Archive for category salvation

No Hell = No Jesus

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


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But if you’re a Christian, then what am I?

Over on the Wall Street Journal blog, one of the members has (hopefully) started a thread by asking this question:

How do Christians define Christians? What makes you or not a Christian?

I often come across the argument that “said person is not a real Christian”, many tend to use this argument to exclude particulars who happen to shame the religion calling themselves part of it, or act in the name of it.

I think it would be interesting to see, how does every one define it, is it simply believing in a higher authority?. Is it taking every literal word of the bible?. Is it following the “reasonable” aspects of the bible?

Now, so far, only one person has given an answer, and it is one that I suspect the majority of American Christians would agree with:

A Christian is somebody who believes that Christ died on the Cross and shed his blood as the ultimate atonement(replacement for the blood sacrifice of the Old Testament law) for the sins of mankind. They believe that Christ is who He said He is. ie, The Son of God, and therefore God Himself. The concept of the Trinity applies here. God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Christ was the product of the immaculate conception. Christ was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophesy. Isaiah 53:3-7 is an example, among others of the prophesy.

The first chapter of John in the New testament, gives a good representation of what Christians believe about Christ.

To be saved (ie a Christian), is nothing more then the realization that man is born into sin, and the acceptance and acknowledgment of the free gift of eternal life(made possible because of Christ sacrifice on the Cross), that is offered to mankind, should they(exhibit their “free will”) except it. It is nothing more then Gods grace being demonstrated through mans faith.

If all of the above needs to be believed in order to be a Christian, then I guess I am not one.  Of course, for many reasons I think the above definition, although perhaps “orthodox”,  is incorrect.

Over on Ric Booth’s blog there is an interesting conversation taking place about a new organization that John Shore is spear-heading called ThruWAy Christians, particularly their controversial acceptance of gays and lesbians.   The stated goal of ThruWAy Christians is to provide moderate Christians with a new forum.  As it says on their website:  “If you find conservative Christianity too oppressive and exclusionary, and progressive Christianity too theologically tenuous, you’re probably a ThruWay Christian.”   Which means that, though I agree with much of the content of their founding document, my theology is much too “tenuous”  (something which I am sure the Conservative Christians could accuse the ThruWay people).

Surprisingly,  I don’t believe my theology is any weaker than theirs or any one else.  It’s different to be sure.  Maybe not as orthodox as they would like.  And like Christianity, it is evolving. But that doesn’t mean that it is “flimsy, insubstantial or lacking in strength”.  This is a charge that the orthodox have always levied at those who had the audacity to question theological authority.

The good folks over at ThruWAy Christian are not really challenging conservative Christian theological authority, though. They are only challenging the  conservative interpretations of certain scriptures that they believe lead to intolerant and mean spirited attitudes and behavior.  But I would suggest that the overarching theology that both the moderates and the conservatives still hold in common ( much of which has been condensed by the commenter from the WSJ blog and jives with the  first line of ThruWay’s creed )  is actually what drives this intolerance.  And has for centuries.

I ‘ve found that it is nearly impossible for Christian moderates to  engage Fundamentalists in any meaningful dialog that might result in a change of perception on the part of either, so  I’ve given up on it myself.  If this is the goal of the folks at ThruWAy, well then, have at it.  But  if they would be open-minded enough to engage some Christians whose convictions are not quite as solid, substantial or strong as theirs then perhaps they might find that ‘progressive’ is not such a bad word after all.

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A sure sign that you are not ‘saved’ is that you are wondering if other people are

It’s that simple.  Because that means that you just haven’t gotten the point of the Gospel.

I remember talking with some friends about a member of our church, an old gentleman who had just passed away at a fairly advanced age. He had been a member of the church for a very long time, longer than any of  us had been members. A bit standoffish, more than a little grumpy, he was the type of fellow who didn’t invite folks to get to know him very well.

One of my friends said that he regretted not getting to know this man, that he hadn’t taken the time to sit with him, especially in the last few days of his life. He regretted never having asked the man if he was ‘saved’. My other friends heartily agreed.

I was fairly blown away by this. In fact, I  remember this conversation as the beginning of the end of my romance with Fundamentalism.  It was the first time that I realized how different my understanding of the Gospel was from theirs.

