I have had people of various religions and denominations try to convince me that their set of doctrines are the truth and that if I don’t follow their particular philosophy then I will come to a bad end (or at least not as good an end as I could). With so many different ideologies competing for my allegiance I had to find a way to determine which of them (if any) were likely to be true. Even just within the faith I grew up in, Christianity, there were too many contradictory sets of belief that I was being asked to affirm, nearly all of which could be defended from the Bible. When nearly every competing Christian claim is able to be backed by the Bible it makes it very difficult to know which to accept so in the end I decided that I’d judge a doctrine or practice by its fruit. What does this mean? It means that I look at what believing or practicing a particular theological belief or practice tends to lead to in its followers. When a religious belief causes people outside of that particular orthodoxy to be belittled, insulted, ostracized, persecuted, fired, censored, expelled from their homes and hometowns, beaten, robbed, imprisoned, tortured, raped, or even killed in the name of that religion (all things that do happen with the approval of certain religious leaders and teachings) it makes it pretty easy to determine that this particular viewpoint isn’t at all positive and should be avoided. Also, if a religious group doesn’t allow people inside that particular orthodoxy to think for themselves, but rather insists that they let their religious leaders determine what is true for them, I know that something is fishy and that I should probably not have much to do with that particular group. If openly questioning (or even disagreeing with) a particular doctrine will get a member of a religious group in trouble then I know that this group is probably not to be trusted. And if a particular denomination insists (or even just asks) that someone do physical harm to them self or somebody else, be it some form of bodily mutilation or even suicide, run as far away from them as possible and never look back.
When it comes down to it, there are two sets of fruit that a theological paradigm tends to lead to. The first is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, meekness, and self-control. The second is fear, selfishness, peer pressure, intolerance, hostility, anti-intellectualism, arrogance, hypocrisy, and guilt. If a doctrine or practice can be demonstrated to lead to the former then it sounds like something that should be embraced. If it has been shown to lead to the latter then I would think that it should be avoided if at all possible.
Those who know me well know that I don’t believe in free will, or at least that I think it’s the biggest misnomer there is, philosophically and theologically speaking. Every person alive is a victim of their genetics and past experiences. In other words, every choice we make is predetermined by our nurture and nature. Why do you favour your right hand when I favour my left? Something in our genes or some factor in our personal development decided that for us. Why do you choose lobster while I choose steak? Because, again, some part of our DNA gives us different taste preferences, and another part, along with other life experiences, causes us to order the food we prefer (or to order the food we don’t prefer if some other gene and/or past encounter is causing us to want to try something different at that particular moment).
This lack of belief in free will is one of the reasons I believe so strongly in grace. None of us chose to be born (so far as we know) and none of us asked for the genes that shaped us or the life events that made us who we are. Even the Bible agrees that “the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but because of Him who subjected it in hope, that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (This is why I lean towards a Universalist form of Calvinism, by the way.)
In the end, whatever the causes of our choices and suffering may be, I take comfort in the fact that, as Our Lady Peace put it, We Are All Innocent (in a manner of speaking, anyway), and that this means God will help help us all out in the long run.
While I’ve been a Christian Universalist for about seven or eight years now, there was a time when I believed very strongly that non-Christians would spend eternity in hell (and did lots of street preaching to try to prevent as many people as I could from experiencing this fate). After being introduced to the doctrine of Universal Reconciliation, and after much study and soul searching, I had to admit that I was probably wrong about my belief in everlasting torment and changed my mind.
Likewise, if you were to ask me for my views on any number of other theological and philosophical issues, you’d find that my beliefs have changed in many different ways from year to year. Some people have seen this as a negative thing and criticized my theological fluidity from time to time, but, as I recently said in a post on another blog, “my opinion is that if your theological views aren’t at least slightly different from year to year then you’re not to be trusted since it shows lack of growth. There’s no way that your beliefs (I’m speaking to everyone here) are so spot-on correct that you have no need to adjust them, or even completely reject them, every so often.”
Recently, a traditionalist Christian was trying to promote his views by saying something along the lines of how we should ignore interpretations of Scripture other than those that have always been believed by the Church.
