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About Me

Just a person in recovery from years of spiritual abuse at the hands of good, upstanding Christian folks.

Monday, August 1, 2011

A Very Brief Post

The God of Calvinism loves the elect.

The God of Calvinism has no regard for their freedom of choice or essential personhood, evidenced by his overt manipulation of them.

Can both be true?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Is Gandhi in Hell?

It appears that the gates of Hell are under assault once again. This time the charge is led by a 40 year old Evangelical minister named Rob Bell.
His new book Love Wins has brittle fundamentalists all in knots.

I’ve read it and, as I expected, was left scratching my head, wondering what all the fuss is about. Despite the shrill allegations of his detractors, Bell never says that Hell doesn’t exist. Nor does he use the dreaded “U” word – Universalism.

For those of you not familiar with this term, it basically means that, when all is said and done, every human being who has ever lived will end up in God’s kingdom. It comes in a few different varieties. For example, pluralistic notions of Universalism teach that all, or nearly all, religions lead to salvation (abusive cults such as Jim Jones’s are usually considered to not be “true faiths). But even those who are openly irreligious will ultimately find their way to Heaven in this scheme.

A variant on this position is Christian Universalism. It maintains that Jesus is unique among the world’s spiritual leaders in that he is the means by which all people will be redeemed. It differs from mainstream Evangelicalism, however, in teaching that all persons who ever lived will ultimately come to faith in Christ, if not in this life then in the next one.

For those who want to know more about this conception, here’s a link to an excellent article about it:

Love Wins never says that Bell is a Universalist. In fact, it doesn’t spell out what he believes on the matter at all. But it does ask some questions that many people don’t want to deal with. That’s one of the reasons that it has been viciously attacked and misrepresented by Evangelical power brokers such as the staunch Calvinist John Piper.

What are some of the questions Love Wins raises? Here’s a list:
- What becomes of people who live virtuous, compassionate lives, yet don’t become Christians? What happens to them after death? Bell uses the specific example of Gandhi when he brings up this issue.
- What about those who would have heard the Gospel, but circumstances prevented it? As Bell puts it, “What if the missionary gets a flat tire?”
- Why would a loving God choose to keep anyone in a conscious state of horrific torment for endless eons of time? Even major league bad guys like Hitler and Saddam Hussein committed finite amounts of evil during their lives. How does that rate infinite punishment?
- Is it possible that Hell is meant to be a purgative and corrective experience, rather than purely retributive? If it is, does that mean that the people in it may one day be released, their characters reformed, their souls ready to experience union with God?

As I said before, Bell doesn’t give us answers to these concerns. He offers them as points to consider when pondering whether the traditional ideas about Hell and who goes there should be reevaluated. For this modest and reasoned effort on he has been called a heretic and false prophet. The editor of Christianity Today even tried to hang that most offensive of terms, “liberal,” around Bell’s neck.

For my two cents, I am firmly in Bells’ camp, though my personal views tend more towards Annihilationism. Below is a link to a page that will tell you everything you ever wanted to know and more about it.

Click here for everything you ever wanted to know about Annihilationism.

The notion that everyone who doesn’t profess faith in Jesus during this life is doomed to an eternity of torment is absurd and repulsive. It makes a mockery of God’s fairness, compassion and love. And, despite what its defenders claim, it in no way is a logical consequence of God’s holiness or desire for justice. Quite the opposite is true.

Perhaps the soundest rejection of common notions about Hell comes from Jesus himself. In the entire Bible there is only one passage that offers a prolonged description of Hell. It’s in the Gospel of Luke I’m posting it below. The text is from the English Standard Version, Luke 16:19-31.

19 “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.


25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’


27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father's house— 28 for I have five brothers —so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”



A careful reading of these verses brings out several key points:

1.) Jesus goes out of his way to show that the rich guy was a really bad dude. He let poor Lazarus lay in the dirt outside his front door and starve while he stuffed his face. He was no Gandhi. Muhammad, Confucius, the Buddha and countless other moral and spiritual leaders would have found him loathsome.
2.) The rich guy keeps his superior attitude even in the fires of Hell. When he looks up and watches Lazarus being comforted by Abraham, does he say, “Oh my God, forgive me! I see the error of my ways!”? Hardly. Instead he sees a chance to enslave the man who he let suffer such degradation. “Hey, Abraham, send that loser out to get me some water! It’s hot as Hell down here!” This is one cold-hearted piece of crap.
3.) He knew full well that what he did was wrong, even when he was alive and could have changed his ways. Note that he’s aware of the Old Testament; i.e. “Moses and the prophets.” Their writings are filled with exhortations to practice social justice and to care for the poor. The rich man lived his life in direct violation of God’s position on these matters.

