The Epistle to Elder Ritchie

Hi Elder Ritchie,

There’s a lot to say and it’s hard to know where to start, so I’ll just start with a definition of the Gospel.

“Gospel” is a loaded word which gets thrown around by Christians of every variety all the time, but it’s rare for people to actually slow down and ask “what exactly is the Gospel anyway?” There are many different gospels on offer (Including the LDS “restored Gospel”), and all of them are true, but some are more true than others. When evangelising, you need to be clear exactly which of these gospels you are trying to convey and impart, because how you convey a gospel depends on which gospel it actually is. It is important to remember that “Gospel” literally just means “Good news” or “Glad tidings”, and keeping this in mind can help you to spot whether someone’s gospel is not quite right, because invariably it won’t actually be “good news” if you analyse it closely.

You are already familiar with the LDS restored gospel (more familiar with it than I am). I’ll attempt to roughly summarise it (forgive me for butchering the nuances here):

Mankind was created good and innocent in the beginning, but our first parents rebelled against God and were condemned to death. Jesus came and atoned for our sins in the garden of Gethsemane. He founded a church which was meant to carry salvation to the world. Unfortunately that church apostatised and the true faith was lost until the 1800s when the church was restored by Joseph Smith. The good news (gospel) is that now it is possible to be saved by joining this restored church. All you need to do is be baptised, live a good life, be sealed in the temple, experience the endowment ordinance, follow the word of wisdom and so on. Failure to meet these conditions is akin to rejecting the offer of salvation, and may either reduce your heavenly glory to one of the lower kingdoms, or perhaps even condemn you to the outer darkness for all eternity with the sons of perdition.

You may have also encountered the “evangelical protestant gospel” in your time as a missionary. This gospel goes roughly something like the following:

Mankind was created good and innocent in the beginning, but our first parents rebelled against God and were condemned to death (or everlasting torture in Hell, depending on the temperament of the evangelical in question). However the good news (gospel) God sent Jesus to take the punishment in our place on the cross. Now, all you need to do to be saved is believe in Jesus! It doesn’t even matter whether you are a good person any more! However failure to believe in Jesus will result in the original punishment remaining over you and so if you don’t believe in Jesus before you die you will have to suffer death (or everlasting torture).

There are other gospels too. The catholic one is quite similar to the LDS one, just that the ordinances are a bit different.

Whereas the most true gospel that I’ve encountered goes something more like this:

We all experience evil, suffering and death. Sometimes it gets so bad that the word “Hell” is appropriate. This is the fundamental problem that needs to be solved, and WE have to solve it, because no one else will. However paradoxically, we are totally unable to solve it. The good news (gospel), is that there is a happy ending to the story: no matter how bad things get, we can have faith and hope in the promise that everything is moving towards God himself, and in God there is only light and no darkness, no evil, no suffering. God himself guarantees a happy ending for all of us. The gospel is basically this promise, with some qualifying attributes:

  1. Antinomianism: there’s nothing we really have to “do” in order to secure this happy ending, because God himself has already secured it on our behalf, and he promises it to us unconditionally. We don’t have to follow the word of wisdom, or sharia law, or Jewish law, or secular law, or any law.
  2. Universalism: God loves the entire creation and everyone and everything in it. His promise applies to everyone, regardless of whether they are a saint or a sinner, a Mormon or a Muslim, a Catholic or Protestant. God promises to save and glorify every single soul.
  3. Pluralism: All truth is God’s truth, and all religions and philosophies and world-views are 100% true in their domain. Islam is the one true faith, but so is Catholicism, Calvinism, Atheism, Islam and Mormonism. All religions are 100% true. Every aspect of every religion also contains the gospel promise embedded in it, and it is the evangelists job to extract it.