In response, I would suggest that there’s no such thing as “what has always been believed by the Church,” because there have always been Christians (members of the Church, in other words) who disagreed with the doctrines that came to be considered “orthodox.” Calling these people heretics because they believed something other than the theology that won the doctrinal wars doesn’t make them wrong, and the fact that a belief came to be considered orthodox doesn’t make it right. In fact, my theory is that the more “orthodox” a doctrine is considered to be, the more likely it is to be wrong. But would you expect anything less from a heretic like me?
Someone I know recently said that if Universalism is true then we don’t need Jesus and, since I’ve heard this statement too many times from too many traditionalists, I felt a need to give a short response to it here.
As a Christian Universalist, I like to respond to assertions like this one with a parable in the form of a news article:
At 6:00pm, Friday evening, firefighter Joshua Christos died in order to rescue all 300 children trapped in Kosmos Public School as it was burning to the ground. However, because he saved all 300 students, rather than just 2 or 3 of them, we are forced to declare that Joshua’s death didn’t actually serve any purpose even though none of the children would have been saved had he not died.
I realize that Universal Reconciliation isn’t an easy doctrine to swallow, but statements like “If Universalism is true then Jesus died in vain” make me wonder whether most traditionalists are even trying when they argue against the idea.
Believe it or not, I find that there is a little bit in Calvinism to agree with, particularly their take on free will. There are some points where we disagree, though, what with me being a Christian Universalist and all, so I thought I’d give my Universalist take on TULIP:
1. Total Mortality and Grace: Mortality has passed on to all of us, thanks to Adam’s sin, and because of that mortality, so has sin. But where sin increases, grace superexceeds, so every sin has already been taken care of, and all of humanity has already been ontologically saved (or has been saved from an absolute perspective) because Christ died for our sins, was entombed, and was roused the third day.
2. Unconditional Election: God elects to noologically save some people based upon no merit of their own (meaning He chooses to bring certain people to a knowledge of the truth of their and everyone’s already existing salvation from an absolute perspective, giving them salvation from a relative perspective, also known as eonian life, meaning immortal life during the oncoming eons).
3. Limited Noological Salvation in this Eon: Only those people God has revealed the truth of their ontological salvation to will be noologically saved during their lifetime. Everyone else has to wait until the consummation of the eons.
4. Irresistible Grace: Anyone God has elected for eonian life cannot resist noological salvation.
5. Perseverance of God: God will eschatologically save everyone by the end of the eons, although each in their own order, meaning each and every human who was made mortal because of Adam’s sin will also be resurrected and/or vivified (made immortal/brought beyond the reach of death) because of what Christ did, although not all at the same time (first the body of Christ at the snatching away, then the Israel of God at the second coming, and finally everyone else at the consummation of the eons).
This post explains the references to the three different stages of salvation (ontological, noological and eschatological), just in case you’re not familiar with them.
In my experience, really thinking over the implications and ramifications of their own doctrines doesn’t seem to be something most Christians do. Likewise, theological consistency doesn’t appear to be a virtue among most Christians either. These observations are probably made the clearest when it comes to the topic of hell. The fact that interpreting the 10 passages (really just 7, since 3 of them were simply retellings of the same quote in different synoptic Gospels) generally used to defend Everlasting Torment in hell as an actual defense of the doctrine means that, in order to be exegetically consistent, one also seems to have to believe in salvation by works appears to completely fly over the heads of those trying to use those passages.
Interestingly, traditionalist Christians will try to exegete passage after passage in order to prove that homosexuality or premarital sex or abortion is a sin, not to mention in order to prove a multitude of completely trivial doctrines, and yet you’ll have an easier time trying to kill a grizzly bear with a toothpick than you will getting a believer in Everlasting Torment to explain how those passages actually back up this particular belief. My theory is that they realize none of those passages actually even seem to imply salvation by grace through faith and not of works but are in denial about the whole thing. They can (and sometimes will) argue that it’s just so obvious that there’s no point in explaining their interpretations of these passages, but, as I said, they’re happy to exegete passages to defend much lesser doctrines at the drop of a hat so that makes such arguments suspect in my opinion.
