Who is saved?

God only knows.

The Problem Is… Jesus

Post #2 in direct response to Avant Garde’s comments on All Roads Lead to Heaven? (Newcomers, please join the conversation.)

Avant Garde: “…in the guise of questioning the denominations/churches of christianity, and saying “no religion but God leads to heaven”, you really meant “your” God the Son alone leads to heaven!”

You are correct. I really meant that only Jesus – God the Son – leads to heaven. Can Jesus reach people through religions that aren’t Christianity? I address this specific issue under C* below. Faith comes from God but “religion” and religiosity are human constructs.

Meanwhile, I should tell you why I believe what I believe. Maybe you will write me off. Maybe you will continue reading. I respect your decision and point of view regardless. I do not expect you to change your mind. That would take a miracle. But I do hope that you will understand me.

A. Someone is “wrong” from everyone’s perspective

Everyone assumes that someone is wrong when it comes to religion. There are the obvious examples of Christians saying that Muslims are essentially wrong and vice-versa. But what about “All religions are true”?

Even the claim that “no one is wrong” assumes a group of people who are wrong: those who deny that claim and typically implies “everyone is wrong” about the ultimate realities of eternity.

To claim “I don’t/can’t/shouldn’t make claims” is a non-committal cop-out… and is often, in fact, not true of the one who says it.

Christians make ridiculous claims, but that does not mean that these claims are either untrue or more ridiculous than the claims that everyone else is making.

B. The Bible tells us what Jesus claimed

Not all those who profess to be Christians accept the teachings of the Bible in the same way. There are many issues, such as a six-day creation, which seem to be open to a greater deal of interpretation. But on the issue of Jesus, there is much clarity. The Bible deserves fuller treatment, but I can summarize my basic belief: if God exists and he is good, then he would have used just such a means as the Bible to reveal himself to humanity. (Re: Bible’s self-testimony, “As for God, his way is perfect; the word of the LORD is flawless…” Psalm 18:30).

C. This is what Jesus himself claimed

Jesus was crucified for claiming to be God in ways that were true of himself and of himself alone. He spoke with authority over the written scriptures. He healed, loved, served and led others as if he were the ruler of creation.  For example, “I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 8:58).  ‘Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.  If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:6-7).  His sacrificial death on behalf of humanity could only be done by him, for he alone is fully God and fully human. If humanity needs saving, then we have never had a clearer savior.

D. Jesus saves in mysterious ways

Some churches give the impression that all you have to do is say his name in a prayer. The truth is more personal. We are saved by faith. But this isn’t any sort of will-power that we muster up. It’s a relationship… which God himself initiates. Jesus himself said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). Paul, one of the first generation of followers, wrote, “”For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith– and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God…” (Ephesians 2:8).

*Some have suggested that there are “invisible Christians,” who have a personal relationship with God through Jesus either without publicly professing such faith or without even consciously knowing this. For example, a Buddhist or a Muslim could be a Christian without knowing it by loving God and loving others. Many Buddhists and Muslims find such ideas highly offensive. The idea is convenient those of us who struggle with outreach to members of other religions and with the idea of hell.  The idea has strength in the precedent of Jews before Christ clearly having access to God the Father and being “saved.”

E. Either Jesus saves and he alone, or Jesus does not save at all.

If Jesus died for the sins of the world, then we need him, because we all fall short of deserving to be with God forever. If Jesus did not die for the sins of the world, then no one needs him except as an example of how to die for a fictitious cause. Either Christianity is the truest truth or it is the biggest lie. There is no middle ground. Maybe other religions have the possibility of being partially true, but because of the claims of Jesus, Christianity does not have that option.

F. These issues are a matter of faith.

I can testify but I cannot prove. (See previous post.)

Caution

There are people who profess to be Christians who disagree with virtually everything I have just said (including a particularly nasty group of radical Dispensationalists who do not believe that there has ever been spiritual salvation for the Jewish people).

Conclusion

I don’t know if I have convinced anyone, but I hope that answers the question.  If I have not, or if anyone has further questions, I am, as always, open to your input.

Nothing New Under the Muggle Sun…

…But Don’t Let That Stop You From Going to the Movies

“There is nothing new under the sun.”  (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

“It’s all been done before.”  (The Barenaked Ladies)

Only One has ever made anything truly original and new.  All stories are mere shadows of His Story.  Our best stories mirror aspects of that story: the beauty of creation, the bitterness of the fall, the joy of redemption.  Even if a story only captures one of those aspects, it can be beautiful simply because it rings true, however tragic.

