Are all atheists wicked fools hurtling towards hell?

Atheism: a consoling delusion for people who can't handle the reality of God's existence.
The “atheistic delusion”? Is this a fair and intellectually responsible look at the situation?

Progressive Evangelical theologian Randal Rauser wrote a very relevant post about some widespread harmful beliefs held by many Christians in America.

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Randal Rauser

A few days ago Jeff Lowder of “The Secular Outpost” started a new series on “stupid atheist memes”. His first installment was:

If you could reason with religious people, there would be no religious people.”

Four years ago I did my own series along similar lines titled “How to Confound Christians with Bad Arguments.” The first installment was: “Compare Santa to Jesus.” Needless to say, naming and shaming this kind of ignorance is an important way to maintain the health of a belief community.

While I think it is worthwhile to point out the problematic memes in another belief community, it is even better to commit some time to pointing out the problems in your own community. And that’s why I’m doubly appreciative for Jeff’s new series.

I have always aimed to do the same thing by extending at least as much criticism to elements within my own belief community as I direct outside it. As a case in point, in a few weeks my new book will be in the marketplace. In Is the Atheist My Neighbor? I launch a book-length critique of a particularly pernicious Christian meme, namely the idea that deep-down atheists really do believe in God and they are sinfully suppressing this belief so that they may live with impunity.  I believe this is a very harmful meme which has left much misunderstanding, pain, and suffering in its wake. (Incidentally, the book also features an interview with Jeff Lowder. Bonus!)

So how ought we to respond to harmful memes? Must we always speak out against them? The Book of Common Prayer includes the following confession: “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done.” Note in this confession that there are two distinct sins. Yes, there is the sin of commission, namely those things we have done. But there are also the sins of omission, those things we ought to have done but failed to do. To propagate memes of ignorance, bigotry, and prejudice within your belief community constitutes a sin (or if you prefer, an “error” or “indiscretion”) of commission. But to fail to censure memes of ignorance, bigotry, and prejudice also constitutes a sin, namely a sin of omission.

In other words, there is no neutral place to stand with respect to this pernicious nonsense. Can you imagine the impact if every time one of these memes was posted or tweeted a chorus would rise up in indignation? Things would begin to change pretty quickly. To sum up, you’re either part of the solution or you’re part of the problem.

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My interaction with an atheist

Epicurus wrote an interesting comment:

I look forward to reading the book. I’ve always felt that Christians are trapped and must believe that non christians are suppressing belief because of Paul’s writings and attitudes on the matter.
It will be interesting to read Randal’s examination of the topic.

To which I answered:

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Lotharson

Not all Christians believe in Biblical inerrancy.

What’s more, Paul can be quite ambiguous on that very topic.

Saint Paul redacting one of his numerous letters.
The Apostle Paul writing one of his numerous letters.

“But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are
storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. 6 God “will repay each person according to what they have done.”[a] 7 To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. 8 But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. 9 There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; 10 but glory, honour and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the GENTILE. 11 For God does not show favouritism.”

A straightforward interpretation of this passage would be that Paul did believe that HEATHENS were able to strive for good works, thereby inheriting immortality.

Consider further this parable of Jesus:

“31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For
I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you
gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the
least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I
was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you
did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after
me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ 46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

White-dressed Jesus, sheep, malovelent goats
Jesus, the sheep and the goats

Were the righteous ones people who put their faith in Jesus during this lifetime and were “saved by grace”?

I think it’s a terribly convoluted interpretation of this passage.

A likely interpretation is that Jesus (and possibly also Paul) believed in a kind of virtue ethics according to which salvation comes through the cultivation of a just and humble Christ-like personality while sincerely acknowledging one’s sins and need for salvation.

Therefore, I do think it is quite possible for a Christian to believe that many persons dying as atheists will inherit eternal life whereas self-righteous bigots of all kinds will be no more.

I certainly know quite a few atheists who are much closer to the spirit of Christ than many of his followers.

Cheers.

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Epicurus
“Therefore, I do think it is quite possible for a Christian to believe that many persons dying as atheists will inherit eternal life whereas self-righteous bigots of all kinds will be no more”.That all sounds fine, but what do you do with verses that suggest differently? Because you don’t believe in inerrancy you can ignore them and use the ones you like?
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Lotharson

Hi.
My point was that, at the very least, Christians aren’t compelled to have such an attitude towards atheists.
While the Bible can often speak with conflicting voices, I do not think we can find anything telling us unambiguously that unbelievers are immoral but many things clearly asserting the contrary.

I grant your general point, however.
It would be terribly question-begging to base doctrines on verses we arbitrarily pick and choose, once we’ve already concluded that the Biblical Canon isn’t internally coherent.

Ultimately, I base my faith on God defined as the greatest Being which can exist.

In the end, I think this is a hope which cannot be proven through rational arguments. Neither can atheism or materialism.
(Many mainstream Christians in Europe consider “faith” as an existential decision to hope in God rather than as a set of knowledge claims).

I also think, however, that EVERY belief system must be grounded through unproven presuppositions.

Consider for example the possibility that we are living in a simulation which was created ten minutes ago.

Brain in a vat:
A brain in a vat: what if we’re all deluded?

I’ve no doubt that (almost) all of us find this completely absurd on an emotional level.

Yet I do not think that you can show this to be rationally implausible without begging the question in one way or the other.
(You can try to prove me wrong if you so wish).

Ooops, I might have gotten a bit too far from the original topic 🙂

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Epicurus
I want to agree with you, but when I read things like Romans 1:18-32, or Psalm 14:1, etc, I can’t
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My interaction with a Conservative Evangelical

A little bit later, a Conservative Protestant criticised my views on salvation:
Rob

So you’re advocating Pelagianism? There’s no need to go that far.

Rom 2 is tricky. Thee point isn’t salvation by works. If you read the whole chapter, the gist is to jolt Jews out of complacency in thinking that they can sin and be saved, merely because they possess the Torah as a birthright, and that many gentiles are actually closer to heaven than they.

As to the sheep/goats parable, note the word “brethren”. This does not refer to generic acts of charity, but to good deeds done to Christians, so the doer would in some sense be considered Christian (ex. he who gives a cup of cold water, etc.)

None of this contradicts Rom 1, which seems to suggest that unbelievers hold (“suppress”) the knowledge of God’s existence, out of base motives.

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Lotharson

Hi Rob.

I could as well say that Roman 1 is “tricky” and use Roman 2 to interpret it as meaning the collective sin of the culture rather than that of all individuals belonging to it.

Suppose that both Jesus and Paul believed that the deepest truth of the universe is that you have to believe in Christ on this side of the grave in order to be saved.

I think they would have said something like that:

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For you did put your faith in me before entering the grave

Roman 2:
“But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgement will be revealed. 6 IF He “will repay each person according to what they have done.”, WE WILL ALL BE DAMNED. 7 To those who CONSCIOUSLY BELIEVED IN HIS SON DURING THEIR LIFETIME, he will give eternal life. 8 But for those who DID NOT BELIEVE IN HIM, there will be wrath and anger. 9 There will be trouble and distress for every human being who DID NOT BELIEVE IN HIM: first for the Jew, then
for the Gentile; 10 but glory, honour and peace for everyone who does good THROUGH BELIEVING IN HIM: first for the Jew, then for the gentile. 11 For God does not show favouritism.”

The fact that Jesus and Paul used very different words and phrases is a terrible fit to the classical Protestant view of salvation.

At the very least, I think that what I described earlier is a not unlikely view of salvation in the New Testament, regardless of whether or not you call it “Pelagianism“.

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I might add that Rob’s answers are pretty far-fetched in other respects as well.
While Paul’s main point in Roman 2 was certainly to criticise a belief in Jewish supremacy, the way he expressed himself makes it pretty likely he believed that humble heathens striving for a righteous life will inherit immortality and glory.
So, Rob’s remark concerning Paul’s main intention while writing this fails to engage with my reasoning.
As for Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats, Rob’s argumentation sounds really bizarre to my subjective ears. It appears to go like this
1) The word “Brethren” in the parable refers to “Christians in need”
2) Thus, those who inherit salvation are those who helped Christians in need
3) A person helps a Christian in need if and only if she is herself a Christian
4) Therefore, all Christians will go to heaven whereas all unbelievers will go to hell.
 That’s the only way I can make sense of it.
While I cannot judge Rob as a person, I think that this particular argument wasn’t particularly convincing.
1′) As Jesus taught this, there wasn’t yet any Christian around and it seems quite clear that “Brethren” referred to his fellow Jews trying to do the will of this Father while he was preaching  in Israel. And whenever “doing the will of the Father” is mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew, it means good works towards God and one’s neighbour and not faith in Him as the only possible “fire insurance”.
3′) involves that, whenever confronted with a Christian in need, all Christians will help the person in question whereas all non-Christians will selfishly refuse to do so. This is truly an extraordinary claim which can be all too easily refuted by reading testimonies of Christians in areas of armed conflict.
Saying that these passages teach “salvation by faith only” nonetheless means that Paul and Jesus were quite sloppy in their choice of words and examples. Given their extreme ambiguity, it would have been then quite legitimate for the Church before (and after) Luther to interpret this in good conscience and perfectly legitimately as supporting the “false teaching” of salvation by works.
This comes over as a desperate attempt at salvaging one’s dogmas no matter what.
 
I believe that honestly leaving every Biblical text speak for itself instead of imposing a predefined pattern on it leads to two important conclusions:
A) The Bible is not inerrant: it can clearly speak with conflicting voices
B) The large majority of texts go against major doctrines held by Conservative Protestants. Indeed,
they’re at odds with the doctrine of hell understood as eternal conscious torment
they fail to teach that God cursed us all with a sinful nature because our first parents ate the wrong fruit.
– they’re at odds with the doctrine of salvation by faith alone and grace alone (as seen in this post)
they’re at odds with the belief that homosexuality is a far more serious sin than failing to help the poor.
and I could add many others.

Conclusion

So, this was doubtlessly a terribly chaotic post 🙂
During these two interactions, I obviously touched on a lot of topics. I hope that my readers have found some of this interesting, regardless of whether they’re Christians, atheists or belong to an entirely different species altogether.

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How fundamentalists create hell(s)

Progressive Christian blogger Fred Clarke recently called my attention to a worrisome phenomenon taking place in the deepest centre of fundamentalism in the United States.

His post was meant as a parody.

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The Harrowing of Hell House

As the Christian Nightmares blog reminds us, it’s that time of year again. October means Halloweeen — trick-or-treating, haunted hay rides, and — at places with names like “Greater Works Deliverance Ministries” — it means Hell Houses.

https://i2.wp.com/hemisphericinstitute.org/hemi/images/e-misferica/4.1_images/41_lg_smalec_1.jpg
Hell Houses are an irredeemably bad idea — a combination of the very worst forms of evangelism with the very worst forms of community theatre. The only thing worse than their warped soteriology and eschatology is their stunted, politicized, culturally shaped notion of what constitutes human sin. Or maybe the writing and acting.

