Thursday, August 28, 2008

Let's Pretend. Actually let's not any more

My experience with evangelicals is that there is a game of Let's Pretend afoot that the faith has been largely consistent from the time of Abraham down to the present.

Clearly there is some truth to this, but let's not kid ourselves. Our interpretation of Scripture, our concepts of morality and justice, and many of our doctrines have changed, sometimes drastically over the past two millennia. Not only do we like to believe that extrabiblical concepts like capitalism and democracy were important to ancient Jews and ancient Christians, but we also have changed our understanding the Bible itself.

Honest faith must also admit honest doubt, and honest doubts need to be acknowledged and explored. God is big enough to handle tough questions, and it's not as though he's surprised when we ask them. Refusing to voice them leaves us with unresolved questions and a lingering, festering suspicion that we've been sold a bill of goods.

Satan's one example. Popular Christian culture has a lot to say about the rebellion in heaven, the way the highest of all the angels led a rebellion that ended with a third of the angels cast into hell and becoming demons. This is a great story, and I love it as much as the nice guy, but it's not exactly in the Bible. It's older than John Milton and "Paradise Lost," but as far as I can tell, the story first gained traction a few centuries after the canon was complete.

The gospel presentation has changed too. These days we share the gospel by describing how all have sinned against God, putting us under sentence of death because God is holy and cannot abide the presence of sin or sinful people. The good news is that Christ stepped in and took that punishment in our place, satisfying God's need for justice, so that we can be spared the pains of hell as long as we accept Jesus as our personal savior.

That's quite a bit different from the older doctrine of Christus Victor. It also differs quite significantly from the first recorded creed "If you confess with your mouth 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you shall be saved. For it is with the heart that you believe and are justified, and with the mouth that you confess and are saved" (1 Corinthians 10:9-10).

Unlike our modern gospel presentation, which requires personal confession of sin, there's nothing in that creed about confessing sin. It's all about confessing Jesus' sovereignty and resurrection. See the difference?

There's also the matter of sexual mores and morality. For centuries, the Christian concept of marriage looked radically different from our Western norm of getting married in church before having sex. In older times, couples would cohabitate and have children before getting their union blessed by the a priest, sometimes years later. The church in some parts of Christian Europe even recognized trial marriages that aren't that different from today's practice of premarital cohabitation.

Nowadays it's heterosexual married families ├╗ber alles. The insistence on marriage-vows-first very well may be closer to what God desires, but I don't think we're kidding anyone but ourselves when we claim that the way we do things now in the West is how they've always been done or properly should be done always.

And so it is with hell. When Jesus talks about hell, he's describing the city dump outside Jerusalem. When we talk about hell with its picturesque and exquisitely grotesque torments for the dammed that go on day and night without stop, we're influenced by the Dante's hauntingly beautiful poetry in "The Divine Comedy."

We owe it to ourselves to do better than supporting a folk version of Christianity. It's essential to chase down the original meaning and intent of the Scriptures. Scrape away the barnacles and see what the hull of the ship is like underneath.

What does the Bible really say about hell, about heaven, about demons, about Jesus, and about even itself?

One quick example of how hell has been developed, away from the biblical teaching. Matthew 25 shows the exalted Son of Man judging the nations, and separating them as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. To the goats, the wicked, he says, "Depart from me into everlasting fire prepared for the Devil and his angels."

The funny thing is, the audience to that particular speech was a group of people who clearly believed in him. They recognized the Lord when they saw him, and asked in bewilderment, "But did we not heal the sick, raise the dead, and cast out demons in your name?" If the term Christian has any meaning in the context of that parable, this group was in like Flynn.

Or there's the servant -- not an enemy, but a servant -- whose talent of gold is taken away and given to another; the servant whose debt was forgiven and then was beaten and thrown into prison. I've never heard these understood as anything but metaphors for hell, and yet the people being thrown there are all servants of the king/master/lord, thereby marking them as people whom today we would identity as Christians. So who is hell for?

Quite often, the Bible does not say what we have been taught to think it does, and though the investigation often leaves me with more questions than answers, I find that I prefer the uncertainty of faith to the cold hard certainty of what I was once taught to settle for.

We've been playing this game of Let's Pretend for far too long. Isn't it time to rediscover for ourselves what the Bible really says, and let that shape our faith?

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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