Shakespeare himself realized that all the good plots were already taken.  What happens in his plays might not be original, but how always is.  That gives me hope.  A good story matters, even if I already know the ending.  And I can let myself off the hook as a writer, since every what I might say has already been taken, I can focus on the how

If you doubt whether this principle is true, think of every movie made in the last ten years.  Some have been overt ripoffs.  Eragon = Star Wars – Awesome + Dragon.  Seriously!  If you want a good laugh, follow the plot parallels: farm boy gets secret message from captured princess, the bad guys kill his aunt and uncle, and torch their farm, forcing him to follows a magical mentor who sacrifices his own life when farm boy rescues the princess, so that he can save the day in an epic dogfight.  It’s a good thing I love dragons.

Which brings us to Harry Potter.  If the what of Harry Potter isn’t original (Matrix + Lord of the Rings + Little Orphan Annie), what’s all the big fuss about?  The how!  Her plots are page turners, to be sure, but J. K. Rowling’s true success is in her character development.

(Don’t worry.  I haven’t read the last book or seen the movie yet, so no spoiler’s here.) 

Harry is a complicated guy.  He’s a loner, a leader, and a friend, these attributes ever in tension with each other.  Orphaned, ostracized by his surrogate family, ever-threatened by the forces of darkness, and untrusted by the media, Harry has always had to fend for himself.  He makes independent decisions, which can be impetuous and even rebellious.  Harry is unafraid to pursue what he knows to be right, no matter what those in authority say. 

Because of this, his peers look to him as their captain in the unseen war against the forces of darkness.  Though his anger problem and independence often get in the way, he has developped a loyal cadre.

But it is Harry’s friends who ultimately define him.  They are his by chance, by choice, and by that inexplicable magnetism that draws them all together.  Quite often, he does not deserve them.  But, no matter what, Ron and Hermione stay by his side.  Harry is not afraid to cooperate, usually, but his friends make sure to help him even when he doesn’t want it.  They would give up their own lives for each other.  Since birth, this is a boy who has been protected by love, and that is the most beautiful thing of all.

That is what we really want, isn’t it?  To be reminded that life is worth living outside the norms of society, that there is something worth fighting for, and that the love of friends always makes a difference and is always worth dying for?  We long to hear a new voice sing that same old truth to a new generation, and that is exactly what J. K. has done.  Read on!

All Roads Lead to Heaven?

“We’re right and we’re the only ones!” shout the Pope, the Baptist preacher, and the cult leader in unison across the trenches.

Then, at Starbucks, in the classroom, in the locker room I hear, “All religions are equal.” Equally right, which means equally wrong, so live it up.

What if there is a third option? What if all of us are wrong, but some of us are less wrong than others?

What if only one person has ever had it 100% right: Jesus. The only human who has ever had a true understanding of reality, of God, or of anything else. Hold on, He was God. The rest of us are finite and screwed-up. But Jesus offered to bring to God any who would follow Him.

Christ saves, not any church, Roman Catholic or otherwise. For some of us, like my best philosopher friends, following Christ means becoming Roman Catholic. For others of us, it means becoming irreverent renegades. Or Baptists.

Different Christian groups, with their different emphases, offer different aspects of the truth about Christ and His teaching: love, grace, the awesomeness of God, the importance of His Word, loving the poor and the oppressed, community, tradition and history, and the reality of how messed-up we are all in this life, etc. If we only turn to our traditions, and not also to their Source, we’ll leave out important aspects of the Truth.

I see in other religions aspects of the truth about God also: the peacefulness of Buddhism; the discipline of Islam; the wild diversity of Hinduism; the restful rituals of Judaism. But I see also important differences. In every case, God is either less of a Person (Buddhism and Hinduism), or less personal (Judaism without Christ; Islam). But do other religions lead to heaven? That is the difficult question facing all Christians today.

I offer a strange possibility which should offend people on both sides of the debate. I think that we’re asking the wrong question. Does any religion lead to heaven? No.