What was the point of asking an old man, that you never bothered to know over the years, what his beliefs were on his death bed?  What did the question really mean and what would he have said anyway?   I think that what this question really meant was “Do you believe in precisely what I believe? Because if you don’t then you will go to hell”. I think my friends would have no problem admitting that.

I won’t bother explaining why I think that this is wrong. If you get it, then you get it. If you don’t, we’ll, then you won’t.


Elected to What ?!

calvin aghast 3Following up on my last posting on the excellent little book  Being Presbyterian in the Bible Belt by Ted V. Foote Jr. and P. Alex Thornburg, I wanted to share what these two ministers have to say about the Presbyterian(USA) view of election, a thorny issue that has resulted in a lot of interdenominational warfare:

If, then, God mysteriously and graciously elects or chooses for salvation because God loves us so much and is so passionately willing to seek us out in life with that salvation, we may well ask, what are we elected to?

Moving away from the heaven and hell afterlife categories, most Presbyterian-types would concede that there’s plenty of hell to worry about and, we hope, plenty of heaven to celebrate in the earthly here and now.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Book of Order state that God elects God’s people both for “service and salvation”, which means that God freely chooses God’s people both (1) so that they may receive grace in life for healing and wholeness and (2) so they will serve God among God’s people, this for upbuilding the larger community which is God’s world…..

…Yet there is a distinction we need to clearly make. It’s between serving others and living with an agenda for others. Living with an agenda for others is self-motivated and self-serving.  Serving as the Lord of heaven and earth calls us to serve demonstrates an openness that is not manipulative but rather leads each one to be available for serving others respectfully and for serving with others respectfully. We’re called to serve in this way, realizing that such others may, or may never, recognize God’s grace blessing in whatever ways God’s grace does bless them. Such others may, or may never, chang their lives to be “more Christian” in our judgment. Such others may, or may never, culturally be “as we are” or in agreement with us on matters of faith and practice.

And if God is truly sovereign, it also can be said that God works where there is no naming of God’s name, that God works among those who don’t “know God” as we have experienced God, and that God works where we believers do not perceive or understand God to be working. This understanding of God who is truly sovereign allows God to be truly God on God’s terms, not according to our understanding of God.  It does not take away our freedom of choice in life-decisions, nor does it take away the component of human choice from the complex makeup of the universe. This understanding does deny that we humans ever have the power to “save” ourselves with our own choices.

Wow! I never would have believed that someone could explain the doctrine of election in a way that I could (almost) agree with.  This certainly ain’t your great-great-great-great grandfather’s Calvinism.  And it certainly isn’t close to the double predestination -“God chose me for heaven and you for hell“- theology we are getting from the pulpits of today’s popular  Hyper-Calvinist preachers , who are generally not members of the PC(USA) but of the PCA, SBC and various independent reformed churches.  The PC(USA) must have poor JC (that’s John Calvin, not Jesus Christ)  spinning in his grave.

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Heaven Insurance

I’ve been fortunate to land a part-time job working with youth at a local Presbyterian (USA) church. Realizing that I am woefully ignorant when it comes to the doctrines of any denomination aside from Roman Catholicism and Methodism, I picked up a little book called Being Presbyterian in the Bible Belt – a Theological Survival Guide for Youth, Parents, and other Confused Presbyterians written by two Presbyterian ministers;  Ted V. Foote Jr. and P. Alex Thornburg.  The book is published by Geneva Press, an arm of the Presbyterian Publishing Company so I figure that it’s pretty orthodox.

I’ve found the book to be very refreshing and the theology is right in line with my own evolving beliefs.  Their use of the phrase “Bible Belt” doesn’t refer to a geographical place but a theological  and spiritual state of mind, one that I am very familiar with. In particular, I appreciated their discussion of heaven and hell, a topic which has been a  bone of contention when talking to Hyper-Reformed Calvinists.

