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