08 January 2009

More heat than light

photo by Judy Maurer

In keeping with the temperature theme, I report some musings on salvation and hell.

(Just for the record, it's -2 degrees F. outside as I write.)

Last week I mentioned Charles Blow's New York Times article, "Heaven for the Godless?," reporting on a Pew Forum study revealing that many American evangelicals believe that Christianity is not the exclusive path to heaven.

Charles Blow permits himself a bit of sarcasm for evangelicals who are not sufficiently open-minded to please him: "After all, the Bible makes it clear that heaven is a velvet-roped V.I.P. area reserved for Christians." But he is probably at least partly right in his suggestions for why rank and file evangelicals in the USA might want to subvert the certainties of their leaders. On some level, "...Americans just want good things to come to good people, regardless of their faith." He also reports that the majority of Christians surveyed are not convinced that the Bible is the literal word of God.

Among those evangelical leaders in a "tizzy," as Charles Blow might put it, is the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Albert Mohler. The biography on Mohler's Web site, presumably written or at least approved by him, makes it quite clear that he is a heavyweight in the American evangelical world.

His blog includes two responses to the Pew study: "Many Paths to Heaven?" and "For Goodness Sake?"

I have some problems with Mohler's argumentation, which I think is both illogical and evangelistically unhelpful. But before getting into that, we do share a crucial certainty: Jesus is central to salvation. The Bible is clear on that, and I don't think any credible theory of the authorship, inspiration, or authority of the Bible to Christians can fudge that central point. The issue is the way we use this certainty--do we understand this truth descriptively, or do we use it as an argumentative trump card on behalf of an authoritarian understanding of Christianity--one that claims the power to name whole categories of saved and condemned people? Secretly, surely we all know that no Christian authority has ever been able to convince a majority of all members of the Body of Christ exactly what constitutes sufficient literal belief to assure salvation.

So, yes, I believe that Jesus is involved with salvation 100% of the time. (The church, however, is involved at a lower percentage!*) I part ways with Mohler, and the many other leaders who argue along the same lines he does, on some lesser but still very important points:

Specifically, Mohler incorrectly analyzes Blow's approving summary of Christian flexibility, as documented by Pew.
Blow argues that many American Christians are rejecting the claim that Jesus is the only way of salvation for sake of "goodness." In other words, "good" people don't believe that other people are going to hell.

Here we see the ultimate confusion of theology and etiquette. The implication of Charles Blow's argument is clear. He believes that Americans are trimming theology to fit current expectations of social respectability. Socially respectable people -- people who are recognized for "goodness" -- consciously reject the clear biblical teaching that Jesus is the only Savior because it just isn't socially respectable to believe that your neighbors and fellow citizens who do not believe in Christ as Savior are going to miss heaven and go to hell.
I don't believe the implication is clear at all. Instead, people are being guided by an unconscious but powerful doctrine of the nature of God. It is the same doctrine advocated by Quaker theologian Robert Barclay, who cannot understand a God condemning to hell those who by historical accident never had an opportunity to receive the Gospel invitation. Or, more briefly, God decides who is saved, not Baptists or Eastern Orthodox, or anyone else. All we can do is try to describe what we have learned about God with some kind of reverent consistency.

That search for consistency is reasonable. If we cannot publish Truth coherently, with clear and public links to the evidence of divine Purpose that God has graciously granted us, we betray our prophetic responsibility. We imply that God's grace is either capricious or only knowable to the spiritually elite.

But, too often, consistency is confused with certainty by those who want to be in religious authority over us. Rather than saying, "God has made us ambassadors of reconciliation, to plead with you on behalf of the message of grace, which we've experienced in our own community in these ways ..."--in other words, emphasizing what they've learned from God's dealings with them--they begin to presume to know what God will do with (to) you and me and those others. That is beyond what they literally do know, and any biblical argument to the contrary is based on selective proof-texting--motivated in part, I suspect, by the emotional need to defend their kind of certainty. God is not trapped by human chains of logic, whether it be the logic of liberalism or conservatism.

The tizzied response might be, "But we must warn people of the danger of damnation; if they go to hell after we neglected a chance to dissuade them, it's on our heads!" True, not providing an invitation to the joy and truth of God's promises in Christ, and the incarnation of those promises in Christian community, is a dangerous sin, assuming we ourselves even have a clue about what that means, but I disagree that such fire-insurance methods constitute either an accurate or an effective Gospel invitation. In any case, arguing from effect is not logical. We must argue from what we truly know, and God's own sovereignty should make us humble about what we do and don't know.

The idea that God may save whomever God wants to save does not let us off the evangelistic hook. The "Great Commission" still stands. We just don't get to use smug certainty or false reasoning to lure/scare people into our camp, or, more likely in these postmodern times, repel them away. Those Pew respondents who have a wider than authorized understanding of salvation may need to be challenged on exactly what constitutes "right sharing of spiritual resources"--it may be a more demanding aspect of discipleship than they realize--but, in their implicit rejection of a category-based understanding of salvation, they're also posing a very important challenge to their doctrinal guardians.



* "The church is involved at a lower percentage!" I don't mean to pass by this huge aspect of the topic with a glib throw-away line. Maybe later!

Back at this post, I defined "evangelism" this way: Evangelism is the persuasive, experience-driven communication of spiritual truth, combined with an invitation to experience a community formed by that truth. Without the invitation, evangelism is never complete.... However, I also cannot believe that, in the ministry of reconciliation, God is completely trapped by our limitations, either now or for eternity.



