Monday, August 20, 2012

Believing Your Way Into Heaven: Depends On Who You Ask

"It is fascinating to see the standards that religious systems through the ages have imposed on believers as necessary for the people to meet before they can pass through the doorway into a promised eternity. The idea that creedal adherence alone opens the door to eternal life is still present in religious circles today, though it is not nearly as overt as it was just a century ago. In evangelical church circles eternity is reserved for those who have a "personal relationship with the Lord Jesus as saviour." Does that rule out, as it seems to do, those who have never heard the name of Jesus? In Roman Catholic circles, heaven is reserved for those obedient to and formed by the faith of the "one true church." Is heaven thus limited to the Catholic faithful? In the more overtly imperialistic and darker days of Catholic history, part of the conversion pressure was the assertion that Jews, Protestants, Unitarians, heretics (note: I LOVE how the author puts the Unitarians and heretics together) and those who profess other religions would not be present in heaven. They did not pass the "faith test." The "saved" were a specifically finite number. Aggressive and even hostile conversion tactics were not only encouraged, but were regarded as both loving and acceptable. "We are adopting these tactics," the pious would say, "because our love for these people and their souls compels us to seek by whatever means are available to enroll them in the only faith that guarantees them life with God after death." A professor of mine, Robert O. Kevin, once observed that he could deal with his friends and even with his sworn enemies, but he had great difficulty dealing with those who convinced themselves that the dreadful things they were saying and doing to him were really being done for "his own good." Heaven as a place of reward for proper believing and hell as a place of punishment for improper or false believing are concepts which have lost almost all of their credibility in the marketplace of contemporary ideas. They continue to exist, however, in the shrinking ghettos of "true believers." Eternal life, if it exists, surely cannot really be about these things."
~ Bishop John Shelby Spong, "Eternal Life: A New Vision" 
I was one of those evangelicals who was taught that if I believed in Jesus as my personal Lord and Saviour, then I had a ticket to heaven. Thus, I accepted Jesus "into my heart" when I was 7 years of age. I thought that Catholics were going to Hell, and wasn't sure about the mainline Christians - the Uniteds, the Presbyterians, the Anglicans. Of course Jews or Muslims or Buddhists were going straight to Hell after they died, where they would burn in the inexhaustible lake of fire.

I am now what Bishop Spong calls a "believer in exile" or part of the "church alumni association." I have been for over a decade now, and currently I attend a Unitarian congregation. And I agree wholeheartedly with his professor who said that it is much easier to deal with friends or sworn enemies than it is with those (and for me they are evangelical Christians) who say or do things because they absolutely know what is best for my soul.  In this regard I have been belittled and attacked and of course prayed for. I am only glad that there are visionaries like Spong to lead the way to a more reasonable faith.

Mark Andrew Alward


Sam Dlugokecki said...

If any Christ centred group, denomination, etc. preaches that faith in believers is truth (whether it takes the form of agreeing with the majority, or with what the particular church hierarchy states) they are teaching false doctrine. There's no compromise from a Biblical perspective; this is simply the reality.

There is little that is more dangerous spiritually than taking Biblical truth out of context for personal gain. Not only does this enable the individual to backslide spiritually, but it also can lead to major consequences affecting logic, reason, and most significantly, emotion.

It's for these reasons that the Crusades, imagined by power hungry officials of authority in the day, happened, and were so widely accepted within the population. It was deception under the guise of Christianity. It's unfortunate (to say the least) that doctrinal ignorance is still very prevalent in the body--though I do believe that the up and coming generation is starting to read more carefully, and be led by the spirit, and not by mankinds expectations and traditions. It will take time...but I believe it will happen.

In regards to how Christians may differ on how this life leads to the next, one only needs to read John 14:6 to know what the Bible says about it. If there are specific traditions that arise from denomination to denomination, I personally believe it to be pretty irrelevant. God loves them either way. If the hearts in the right place, God knows this better than we as man ever could even conceive.

It's a good question to ask though for those who have not heard about Jesus in their lifetime, of course. My faith leads me to believe that not only is God aware of these people (for instance those who may be heavily isolated from 'civilized' culture), but is, in fact, urging His people to answer the calls He has for these others. It takes a strong faith to believe that God has plans beyond anything that has been conceived before in your mind...but I believe this to be truth. The Bible is full of stories of people who followed His will solely, and those who chose to ignore His will, and where it led them. There is a heavy contrast between these two categories of stories, and I find it extremely inspiring. Finally, if someone isn't reached (and let's not pretend this doesn't happen), God knows their heart better than anyone. And it is not our job as Christians to dictate whether that individual met death or life at the end of this life. Only God knows the answer to that, and only He should. Let's instead, remain hopeful of a revelation brought to the person before they passed away.

Mark Andrew said...

Hey Sam, Thanks for getting back to me; sorry that it's taken me a week to reply.

As far as John 14:6 goes, there are many interpretations of this. Some scholars doubt that Jesus even uttered such words, and many more believe that when he said "I am the Way" and "No one comes to the Father but by me" Jesus was meaning that one must become like him in order to gain entrance into the kingdom. Therefore someone who acted very Christlike, with compassion, non-violence, kindness, love, such as Ghandi, could enter the kingdom even though they didn't profess Jesus as Saviour. I tend to believe this interpretation.

You also wrote, in regards to people out in the boonies who may not have heard of Jesus: "if someone isn't reached (and let's not pretend this doesn't happen), God knows their heart better than anyone. And it is not our job as Christians to dictate whether that individual met death or life at the end of this life." I find this intriguing, as many Christians have no problem dictating where other people are going to spend eternity. Does this exception only apply to those out in the sticks?

Intriguing. Let's chat over coffee soon.

Mark Andrew