They’re so very awful — and, ultimately, cruel — that some might be tempted to respond by, perhaps, Creating a Scene.

Disclaimer: I do not, of course, advocate interrupting, disrupting or otherwise interfering with any actual Hell House production. That would be uncivil and even, potentially, a misdemeanour. So the following suggestions are just a joke. No one should actually do any of these. Certainly, definitely, absolutely, probably not.

Option No. 1: If not for you meddling kids.

Cast size: 4

Props required: purple dress, bulky rust-colored turtle-neck, large-framed eyeglasses, chartreuse V-neck, cravat. (Optional: Groovy van, Great Dane).

Attend Hell House event dressed as Velma Dinkley, Norville “Shaggy” Rogers, Fred Jones, and Daphne Blake.

When the first demonic characters appear, Velma loses her glasses and stumbles, blindly into the performance space. After she blunders into the “demons,” Fred and Daphne step forward to unmask them, after which Shaggy says, “Zoinks! It’s the youth pastor!”

Scoobies

Option No. 2: The Hell House in the Woods.

Cast size: 3-5.

Props required: Short-sleeve white dress shirts, unfashionable ties, pocket-protectors, ID badges, clipboards, lab coat, sweater vest (for optional Roger the Intern).

Attend Hell House event dressed as Bradley Whitford, Richard Jenkins and Amy Acker’s characters from The Cabin in the Woods. Pretend to be orchestrating the demonic characters of the Hell House and the torment of the teenagers playing humans in the cast, but maintain a business-like, corporate attitude. Calmly explain to other attendees that the torments of Hell may seem cruel and unpleasant, but that we must placate the ancient ones and its the task of these sinners to be offered up to them.

Cabin33

Option No. 3: Who you gonna call?

Cast size: 4

Props required: Matching gray jumpsuits, proton packs, high-tech-looking goggles,  four large trenchcoats (to hide the jumpsuits and proton packs), smart phone with Jackie Wilson mp3 cued up.

Attend Hell House dressed as the Ghostbusters. At the first appearance of demonic characters, whip out the proton packs and start firing. As you are escorted off the premises, hit play on “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” and sing along, enthusiastically, on the way out.

Cautionary reminders: Don’t cross the streams. And if anyone asks you if you’re a god, say yes.

GB

Option No. 4: He descended into Hell …

Cast size: 1-12

Props required: White robe, beard, sandals, shepherd’s crook, stigmata. Bathrobe/sandal/beard costumes for assorted patriarchs and prophets (see Acts 7, Hebrews 11 for casting suggestions).

Arrive dressed as Jesus of Nazareth. At the first mention of Hell, shout “Come with me if you want to live” and begin escorting the dead from the Underworld and into Paradise (outside). The gates of Hell House will not prevail against you.

Harrowing2

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I just discovered hell houses through this post. I’m truly horrified by their wretched theology.

These Conservative Evangelicals worship an evil demon they call God.

He CURSED people with a sinful nature in the first place and will eternally torture them for misdeeds they were BOUND to commit.

Never mind the fact that the concept of sinful nature can’t be found within the Bible.

Never mind that the concept of everlasting torment is at odds with or unsupported by almost all Biblical texts.

Any human acting like the Conservative Evangelical god would be seen as a psychopathic monster.

I am also appalled by their focusing on sexual immorality and drugs while ignoring sins related to social justice and lack of charity.

Let’s consider one of their favourite passage for arguing for endless torments:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he
will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered
before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a
shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are
blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for
you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me
something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I
was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you
clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you
came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord,
when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you
something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in,
or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in
prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you
did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after
me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry
or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and
did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

In other words, NON-believers practising charity are worthy of heaven whereas BELIEVERS failing to do it are worthy of hell, meaning irremediable destruction.

This passage does NOT teach that all people dying as non-believers will be eternally tortured. Quite the contrary. It teaches salvation by work , a doctrine Conservative Protestants passionately detest.

I am extremely confident that many loving and humble people DYING AS ATHEISTS will be in heaven where they will gladly accept to worship the good God they did not believe in after having repented for their trespasses.
It would not shock me that much if many religious self-righteous bigots won’t inherit eternal life and will end up being no more i.e. returning to dust.

Let us give the say to the leader of the Church of Rome for a while:

 

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Naked Calvinism: my series on Calvinism

Calvinism is a theology according to which God controls everything which occurs in advance, including evil.

In the following series, I explain what Calvinism is and examine its philosophical as well as theological consequences.

A short introduction to Calvinism

Naked Calvinism: motivation and methodology

Naked Calvinism: on the sinful nature of man and Genesis

Naked Calvinism: the secret will of God

Why the difference between single and double predestination does not matter

A reformed preacher at the doors of heaven and hell.

The sad testimony of the daughter of a Calvinist apologist

Fostering communion and unity with committed Calvinists?

Predestined to eternally suffer? An interview with philosopher Jerry Walls

 

 

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The main root of religious evil

The problem of religious evil

The New Atheists keep saying that religious atrocities and bad behaviors directly spring out of the supernatural character of their beliefs.

I think they’re deadly wrong, because there are no more logical connections between the general belief “There is a supernatural creator” and evil actions than between the conviction “There is no supernatural world” and the atrocities committed by Russian communists in the past.

No, I think that the main cause of religious wickedness consists of the evil nature of the deities the believers in question are worshiping.

A recent post from liberal pastor David Hayward illustrates this truth very nicely. It concerns fundamentalist Pastor Mark Driscoll who has reached an impressive track record of abuses ever since he began preaching.

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"The Gospel of Abuse" cartoon by nakedpastor David Hayward

Many people are calling for forgiveness for Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church so that he and the church can get back to preaching the gospel as effectively as it had and get back on the road to success, just like it was before things started unraveling.

Andrew Jones of Tall Skinny Kiwi has written a good summary of what’s transpired up to now.

My question is: “What is the gospel?” Like this cartoon attempts to portray, isn’t the gospel about how we treat people, rather than how effectively we convert them?

Marshal McLuhan wrote years ago that “the medium is the message”.

This means that it’s not just the words you say, but how you say it and the culture it emerges from and the community it creates.

It’s become more than apparent that Driscoll’s and Mars Hill’s gospel is about abuse. It’s not about the emancipation of the human being, but the heavy-handed control of them.

This is not just about a few behavioral issues. The church’s behavior emerges out of its attitudes, beliefs and theology. Driscoll didn’t preach a healthy theology but struggled with some unhealthy behaviors. Rather, the unhealthy behaviors were born out of an unhealthy theology.

Driscoll abused people because this is his idea of how God treats people. Driscoll’s and Mars Hill Church’s god is an abusive god, a god who scorns gays, dismisses women, ridicules differences and bullies anyone who disagree with him. Their god is a god who presses his agenda with complete disregard for those who challenge it and are harmed by it.

No wonder they behave this way! Because their god behaves this way.

So all eyes are on Driscoll and his church this morning. What’s going to happen? Certainly not just a slight adjustment of policy. What is required is a complete overhaul of not just practice, but belief. Not an easy task!

Are you a survivor of church abuse? Come talk about it with us.

Sophia is a survivor. Read her story.

My art is all about freedom. Hang it in your house or work space!

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This was my response.

Thanks for this great series of posts, David!

You truly hit the nail on the head while pointing out that the fundamental question is “What is the Gospel”?

For passionate Calvinist Mark Driscoll, the “Gospel” can be summed up through the following points:

1) God predetermines everything occurring in the universe

2) God led the two first human beings to eat the wrong apple. As a consequence, He cursed their billions of descendants with a sinful nature making wicked deeds inevitable

3) Consequently every human being “deserves” an eternal stay in God’s torture chamber.

https://lotharlorraine.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/lake-of-fire-bg.jpg

4) God sovereignly determines IN ADVANCE those who will suffer forever and those who will be saved from this unending Ausschwitz .

I think it is undeniable that the god worshiped by consistent Calvinists is a heinous fiend (if you can pardon me this terrible understatement).
Calvinists keep saying that atheists aren’t able to live consistently with their assumptions whereas THEY are the ones facing tremendous cognitive dissonances.

They profess that God, the most perfect Being, is actually far worse than the most odious human criminal having ever lived.

If there really is such a thing as a “doctrine of demons”, I can’t think of a better candidate than Calvinism.

What infuriates me the most is that people like Mark Driscoll and John Piper passionately and joyously defend the (alleged) reality of never-ending torments for billions of people having been PREDETERMINED by God to act badly.

For me, this is similar to Germans in the Third Reich joyfully supporting the extermination policy of their Fueher.

The Gospel is a Good New for everyone and social justice is astronomically more important (in volume) that homosexuality.

For Calvinists, the Gospel is the most terrifying, despairing and absurd horror movie one can envision.

The misbehavior of Mark Driscoll is only the tip of a gigantic iceberg full of a loathsome and reeking theology.

If your most fundamental beliefs lead you to call the most horrendous evil “praiseworthy”, you’re bound to either bear incredible cognitive dissonance or act accordingly.

 

 

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Can all religions be true?

Chuck Queen, a good progressive Christian writer, posted a very thought-provoking text on religious pluralism.

 

Keeping Jesus, Letting Go of Christian Exceptionalism

The degree to which Christianity will contribute to a more equitable and just world will depend largely, I believe, upon the degree to which Christians can let go of their exclusive claims on God and deepen their actual commitment to the way of Jesus.

This letting go will not come easy for many steeped in traditional forms of Christianity. Christian exceptionalism is deeply entrenched within the general Christian culture—and often feeds upon American exceptionalism, which our political leaders use to justify all sorts of intrusive and unjust polices and actions, such as drone strikes in other countries.

The wave of controversy sparked by a Coca-Cola ad which ran during the Super Bowl is a good example of how embedded in our culture American exceptionalism is. The ad featured diverse voices singing America, the Beautiful in languages other than English. Apparently, some (or perhaps many) Americans believe that true Americans must speak English regardless of what other languages they may know.

Many Christians believe just as strongly that God’s true people must speak the language of Christian faith.

An English teacher once told me that in the original version of the Wizard of Oz, the Emerald City was not any greener than any other city. The wizard had put green spectacles on everyone so that to them everything appeared green.

Many of us were taught to see the world through Christian-colored glasses. Those who taught us were not bad people who were intentionally deceitful. They were simply passing on to us what had been passed on to them.

Surely the time has come in the evolution of our spiritual development to take off our singularly-colored glasses so that we can see the rich colors, textures, and beauty of a diverse world filled with diverse traditions.

Harvard religion professor Diana Eck was once asked by an elderly friend in India: “Do you really believe that God came only once, so very long ago and only to one people?”

Professor Eck said, “This very idea that God could be so stingy as to show up only once, to one people, in one part of the world, exploded my understanding of incarnation.”

Truth is not singular; it is multifaceted, multilayered, and multidimensional.