The point of the story is obvious. Jesus is saying that divine punishment awaits those who refuse to help others in need, who know full well that they should do so, and whose hearts are so hard that even after death they maintain their self-centeredness.

These details make it clear that he wasn’t speaking of people like Gandhi, a man who devoted his life to helping the poor and oppressed. He wasn’t raising the specter of Hell over the men and women of good will that are found in all faiths. There is no basis in the passage whatsoever for the claim that non-Christians suffer eternal torment after death.

“But Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life,’ supporters of the old view may counter. “Doesn’t that mean that those who die without knowing Him are doomed?” No. It doesn't.

Let’s assume for now that Christian claims of Jesus’ uniqueness are correct. Let’s agree that no man comes to God the Father except through him, for the moment at least. Even if we allow that, it does not mean that Christianity is the only way to Christ.

CS Lewis dealt with this issue in a beautiful way in his Chronicles of Narnia series. The character Emeth worshipped a false god throughout the series, yet in its culmination Aslan, who was an allegorical representation of Jesus, welcomed into heaven. Emeth, in following truth to the best of his understanding, was in reality giving service to God, although his conception of the Divine was incorrect.

Commenting on this later, Lewis wrote:
I think that every prayer which is sincerely made, even to a false god, or to a very imperfectly conceived true God, is accepted by the true God, and that Christ saves many who do not think they know him. For He is (dimly) present in the good side of the inferior teachers they follow. In the parable of the Sheep and Goats those who are saved do not seem to know that they have served Christ. (Lewis, C.S. The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume III: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy. New York: Harper San Francisco, 2007)


The fundamentalist view of Hell is wholly unnecessary to a high view
of Jesus. It also lacks support from the Bible. Why, then, do so many fight tooth and nail to maintain it? Some say that Hell is essential to the church’s mission. “Why would Jesus command us to spread the Gospel to the world,” they ask, “if most or all will ultimately be saved anyway?”

This argument rests on a faulty premise, though. It assumes that the primary purpose of Christianity is to serve as an escape tunnel from this world to the next one. But this is an impoverished view that minimizes the power of Jesus to work in human hearts.

His words have given comfort and hope to marginalized people across the globe. They have inspired civil rights leaders, labor unions, and other movements for social justice. Christ has provided spiritual renewal and moral guidance to millions.

If these things aren’t enough to inspire his followers to carry on his mission, then threats of eternal damnation won’t do so either. In fact the traditional doctrine of Hell has served the church’s enemies well throughout the centuries, and continues to do so. Militant atheists like Richard Dawkins delight in waving it in the faces of those who profess faith in a God of love.

No, Gandhi isn’t in Hell. Nor are the vast majority of people who have lived. Their souls are cradled in the arms of a merciful Parent, who graciously invites we the living to partner with Jesus in making the world a better place. We’re joined in that mission by people of good will from all religions.

This is a far more powerful vision than the one held by the poor, deluded ones, who cling to the tired old ideas about Hell. It respects and exalts the God and Father of Jesus, who, as the Scripture says, desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). Knowing that is His will gives us glad reason to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.”

Sunday, June 26, 2011

So you say you want heaven on earth...

Challenging one’s assumptions is an excellent mental exercise that I try to engage in occasionally. Recently I’ve been pondering the problem of evil, which, in a nut shell, works like this:

1.) God is supposedly both all-good and all-powerful.
2.) But evil exists.
3.) If there were truly an all-good and all-powerful God, He/She/It would not allow that to be the case.
4.) Therefore, there is no all-good, all-powerful God.

Really?

Are we absolutely sure about # 3? Theologians who defend the traditional idea of God have formulated a number of responses to it. For example, they have argued that there can be no free will without the possibility of evil, and that without evil there would be no way to develop our moral character. CS Lewis uses a combination of the two responses in his book The Problem of Pain.

Others have taken another tack, arguing that, yes, God is all-good, but is not all-powerful. Thus He (forgive my use of the male pronoun in reference to the Deity; it’s an old habit) is doing everything He can do to prevent evil, but some tragedies slip through anyway. That is the approach Rabbi Harold Kushner uses in his work When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

These approaches, as well as others, have much to commend them, and they have brought peace and comfort to many. But underlying the whole issue is an unspoken assumption: that a world without evil would be better for humans than the one we have now.

