A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Monday, May 17, 2010

Heck Is For People Who Don't Believe in Gosh

Last week during the discussion of another post, Methoblogger and frequent commenter on this blog, PamBG raised some interesting questions on heaven and hell. She suggested that it might make for an interesting post to generate some important discussion and I agreed. In an email conversation, Pam outlined for me her concerns and she gave me permission to quote her. Pam didn't necessarily want me to quote the entire substance of her email, but in her usual fashion Pam's reflections and questions are thoughtful, so I am going to let her email frame the discussion. Here are her concerns in her own words:

I think that there is a popular idea that's extant in general culture and in Christian culture that goes something like the following. Let me paint an exaggerated picture for the purposes of hopefully communicating clearly. Fred dies and is a "real Christian" in God's eyes. His spirit floats out of his body into a spiritual place called heaven where he is welcomed by God and lives in a spiritual realm of happiness, bliss and communion with God forever. Mary dies and is either not a "real Christian" in God's eyes or she is a Muslim or she is an atheist and her spirit floats out of her body to a place called hell where her spirit is imprisoned but somehow still intentionally tortured for the rest of eternity. One British hyper-Calvinist theologian put it that God "creates and sustains the hell to which he sends each person who has damned."

My own view of Eternal Life is best expressed by the condolence wish: "May she rest in peace and rise in glory". It's a "Tom Wright" view of the Kingdom and what I think Christians believed up until about 150 years ago: that all people (sentient beings on other planets too?) will rise in some kind of "real but different, but who knows really" physicality, and that God's Reign will be established in a physical way called the New Creation. Creation itself as well as all the people in it will be born again because of the salvific work of Christ. (There is a wonderful Art Deco mural that runs around the ceiling of the Chapel at Wesley House, Cambridge, which depicts the New Jerusalem and the New Creation. That image of the New Creation always sticks in my head.)

Is there a hell? I'm agnostic on that but open to the possibility. The Orthodox Church reckons that God’s Kingdom will be hell for those who do not want to live under the Rule of Christ. That view of hell seems to fit well with the concept of New Creation but I guess there are sufficient texts about a "punishing hell" that this can't be totally ignored as a possibility. I’m quite resistant, however, to hell as a personal torture that God creates specially for each individual he damns.

So, that's where my thoughts are coming from and here's my idea.

I believe that the "popular version" of heaven and hell is the one that many, if not most, people in the pews believe. I also think that there is a significant minority of individuals who think that "Being on God's side (football team) so that I can go to heaven" is *primarily* what being a Christian is all about. Hence the question: "If non-Christians have a shot at getting into heaven, why would anyone want to be a Christian?"

I hold this view of people’s beliefs about "the football team version" of Christianity because so very many people have told me that "Christians heaven, non-Christians hell" is a core and foundational Christian belief and that without it, the Christian message falls apart. (As an example, I've just had a UMC Lay Leader tell me this on Becca Girell Clark's blog.) So, at a popular level, I think that many Christians raise the "heaven/hell version of Christianity" to creedal level, right up there with Christ as Savior, the Trinity, etc.

So I guess my thesis is this:

1) The idea that the "Christians heaven/non-Christians hell" doctrine is as core and foundational to Christian orthodoxy as the Creeds is incorrect.

2) The spiritual heaven/spiritual hell version of Eternal Life is sub- a- or non-biblical.

3) The dualism implicit in this theology allows us to scapegoat those we disagree with. We are judging matters (who is saved and who is damned) that are not ours to judge.

4) And possibly not relevant to this conversation but still relevant: The Church has largely lost the concept that we are hoping for genuine resurrection, New Creation and the Reign of God.

So, how would you respond to Pam's multi-part thesis? We can easily generate some good discussion on this one. All are welcome to comment.


PamBG said...

Thanks for posting that, Allan. If I'd known you were going to quote it verbatim, I'd have tried to write the post in a tighter fashion!

I asked Allan to have the discussion here as this blog seems to generate a good group of people who like to discuss theology.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Pam, let me start this thing rolling. By the way, in what I am writing, I am not suggesting that you embrace or reject any of these ideas.

