Theology

“Radical” review: 141-160

With a title like “There is No Plan B: Why Going is Urgent, Not Optional,” it should be obvious that this is one of those chapters were David and I definitely disagree. In fact, one of the biggest things I disagree with him on appears on the first page:

Applied to faith, this [equality] means that in a world where different people have different religious views, all such views should be treated as fundamentally equal. In this system of thinking, faith is a matter of taste, not of truth. (141)

What a reductionist view. Unfortunately, I understand where he’s coming from. David’s view of theology is one of the reasons why Christian fundamentalism and evangelicalism can occasionally appear identical. If you believe in the Eternal Conscious Torment model of hell and that the only way to avoid being burned alive for all of eternity is to “receive the gospel,” then you cannot afford to be wrong. There are enormous and extremely permanent consequences to what you think about God, Jesus, the Atonement, and soteriology. If you’re convinced of this sequence, then you’re going to have serious problems with pluralism, as you should if you’re a decent person on any level.

However, all of that is one of the biggest reasons why I believe that the evangelical conceptualization of theology is immoral, and that their religion is based on an immoral deity. At one point David tries to argue that concerns like mine are a matter of “emotion” (148), but they’re not. It’s a matter of morality. Asking whether or not God condemns people to eternal conscious torment because they’ve never heard the gospel — and their only option for hearing the gospel is dependent on flawed beings– isn’t an emotional question, it’s a moral one with high emotional stakes. Many people, myself included, have concluded that a god who behaves like that would be, possibly, the most evil creature to ever exist.

David’s argument has one core problem: out one side of his mouth he says that people are not condemned to eternal conscious torment because they never heard of Jesus, but because they “rejected God” (144-45); the other side of his mouth says that accepting God is defined by receiving the gospel (153). He’s forced into this position by the Bible as things like the Hall of Faith in Hebrews make “hearing the gospel” an impossible standard. Abraham, Moses, David, Jeremiah– they’d never heard of Jesus, had no understanding whatsoever of the evangelical definition of “the gospel.” He tries to wiggle around this by saying that “they were trusting in the redemption God would bring through Christ” but this comes after ten pages of him saying that people “doing their best with the information they have” are condemned to burn for all eternity. How Abraham doesn’t fall under the umbrella of “did his best with the information he had at the time” is beyond me.

The logic pattern of “all people have knowledge of God, and all people reject God” is internally consistent, however it’s based in the premise that all people have knowledge of the Christian god, and that premise is a far cry from being realistic, let alone proven. Supposedly, according to David, the Christian god does something to reveal themself in such a way that it’s possible for every single last person on the planet to have consciously rejected them. This manifestation cannot look like Tonatiuh, or Ra, or Belenos, or Yuyi, or Sol … for reasons that no one has ever demonstrated to me convincingly. Because I said so is about as far as they get, usually.

There’s no logical separation between “God condemns us to hell because we’ve never heard of Jesus” and “God condemns us to hell for rejecting themself” when the mechanism of accepting the Christian God is fallible humans preaching the gospel. That is a morally repugnant position. If the eternal damnation of billions of souls rests on people being healthy enough, wealthy enough, educated enough, and self-sacrificing enough to go to “unreached people groups” and talk about Jesus, then Christianity is a catastrophic moral failure on a scale I can barely comprehend. But this is what David believes (156).

He believes this because of a fairly common problem in evangelicalism: he reads the Pauline letters in isolation. Without Jesus, without James, without John the Revelator, it seems inevitable for people who embrace biblical inspiration to arrive at this conclusion. However, Paul is only one man, and a fallible one. His perspective is not the sum total of soteriology, and his articulation is only one view. This is why we have the collected library of Scripture. Paul, held in balance with James, John, and Peter, and viewed in light of the words of Christ helps paint us a complex and nuanced picture of faith.

I don’t hold with the position that the gospel is “Jesus died on the cross to cover your sins with his blood so that you can be admitted to heaven.” I believe that the gospel is far more rich than that. I believe that Jesus’ entire life and earthly ministry is “the Good News,” and that reducing faith to a single, solitary belief is to make Jesus almost totally irrelevant. I believe that Jesus came to save sinners, but the question is how. I believe that he wants each of us to do what he did– to serve, to heal, to liberate, to love. I believe that Christianity isn’t about a single question. It’s about Jesus’ entire life. It’s about our entire life.