“Of course!” we are tempted to respond. “The world would certainly be better without pain, disease, suffering, death, car wrecks, toothaches, cancer, ingrown toenails, war, etc., etc., etc.” This seems so obvious that it’s almost never questioned.

But what if it’s wrong?

I was watching The Matrix recently when I noted something one of the agents said to the character Neo…


If you’re not familiar with the plot of The Matrix, it’s that the world we see around us is an illusion created by a massive network of computers that send signals to our senses, fooling us into believing that what we see, taste, touch, feel, and smell is real. We’re all actually held immobile while nutrients are pumped into our bodies.


Back to what I was saying. An agent (sort of a computer generated government spy) tells the hero, Neo, that originally the illusory world created for the human race was a perfect one. But our brains rejected it. In order to keep us happily deceived, the computer network had to introduce a degree of pain, toil, and trouble into the images it feeds us. It seems we humans couldn’t stand living in an ideal society.

That may sound silly. Maybe it is. But I invite you to try a little experiment. Imagine waking up tomorrow and finding out that overnight all nations had disbanded their militaries and renounced the use of force. The soldiers are leaving Iraq and Afghanistan and are on their way home for good. Down at the army base they’re fitting tanks with bulldozer blades and tossing all the guns into a giant pit. Fighter planes are returning to their home bases to have their bombs and missiles removed. Battleships are throwing their shells in the ocean to make room for relief supplies to hungry people.

Sound good so far?

Let’s carry it a little further. You soon learn that there is no more crime. All the crooks, from petty thieves to corporate villains, have reformed and are now devoting themselves to good works. The jails and prisons release all the former bad guys, who immediately go about making amends for all the wrong they ever did. Police officers have little to do besides direct traffic and give directions. No one even speeds anymore.

Still with me?

Follow this line of thinking a little further. After war and crime have ceased, a group of scientists discover a simple chemical formula that eliminates all disease and death. Pharmaceutical companies manufacture it and sell it at cost. “How could we even think of making a profit off of something that can help so many persons?” declares the president of Johnson and Johnson. He then announces that he is turning his posh mansion into a homeless shelter.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? There would surely be lots of tears and hugs and church services. At first.

What would things be like a year from then, when people turn on the news only to hear that all is well throughout the world? What will conversations be like when the government is run entirely by true statesmen and women who never take bribes and who think only of the common good? What will Letterman and Leno use for material, when all Hollywood celebrities are clean and sober and stay happily married forever?

What would you do if that right-wing/left-wing pundit you despise came up to you, admitted they had been in error, and told you they would be fair and balanced for real from now on? Would you rejoice at their turning over a new leaf? Or might you be a tad disappointed that you no longer had a reason to resent them?

Imagine everyday life in this idyllic society. “How you doing tonight, Jim?” says someone to their neighbor, who is walking his dog through Central Park at 3 a.m., while a group of Crips hands out candy to children and tells them to be careful crossing the street. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, a man loses his wallet, only to have it retrieved by a fellow in a Heaven’s Angels motorcycle vest, who runs after him to give it back.

When the sun breaks people turn on their TV sets, while a cheery announcer tells them that everyone is well fed and safe, that the climate has balanced perfectly across the globe, and that the musical recording artist Big Nice Guy has just released a CD entitled, “Life Sure is Swell.”

Would you really want to live in that world?

You can quibble with parts of this scenario. You can say that we could still have songs about the ghetto and social injustice and broken hearts and movies filled with violence and mayhem. But how silly would they seem in a world where nothing like that existed? We could still have alcohol and illicit affairs, yes. But why drink when there’s nothing you’re trying to forget? Why cheat on a perfect spouse? Why have television, when all Jerry Springer can put on his show are well-adjusted families talking about how much they love each other? Would anyone even bother to watch?

What would humans do in a world where there was no death or disease to remind us of how precious life is, no abhorrent evils to fill us with moral anguish and outrage, no common threats to make us forget our differences and band together?

Might we grow desperate for relief from paradise? Might we use our human ingenuity to invent imaginary wrongs to be angry about, fictitious insults and injuries to pick fights over? Would we take a world where all the gentle, peaceful creatures are happy and safe, and turn it into a nightmare for them and for us? Was the script writer for The Matrix right?

What is 1st Thessalonians, chapter five, verse three talking about when it declares, “Just as people are saying, ‘Everything is peaceful and secure,’ then disaster will fall on them...And there will be no escape.”

I have always thought that verse was a reference to divine wrath pouring itself out on Judgment Day. But what if it’s not? What if it's simply an astute observation of what we will do to ourselves, once diplomacy and science and education have done all the things we wish they would do?

