudulent, but others are disputed among biblical scholars to this day.
An official list of canonical books was not compiled until three centuries after Christ’s death. Some books were considered canonical and included in the Bible at first, but were later removed. Authorship was a major factor in this decision. The original gospels were written anonymously, and the specific apostles’ names were not assigned to them until long afterwards. Authorship of Revelations and the Gospel of John is still debated among academic circles. This doesn’t lead me to doubt the Bible’s general reliability, but it does contribute to my doubts of its inerrancy. Studying early Christian sects and apocryphal texts has taught me that the Christian perspective is very broad. I recommend we all research our belief systems, but education is not paramount to salvation. As I’ve said, I am certain that we’re already saved.
            Even Scripture advises us to test it and hold it up to critical analysis. 1 Thessalonians 5:20-22 says, “Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold onto what is good, reject every kind of evil.” Testing all prophecies clearly includes the prophecies of Scripture. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 3:6, “He (Jesus) has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” This sounds like a warning not to rely solely on Scripture, and an appeal to not exalt Scripture above the things God tells us through the Spirit. A parallel concept is articulated in Romans 12:2. In Acts 17:11, Peter says, “Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” This verse highlights the value of questioning and testing Scripture.
Some will disagree with this interpretation on account of 2 Peter 1:20: “..No prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation.” However, it’s useful to examine the term “Scripture” within the context of this passage. First of all, 2 Peter 1:20 was not considered Scripture at the time when he wrote it. He was not classifying his own statement about Scripture as Scripture. Secondly, many ancient writings were considered divinely inspired at that time. In ancient Greece, the Iliad and Homer’s Odyssey were said to be inspired by God due to the grand style in which they were written. The mere fact that they were called divinely inspired did not make them so. I’m not saying that none of Peter’s letter was inspired; I’m saying that this verse isn’t a good reason to avoid testing biblical prophecies. When testing them, it’s helpful to keep these questions in mind: Was the prophecy fulfilled? Have the results of it been recorded anywhere other than the Bible? Did someone deliberately carry it out so it would be fulfilled, or did it transpire without anyone’s aid? Was it a generalized prophecy that would inevitably be met, such as a prediction of war and famine? Testing Scripture is not testing God. It’s the act of examining something to see if it’s really from God.
Jesus himself advocated the testing of prophecy and Scripture. As he asked his apostles in Luke 12:57, “Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right?” In Matthew 14:22-33, he told Peter to walk over to him on the water. When Peter began to sink and cried out “Lord, save me,” Christ caught him. He then asked Peter, “Ye of little faith, why did you doubt?” Jesus wasn’t admonishing Peter for lacking faith in him; he wanted Peter to have more faith in himself. A rabbi places an enormous amount of faith in his disciples. He only chooses them if he’s certain they can follow in his footsteps.
Jesus entrusted his disciples with a great deal. He granted his apostles the right to bind and loose, which meant to decide which laws would be upheld and which laws would not. The apostles varied in their Scriptural interpretations, so they inevitably arrived at some differing conclusions. God knew this would occur. When we look at the entire New Testament, we see how many laws have been “loosed” over the years. Christian women generally don’t wear head coverings or stay silent in church. Christians no longer greet one another with a kiss. Somewhere down the line, it was decided that such codes need not apply. The church inherited the right to bind and loose (Romans 15:14).
There is continued debate over whether “the church” means specific religious authorities or the individual members of the church. An argument could be made for the latter, because our bodies are called temples. Thus, it could be said that each person is a separate “church,” but we worship together as a collective body. Regardless, Jesus allowed for change within the church and change within our religious practices. The earth also reveals God’s openness to change. He made us the caretakers of this planet and allows us to cultivate it as we desire. In many ways we have abused this privilege, just as the Church has abused its role as the caretaker of Jesus’ teachings. The point, though, is that we’ve been granted freedom to make changes according to our interpretations and according to the times in which we live.
God knows we’ll disobey, but He perseveres in generosity because love always perseveres. I think one of our greatest roadblocks is the tendency to see God as a slave driver. If we regard Him in such a way, we are like the brother of the prodigal son in Jesus’ famed parable. The hardworking son resented the fact that his brother was rewarded for returning home after a long period of wild living, while he had never seen any rewards for his own loyalty or labor. The industrious brother failed to realize that he didn’t have to make himself miserable in an effort to earn his father’s love; he’d had it all along. Jesus elaborated on this point by sharing the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:4).
The Bible repeatedly says there is nothing we can do to earn God’s love. Some think this means we’ll never be good enough to please Him, but it should be taken to say that we can’t earn what we already have. Atonement is often described as a gift, and a true gift is given freely. As Paul wrote in Romans 5:7-8, “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
The Bible warns us about the pitfalls of debt. If we feel a constant need to self-flagellate for God, we weigh ourselves down with a sense of never-ending debt. Atonement has already been achieved, though. With God’s forgiveness, debt is canceled. Our job is simply to trust Him and live up to what He desires. As it is so eloquently stated in Philippians 3:16, “Only let us live up to what we have already attained.”
One of the central themes woven throughout Scripture is that God desires mercy, not sacrifice (Hosea 6:6; Mark 12:33; Matthew 9:13; Micah 6:7-8; Proverbs 21:3). This is not limited to animal sacrifice, but extends to personal sacrifices as well. Sometimes it is necessary to make sacrifices, but only if they’re the means to an end. A sacrifice is pointless if it is an end in itself. An alcoholic who checks himself into rehab is sacrificing his addiction to improve his life and rebuild his family relationships, while a woman who stays in an abusive marriage because she thinks God wants her to suffer is making a pointless sacrifice.
