Thursday, April 14, 2011

Today's Poke-a-Stick-in-Your-Eye Theological Question

There's a new book out that's causing a lot of controversy.  I love those.  It's called Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.  The author is Michigan pastor Rob Bell, who has written extensively about Christianity in the modern world. 

Now, any time the words "modern" and "Christianity" appear together, some people are bound to get offended.  They mostly are the same people who believe that a God who is all-powerful and all-knowing somehow failed to foresee that the world He created might undergo change between AD 33 and the present day.  (I was going to say "might evolve," but let's not even go there.)

Hey, this thing makes it easy!
Suffice it to say, the book has gotten Bell in a lot of trouble with some Christians.  I'm not going to call them the nutty holly rollers, but if you wanted to I would certainly defend your right to do so.  The bone of contention for these pious folks is Bell's central theme, which is:  Does it make sense that only people who accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior go to heaven, and everyone else, regardless of their worthiness, goes to hell? 

The Christian party line is: damn straight, bucko.  There's one door to heaven, and it runs through Jesus' heart.  You can be a rapist, a murderer, a hypocrite, a wanton destroyer of God's commandments; as long as you show St. Peter your "I Love Jesus" card, he lifts the velvet rope to eternal salvation.  But if you're a Hindu who builds orphanages, a Buddhist who feeds the hungry, or an agnostic who brings medicine to impoverished nations, your foul heathen ass is slated for roasting on Satan's campfire.  And Bell has gotten a lot of flak for questioning whether that theology is as sound as some of us think it is.

As you might guess, I'm not exactly on the side of the exclusionists.  Bell's posed a great question, I think.  On the one hand, you've got a God of mercy, of love, of righteousness.  If you're inclined to believe in Him, it follows that you believe He created everything and everybody, even people who don't believe in Him.  Oh, and he's omnipotent, so He easily could force us to all be Christians (or Muslims, or Jews, or whatever the One True Faith turns out to be).  But instead He imbued us all with free will, so that like spoiled children we could turn around and thank Him for creating us by mocking His values and spurning His love and never calling on Sundays like the Millers' children do. God feels your pain, parents.

When kids here on Earth act that way, most parents tend to be patient and long-suffering, or angry and hurt, but above all, forgiving.  In extreme cases, the wealthy may disinherit wayward children who don't follow their wishes.  But cutting off Muffy and Buffy from the family fortune strikes me as reflecting more on the parents than on the kids.  And I have a hard believing that God would cast as many as three-quarters of His beneficiaries into the fiery pits of hell just because they choose not to go into the family business, so to speak.  Seems pretty spiteful, even for a blueblood.

God's sense of humor is more ironic than mean-spirited.
On the other hand, a strict, conservative reading of the Bible suggests just that.  And you don't want to mess with strict, conservative Christians on the matter.  My Beloved Spouse once was fired from a teaching job at a "Christian" college for suggesting to his students that following Jesus' teachings was probably a pretty good way to get into heaven.  He was told in no uncertain terms that there is nothing you can do, apart from acceptingjesuschristasyourlordandsavior (which always seems to be spoken as one word in these situations), to get into heaven.  I would think that acceptingjesuschristasyourlordandsavior and actually practicing what he preached are somehow related.  But what do I know?  I'm just a Catholic, and I don't even see eye to eye with my own Church all the time, let alone the überevangelists who are probably still cheesed off about the whole indulgences deal.

And I'm not so good with multiple-choice questions, either.
Give me a tolerant pagan over a Christian with a stick up his ass any time. 

But getting back to Bell's question - does the traditional view of Christian heaven and hell make sense? - I admit that I'm playing devil's advocate, you should pardon the pun.  Because the answer ultimately is academic.  As with most religious debates, people's reactions to the question are more telling than the actual beliefs they advocate.  I'm willing to respect the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for his allegiance to the acceptingjesuschristasyourlordandsavior doctrine.  But when he calls Bell's ideas "theologically disastrous," "subversive," and "a tragedy," I start to wonder if he's really all that interested in the scales falling from our eyes if he can't dictate what it is we see. 

I say:  Debate my faith.  Challenge my beliefs.  Hell, call me names if you want.  I may be wrong.  I'm wrong about a lot of things.  If I'm going to be wrong about God, I'm going to err on the side of His being a good guy who loves all His peeps, even if we're complete slackers.  If you presume to know (not believe, but know) differently, then I think I'll stand over there where the lightning can't strike me.  Last I heard, pride was one of the Seven Deadly Sins.  Curiosity was not.

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