What if this really is the best of all possible worlds, at least for creatures like us? Given freedom from the Devil, would we turn into demons? Could we live in Heaven, or would we make it into Hell? And if we would, what does that say about the kind of people we really are?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

And Now for Something Totally Different

When I started this blog I intended to comment solely on matters of faith. Recently other issues have been on my mind, however. One of them is the state of the American mind, and of the educational system that is supposed to enrich, inform and enable it.

We’re a very smart people. We have the highest level of technological development on earth. Devices that would have seemed hopelessly complex to scientists and technicians a few decades ago are today considered archaic and useless. We launch shuttles into space, immerse ourselves in virtual gaming worlds, and converse with people thousands of miles away as casually as we talk to someone sitting beside us.

And we’re a very stupid people. We’re ignorant of basic facts about our history and our heritage. Many Americans have no idea how many houses of Congress there are, what the significance of the date 1776 is, or why we’re a republic instead of a democracy.

Our ignorance grows more abysmal when it comes to seperating valid arguments from pure BS. Consider the following:

“His opinion about the budget can’t be right. After all, he has a degree in history, not economics!”

“Does this pill really make you lose weight? Well, ask yourself: would millions of people be buying it if it didn’t?”

“Obama wants to tax the rich and give the money to the poor. That makes him a Socialist!”

“Conservatives like to talk about family values. So did Hitler. Doesn’t that make you suspicious?”

“Homosexuals shouldn’t be allowed to marry. After all, look at what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah.”

“Studies show that every year since 1950 the number of children killed by guns has doubled.”

All of the above statements are seriously flawed. I don’t mean that they’re not true. I mean that they employ faulty logic that any person of average intelligence should be able to see through without trouble. In the case of the last one, what it says is simply impossible.

Yet how many times a day do we hear things like this said by politicians, salespeople, and pundits? That’s because there is something deep within us that prefers feelings to facts and wants to believe that our prejudicial attitudes and personal hatreds are morally justified. And there are very clever persons on both sides of the political spectrum, as well as advertisers, spin doctors, and opinion makers who earn very good money catering to this part of our nature.

Why does this fact worry me? Because I love my country, and because for it to remain free its people must be able to critically and intelligently examine the claims they hear, and decide what they believe based on facts and logic, not hearsay and hysteria. Furthermore, they must be able to listen to the opinions of those they disagree with in a civil fashion and consider what they say, instead of automatically assuming it’s wrong.

Without these abilities a representative government cannot properly function. And it is those very abilities that are not being nurtured in our society.

When was the last time you read a book or watched a program where multiple sides of an issue were presented, and you were left to make up your own mind which was right? Despite the claims of some to be “fair and balanced,” there simply is no market for that kind of presentation. Fox News and MSNBC sift their broadcasts through their chosen ideological filter.

Add to that the misinformation foisted on us by commercials and ads and the barrage of propaganda flowing from the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Michael Moore, Ann Coulter, and NPR. Almost never are we motivated to challenge our pet beliefs or engage in open dialogue with our ideological opponents.
When we do encounter those form the “other side,” the usual result is a shouting match marked by insults and fallacious reasoning.

Our society cannot be healthy so long as this is the order of the day.
Idiots can’t govern themselves. Those in power know this quite well, which, in my opinion, is why they make no attempt to encourage truly free thinking or civil, rational discourse between people with differing beliefs.

When I watch shows like “Meet the Press” I see a skilled liar from one political party matched against an equally skilled liar from the opposing party. They don’t answer questions, they evade them. I suspect that, deep inside, the important thing to both sides is keeping the people acting like sheep, even those in the opposing shepherd’s flock. The one thing that the monied interests fear above all is the American public demanding to be told the truth, whether it’s what they want to hear or not.

Jesus knew that we have these tendencies. That is why he was such a strong proponent of self-examination. We worry more about the speck in our brother’s eye than the wooden beam in our own. That’s because it’s always easier to point a finger than to look in the mirror.

Yet real, honest self-examination is a habit all of us need to cultivate. We need to challenge ourselves to justify our beliefs, our actions, and our motives. It is terrifyingly easy for human beings to wrap our worst instincts in robes of righteousness. Do you think that the people who burned the “witches” of Salem thought of themselves as murderers? Hardly. In their minds they were protecting their children and their community from a horrid menace. They were following the only course of action acceptable to decent people – or so they thought.

Fast forward from those times to the early 21st century, and what do you hear? “Those damn Republicans don’t care about the poor; that’s why they oppose social programs.” (Reality check: many conservatives are passionate about helping the less fortunate; they simply don’t think the government does a very good job of it).

