Archive for category Culture
“Hell is the absence of God”. This is a pithy definition that many Christians find attractive. It shoves under the rug any suggestion that God might have created Hell as a place of eternal torment and punishment for human disobedience. Since God will not force us to love ‘him’, we must make the choice ourselves, or so it goes. And what Christian would not choose the presence of God in Heaven? If God is omnipresent, if “he” is everywhere, then his absence is ‘no where’. Hell is the last death, annihilation. This makes the bitter pill of damnation a bit easier to swallow.
But Jesus is suggesting something else, that God is not in Heaven but may actually spend a lot of time in Hell. Many of his followers readily choose to spend time in Hell, living with and helping those who cannot escape, at least not on their own. Classic examples are Father Damien, Dorothy Day, Albert Schweitzer, Corrie ten Boom, Nelson Mandela and Mother Theresa. Thousands, if not millions, of others, have forfeited comfortable Sunday church meetings, choir practice and Bible study to devote their time and energy in the service of the sick, the poor and the imprisoned. This is where they find God. This is where they lead others to God. Not through pseudo-evangelical proselytizing about Hell and Heaven. Not through fear and intimidation, but through self-sacrifice and love.
The other day I suggested that, to many Evangelicals, both progressive and fundamentalist, if you took away Hell you would take away their vision of Jesus. Hell may even be a more important tenet of the Christian faith than Jesus, because without Hell what is there for Jesus to save us from?
But maybe there’s another way to look at Hell, a way that is not so doctrinaire but more holistic. Maybe the closest we can get to God is in Hell, though not by reflecting on our own pain but through focusing on the pain of others. No gains or rewards, no divine pats on the back. Just encountering the beauty and presence of God in some of the vilest and most horrifying cesspits of the world. Why else would anyone willingly live their lives with those people, in those places? A love of God that I can only imagine.
Perhaps this points us to what Heaven ( or more accurately, the Kingdom of God ) might look like. It’s not a place where we go when we die and it’s not a return of the mythical Garden of Eden. It’s not something God gives to us for being good, but a world that we must earn by working towards eliminating our man-made Hells. Of course, the chances of this happening does not look good, but some amazing people are busy making it happen, one piece at a time.
Posted by Christian Beyer in Bible, biblical literalism, Calvinism, Catholicism, Christianity, Church, Crime and Punishment, Culture, Current Events, damnation, Emerging Church, Ethics, Evil, Faith, Fundamentalism, God, Gospel, grace, Heaven and Hell, Hell, Heresy, Heterodoxy, Jesus, Justice, Morality, Orthodoxy, Protestantism, reformed church, Religion, Religious Right, Religious Tolerance, sacrifice, salvation, Sin, Spirituality, Substitutionary Atonement, Theology, Universalism on March 10, 2011
As long as I can remember my mother has said, “As a Christian you have to believe in Hell but you don’t have to believe anyone is there.” This is her gracious understanding of an essential Christian doctrine. Though she didn’t know it, this understanding is a Christian “heresy” called Universalism, a heresy that says all of us, even non-Christians, will go to Heaven. And it was expressly against Catholic, and most Christian doctrine. But wasn’t she right about one thing: Don’t you have to believe in Hell to be a Christian? This must be the case, if Universalism is a heresy.
Not long ago Rob Bell was in the hot seat with many Evangelicals (and some Catholics) because his recent book, “Love Wins”, suggested that no one goes to Hell. He set the conservative Christian bogs on fire and most of them essentially condemned Bell to hell for not believing in Hell.
The ensuing progressive Christian defense of Bell was great. Many Emerging Church and progressive Christian bloggers busted the chops of people like the Three Johns ( Piper, MacArthur and Hagee) for accusing Bell of Universalism . They rightly criticized the conservative Christian tendency to make Hell such a big part of their theology, to the point where this doctrine obscures a lot of the Gospel message. But, unfortunately, few of them go far enough.
Because in their defense of Bell they made it quite clear that they also believed in the doctrine of Hell, they just adapted it to make it more palatable. Most seemed to accept the conventional orthodoxy of a Final Judgment and the potential prospect of Hell (even with little or no scriptural support for it) coupled with the salvic solution of Jesus dying for our sins on the cross, as God’s blood sacrifice, to free us from eternal damnation. Which, to me, flies in the face of what Jesus spends a lot of time telling us about God. As I heard a pastor once say, God is either merciful or God is just, but God cannot be both.
I think one reason why so many Christians are unyielding about Hell, and why the progressives still can’t shake the doctrine off, is that, in reality, Hell is the cornerstone of the Church, not Jesus. Because without Hell, what is there for Jesus to do? What does he save us from?
No Hell = no Jesus. Or at least the Jesus that many Christians claim to believe in, have faith in. Without Hell he loses his job description. He loses his purpose along with the primary meaning he may have for millions of Christians. So the idea that there is no Hell is just too damn frightening to consider.