No religion leads to heaven. God leads to heaven. He does so through Christ, but many times the -ianity (or the -ians) gets in the way. Religion — our beliefs, our practices — these are all means to an end: Him. There are many false ways, some in and some outside of Christianity, but only one Shepherd. Many who have correct beliefs, but who did not trust Christ, will be in hell (James 2:19). Is it possible that many who have incorrect beliefs, but who trust Christ, will end up in heaven? I think so, for who among us can claim a 100% understanding of God? I am saved by Who I know, not by what I know. But is it possible to trust Christ without knowing that it’s Christ? I don’t know. But I need to love, listen, speak, and pray as if every moment counts toward that end.

God Promises Health, Wealth,… and Good Looks?

Bible B.S. + American Dream = Poison

“God is good and wants good things for you,” the preacher says.  By good things, he (or she) means money, cars, and easy living.   Who wouldn’t want to believe that?  “For you to reap the harvest of God’s blessing, you have to plant a seed and water it.”  And by plant the seed, the preacher means give his (or her) ministry money.  This is the “prosperity Gospel.”

The Bible teaches the principle of tithing, of giving a portion of our earnings to His work.  The Bible also teaches that God does want to bless us, but those blessings happen in the context of a relationship, not of a business contract; and while He blesses some people materially, it is never deserved and it is never a promise.

Such promises are believable because: 1) the preacher preaching them is has obviously been so blessed, judging by his (or her) suit; 2) we live in a very money- and image-driven culture, so we want that kind of blessing; 3) key Bible passages are taken out of context or are redefined in a way that makes such promises seem plausible; 4) the people in the greatest financial need desperately want a way out.

After encouraging a community to help those in need, Paul reminds the Corinthians: “And God is able to make all grace come to you in abundance, so that you may always and under all circumstances and whatever the need be self-sufficient.” (2 Corinthians 9:8)

Joyce Meyer, in her booklet “Prepare to Prosper,” transforms into this this passage into: “And God is able to make all grace (every favor and earthly blessing) come to you in abundance, so that you may always and under all circumstances and whatever the need be self-sufficient [possessing enough to require no aid or support and furnished in abundance for every good work and charitable donation].” (p. 21, Warner Faith, 1997)

Grace has everything to do with God’s favor, but it is, by definition, unmerited.  Grace can have material benefits, but not always.  This self-sufficiency should not be interpreted individualistically, as we Americans are wont to do; Paul uses the you-plural and this is a letter written to a community.  They together will have enough together for whatever material, emotional, and spiritual circumstance may arise.

Later in 2 Corinthians we see Paul wrestling with grace in a way utterly foreign to the prosperity Gospel:  “…there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’…” (2 Corinthians 12:7b-9a).

Paul was in pain.  We don’t know the details, whether it was some physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual problem.  But we know that he asked God to take it away, and God said, “No.”  Why?  Because God’s unmerited favor is enough, Paul, so you will have to live with the pain and be humbled by it.

God wanted Paul to suffer, the same way that He wanted Jesus to suffer, the same way that He wants you and me to suffer: that is when life is the most real, when we can draw closest to Him, and when we might draw others closer to Him.  (Romans 5:3-4; John 12:24; Philippians 2; etc.)

God promises that life with Him is good, but not easy.  The prosperity Gospel is a big fat lie.

Tirade Against Christian Bumper-Stickers

The Ends vs. the Means

Why do so many of us feel compelled to put religious bumper stickers on our cars?  Is our motivation to bring people closer to God?  Or is it to make them angry?  I wonder, because if bringing people closer to God is the goal, these stick-on slogans may be having the opposite effect.

I don’t know of any numbers.  I haven’t conducted any sociological surveys.  But every time I see “Got Jesus?  It’s hell without him,” or “Have you read my #1 best seller? There’ll be a test.  — God ,” I think: Would Christians say these things to someone’s face?  I hope not.  So why do they slap these messages on their cars, where they can invade other drivers’ lives?  Is that really “speaking the truth in love”?

Even though “His pain, our gain” is less offensive, it is so cheesy that the cheese may impair whatever epiphany it was supposed to bring.

And have you thought about how your driving might not be consistent with the Christ-like demeanor your bumper-stickers imply that you have?  I cuss and pray to God every time a mini-van with a Jesus-fish cuts me off.

Bumper-stickers in religion are like bumper-stickers in politics.  For the most part, they are not messages of love, but are propaganda.  They get people fired-up who already agree with you, but they put up a barrier between you and the people you think you are reaching.  They’re not a bad idea in theory, but they end up being a bad idea in practice.

Check out some other awesomely bad examples.

I praise God that He is bigger, more powerful, and more loving than us, even in our feeble attempts at serving Him.