It's ironic that sometimes those who are proudest of being Quaker are the most reluctant to embrace evangelism. How would they even be here if the invitation had not somehow been kept open all these generations? For those who judge evangelism harshly by its imperialist distortions, saying "by what right do we impose our beliefs on others?" (yes, "imposing" is wrong), I like the way Vincent Donovan puts it in his important book Christianity Rediscovered: An Epistle from the Masai: He asks, what right do we have to withhold this treasure from anyone?



Righteous links: Want a reality check for our parochial squabbles? Top Ten Humanitarian Crises of 2008. (Thanks to Mary Kay Rehard.) ~~ Jim Fine argues for a strong USA role in Middle East peace. And Gene Stoltzfus writes about Gaza. ~~ An atheist assesses the evangelical role in Africa. (Be sure to see the diverse comments.) ~~ "Stimulus package"--a view from Kenya. ~~ The social construction of good and evil, and the rejection of God: Dostoevsky still has something to say!--See the December links here.



"Up Above My Head": More from Ruthie Foster.

4 comments:

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Hi, Johan,

You write, "...We do share a crucial certainty: Jesus is central to salvation. The Bible is clear on that, and I don't think any credible theory of the authorship, inspiration, or authority of the Bible to Christians can fudge that central point."

With all due respect, I would point to Acts 10:34-35 and I John 2:29. Romans 2:13-16 can arguably be read in the same sense. I think the only way to fit the idea that "Jesus is central to salvation" into these statements is to give an unusual spin to the meaning of "central".

If you don't give the word "central" such a spin — and I myself would rather not — then I think it becomes necessary to conclude, either that the NT does not speak with a single voice on this critical question, or else that the NT understands salvation as being available through a proper regard for God and/or through the practice of righteousness no matter whether we mere humans can detect Christ's involvement in the matter or not.

Fox and other early Friends used to point to the Bible's comment that Abraham's belief in God's promises was accounted to him for righteousness (Genesis 15:6; cited by Paul three times in Romans 4 and also at Galatians 3:6, and by James in v. 2:23). The Friends, like Paul and James before them, took this "righteousness" as salvific. Again, it is hard to see how Christ was "central" in Abraham's salvation, unless we give some sort of unusual spin to the meaning of "central".

But if we use "central" in its normal sense, then Christ does not appear to have been central in Abraham's case, and Romans 4, Galatians 3:6 and James 2:23 become additional instances of the New Testament speaking of a larger path to salvation than explicitly through Christ.

All this reflects, in turn, on your assertion that "not providing an invitation to the joy and truth of God's promises in Christ, and the incarnation of those promises in Christian community, is a dangerous sin." I would agree that not helping others forward on the path to salvation is a dangerous sin. But if salvation is possible without an explicit acceptance of Christ, as the aforementioned verses in the NT seem to suggest, then helping one another hear God's call to the path of righteousness and faith in Him becomes an acceptable substitute. Or so it seems to me.

Naturally I would prefer that people fall in love with Christ, just as I have done. But I have to accept that what I want might not be the same as what God wants.

All the best,
Marshall

Bill Samuel said...

The theological question might not be terribly important from a perspective, which I think both of you share, that the key is living a life as a disciple and sharing as appropriate in all due humility what has enabled us to change as far as we have come. We haven't been told to get all the theological constructs right, but to live in a different way which Christ offers to us and enables us to live as a new creation.

Carol said...

I have only one question: Are the Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists damned?

Johan said...

Hello Friends! If anyone ever catches me presuming to say who will be saved based on some category, I hope they either splash me with cold water or remind me about this blog post.

I also cheerfully acknowledge that the Bible describes what God expects of us in different ways in different places--often depending on the controversy that the writer is addressing, or that the biblical compilers wanted to address as they worked to choose what would become canonical. (As I've said in other blog posts, the selection process is just as likely to be where the Holy Spirit guided the creation of the Bible as the writing process.)

In some places, the Bible emphasizes naming Jesus as Lord, and in other places it does not. With all the ways the Bible talks about salvation, however, nowhere does it deny a role to Jesus. I don't go along with the theory that Paul and/or John were responsible for an unlicensed promotion of Jesus from inspired prophet to Son of God. I take seriously every word of the Prologue to John's Gospel, making it clear that Christ was and is always part of God's saving work.

We Christians don't get to use this to say our religion, as a social phenomenon, is superior to any other religion. It may or may not be. We have insights into God's work and God's judgment, and so do others. If we expect an audience for our insights, we better be prepared to BE an audience for the insights of others. As Alexander Men' has said, all religions strive to know and understand God and encourage us to reach "up" toward God. Uniquely, Jesus represents God reaching "down" toward us. We don't have to slog up to the mountaintop on this or that path, which might reach the top or might end up at a hidden cliff. Instead, in Jesus, we meet God face to face--some of us with mystical directness, some of us through the testimony and ministry of the church, and our faith in God's recorded promises.

I'm a Christian not because I like the Christian brand of religiosity better than others, but because "Christian" is the descriptive tag, for better or for worse, used by most of those who seek to follow Jesus in companionship with others who have the same commitment. For me to pronounce that anyone else is destined for eternal torment puts me in spiritual danger, but, equally, for me to deny the uniqueness of Christ is a betrayal of my Savior, also not a recipe for eternal happiness.

PS: One of the anecdotal reasons I resist any prediction of eternal destiny of others based on their religious affiliation is the stories that keep popping up of non-Christian people having visions of Jesus. Of course I don't know where those visions are coming from, but it occurs to me that he doesn't need any denominational license to mix with those outside the camp, any more than he did in his earthly ministry 2000 years ago. Some early Friends talked about the "day of visitation" that everyone will have, enabling them to choose obedience to God whether or not they've had historical exposure to the Gospel. I'm glad I don't have to pretend to know how God will accomplish the ultimate stewardship of souls; I'm willing to trust.