Truth is truth wherever it is found.

This means that Christians like myself who take the Bible seriously need to evolve in our interpretation of biblical texts once considered pillars of Christian exceptionalism.

Take John 14:6 for example, where Jesus says:

I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.

How can this text be interpreted by those who relinquish Christian exceptionalism? There are several possibilities:

1. It can be applied to the risen, cosmic Christ who works anonymously through many different mediums and mediators. The Gospels, remember, were written from a post-Easter point of view. What others call by a different name may actually be the cosmic Christ.

2. The statement “except through me” can be understood to be a reference to the values and virtues Jesus incarnated. In other words, anyone who embraces the values and virtues that Jesus embodied can know God regardless of what their particular beliefs may be.

Acts 10:34 supports this interpretation:

In every nation anyone who fears (reverences) God and does what is right is acceptable to God.

3. Perhaps the best way to understand this verse is in terms of Christian particularism. The phrase “no one” can mean “none of you.”

In other words, “This is not true for everyone, and doesn’t have to be—but it is true for Christians.” John 14:6 says nothing about how those outside of Christianity can know God. This is, however, how Christians know God, namely, by following the way of Jesus into God’s truth and life.

All three of the above readings of John 14:6 are at the heart of the reasoning we find in John Shore’s popular animation below:

On one hand, letting go of Christian exceptionalism means that the God of Jesus is the God of the whole earth. This world and everything in it constitute God’s household. We all belong to one another as sisters and brothers in God’s family. So we must find ways to work together for the common good, and learn how to dialogue about our differences without claiming to have all the truth or seeking to impose our beliefs on others.

On the other hand, deepening our Christian commitment to the actual way of Jesus means taking his life and teachings seriously as “the way” to live, not just a doctrine to be confessed or believed.

Anne Howard of The Beatitude Society shared recently how John 14:6 bothered her as a child. When she was 10 years old, a group of foreign visitors came to her little Minnesota town for a weekend visit on their tour of America. Her family hosted Yuri, a friendly Russian man with a thick accent who went with her family to their Lutheran church on Sunday.

She was sorry when the visit ended, but something Yuri said during the visit really troubled her. She asked her mother about it.

“Yuri said he doesn’t believe in Jesus, or even believe in God,” she said. “I’m afraid he’s not going to go to heaven. What’s going to happen to Yuri when he dies?”

Anne’s mother wisely responded, “Christianity is not a club, Anne. It’s not about who’s in and who’s out. It’s about how we live.”

Yes! A transformative faith is a faith that transforms how we live.

We Christians are not exceptional because we are chosen by God over others, or because we possess the truth while others do not. However, if we truly follow the way of Jesus we should be exceptional

– in the ways we love and forgive others,
– in the way we pursue truth wherever the truth leads us,
– in the ways we care for the suffering, indentify with the marginalized, and engage in social justice,
– in the ways we practice hospitality, generosity, and invest in the common good.

If more Christians could let go of their Christian exceptionalism while deepening their commitment to Jesus, we could lead the way forward in helping to heal and give hope to our world.

 

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Here was my response to this:

 

Hello Chuck, that’s really a terrific and awesome post you just wrote 🙂

I think there are three things which needs to be distinguished here:

1) Will God only grant everlasting bliss to those dying as Christians?

2) Does God only manifest Himself in the Christian and Jewish religions?

3) Are all religions legitimate ways to get closer to the Almighty?

I passionately reject 1) and do believe there will be many conversions beyond the grave. I find it profoundly blasphemous to assert that the Good Father will eternally torture anyone who perish without believing in Him.

I also find that 2) is utterly wrong.

Conservative Evangelicals like quoting the parable of the sheep of the goats for proving the alleged eternity of torments in hell.

 

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“31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

But they are facing a HUGE PROBLEM.

Taking this parable at face value would lead one to believe that works play an important role in salvation, a doctrine Evangelicals passionately detest.

More importantly perhaps, this parable teaches that people having never heard of Christ were serving Him while doing good deeds and will usher into His holy presence.

Interestingly enough, the apostle Paul himself thought that Pagan poets writing about Zeus could get important things about God right!

However I don’t think that 3) is true. God cannot simultaneously endorse religions whose core messages are contradictory .

If Jesus was really (in some mysterious sense) God’s incarnation whose death and resurrection reconciled us with Him in some way (which is not necessarily the same thing as penal substitution), then it naturally follows that a Muslim does not get to paradise by following the Koran or a Buddhist through the careful use of meditation. I do believe that many will find God on the other side of the grave ( along many noble atheists ) but it will be through Christ rather than through what they subjectively considered true during their earthly life.

Conversely, if Christianity is wrong and Buddhism is true, Christians won’t be saved through Jesus but because they (more or less unconsciously) followed the Eastern path of enlightenment.

I applaud you for wanting to give a more human face to American Christianity, but I don’t believe that the problem lies in the uniqueness of Christ BUT in the widespread conviction that all of those passing away as non-Christians have earned an eternal stay in God’s torture chamber .

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Once one has dropped away this abhorrent doctrine, one is free to express one’s humanity through art and creativity and by working along Atheists, Budhists, Agnostics, Muslims… of good will to change the world even while thinking that important points of their belief systems are wrong.

Taking an agnostic stance is, of course, another logical possibility, but thinking that all these religions are true at the same time is irrational.

I hope you won’t take this as a personal critique. I really admire your strong willingness to spread God’s radiant love everywhere and I do hope we’ll have opportunities to interact in the future.

Progressively yours, Marc 🙂

 

To which Chuck answered:

 

Marc, you have shared a lot of food for thought here and raised some important issues. Maybe I can comment on what I think are the crucial ones. I would answer “no” to all three questions. What I like about Christian particularism as oppossed to Christian exceptionalism is that I can only say what is true for me as a Christian and my Christian community. I believe God speaks in all sorts of ways and means and there are many other ways of encountering God other than the Christian way. But certainly all religions have their toxic expressions. I like to say that while not all paths lead to God, God will travel down any path to get to us, to make known to us God’s love and grace and vision of human possibility.

I am still growing, evolving, changing with regard to my understanding of the uniqueness of Christ and the ontological relationship between the human Jesus and the living Christ. My thinking recently is that the “the living Christ” is more of an an archetypal symbol of what it means to be truly and fully human. I’m finding it more and more difficult to believe that the human Jesus in a resurrected state actually functions as God functions, though it does seem that the early Christians came to this view fairly early. Maybe I’m getting way too theological here. And I’m not sure what we believe about such things matters much.

What matters for me is “the way” of Jesus as presented in our sacred tradition — that “way” is truly transformative. I’m sure the core elements of the way of Jesus (compassion, love of neighbor, nonviolence, self-surrender, humility, commitment to a just world, etc.) are part of other paths as well, but I am not knowledgable enough about other religions to speak with any authority here. You might note in my comments to Wolf that I refer to myself as a hopeful universalist. I can’t say for sure everyone will eventually choose to face the many ways they have hurt and offended others and choose to love, but I hope that is the case. I don’t believe God ever gives up on a person, however long it takes, though I cannot imagine what that might look like in a different sphere of existence (afterlife).

What I am very confident about is that the way of Jesus as presented in our Christian tradition could change us and our world if we followed it.
I suspect that is what God cares about – that we become mature, loving, good, caring, etc. human beings. I look to Jesus as the definitive image of what that looks like. I’m sure there are other images and “icons” — but Jesus is mine.

 

I think it is vital to have such respectful and friendly discussions about these issues without resorting to rhetoric and loaded words.

 

 

 

How fundamentalism hinders creativity from unfolding

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Leading progressive Evangelical theologian Peter Enns wrote an excellent post on this very topic.

 

I’m now reading for the second time in 4 months an amazing book by Steven Pressfield, The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles. Pressfield is probably best known for being the author of  The Legend of Bagger Vance.

I’m reading the book–again–because I am having trouble breaking through the blocks to win my inner creative battle.

For me that creative battle is sitting down to write. For others it is painting, dieting, exercise, education, entrepreneurial ventures–pretty much anything you deep down want to do but, for some reason, feel blocked from doing.

Pressfield names this block, this destructive force, “Resistance,” and his explanation for what Resistance is, why we all have it, and what can be done about it is brilliantly insightful and at times snortingly HIGH-larious. The dude is funny.

For me at least, virtually every page has a quotable sentence or paragraph–beginning already in the preface written by Robert McKee, who describes his own creative paralysis: “Some years ago I was as blocked as a Calcutta sewer…” (p. ii).

I want to share with you a quote from one portion of the book that struck me in particular: “Resistance and Fundamentalism” (pp. 33-37). You have to read the whole book up to this point to catch the full impact, but even on its own, you might find this very insightful.

Pressfield, by the way, does not have Christian fundamentalism specifically in his sights (though one can hardly be blamed for making that connection). Pressfield is addressing any sort fundamentlist outlook on life, i.e., that which is hostile to the life of art/creativity.

This quote is from pp. 34-36 and I have maintained Pressfield’s paragraph divisions.

Fundamentalism is the philosophy of the powerless, the conquered, the displaced and the dispossessed. Its spawning ground is the wreckage of political and military defeat, as Hebrew fundamentalism arose during the Babylonian captivity, as white Christian fundamentalism appeared in the American South during Reconstruction, as the notion of the Master Race evolved in Germany following World War I. In such desperate times, the vanquished race would perish without a doctrine that restored hope and pride. Islamic fundamentalism ascends from the same landscape of despair and possesses the same tremendous and potent appeal.

What exactly is this despair? It is the despair of freedom. The dislocation and emasculation experienced by the individual cut free from the familiar and comforting structures of the tribe and the clan, the village and the family.

It is the state of modern life.

The fundamentalists (or, more accurately, the beleaguered individual who comes to embrace fundamentalism) cannot stand freedom. He cannot find his way into the future, so he retreats to the past. He returns in imagination to the glory days of his race and seeks to reconstitute both of them and himself in their purer, more virtuous light. He gets back to basics. To fundamentals.

Fundamentalism and art are mutually exclusive. There is no such thing as fundamentalist art. This does not mean that the fundamentalist is not creative. Rather, his creativity is inverted.  He creates destruction. Even the structures he builds, his schools and networks of organization, are dedicated to annihilation, of his enemies and of himself.

But the fundamentalist reserves his greatest creativity for the fashioning of Satan, the image of his foe, in opposition to which he defines and gives meaning to his own life. Like the artist, the fundamentalist experiences Resistance. He experiences it as temptation to sin. Resistance to the fundamentalist is the call of the Evil one, seeking to seduce him from his virtue. The fundamentalist is consumed with Satan, whom he loves as he loves death. Is it coincidence that the suicide bombers of the World Trade Center frequented strip clubs during their training, or that they conceived of their reward as a squadron of virgin brides and the license to ravish them in the fleshpots of heaven?….

