Thursday, March 03, 2011

Me, Gandhi, and hell

I've got a bunch of half-written posts, but instead of wrapping up any of them, I run into an attention-getter online and veer off on the Vitally Important Subject of ...

Is Gandhi in heaven or hell?

It's strange to be a nomad who ambles between the secular world and the fundamentalist Christian world. I often feel like an illegal alien in both places, but I read writers and bloggers in both. Those who don't keep up with the fundamentalist blogosphere just don't know what you're missing! .... Yeah, you probably do know, and that's why you choose to miss it, and here I come, ruining everything.

I bet that the, and i'm not being sarcastic, the absolute storm that blew up over the weekend about an upcoming book, was something many of my readers didn't hear a whisper about.

It starts with this video :

...and major writers in the Christian blogosphere, who have books out and big followings, are having this massive discussion about the theology of heaven and hell. Commenters are writing hundreds of comments, some as long as a blog entry themselves, most fairly respectful if adamant, a few quite vicious. A friend's blog sent me here.

I ended up in a wonderland of links. I learned that there is such a thing as evangelical universalism, that arguments as to whether hell exists and whether God would send anyone there aren't all -- there's the question of whether consignment to hell must be eternal, or whether it can be a place that still carries hope.

I learned who Brian McLaren is, and that traditional evangelicals think he's theologically loose and dangerous. One blogger worries that Rob Bell's theology
"not only dishonors God, his Word and his Christ, but could also be directly responsible for some passive church-going people ending up in hell."
You gotta understand, I'm not here to tell anybody which side they should be on in these issues, or even to say that there shouldn't be conflicts over them. Historically, people have been tortured or killed by the thousands over doctrinal points, so to live in an era in which people blog 20 paragraphs, and opponents blog 25 paragraphs, is a great blessing - and a huge leap forward.

It's the claim that these are salvation making-or-breaking issues that gets to me. It's the way they contradict their own belief system.

You either believe you need salvation through Christ's redemptive act, or you don't believe it. If not, then the whole issue is like one of bridge players discussing a rule. You don't play bridge, so you don't care.

The problem is that even those who do believe it seem to think that these other doctrinal points can negate that salvation. In doing that they deny their own theology. They holler "The Bible is THE Word of God!" but over pulpits or keyboards they reveal a bait-and-switch. Well, sure, Jesus said that "Whoever believes in Me" thing, but he was just giving the executive summary. You can't expect it to be that simple.

In other words, they -- not pagans and atheists, but the Bible-believers themselves -- are saying that the Born Again experience isn't the answer after all. They're giving the doctrinal point about the nature of hell unwarranted importance. Does anybody who believes Christ is The One Way also think that someone who accepts Jesus as his personal savior will get burned anyway for claiming those in hell have hope? Such a doctrine is THAT evil, and causes a full-cache dump?

John 3:16 - For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.
[TERMS AND CONDITIONS: This offer is null and void in case of doctrinal incorrectness on matters of transubstantiation, free will, predestination, wifely submission, pre-tribulation versus post-tribulation rapture, the eternity of damnation, whether praying to a saint equals worship, the male gender of God, or other clauses which may be added without notice.
[ ]yes [ ]no -I have read and agree to these terms and conditions]

Opinions on theological matters are fine. It’s the claim that this stuff is a critical salvation dealbreaker that gives me a migraine.

Either hell really exists or it doesn’t. If it does, then it’s either a changeable hopeful state, or it’s eternal. My conduct of my life has...what, exactly, to do with the answer? It falls into that “Can God make a rock so heavy he can’t move it?” category. Does it matter if i take a stand and it turns out to be the wrong one? Does it say anywhere that failing a quiz on points of doctrine would actually open the trap door and dump me in the incinerator? Why does anyone think it rises to that level of importance?

My daily battle is to live the Serenity Prayer. To try to figure out what I can’t change and what I can and should, and then to find the courage for it. Not only the courage to take risks, but to not get dis-couraged when it seems like my effort is too small to matter.

Which is why I loved this Gandhi quotation (No, I have no idea what quotation the art show incident was about) when I spied this sticker at a booth at the Burlington County NJ Farm Fair in 1999, and have kept it in sight ever since.

So I have to come out of the closet and say, I like this video. I'm interested in the book. Once I read it, I may or may not agree with it, but I've never thought humanity understood what love really was.

Our concept comes from desire and couples frolicking in the daisies and mothers refusing to believe their kid committed mass murder. We don't comprehend the fierce uncompromising cleansing love, that's fully compatible with an equally uncompromising justice. Our concept of wrath, as in God's wrath, has got to be just as corrupted by our experience of human rage and violence.

To require anybody to comprehend God - to comprehend God's love, God's wrath, or eternity itself -- is an absurd thing to ask. To say that incomplete understanding of the incomprehensible is hell-worthy would qualify as downright abusive, if such a pronouncement actually had the power to decide who burns and who doesn't.

But it doesn't, so debate away. I'm going to take some Excedrin and go look at the garden.


ronnie said...

As an atheist I have nothing to comment on your post overall, although it was a most interesting musing, but your disclaimer on John 3:16 was a genuine LOL.

Christy said...

Sorry if I started you down this rabbit hole... but it was worth it for the disclaimer. :-)

Catherine said...

The disclaimer was inspired, my dear!

I'm not fond of the "emergent church" movement, but, like you, I believe that this kind of stuff is not a salvation-breaker. Once you accept Christ's work on your behalf, it's done.

Mike said...

Having had a good launch in college towards lifelong contemplation of this stuff, I've come to two conclusions, one theological and one pragmatic:

1. Theologically, churches have painted themselves into some logical corners, much as DC Comics did with Superman. Kids would write to Superman comics and say, "If Superman is invulnerable, why isn't his hair, like, down to his feet by now?" and, instead of saying, "You're overthinking it, kid," the editors would come up with some ridiculous explanation about how he flies to a red sun planet and burns his hair with his heat vision or something, and then some other kid would write in and say, "What, with a mirror? Why doesn't his heat vision melt the mirror?" And the more they tried to come up with explanations, the more absurd the overall story became.

The church has done the same thing, answering questions for which the only real answer was "Just be cool. It'll all work out."

Or, in this case, "Don't worry about Gandhi. Put that effort into your own situation, okay?"

(And, as you note, the people who claim that all you have to do is accept Jesus don't seem to be shy about adding some footnotes to that simple formula. "Grace, not works" becomes "Grace, plus works, plus who you sleep with, plus how you dress, plus how Superman cuts his hair.")

2. Pragmatically, I find that the older I get, the less I care what happens next. My ethics are not based on a specific reward, and, if there is something, well, I guess we'll just see what living an ethical life does for you.

If there is a password and a secret handshake, then I guess I'm screwed, but I'll bet, in that case, that Gandhi will turn out to be pretty good company.

Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

ronnie - if i, as a "bridge player," can write about bridge in a way that's even slightly interesting to a non-bridge player, i can feel like it was a good day!

Christy, believe me, that rabbit hole really was an education and i'm glad to know a lot more than i did before i followed the trail.

Catherine - I read some on the emergent church and it does seem to be related to this controversy. I'm not sure they get a fair deal from their critics, but i'm equally unsure about whether the critics get a fair deal from them either. It all kind of ends up in my "we need to live honestly and do our best" basket.

Mike - A very thoughtful piece, and one of those yes-moment analogies.

FYI, the secret password will be
"Kryptonite scissors." See you there!