Friday, August 2, 2013

Could Hitler be "Saved" - A Thought Experiment

Having been around the around the Christian theological block a few times I think I have a pretty good basic grasp on the subject of salvation (the theo-nerds call it soteriology) and various theories of the atonement, eschatology, the afterlife and so on. I was reading a blog post about Hitler in Heaven and I thought it would be fun to try and figure out just how that might be possible, or even IF that might be possible, within the various doctrinal systems that would pertain to such a thing. I'm sure I'm over simplifying, but here is a quick list of possible scenarios that could allow for Hitler being in Heaven. Note that these scenarios fall within the generally accepted Christian range of belief systems. Certainly people will argue vigorously between the more Reformed side (options 1 and 2) and the more Arminian side (option 3), but you generally won't get thrown out as a heretic for falling into either of these camps.

1. Eternal Security (Once Saved Always Saved)
2. Election
3. Deathbed Conversion

So lets quickly think through these options.

Eternal Security, referred to by the nerdy as perseverance of the saints, would hold that anyone, even someone like Hitler, could technically make it into Heaven by virtue of having had a valid and true conversion experience at some point in their life. If it was a true and valid conversion experience, then God is essentially honor bound (by virtue of certain passages of scripture) to honor that salvation experience. Of course the sheer lunacy of applying this doctrine in a rigid and un-nuanced way has resulted in a sizable number of escape clauses that God can presumably use to avoid having Heaven populated by the likes of a Hitler. Most popular would be the question of whether or not the conversion experience was true and valid. It seems to go without saying that if Hitler was going to make it into Heaven purely by virtue of his true and valid conversion experience at the age of 15 or so that it wasn't actually a true and valid conversion experience. Or something like that...

Election is the idea that God chose in eternity past, before the creation of the world, just who would be saved and who would be damned. From this it generally follows that the elect person would (obviously?) have a conversion experience at which point the perseverance of the saints kicks in and we can jump up to the above paragraph and follow it through from there. Well sort of. With election you don't have the possibility of an untrue or invalid conversion experience so God doesn't have that escape clause open to him should an elect Hitler make it to the pearly gates. Fortunately you can just push things back up the line a bit and deduce that if an elect Hitler showed up at the pearly gates he wasn't actually elect. Never was and never could have been. Phew... 

There is a school of thought that subscribes to once saved always saved but doesn't subscribe to election (Free Will Baptists, etc.). In other words, the conversion experience is a matter of free will but once you've had the conversion experience your will (at least in regards to salvation) is no longer free. Technically your will in regards to, oh lets say, genocide is still free, but those who commit genocide obviously didn't have a true and valid conversion experience... And, well, you get the point...

Having eliminated the first two options we are obviously left with the deathbed conversion. Interestingly the deathbed conversion works just fine with the first two options so I guess we really didn't eliminate them after all. But anyways... the idea here is that a person could live a completely horrible life, they could be as evil as, lets say, a Hitler, and if, for whatever reason, they had a conversion experience at some point prior to their death (even if only minutes or seconds prior), they're good to go. They've got their pearly gate pass in the pocket of their white robe and they're golden.

As I said, this works fine with option 1. They were elect, but perhaps for the purposes of demonstrating God's glory it was determined that Hitler wouldn't have his actual conversion until right before his death. In Hitler's case this is made a little harder by the fact that his death was a suicide (historically a sin), but there's still at least a second or two of consciousness after the trigger is pulled for the conversion to take place. It also works fine with option 2 for pretty much the same reasons.

I don't know about you, but this all leaves me a bit dissatisfied. However, I assure you this conversation has been had many many times in Christian circles. I've been a part of many many such conversations. I don't think I've ever heard a thoughtful and sincere Christian say that it was simply impossible that Hitler could make it to Heaven. Most people are pretty sure he won't be there, but all the various doctrinal systems pretty much have to allow for Hitler to make it to Heaven.

I'd say most people, regardless of their theology, would agree that Hitler showing up in Heaven via any of the above scenarios is kind of hard to swallow. But we have to accept the possibility, because after all to deny it would be to essentially deny that God is all powerful and God can make anything work out. Even a sociopath showing up at the pearly gates with a free pass. Another thing that makes it hard to swallow is that inherent in all of the above doctrinal systems is the idea that when a "saved" person dies they are immediately made perfect (theo-nerds call it glorification) either at the moment of death or at the moment of the resurrection (depending on your doctrinal system). They were "counted" as perfect at the moment of their conversion, but are actually "made" perfect at that post-death point. Nowhere in here is there any notion of making restitution for wrongs done or having to suffer any sort of punishment for the vile deeds done. At least not for Protestants. Catholics have purgatory which, at least in the case of Hitler, sounds pretty good.