To combat the call of sin, i.e., Resistance, plunges either into action or into the study of sacred texts. He loses himself in these, much as the artist does in the process of creation. The difference is that while the one looks forward, hoping to create a better world, the other looks backward, seeking to return to a purer world from which he and all have fallen.

 

My response follows.
Thanks Peter for having shared this wonderful quote!

Being myself a (struggling) writer, it touches me in many ways.

You’re entirely right that fundamentalism is characterized by a willingness to DESTROY one’s foe rather than trying to construct anything, it is always directed towards villains who ought to be unconditionally despised and often even hated.

It is completely true that it hinders creativity from springing up, as the infamous “Left Behind” novels illustrate all too readily.

But given the cognitive dissonance and emotional ordeal faced by Christian fundamentalists, it isn’t astounding at all they cannot genuinely create anything.

If you believe that God is going to eternally torture the large majority of human beings owing to a sinful nature they’ve never asked for, it is obvious that expressing your (God-given) creativity will occupy a pretty low position in your list of priorities.

As I once spoke with a Conservative Evangelical pastor about starting cultural activities for promoting the regional language of my homeland (Lorraine Franconian, a German dialect) he answered me at once:
“The time God granted us is limited and this isn’t going to save any additional soul!”

It cannot be denied that mainstream Conservative Evangelical beliefs have a profoundly harmful effect on our very humanity, transforming us into instrumental salvation machines .

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Now, I want to go into another type of fundamentalists, namely militant atheism who interestingly enough turns out to be mostly populated by former religious fundies.

They also divide reality into two camps (religious and non-religious) and are convinced that the most urgent priority of mankind should be to utterly wipe out religion from the face of the earth.
If you spend time looking at their websites and blogs, you’ll see striking parallels between their sub-culture and fundamentalism as described by Pressfield, i.e. the same kind of narrow-mindedness and instrumentalism.

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Predestined to eternally suffer? An interview with philosopher Jerry Walls

Note: text like this  means a hyper-link.

 

Calvinism (also known as reformed theology) is on the rise in the Conservative Protestant world and I am not the only one who finds that deeply preoccupying. In what follows, I had the immense privilege to interview Dr. Jerry Walls, who is an outstanding philosopher of religion defending a view called Arminianism.

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Lotharson: Thank you Jerry for having accepting my interview. Could you please sum up your personal background for my readers?
Jerry Walls: I was born and raised in Knockemstiff, a small village in southern Ohio. I attended a small revivalist church where I accepted Jesus as my savior in a revival when I was 11 years old. I preached my first sermon at age 13. After high school, I attended a Wesleyan Bible college for a couple years, where I seriously engaged Wesleyan theology. I graduated from Houghton College, also a Wesleyan school before attending Princeton theological seminary. I also took a degree from Yale divinity school and then pastored a church for three years. Then I went to Notre Dame where I did a PhD in philosophy, writing a dissertation defending the doctrine of hell. So I have a pretty diverse educational background.Bild
Lotharson: Yep! What version of hell did you defense back then?
Jerry Walls: I defended the view that hell is eternal because some people freely choose to remain there forever. I also pointed out that universalism and Calvinism share the assumption that God can save anyone he will. The difference is that for Calvinism, God does not choose to save everyone, whereas for the universalists he does. I argue that God truly desires to save all, but some are lost because we are free and some choose to reject God forever.

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Lotharson: Thanks, this is truly fascinating 🙂 Would you say that annihilationism (the destruction of the lost) is perpendicular to the debates between Calvinists and free-will Arminians such as yourself?

A calvinist and an Arminian can (possibly) be either an annhilationist or believe in eternal torment. Do you think this is the case?
Jerry Walls: Yes, those are views that can be combined. But either way, whether God determines people to eternal misery or (mere!) annihilation, either way the Calvinist God does not truly love all persons.

Lotharson: I agree with this! Why do you believe that your view of hell is the right one as opposed to other options? Could you please put it in a nutshell?
Jerry Walls: Well, God’s very nature is love and he created us in his image for relationships of love, both with himself and other persons. For us to truly love God, we have to be free. If God determined our “love” for himself, he would be loving himself rather than receiving genuine love from us. So for genuine love and worship to be possible, it must be possible that we can refuse to love God, to worship and obey him and so on. If that happens, we are necessarily unhappy for we are missing out on the very thing for which we were created–loving relationship with God and other persons. Hell is the natural misery that results when we choose not to love and obey God.

Lotharson: I largely agree with this though I think it begs some questions concerning eternal torment. But right now, I’d like to talk about reformed theology. What is, to your mind, the most concise way for summing up Calvinism?

Jerry Walls: Well, the famous TULIP, particular what I call “ULI in the middle.” God unconditionally chooses to save some, but not all, Christ died only for the elect that God unconditionally chooses to save, and God gives irresistible grace to the fortunate elect.
Jerry Walls: Particularly…

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Lotharson: And what about four-point Calvinists rejecting limited atonement?
Jerry Walls: That is only because it is rather embarrassing to admit you don’t really believe “God so loved the (whole) world” and gave his Son for all. But that is only a feeble attempt to mask the hard reality that the Calvinist God does not truly love all persons. So long as you have unconditional election and irresistible grace only for the elect, it does not help to play down limited atonement. You still have limited salvation. It is limited strictly to the elect God unconditionally chooses to save, but no one else.

Lotharson: Yeah, I also think that this distinction between single and double predestination is an illusion. What are now your main arguments against reformed theology?

Jerry Walls: Well, the heart of the issue is the character of God. Is he truly a God of love who is perfectly good? You cannot claim this with any plausibility if you believe God determines people to damnation, people he could just as easily determine to salvation. He could determine all persons FREELY to accept the Gospel (as Calvinists define freedom) but choose not to. God is more glorified by unconditionally choosing to save some and damning others than he would be by determining all to accept salvation. Such claims make shambles of the claim that God is love.
Jerry Walls: Calvinists are skillful at employing the rhetoric of love and most people do not really understand what Calvinists are saying. So Calvinism maintains credibility by way of misleading rhetoric about the love of God that their theology does not really support.

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Lotharson: Many Calvinists I told that answered me that God is a JUST judge. We are not free to chose good, but when we sin we are freely sinning, so that we deserve a punishment. What’s your take on this?
Jerry Walls: Freely only means doing “willingly” what God has determined you to do. He determines your will in such a way that you “willingly” choose sin. However, you cannot do otherwise. That flies in the face of how we understand justice. A person is considered culpable only for things over which he has control. And what would we think of a judge who determined a criminal to “willingly” murder someone and then sentenced him to death for murder? We would hardly think such a judge was just. Yet, that is just how Calvinists see God.

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Lotharson: Precisely. But then Calvinists say that we have NO RIGHT to judge God’s morality. He is the potter, we are the clay and we have to abide by HIS rules, however repugnant they might seem us to be. Do you often have heard such a reply in your own debates with Calvinists?
Jerry Walls: Well, that is a very compliacated question. Can God make anything right, just by willing it? Can he make lying right? Blasphemy? I believe whatever God wills is right, but I DO NOT think it follows that God can will just anything and make it right. He is necessarily good and loving in his nature, and can only will things that are compatible with his perfect goodness. So it is not a matter of us judging God by OUR standards, but rather that our moral intuitions are part of the image of God in us. To judge the Calvinist account of God to be morally abhorrent is not to judge God, but only the Calvinist account of him. For a fuller discussion of the relationship between God and morality, see the book David Baggett and I co-authored, “Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality” that was published in 2011.

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Lotharson: Thanks for the link! What I don’t understand is how Calvinists manage to live. They profess that God predetermined Hitler, the Shoah and predetermined most victims to eternally suffer. How is it possible to keep living without sinking into a dark depression?

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Jerry Walls: Great question! I think the answer again goes back to the inconsistency of Calvinism. They affirm the love of God for all persons, that he is perfectly good, and so on, but fail to see how these claims are utterly incompatible with their theology. They do not consistently work out the implications of determinism and compatibilism, and often think and say things that only make sense on a libertarian view of freedom. And of course, they often resort to “mystery” under the guise that it is true piety to believe things they do not understand or that do not make rational sense. But again, if people really understood compatibilism and the true implications of Calvinism, many could not believe it.
Many however, do sink into depression if they really understand Calvinism and its implications. I recently got an email from a guy who had been watching my videos and said he was moving to embrace Arminianism after being a Calvinist his whole life. He admitted the Calvinist view of God was at odds with the biblical picture of Jesus, and that he had little joy in his Christian life. The strain between what Calvinism teaches and what he truly believed was too great, and he finally realized he needed to give up Calvinism.

Lotharson: I am glad to hear about this happy ending 🙂

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Jeremiah 32:35 is extremely embarrassing for all divine determinists holding fast to Biblical inerrancy.
“35 They built high places for Baal in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to sacrifice their sons and daughters to Molek, though I never commanded—nor did it enter my mind—that they should do such a detestable thing and so make Judah sin.”
How do Calvinists interpret this passage?

Jerry Walls: I’m not sure, but this may be good candidate for the infamous distinction between the revealed and the decretive will of God. He reveals one thing to be his will, and commands it, but decrees something altogther different! Talk about internal conflict!

Lotharson: If a human being spoke and acted in this way, would we not universally call him or her an infamous deceiver?
Jerry Walls: Or worse. For the Calvinist, God’s ways that are “higher” than ours are actually lower than the standards we expect for a decent human being.

Lotharson: Yeah, and this is truly frightening. Is Neo-Calvinism on the rise in modern Evangelicalism?
Jerry Walls: Well, if you mean by Neo-Calvinism, just classic Calvinism, then yes, very much so.
Lotharson: Are there countless Arminian Churches who are being taken over?

Jerry Walls: I’m not sure of the number, but yes, some Arminian churches are being taken over by Calvinists.
Lotharson: Does it have regrettable consequences, especially in the way non-Christians view the Church?
Jerry Walls: I doubt that non-Christians know the difference. But it does cause conflict and division in some churches.
Jerry Walls: And again, Calvinists are not usually forthright in their views to unbelievers. Calvinists often say God loves everyone.

Lotharson: Is it morally praiseworthy to worship a deity having condemned one’s own son to an eternity of suffering BEFORE he was ever born? (I’m thinking on John Piper)

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Jerry Walls: The idea of unconditional election to salvation and damnation is morally abhorrent, and applying it to your own children only makes it more graphic. But that is Calvinist piety at its best. You sacrifice not only your child but also your moral intuitions in the name of worshiping a God whose “goodness” is utterly at odds with the normal meaning of that term.

Lotharson: I wholeheartedly agree with you! But it seems to me that Conservative Arminians have also many troubles.
For (the overwhelming majority of) Conservative Evangelical Arminians, if a non-Christian goes onto the other side of the grave, he can AUTOMATICALLY count on an eternity of terrifying distress. Do you agree with this?

Jerry Walls: I believe God’s mercy endures forever and his nature of perfect love does not change the minute we die. I agree with CS Lewis that the doors of hell are locked on the inside and that God is always willing to welcome the prodigal home.

