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Do I need to believe in God to be a good person?

Once upon a time, there was a farmer with two teenagers at home. He asked both of them to help out with the day’s farm work. One of them responded, Sure thing, Dad. I’ll get to it right after breakfast. The other told his father, I’m really busy. Find someone else. At the end of the day, the first teen never got around to doing his chores, but the other one changed his mind and kept the farm running. Which of these two teenagers did what their father asked?

In my experience, religious affiliation is no predictor of kindness or decency. There are many non-Christians who demonstrate the love of Jesus just as well – or better! – than many Christians. They care for their families, work hard, and contribute to the community. They give till it hurts. They may say no to Dad in the morning, but by the end of the day, they’ve done the work.

On the other hand, there are plenty of examples of religious folks who say all the right words but lead lives of selfishness. These are the teenagers who say, Yeah, sure thing, Dad, but never make it farther than the XBox.

As someone who identifies with the label Christian, this is confusing to me. Shouldn’t those of us who claim to follow Jesus be demonstrably holier than those who don’t? If Jesus is the image of the invisible God, shouldn’t we who believe in him look more like he does?

Does it even matter whether we are Christians or not? In a certain sense, maybe not. I see no evidence that claiming religious faith results in what Scripture calls the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Paul writes that against such things there is no law, and it seems clear that no religious rules or identity can produce these virtues.

Now, spiritual depth – that’s something else. When someone is filled with the living power of the Holy Spirit, we can sense it instinctively. When we’re in the presence of a person who’s life is saturated with the love of Christ, it’s contagious. Yet, I’ve seen no evidence that this spiritual depth and grounding is restricted to those who identify themselves as Christians – or even theists. The Holy Spirit moves as she pleases, even if it makes us Christians uncomfortable!

Related Post: I’m in Crisis. Will the Church Judge Me?

So what is the point of believing in God, or Jesus for that matter? For me, the simplest answer is that he’s the realest real I know. I profess belief in the Creator, and in his son Jesus, because I have experienced the power of the Holy Spirit in my own life. To deny the reality and source of this power would simply be dishonest and inauthentic.

However, it’s easy to hold abstract beliefs about God and Jesus without allowing those beliefs to make a meaningful impact on my life. Christianity can become more about feeling good about myself than walking as Jesus did. The sad truth is, there are many Christians who look less like Jesus than the average atheist.

Still, it’s always nice to put a name with a face. It’s possible to experience Christ’s power without knowing his identity, but knowing who we’re in relationship with is so helpful. Religious faith – and the Christian tradition in particular – exists to provide us with a frame of reference as we allow ourselves to be re-made in God’s image. When I consciously commit myself to following Jesus, I find context and community for the work of transformation.

When I choose to say yes to Jesus as my lord and teacher, savior and friend, I am invited to participate in his ministry and take on his character. When I embrace the story of the crucified messiah, I stand before an open door. This doorway leads to a life of humble service to others. It opens me to extraordinary, self-giving love for those around me. It promises a radically different way of living that profoundly challenges the status quo.

Doors are built to be walked through, however, not merely admired. I could stand at the threshold my whole life, discussing how wonderful the door frame is. I could teach seminary classes on the mystery of doorknobs! But if I never walk through the door, all this knowledge and appreciation is worthless. What’s the point of knowing the way if I never walk in it?

I invite you to share in the comments below:

  • Can you remember a time when the Holy Spirit showed up in an unexpected way, through an unexpected person?
  • Which of the two teenagers is most like you? Do you say yes but then fail to follow through, or do you say no but do the work anyway?
  • What needs to change in your life so that you can walk through the door of faith?

See Related Posts:

I’m in Crisis. Will the Church Judge Me?

Is Jesus Too Exclusive?

The Universal Light of Christ

I recently came across this video by David Platt, pastor of Brook Hills Church in Birmingham, Alabama. In it, Platt explains why he believes that the 597 million people in northern India who are not Evangelical Christians face eternal torment in hell. Referencing the recent debate around Rob Bell’s new book, he speaks about what he sees as the dangers of universalism.