The question of heaven and hell are of primary importance for the neo-evangelical in the Bible Belt. In many ways, the concern about the destiny of one’s soul in the afterlife is the motivating force for accepting Jesus into your heart. As we noted earlier, many neo-evangelicals consider the future salvation of your soul to be dependant on your conversion, your acceptance of Jesus into your heart. “If you don’t, God won’t save you.” Therefore, the ultimate reason for accepting Jesus is to ensure your place in heaven. The life of faith is really just a kind of ‘heaven insurance” so that you can be certain of being fitted with wings and a halo. You “take out the policy” by believing and doing the right things, and then it’s paid off when you die and you get your reward.  Heaven is the place for people who paid the right dividends on their hell insurance. (we never thought of ministers as insurance salespersons, but it fits the metaphor.)

Obviously, there are a number of problems with this view of the world, or the afterworld. Not the least is the prevailing attitude that it’s always “our people” who get into heaven and the bad guys, usually anyone who doesn’t quite believe and act the way we think they should, who end up being cast into hell. Heaven becomes an exclusive country club for the beautiful people who can look down at those sinners in the ghetto of hell and feel sorry for them.

Well said, though I am embarassed to say that not too long ago the idea of my faith as  ‘heaven insurance’ would have had a nice ring to it. If I get nothing else out of this  little book I’ve learned a new word that will be seeing some regular use: neo-evangelist.  I love it.

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Jesus as Payment for Our Sins versus Matthew 5


Did Jesus think that his primary purpose was to stand in our place and receive the punishment from God that we deserved?  Did he believe that God considered mankind to be essentially his own enemy?  Did he think that  God was  such an inflexible judge that mankind’s  universal and eternal damnation was the only way to balance the cosmic books?

If so then why does the Gospel of Matthew have Jesus  say this:

‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,* what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5: 38-48)


Can God only love those who love him, as so many Christians claim?  In other words;  is God  no better than the tax-collectors?  It doesn’t really make sense, does it? That Jesus would advocate a behavior that God the father will not even practice himself; demanding instead either hellish retribution or the murder of a divine scapegoat.  Though God might demand an eye for an eye (his rightful pound of flesh) when we choose not to seek this but instead forgive our enemies then we are in some way more like God?   Curious.



No Place at the Table

“Hi, Mom.”  Ginny and the kids came pouring through the front door.  Excited to see their Grandma, the young boy and girl rushed over and wrapped their arms around her. Ginny moved into the kitchen where she placed two shopping bags on the counter.

“I picked up some dinner from Hunan Manor” said Ginny. “Kung Pao Chicken and Moo Shu Pork.  It should still be hot”  She went to the cabinet above the sink and pulled down two wine glasses.

“Now, Ginny” her mother said. ” I’ve told you not to keep bringing dinner. I like to cook.” The children had already run over to the television and turned it on.

“C’mon, Mom. You shouldn’t be cooking for us anymore.  Let us take care of  you now.”  Ginny rummaged through a drawer looking for a corkscrew.

“It’s in the drawer on the left” her mother said, just a little testily.  “How about Frank? Will he be coming?” Frank was Ginny’s younger brother.

“Mom, I’ve told you. Frank is not welcome. After the way he treated you? As far as I’m concerned, he’s just not part of the family”.  With a small pop, Ginny pulled the cork from the bottle. “Here, have a glass of wine. It’s one of your favorites.”

“Ginny, I don’t want any wine. I don’t want any of your Chinese food either.”

“What’s wrong, Mom? Are you sick?”

“Well, yes, I guess I am. Sick of this bad blood between you and  your brother. It has to end!”

End?!”  said Ginny.  “Mom, it will end when he admits he was wrong and asks you to forgive him. Then and only then, will it end.”

“But, Ginny, honey; I already have forgiven him. Long ago. Why can’t you?”

“Because it’s just not right!  For what he did, the way he acts…well, he has to pay, that’s all!  Now let’s stop arguing and let’s eat.”

Her mother sighed. ” Darling, I know you say you love me.  You visit me and bring me food and gifts, you provide me with the joy of my grandchildren.  And I love you very much. But if you can’t love Frank -my child and your brother –  then you don’t fully love me.  Nothing you can buy for me or do for me can ease that pain.  And until you have forgiven him, I cannot share my table with you.”

Mother, what are you saying?” Ginny stared at her mother in disbelief.

Her mother’s voice trembled and her eyes glistened. “Ginny,  I am asking you to take your food, leave my house and please don’t come back here again – not without your brother.

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