There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. 1 John 4:18
The Bible is a collection of diverse ancient Hebrew writings by many authors who never intended their works to be collected between the bindings of a book. It is full of spiritual stories, poems, myths, biographies and various historical accounts. It may or may not include recorded attempts at predicting the future. Wisdom and beauty abound within its pages and the reading of this book has helped millions of people, in many spiritual ways, to encounter God. By this definition alone, it is a sacred book. But as St. Paul once said, the scriptures are useful for instructing a person in the ways of God, implying that they are only some of the tools at our disposal and not the sole repository of spiritual wisdom.
The common thread that runs through this assortment of writings is how a particular group of people interacted with their God over a very long time, in ways that were both moral and immoral. Inspired by a sense of wonder, the authors attempted to understand God’s nature, God’s will and how, why and if God works in their lives, often depicting God as speaking and acting within the natural world.
The second, smaller part of the Bible concerns Jesus of Nazareth, his life, crucifixion and resurrection. It also includes his teachings and the teachings of some of his disciples. These teachings have undoubtedly inspired generations of people to live lives of peace, mercy and love while at the same time championing justice. At the same time, different interpretations have helped others to rationalize behavior not so commendable.
The Bible had no release date, there was no publishing date. At some point, around 1700-1800 years ago, powerful religious men decided what Jewish scriptures would be included in what we call the Canon and the Apocrypha. Everything else (probably more than what was included) was discarded or destroyed, though some of these manuscripts survive today. Throughout its history the Bible has been translated in different ways and there have been a few cases where it has been altered to serve a religious agenda, but these were rare occurrences. There has always been a very active, and often heated, debate over what many portions of the Bible actually mean.
The Bible may, or may not, be relevant to us today. The stories and poems and letters within have been used as a guide for morality, compassion and self sacrifice. They have also been used to justify genocide, torture, slavery, misogyny, bigotry and war. If God has spoken through the Bible then some have certainly heard the voice of Satan as well.
Although a great work of historical literature and sacred to millions, it has no magical qualities or powers. It needs to be interpreted contextually, framed within the time and circumstances of the people who populate it, lest whatever lessons it might contain remain hidden. It is undeniably a very, very important book. It is certainly a great book, one of the world’s greatest. But it is not the GOOD book any more than it is a bad book. In the end, with all that it has to offer, it is still…just…a…book.
I guess it’s becoming a holiday tradition for me to make spicy chocolate crunch, since this is the second year in a row that I’ve done it. Pretty astounding for me to stick with anything that long.
So I wrapped up a package of candy and topped it off with a Fuentes cigar tied with a red ribbon, to take over to my next door neighbor’s house. Walking up their front steps, I considered how to greet them, as they are devout Muslims. I decided that this year I was going to go against my better instincts and say “Merry Christmas”. For the past 3 or 4 years I’ve been a staunch advocate of the “Happy Holidays” approach.
When Asan opened the door he beat me to the punch with his own hearty “Merry Christmas”! And why not? It’s an American custom, a tradition that really has little to do with religion anymore. The Christmas season has always been about the universal ideal of “peace on Earth, good will towards men”. That is, until some mean old Christians went and ruined it.
No one used to worry about offending anyone with “Merry Christmas”. I used to work for a reformed Jewish fellow and we made no bones about the season being about Christmas. Hanukkah fell in their somewhere, but it surely wasn’t a Hanukkah season. We put a tree up in the restaurant lobby every year and, yes, there was a menorah on the mantle. We both enjoyed the season and we both enjoyed the business that the season generated. I never gave my personal greetings much thought, but probably gave equal time to Christmas, the Holidays and New Year.
But then some overly sensitive, paranoid and doctrinaire Christians became offended by the lack of “Christ” in the Christmas season (as if Christ hadn’t been upstaged by Santa Clause since long before WWII). They mounted a national campaign designed to regain uncontested control of the holidays. Coming from their lips “Merry Christmas” was no longer a heartfelt greeting meant to wish people joy and happiness, it was now a challenge like “I dare you to knock this frankincense off my shoulder!” Or the Christian equivalent of the Black Power salute: a symbol of defiance in the face of ‘secularists’ and solidarity among the ‘faithful’. Where is the grace in that?
All of a sudden it became difficult for the rest of us to wish people a merry Christmas. These zealous Christians had created an air of tension where there was none before. It wasn’t the ‘secularists’ or the rare militant atheist who made the Christmas greeting into a politically incorrect statement – it was the result of needy, insecure Christians demanding that everyone confirm their religious tradition. In their fervent devotion to the idealized story of the birth of a baby God they effectively buried the adult Jesus’ message beneath the sands of a mythical Bethlehem.
But not quite. I find it heartening, when a devout Muslim man is able to share the true spirit of Christmas with a jaded, cynical Christian like myself, without compromising his own faith in the process.
Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullah!