Tag Archives: belief

Follow-Up to “Do You Have to Believe in Hell and Angels…?”

This is a brief follow-up to last week’s post “Do people have to believe in hell and angels before they can follow Jesus?” I’ve been thinking a lot about the questions I raised in that post, and had a few good conversations with Christian friends about it. My overall feeling after much consideration and thought is this: it is surely much better to remain agnostic concerning the supernatural than it is to doubt (or forfeit) values like compassion and mercy. This is particularly true given that the church has often erred in the opposite direction, certain about details of the afterlife and apocalyptic schedules but cautious and dubious about grace and inclusion. And after all, one of the major revelations of the New Testament is that God accepts all those who “do His will” regardless of who they are and what they believe (Acts 10:34-35).

But there is a big “gotcha” in this discussion, one which I didn’t address in the original post. That is the question of the resurrection. Isn’t it necessary that one must believe in the miracle of the resurrection to be a Christian who is “right with God”? This seems to be a juncture where belief in the supernatural becomes absolutely bundled up with Christianity. And here’s the thing: in no way do I wish to sidestep or deny the centrality of the resurrection to our faith. This is the heart and soul of what we believe! However, the fact that this comes before us as a divisive question about faith versus skepticism, belief versus exclusion, indicates just how far we’ve strayed from the essence of the gospel, and how hard we’ve worked to separate the ethos of Jesus from the pathos of his story.

A major misstep by both sides of the “religion vs. science” debates is this violent division between the sacred and the mundane, between the miracle and the message. The traditional camp has been all too happy to distinguish the miracles and passion of Jesus from his life and ethics, and to emphasize the former at the cost of the latter. Skeptics then engage them at their point of emphasis, and the central issue becomes whether or not modern/postmodern people can bring themselves to believe in these sorts of claims anymore. But without their original narrative contexts and resonance, without the story, miraculous and supernatural claims are just arbitrary and kind of empty. If you believe them, you are in. If you don’t, you are out. But what does it benefit one’s character or the world around them which side of the divide they happen find themselves on?

In the story, Jesus’ miracles are not random magic tricks, they are “signs of the kingdom.” He heals human lives as a sign that peace and forgiveness have come to Israel. In the story, Jesus doesn’t die to satisfy God or become a theological hero, he is killed by a corrupt empire because influential people were unsettled by his teachings about the kingdom. In the story, Jesus isn’t resurrected as a tacked-on happy ending or so that Christians can belong to the correct religion. God raises him up in full public vindication of his prophetic message about the coming of the kingdom. There is no point in the story at which the events and claims surrounding Jesus’ life are not directly connected to his teaching about a loving God and a kingdom of peace. The story is not “these things happened and so Christianity is true,” it’s “these things happened and so grace and reconciliation and freedom and mercy are true!”

This is why I reject the rigid and literalistic belief/disbelief binary that uses supernatural claims and miracles as a litmus test for belonging to a religious tribe. We are invited into a story, and the story means something. You can choose to believe every detail in the narrative with all of your heart without ever being affected or transformed by their meaning. Or, you might find yourself struggling with the details of the story but gobsmacked by their implications. You might find yourself drawn into hope and discovery and illumination, even though you’re not sure what you believe. If we embrace the miracles but not the meaning, we’re no better off than we were. But if we embrace the meaning, the miracles are not far off. 


Do People Need to Believe in Hell and Angels Before They Can Follow Jesus?

This is a serious question, though my concern is that it will be seriously misunderstood. Stick with me, please.

It has been a basic assumption of western Christianity that evangelization begins with informing “unsaved” people of their imperiled status within a certain cosmology; there is heaven, there is hell, you are headed in one direction and need a boost in the other. After all, people have to understand the problem before they can accept the solution, right? But today, few people hold to the ancient worldview that simply took for granted certain segmentations of earth and sky, heavens and underworld, and the hosts of spiritual beings which inhabit them. As a result, there is a major disconnect between those who would package the gospel of Jesus along with the ancient cosmology of the biblical world and those marked for evangelization who passively assume a modern understanding of the universe. If people struggle to believe in (for example) heaven, hell, angels, or young-earth creationism, does this disqualify them from understanding and responding to the message and challenge of Jesus? Is Christianity primarily a willful acceptance of a particular ancient cosmology, or is it first and foremost an ethical or moral worldview?