If you made it this far you should be wondering something, and if you're not it's probably because I'm not a very good writer. You should be wondering how it's possible that anyone could NOT end up in Heaven. If God is powerful enough to get even a Hitler into Heaven by election, by choosing them before they were ever born and then working things out from there, why wouldn't he just choose everyone? On the other hand, if God can step in between the time a trigger is pulled and the time a brain is splattered and bring even a person like Hitler to conversion, then why wouldn't he do this for everyone? How do we know he WON'T do it for everyone?

By this point you're probably coming to the conclusion that this whole things is starting to get a bit silly. How did we get to the point where we've got to make up all these convoluted scenario's when trying to figure out how a person like Hitler could make it to Heaven? Maybe all our systems and doctrines and rules have boxed us, and God, into a framework that seems to make sense if you don't really push too hard on it, but once you really start pushing at it, and drawing things out to their logical conclusions, you end up with scenarios and arguments that are just plain silly.

Maybe the real story of how God will get people like you and me, even people like Hitler, into Heaven actually makes sense. Maybe it is a lot less silly, and a whole lot more beautiful, than we're making it out to be.

Stay tuned...

Friday, March 1, 2013

George MacDonald and C. Baxter Kruger

I have read, listened to, and watched, a huge amount of "Christian" (and other types of spiritual) content during the past decade. I have followed more rabbit trails than I care to remember. In that sea of words, George MacDonald and C. Baxter Kruger are the two voices that have risen buoyantly to the surface and that I have been unable to sink with my caustic volleys of hurt, fear, anger, doubt and suspicion.

C.S. Lewis famously said of MacDonald:
I know hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continually close, to the Spirit of Christ Himself.
In the introduction to an online version of Unspoken Sermons is this quote from Dr. Rolland Hein:
The purpose of Unspoken Sermons is to arouse the reader’s will so to choose, by imparting a clearer understanding of what God’s Will is. It is not to argue doctrines intellectually. It is not to formulate a systematic theology. MacDonald’s insights are not for the mind alone, but for the heart. They afford the reader glimpses of truths which to the child-heart of the true Christian are undeniable. MacDonald avows: “I believe that no teacher should strive to make men think as he thinks, but to lead them to the living Truth , to the Master Himself, of whom alone they can learn anything, who will make them in themselves know what is true by the very seeing of it.” The careful reader (and this material may not be read otherwise) will certainly have such a confrontation with Truth in the pages ahead. More than once reading here has brought sudden tears to my eyes and an involuntary thrill to my breast, and I have seldom had a stronger feeling of certainty that I was standing in the presence of valid insights into the Eternal Mystery than during the reading of these Unspoken Sermons.
When I read that quote I knew EXACTLY what he meant. The "sudden tears" and "involuntary thrill" have happened many times while listening to the words of both these men. I will go one step further than Dr. Hein: I have NEVER had a stronger feeling of certainty that I was standing in the presence of valid insights into the Eternal Mystery than during the reading of these Unspoken Sermons. Indeed, it is only now that I am nearing the end of reading them that I can start to imagine being able to read the Bible and discovering the Christ in its pages that for so long has been hidden by the "doctrines" and "teachings" of men (not to mention my own self-obsessed blindness).
I would highly recommend the audio version of Unspoken Sermons recently made available at Librivox by David Baldwin. It is very obvious that it was a labor of love and I feel like I am in the presence of MacDonald himself when I listen. Blessings upon you David.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Problem with Unbelief

This post by Peter Rollins is absolutely stunning. I have been trying, and failing, to make this connection for years. To think that the root of my traumatic relationship with Christianity and Church was believing TOO much. And here I always thought the problem was my doubt. This makes so much sense.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The John 14:6 Challenge

Recently a challenge was given over at Homebrewed Christianity. The challenge was to record our responses to the John 14:6 quote bomb about Jesus being the exclusive way to God. I'm not sure if I'll send this in, but I at least wanted to commit some thoughts to writing.

There are a lot of ways this passage could be, and has been, spun. I think that scholarly examinations of the text have proved, and will prove, very useful and enlightening. As with most texts, it will be possible to come at this from a variety of angles and wrest from it a variety of nuanced interpretations which will mostly be congruent with the mindset and tradition the interpreters bring with them. I would like to simply respond with a story.

