Thursday, October 22, 2009

Something I Have Noticed

It has been said there are two things one should never tamper with: a man’s religion, and his politics. He will get upset in either case. I know this is true, and it’s true of myself as well. Sometimes it doesn’t matter whether we are right or wrong; we just don’t want anybody trying to foist a different way of thinking on us.

What does puzzle me a little bit, though, is why people will sometimes fight for a certain view of Scripture even when it is not in their favor to do so. Though I don’t remember the particular theological issue that was in question, a certain preacher once said of his own denomination, “Yes, they’d rather give up Jesus than change their thinking on…” (whatever the issue was). Unfortunately, that could be true of many of us. Of course we’ve all heard the old adage: a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.

In fact, sometimes people are so touchy about their pet doctrines that they will get upset if they even think you are challenging it. If someone has written something that seems to question their own views on a certain issue, they get upset before they even know for sure what the writer is saying.

For example, I once wrote a short article in which I was raising some questions about the traditional doctrine of hell. In actuality what I was doing was just “thinking out loud,” as the saying goes. I had not formed a hard and fast opinion on the view I was suggesting. I suggested that hell might not be “eternal” in the way that we have traditionally viewed it. I have since concluded that it is definitely eternal, but again, it might not be exactly the kind of place we usually think it is. One church, though, with no room in their minds for any kind of tampering with the flesh-roasting-in-the-flames view of hell, actually cut off my support because I “don’t believe in hell”—so they said. I guess they had never read C.S. Lewis, who also would question the literal “roasting” view.

The Bible was written by people with a Semitic mind. The famous theologian Karl Barth suggested that we cannot hope to understand the Bible unless we, to some extent, develop a Semitic way of thinking. I believe this is true. And yet we Westerners, with Aristotelian logic and other non-Semitic elements in our mentality, will sometimes become adamant—and even belligerent—about a doctrine we believe we understand better than anyone else.

I didn’t really set out here to write an essay on hell; I merely wanted to use the doctrine of “hell” as an example of doctrines that people are very touchy about, even though it is a doctrine that definitely does not work in favor of any of us. The reason people can be so glib—but also touchy—about hell is that they are pretty sure they are not going there. And yet C.S. Lewis cautioned: “Hell is not about the other man; it’s about you.” At the same time, he suggested such "heretical" ideas as the idea that, to some extent, it is not God, but we ourselves who put ourselves in hell. He also suggested that hell is locked from the inside, not the outside, implying that if the inhabitants of hell really wanted to get out, they could. He also noted that as we go on life’s journey, if we are not allowing ourselves to be transformed by Christ into better men and women, we will eventually deteriorate to the place where it is only a shell (of our former selves) that is cast into hell.

So maybe none of us has the last word on hell? Maybe it deserves some more thought?

But I can see and hear it already: someone is shaking his or her head. “Another good man has gone over to liberalism. The next thing you know he’ll be questioning heaven, and then after that God Himself.”

I don’t think so, friends.

Another thing people are touchy about is the idea of “works” as a basis for salvation. Again, as I said in a previous blog, there are Christian groups, including the Roman Catholic, who believe that we are saved partly on the basis of our good works. This despite the fact that Paul says clearly that our salvation is of grace, through faith, and that it is not of works (Ephesians 2:9). The whole essay in Romans about how and why the Jewish people failed to obtain the righteousness of God centers around the fact that they sought to accomplish it through works, rather than through faith (cf. Romans 10, whole chapter).

Yet many people want to work for their salvation. They get all hot and bothered if they hear you saying you don’t need to “work” for Jesus. (They don’t wait to hear the rest of the argument—that if you are truly saved, you will want to work for Jesus, and no one will have to coax you to do so!)

We can’t obtain salvation through works, simply because, as Isaiah makes clear, all of our good works are as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). Furthermore, it is a slur on the all-sufficient sacrifice of Christ if we say that we need to add works to our faith in Him in order to be saved. Yes, good works are important, but, again, they are a result of salvation, not a condition for it!

I guess the whole point of this short blog is to urge Christians to think. Think, think, and re-think. I know it’s uncomfortable to re-think our theology. “You mean I’ve been wrong all these years? Oh, no…” But I’m not accusing anyone of being wrong in these essays. I merely want to suggest that there might be another way of looking at the subject. (They might also tell me I need to think, think, and re-think. Actually that's what I'm trying to do.)

I get uncomfortable too when I perceive that something might be different from the way I traditionally thought. For example, I always thought Jesus was meek and mild and always loving. In fact, my sensitive personality requires that Jesus be mild. But guess what. When I went to Israel I discovered that sometimes Jesus acts rather—well, Israeli in his behavior toward others.

But that’s another subject. He’s still loving, and best of all He still loves me—and you. With that confidence we can be at peace...while we are thinking out some of the issues.

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