Much of what you say I am in agreement with. What I am trying to work through here are a couple of issues. First, the NT's clear witness that Jesus is decisively and uniquely the way to salvation. In other words, I cannot embrace the idea that all religions lead to God because that is contrary to the claim of the NT and the affirmation of the NT that Jesus is Lord.

Having said that, I do not believe that it precludes the possibility that non-Christians will indeed enter the Kingdom. John Wesley said that God will judge all people by the light they have been given. So while, "non-Christian" does not necessarily mean "no Kingdom", anyone who enters the Kingdom will get in through the work of Christ.

The second matter is your comment (with which I totally agree) that it is not our place to judge who is going where-- Not only because such a task has not been given to us, but also because we are so incompetently unable to make such judgments justly. Over the years when I have expressed such a view, I have had strong reactions from people saying that my view undermines evangelism. I think not. We are to make disciples of all nations because Jesus told us to do so. Our decisive belief in the place of Jesus in redemption motivates us to bear public witness to him, knowing that the completion of that redemption is in the hands of God.

A while back our fellow Methoblogger, Richard Hall wrote a wonderful post on his blog on why he was a reluctant universalist. Much of what he said resonated with me. But because of how I read the NT and especially Jesus, who seemed to believe that final judgment would not turn out well for everyone, I am a reluctant non-universalist.

PamBG said...

I agree that anyone who enters the Kingdom will enter through the work of Christ. But what is "salvation"? Luther said it was defeat of sin, death (resurrection, again) and the power of evil, not "I get an eternal prize for thinking the right thoughts" which is what a lot of Protestantism often seems to boil down to. IMO, salvation through Christ is ontological.

I also believe that those whose hearts are turned to Christ are assured of salvation. But what I'm agnostic about is whether those who are not Christian are "assured of damnation"; this is the bit I believe is up to Gid and not to us.

If you listen to some folk, if I can't be 100% certain that non Christians are damned, then I can't be 100% certain that Christians are saved. So Christian evangelism gets turned into a fear based religion. No wonder that we're no longer certain about what is "good" about the Good News.

Jonathan Robinson said...

The real corker in that is the accusation that many think there is no point in being a Christian if it doesn't constitute and escape from hell! I think you may be right, and that is a sad indictment of Christian life: if it is not sufficiently full of meaning and joy to be its own justification. Personally, although I find the scriptures to be ambiguous, I am a practising anihilationist, although always happy to be convinvced otherwise :-)

Ted M. Gossard said...

I like to think in terms of the future meeting us now in the present in Jesus, as N.T. Wright talks about. We enter into the kingdom now through Jesus, or we don't. So that God lets people go their own way when they reject light in general and special revelation. We should see after death as simply a continuation of this. How it plays out for some, I don't know. Doesn't seem necessary to say that death ends any possibility of change for some, but it does seem that where people are at at the end of life in relation to the kingdom of God, whether inside or out, does continue after death. And that in general it goes on forever- the rule, with possibly exceptions to that.

We have to stand on what God has revealed, even though it likely/surely leaves us with an incomplete picture. The secret things belong to God, so that we can trust that the good Judge of all the earth, who in Jesus in mercy has taken judgment on himself, will do what is just and good in the end.

Greg Golden said...

I'm not certain we should accept what Wesley or Luther have to say, rather why don't we just accept what the NT says. Jesus presents us with a gift which we easily accept or reject just like any gift. I've never read that we will go to heck, just that we will be separated from HIM as we chose all by our lonesome self here on earth. Really no fuss or muss just a choice like picking out the laundry soap. I love free will, don't you? Of course, I've been wrong before.

Eric Helms said...

Greg--the Jesus also describes a place of "outer darkness where there will be weeping and knashing of teeth."

Pam--"Luther said it was defeat of sin, death (resurrection, again) and the power of evil, not "I get an eternal prize for thinking the right thoughts" I like this thought. It does seem that evangelical Christians who theoretically believe we achieve salvation by faith alone with out regard for our works are overly interested in our thoughts--as if faith and ideology are one in the same. An interesting work would be to expound all of the ways that faith a ideology are not the same.