Another common accusation: “Liberals don’t love this country like we real patriots do; that’s why they criticize it so much.” (Reality check: most people who are left of center do love America, and it is that love that leads them to criticize its faults, in the hope of making it a better nation).

Our enemies aren’t those we disagree with. The ones we should fear are those who profit from keeping us pitted against each other, who spoon feed us selected facts that reinforce what we already believe, and who encourage us to think of the other side as morons, traitors, bigots, or fascists.

Consider these book titles: “Stupid White Men, and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation;” and “Arguing with Idiots: How to Stop Small Minds and Big Government.” Each is authored by a man who is so convinced he is right that he feels free to demean and demonize those with whom he disagrees. And both men have grown filthy rich off of whipping up the fears and prejudices of their particular followers.

In my humble effort to combat their influence, I want to recommend a couple of books myself. Below are their Amazon links:

Here’s one.

And here’s the other.

Yes, I know I’m pimping for a megabucks corporation by referring you to Amazon. If you like, buy the books from another source. Or check them out at the library. What matters to me is that both be read by as many people as possible.

I’d also like to encourage anyone reading this to commit to critically thinking about EVERYTHING you read or hear, including this blog. Season your faith with a healthy dose of skepticism and your trust with an urge to verify. You, this country, and the world will all be better places for the effort. Peace.

Monday, May 23, 2011

What the Amish Taught me about Technology

If there’s a support group for Facebook addicts, then I need to join up. I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the site for years. This morning, however, after receiving a notice from a “friend” that I was among the ones she would purge from her contacts list (“nothing personal, Bill”), I deactivated my account, hopefully for the last time.

Oh, and I still don’t own an IPod or IPad, though I do have a Kindle.

The question of technology’s effect on our humanity is a growing one in the minds of many people. It has been troubling me for some months now, as I noted the ease with which I and others casually “friend” and “defriend” persons with a mouse click, giving little consideration to the fact that they aren’t simply images on a computer screen. They are living, breathing human beings, with thoughts and needs and strengths and faults and feelings. Unlike us shallow types, they may actually be foolish enough to believe that the word “friend” still means something.

I’m reminded of a book I read almost twenty years ago, entitled How to Live Without Electricity. It was written by an Amish gentleman who lives in Pennsylvania. Obviously I didn’t accept everything he had to say, demonstrated by the fact that I’m typing these words into a PC while a light bulb burns overhead – though in my defense I must add that it’s a low wattage fluorescent.

However, his central thesis struck me to the core, and has remained with me ever since. In explaining why his spiritual community eschews many modern conveniences, he explained that it had nothing to do with legalistic notions about radio and TV and automobiles being inherently evil. The actual reasons are more nuanced and thoughtful.

The Amish people decided long ago that is was foolish to accept technological innovations uncritically, without considering how they would affect their primary goal of living in close relationships and mutual interdependence. Television may provide hours of entertainment, but it causes persons to withdraw into their own private worlds, forgetting about the living, breathing human beings around them. Power driven tools make work more efficient, but they make community projects, such as raising a barn together, seem trite and unnecessary.

Given my current disgust with online social media, I can’t help but reflect on these things and wonder if the Plain People are onto something the rest of us could learn from. Having ten thousand “friends” cheapens the meaning of the word almost to extinction. Rushing to the mall or a big box store to get the latest cell phone or video game console, without first asking why we’re doing so, is the sort of thing that leads to obscene levels of credit card debt, and economic depressions when we can’t make those monthly payments.

This isn’t to say that such products are evil, of course. To the contrary, technology has given us unprecedented opportunities for education, enrichment, and, yes, entertainment. In and of themselves these things are not wicked. The danger arises when we adopt a “latest is greatest” mindset and neglect to ask ourselves what our motives are for adding yet another technological gadget to our possessions.

Is it because of status? Do we fear being behind the curve or looking antiquated in front of our friends and neighbors? Is it due to a commercial being entertaining or a sales person being persuasive? Are we afraid the kids will nag us if we don’t pacify their incessant demands? All of these are great reasons NOT to make the purchase.

Material possessions, as well as the activities we engage in, should be means to an end, namely to live productive, healthy, meaning filled lives. Ones that help us to learn, to grow, to strengthen our bonds with other people, or to enhance our spiritual or intellectual lives, are wise and well made investments. On the other hand, those that make it easier for us to waste time, go further in debt, or dehumanize others should be avoided, no matter how attractive the Sirens of Capitalism make them seem.

