Mullings on some Hoary Chestnuts
(This web page is expanded from an essay I wrote for Ben's Writing Page)
So, then, what do I believe?
Is it important?
Well, no. Not ultimately. Because I believe that God ultimately revealed Himself in a Person, Our Lord Jesus Christ, not in a book, or a series of propositions.
Alas, much of the church seems to be anxious to get you to sign along the 'right' dotted line. But salvation is by the grace of God, not by doctrine. It is about relationship, not dogma. What we believe is, ultimately, less important than how we get to those beliefs, and how we put them into practice.
I think the emphasis on believing exactly the right things has come because of the statements in Paul's letters that we are saved by faith, not works. But Paul does not mean faith in the way that we use the word in phrases like 'the Muslim Faith' or 'the Christian Faith'. He is referring to trust, based on relationship. Remember - the majority of the Christian theology that some will want you to sign up to comes from Paul's letters!. He was writing this stuff to people who were already Christians!. They were perfectly able to be Christian and follow Jesus before they received these particular teachings from Paul, and the same goes for you.
Where does this leave creeds? Unimportant? By no means! They describe the realities about the God in whom we place our trust, but our focus must be on the object of our faith, not on the minutiae. And, moreover, the statements of the creeds are pretty basic compared with the complex 'doctrinal bases' and 'statements of faith' you will find knocking around.
So, although I'm going to talk a bit here about what I believe, this is not The One True Faith®. I don't think that's a useful concept; there are as many versions of The One True Faith® as there are people telling you what to believe, so even if there is One True Faith®, you haven't got a cat's chance in hell of knowing which one it is.
Neither is this a definitive statement of my beliefs - a sort of Thoughts of Chairman Karl. No. It's mullings. My mullings. Compare them with mullings on the web, and in books. Mull yourself. As Frankie Howerd's Lurkalot says in Up the Chastity Belt: "I do love to mull. Do you love to mull?". And if it's Christmas, spice your wine and mull that as well.
I'll start here, because this is where I part company with the majority of apologists on the web. Let's try:
The Bible is not the Word of God
No. The Bible talks about the Word of God. It says that Jesus is the Word of God. It never makes that claim for itself. What does it say about itself? Well, very little, actually! There is Paul's statement that all Scripture is "God breathed" and goes on about it being "useful". How that has been turned into 'inerrant, infallible' and all the rest I really don't know. Perhaps it's because it is easier that way. If you start with the axiom that Scripture is infallible, then everything follows. But tidiness is no indicator of truth; in fact, truth is rarely tidy.
Is the Bible special then? Yes, I think so. It is a unique record of God's people over the centuries and His revelation of Himself to them. But it is a human artefact. When things happen, people put interpretations to those things. The Bible contains a lot of such interpretations. Let me give you an example. Back when David was King of Israel, he decided to take a census of his kingdom. There followed some natural disasters. The people and prophets put an interpretation on those events, that God was punishing David for taking the census, and some pretext as to why that was wrong was put in place. So far, so good. Now, as it happens, this event was recorded twice in the Bible. Once, either in about 900BC if you believe the conservative scholars, or about 500 if you believe the more liberal ones, in the book of Samuel, and once again, around 450-400BC, in the book of Chronicles. So, let's have a look at the opening verses in each of these two accounts:
2 Samuel 24
Again the anger of the LORD burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, "Go and take a census of Israel and Judah."
1 Chronicles 21
Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel.
Who did it? God or Satan? An interesting feature here is that, whoever you believe about authorship and date, between the two accounts an important event took place - the Jews were taken into exile into Babylon. This national disaster had affected their theology. Before, they had seen God as the author of both good and evil; now, they had come across Zoroastrian dualism, and the concept of an evil anti-God had crept into their theology. So when the Chronicler was writing his work, using the Book of Samuel as one of his sources, he took the opportunity to 'correct' the earlier 'defective' theology.
