Sunday, 26 June 2011

Believe or Burn?

I've recently discovered Some Grey Bloke (courtesy of The Vernacular Curate). He's done a series of simple animations on various topics which are generally witty, dry, insightful and entertaining. He's not too keen on religion though, as partly demonstrated by this clip:

For those who don't have time (or can't be bothered) to view the clip, the gist of it is that the following two claims are contradictory:
  1. God loves everyone
  2. If you don't believe in Jesus and accept Him as your lord, then God will burn you in Hell forever!
It's not too hard to see why someone might find it a little difficult to reconcile the above! Having been raised as an evangelical Christian myself though, it wasn't until I first seriously questioned my faith in my teens that this dichotomy really started to bother me.

According to basic Christian doctrine, at the moment good and evil are all mixed up in the world, but one day there will be a final judgement of everyone - alive or dead. At that time there will be a separation and some people will get to live with God forever in paradise (whatever that consists of) and other people ... won't!

There are various Biblical metaphors for what happens to those who are excluded from paradise, including eternal fire (Matthew 25:41), a fiery lake of burning sulphur (Revelation 21:28) and a place of darkness where there is "weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matthew 8:12). Basically though, none of them are very nice!

The big question though - assuming for the moment that this view of eternity is essentially correct - is who will go where, and how will it be decided?

The Biblical perspective on this is actually not quite as straightforward as many Christians would like to think. For example, according to this passage, God will only accept those who show compassion towards others, especially the most needy and vulnerable - although this might raise the question: how many people do I have to help in order to be good enough for God? Or conversely perhaps: how many needy people can I get away with ignoring before I am excluded?

Other passages - e.g. this one mentioned earlier - state that bad behaviour or bad character traits of various kinds will get you excluded, e.g. cowardice, murder, lying, sexual immorality etc. But again, none of us are perfect - e.g. not many of us are murderers but most of us have told the odd lie from time to time. So again, where does God draw the line?

Other passages however, suggest that it is not so much what we do, but what God does for us, which determines whether or not we are accepted by Him. e.g. this passage, written to the early church in Ephesus - "For it is by grace you have been saved ... not by works, so that no one can boast".

Similarly, in this passage, one of the criminals who is crucified alongside Jesus petitions Him for mercy. He was presumably guilty of many of the deeds that should by rights - according to other Biblical passages - have got him banished to Hell, yet Jesus tells him, "today you will be with me in paradise".

To me, the only sensible interpretation of this (and I think most Christians would agree), is that inclusion in (or exclusion from) eventual paradise is actually based on both of the above. God wants people who want to be (and are willing to work at being) genuinely good people (paradise wouldn't be paradise without them) but at the same time, none of us can really manage this on our own - which is where grace comes in.

Christians believe that by dying on the cross, Jesus somehow bridged the gap between us and God, making it possible - by His sacrifice on our behalf - for us to be forgiven for all of the stuff we've done and keep on doing that separates us from God and prevents us from becoming the sort of people He always wanted us to be. If we're willing to accept what Jesus has done for us and accept Him as lord of our lives, He will (a) help us to live the way God always intended and (b) extend grace and forgiveness to us wherever it's needed.

This is great for believers who accept this message and take it on board (assuming that it's true for the moment), but what about everyone else? What about those who haven't heard this message or have simply come to the apparently quite logical conclusion that it's all poppycock? What about those who have had such negative experiences of Christianity that they wouldn't touch it in a million years with an extremely large barge pole, or who have concluded (quite reasonably in some cases) that the best way to be a genuinely good person is actually to stay as far away from the Christian faith as possible?

Many Christians (mostly evangelicals) believe this is basically tough luck (although they may try to express it a bit more gently). Only God's grace, extended through Jesus, makes it possible for us to be saved, so if you turn away from that grace (or perhaps even just never hear about it) for whatever reason, you've missed your chance. Some take a very hard line on this, insisting that there are no exceptions, while some are open to the possibility that God may still somehow extend his grace to those who have never heard for example, and have therefore never had the opportunity to respond.

One famous Biblical passage, often quoted in support of the above position, is John 14:6, where Jesus says, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Jesus doesn't pad this out much further though and to conclude that it is therefore only possible to escape Hell by believing in Him here and now, seems to me to be stretching things a little. Other Biblical passages tell us that Jesus had always been with the Father, for example, this bit in John 1: "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God" (the "Word" means Jesus - as the passage itself subsequently explains). Long before Jesus arrived on earth, many people had already "come to the Father". Based on John 14:6 though, we can conclude that whether they knew it or not, Jesus was still somehow involved in this process.

