Saturday, June 4, 2011

Chapter One, Part Two

...And, here goes the rest of it.

III.           Is that the good news?
                Bell writes, "Some Christians believe and often repeat that all that matters is whether or not a person is going to heaven.  Is that the message? (And I would add, if all non-believers are going to hell forever, how could we claim that the point really could be anything else?)  Is that what life is about?  Going somewhere else?  If that's the gospel, the good news - if what Jesus does is get people somewhere else - then the central message of the Christian faith has very little to do with this life other than getting you what you need for the next one.  Which of course raises the question: Is that the best God can do?"
                  This question raised another one in my mind: If even part of the reason we follow Jesus is that we know we have to or face eternal punishment, then can we truly ever follow him for other reasons? Can we honestly say we follow him because we love him?  Is it really our choice to love him if we have to love him, or else?  Or, as Kant suggested, if you do the right thing because you have to, are you really doing the right thing?  I  don't know if I agree with Kant, and I don't know if anyone really follows Jesus "for the right reasons", or if that's possible.  But it is a question I have. 

IV.          Is it grace or is it earned?
                A. "Being a good person"
                RB mentions that a dominant belief among Christians today is that "If they die, they go to be with God only if they have said or done or believed the 'right' things."  He adds that "If the message of Jesus is that God is offering the free gift of eternal life through him - a gift we cannot earn by our own efforts, works, or good deeds - and all we have to do is accept and confess and believe, aren't those verbs? And aren't verbs actions?
Accepting, confessing, believing - those are things we do.
Does that mean, then, that going to heaven is dependent on something I do?
How is any of that grace?
How is that a gift?
How is that the good news?
Isn't that what Christians have always claimed set their religion apart - that it wasn't, in the end, a religion at all - that you don't have to do anything, because God has already done it through Jesus?"

So, here's my question that follows from that: If we do have to do something, which something is it? Is it (A) being "born again" as Jesus told Nicodemus he must do in order to see the kingdom of God? (John 3)
(B) being considered worthy? (In Luke 20, Jesus refers to "those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead")
(C) asking God for mercy or acknowledging that you are a sinner? (In Luke 18 Jesus tells a story about a Pharisee and a tax collector. The tax collector prayed "God, have mercy on me, a sinner," and Jesus said "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.")
(D) asking Jesus to remember you as the thief on the cross did in Luke 23?
(E) forgiving others? (In Matthew 6, Jesus says that "if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.")
(F) standing firm to the end? (Matthew 10-"he who stands firm till the end will be saved.")
(G) give half of our possessions to the poor as Zacchaeus did in Luke 19, prompting Jesus to say "Today salvation has come to this house"?
or what about when the paralytic's friends lower him through a roof in Mark 2 in order for Jesus to heal him, and "when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, 'Son, your sins are forgiven'."?

By the way, there are plenty more where those came from. 

RB mentions that many preach that you just have to believe, and he responds, "So is it true that the kind of person you are doesn't ultimately matter, as long as you've said or prayed or believed the right things?"  To me, that idea seems to contradict much of the rest of the message of Jesus when he talks about how the way you live your life now does matter.   (See Matt. 25:31-46 for example).
                B. "a personal relationship"
                Bell also writes that, according to many Christians today, "the real issue, the one that can't be avoided, is whether a person has a 'personal relationship' with God through Jesus...that's the bottom line: a personal relationship.  If you don't have that, you will die apart from God and spend eternity in torment in hell.  The problem, however, is that the phrase 'personal relationship'  is found nowhere in the Bible.  If that's the point of it all, the one unavoidable reality, the heart of the Christian faith, why is it that no one used the phrase until the last hundred years or so?"
                My question that follows from that is, if it's all about who has a personal relationship with Jesus, why wouldn't Jesus simply state clearly that that is the key to salvation?  Why wouldn't he state it so clearly that it could not possibly be mistaken or confuse anyone?  Another issue I have with the personal relationship concept is that the idea of a relationship is not black and white, and what this relationship should look like isn't defined in the Bible. So even if Jesus had said "if you have a personal relationship with me, you will go to heaven," how would we know who had one and who didn't? He is, after all, an invisible, (currently) non-physical, divine Being.  I don't have a manual for how to have a relationship with such a Being, I just have a really long book with story after story of people who interacted with Him, some of whom seemed to pursue a connection with Him, some of whom didn't, none of whom ever got it quite right.

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