So, to those who insist that people will spend eternity suffering in hell if they don’t put their faith in Christ’s death for our sins, entombment, and resurrection before they die, and that good works won’t help them, remember that extreme assertions require extreme proof, and we’ve yet to see even minor proof from your side. I’ve given my defense of Universal Reconciliation on this site and on various message boards, but we’re all still waiting to see what you guys have to Scripturally and consistently back up your soteriology. The ball’s in your court now, let’s see what you’ve got.
It doesn’t matter what your theological views are, nor does it matter what denomination your church is, no matter who you are, you are considered a heretic by some other group of Christians out there. But, of course, your views and denomination are right and everybody else’s is wrong so it doesn’t matter what they think, does it?
It’s important to recognize that the definition of “heresy” isn’t “false teaching,” and that “orthodoxy” doesn’t mean “truth.” In fact, the meaning of the Greek word (αἵρεσις) that is transliterated as “heresies” in some versions of the Bible simply meant “sects” (or “divisions”) and not “incorrect doctrine” at all, and “orthodox” only means “that which is commonly accepted” (and there’s always been plenty of commonly accepted error out there).
Remember, Galileo was technically a heretic because he taught that the Earth wasn’t the centre of the universe, but he was still quite correct that it wasn’t. Meanwhile, the Institutional Church considered their view that our planet was the centre of the universe to be the orthodox one, but they were entirely incorrect. So remember that just because something is “heretical” doesn’t mean it’s incorrect, and something being “orthodox” doesn’t make it true. In fact, both Jesus and Paul were considered to be heretics by the orthodoxy of their day, so consider yourself in good company when someone calls you a heretic.
I was recently reminded of a great old (possibly apocryphal) story about the 19th-century Universalist, Hosea Ballou:
Ballou was riding the circuit in the New Hampshire hills with a Baptist minister one day, arguing theology as they traveled. At one point, the Baptist looked over and said, “Brother Ballou, if I were a Universalist and feared not the fires of hell, I could hit you over the head, steal your horse and saddle, and ride away, and I’d still go to heaven.”
Hosea Ballou looked over at him and said, “If you were a Universalist, the idea would never occur to you.”
In addition to making a point about Christian Universalism this story also points out a common misunderstanding of salvation itself by many Christians. The Baptist in the story forgot that any Christian who believed in Eternal Security (the idea of “Once Saved, Always Saved”) could hit you over the head, steal your horse and saddle, and ride away, and still go to heaven. This concept isn’t limited to Christian Universalists, it’s relevant to any Christian who believes in salvation by grace alone.
Interestingly enough I’ve had almost the exact same statement about Universalism made to me by more than one traditionalist Christian in the past, Christians who I know for a fact do believe in Eternal Security. Sadly, it seems that theological consistency is not considered a virtue among most Christians.
Martin Zender, a friend of mine from the US, has put out his latest book, How to be Free From Sin While Smoking a Cigarette, and I just can’t recommend it enough. This is the book for people with weaknesses on what God thinks about our sin.
Here are a few excerpts from the book:
“The Pharisees of Jesus’ day tried hard to stamp sin from their lives. The result? They sinned like crazy people. What a paradox. But you’ve proven it in your own life: the more you try not to do the thing you hate, the more you think about the thing you hate, and the more you do it. God is quite aware of this principle and—if you can believe it—He invented it.”
* * *
“Your church assumes that the kind of freedom we’re uncovering here—even if they did believe it—will inspire more sin. Christian leaders don’t trust grace, and they certainly don’t trust you with it. So they prop up grace with law, make themselves the administrators of it, and send you on a guilt trip every time you miss church or break one of their rules.”
* * *
“Are we warring with our flesh? Then we are miserable, for this is captivity. To be constantly worrying about, wrestling against, and warring with the flesh is the worst kind of bondage. So many people assume that a vast moral struggle must accompany a Christian walk. Christianity itself has taught this. But no. This is horrible bondage. Struggling against flesh is the essence of religion and it’s why religion frustrates people and makes them crazy. It’s why religious people become incensed that the rest of the world isn’t as concerned with sin as they are. The truth is that the rest of the world trusts God more with its sin than Christians do with theirs.”