That is what the Amish taught me about technology. I pray to God that I will take the lesson to heart, and apply it fully to my own life. Maybe you should do so too. Email me if you agree. Or just send me a tweet.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Why Jesus is a Muslim

Throughout American history there have been events that became frozen in our memories, so much so that we remember exactly where we were when we heard about them. Those who are old enough can tell you exactly where they were when President Kennedy was shot or when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. I recall hearing about the space shuttle Challenger disaster during college.

But all of us who lived through the last decade can recall the moment we heard about the World Trade Center towers being attacked. I remember switching on the television and looking at a skyscraper with smoke pouring out of it. I thought it was an odd sort of action movie at first. Then, I stopped and listened to what the newscasters were saying. I felt a wave of outrage, as I realized that, for the first time in six decades, my nation had been attacked on its own soil.

Like other Americans I soon heard the name Osama Bin Ladin for the first time. And I shared the satisfaction that others felt the night he met his Maker, and I feel nothing but pride now for the brave men who did justice upon him. They have nothing to apologize for.

9/11 changed the United States in deep and profound ways. A sense of patriotism was rekindled among our people. Suddenly the American flag was seen everywhere. And we resolved to defend our nation from its enemies.

But, regrettably, some of us betrayed the ideals on which our country was founded. Many Americans blamed all Muslims for the actions of a tiny minority. Others used the anger that we rightfully felt to advance their private agendas. Soon a wave of propaganda flooded the Internet, and spilled over into other media sources. Overnight, people who have never met a Muslim in their lives became "experts" on Sharia law, and were spreading hysterical nonsense with no basis in fact. Especially shameful is that many of them were doing so in the name of Christ.

Both the terms Muslim as well as Christian have very noble meanings. To be a Muslim literally means to be one who submits themselves to the will of God. A Christian, in the most basic sense of the word, is someone who follows the example and the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Islam and Christianity share a common heritage, drawing many of their beliefs about God from the sacred writings of the Jewish people. Both Jesus and Muhammad were men of great faith, and lovers of justice, mercy and charity. The New Testament, and the Koran, have inspired great works of art and architecture. They’ve nourished the study of the humanities and the sciences. And they’ve provided millions with moral direction, as well as comfort in times of sorrow.

I was discussing these issues online recently when a Muslim friend brought up an interesting point. He said that it was wrong to call Osama Bin Ladin
a Muslim. His point was that no one who slaughters innocent people is submitted to the will of God.

I immediately saw the truth in his words. And I was reminded of how the word Christian is tossed about so carelessly here in the United States.

Jesus was a man of peace, who commanded his disciples to love their neighbors. You can’t love your neighbor and at the same time twist, and distort, what he believes. You can’t share the love of Christ with him in one moment, and, in the next, tell him he’s not welcome in your community. Unfortunately, that's the reception many Muslim Americans have received since the tragic events of 9/11.

Much of the propaganda about Islam has a great deal to say about Sharia law. Now it is true that in some Middle Eastern nations people use, or rather misuse, aspects of this teaching to justify cruelty and discrimination. But this is in no way unique to Muslims. The history of Christianity is rife with examples of the Bible being used to justify such things as slavery, witch hunts, and massacres of helpless persons. In the days before the Civil War, some clergymen defended slavery on scriptural grounds, saying that the relationship between slave and master was like the relationship between Christ and his church.

These perversions of Jesus’ message aren’t simply relics of a distant past. They go on till this day, as those who have heard of the Westboro Baptist Church can attest to. Any good thing can be used for evil, when it falls into the hands of evil men.

Muslims will tell you that there is a wide ranging difference of opinion as to what Sharia law means, and how it should be practiced. In this way they are like Christians, who have no trouble debating about the tenets of their own faith.

The struggle against anti-Islamic prejudice has been cast as a contest between those who love America, and those who would leave it defenseless against terrorism. That’s nonsense. There is no patriotism, in trying to deny to any group of Americans, the rights for which so many, including Muslim Americans, have fought and died. Those who engage in anti-Islamic bigotry, are guilty of the ideological equivalent, of spitting on the American flag. Many of them persist in this behavior, even when the errors in their thinking are pointed out. When they do so, they show they have no respect for the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, or the other great documents that form the basis of our society. They may wrap themselves in the Stars and Stripes, but the symbol they truly align themselves with is the one Germany marched under, during the second world war.

The current debate over Islam isn’t between Christians and Muslims. It’s not about patriotism vs. political correctness. The actual struggle is much older. It’s the ancient battle between those who love peace, and the ones who crave hatred and bloodshed.