My wife was raised in a home that was essentially non-religious. Her father is of Jewish ancestry and her mother of Christian, but both are non-practicing. As far as I can tell they are not Atheist's, they simply seem to have a willingness to accept that God is whomever or whatever God is, and don't seem to have any compelling need to "figure it out".

Of course my story is the exact opposite. I was raised in a very biblicist and legalistic Christian environment. Our denomination was so concerned about maintaining doctrinal purity that we even had our own schools. It was of paramount importance that we knew and understood the (somewhat distinctive) fundamental beliefs of our church and we were guilted into encouraged to "share our faith" whenever and wherever we could. We were so conservative and confident in our beliefs that we would consider even the Southern Baptists as apostate and liberal.

By the time I married my wife I was no longer attending church on a regular basis, but I still held to the beliefs instilled in me by so many years of attending church and 14 years of "christian" education in denominational schools. My wife was attending a United Methodist church and had no problems identifying as a Christian, but was completely free of religious baggage (a state I envy more and more all the time).

Several years ago, early in our marriage, we had our first theological discussion. I think it was prompted by seeing a couple of LDS missionaries riding their bikes into a neighborhood. The conversation reached its crux when I stated that however genuine their faith and admirable their intentions, since they didn't believe the right things about Jesus and were not "christian" (as defined by my beliefs of course), they were almost certainly lost. My wife then calmly asked if that meant her father would not go to heaven even though he was a very good man and a kind and loving father. I immediately kicked into full-apologetics mode and explained why it didn't matter how good or kind he was, it all hinged on him accepting the free gift of salvation offered by Christ. She, again quite calmly, made a statement that has triggered a complete deconstruction of not only what I believe, but the very nature of belief. She simply said that when she stood before God she would ask God where her father was (heaven or hell), and if God said her father was in hell then she would reject God to God's face and go to be with her father. That she would rather spend an eternity in hell with her kind and loving father than spend an eternity in heaven with such a monstrous being.

Only someone steeped in the biblicist/evangelical mindset can understand the way in which that statement rocked me to my core. Here is someone I love saying something that, on the one hand, makes perfect sense, but on the other hand seems utterly blasphemous and horrifying. I tried my best over the ensuing months to convince her of the error of her ways, but to no avail. You see, her threat to reject God was purely theoretical because she never had believed, and never could believe, that such a scenario could ever happen. Her worldview and view of God just simply wouldn't allow for such a thing to happen. She instinctively knows, without any biblical, philosophical or theological education, that she can affirm the value, and even inspiration, of the scriptures, while at the same time understanding that all attempts to construct airtight theologies and interpretations of scripture is simply an impossibility. And this causes her absolutely no angst, concern or confusion.

It has always been so important to me to "get it right", to find the truth and figure out what I should believe in order (I suppose) to "be saved" or avoid hell. My wife instinctively knows that trying to define and believe the right things, as it comes to these matters, is not only impossible, but is totally wrongheaded and a supreme example of missing the point. She instinctively understands that following Jesus is not a matter of believing the right things about Jesus, but is a matter of actually following him. She instinctively understands that even if John 14:6 means that the only way her father can come to God is through Jesus, that, far from being a scary thing, that's really quite a good thing. She instinctively understands that if Jesus was just a good man or a prophet whose example we should follow, that her father is in pretty good shape. But that if Jesus is actually God incarnate who came on a mission to save the whole world then he probably, being God and all, is able to actually accomplish that. In which case her father is in even better shape.

So when people quote bomb John 14:6 at me, I can't do any better than my wife. The only thing I still lack is the utter and complete innocence and guilelessness with which she can completely fail to understand why John 14:6 is a problem. May she never lose that childlike faith. May she never ever hold up the Bible and eclipse the face of God.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Believing the Right Things

I recently received an emailing from the Christian Research Institute regarding a book they are putting out by their president, Hank Hanegraaff (The Bible Answer Man). This book apparently attempts to provide "right" answers to questions regarding heaven, hell, near death experiences (NDEs) and other "afterlife" related subjects.

After a short discussion centered on a particular account of a near death experience, Hank wrote the following.
I have no doubt that Colton and the others had actual subjective experiences, and I am in no way questioning either their sincerity or their motives in sharing those experiences. But our culture has forgotten one very simple fact: you can be sincere and still be wrong.
This is why we must “test everything. Hold on to the good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Truth matters, and what we believe about the afterlife will matter for eternity, so it’s vital that we get it right.
I've written my new book Afterlife to help you “get it right” and provide biblical answers to your questions about what life will be like in heaven, the theology of hell, NDEs, and even whether your pets will be with you after death.
I have no quarrel with Hank's particular opinions regarding NDE's and the afterlife. He is welcome to his interpretations and opinions just like anyone else. What I do want to focus in on is the following sentence: "Truth matters, and what we believe about the afterlife will matter for eternity, so it's vital that we get it right."