This video saddens me, because I realize that millions of Christians in the United States share Platt’s worldview – one in which God created a world where millions of people would die without ever having the chance to be in relationship with God – and who would be punished for their misfortune by eternal misery in hell. Because this worldview is so prevalent among Christians in my country, I felt moved to create a video response. In it, I attempt to explain my faith that the saving presence of Jesus Christ is available to all people, even those who have not had the opportunity – for whatever reason – to accept the doctrines of orthodox Christianity.

(PS: I know some folks will not want to spend their precious internet time watching me blab. For those who are more textually inclined, I’ve transcribed the video, below.)

Transcript:

I just got done watching a video made by a pastor in Alabama named David Platt. And in the video, he’s standing in India, and he’s responding, essentially, to Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins, and the charges of universalism that have been leveled at Rob Bell – which, based on reviews of the book that are coming out now, and based on what I have read of it so far – I just got it – it doesn’t seem to be the case. It doesn’t seem that he’s a universalist in the true sense.

But, regardless, I watched this video and there were several different points he made that I feel strong issues with. I guess my initial reaction to the video is a sense of sadness and even shame, because I recognize that David Platt is my brother in Christ. He and I both serve our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And so, I have to take responsibility for him and for what he is preaching, in a certain sense, because we are both trying to serve Jesus Christ as we understand him, and I take responsibility for him as my brother in Christ. So, I feel sad, not only for what he is preaching, but for how it reflects on the Body of Christ, which I believe is God’s presence in the world.

To begin with, he starts out his video essentially saying, “if you’re not an Evangelical Christian, you don’t have Christ.” That needs to be wrestled with a little bit. What does it mean to “have Christ”? As a Friend – as a Quaker – I believe that all people have access to Christ. Maybe David would agree with that, that all people have access to Jesus Christ through his Holy Spirit. I believe that Jesus Christ has saving power in the lives of all people who accept that saving power, even if they do not know the gospel story.

David in his video puts great emphasis on the gospel story, on getting these stories – the biblical stories and the biblical commandments – to the people of northern India. And I think the stories are really important. Those stories are so foundational for me, and so much of what I know about Jesus I understand through my experience of him speaking to me through the Scripture, and in community around the Scripture. So, the Scripture is amazingly important to me.

But the concept that people don’t have Christ unless they have had the Scriptures delivered to them is just incredible to me, because all things hold together in Christ. Christ is in all and through all and creates all. All things were created through Jesus Christ, the Word of God. And so, the concept that people who haven’t – for historical, or cultural, or whatever reasons – received the gospel story, that they would all be condemned to eternal separation from God is just dumfounding to me. Because, Jesus Christ is there with them, whether or not they have heard that story. And I believe that it is possible to accept his lordship in their lives without actually realizing on an intellectual level what, exactly, that means historically, in terms of Jesus’ historical incarnation and coming into the world.

Another thing in David’s video that really disturbed me was his amazing presumption. He seemed to think that we as orthodox Christians can know who’s going to heaven and who’s going to hell. I think that’s blasphemous. It is not our place as Christians to determine who’s going to heaven and who’s going to hell. We are not the judge of that. For us to put ourselves in the seat of judgment is to set ourselves in the place of God. I hope that David will reconsider his apparent attitude of sitting in that seat of judgment, feeling like he knows – and we know as Christians – who is going where. I hope we as a Church can repent of that, because I believe it’s a sin.

Another thing that he says in his video that I felt was wrong was that he says, “…If we believe everyone is going to be OK in the end, then we are free to lead our lives however we want. We can sit back as easy-going Christians in comfortable churches, because, in the end, all of these masses are going to be OK.” I don’t think there’s a necessary correlation between belief in damnation of all those who have not heard the story and an apathy that David assumes, that if someone were a universalist – or simply didn’t believe that every person that didn’t hear the gospel story during their lifetime was damned – I don’t think that there’s necessarily going to be an apathy about missions.