There are also some caveats, to balance out those three happy attributes

  1. Expensive Grace: God doesn’t just carry us to heaven while we are sleeping. He requires us to work extremely hard to bring it about. In order to walk the path to the promised happy ending, all of us have to be made perfect, and perfectly follow the divine law of love (i.e., Love God, Love neighbour, Love self). This is something we must do with our own free agency, however the good news (gospel) is that God guarantees that we will succeed, even though the task seems impossible. He promises that he will never leave us, no matter how dark it seems or how hard it gets or even if we end up in Hell or the outer darkness: God will stand by our side and never abandon us, giving us the strength to keep fighting even when all is eternally lost. The law of love is not written in books or church traditions or moral philosophy: it is written directly on our heart, and speaks to us through our conscience. If you listen to your conscience, God will speak and guide your actions from moment to moment. In this way you will know when you have done right and when you have done wrong and you won’t need any priest, pastor or bible to tell you it.
  2. Evangelism is essential: God is going to save the world, but he uses believers to do it. His promise needs to be spread to the ends of the earth, and all people need to hear it and trust it and become full of joy and love. “But how can they believe if they have not heard? and how can they hear if they have not been told? and how can they be told if no one is sent to them?” If we believe the gospel and are saved, but then don’t overflow with love and compassion for those who are still wandering in the darkness, this is the height of selfishness. If we are truly perfect in love, we need to spread that love to the world, starting with our own families, friends and community, and then all the way to the other side of the world.
  3. Great Apostasy: All religions and philosophies are 100% true, however every single one of them is missing the point. None of them teach the true gospel, because all of them are institutions, and the lifeblood of institutions is money, and money is the root of all evil. Imagine me standing out the front of the congregation and preaching this stuff. Many people would have hard hearts and be offended. “You don’t have to pay your tithe. You don’t actually have to follow the word of wisdom” etc. This message is the message that saves, but it is not in the interest of institutions. Furthermore, at the top of every institution is a demon (Paul talks about this in his letters). Fallen angels are the ones calling the shots right now. Every government, religion, and organisation is guided by a demon behind the scenes. We must respect the truths of all religions, while also remembering that not a single one of them clearly proclaims God’s divine promise unadulterated.

Based on all of this, here are some practical principles for living the gospel and spreading the gospel:

  1. Every law is good. Despite the fact that we don’t have to follow any law but the divine law of love, religious laws are still good and helpful, and if you follow them, you will receive unique blessings and graces. For example, the word of wisdom is good. If you refrain from tea and coffee, your life will be blessed, I guarantee it. Similarly, Sharia law requires you to abstain from pork, and this is a good thing to do, even if it isn’t obvious why at first. If you want to understand why refraining from pork is a blessing, you have to try it. It’s the same with abstaining from drugs, alcohol, tea, coffee. People who don’t do it don’t understand the amazing blessings and graces. The only way to understand is to take the plunge and dive into it. Basically you can take any list of “Do and do not” laws from any religion or governing authority, and there will be legitimate blessings from following those rules. However it is important to remember that our salvation in no way depends on following these rules, and they are therefore fundamentally optional.
  2. Become all things to all people. When spreading the gospel, you are not trying to “convert them to your religion”. You are simply proclaiming the divine promise, on behalf of God (and sometimes in the name of Jesus, if you are talking to a Christian). If they fail to trust the promise, then they remain in the darkness. However if they fail to trust the promise, it’s not their fault: it’s your fault, because you were unable to proclaim it to them in a way that penetrated to their heart and soul. The solution is to get into the other persons shoes as much as possible: If you want to save a catholic, you need to become a catholic. if you want to save a Muslim, you need to become a Muslim, and i mean that as literally as possible: you need to follow sharia law, pray five times a day, say the Shahada, honestly believe that Muhammad (pbuh) is the final prophet of God, etc.You need to pray the same way they pray, believe the same things they believe, do the same things they do, talk the way they talk. Because once you have done this, you are “one of them” and they will listen to you when you speak the promise. If you fail to do these things, the encounter will always be a combative one, because you are the Christian and they are the Buddhist, and there is no common ground between you, and then your proclamation of the promise will fall flat. The strategy i describe is exactly the strategy that Saint Paul used on his missionary journeys. He “became a Greek to the Greeks, so as to save the Greeks, and a Jew to the Jews, so as to save the Jews”. He also “put himself under the subjection of every law, so as to save those who are under those laws, even though he himself is not bound by any law but the divine law of God”. Remember when he was in Athens converting the Greeks? He didn’t quote bible verses at them; he quoted their own scriptures, poets and philosophers. In the same way, to proclaim the gospel to a Muslim, you have to quote the Quran, not the book of Mormon. But remember the gospel promise is pluralistic: It can be found everywhere once you have eyes to see it, and once you see it in Islam, you can lead Muslims to it using their own faith. Once you see it in Buddhism, you can lead Buddhists to it using their own faith. Besides, people are more likely to become Mormons if you are willing to convert to their religion first.
  3. Handling contradictions: Whenever you encounter a philosophy or world-view that appears to fundamentally contradict your own, follow the following rule: Seldom affirm, never deny, always distinguish. You should never, ever think in your heart “you are wrong” towards someone. You should instead always think “I don’t understand what you mean” and keep asking honest questions. Usually they are on to something and if you keep digging, you’ll be rewarded with wisdom and it always fits with what you already believe. This is also a practical implication of “become all things to all people”: how can you do that if you insist on disagreeing with someone? Basically, there is almost never any good reasons to disagree in a discussion. Instead you should always seek deeper understanding and keep asking questions until the link between your view and theirs becomes clear.