The peacemaker seeks to build bridges between cultures and nations. The hatemonger wants to tear them down. The peacemaker heals, the hatemonger spreads the disease of prejudice. The peacemaker seeks the good of humanity. The hatemonger wants death and destruction. The peacemaker’s tools are education and understanding. The hatemonger’s weapons are ignorance and fear. The hatemonger’s goal is to incite violence. The peacemaker’s goal, is to be a child of God. The two are endlessly opposed. Which side ultimately wins, is up to you and to me.

The peacemaker is doing the will of God. In that sense, all men and women of peace ARE Muslims, even those of us who call ourselves Christians. In the same way, everyone who works for peace walks in the ways of Jesus, and in that sense they are all Christians, even those who are Muslims.

Working for peace doesn’t mean that we lower our national defenses or forego dispensing justice. Nor does it mean that we abandon the distinctive teachings of our respective faith. But it does mean that we take the Apostle Paul seriously when he writes, “Insofar as it is possible with you, live at peace with all people” (Romans 12:18). It means that we remember the words of Saint Francis, when he said “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love.”

It means that we take every opportunity to find common ground with others. And it means that if we have a question or concern about their beliefs, we go to them about it, and not some questionable source on the Internet.

In saying these things I’m correcting myself more than anyone else. God knows that I have failed to live up to these ideals more times than I can count. But we need not be perfect in doing what is right, to agree that we can, and should, strive towards it. So, in closing, I ask you to accept my prayer that the God of Abraham, of Jesus, and of Muhammad, and of every man and woman of goodwill, shall guide us all in the ways of peace, now, and forever. God bless you, God bless America, and God bless every person and every nation, on the face of the earth.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Is Gandhi in Hell?

It appears that the gates of Hell are under assault once again. This time the charge is led by a 40 year old Evangelical minister named Rob Bell.
His new book Love Wins has brittle fundamentalists all in knots.

I’ve read it and, as I expected, was left scratching my head, wondering what all the fuss is about. Despite the shrill allegations of his detractors, Bell never says that Hell doesn’t exist. Nor does he use the dreaded “U” word – Universalism.

For those of you not familiar with this term, it basically means that, when all is said and done, every human being who has ever lived will end up in God’s kingdom. It comes in a few different varieties. For example, pluralistic notions of Universalism teach that all, or nearly all, religions lead to salvation (abusive cults such as Jim Jones’s are usually considered to not be “true faiths). But even those who are openly irreligious will ultimately find their way to Heaven in this scheme.

A variant on this position is Christian Universalism. It maintains that Jesus is unique among the world’s spiritual leaders in that he is the means by which all people will be redeemed. It differs from mainstream Evangelicalism, however, in teaching that all persons who ever lived will ultimately come to faith in Christ, if not in this life then in the next one.

For those who want to know more about this conception, here’s a link to an excellent article about it:

Love Wins never says that Bell is a Universalist. In fact, it doesn’t spell out what he believes on the matter at all. But it does ask some questions that many people don’t want to deal with. That’s one of the reasons that it has been viciously attacked and misrepresented by Evangelical power brokers such as the staunch Calvinist John Piper.

What are some of the questions Love Wins raises? Here’s a list:
- What becomes of people who live virtuous, compassionate lives, yet don’t become Christians? What happens to them after death? Bell uses the specific example of Gandhi when he brings up this issue.
- What about those who would have heard the Gospel, but circumstances prevented it? As Bell puts it, “What if the missionary gets a flat tire?”
- Why would a loving God choose to keep anyone in a conscious state of horrific torment for endless eons of time? Even major league bad guys like Hitler and Saddam Hussein committed finite amounts of evil during their lives. How does that rate infinite punishment?
- Is it possible that Hell is meant to be a purgative and corrective experience, rather than purely retributive? If it is, does that mean that the people in it may one day be released, their characters reformed, their souls ready to experience union with God?

As I said before, Bell doesn’t give us answers to these concerns. He offers them as points to consider when pondering whether the traditional ideas about Hell and who goes there should be reevaluated. For this modest and reasoned effort on he has been called a heretic and false prophet. The editor of Christianity Today even tried to hang that most offensive of terms, “liberal,” around Bell’s neck.

For my two cents, I am firmly in Bells’ camp, though my personal views tend more towards Annihilationism. Below is a link to a page that will tell you everything you ever wanted to know and more about it.

Click here for everything you ever wanted to know about Annihilationism.

The notion that everyone who doesn’t profess faith in Jesus during this life is doomed to an eternity of torment is absurd and repulsive. It makes a mockery of God’s fairness, compassion and love. And, despite what its defenders claim, it in no way is a logical consequence of God’s holiness or desire for justice. Quite the opposite is true.