Lotharson: So, do you expect post-mortem conversions?
Jerry Walls: Yes. I believe God truly desires to save all persons, and that many persons have not had a full opportunity to hear and respond to the gospel in this life. You do not go to hell for lack of opportunity to be saved, but for steadfastly resisting the opportunity to do so. If this is true, it makes sense that persons who have not had opportunity to receive the gospel in this life will do so after death.

Could you put your views on purgatory in a nutshell and mention useful resources?

Jerry Walls: Well, in a nutshell, purgatory is about completing the sanctification process begun in this life. For a full defense of this claim, see my book “Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation.” For a shorter account see my article “Purgatory for Everyone” that appeared in “First Things” several years ago. I also have a couple of videos on You Tube. One is CS Lewis on Why our Souls Demand Purgatory and the other is CS Lewis and Mere Purgatory. Thanks for the interview.

Lotharson: I was delighted to have had you!

 

Intelligent design, eternal torment and the restoration of everything: an interview with Kevin Miller

I had the immense privilege to interview the great and incredibly gifted movie maker Kevin Miller. He is a unique person in many respects and an outstanding Christian having left behind a great part of his conservative Evangelical baggage.

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Leaving Conservative Evangelicalism

Lotharson: Hello Kevin, I’m very glad you accepted to give me this interview. Could you please sum up your personal and religious background for the benefit of our readers?

Kevin Miller: I was raised in a theologically liberal but morally conservative home. My grandfather was actually a minister in the United Church of Canada, which is probably one of the most liberal Christian denominations in the country. However, at age 9, I had a “born again” experience at an evangelical Christian Bible camp. I pretty much kept that experience a secret though b/c my parents were pretty antagonistic toward that way of thinking. In my teens though, both of my parents underwent a similar experience, and we wound up attending an evangelical Mennonite Church. From there, I attended a Bible College, eventually earning a degree in youth ministry. After college, I spent 8 months in Kenya doing missionary work. Then I came back to Canada and went to university. That’s when my life and faith sort of imploded. I didn’t have any real Christian community around me, and all of the stuff I had been suppressing all those years came out. So I spent a few years wrestling with a lot of demons before finally emerging from the wilderness due to a reencounter with some friend from Bible college–and also a powerful reencounter with God. I felt like the prodigal son who had finally come home. But I still only had one foot inside the circle, so to speak, b/c I felt that somehow I’d been brainwashed or indoctrinated during my time spent in the evangelical world, and I didn’t know how to move forward. Thankfully, some good mentors came into my life around that time and started to provide me with a framework in which to analyze my experience.
Kevin Miller: I’ve always been a pretty analytical person, constantly questioning things. It’s probably some sort of unhealthy coping mechanism, b/c it makes it pretty difficult to buy into a particular theological system or faith community. I always tend to find myself on the boundary. I think that’s where I feel most comfortable.

Academic persecutions against intelligent design?

Lotharson: This is quite a fascinating story and helps better understanding your works and creations. My next question would be about your thoughts on intelligent design (ID). You wrote the script for the movie “Expelled” describing the academic intolerance towards ID. What did motivate you to do this?

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Kevin Miller: I was recruited for that project following the release of my first film, “After…,” a psychological thriller that takes place in the subterranean world beneath Moscow. How that goes together with the battle between Darwinian evolution and Intelligent Design I’ll never know. Originally, I was called in to attend some development meetings about what was then a hypothetical film about Intelligent design starring Ben Stein. I was really passionate about the topic (it appeals to the frustrated academic in me). But I actually told the producers not to hire me, b/c I didn’t think I had the sense of humor the project required. However, a few days later I got the call, and I was on the job. I had never worked on a documentary before and I had no idea what I was doing. Thankfully some of the other people around me did. So what motivated me? An intense interest in the topic as well as the opportunity to work on another film and to stretch myself creatively. Oddly enough, that set me on a path I had never anticipated in terms of documentary films, to the point where that’s what I’m best known for now.

Lotharson: Okay. Do you personally believe there’s a real academic persecution against ID?

Kevin Miller: I would call it more of a bias against Intelligent Design as a viable explanation for the origin, complexity and diversity of life and the origin of the universe. One one level, many people see ID as merely a Trojan Horse for some form of biblical creationism. I disagree. While most proponents of ID are people of faith, the brightest lights amongst them are truly seeking to engage in a scientific enterprise, particularly in the area of information theory, for example. The question is, what is the best explanation for the information we find in DNA? Ideally, scientists will always infer to the best explanation, follow the evidence wherever it leads. However, how do we define “best”? This is where the rule of parsimony kicks in. The best explanation is always the simplest explanation, the one that requires the fewest number of unverifiable assumptions. As Richard Dawkins likes to point out, God is pretty must the most complicated explanation someone can offer, because now you have to explain where God comes from. Even so, as Dawkins admits in the film, the idea that some form of intelligence may be responsible for the universe and everything in it is neither inherently religious nor unscientific, even though it may be friendly to a theistic worldview. But scientists are not philosophers. They are observing, measuring, experimenting, etc. If you watch Sean Carroll ‘s recent debate with William Lane Craig, for example, you can see that many non-scientist ID proponents are simply speaking a completely different language than cosmologists, biologists, and other scientists who are on the front lines running the numbers. They’re trying to solve complex equations, to explain mechanisms according to physical laws, not philosophize about how those mechanisms and laws came to be.
All that to say, I don’t think there is any more persecution against ID than there is against astrology or leprechauns. If anyone from any of these communities came to the table with a viable model to explain a natural phenomenon, people would pay attention.
I remember asking Michael Behe how science would be different if ID was the prevalent theoretical model. He had no answer. That troubled me. No surprise his interview didn’t make it into the film.

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Lotharson: Thanks! I agree to a large extent with what you’ve said. Ironically enough, you were yourself “expelled” by the same conservative Evangelicals complaining about this alleged state of affairs. Could you please tell us more about this?

Kevin Miller: I wasn’t exactly expelled. I was just prohibited from teaching a course on documentary filmmaking at Trinity Western University (located in Langley, BC, Canada) due to my views on hell. Ironically, I was allowed to screen “Hellbound?” there several months earlier, and a few months after being barred from teaching on campus, I was invited to present a paper at a philosophy event DEFENDING my views on hell. So go figure. It’s a strange world. I will say, however, that my views on many subjects have shifted substantially over the past decade, thanks in large part to my extensive interaction with the atheist community re: “Expelled.”

Lotharson: How did your views evolve?

Kevin Miller: Well, you can’t undergo the sort of scathing criticism I faced as a result of “Expelled” without it affecting you. I made a point of trying to engage our critics in a meaningful way, and I took their criticisms of our film and my own views seriously. Through discussion and debate, you get to see things from a number of different sides. And I came to see many of the things I felt quite certain about didn’t quite merit that level of certainty. I guess you could say that’s when the serious deconstruction of my belief system began, and it’s been an ongoing project ever since. My departure from traditional evangelical beliefs about hell is just a small part of that process.

Culture war and bigotry

Lotharson: I guess that criticism from atheists and other non-Christians can be quite a help for reaching more reasonable views. The problem I have with ANTI-atheists is that they constantly resort to mockery and emotional bullying, in an useless and oftentimes counter-productive way. Did you experience that too?

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Kevin Miller: Mockery and bullying is present on all sides. That’s something that disillusioned me during “Expelled.” I found that many people on all sides were more concerned with scoring points against their opponents than seeking the truth through meaningful dialogue. It’s an understandable occupational hazard though, b/c you can only go around the Mulberry bush so many times before you get frustrated at your opponents’ seeming inability to grasp the obvious truth to which you have committed your life. However, as Jonathan Haidt points out in “The Righteous Mind,” most of us arrive at our philosophical/theological positions via an emotional rather than a rational process. So until we have some kind of transformational emotional experience, we remain rather impervious to rational arguments launched against our views. So we shouldn’t be surprised to see emotions running high. Emotion is at the heart of everything. So is identity. We don’t respond well when our identity is threatened.

Lotharson: Precisely! Jon Haidt is quite an outstanding scholar and I greatly appreciate his efforts to overcome the culture war. Now I’d be interested to know more about your views of hell.
Who were the authors who influenced you the most as you were considering the possibility of universal reconciliation?

Defense of Christian universalism

Kevin Miller: It all started with Brad Jersak, author of “Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell and the New Jerusalem.” I edited the book for him back in the fall of 2008. That experience is what convinced me I had to make a documentary on this topic, although I wasn’t in a position to begin pursuing it until nearly three years later.

The thing that struck me about Brad’s book was how little what I was taught about hell was actually in the Bible. He also introduced me to the various streams of interpretation regarding final things throughout the history of the church. I should have known this stuff (I’d been to seminary after all) but it was all new to me. I should also note that I was well prepped for this mind-shift due to another book I had edited for Wayne Northey. It’s a novel called “Chrysalis Crucible.” It really got me questioning the connection between God and violence.

Another book, coedited by Brad Jersak and Michael Hardin, called “Stricken by God?” faced this question head-on, arguing that the atonement and nothing to do with God punishing Jesus for our sins. Once you start to think along those lines, the idea of hell as a place of eternal, conscious torment pretty much falls to the wayside. In terms of universalism, some key influences were Thomas Talbott, Robin Parry, Richard Beck, Brian McLaren, Eric Reitan, Sharon Baker and Julie Ferwerda. They showed me that a viable case could be made for a non-retributive view of God and hell. Of course, Michael Hardin is also front and center throughout. So is his “rabbi,” Rene Girard.

Lotharson: The following passage is widely seen as extremely problematic for universal reconciliation. Matthew 25:46 (NET) “And these will depart into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Most Conservative Evangelicals use the following syllogism:
1. We know that the saved will live eternally in bliss
2. The damned will be punished in the same way the elects are rewarded
3. Thus the damned will suffer eternally.
What’s your take on this text?

sHEEPGoats
Kevin Miller: This isn’t nearly as problematic as it appears. It all comes down to the word translated as “eternal.” In Greek, the term is “aionios,” an adjective that means “of an age” or “age-long” rather than “never-ending.” So it can be interpreted as either qualitative or quantitative, or perhaps both. At any rate, in this parable, the righteous will receive a reward in keeping with the age to come and the wicked will receive a punishment in keeping with the age to come.

There is no reason to assume the reward or punishment will last forever. Furthermore, the intent of this parable isn’t to provide a systematic theology of the afterlife but to emphasize how strongly Jesus identifies with “the least of these.”

The other thing I chuckle at when people try to use this to establish a belief in hell as eternal torment is that the qualification for avoiding hell has nothing to do with faith. In fact, the sheep had no idea they were doing anything that merited a reward. Works is the deciding factor here, in particular how we treat the poor. So if proponents of eternal torment want to use this parable to bolster their case, they’ll also have to concede that faith doesn’t enter the equation.

