There are reasons for the current decline in the popular standing of Christianity. Some of them, like the shocking modern record of priestly paedophilia are reasonable, others less so; for if the church is not innocent neither is the world. But amid the pattern of shifting sympathies we have to recognize a growing impatience with Christian intransigence on some issues that have become more vital today than previously.
Why, people wonder, and especially when America’s churches have long supported separation of church and state, should recent years have shown quite the level of outraged, conservative legal opposition to gay rights and abortion that has been evinced? If churches had been generous to the welfare of an often bullied, discrimination-ridden gay minority, would LGBT rights ever have become the self-righteously protested demand they now are? If churches had been less ready to criminalize or excommunicate traumatized, raped women or those whose lives were in danger, would “a woman’s right to choose” have become quite the secular feminist issue it now is? And whatever one’s convictions, shouldn’t there have been more latitude towards especially those not church affiliated? So what too often looks like an inflexible, political boss church (now sometimes protesting it is martyred because its beliefs are no longer protected) has itself partly to blame for a worsening PR situation.
But….. today a new kind of intransigence looks set to spark further alienation and confusion. And this time the quarrel is more fundamentally around faith and its rights and with unavoidable implications for personal rights and free speech in society more generally. This time the subject, even if a materialistic world ignores it, is “salvation” – who has or will have it.
TALK OF SALVATION CENSORED
We shall be hearing increasingly about this subject because, even if and when the theme is ignored by secular society, the related question of free speech can’t be so but rather affects everything. So we can’t afford to get this wrong. There is increasing pressure in the once Christian West from Russia especially but even England, to prevent Christians from witnessing to their faith – in almost any way. Don’t wear a cross, don’t offer to pray for patients, don’t invite people to church (short of government permission in Russia), don’t hand out literature lest anything from people’s multicultural to their Muslim to their gay or their feminist feelings be offended. And so on. In America a sheriff has recently had to hand over 41K to atheists for the misdemeanour of promoting Christianity on a department Facebook page though apparently some of the posts were as innocent as “living today is best done with a lot of prayer”. Recently an American duty marine was court marshalled for not removing from a work cubicle a verse from the bible that didn’t even mention God or Christ! There’s a relentless slide towards silencing. (Some months ago it prompted a poem from me https://goo.gl/VmUPtA )
This is a controversial situation of some real gravity. Democracy and liberal society ultimately depend upon free speech. This is why for the greater good it may be preferable that a few sensitivities be hurt than that society and the laws indulge the merely offended through whose actions freedom of speech can be gradually eroded in favour of thought police and rigid PC values.
The rights of faith or belief must be respected. To the extent they reach into matters of conscience that everywhere feeds the most basic sentiments of freedom and independence, they should enjoy some special, careful protection if need be before what is closer to what’s inconvenient or hurtful to the feelings of minorities (which is not to say the latter are unimportant). It’s not good enough, it’s even shocking, that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has advised Christians not to speak about their faith now unless asked. Nothing could be further from NT counsels to preach the gospel to the whole world (it’s Christ’s own last commission Matt 28:19) and even to “proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or not” (2 Tim 4:2) and right now is not any favourable time.
PERSONS AND IDEAS DIFFICULT TO DEFEND
That said, plainly there are believers who would defend a right to something like “insistence” from attitudes and belief positions so extreme it helps bring the entire matter into disrepute. Although a distinct minority, there is a kind of uncompromising, aggressive evangelist, professional or lay, who on supposedly biblical grounds more or less sends to perdition anyone who resists their message. Just as free speech would not be best defended by appealing the rights of flat earthers to be heard in prime time, it would be better if protection of religious rights not have to expend too much energy defending the most absolute expressions of doom, gloom and damnation. But just what is the argument around “salvation”, one that threatens to increase as multiculturalism and the global village expand?
It is now trendy, liberal and many would maintain only good-neighbourly “inclusive”, to maintain universalist views with regard to belief. All religions are deemed essentially equal and the same: we all worship the same all-loving God (even if the Buddha denied the existence of any God/Creator and nowhere does the Koran assert that God is love) and everyone, unless the very worst, are heaven bound by default (although all religions have always had some version of Hell/Hades). We may call this (or at least its new pop version) the Rob Bell view of religion – its case is argued for by that ex-evangelical in his bestselling Love Wins favoured by the New Ager Oprah Winfrey. The doctrine can sound generous and intend well except that it now threatens to make an excluded enemy of dissenting voices.