Here’s where I don’t want to be misunderstood. I’m not raising the question of whether or not hell and angels, etc. are “real,” nor am I questioning whether or not they are significant to Christianity. These things are inescapable, indelible, and how we come to understand and engage with them is very important. My question is about the heart and essence of Christianity, not about faith vs. science. I’m not asking if we, as Christians, really need to bother with all of that supernatural stuff anymore, I’m asking whether or not this ought to be a barrier or a checkpoint that prevents newcomers and outsiders from understanding and knowing Jesus as prophet, teacher, and lord.

Consider: Jesus was a prophet of peace and grace in the religious world of first century Second Temple Judaism. From within that matrix, using its assumptions and language, he announced a gospel of repentance, empathy, and forgiveness. He wasn’t on a mission to convince anyone that God or angels or hades existed – granted, he didn’t need to! Indeed, everyone he encountered already assumed the cosmology of their day. This is part of my point, that Jesus didn’t propose a new set of religious beliefs to his listeners, but he DID subvert and challenge the implicit meanings and presumptions of their common beliefs. He didn’t have to convince anyone that there was a God in heaven. But he did go against the grain and insist that God was a loving and endlessly forgiving Father, not a space tyrant who inflicts sickness and calamity to punish sinners. He didn’t build an apologetic case for the reality of hell and judgment. But he did step on many toes by teaching that judgment is universal and based on charity and personal integrity rather than class or religion. Rather than teaching people that they must assent to certain religious propositions or supernatural claims in order to be saved, Jesus was, in a sense, “unteaching” certain bad and pervasive religious ideas, and inviting his listeners on a path of open hearted trust and faith – faith in himself and in a way of life.  

Back to our question: Is it conceivable that this heart and ethos of Jesus – this trust in grace and “the things that make for peace” – might transcend issues of cosmology and religion and find an expression that resonates with our twenty-first century worldview, even as it surely subverts and challenges it? It is possible that this gospel might ignite imaginations and win hearts whether or not they have also embraced a first century understanding of the universe? Do not violence and sin and exploitation and self-interest and retribution pose the same threat today that they did then? By trying so obtusely to change what someone else believes about the sky or the planet or the future or the afterlife, do we not risk obscuring or stifling the voice of the prophet calling us all to love God by loving each other?

Again, I am not advocating that we dismiss or forsake the unique religious, supernatural, or apocalyptic trappings of the Christian tradition. I have not rejected them, even as I often struggle to understand and engage them in fruitful ways.* Anyone who is drawn to Jesus will be invited into this strange and sacred world. But to make these things intellectual prerequisites to faith and inclusion seems absurd and counterproductive. Instead of simply speaking the truth about love and peace, we are obsessed and pedantic about the precise language in which it must be communicated. And while we are so busy rehearsing and reconstructing an ancient mindset, our neighbors are outside starving and homeless. If the only hope for humankind is that everyone might intentionally adapt an ancient understanding of the material universe, then our future looks pretty bleak.

But consider these observations about the earliest Christians:

Ancient Christians were known for being nonviolent, not for arguing about creationism.

Ancient Christians were known for their brotherly and sisterly love, not for believing in hell more intensely than everyone else.

Ancient Christians were known for charity and service to the poor and outcast, not for being the most religious people around.

In fact, ancient Christians’ apparent emphasis of charity and fellowship over ritual and sacrifice, along with their regard for only a single deity, resulted in them being labeled “atheists” by some of their pagan observers.

And I suppose this gets to the heart of what I’m clumsily suggesting here: Throughout history, Christians at their best have been identified as people who believe in transcendent things like repentance, peace, compassion, and forgiveness, not religious or cosmological ideas like creation, hell, or angels. There are elegant and productive ways of talking about those things, but they should not be in the forefront of our mission and message if they will distract from the gospel. Our world needs “the things that make for peace” more than ever.

For my part, from now on, when someone asks me if I “believe in hell,” my stock answer will be “no, I believe in Jesus!”

* I should note for the sake of disclosure that I do reject doctrines of “young earth creation” and “rapture,” both of which I understand to be aberrations built on the misapplication of Bible texts. For more about my views on hell and angels and such, see posts like these


Is Biblicism Gnostic?