The only thing that matters is righteous action–at least if you read this parable in isolation. And if you want to combine it with other parables and verses that emphasize faith, you’re sort of stuck in a contradiction. Unless, of course, you want to say the good works are the fruit of faith. But then I’ll remind you that the sheep had no idea they were serving God by helping the poor. So once again, it’s problematic.

sheep-goat-salvation-works

On inerrancy and picking and choosing

Lotharson: These are good points! I also find it quite stunning that Evangelicals PICK and CHOOSE which parts of the passage they take at face value and which parts they allegorize for avoiding “salvation by work”. Do you agree with me that there are conflicting voices in the Bible, so that inerrantists INEVITABLY have to cherry-pick things?

CherryPicking
Kevin Miller: Everyone cherry-picks. You have to. Even Paul and, dare I say it, Jesus cherry-picked! If you look at how Paul uses the Old Testament, for example, he pays virtually no attention to the original context of many of the verses he quotes.

Peter Enns does a great job in “The Evolution of Adam” of explaining how Paul’s view of Adam’s role in human sinfulness is completely absent from the Old Testament. He adapts Scriptures and theological ideas for his own purposes. In doing so, he was merely in keeping with his times. Many of his contemporaries did exactly the same thing. And how often does Jesus pluck a verse here or there and then completely revolutionize the traditional interpretation?

All that to say, circumstances shift constantly. Therefore, so does our perspective on the Bible. All of us suffer from confirmation bias–the tendency or perhaps the temptation to pick and choose passage of Scripture that support what we already believe. That’s the thing that struck me about Jersak’s book when I edited it. Speaking back to the evangelical world in which he had spent most of his career, he said if we are going to be biblical about hell, let’s be biblical.

That is, let’s listen to everything the Bible says about final things, not just the parts that support what we already believe. That’s a highly problematic approach for someone who desires a hermetically sealed theology, but it’s the only approach that is in keeping with integrity. All that to say, we all tend to take parts of the Bible literally and allegorize other parts as it suits us. The key is to be aware of this tendency and to work consciously against it. This is where peer review can play a key role–as long as the entire peer review process isn’t biased in the same direction!
Speaking of which, I have a bit of a pet peeve re: peer review. Academics like to hold it up as the golden standard, an almost infallible means of achieving truth. The thing we often fail to consider is how the entire peer review process can be just as biased–perhaps more heavily invested in a bias–than individual academics. So if the peer review process holds individuals in check, what holds the process in check? I’m sure you wouldn’t put much stock in an astrologist’s insistence that his or her conclusions were correct because they had been peer-reviewed by other astrologists. 🙂

 

Hell and cognitive dissonances

Lotharson: Yeah, this is why Conservative Evangelicals and militant atheists peer-reviewing their own community are truly laughable 🙂
Conservative Evangelicals often argue that atheists cannot live consistently with their assumption that they and their loved ones are insignificant molecular machines. While I largely agree with this, I am convinced that the cognitive dissonances they are facing are FAR WORSE.
For they believe that most people will eternally suffer as a punishment for sins they could not have avoided, having been cursed with a sinful nature by the almighty Himself. Do you agree with this assessment?

hell2
Kevin Miller: Here’s the thing: Theists argue that unless there’s a creator, everything is meaningless, and our attempts to create meaning absurd, because if God or some sort of equivalent being (or race of beings) doesn’t exist, the only determining factors in the universe (or multiverse) are chance and necessity. We are nothing but stardust come to life for a brief moment, so to speak. Atheists counter this assertion by saying we don’t need an ultimate being to give our lives mean. We can assign our own proximate meaning to other people, objects, events, locations, rituals, etc. If theists are completely honest, they’ll have to admit that’s pretty much what they’re doing anyway.

As Richard Dawkins points out, challenge a Christian with horrific commands from the Old Testament (such as the stoning of adulterers), and they’ll say those rules don’t apply anymore. As we noted above, we all pick and choose which parts of the Bible to take literally and which to ignore. So as Dawkins points out, even though people like to say the Bible or God is the ultimate authority, we are still applying some sort of standard that actually supersedes the Bible. In fact, the only reason we believe the Bible has any authority in our lives is because we have become convinced of his validity or inspiration. And even in this case, it’s the arguments in favour of the Bible’s authenticity that are our true authority. So when it comes to ultimate meaning versus proximate meaning, I think the atheists are onto something.
As for cognitive dissonance, this is certainly one of the key problems facing Christians who believe in a God who violently punished his son on the cross and then threatens to punish the wicked forever in hell. This runs smack into cherished beliefs about God loving his enemies, love keeping no record of wrongs, etc.

Think about it: If God is perfectly loving, and if our own love is perfected in heaven, how could we possibly tolerate people suffering forever in hell? Our compassion would grow in proportion to our awareness of their suffering. Therefore, if anyone winds up in hell, I can’t see how we all wouldn’t be there, with the “righteous” ministering to those who are suffering. The only way around this is for God to either render us unaware of the suffering of our loved ones or for God’s love to be revealed as something completely different than what Christ taught.

 

Fundamentalism and child abuse?

Lotharson: I once stated that folks STRESSING the doctrine of eternal torment too much to their kids are abusing them. This made many of my readers angry and I regretted having written the sentence since it gives the impression that all people teaching Eternal Conscious Torment are abusive. This is not what I meant since my secular Catholic parents taught me that (concerning evildoers) and I never felt abused at all.
That said, I still believe that fundamentalists terrorizing their children in the hope they will “make a decision for Christ” are abusing them. Do you think this is the case and that this can really cause them deep psychological wounds?

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Kevin Miller: If it’s abuse, it’s unintentional. I was “saved” through a gospel presentation that included a threat of hell. And I believe it affected me psychologically in such a way that it essentially derailed the next two decades of my life. But the people who presented that version of the gospel to me were some of the most loving people you will ever meet. Years later I was at a function where I witnessed a kindly old Mennonite lady making a similar presentation to my own young children–who had never heard of hell–and I was horrified. I didn’t want to see them inflicted with such a horrific view of God. There’s a meme going around where God or Jesus says, “Let me save you… from what I’m going to do if you don’t let me save you.” I think that gets right to the bedrock on this one. Think of a parent saying that about him or herself to a young child. It would be considered abusive or at the very least highly coercive.

Calvinism and predestination to eternal torment

Lotharson: I agree it is almost always unintentional. Calvinists are arguably the most vocal opponents of universalism. They believe that God created evil and caused Adam and Eve to fall because He needs to SHOW OFF his punitive wrath. Without eternal torments, he would be unable to maximize his glory and his undeserved grace. What’s your opinion on this?
Kevin Miller: I have to quote Michael Hardin here and say that Calvinism or Reformed Christianity is nothing but paganism dressed up in Christian clothing. The God who would do such a think in no way resembles the Jesus of the gospels, who was a friend–not an enemy–of sinners.
When I say “paganism,” BTW, I mean no affront to modern day pagans. What I mean is they have basically taken the old, sacrificial view of God of pre-Christian religions and made him the center of the Christian faith–which I see as an apologetic against exactly this sort of God. Jesus never demanded sacrifice. Rather, he sacrificed himself. So I would say Calvinism is 180 degrees away from Christ.
At least my interpretation of Jesus. 🙂

calvinism
Lotharson: 🙂 Some Calvinists I talked too agree that (according to all criterion of human justice and love) the god they worship is a fiend. But they went on saying that we cannot judge God by our own morality and that He defines what is good and bad. What is your response to this?
Kevin Miller: I would agree. God does define morality. And, playing by their own rules, if Jesus is God, he defines morality in ways that utterly defy their theological system. So it seems to me they have two choices:

1) admit that Jesus was lying or

2) admit that God has a double standard–one form of morality for humans, another for himself. Either way, the results aren’t pretty. Either love never fails, never keeps a record of wrongs, always hopes, always perseveres (cf. 1 Corinthians 13) or it doesn’t. Calvinists are saying it doesn’t. So not only are they contradicting Jesus’ teaching that what makes us perfect like God is love of enemy (Matthew 5), they are also contradicting the clear teaching of Paul.
Lotharson: Most Calvinists I know are nice people. But what could occur if they began imitating the behavior and attitude of the God they profess to believe and trust upon?
Kevin Miller: Exactly. As Frank Schaeffer likes to point out, most people who believe in such a punitive view of God live above their theology. They’re far nicer than the God they worship. And thank God for that! But on a meta-level, I believe our entire society reflects a version of the Calvinist God, b/c our entire justice system is based primarily on retribution. Not only our justice system but our prison system, our economic system, our theological systems, our war machines, even the way many people discipline their children is a shadow version of the punitive God who demands sacrifice in order to achieve peace. This is one of the key insights of Rene Girard and Michael Hardin, who have had a huge influence on me over the past few years. Our entire society is based on scapegoating and sacrifice. It’s how we create culture. This is why Michael says toward the end of “Hellbound?” that the entire church is missing the gospel. That’s because the gospel isn’t divine sanctification of our sacrificial machinery; it’s the antidote to it, it’s the foundation for a new kind of community–call it he Kingdom of God–based on self-sacrifice instead. In this regard, I think we have completely missed the radically subversive message of Christ. It undercuts everything.

 

Libertarian free will?

Lotharson: It seems to me that you agree with Calvinists that there is no such thing as libertarian free will, am I right? Is everything determined by God?
Kevin Miller: Wrong. I believe we are co-determining–at our core, humans are imitators. We look to others to see what we should desire. And then we compete with each other for these objects of desire or states of being, thinking it will give us the sense of identity or immortality we seek, anything to transcend the fear of death that gnaws at our insides, the feeling that we are insignificant. I tend not to look at people as individuals but as members of a herd. The “self illusion” is one of the most problematic illusions we face right now. Alongside it is the notion of free will. We are pack animals for the most part, and our powers of volition are much weaker than we imagine. I’ll go back to Jonathan Haidt (“The Righteous Mind“) on this one. Also Bruce Hood (“The Self Illusion”), Ernest Becker (“The Denial of Death”), Richard Beck (“The Slaver of Death”) and Rene Girard (“Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World”) on this one. All of these writers and many others point to a similar conclusion.
Lotharson: Okay, thanks for the correction. I didn’t know you believe in libertarian freedom. You once said that freedom is just a mean to the end of our salvation. But what if freedom is an end in itself? What if God’s main purpose in creating us was that we develop a good personality naturally desiring Him, so that those lacking it won’t inherit eternal life but BE NO MORE? Is it not conceivable as well?
Kevin Miller: I would hope the end game is self-actualization, that we all become the ultimate fulfillment of our potential. Exactly how that is achieved doesn’t concern me all that much.

 

Palestine and Christian sionism

Lotharson: Okay. I have a last question. Many Evangelicals support unconditionally the state of Israel. A young pastor once told me that the modern Palestinians are the descendants of a people that Israel refused to annihilate during Joshua’s conquest, and that the struggles of modern Israelis can be traced back to this ancestral “sin”: they should have left nothing which breathes alive. What are your thoughts on this issue?