I don’t believe that all people who have not heard the story are damned. I believe that Christ can work in their hearts, even in the absence of the Scriptures. So that’s where I’m coming from. But my entire life is devoted to mission. I want people to hear the story, to accept Jesus, not only in a vague spiritual sense, but in a real, intellectually satisfying sense, where they know – both with their hearts and with their heads – that Jesus is Lord, and they can confess that. That’s what I desire for all people.

But I desire this in a context of believing that people can be saved in spite of their lack of intellectual understanding of who Jesus is. So I would just like to challenge David a little bit on that concept, that if we believed that people weren’t necessarily going to be damned for not intellectually accepting certain ideas about Jesus that we would just give up on mission and go sit in our easy chairs and drink a beer. I don’t think that’s how things play out.

I think that many of us are motivated far more by love for others and wanting to see the redemption in their lives now, rather than a sense of, “all these people are going to hell and I’ve got to save them from that.”
Finally, there was one other thing in the video that disturbed me. David said that his response is the only one possible for those of us who really believe in the Bible. What really caught my eye was “believe in the Bible.” And we hear Christians today talking a lot about believing in the Bible, being “Bible-believing Christians.” That’s kind of a phrase: “Bible-believing Christians.”

I trust the Scriptures. I believe the Scriptures have great authority, and they are extremely important in my walk with the Lord. But, ultimately, I believe in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior, and he is sovereign over all things – over heaven and earth and that which is under the earth, and over the Bible. Jesus Christ is Lord and Sovereign over the Scriptures themselves, and he is the one who we must go to to be able to understand the Scriptures.

I don’t think the Scriptures themselves – without the Spirit, without Jesus Christ – have any power. I believe it is only as we listen to Jesus Christ as he is present with us today, through the power of his Holy Spirit, that we can understand the Scriptures and truly follow him. And I believe that if we get up into our own intellectual understandings and don’t rely on the Spirit, we will misinterpret the Scriptures. We will interpret them as human beings, rather than as sons and daughters of God.

I believe that many of the ideas that David Platt is promoting are reflective of a human understanding of the Scriptures, a human analysis of the Scriptures that does not rely sufficiently on the sovereignty of Jesus Christ.

Universalism: Gateway Drug?

I have really appreciated the lively discussion that has taken place in the comments on my last post, Is Universalism Heresy? I am wrestling with these questions along with you, and I don’t pretend to have a clear-cut answer to offer. Questions about salvation lead to questions regarding the atonement, which in turn lead to questions about the nature of God. Deep, hard questions that have remained open talking points within the orthodox Christian Church for two thousand years.

To be sure, the Church has agreed on some basic facts, including that Jesus Christ is the living Word of God and that his atoning life, death and resurrection bring about a reconciliation between humanity and God. We affirm the lordship andChrist Carrying the Cross - El Greco majesty of Jesus, and we give thanks for the great things God has done through the faithfulness and self-sacrifice of Jesus. There are basic truths that we as Christ’s Church have been able to agree on since the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Yet, while we affirm these truths, the “hows” and “whys” of these truths have continued to elude firm conclusions over the course of centuries. How – exactly – does Christ’s atonement work? What – precisely – happens after we die? How does humanity’s free will interact with God’s sovereignty? Men and women of greater faith and intellect than me have not been able to come to final conclusions on these questions, and I do not pretend to offer authoritative answers where the great Doctors of the Church have been unable to reach a final verdict.

However, the fact that there are a variety of orthodox understandings of the faith does not mean that we do not have preferences. Even within the bounds of orthodoxy, we can observe that certain ideas – while not necessarily heretical – can have positive or negative effects on those who believe them. For example, the substitutionary atonement model for understanding Christ’s sacrifice on the cross falls well within the orthodoxy of the Church. There is clear scriptural support for this perspective, and Christ Crucified - Diego Velázquezgenerations of Christians have understood God’s grace through this lens. Despite the validity of this way of viewing the atonement, however, it also presents us with challenges.