Modern Christians know that there were “false” versions of the faith from its earliest days. In reality, there were multiple Christian streams and traditions before an orthodoxy began to emerge. Some of the earliest believers designated as “heretics” were groups of Gnostic Christians. Unfortunately, most of what we know of these groups has to be reconstructed from what their orthodox critics wrote about them, so we can’t be certain that their beliefs have been properly represented. Gnostics apparently believed in a dual reality, a sharp separation between the world of matter and the world of spirit, which certain people could upwardly traverse if they possessed the proper knowledge (Greek gnosis). Special sorts of humans (not just anyone) could learn secret truths and by knowing them transcend their fleshly bodies.

Christian apologists today are well rehearsed in criticism of Gnosticism. It is not focused on sin or atonement, it diverges from the apostolic tradition, and it attempts to reconfigure the story and message of Jesus according to its own agenda. When Gnostic Gospel texts were discovered and published in the twentieth century, conservative Christianity quickly mobilized to “debunk” and dismiss them. But when I step back and look at modern conservative Christianity, particularly the fundamentalist and biblicist streams, I see a faith that frankly shares a great deal in common with that old Gnosticism.

I recently read an intensely biblicist article on Facebook. It celebrated the Bible as “revealing special knowledge” not available anywhere else, without which one cannot hope to “see heaven” when they die. God “sent us” this book, and if we want to know the saving truth, all we have to do is read and believe it. Now, as a Christian myself and a student of scripture, I fully recognize the unique value of the Bible to those who wish to follow Jesus. But the biblicist approach seems to me to be deeply Gnostic, for a few obvious reasons: 1) It assumes a dualistic universe; we live in doomed flesh and the point of religion and salvation is to transcend our fate and attain a higher plane of spiritual existence. 2) Information that was once secret has been made known in the Bible and is the key to unlocking salvation and transcendence. And 3) only certain (elect) people are even eligible to receive this special knowledge; many will never know or believe because that’s just how the universe is set up.

Again, I do not deny that the Bible is especially valuable for the way it puts the church in touch with the earliest traditions about Jesus and the ancient context from which he emerged. But celebrating a book as the key which unlocks enlightenment and heaven seems like a huge mistake – and a new sort of Christian Gnosticism. Instead of appreciating the scriptures as a witness to Jesus whom we may choose to follow on a path of thoughtful spirituality, the Bible itself becomes the magical gnosis which affords its true believers salvation and escape.

What is the antidote to gnostic faith? Isn’t all religion “gnostic” to some degree? Doesn’t every faith offer “special knowledge” that gets the believer on the inside? The answer is often yes, though it really boils down to the way we choose to understand and embrace our faith. Here are a few suggestions for keeping our Christian faith from going gnostic:

  • Remember that “the way” of Jesus is a lifelong journey of humility, learning, and repentance, not a magic transaction that places us on a superior plane of existence.
  • Remember that our tradition has traversed many borders of culture, language, race, and class. We are not an exclusive or privileged group.
  • Remember that many in our tribe can profess belief and understanding without ever demonstrating empathy or mercy, while many outside of our tribe have discovered the path of peace and forgiveness without our same knowledge or resources. Belief does not automatically translate into enlightenment.
  • Remember that the Bible is a partner and helper, a story told by our forebearers, and not a magic fount of secret knowledge.

There is no shortcut to wisdom or character, no fastpass to peace and salvation. There is only a life to be lived in either relationship and discovery, or alienation and fear. Knowledge is only a first step.


The Narrow Path

While some teachings of Jesus are overlooked or obscured, others get used so often out-of-context that they take on a mutated meaning. In Matthew 7 (again), Jesus says:

13 Enter by the narrow gate. For the way is wide and easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

In American Christianity, these verses are too often read through a prism of exclusivity and right belief. Groups obsessed with doctrinal certainty and cultural supremacy find in Jesus’ words an endorsement of their own agenda and a condemnation of all outsiders. I have seen these verses used to shut down young Christians with questions about the narrow beliefs of their particular church tradition. “Jesus told us that the way would be narrow, and that only a few of us would be saved!”

This way of thinking can bolster unhealthy certainty in abstract beliefs and poison the way believers perceive and interact with the world outside their church. It’s us (the redeemed, the faithful remnant) versus them (the unbelieving hordes). And for many American denominations, “them” does not consist merely of non-Christians, but also of the millions of Christians who do not profess the same configuration of belief that we do. Extremely narrow is the way, our way.