PalestiniansKids
Kevin Miller: Despite having co-written “With God on Our Side,” which criticizes extreme forms of Christian Zionism, I’m not sure if I know enough about the situation to comment on it. However, I will say this: I don’t believe God ever told the Israelites to annihilate anyone in the Old Testament. Second, many evangelicals fail to distinguish between the Jewish people and the State of Israel. Israel is a secular state created in 1948. Within that state are Jews, Palestinians and all sorts of other people. No Christian should ever support any secular state uncritically. So how the State of Israel treats the Palestinians living within its territory (as well as the Gaza Strip and the West Bank) is a completely separate issue in my mind from historical/theological concerns going back to Joshua’s purported conquests of Canaan.
What we can say for sure is that treating anyone as a second-class citizen is wrong. So are acts of terrorism. Whenever theological ideas are used to justify either action, they go against the clear teachings of Christ.

Lotharson: Okay Kevin, this marks the end of our discussion.Thank you for all the time you’ve granted me! I wish you all the best for your ongoing projects.

 

 

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Fostering communion and unity with committed Calvinists?

 

Zack Hunt (The American Jesus) just wrote a thought-provoking article about the implications of Calvinism (also called Reformed Theology). It is a fictional letter to John Calvin.

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Dear John,

Ok, first off I know, “Dear John” letters are usually written between former lovers and we were never even friends. But, John, I tried. I really, really did.

I’ve heard for so long that my frustrations with Calvinism were really due to your Neo-Calvinist followers giving you a bad name. That made sense to me. After all, I couldn’t believe some of the rephrensible and callous things being said and taught today would be derived directly from someone of your theological prowess. So, I wanted to give you a chance at redemption in my eyes.

Since you’ve been, um, not present in the body for the past 450 years, I thought the best way to get acquainted with the real Calvin would be to read the work you are most famous for. I’m talking, of course, about your Institutes of the Christian Religion.

In my effort to get to know you better I spent my last semester at Yale in a class devoted entirely to the reading and discussion of your epic work. I admit we didn’t make it through every single chapter (forgive us John, but the book is nearly 1,000 pages long and we needed time to discuss what we read each week), but we did make it through almost all of it (we mostly skipped a few chapter at the end about church polity). And even with those handful of overlooked chapters, I’m still willing to bet we made it through more of the Institutes than many of your followers today have read. (I say this as a Wesleyan, who has read far far too little of what Wesley actually wrote.)

I have to admit, John, you’re a brilliant guy and a great writer. Your passion and honesty were obvious from page one and at times refreshing given the way we so often dance around what we really think in the church today. I really admire your conviction and willingness to say what you believe to be true even if it wasn’t the popular thing to say. Without a doubt, you had some great things to say and, at times, I even found myself close to shouting “Amen!” Like the time you called out those who want to believe in the absurd notion that God can predestine some to heaven while not necessarily also predestined everyone else to hell, ”This they do so ignorantly and childishly since there could be no election without its opposite reprobation.” (3.23.1)

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Ok, maybe, that amen wasn’t exactly for the reason you would like, but still, it counts for something, right?

Anyway, class is now over, our reading of your monumental achievement complete, and I’ve had some time to process everything you said.

So, can I be totally honest with you, John?

You crushed my hope for reconciliation.

I found your theology to be every bit as appalling – and maybe even more so – than your followers.

To be blunt, as a Christian, I don’t recognize your God and I have no clue what the good news is in the Institutes. That some people are saved no matter what? I guess that’s good for them. But you’re clear that God also creates people for eternal damnation,

By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, other to eternal damnation; and accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestined to life or to death. (3.21.5)

And you also say that God tricks some of those same people he dooms to hell into thinking He loves them by “instilling into their minds such a sense of his goodness as can be felt without the Spirit of adoption” simply so he “better convince them.” (3.2.11) John, what kind of perverse and manipulative God would do that?

But it gets worse.

Much worse.

For, according to you, God ordains every single horrific act of evil that has or ever will occur.

As you explain over,

Scripture, moreover, the better to show that every thing done in the world is according to his decree, declares that the things which seem most fortuitous are subject to him. For what seems more attributable to chance than the branch which falls from a tree, and kills the passing traveler? But the Lord sees very differently, and declares that he delivered him into the hand of the slayer. (1.16.6)

And over,

As all contingencies whatsoever depend on it, therefore, neither thefts, nor adulteries, nor murders, are perpetrated without an interposition of the divine will. (1.17.1)

And over,

Let us suppose, for example, that a merchant, after entering a forest in company with trust-worthy individuals, imprudently strays from his companions and wanders bewildered till he falls into a den of robbers and is murdered. His death was not only foreseen by the eye of God, but had been fixed by his decree. (1.16.9)

And over again, God is behind every act of evil that ever takes places,

I concede more – that thieves and murderers, and other evil-doers, are instruments of divine providence, being employed by the Lord himself to execute the judgments which he has resolved to inflict. (1.17.5)

In other words, if a child is raped, a family murdered in their sleep, or an entire population of people sent off to the gas chambers, that wasn’t just the act of evil men. It was the will of God.

And, of course, God doesn’t just have it out for us in this life; God has it out for some people for eternity too because as you say, “Those whom the Lord favors not with the direction of his Spirit, he, by a righteous judgment, consigns to the agency of Satan.” (2.4.1)

You say all of this wrath is due to our depravity. Ignoring Paul’s words affirming the complete opposite, you say ”wherever sin is, there also are the wrath and vengeance of God” (3.11.2) And as if to drive your point home at just how much God hates us, you claim that it’s not just adults that God despises, but infants too because they ”cannot but be odious and abominable to God.” (2.1.8) John, you go to great lengths to establish the total depravity of man, and I agree that we are indeed sinful people. But in the end, based on your own argument, the one looking the most depraved is God. For it is God, not humanity, who ordains evil and institutes eternal torture regardless of act or decision.

Yes, John, you’re right. All of these quotes and points are lacking in their immediate context, but they’re not random thoughts. They are, as you demonstrate so well, the logical conclusions of your theology of divine sovereignty and, therefore, at the very heart of what you believe about God. Worse, this isn’t a case of you overstating without thinking through the conclusions. You’re clear that this sort of God who ordains genocide, murder, rape, children abuse, and every other conceivable horrendous act is the God you worship.

Not surprisingly, you say that we should fear this God, not just honor and revere Him, but actually be terrified of Him. (3.2.26) I suppose on that point we are in at least partial agreement. If this is a God who arbitrarily ordains the death of children and the torment of people before they’re even born, then of course we should fear this God.

Which is why, John, I’ve got to be brutally honest with you.

I think your God is a monster.

I don’t say that casually or based on a handful of random one liners. I say it based on the foundation of your theological project and your insitence on a God who both ordains evil and creates people simply to torment them for eternity. John, this is not the God I find in the Bible, nor is it a God I think is worthy of worship. It’s a God who can only be feared for His arbitrary, callous, and evil ways, and pitied for his enslavement to wrath.

To me, John, your God looks nothing like Jesus of Nazareth. And, for me, that’s a big problem.

Now, John, it wouldn’t be a good breakup letter if I wasn’t clear about why I don’t like you like that anymore (or I guess ever did). I’m know a lot of those reasons are obvious already, but in the spirit of your Institutes, I don’t want to leave any room for doubt as to why we need to go our separate ways.

First, John, as awed as I am by your intellect, you’re way way way overcommitted to your theological system. I know your methodology and meticulousness are derivative of your training as a lawyer, and while those can be great qualities in a person, in your Institutes your utter devotion to your theological system creates an unbelievable callousness that is totally foreign to the Jesus I meet in the gospels. Experience, reason, compassion, and even huge chunks of scripture are sacrificed on the altar of your theological system. Relationships require compassion, humility, and at a times a bit of flexibility. John, we’ve all got some work to do in those areas, but that’s especially true for you.

You also have a tendency to talk about of both sides of your mouth. This isn’t good for a relationship because it means I can never really trust what you’re saying. F0r instance, in order to acknowledge the obvious reality of freewill while defending your hardcore understanding of divine sovereignty, you try to create a make believe difference between compulsion and necessity, as if just because we necessarily have to act in a certain way because God has ordained it so, we’re not actually compelled to do that. (2.3.5) John, that makes no sense. Likewise, you argue that even though everything is determined by God long before we even exist, we’re still responsible for out actions. (1.17.5)

Look, I get it, you’ve got a system to maintain and you need to make sense of sin and guilt. But, John, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Either we freely choose to sin and are therefore responsible, or God causes us by divine decree to sin and, therefore God is ultimately responsible. Which leads us to the worst doublespeak of all in your book. You make is clear that God ordains evil, but isn’t the author of it. John, buddy, as you heard throughout your lifetime, if God is the source of and the one who ordains evil acts, then God is the author of evil. Which means your God isn’t really as loving and good as you would have us believe. In fact, your God is pretty stinking evil.

Which is why, John, it’s hard not to conclude that Calvinism is a sustained exercise in the defense against the obvious. By which I mean you’re constantly on the defense against the obvious conclusions of your claims. To your credit you offer up an exhaustive defense, it just runs counter to basic logic. There’s just no way around the fact that you’ve simultaneously created a God who is the author of evil while rendering the Christian life irrelevant because if our eternal fate is already sealed, there is absolutely no point in bothering to live in any particular way.

Also, John, and I’m not trying to be mean here, but your use of Scripture is just awful. I know, I know, I know. Who am I to criticize the great John Calvin’s exegesis? But buddy you cherry pick scripture like it’s your spiritual gift. You completely ignore the context of the verses you pick. And, with only a few exceptions, either ignore or dismiss out of hand any and all passages that contradict your position. But, John, I’m not sure that’s the even the worst part of it for me.

As a fellow Christian I know this might be a little hard to hear, but you deal surprisingly little with what Jesus himself actually had to say. Sure, you talk about his role in salvation plenty, but when it comes to supporting your various claims, you seem to quote everybody but Jesus. In fact, I’m pretty sure you quoted the entire book of Romans. And yet the words of Jesus himself were few and far between. Knowing your bravado, I’m sure this wasn’t the case but it was almost as if you intentionally ignored him because some of the things he threw a huge wrench your system that could bring the whole thing crashing down on itself, like that pesky John 3:16-17 loving the whole world and not just the elect nonsense or that stuff in Matthew 25 or James 2 where salvation by faith alone seems to be an unwelcome guest.

But, John, I think the ultimate problem between you and me is the starting point in your grand theological endeavor. For you, everything begins and ends with the glory of God. I wholeheartedly agree that giving glory to God is an important thing. But John, I don’t know what Bible you’re reading if you think that receiving glory is God’s primary interest in and purpose for mankind. If anything, the Bible is a sustained account of God’s disinterest in glory. It’s the story of a God who desires above all to be in a loving relationship with His people and God’s willingness to do anything to make that happen, including abandoning all sense of glory even to that point of death on a cross.

