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!

1 comment:

  1. Try reading Maria Valtorta's writings - said to come from Jesus Christ Himself. Specifically the monumental epic "Poem of the Man-God". It has turned me from a skeptical believer into someone gladly willing to die to defend my Christ.


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