In answering a lay person on this issue this week, I was reminded of CS Lewis' discussion in The Great Divorce, that those who are among the blessed will look back and find that they have always been in heaven and those who are damned will look back and realize that they have always been in hell. Further, that the offering of God's grace is so freely and universally given, any who end up in hell will have exercised their free will to have chosen it.

I think Lewis' insight is particularly interesting because it gets outside of the concept of this life as opposed to the next life or eternal life. I believe that eternal life begins at baptism, with death simply being a moment of transition. Since God is outside of time, it makes since that heaven and hell would be realities that are not limited to some future eternal life of which we know nothing. Rather to live in union with God now is in some way heaven and to live without God now is in some way hell.

cspogue said...

I believe I am the "UMC Lay Leader" that Pam is referring to. I have never thought of Christianity as a "team." But, like any other belief system/philosophy/religion it is exclusive: you either believe in it or you don't.

Since none of us possess the necessary abilities or knowledge, it would be presumptous of us to try to describe Heaven or Hell. However, it would be foolish of us to try to deny the existence of either as well.

There is more to non-Calvinist Christianity than "fire insurance." But, I do not believe that any of us want to go to Hell. The hard part is not only accepting the unearned grace that Jesus died to give us but to live the type of Spirit-filled life that Jesus rose to offer to all who would simply believe.

BTW, I provide my real name because I believe that if I'm not willing to stand behind it I shouldn't say it. I respect Rev. Clark even when I disagree with her for doing the same thing. I do have a problem when "Pam"'s earlier response to questioning her philosophy on Becca Clark's blog was to suggest that I contact her DS in Wolverhampton. I don't believe that advances the discussion at all.

We should all be aware that this discussion started because Rev. Clark commented on a study regarding unbelieving pastors who believe that they should continue to accept a salary and benefits despite their unbelief. In essence, they worship Mammon instead of Jesus. I believe those people should not be in pulpits and are probably some number of the ineffective clergy that are constantly discussed.

PamBG said...

cspogue, This discussion was a confluence of our discussion over on Rev. Clark's blog as well as another discussion that happened on this blog, which many readers here will be well aware of.

PamBG said...

I do have a problem when "Pam"'s earlier response to questioning her philosophy on Becca Clark's blog was to suggest that I contact her DS in Wolverhampton. I don't believe that advances the discussion at all.

OK, fair enough, you had a problem with that.

I had a problem with your remark that I shouldn't be preaching if I couldn't preach UMC doctrine.

I also have a problem with the scare-quotes around the word Pam given our previous conversation and my previous two apologies to you as well as my having provided you with my full name.

Do those seem like fair remarks to you?

cspogue said...

Allan, Becca and I all use our full real names. You don't. If you provided your name, I missed it.

Do you actually think that you should preach whatever doctrines you want while a part of the UM connection? That was the point of the original discussion. Do you believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth? It is one thing to have a discussion of doctrine when we agree on the basics. It is another when we don't. I do not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, but there are basics that every Christian agrees on. The divinity of Jesus is one of them.

PamBG said...

Creed, in this post, I have stated clearY what I believe about the resurrection. I think I can answer "yes" to "I believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus". Can you illuminate me as to what part of my statement you believe constitutes denial?

As with your posts on the other blog, you begin this exchange with accusations. I have no idea how to enter into a "discussion" with those accusations. If you can help me see how we can exchange ideas on this matter, I'll then do my best to discuss.

As to my name, again, doing a Google search will give you full information about my name. You will be able to eventually find a full history of my life and my email address. You might consider that to be anonymity; I don't. I don't even have a way to reach you by email in order to sort this out personally as per Scripture. All you have to do to email me is go to my Bloglines profile.

Pam Garrud
Associate Member Hudson UMC
Canal District Ohio Conference
Wolverhampton & Shrewsbury District of the British Methodist Church

Allan R. Bevere said...

Hi, CS... let me say here that even though Pam does not typically post comments with her last name, she is hardly anonymous. I have known her last name as have many others in the Methoblogosphere for a long time. She has never attempted to hide her identity.

Pam has always stood behind her views, just as you do... and I appreciate it.