It wasn't all that many years ago that I would have accepted that statement without batting an eye. And I suspect many in Hank's target audience (fairly conservative, evangelical, etc.) would not bat an eye. But when I read that sentence today I was disturbed by the ramifications, and confused logic, of that way of thinking. If I'm not mistaken, what Hank is saying is that our eternal destiny is riding on our ability to believe the right things about our eternal destiny.

It's not difficult for the average person with access to the Internet to discover that Christians down through history, and Christians across the doctrinal spectrum today, differ widely on their beliefs about the afterlife. Even Christians who put a premium on the inerrancy of Biblical inspiration differ quite significantly from one group to another and even one individual to another. So should we actually imagine God, at the final judgement, making decisions based on what a person believed about the afterlife? From a purely statistical standpoint it is highly unlikely, given the broad spectrum of Biblical interpretation on the matter, that any one group or individual would have managed to "get it right".

If salvation is primarily a matter of "getting it right" in terms of our beliefs, whether they be about the afterlife or pretty much anything else, I'm afraid none of us is looking very good. As my wife always says, "we're all going to be in for some big surprises when we get to the other side. And those who are most certain they've 'got it right' will be in for the biggest surprises of all". But those surprises, as she'd say, won't be the terrifying surprises Hank assumes so many will encounter, they'll be joyful surprises as we encounter the "depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past tracing out!" - Romans 11:33

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Faces of God

A little girl recently asked her mother why God made sickness. The mother, understandably, found it hard to formulate an answer to this question. I think anyone, regardless of their education or sophistication, would find it hard to answer that question. Especially to a little girl.

I was thinking about this and I realized that answers to these types of questions, especially to children, in some very real sense create God. God may well be an ontological reality, a being in relationship to the actuality of time and space. But the only God we can know and interact with is the God that has been created in our minds via language. God may even be able to work, directly and indirectly, to shape and mold our image of God, but our perception of God will always be, for us, the only God we can interact with. So the answer to the question of why God made sickness necessarily implicates God, and creates God, in relation to the answer.

Think about the various answers that could be, and have been, given to the little girl's question. These answers come from a variety of cultural and religious backgrounds and reflect a huge diversity in terms of world view. Even in the Christian and Jewish scriptures there is no cohesive picture of God, but rather we see a God who is seen and depicted by the various authors speaking out of their own time, place and situation.

And so God is created and recreated across time and place and given form and meaning by the language of the prophets, the mystics, the seers and all who would speak and think and write about the divine. Assuming God is a being, with a "self" and a purpose, how would God deal with this? How would God accomplish God's purposes, whatever they might be, knowing full well that to some God wears the face of anger and vengeance, though tempered by mercy and love. To others God wears the face of a kindly grandfather, giving good gifts but unaware of, or unable to do much about, the sickness, pain and death. To others God wears the face of indifference, unmoved by the cries of creation, watching time and space unfold according to a plan laid down before time and space came into being.

But yet I believe God must be wise and good enough to wear all of these different persona's and even take responsibility for the necessary results of those personas and fold those results into a deeper reality that lies behind the reality that we create by our perceptions and our language. God allows God to become the God we create, because that is the only God we can relate to.

Some folks, and I am one, believe that God went so far as to literally become a human being. This God/Man has since become about as multifaceted as the God he called Abba, but I do think he did something that has yet to be fully understood. I suspect that from the rubble and ruins of failed attempts and disastrous misunderstandings something new will emerge that has a face, not of our own creation, but one that arises out of the communal body that has become God's own body. And this face will be the true face of God, and with this body God will heal all things, including the sickness that so troubled the little girl.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

How Do We Respond?

To you who are ready for the truth, I say this: Love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer for that person. If someone slaps you in the face, stand there and take it. If someone grabs your shirt, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. If someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.

Here is a simple rule of thumb for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you; then grab the initiative and do it for them! If you only love the lovable, do you expect a pat on the back? Run-of-the-mill sinners do that. If you only help those who help you, do you expect a medal? Garden-variety sinners do that. If you only give for what you hope to get out of it, do you think that’s charity? The stingiest of pawnbrokers does that.

I tell you, love your enemies. Help and give without expecting a return. You’ll never—I promise—regret it. Live out this God-created identity the way our Father lives toward us, generously and graciously, even when we’re at our worst. Our Father is kind; you be kind. Luke 6:27-36 (The Message)