The Bible shows, it seems to me, a progressive revelation. It starts imperfect; God is seen as a narrow tribal god, even with a physical body, the back of which Moses sees. But later we are told that no-one has ever seen God (John 1:18). Early on He is seen as jealous and judgemental, even to the point of being petty and unjust:
Exodus 20 v. 5
...punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those that hate me,
although something of God's great love also shines through even at this stage (verse 6):
but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me...
But then the prophets, writing later, do not agree with this idea of God's judgement:
Ezekiel 18 1-2 & 20
The word of the LORD came to me. "What do you people mean by quoting this proverb about the land of Israel.
'The fathers eat sour grapes
and the children's teeth are set on edge'?
"As surely as I live," declares the Sovereign LORD, "you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel...The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the huilt of the son"
Clearly ideas about justice have moved on. Yes, I know you can 'get round' these and make the different bits of the bible harmonise, but isn't it much easier, and more obvious, and more engaging with the text as it is, to accept that the texts are saying different things?
Jesus is the Word of God
This revelation culminates in the person of Jesus:
John 1 14
The Word became a human being and, full of grace and truth, lived among us. We saw his glory, the glory which he received as the Father's only Son
And John has Our Lord Jesus Christ saying:
John 14 9-10
"Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. Why, then, do you say 'Show us the Father'? Do you not believe, Philip, that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?"
And that, in a nutshell, is how I see the Bible. I'm willing to say that when we read it, God speaks through it by His Holy Spirit, so that within its pages we can hear the word of God. But the Living Word of God, eternal, uncreated, perfect, is Our Lord Jesus Christ. The Word became flesh, we are told. Who are we to turn it back into words again?
I read on many sites that we are saved by 'accepting Jesus as our personal Lord and Saviour'. This is generally linked to a simple theology - "man is sinful, he cannot please God, he deserves punishment for his sins, Jesus takes that punishment, so if we accept Him then we are forgiven". Well, I'm not going to say that's wrong, in the same way as it's not wrong to say the Lord of the Rings is "Hobbit finds evil artefact, goes on perilous journey, destroys artefact, world is saved."
Needless to say, I think it's a bit more complicated than that. And in the same way that it's also true to say that the Lord of the Rings is "descendant of ancient kings wants to marry elvish princess, has to become King of Gondor and Arnor, fights war, evil overlord is destroyed, becomes King and marries princess". Salvation is bigger than usually painted, and from a different angle might look very different from how it is usually portrayed.
Personally, I find that for me the above model (known as Substitutionary Atonement) asks as many questions as it answers. This is a model I find more helpful:
Christianity has always held, from the earliest days, that Jesus was both fully God and fully Human. He was not God prancing around in a man-suit pretending to be human, but rather He ate, drank, slept, cried, rejoiced, farted and so forth. Nor was He just an extra special man with a few magic tricks and a hotline to heaven, but He really was God with man. Now, this is something of a tension, even a paradox, especially when ideas such as omnipresence, omnipotence and omniscience are considered primary attributes of God, as clearly Jesus was none of these - if He had been, He could hardly have been human. No, He was God who had taken on the limitations of being human. There's lots of learned material on the incarnation, as this concept is known, and it's worth looking up.
I believe that Jesus' very person embodies reconciliation of God with man, inasmuch as Jesus is both. However, in order to fully reconcile all that being human entails, this God-man needs to suffer, at least in part, all the crap things that happen to people. Injustice, innocent suffering, persecution, intolerance, and so on. Therefore, only by Jesus' death in the manner in which it occurred is the reconciliation between God and man fully made.
There is a story told, entitled The Long Silence. In this, the scene is judgement day. And many people are unhappy that God is going to stand in judgement over them, for various reasons. They point out the injustices they have suffered, the pain they have experienced, and so on, whilst God, up in heaven, has not had to go through all this. Who the hell is He to pass judgement on them?