Seeing the gospel in this light enables me to read the same passages as David does and see a message of hope and encouragement instead of despair. I don’t see a world condemned to burn, but a world that desperately needs us to love it. I can grieve with Paul in the opening to Romans as he looks around and sees so many terrible things. Each of us should be compelled to grieve for all the ways the world is broken and all the ways it breaks us. It should make us angry, like it made Paul angry … but it doesn’t stop there in Romans, and it shouldn’t end there for us, either. Romans continues to assure us that Jesus’ life– the gospel– makes it possible for things to be different. I believe that Paul is trying to show us that our broken world can be repaired.

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  • I have never heard anyone say that all belief systems are equal but rather that everyone should have an equal right to have whatever beliefs they want. To some, this translates to “many paths, one God,” but I don’t see how that’s possible when not all religions have one god (Hinduism), some have no god (Buddhism), some insist all non-followers will suffer eternally (Christianity, Islam) but others (Judaism) don’t have any conclusive doctrine about the afterlife.

    I wonder if Platt is the type who believes babies and the mentally disabled are included in the “people who never heard of God” category. If there’s an exception for them (and the Bible doesn’t mention one), why wouldn’t there be for people in isolated tribes who never encounter Western missionaries?

  • Sheila Warner

    Paul is also the source of the misogyny that plagues the Church to this day. I don’t take a word he says seriously. Of course, now I’ve reached the point that I don’t take any of the Bible seriously, but that’s just me. Paul is terrible and his epistles should not have been included in the canon in the first place.

    • I’m not sure that Paul is the “source” of the misogyny as much as he is the justification for it. Much of what he says is misogynist … but then there’s a lot of things he says that aren’t. Like giving the letter of Romans to a woman to deliver and then preach through it for the first time. He commends Junia for being a noteworthy apostle, and acknowledges the leadership of several women throughout his letters.

      In order to be a complementarian, you have to ignore a lot of what Paul said about women, so the Church’s misogyny seems more to do with systemic problems than Paul’s letters by themselves.

      • Pauline

        I also think a lot of the “misogynist” text of Paul is out of context and misunderstood as well. Its just as you say- he is the justification for it. Lets not forget one of the main reasons Christianity spread rapidly was because of women.

        • Northwoods Dan

          Agree. The stories of women are often not told to this very day. But Paul does commend Phoebe as a deacon, Junia as an apostle and he essentially equated Priscilla as being on his level and entrusted her and Acquilla with the training of Apollos. Misogyny is certainly not new but a some of the use of Paul to justify misogyny is of relatively recent (last few hundred years) vintage. I look at pre-enlightenment church leaders like St. Catherine of Sienna and Hildegard Von Bingen as a couple of examples of women who were extremely highly regarded. I think it goes to show how much cultural malarkey, including modern malarkey, is engrained in so many accepted doctrines. And Pauline is correct about the contributions of women to the spread of Christianity.

        • gexpl

          Also, a lot of “Paul’s” epistles were not actually written by Paul or were revised later. Because Christianity sprang from a sexist society I have good reason to think the early Church was not sexist. However, you’re right that it was very popular among women because of some of the freedoms it offered (such as the option to not marry and abandon family life for religious life) and a lot of things were added or changed later likely to reduce the influence women were having in the church.
          edited for clarity

  • Pauline

    “Paul, held in balance with James, John, and Peter, and viewed in light of the words of Christ helps paint us a complex and nuanced picture of faith.” I absolutely LOVE this.

  • ReverendRef

    And, in my opinion, David’s position totally ignores (at the least) both Matt. 25:31-46 (the separation of the sheep and goats) and John 10:16 (“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold…”). The implication in both those passages is that the gospel is so much bigger and more inclusive than simply saying the magic words. Additionally, it’s not our place to judge, it’s our place to serve.

    As for the misogyny of Paul . . . the more I read his letters the more I’m convinced he gets a bad rap for that because of the unfortunate problem of assigning him authorship to letters he most likely didn’t even write. So just like we need to rescue Mary Magdalene from the misplaced belief that she was a prostitute, we should work to rescue Paul from claims of misogyny.

    • DonaldByronJohnson

      I go even further, I think Paul was a counter-cultural egalitarian, but misunderstood.