Some believe that it’s noble to torment yourself, based on biblical passages that say we must carry our cross and die to ourselves. This doesn’t require us to make ourselves miserable, though. “Dying to ourselves” sounds like a form of hyperbole, and it means we are to resist sin. It doesn’t demand that we loathe ourselves and denounce everything that makes us who we are. Scripture repeatedly tells us to be joyful, to set aside anxiety, and to avoid enslaving ourselves (Romans 8:15; Galatians 5:1; Philippians 4:4-7; 1 Thessalonians 5:16). As it is written in Psalm 8:4-6, “What is man that You are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You have made him (man) a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor; You made him ruler over the works of Your hands; You put everything under his feet.” This expresses how much God cherishes us, both as a collective group and as individuals. There’s a healthy middle ground between arrogance and self-hatred. Since God loves us, why should we not value ourselves?
God’s love and mercy become more apparent when we look into the context of certain verses. Many passages speak of the “glory” of God, and how we should fear Him. The word translated to “fear” did not originally refer to terror or dread. It referred to awe and reverence, which we feel in the divine presence. The word translated to “glory” is actually the Hebrew word kavod, which means “weight” or “significance.” This makes more sense to me than “glory.” I tend to associate glory with victory in war, but God is not warlike. God is a god of peace (Romans 12:14-21, 16:20; 1 Corinthians 14:33; 2 Corinthians 13:11; Ephesians 2:17; Colossians 3:15; 2 Thessalonians 3:16; James 3:17-18).
Some Christians object to the concept of a peaceful God because of Matthew 10:34, in which Jesus declares, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” However, Jesus is not speaking of violence. He strongly discourages violence in Matthew 26:52. Christ is not speaking of a literal sword in Matthew 10:34, but of the double-edged sword of Scripture. This metaphor is additionally expressed in 2 Corinthians 10:3-4. When Jesus says he did not come to bring “peace,” it sounds like he was speaking of smug complacency. When he said he came to bring division, he meant that he wanted his disciples to avoid the immoral behavior they saw in others. They were to set themselves apart as examples. It’s good to remember Jesus’ intended audience. Most of the time, he was not preaching to nonbelievers. He preached to devoutly religious Jews who believed themselves to be in elite standing with God. His harshest words were reserved for spiritual elitists, and he rebuked them for their self-righteousness. His apostles preached equality, not superiority (Galatians 3:28; Romans 2:9-11, 3:29).
When I rejected the doctrine of hell and torment that is commonly preached by exclusivists, I found I could love God all the more. I think the idea of hell often constrains our love for God, which could otherwise be boundless. How can one enjoy Eden if there’s a gaping vacuous pit behind the Tree of Knowledge that swallows up the people you love? Plenty of hell-believers love God, and the belief in perdition doesn’t always bring out negative traits in people. It’s more likely to, though. It can foster a sense of superiority in those who believe they are spared, and give them license to persecute the “damned.” It can plant seeds of fear which germinate into horror beyond anything conceivable in the afterlife. Belief in a hell that exists elsewhere often brings it into existence here.
The further I look into the Bible, the less support I find for such a place. The more thoroughly I research Scripture, the less endorsement I find for violence, bigotry, or exclusion, which all engender hell on earth. I keep discovering more support for three specific themes: unity, balance, and regeneration.
A lot of themes mirror Christ’s resurrection and our resulting atonement. The year of Jubilee is one example. Once every fifty years, all slaves were freed and all debts canceled. Burdens were released, and things were made new. Another example is baptism. Immersing your body underwater and then emerging to the surface mirrors the way in which Jesus was buried and then rose from the tomb. The regenerative quality of water is beautifully symbolic. It cleanses both physically and spiritually. It quenches our thirst and provides for us. It is the origin of all life, and therefore a natural setting for rebirth. Water gives life, and the fire of refinement brings death: not permanent spiritual death, but the death of sin. Just as life triumphs over death and mercy over judgment, water triumphs over fire.
The flow of Christianity has been divided like the Red Sea, which has been reddened with the blood of victims over the centuries. Water, like fellowship, should be unified. Even if we don’t agree on all issues, we are separate droplets that must converge. We are individual streams of consciousness that follow one current, which flows upstream to heaven.
At this time, we are living through a flood of anger and exclusivity. We need to build an ark. Just as all the different animals coexisted on Noah’s ark, we can too. I don’t wish to keep anyone off, but to invite everyone on. Our Jewish brothers and sisters are welcome. (The paternity test came out positive—we have the same Father, even if we disagree on the Son.) Those of other faiths and those of no religion are welcome, but they will not drown if they stay in the water. I believe they will swim and continue to evolve, and we’ll all eventually meet on the same land. Our destination is not a remote island, lest we become isolated islands ourselves. My goal is to follow the rays of Son and hope to finally see a rainbow. It will be comprised of people with different beliefs, distinct but complimentary to one another.
My next question is not a challenge, but an invitation.
Are you on board?
            *      *     *

Suggestions for further reading

Helpful books:

-Hope Beyond Hell, by Gerry Beauchemin (Also see his website,
-Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, by Bart D. Ehrman (Note: Ehrman is a renowned Biblical scholar.)
-Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism by John Shelby Spong
-Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith by Rob Bell
-Thank God for Evolution by Michael Dowd
- The Eerdman’s Bible Dictionary
-The New Bible Dictionary

Informative websites:
-New Testament Greek Lexicon:
-Old Testament Hebrew Lexicon: (This site is useful for comparing verses in different versions of the Bible.)
-Calvin’s Error of Limited Atonement:
-The Modern Inerrancy Debate:

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