Against this and as its polar opposite is pitched a conservative and would-be biblical position to the effect that only those who believe in Jesus can make it to heaven and escape the hell fires and this because Jesus died not as early Christians maintained principally to ransom us from Satan and the powers of evil, but primarily to satisfy the wrath of his Father’s offended honour (an emphasis deriving from the twelfth century St Anselm).
This would seem like bad news for vast populations of humankind who have never even heard of Jesus and plain distressing to converts who are invited to believe they will never see or know their forebears again unless perhaps glimpsed through the flames of hell. We can call this the Choo Thomas view of salvation after a Korean-American woman visionary’s claims in her bestselling Heaven is so Real. Her love of Jesus was so intense and her heaven so real and experienced over a series of improbably frequent trips there with Jesus, that she was somehow able to come to terms with being shown her mother, a good woman who didn’t know about Jesus, screaming in torment……
DOES CHRISTIANITY HAVE ANY MIDDLE PATH ON “SALVATION”?
…….Something has to be wrong here, wrong with both parties in almost any way academically, theologically, spiritually, humanly. Putting my theologian’s cap on for a moment, what would I say?
Undeniably the second, conservative position has some scriptural basis as in the above quote from Acts, and certainly Jesus took perdition seriously – there are more references by him to hell than to heaven. The gospel is supposed to be preached in order to help save people from death and the damnation which in Jesus’ times, in the form of a dark and hopeless Hades, was more or less the default post-mortem destination even among pagans. (Elysian fields were reserved for the favoured few). Just because Jesus taught radical love and forgiveness it is absurd of the present Pope to maintain as in his recentThe Joy of Love (understandably being criticized by leading Catholics), that damnation is not even in “the logic” of the Gospel. It surely is and backed up by all sorts of dire warnings like the famous “what shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world but lose his own soul?”.
Even so, no reasonable or feeling person will readily accept the alternative to universalism, namely that almost everyone is doomed and damned and even like Choo’s mother in and for their ignorance amid the accidents of their birth in historical and cultural terms.
The astonishing thing is that even those most fundamentalistically attached to what “God’s Word” has to say, don’t really absorb what it does say, seemingly incapable of taking any hint and making even and especially any common sense deductions from the text. At least three New Testament statements invite us to understand there is something like a middle path between the two mutually exclusive options. The three I would cite (I could cite more) all derive from Christianity’s St Paul, himself the first and most fervent missionary of the faith who insisted he would do anything and go anywhere to save souls even exclaiming “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Cor 9:16).
DAMNATION NOT SO ABSOLUTE
First and in the sermon at Athens the apostle declares: While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he calls all people everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30).
With this statement alone (which follows upon a quote from a pagan poet to the effect we are all God’s offspring and live and move and have our being in God), we are given some hint that up to a point ignorance does excuse. The drama of salvation begins once Christ and redemption are actually proclaimed. This moreover seems consistent with the fact Jesus’ strongest warnings as in John’s gospel about unbelief and dying in one’s sins etc are addressed in the first instance to those with whom he had direct dealings like hostile religious leaders.
Second, although Christ may not be known, conscience always is.
When Gentiles who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these though not having the law, are a low to themselves. They show that the law is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience bears witness and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when according to my gospel, God through Jesus Christ will judge the secret thoughts of all.
At least some people are thus self-excused before God and in some fashion via Law/Conscience. (By “Law” the apostle must mean the Ten Commandments or the general sense of the Law since pagans couldn’t be expected to intuit things like why not to ingest shell fish and many regulations that Jesus himself had already discarded for the new message and era!). The nearest gospel parallel to this position would be in the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matt 25 where the sheep (often interpreted as being nations rather than individuals) discover they have been serving Christ without knowing it through what is effectively conscience. Obviously however individuals would be less likely and would find it harder to follow true conscience where the gospel had not been preached as intended. (Supposing you had been born into a tribe of spirit worshipping head hunters!)