I have said a lot already, so in closing I’ll just ramble on a bit about the gospel promise a bit more.

The resurrected Christ IS the gospel promise and the gospel promise IS God. There is a strict equivalence. So whenever you proclaim the promise to someone, you are actually verbally giving God (Christ) to them. This is quite profound. Because if they truly trust the promise when you proclaim it, this just is faith in God. And consider what it would look like if you trusted such a promise: Infinite happiness, joy and bliss forever and ever, for you and all your loved ones. If you actually believe this, it changes how you see the world right now. It’s almost as if the lights come on throughout the whole creation. “I was blind but now I see”. When you trust the promise (i.e., believe in God) You taste the joy of the happy ending right now. You overflow with joy and become a light in the dark. Proclaiming the promise looks different in every case however, because every person is different. This is why we must become all things to all people. If i need to proclaim the promise to a Buddhist, it is essential that I am able to proclaim it in Buddhist language. If i am to proclaim it to a catholic, i need to be able to proclaim it in catholic terminology. And for this very reason, real evangelism occurs in the context of friendship. It’s not often possible to proclaim the promise correctly and save someone in a 5 minute conversation. You need to walk with them for a long time, together meditating on the promise and addressing each other’s doubts and concerns, learning from each other. We can do the best we can out on the street with random passers by, but the real deep conversions happen in long conversations between friends, over many years. Friendship is very important.

Anyway, i have to run off to class! Sorry for sending such a long email, but despite the pure beautiful simplicity of the gospel, it is always hard to put into words. But always a joy. Stay in touch!

Prophecy Fragment #7 – Unfinished poetry

Christians appear on the urban street
Preaching a Gospel to the heathen
Attempting to save us; quite the feat
A message for a privileged elite
I gaze with delight on their mission

I muse to myself; what do they want?
To save me from those infernal flames?
To lead me to that holiest font,
Where love, life overflow as they ought?
But I know the real truth of their games.

More about them; it’s not about me
If they could only score one convert-
How reassuring this is, you see?
And rubbing their hands, laughing with glee
They come and with me, attempt to flirt.

But I won’t have it, no not today
For I know truth; the essence of joy
Whilst they walk in darkness; lost, astray
I only want to show them the way
Their illusions I try to destroy

They ask, “To be saved, what must you do?”
I shake my head. They have no idea.
“It’s really quite simple: God loves you
And not just you, but your family too!”
As usual, love is conquered by fear.

“They don’t believe!”, they loudly protest
“They must be damned and destined for Hell”
“I’m not so sure”, I joke and I jest
“Of all Gods, is that really the best?
There is another, please let me tell.”

The God who is mighty, loving, good
The God who will not abandon us
He who is worthy, worship we should
He who could save us all if we would
And predestined it is to be thus.

For I only want to share my joy
And I do not want to convert you
My evangelism knows no ploy
My faith I treat as more than a toy
Blessed bliss is all I need to woo

And one day I know you’ll understand
That all will be won by hope and love
Secured by Christ, the perfect man
And so we fight with all that we can
And strive, flying to heaven above

Because none will remain in the grave
And Hell and Hades will be empty
And with broken chains, no longer slaves
From sin, death and Satan we are saved
Essence of the Gospel victory

Rejoice, sinner, your end is secure
For this is the core of God’s promise
He can’t fail and we all will be pure
All will be saved: not one soul fewer
Everyone will exit the darkness

Eschatology and Soteriology – A Universalist Catholic Account Of The Last Things

I affirm the dogmatic, three-fold, Catholic eschatological division of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. However I understand these three realities in ways that are different to the standard presentation, and I also propose a fourth realm which I’m not sure what to call, but will tentatively refer to as Eschaton. Finally, there is also a state called Limbo which overlaps with both Heaven and Purgatory, but it is important to note that my understanding of Limbo is quite different to the traditional understanding.