One major problem is that some versions of the substitutionary atonement model understand Jesus as enduring God’s wrath, taking the punishment that God the Father would have otherwise poured out on us. This is a very disturbing image, reminiscent of the domestic abuse that takes place in many families. If we are to take this model of the atonement seriously, we must wrestle with its shadow side, which, left unexamined, could validate an image of God as abusive Father and Husband.

On the other hand, there are many other orthodox perspectives of the atonement. One that is a favorite among liberal, orthodox Christians is the moral influence model. This model, which finds ample support in the early Church, understands Jesus’ atoning work as being primarily about the example of love and self-sacrifice that he set for us. Just like the substitutionary model, there are attractive aspects to this theory. However, the moral influence theory also has its shadow side: If this is the only lens we bring to our understanding of the meaning of Christ’s work, we are at risk
Sermon on the Mount - Carl Bloch of downplaying or ignoring the spiritual reality of his suffering and death on the cross. It is not enough to simply follow the teachings of Jesus – we must also be baptized into his suffering and death.

With all of the various orthodox models for understanding the atonement (and there are many), I would argue that we cannot choose just one. In fact, I would urge you to consider that it is the atonement itself that is the foundation of our faith as Christians, not theories about how it works. These theories are valuable as we seek greater understanding of the faith that we have received through Christ’s life, death and resurrection; but theories cannot replace the wordless reality that is the living power and presence of the Holy Spirit. When we begin to battle over which theory of the atonement is the right one, we have already missed the point.

You might be wondering at this point why I am giving such a detailed treatment of atonement theory in a post that is ostensibly about Christian Universalism. My reason is this: I believe that Universalism is a model for understanding the purpose and effects of the atonement, and I suspect that Universalism falls within orthodox Christianity. Nevertheless, it clearly has a rather sizable dark side that can be a threat to the integrity of our faith. Even if Universalism is not heretical per The Last Supper - Dalise, is it possible that it represents the edge of one slippery slope into beliefs that undermine the foundations of our faith?

Some folks I respect seem to think so. My good Friend, Scott Wells, who is himself a Universalist Christian minister, pointed out in a recent blog post that Universalism seems to often be a stepping stone into more troubling doctrines. He even referred to Christian Universalism as a “gateway doctrine,” leading to, “more eccentric and esoteric forms of belief.” Many of us are aware of church leaders who began to profess Christian Universalism, but soon drifted away from orthodox Christianity entirely. Is this an inevitable effect of accepting Christian Universalism? I do not believe so, since my friend Scott is still an orthodox Christian, despite having been a Universalist minister for many years.

As I continue to wrestle with these questions, I invite you to reflect along with me: Does Christian Universalism present an opening to truly heretical doctrines? If so, how can we guard against the tendency towards heresy while still affirming and embracing the universalist perspectives that have always been active within the orthodox Church?

Is Universalism Heresy?

The internet is abuzz with news of Rob Bell‘s forthcoming book, Love Wins, in which it appears that Bell will refute traditional Calvinist teachings on heaven and hell. Based on a recently released Love Winspromotional video for the book, it seems fair to conclude that Bell probably doesn’t believe that God has preordained the damnation of billions of non-Christians. By Calvinist standards, this would make him a universalist – and many big names in neo-Calvinism are ready to cast him into outer darkness.(1)

But before we start talking about what it would mean for Rob Bell to be a universalist, we need to take a step back. Definitions. What is Christian Universalism? Among Quakers, “universalism” is often used to mean a belief in the transcendental equivalence of all religions: “All roads lead to the top of the mountain.” Radical universalism, as is sometimes found among the Liberal branch(2) of the Quaker denominational family, rests on the premise that all religious perspectives are simultaneously valid and yet incomplete. There is a general sense that human beings are innately good, and that all religions present legitimate paths to enlightenment and/or the Divine.