Third, there was the early Christian custom of baptism for the dead. (1Cor 15:29) mentioned in the course of Paul’s disquisition on the resurrection and the necessity of belief in it.
If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?
This is a verse either much ignored or disputed though it should be obvious enough what it is about. New converts didn’t want to think their forebears were automatically lost to them and to God; so they claimed them, baptizing by proxy and St Paul doesn’t object to the custom. This is very different to the situation where, as often happened in missionary zones in the great Victorian era of expansion, converts were made to reject, or feel they had abandoned, everything and everyone that had gone before them. Instead, early Christians’ allegiance didn’t damn their entire past but could even hope instead to redeem it. (I suggest that Choo Thomas for her understanding about her mother and much else was deluded, even a species of false prophet).
While we can’t now know exactly what was practiced and understood as regards the Corinthian baptism, it surely belongs with the spirit of one of the stranger and often ill translated of Jesus’ statements, one which seems to imply that up to a point it would be possible to “claim” persons for heaven itself (assuming they weren’t rank unrepentant sinners). The point is made in Luk 16:9 cited here in the NLT translation which seems to have the right sense.
“Here’s the lesson: Use your worldly money to benefit others and make friends. Then, when your earthly possessions are gone, they will welcome you to an eternal home”.
No reference here to the merit, faith, repentance, being born from above or born again etc that the gospels would have us believe Jesus taught as vital items of truth and salvation.
TRUTH IN PARADOX
As in much else in the New Testament and writings of St Paul, the truth about “salvation” resides somewhere in a paradox. In this instance the paradox is that even though true redemption is from Christ alone and that at death many are at real risk of separation from God (the real meaning of the “wrath| of God) due to sin or unbelief, this does not mean that divine judgement is so completely arbitrary or formula bound that it cannot make independent decision, especially in the case of genuine ignorance of what should be believed and done in life.
To deny this possibility is to deny that God can read the heart as St Paul affirms or to dismiss Abraham’s rhetorical question “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”. God must be free to make decisions even though in turn mortals would be unwise to presume on divine mercy. (Attitudes like “if I’m good enough it’ll be OK” or “to err is human, to forgive is divine” aren’t truly spiritual where judgement of a whole life and souls are concerned!).
A BOTH/AND READING OF AN IGNORED GOSPEL
All this and more should be clear enough, but the Bible is insufficiently studied today; or rather is so academically studied it is almost high jacked over issues like the dating and authorship of its various parts while it is inadequately appreciated on a more readerly level as Wisdom literature. The latter approach would absorb the many paradoxes which shouldn’t be lightly dismissed rationalist style as “contradictions” on an either/or basis but rather as information often given on a both/and basis.
But if the bible is insufficiently or improperly read today, likewise the gospel, originally described as “the power of God to salvation ( Rom 1:16) is rarely preached. Increasingly it is said even by Popes to be about “compassion”, social justice and “mercy” (which of course it is), but any honest reading must conclude it is primarily about repentance and right belief addressed to what Jesus would call (and would certainly today call) “an evil and adulterous generation”.
Belief as the driver of attitudes and actions always matters, always has concrete effects. The average universalist doesn’t understand this, not even today as regards, for example, the effects of Islam’s promise of certain paradise solely for those who are martyrs in jihad, (a strong motivation for some to be radicalized and reckless!).
All faiths make entry to their heaven dependent upon merit earned except Christianity which makes it free to the believer with only the degree of reward dependent upon merit. Yet today it could finish an offence if not crime against PC multiculturalism for Christians to point out to non believers that their faith is based on “amazing grace” and not effects of karma, yoga practices, devotion to jihad etc. But such is now virtually the situation. Statements of even true and obvious fact must hide themselves. In the global village that long ago the Roman Empire also appeared to be, its own version of multiculturalism was seen by early Christians as a providential opportunity to proclaim. Today’s global village is seen as mandating, when not outright silence, at most the easy option of “dialogue”, as opposed to proclamation lest anyone be hurt in the exercise of compare and contrast.