Perhaps the soundest rejection of common notions about Hell comes from Jesus himself. In the entire Bible there is only one passage that offers a prolonged description of Hell. It’s in the Gospel of Luke I’m posting it below. The text is from the English Standard Version, Luke 16:19-31.

19 “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.


25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’


27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father's house— 28 for I have five brothers —so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”



A careful reading of these verses brings out several key points:

1.) Jesus goes out of his way to show that the rich guy was a really bad dude. He let poor Lazarus lay in the dirt outside his front door and starve while he stuffed his face. He was no Gandhi. Muhammad, Confucius, the Buddha and countless other moral and spiritual leaders would have found him loathsome.
2.) The rich guy keeps his superior attitude even in the fires of Hell. When he looks up and watches Lazarus being comforted by Abraham, does he say, “Oh my God, forgive me! I see the error of my ways!”? Hardly. Instead he sees a chance to enslave the man who he let suffer such degradation. “Hey, Abraham, send that loser out to get me some water! It’s hot as Hell down here!” This is one cold-hearted piece of crap.
3.) He knew full well that what he did was wrong, even when he was alive and could have changed his ways. Note that he’s aware of the Old Testament; i.e. “Moses and the prophets.” Their writings are filled with exhortations to practice social justice and to care for the poor. The rich man lived his life in direct violation of God’s position on these matters.

The point of the story is obvious. Jesus is saying that divine punishment awaits those who refuse to help others in need, who know full well that they should do so, and whose hearts are so hard that even after death they maintain their self-centeredness.

These details make it clear that he wasn’t speaking of people like Gandhi, a man who devoted his life to helping the poor and oppressed. He wasn’t raising the specter of Hell over the men and women of good will that are found in all faiths. There is no basis in the passage whatsoever for the claim that non-Christians suffer eternal torment after death.

“But Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life,’ supporters of the old view may counter. “Doesn’t that mean that those who die without knowing Him are doomed?” No. It doesn't.

Let’s assume for now that Christian claims of Jesus’ uniqueness are correct. Let’s agree that no man comes to God the Father except through him, for the moment at least. Even if we allow that, it does not mean that Christianity is the only way to Christ.

CS Lewis dealt with this issue in a beautiful way in his Chronicles of Narnia series. The character Emeth worshipped a false god throughout the series, yet in its culmination Aslan, who was an allegorical representation of Jesus, welcomed into heaven. Emeth, in following truth to the best of his understanding, was in reality giving service to God, although his conception of the Divine was incorrect.

Commenting on this later, Lewis wrote:
I think that every prayer which is sincerely made, even to a false god, or to a very imperfectly conceived true God, is accepted by the true God, and that Christ saves many who do not think they know him. For He is (dimly) present in the good side of the inferior teachers they follow. In the parable of the Sheep and Goats those who are saved do not seem to know that they have served Christ. (Lewis, C.S. The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume III: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy. New York: Harper San Francisco, 2007)


The fundamentalist view of Hell is wholly unnecessary to a high view
of Jesus. It also lacks support from the Bible. Why, then, do so many fight tooth and nail to maintain it? Some say that Hell is essential to the church’s mission. “Why would Jesus command us to spread the Gospel to the world,” they ask, “if most or all will ultimately be saved anyway?”

This argument rests on a faulty premise, though. It assumes that the primary purpose of Christianity is to serve as an escape tunnel from this world to the next one. But this is an impoverished view that minimizes the power of Jesus to work in human hearts.

His words have given comfort and hope to marginalized people across the globe. They have inspired civil rights leaders, labor unions, and other movements for social justice. Christ has provided spiritual renewal and moral guidance to millions.

If these things aren’t enough to inspire his followers to carry on his mission, then threats of eternal damnation won’t do so either. In fact the traditional doctrine of Hell has served the church’s enemies well throughout the centuries, and continues to do so. Militant atheists like Richard Dawkins delight in waving it in the faces of those who profess faith in a God of love.

No, Gandhi isn’t in Hell. Nor are the vast majority of people who have lived. Their souls are cradled in the arms of a merciful Parent, who graciously invites we the living to partner with Jesus in making the world a better place. We’re joined in that mission by people of good will from all religions.

This is a far more powerful vision than the one held by the poor, deluded ones, who cling to the tired old ideas about Hell. It respects and exalts the God and Father of Jesus, who, as the Scripture says, desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). Knowing that is His will gives us glad reason to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.”