But perhaps the most ironic point in your emphasis on glory is that in your attempt to glorify God you destroy that very glory through your understanding of divine sovereignty and election. For if God ordains murder, rape, and abuse, while creating some people – maybe most people – for eternal torment, then that God is not worthy of glory. Period.

Now, I know your followers today will tell me I’m “misreading” you and don’t understand what you’re “really” trying to say. I heard a lot of that this semester as we tried to reconcile the words on the page with their practical implications. But this letter isn’t about the 450 years of interpretation and reinterpretation that have followed in your wake. I’m responding to the words you yourself wrote. And, for me, what you wrote was far too often abhorrent.

And can I tell you something else, John? I don’t think your followers today are nearly as comfortable with your theology as you are. At least, not a lot of them. Don’t get me wrong. You’re on an incredibly high pedestal for them, but time and time again I see them jumping through hoops and doing mental gymnastics to avoid or at least soften the very clear claims you’re making. And I see others rejecting out of hand some of the things you said, while trying to hold on to the rest.

But I get that. We all want to defend our heroes. The bigger issue I have, John, is that you have a tendency (cause I’ll be the first to admit they’re not all like this) to create incredibly arrogant and sometimes hateful followers who are just a cold, calculating, and callous in their theology and selective in their use of scripture as you are. Just like you, too many of your prominent followers today denounce their critics as heretics while praising God for a whole host of evil things that happen in the world from earthquakes and tornadoes to the marginalization, oppression, and destruction of people made in the image of God.

John, I don’t know how to say it any other way – you’ve got a bad habit of making disciples that aren’t very christlike in their love, mercy, compassion, and grace towards others.

Now, I know if you were still around to respond, you would probably tell me like you did so many of your opponents, that I’m “virulent dog” (3.23.2) or maybe a satellite of Satan (3.17.1) because in my “rebellious spirit” (3.21.4) I have the audacity to question your understanding of God, God’s sovereignty, and election which I should never do (3.21.1-2) because by doing so I ”assail the justice of God.” (3.21.7)

Maybe you’re right.

Maybe I am an agent of Satan lost in my own heresy and sin and I just don’t realize it.

But John, I don’t think I am. Like the millions of Christians that came before you and billions that have come after, I believe in a God who confronts sin with grace, defeats evil with love, and offers redemption to all.

Which is why, John, it’s not going to work out between the two of us.

Maybe when I see you in heaven and we both see things a bit clearer, we can try this relationship thing again.

But for now, I think you would agree, we need to go our separate ways.

It’s what’s best for the both of us.

 

Grace and Peace,

Zack Hunt

 

Here follows my answer.
This is truly a wonderful post which expresses what many people think silently.

My first experiences with Calvinists (link) were kind of traumatic. There is one thing I didn’t mention in the above link: I also read a German reformed pastor stating that Hitler was God’s tool for punishing the Jewish people for having rejecting His son (forgetting to mention they rejected Him because God Himself predetermined it) and that this should be a strong reason for us to warn this sinful world, because God is going to do something far worse at the end of times.

holocaust

I (try to) love my Calvinists as fellow human beings, but I cannot view consistent ones as my fellow believers because they worship an evil demon they call God.

They uphold their belief system by resorting to countless fallacies and absurdities, and if you expose their errors, they will inevitably quote:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.9 “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55.8)

But there is a big irony here. Reading the verse in its immediate context shows it is all about reconciliation, that God invites all evildoers to give up their wicked ways and come back to Him. This verse seems rather to indicate that God is much more loving, much more forgiving than any man can be and even than any man could ever imagine to be.
For reformed theologians, this verse means than God is probably more vicious than the worst criminal who has ever lived.

They say that people deserve to be eternally tortured because they constantly commit misdeeds. But they almost never mention (at least in public) that:

1) God predetermined the fall of Adam and Eve and cursed us with a sinful nature (link)

2) God predetermined every one of our evil actions (link)

calvinistfreewill

The most crazy aspect is that God does all these things for SHOWING OFF His glory by pouring off his unquenchable wrath on those who were not elected before their birth .

Consistent Calvinism is a horrendous blasphemy and a very sophisticated form of devil’s worship . I’m sorry but I cannot be honest to God without putting it this way. I don’t find it pleasant at all to have to say this, and it is my hope that these people will moderate their views in such a way I’ll no longer have to see them in that manner. I don’t like conflicts for the own sake of feeling right and would largely prefer to peacefully coexist with them, were their mistakes not so egregious.

calvinistgod

I don’t seek communion with (consistent) Calvinists, only confrontation but always in a spirit of love (at least that’s what I’m aiming at), reminding myself that they are valuable, wonderful creatures, their horrible ideas notwithstanding.

Finally, you say that Calvinists misinterpret many Biblical verses. I agree that it’s the case, but for honesty’s sake we should recognize that the Bible itself also contains odious stuff (link), such as praying God to dash the children of one’s foes to the ground.
The Bible (along books of C.S. Lewis, Ellen White, John Wesley…) contains the human experiences of people with God, perhaps even the reports of genuine miracles but a careful and intellectually honest study of its content and context forbids us to view it as the voice of the Almighty directly talking down to us.

Unlike the opinion of militant atheists (link), you can find lots of wonderful things within its pages (when properly interpreted in their historical and cultural context) but unlike the convictions of Conservative Evangelicals, it also encompasses heinous things (link).
The basis of our theology cannot be a composite document speaking with conflicting voices but God’s perfect love and justice (as exemplified in Christ), which is necessarily far greater than that of the best (purely) human being having ever lived.

 

Edit: I’ve been harshly criticized for having said that consistent Calvinists worship an evil demon. Should I perhaps not become more moderate and consider them as Christians who are really wrong in some respects? The fact is: I don’t know and my views will perhaps evolve in the future. I don’t hate these folks and would be glad to view them as siblings in Christ. But (at least in the cases mentioned in this post and in the links) it seems really hard.

 

 

On hell and a psychopatic mindset

Progressive Evangelical theologian Randaul Rauser wrote a new amazing post about the problem of hell (understood as a never-ending torture).

BildI agree with anti-theist Richard Dawkins that terrorizing small kids with this is a form of child abuse and that this damnable doctrine ought to be jettisoned.

Bild

Randal wrote

 

In my recent interview with Robin Parry on universalism, Robin observed that Christians should want universalism to be true. Indeed, he put the point rather provocatively when he declared, “You’d have to be a psychopath not to want [universalism] to be true.”

Psychopath?! Them’s fightin’ words!

That might seem like a daring statement, but as Parry notes, even conservative Calvinist philosopher Paul Helm agrees that Christians should want universalism to be true. Indeed, J.I. Packer makes a similar point when he observes: ”If you want to see folk damned, there is something wrong with you!” (Revelations of the Cross (Hendrickson, 1998), 163).

So we are left with a situation in which proper Christian character requires that we hope universalism is true even as we are to believe it isn’t.

Next, Robin addresses the underlying tension between the doctrine of eternal conscious torment and Christian “moral character formation”. He explains:

“Someone said to me, ‘Oh, I believe that hell is tormenting people forever. I don’t have a problem with that. And I think, when you first come across this view, if you’re an ordinary human being, you would have a problem with that unless there’s something really wrong with you, something seriously in terms of your moral compass. So then you have a theological system where you have to try and desensitize yourself to this. And there is a real problem of a theological system that actually, rather than cultivating virtue in your attitudes and so on, cultivates attitudes that are actually vicious.”

As Parry points out here, eternal conscious torment presents a serious problem, for the Christian determined to move beyond the pained contortions of cognitive dissonance and to a real embrace of the doctrine is required to adopt attitudes toward some of God’s creatures that are, as Parry says, “actually vicious”. To be sure, the individual may not know who the reprobate are, but they do know that a subset of God’s creatures will be subject to eternal torments even as the elect experience maximal joy in a restored creation. Consequently, they should seek to inculcate in themselves attitudes that are in conformity with God’s, including a satisfaction in the horrifying future of the reprobate. It does indeed seem that the only alternatives at this point are extreme cognitive dissonance or vicious attitudes that are indeed inimical to the cultivation of true Christian character.

Parry is not suggesting that advocates of eternal conscious torment are vicious. But he is claiming that consistently embracing eternal conscious torment as the fate for the reprobate requires the cultivation of attitudes that are vicious. Think, by analogy, of the meat eater overcome with compassion when witnessing the horrors of the slaughterhouse. But rather than resolve not to eat meat, he resolves to harden his emotions against the terrible fate of industrial livestock. Likewise, the Christian overcome with compassion or immobilized in anguish for the eternally damned either lives in cognitive dissonance or seeks to inculcate vicious attitudes whilst cauterizing his compassion and embracing the divine plan of never-ending torment for the reprobate.

Is there a way to proceed in the interpretation of scripture and theological reflection which can help us avoid this impossible choice between cognitive dissonance and moral disassembly? Shouldn’t right doctrine seamlessly interweave with right character formation?

Eric Seibert believes so and he offers a way forward with a hermeneutical principle to guide theological reflection. (For more on Seibert see my audio podcast interview here and my print blog interview here). Seibert’s proposal has a decent lineage: St. Augustine. He begins by quoting the great Church Father:

“Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this two-fold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.”

Seibert then fills out Augustine’s principle:

“Whenever we read and interpret the Bible, we should always be asking whether our interpretation increases our love for God and others.” (The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy (Fortress Press, 2012), 66-67).

The position offers at least the beginning of a resolution to the problem. Whenever we encounter a doctrine or a reading of a biblical passage, we must ask of it, does that doctrine or reading increase our love for God and neighbor? If one concludes that it does neither, and indeed does the opposite, we have a reason to reject it. Consequently, the extent to which one believes eternal conscious torment leaves one in the hinterland between cognitive dissonance and the inculcation of vicious attitudes, to that extent one has reasonable grounds to reject the doctrine.

 

Here was my response.

 

Hello Randal, thanks for this new amazing post of yours.

I find it amazing that even hardcore Calvinists such as Paul Helm grant the point that nobody should WANT eternal conscious torment to be true.
This logically entails that they are themselves morally superior to the god they profess to worship.

 

That said, I think that Robin Parry confronts us with a false dichotomy .

Either we believe that people are going to be tortured forever for sins they could not have avoided (having been cursed with a sinful nature).
Or we believe that all of them will inherit eternal bliss.

But there is another alternative, namely that:

1) God did NOT curse us with a sinful nature (the authors of Genesis agree with me on that one).

2) God will grant eternal life to everyone truly desiring Him and there will be lots of conversions beyond the grave (inclusivism).

3) Those not desiring God won’t suffer forever but they will be no more.

Given that, I don’t even feel a need to hope that universalism is true.
I don’t feel a need to hope that Hitler, Fred Phelps or Bin Laden won’t return to dust.

Interestingly enough, many secular European folks told me that if there were a good God, they would not be shocked at all if He were to act in the way I have just outlined.