They get together and create a series of demands that God must go through before He can have any right to criticise, let alone judge, them. He must be born to a people dominated by an oppressive occupying force. His birth is to be shrouded in shame and scandal. He must be forced to go into hiding for his life whilst still a child. He must be betrayed by his closest friends, slandered and unjustly condemned. Then He must be tortured, and executed in a shameful and agonising manner. Then there is silence as it is realised that God has already served this sentence.
Now, whilst this story is told in the context of judgement, which I think is a shame, it illustrates the full meaning of the incarnation. This incarnational theology carries on beyond the Resurrection and onto the Ascension. The Ascension receives precious little attention from many apologists, and I think that this is a great shame. Jesus ascension as still Man and God takes humanity permanently into God. We have a stake in Gods nature. The upshot of all this is that everything it means to be human is to be found within God, and everything it means to be God has been found within a Man. Thus is our reconciliation with God made possible. What this means can only be worked out by the individuals own walk in faith.
Does Hell exist? Well, Jesus talks about it to a certain extent, so presumably it does. But what is it? Well, it it has often been seen as a place where the souls of the dead are tormented for all eternity. I have some problems with this model, on a number of levels.
1. If God is just, then He cannot punish finite sin with an infinite punishment.
I've heard some remarkably esoteric arguments against this point, but they still fail for me. Have a little look around you, and think of some people you know who make no profession of faith. Of course, you don't know exactly what their sins are, but you can probably imagine - they're likely pretty much like yours. Now, they are not perfect, of course not. Ask yourself whether they deserve to be tormented eternally. Not whether you want them to be, but whether the way they live their lives actually deserves that. Now ask whether God less mercifully inclined than you.
2. If Jesus suffering is sufficient punishment, as it is in evangelical models, for the sins of the world, how can eternal torment be the just punishment as well. Jesus suffering, terrible as it was, was finite.
Really, this is partially supportive of 1. above. If Jesus took the punishment that should be mine (although as above, this is not the model I'm particularly inclined towards), then that sin could alternatively be punished by me receiving the same penalty. Which was not infinite.
3. The images of Hell in the Bible are of destruction.
The Lake of Fire for example. Have you ever seen what happens when things are thrown into a pool of lava. They are utterly destroyed within seconds, and nothing remains of them. I don't think the model here is really of us being thrown into a pool of molten rock, but the important thing is the complete and utter destruction. And that's what Hell is about. Sin and evil are destructive. They will ultimately destroy us
4. The lake of fire is called the Second Death. Death and consciousness are not generally considered compatible.
Just as in point 3. This reinforces that nothing survives the destruction that Hell represents - the final end to which evil takes us. Jesus tells us not to fear the destruction of the body, because in Him we can be raised from physical death, but rather to fear our utter physical and spiritual destruction.
Salvation only for Christians
This comes from an image of God as unable to let anyone into heaven unless they sign on the doctrinal dotted line. But it is not what the Bible says! Firstly, it is clear that God is looking for reasons to save, not to condemn, any given person:
2 Peter 3:9
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
How can it be otherwise, if God loves people? Jesus statement I am the way, the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me is often quoted in this regard. But we must look at this in the context of Johns gospel (where the saying occurs), which has, at its opening:
The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.
Lights every man - Not just those who believe a particular set of propositions. But wherever folk are enlightened to what is right and good, it is this Light who enlightens them. And when they follow that enlightenment, they follow that Light.
John goes on to talk about salvation and judgement in these terms:
This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of the light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.
Yes, access to God is through this Person, but we do not have to know His name. Jesus' claims of exclucivisity are correct; He and He alone is the reconciler between God and Man. But it is a far cry from that to saying that anyone who doesn't 'become a Christian' and sign on the correct dotted line is doomed to Hell. It is our attitude to the Light, to Grace and Truth, to Right and Wrong that matters. This is not salvation by works; it is not by doing the right things that God accepts us, but rather by our attitude - do we turn away from, or receive, the Light?
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