Christian Universalism is another animal altogether. Unlike the transcendentalist universalism of some Liberal Friends, Christian Universalism does not deny the lordship and divinity of Christ. Instead, the Christian universalist asserts that the love and mercy of Jesus will eventually transform and redeem all people, even if this process takes longer than our earthly lifespans. Christian Universalism is the conviction that the love of Christ will eventually overcome all rebellion, hatred and selfishness. This perspective cannot conceive of Christ’s final Rob Bell - credit Gaylene Tretheweyvictory as including even one person writhing in eternal torment, alienated from God.

In the mind of the Christian universalist, the existence of eternal separation from God would represent a less-than-complete victory of the Lamb. Christian Universalism looks forward to the complete reconciliation of all things and all people to God through Jesus Christ – even if it takes a very long time. There are a variety of nuanced Christian Universalist perspectives, as a little bit of research will reveal.(3) But the basic idea is simple: The eternal alienation of anyone from God would represent a less-than-complete victory for the love and self-sacrifice of Jesus.

With this very brief explanation in mind, I want to examine a question that has been on my mind for quite some time, long before Rob Bell announced his new book. The question is: Is Christian Universalism heretical?

Most of us haven’t been called to read lengthy volumes on Church history and theology, so definitions are once again in order. In popular usage, “heresy” is often used as a shorthand for teachings that religious authorities consider wrong. However, when I ask whether Rob Bell is heretical for (possibly) holding Christian universalist views, I am not simply asking whether he holds erroneous views. I am asking if Christian Universalism fundamentally undermines the Christian faith.

This is a live question for me, because – truth be told – I like the idea of Christian Universalism. While I believe that God has given human beings the free will to accept or reject God’s love, it is horrible for me to contemplate any of God’s children being eternally separated from right relationship with their Creator. I know from personal The Last Judgmentexperience that hell exists in this life, and it may well exist in the afterlife, too.

But eternal hell? That is a tough pill for me to swallow. In fact, it is precisely the majority of the Church’s teaching on damnation that led me to reject Christianity as a teenager. I was terrified of dying in sin and being condemned to eternal, unimaginable punishment. One thing I can certainly agree with Rob Bell on: No one should be told that the Good News is that “Jesus died to save us from God.”

And yet, I still ask the question: Is Christian Universalism heretical? Does the insistence that God will save every person – whether they like it or not – undermine the Christian faith? As we think about this question together, let me share some major heresies that confronted the early Church. One, called Arianism, was the idea that Jesus is a creation of God – not God himself. Another, called Docetism, claimed that Jesus was not human at all, his apparently human form being a mere garment that concealed his deity. Another early heresy was Modalism, which held that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were three different “modes” in which God operates. Opposite this, there were a number of thinkers who were accused Ecumenical Church Council of “Tritheism,” or the idea that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are actually three separate deities.

Heresies often come in pairs, each one making a diametrically opposed claim to the other. One thing that these heresies have in common is that they break the dynamic tension that is present in our faith. Is Jesus human or divine? Is reality material or spiritual? Is salvation through works or grace? Is God One or Three? At the end of the day, we must accept both as being somehow simultaneously true. Faced with paradox, the orthodox Christian must humbly confess, “I do not understand, but I affirm the God of these mysteries!”

Does Christian Universalism break the paradox? Does it violate the mystery? Does it impose human understanding on that which we are unable to comprehend? I pray that the Holy Spirit will tender the teachers and theologians of the Church to hear clearly the voice of Christ in our midst, and to respond with humility, patience and love.

1. For more on this, read: Thoughts About Rob Bell, John Piper and Justin Taylor

2. For more information about the family of churches and faith communities that have emerged from the early Friends, take a look at the Brief Introduction to Quakerism on QuakerMaps.com

3. In fact, the teachings of the early Friends could be considered Christian Universalist in the broadest possible sense: George Fox and the Valiant Sixty believed that Jesus Christ was universally available to all people, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, the early Friends did believe that some would reject Christ’s “day of visitation” and suffer spiritual death as a result.

For further reading:

Heaven, Hell and Rob Bell: Putting the Pastor in Context – Christianity Today