Here's a couple more passages that are a little harder to deal with:

"For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son." - John 3:17-18

"He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might." - 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9

From the first quote however, it's worth noting that if someone has never heard, they can't be considered guilty of not believing, so this quote really can't be considered to apply to them. For those who have heard the message though, not believing is clearly being treated as a pretty heinous offence! But on the other hand so is lying in Revelation 21:8 and it seems to result in the same sentence!

A big part of the problem here (in my view) is that many Christians, particularly evangelicals, tend to treat the Bible as if it is a precise book of doctrinal statements, where every word and sentence can be taken to have an exact and precise meaning, as if it was written in some kind of perfect and unambiguous "legalese", but it simply isn't that kind of a book! Normal day to day language isn't like this and tends to be easily misinterpreted (which is why "legalese" was invented). The Bible isn't written in "legalese" though, it's written - for the most part - in a much more conversational style, addressed to real people in real situations. Much background knowledge and many shared assumptions are taken for granted and hyperbole (stressing a point by exaggerating it for emphasis) is common and is not generally qualified.

All of this means that a certain amount of common sense is required when interpreting scripture and a little reading between the lines is sometimes needed. Of course, the problem with reading between the lines is that what you are reading could be entirely different from what the author intended, but then reading it too literally can sometimes also have the same effect!

My own reading of the above is that yes, rejecting God's grace - especially if you have really understood what that grace is all about - is a heinous offence and will in the end disqualify you for salvation, because without grace none of us can be saved. It's a step further to conclude though, that anyone who rejects the Christian message for honest (if misinformed) reasons, will automatically be scheduled for damnation. Such a conclusion seems to me to fly in the face of God's love and righteousness as portrayed elsewhere in scripture. It also contradicts passages such as Jesus' sheep and goats parable, quoted above (Matthew 25:31-46), in which it is a person's heart attitude that is presented as the determining factor and believing the Christian message is not even mentioned.

So I will continue to campaign on behalf of the Christian message, because I believe Jesus' grace is the only way to God, both now and in the life to come. I will also continue to hold out the reality of judgement as a warning to those who insist on going their own way. I don't think it is my place however, to pre-judge the fate of all those who - for reasons unclear to me - continue to be unmoved by my appeals!

Monday, 6 June 2011

Jesus - my imaginary friend?

I think most Christians - especially those of a sceptical and analytical bent - occasionally have doubts, and I should confess that this has sometimes been one of mine. Since a friend recently asked me if God is really just a grown up person's imaginary friend, I thought I would try to address this question here.

Many children have imaginary friends who apparently act as a source of comfort, companionship etc. - in fact many of the roles that God often seems to fulfil in the lives of those who believe in Him.

I can see why then, for unbelievers - especially those of a strongly atheist disposition - this might seem like the best way to explain the beliefs and "alleged" experiences of such as myself. If you're 100% convinced that God does not exist (as many atheists do claim to be), then you still need some sort of explanation for the persistence of millions of believers around the world who not only believe in God, but also claim to have encountered him in some way. This explanation would seem to fit the bill quite nicely!

As I mentioned in the first paragraph, I have occasionally wondered this myself. It seems most Christians experience times in their lives when God seems particularly distant. Many renowned spiritual authors have written about this phenomenon over the centuries. During times like these I have sometimes found myself wondering whether God was ever really real to me at all, or whether I just imagined the whole thing. Also, because I do have an enquiring mind and am not afraid to challenge others to question their own perspectives, it seems only fair that I should be willing to do the same. Accordingly, even when things have been going well, I have sometimes asked myself - is this really God? Am I just making this up? Is what I'm experiencing really just wishful thinking or some other kind of deep-seated psychological reaction?

The short and honest answer is that it's actually very difficult to be 100% sure! When you're in the middle of something that may or may not be a delusion, it's extremely difficult to completely step back from that and analyse it from a totally objective point of view - especially if it's something in which you have a very strong emotional investment! Obviously I want this to be true - and that does sometimes make honest attempts at debunking it quite difficult!

The conclusion I've generally come to though, is that there have just been too many things - too many "coincidences" if you like - to put this all down to chance and wishful thinking. Even if I was just talking about my own life and experience this would be true, but if I then factor in millions of other Christians around the world and their recorded experiences down through the centuries, and the extraordinary and surprising resonance I've so often found with my own, the only sensible conclusion seems to me to be that there really is some kind of external guiding hand out there - and the God of the Christians, especially as revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, seems to me by a long way to be the best available fit.

Some things I've experienced that could potentially be put down to the imaginary friend syndrome:
  • A sense of God's love and presence. If this was imaginary though, I would generally expect to have more control over it. As it is, I generally cannot predict when this will happen. There are some situations in which it seems more likely, but sometimes I am disappointed and other times God seems to reveal himself quite unexpectedly.
  • A sense of God's guidance - e.g. unexpected and surprising wisdom or insight into a difficult situation or problem. There are similar psychological phenomena which could potentially account for this - particularly the idea that the brain will sometimes process things sub-consciously then provide flashes of insight to the conscious mind.
  • I've run out - I can't think of any more at the moment...

