Tuesday, June 14, 2016

More powerful than fear of hell fire

Ask any religionist—that is, anyone who adheres to a religion—if they want others to be converted to their religion, and I think that most, some after a moment’s thought, would probably answer, Yes. Most people who belong to a religious faith believe that theirs is the best of any. If their religion is one of the Abrahamic faiths, they might consider that those who do not convert to their faith are doomed to an eternity of punishment. Almost any other non-Abrahamic faith might at best feel the smugness of ‘my God is better than your God,’ or at least think ‘the God I chose works best for me’ and not have an opinion about those who follow other faiths.

Of the Abrahamic faiths, I think that Judaism, being the original, is the most mature and introspective, and I have almost never met a Jew who, though believing their faith the best or even the only true, has tried to convert me to Judaism. Part of this reluctance to promote their faith comes from a pride of race; not just anyone can be a member of God’s people. Yes, the Jews believe that they are God’s hereditary people, a notch above everyone else, and they have all of history to prove it. What happens to people after they die, moreover, is hardly to be considered. As a matter of fact, the Jews just know that God is fair and just, so no one who does what is right has anything to fear.

If I were to ask a Jew the question often put to Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish rabbi of twenty centuries ago, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ their answer would probably be, ‘Go home and be a—what did you say you were? a Catholic? Go home and be a good Catholic.’ If they were a particularly fussy (what they might call devout) kind of Jew, and learned at that, they might start by explaining to me that, since I am not a born Jew, I can find favor in God’s eyes by keeping the seven laws of Noah. If I pressed them further, they might allow me to stand in their synagogue at the back and pray and witness their service, but I might never come near the Torah scrolls or be counted in a minyan.

So much for the Jews. Ask a Christian—and there are so many kinds—the same question ‘What must I do to be saved?’ and though you’d expect them to willingly share their faith with you—evangelize you, for Christianity is a missionary faith—a good many would not know what to answer and might even be shocked that you should ask at all. To them, it’s obvious. You join a church and do what they tell you. I remember when I moved from mainstream Protestantism into the Greek Orthodox Church just short of thirty years ago, a Greek co-worker asked me, when I told her I was Orthodox, ‘How were you able to find us?’ as if Orthodoxy were, as often boasted, ‘America’s best kept secret.’

Brought up a Catholic and later lapsed, through study of books and life experiences self-evangelized at twenty-four years into the Episcopal Church, I was from that point on, eager to share my faith in Jesus Christ, and even to promote my church, because ‘I found it’ and was certain that, ‘if it works for me, it will work for you.’ Convert’s zeal was quickly dampened in me by what actually goes on in the Christian community, but I never lost my zeal to share, not the church, but Christ. Joining the Orthodox Church was for me not a conversion, just a refinement: Now, having entered the ‘original’ form of Christian community, I could evangelize for Christ, and He would evangelize for the Church.

Or so I thought, because as I put myself into situations where evangelism might be possible, I began to see that this is not really how God works. How would I know? Well, looking at Jesus Christ as He is portrayed in the Bible, what He does and what He says, and especially hearing Him say, ‘If you have seen Me, you have seen the Father,’ I had to rethink the motive for evangelism. For Christianity, you see, is a derivative religion. It is really a refined form of Judaism, but still essentially Jewish. The main difference is that it has, in theory at least, expanded the borders of ‘the Chosen People’ to encompass all of humanity—all, that is, who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, as God.

Back to the topic of wanting to proselytize, make converts of others, to one’s religion, and why anyone would want to do it, and asking Christians again, starting with the Bible-believers, those who affirm that ‘the Bible is the inerrant Word of God,’ we find that honestly or doctrinally, they fear for the ‘salvation’ of unbelievers and sinners. God, according to them, is angry with mankind, with all of us, and nothing we do to try to appease Him can succeed. If we don’t accept His Son Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, we will spend eternity roasting in the fires of hell. This is not a new or uncommon belief. In some form it is held by religionists of other faiths, particularly Islam, and once by all Christians.

Once by all Christians, meaning the ‘roasting in hell’ part, but a good many Christians today, of all church affiliations, still believe something quite like it. We want to evangelize because those whose sins are not forgiven and expunged will be separated forever from God, and this forgiveness and expurgation is possible only while we are alive on earth. After death, whatever we have decided in life—for Christ, or without Him—determines our fate in eternity. Given that God is a mechanical Being, that He is a Divine accountant, a supreme Lawgiver, Lawyer, and Judge, and since He generously sacrificed part of Himself, His Son Jesus Christ, to acquit us of our iniquities, He can be this kind of God.

But is He really? Is the only possible interpretation of the life, teachings, and death of Jesus Christ the ‘angry God requires appeasement’ one? One thing is for sure, the last—and they would say the final—revelation of the Abrahamic God, Islam, continues to hold to the view of a God who is demanding, can be angry, and most certainly consigns ‘the wicked’ and ‘the unbelievers’ to hell fire. This basic pattern for the ‘God versus man’ relationship is implicit in all three Abrahamic religions and gives their adherents the motivation at least to be ‘good’ people and to ‘believe,’ as well as to warn others to do likewise, so that everyone can make God happy and be made happy in return, forever.

Outside the pale of these three, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, a different idea of what God is like and, consequently, how we relate to Him, removes the motivation for their adherents to proselytize. When they do, it’s often to deliver people from the ‘angry God’ of the Abrahamic faiths—especially young Westerners. In classical times, the motivation was to spread civilization, the religious faiths being the carriers of material as well as spiritual technologies. Reflecting back on Christianity’s vast nineteenth and twentieth century missionary exploits, the same might be true.

It seems that way, at least in modern America, and in fact, it was this way for the past three centuries until very recently, in the western and northern parts of Europe as well. Christianity, by individual, personal evangelism along with social activism, raised the moral and material level of the peoples it evangelized. In modern America, the sects go after, and are usually only successful in evangelizing, the lower classes, those whose lifestyle has degenerated over the course of a few generations, into severe familial and personal dysfunction. Once raised, people often ‘outgrow’ Christianity.

So why don’t we ‘go fishing’ as Jesus calls it ‘for men’ if we really believe in a dangerous universe, where God is angry with us and will certainly punish us forever, even if we’re ‘good,’ because we don’t care a ripe fig about Jesus or what He has done for us? You know, why don’t people want to play the church game of ‘pretend to be a sinner, then pretend to be saved’ with us? Is it because they really have better things to do than contemplate the niceties of God, Christ, and religion, if that’s what it’s all about? To those who believe in the ‘inerrant Word of God’ I say, you haven’t done enough, not for yourselves or for God; you’ve been lavishing grace on yourselves, while letting the world go to hell in a hand-basket.

To those, like myself, who believe that Christ Jesus, not the Bible, is the incarnate, not just the inerrant, Word of God, I say, we haven’t done enough, not for ourselves or for humanity; we’ve been keeping our light hidden under a bushel, we haven’t followed even the most basic commandments of Jesus, ‘Therefore go, make disciples of all nations, teaching them everything, baptizing them’ in the life of the Holy Trinity, restoring their freedom, their human-divine dignity, healing their sickness, and raising them to life, here in time on earth, so that there, in eternity, they can continue to live with God. We should know that we have a motivation, one more powerful than fear of hell fire.

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed His love among us: He sent His one and only Son into the world that we might live through Him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and His love is made complete in us.

This is how we know that we live in Him and He in us: He has given us of His Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent His Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

We love because He first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And He has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

1 John 4:7-21 NIV

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