In context, however, Jesus’ words are not about religious belief, church, or exclusivity. They come at the end of Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount,” a collection of ethical teachings given by Jesus to his students and a crowd of their Jewish neighbors. Having just described an ethically ideal worldview (and alternate reality) he calls the “kingdom of God,” Jesus issues a challenge and a warning: Not everyone will choose this narrow way of humility, empathy, and peace! In fact, most will hold to their course of violence, greed, and selfish living. One way leads to life, the other to self-destruction. It was a typically didactic (and Jewish) assessment of humanity’s dilemma, not a threat that God would only choose to favor a lucky select few. It aptly described the religious climate Jesus observed in his own moment, and it still hits home today.

The “narrow path” of Jesus doesn’t conform to the boundaries of religion or doctrine, in fact it cuts through all segments of humanity. Consider also Jesus’ parables of judgment (eg. Matthew 25:31-46). In the end, says Jesus, people from all nations and tribes are judged on ethical grounds, not according to how much they believed in correct religious ideas. In reality, we all know remarkable people from diverse traditions and walks of life who have chosen the narrow way, and many from our own tribe who have not.

As Christians, we “believe in Jesus,” but we must decide what this means for us. Does it mean belonging to an exclusive religious club which boasts Jesus as its mascot? Or does it mean trusting that the Way of Jesus truly does lead to life, wherever and by whomever it is embraced? Jesus did not teach and heal and die and rise so that there would be Christians, but so that humanity would be called loudly to the path that leads to life. Those who call ourselves his followers need to hear the call as much as anyone. We cannot imagine that religious affiliation or assent to doctrine places us on the narrow way.


3 Defining Aspects of My Evolving Faith

Just a quick little post today but with some big ideas. Like many Christians of roughly my age and upbringing, I have experienced in recent years what I’m tempted to call a “faith journey.” That’s a timid way of saying that my Christian identity has evolved into something radically different from what it was, and continues to change. A lot. Every day. Taking stock of these changes and discoveries, I realize that there are at least three major aspects of Christian faith that have changed profoundly for me. They are Bible, Jesus, and Faith itself. Here’s what I mean:

1. I acknowledge that our Bible consists of many human voices in conversation, often argument, and that genuine interaction with scripture will inevitably involve discerning those voices and (here’s the dangerous part) picking sides. If we learn to navigate the tribal, violent, sacrificial, exploitative, divisive rhetoric of the inspired religious minds that wrote the texts, we can encounter Jesus in his historical habitat and discover his divine beauty, all the more loud and clear for its proper context. This is how I believe our Bible can and does reveal truth about God, as often in spite of what it says as by it.

2. Jesus’ teaching is amplified by his death and resurrection, not diminished or irrelevant in light of them. The glorification/deification of Jesus represents a validation and veneration of his prophetic message, not the turning of a corner whereafter his earthly sayings are no longer as relevant or appropriate. Being God’s son, in ancient parlance, meant (at least) that one was like God. If Jesus is God’s Son, it means (at least) that God is like Jesus: meek, mild, driven by love and empathy, calling people to abundant life, exposing the emptiness and futility of human systems of sin and domination. To imagine that Jesus has abandoned his humble human vocation in order to become the Emperor of Heaven is to willingly lose sight of his own stated values and of the Kingdom of peacemakers he claimed to establish. Jesus’ divinity and supremacy are demonstrated at Easter, not in some future hostile takeover. To await his appearance (or “second coming”) is to anticipate the advent of peace and light, not doomsday.

3. True “faith” consists in trust and hope, not mere belief. In fact, faith-as-trust anticipates and acknowledges doubt. If salvation or transcendence depend on conformity of doctrinal belief, then most all of us are doomed – even (or especially) those who are consumed by theological correctness. “Faith” and “belief” in the language of the Bible refer to a living and vulnerable trust in the person Jesus, a counter-cultural hope that his Way is the way of life. We can hold a wide variety of technical beliefs about religion and the nature of everything, but faith in Jesus means that when both world and religion begin to look wrong and hopeless, we can find meaning and identity in Jesus, the one who was faithful to his own Way to the point of death, and of whom (we believe) God has made a victorious and peaceful example.

This is brief and incomplete by design, it is meant to provoke thought and invite discussion.