Some things I think are less easy to explain in this way:
  • Knowledge or insight given to me into other people's situations which I knew nothing about - which has sometimes been very surprising to those concerned.
  • Similar knowledge or insight given by others into my own situation. For example, being told by a complete stranger what I'd been praying about for the past few weeks (no-one else knew) and that my prayer would be answered (it was).
  • Praying for people with various physical ailments and seeing them healed on a number of occasions. Most of these could be put down to co-incidence by a determined sceptic but for me they fit together with too many other things I've experienced and understand about God and the world and I'm afraid I'm just not that determined! A critic will of course ask why God doesn't heal every time a person is prayed for - but that's for another discussion...

So there you are - a few more reasons why I believe what I believe. I don't propose to provide details of any of the above. These are my experiences and are not for sceptics to pore over. As I've said elsewhere on this blog, if God wanted to prove Himself universally and indisputably, I believe He would have done so by now. The above are not meant to be testable or falsifiable by unbelieving sceptics - they are just some of the reasons why I personally have chosen to believe.

If you don't believe, I think you have 2 choices: Carry on not believing, or have a go at reaching out to God for yourself. If you're willing to try the second, in a spirit of honest humility, then you may just end up with some very good reasons of your own...

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Being a Christian - What do I get out of it?

Someone asked me this morning (see the comments on this post) what I get out of being a Christian (to be more precise, the question was what do I get out of God, but this is how I've interpreted it).

The answer is, I get all sorts of things, but I thought I'd try and cover a few here. I realise not all my readers will share my beliefs but to me these things are very real and so for now I will dispense with saying things like, "I think", or, "in my opinion".

This is how it seems to me and this is my experience:

First of all, the best and most important thing I get out of this is God Himself! God created and sustains the whole Universe and yet is interested in, and has time for me! Not only does He have time for me though, He loves me passionately! This is not something I always find it easy to get my head round, but I get powerful glimpses sometimes and - in a good way - it shakes me to the core!
My relationship with God is central to a lot of what I am and what I do with my life. I know lots of people - Christian and not - who can be very loving sometimes, but I don't know anyone who displays the passionate self-giving love I see in Jesus. This love inspires and motivates me - gives me something to aim for - but also encourages, supports and forgives me when I fail.

Prayer and worship - which from the outside perhaps look to some people like meaningless rituals, designed perhaps to try to win God's approval? - to me are usually a delight. I don't pray or worship to get God's approval, I do these things because I have His approval (unwarranted as that might be) and because it's a delight to spend time with Him. Prayer is a mystery I don't have room to try and explore properly here, but it changes things, and it's a 2-way thing. It involves listening to God and working with Him, because our input matters to Him and He wants to involve us in His purposes.

Worship too, is a 2-way thing. It isn't just telling God how wonderful He is - it's a reaching out to God who sweeps you up in His embrace, lifts your spirits heaven-ward and raises your perspective above and beyond the day to day joys and struggles of life.

Beyond these immediate benefits, being a Christian also gives me hope for the future. I believe in a God who is good and who will one day straighten everything out. He has allowed evil and suffering to exist in His world, but only for a time - these things are temporary and are not destined to have the last word. There will be a day when evil has had its chance, done its worst, been fully shown up for what it really is, and is defeated once and for all. Being a Christian means being part of defeating evil now - not through superior might or aggression though, but the way Jesus did it - through self-giving sacrificial love. Being a Christian gives me hope that it's worth working for a better world - even if the fruits aren't immediately visible, even if my efforts seem futile - because Jesus' resurrection is a foretaste of the future, a sign that good will triumph and that one day I will be a part of it!

Being a Christian also gives me a sense of perspective. It does give a sense of meaning to my life, and it's the only central meaning that really makes sense to me in the end which is love. I'm pretty selfish sometimes and find love difficult, but I've encountered in God someone who really is truly loving and gives me hope that I can learn to be the same. Love, in my view makes sense of everything. If people are loved then they are valuable - intrinsically, for who they are, and life has meaning. Without love, it's ultimately just a competition to survive - and perhaps to get the most possible pleasure out of your short, pointless existence. Love means we're all worth the same - because it's about who we are and not about what we can contribute. If I don't think you're worthy of love then I'm in trouble, because there's nothing intrinsically different about us. We all have our faults, strengths and weaknesses. So in my mind, love is the ideal, but true, unselfish love is not something to which humans naturally aspire. It is at the very heart and nature of God though - or if it isn't, then I think we are all ultimately lost anyway...