I am not a Catholic, but those Catholics who declare Pope Francis a heretic are essentially correct when he declares proselytization “the worst thing of all”. Really? Practically, not just religiously, this is nonsense because where free speech disfavours the frank declaration it is short sighted to imagine society will allow even “dialogue” for long. Dialogue doesn’t even exist in Muslim majority nations today from Afghanistan to Turkey and it has never really been tolerated. In Pakistan Christian woman Asia Bibi has been imprisoned on death row for years now for the “blasphemy” of defending her faith against the abuse of Muslim women who refused her water at a well. Re the notorious Bibi case see https://goo.gl/Xsf3cc
Pope Benedict properly appealed for Bibi’s release….as our politicians should be doing, as the people of London who voted in a Pakistani supposedly a defender of human rights should be doing. But Pope Francis is is not known to have intervened or protested, simply looking on in appalled silence at the testimony of Bibi’s relatives to their anguish. Beyond periodic lament for martyred Christians, the Pope’s vision cannot reach to the challenge of dealing with a widespread Islamic intransigence in persecution that the secular West as a whole prefers to ignore …..at the same time as it bends over backwards to accommodate Muslim rights and sensitivities otherwise and to accuse any critics of Islam of “Islamophobia”. (Currently there is even talk in California of introducing a Muslim appreciation month). The Pope persists in speaking of “our Muslim brethren” and their religion of peace as though no fundamental problem existed or as though Muslims of the Ahmadiyya branch of Islam were the only true kind. (This often persecuted Islamic minority deemed heretical refuses violence and doesn’t believe Mohammed was their faith’s final prophet) .
Last year the complaint of a British Muslim women had a colleague dismissed from the workplace for the “bullying” crime of describing her faith and inviting someone she supposed to be her friend to a church. To undermine a Christian right to declare beliefs is a fundamental and disturbing new denial of all personal rights and freedom of speech, one which will eventually hurt even those secularists who for the meantime might be pleased to silence a few nuisance believers. (Actually secular humanists are becoming concerned they may not be free to criticize Islam as they would wish).
BELIEF WILL ALWAYS MATTER
And so the trendy heaven-for-all universalism threatens to become servant of a new and uncontrolled PC censorship. As a doctrine it has no basis in any known faith but is a development of Enlightenment Deism and optimistic, mainly free church generalizations upon Christian notions of love and mercy that New Ageism has made its own. It creates as many problems as it solves because it begs the question should such as of the serial killer, the child abuser or a Hitler go unpunished, and can and would God permit sin, especially unrepented, into where it could only corrupt? (According to popular Conversations with God author, Neale Donald Walsh, Hitler is in heaven because there’s nowhere else to go!). Can we really imagine Hitler rejoicing in heaven and would we really want it? And if sin and its effects cannot be self-cured, change must depend upon grace, which means it also depends upon faith which means it requires some measure of right belief.
And right belief according to Jesus is not the cop out or irrelevance some imagine, but rather the work we should do (Joh 6:29), something we grow into. Believing is itself something people do. This is why there is no automatic or total, faith versus works contradiction between the gospel declarations about the importance of faith and the fact that at the Last Judgement (which applies to all peoples of all ages and backgrounds) they are judged by what they have done. (Rev 20:13).
Even if we take this more “middle path” position regarding salvation, for the modern reader of the biblical texts other questions of a purely theological nature still impinge . It can be questioned why if hell exists as the alternative to heaven should it be eternal, forever punishing “merely” finite transgressions? One answer and a short one could be that hell exists like heaven outside time in an eternal present. But such questions are beyond present scope and even relevance – ( I broach difficult themes of the kind in some of my writings like The Great Circle: Asia, David and God Consciousness.( https://goo.gl/oI543k) but most would agree those laying stress on what used to be called “the last things” and wanting an assured public hearing should give more a bit more thought to the underlying rationale of the claims they make.
But wherever you believe souls are bound, if you believe souls exist….. one certainty is that the largely post-Christian materialistic West is in terrible trouble. It believes so little on the spiritual plane that it risks accepting almost anything or being imposed upon by almost anyone. Ironically, what to some may seem an irrelevant concern with an outdated concept – “salvation” – is set to be crucial to how society will manage freedom more generally. Salvation entails a promise of freedom. Correctly and sanely guarding the concept is an important guarantee of ongoing freedom at more than one level.