Sunday, March 29, 2009

Do This, and You Will Live!

I've finally finished the Bible. Completely done. Thanks be to God!

I've finished reading all 1,852 pages of my Oxford New Revised Standard Version with Annotations and Apocrypha. As I made my journey through all these books, all these passages, what resonated most with me was the relevance and mystery of the Gospels. How Christ's amazing story, selfless sacrifice and simple acts of grace set the example for all of us, while at the same time, redeeming us all.

And yet, I struggle to reconcile the many theologically fundamental passages in the Bible which state that Jesus is the One True Way, the Only Way, that without Jesus, you are condemned to eternal hell.

I am making a careful distinction here. I am not suggesting that sin has no consequence. I am perfectly comfortable with the fact that the unrepentant sinful are condemned through their own actions. What I am questioning is the notion that the morally upright non-Christians are condemned as well. This flies against the notion of a loving and graceful God. It marginalizes the death Christ suffered and the magnificence of his resurrection.

But in many places, the Bible is absolutely clear on this notion. For instance:

"Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God." John 3:18


"There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved." Acts 4:12

and the most famous

"I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." John 14:6

After Jesus' resurrection and ascension into heaven, Christ appeared to Saul, converted him to Christianity, named him Paul, and sent him on his way to convert both the Jews and Gentiles. The apostle Paul really cranked up the ministry of Jesus Christ, establishing the de-facto Christian church in all of the land around the Mediterranean Sea. In doing so, he also cranked up the message of Jesus being the singular path to salvation:

"If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." Romans 10:9

This message carries on today. In my own church, countless times I have heard C.S. Lewis quoted to validate and justify this scripture. Indeed, I hear it so many times, I am waiting for Narnia to become Anglican Canon. C.S. Lewis has become the Apologist in Chief of today's evangelical fundamentalists. And yet, even C.S. Lewis questioned the doctrine of "Only-ness" of Christ.

Laura Miller, in The Magician's Book--A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia, points out the following:

"There is a much-cited passage in The Last Battle, in which Emeth, a noble warrior of the Calormene people, describes meeting Aslan [Christ] after the end of the world. At first, he is terrified, since he knows this god of the Narnians is the enemy of the Calormene god, Tash, and he has worshiped Tash all his life.

Then Aslan [Christ] explains to him, 'I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath's sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves, and by Tash his deed is accepted.'"

As Ms. Miller points out, "Emeth isn't going to be sent to Limbo [of which the Roman Catholic church has now disavowed itself] because of an accident of birth or for abiding by the nominal faith of his fathers. His honorable life and honest heart have earned him a place in the Narnian version of heaven."

This is a passage of C.S. Lewis that most fundamentalists conveniently ignore.

I must therefore ask, did God so loved the world that he sent is only Son, to save only the 5% or so true believers of the world? Surely not. I accept that the unrepentant sinful will perish. But why should the moral Buddhists, Jews, Mormons, agnostics, and Hindus? I am sure there are people from all of those beliefs that live a straighter and more sinless life than I do. Should they perish just because they've never been told about the word of Christ? How arbitrary is that?

So, then I come back to Paul, the author of well over 50% of the New Testament writing. In Paul's epistles, we see a new theme beginning to take shape after the Gospels. Not only are we to believe in and love our God, love our neighbor, and believe in His Holy Name, but Paul also reapplies a strict message of personal morality, a message that does not appear in the Gospels. Paul decries all acts he deems immoral among the people he ministered, acts like homosexuality (Romans 1:27), hypocrisy (Romans 2:17), living "in the flesh" (Romans 8:1-8, Galatians 5:16), incest (1 Corinthians 5:1-5), fornication (1 Corinthians 6:13-20), and countless other sins. Paul is reasserting a Deuteronomical law that Christ often personally rejected or revised numerous times. (Matthew 15:16-20, Mark 7:19-20, Matthew 23:9, Luke 13:15-16, Matthew 23:16-17, John 8:5-7, John 9:1-41)

Further, with Paul's new messages, we also see a return of material which we would nearly universally agree is archaic and irrelevant: doctrine on how men and women should wear their hair (1 Corinthians 11:2-6) and how women should never speak in church worship (1 Corinthians 14:34-36). Clearly, these are antiquated notions which modern society rejects. Is it acceptable to ignore these Biblical passages while adhering to others? Of course it is!

Even Paul himself had no problem with revision of prior canonical law. He debunked several of the laws of his own day, deeming circumcision as irrelevant (Galatians 5:6), claiming that real circumcision is a "matter of the heart". (Romans 2:29) Paul debunked the prevalent laws of Jewish Kosher (1 Corinthians 10:23-26) and ruled that food prepared for idols was safe to eat, since the idols were spiritually meaningless. (1 Corinthians 8:1-13)

For perspective, here, it is important to remember that Paul believed he was living in the final days of the Earth. (1 Corinthians 7:26) Paul felt that if the end of times were near, it was necessary to make right your ways because there was precious little time left. His urgency is seen in quaint, almost monk-like passages like where he advises unmarried virgins to stay unmarried, that satisfying the flesh is unnecessary and distracting. But, he adds, if you cannot be strong enough, at least get married so that you are not sinful. (1 Corinthians 7:25-40)

So it seems to me that Paul's messages must be taken in the context of his mindset. If the end is near, all matters of the material world are superfluous, and focus must remain entirely on being chaste and pure.

Paul's writing strikes me as a bit extreme, and honestly, it should to most everyone of today's society. We are not all priests; we cannot eschew our jobs and our families; we cannot devote ourselves as one would entering a seminary or convent. Nor does Christ call us to do so. A church without procreation is a church destined for obsolescence. There is no sin in living your life. However, we can strive to be better tomorrow than we are today. We can work every day to remove sin from our lives. We will not be perfect in this search, and we will stumble, but that is where, with a contrite heart, we receive the Grace of God.

Back to the message of what saves, is it living a sinless life or believing in Christ Jesus? Paul contradicted himself in these matters. In Romans, he echoes exactly the sentiment posed earlier by Laura Miller:

But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? ... So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:14-17)

And further:

Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand. (Romans 14:4)

And the apostle John's perspective on the same:

Beloved, do not imitate what is evil but imitate what is good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God. (3 John 1:11)

Holy Smokes! Salvation for us all!

Again, I assert that God gave us a conscience and free will, and we must use our own conscience to judge what is right and what is wrong in this world. In all of the Bible, modern society--even the most fundamentalists out there--pick and choose what to adhere to. I use my conscience, apply a healthy dose of compassion and tolerance (remember that love your neighbor bit?), listen to the Holy Spirit, and use all this as a guide in these matters.

So, now that I've finished the enormous effort of reading this Bible, front to back, I go back to the beauty and simplicity of the Gospel messages. Through all the volume of scripture that emanate from the all the various books, Old Testament and New, what resonates with me most is the simple message consistent in ALL FOUR of those Gospel books of Christ. Indeed, this message flows all the way from the Gospel, and into Romans through Jude. Luke captures it most perfectly stating:

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." ... "Do this, and you will live." (Luke 10:27)

"On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." (Matthew 22:40)

Now, go and do likewise.

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