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.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.
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.
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.