Hell

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In my understanding, and following the current Catechism, Hell consists of “Total separation from God”. I take this at face value and interpret it as meaning that Hell consists of “Ceasing to Exist”, because this is the only way to truly be “totally separate” from God. As it says in the psalms “If I make my bed in Hell, you are there with me”

I also believe that Hell is empty, which is to say that no one will actually experience this fate. I allow room for the idea that Jesus himself descended to this Hell and suffered the punishment of annihilation on our behalf on Holy Saturday. However I am not dogmatically committed to the idea.

People might wonder what the point of this Hell is if no one goes there. This is easily answered: Without everlasting damnation there can be no salvation. God needed to save us from something, and this is what it was. In this way, the purpose of Hell is to remind us how bad it could have been, which in turn serves to emphasise just how much God loves us, and just how great his Grace is.

Purgatory

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In my understanding, Purgatory is both a punishment and a purification. Both the punishment and the purification are directly proportional in intensity to the amount of sins a person commit during life.

Purgatory is also what I take all the biblical references to “Gehenna” to be referring to. As such, I believe that Purgatory is experienced as “Eternal Conscious Torment” (as long as the word “eternal” is understood to mean “timeless”). I take biblical references to the worm that dies not, eternal punishment, eternal fire, the outer darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth, and eternal destruction as references to the experience of purgatory. Purgatory really, really sucks and you don’t want to go there.

I also believe that people who do not have explicit faith in Christ prior to death go to purgatory. I believe that it is impossible for someone who has not been evangelised and who has not come to faith in the unconditional promises of God to enter salvation. Salvation requires a full purification, but also explicit faith in the gospel message. Without these two things, it is impossible to experience heaven.

Heaven

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In my understanding, Heaven is the place where someone goes when they have perfect, explicit faith in the unconditional promise of salvation, and when their soul has been fully purified of all stain of sin. Implicit faith is not enough. A loving heart is not enough. The soul must be perfect and their faith must be explicit.

The degree of reward received in heaven is directly proportional to the good works that the person performed during life. It is an abstract, spiritual sort of pleasure that consists of the direct apprehension of God and his pure beauty, truth, goodness, love, mercy, justice and so forth.

Where my view of heaven starts to differ from the standard account, is that I believe that it is impossible for the people in heaven to actually enjoy the fullness of heavenly bliss while their friends and family remain suffering in Gehenna. I believe that the people in Heaven can see the suffering in Gehenna, and they are horrified by it. As such, so long as there is a single soul remaining in the dark torments of Gehenna, this will cause a chain reaction of compassionate empathy that effectively nullifies the supreme joy and bliss of everyone in heaven.

I believe that because of this, the people in heaven will organise missionary trips to purgatory. They will descend from Heaven and minister to the poor souls who are trapped in Gehenna, preaching the Gospel to them, reasoning with them, loving them, and generally doing everything they can in order to bring these poor souls to perfect faith and repentance so that they may escape the darkness. This missionary activity will continue so long as there is a single soul remaining trapped in Gehenna.

Limbo

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Limbo is not really “another state”, and is instead just a dramatically reduced experience of Purgatory and Heaven. People who did not do many or any good deeds during life, but who also did not commit many or any sins during life, therefore do not merit much or any punishment and reward in the afterlife. Therefore regardless of whether these people end up in Heaven or Purgatory, the experience will be much the same: very blank and devoid of any content. This “nothing” state receives the name “Limbo” in my theology. Notice that it is different to “The limbo of the infants” and “The limbo of the fathers” from traditional Catholic scholasticism, although aborted babies and young infants do indeed experience my version of Limbo, on account of the fact that they haven’t sinned or loved at all during life.

Eschaton

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Where the previous states were disembodied spiritual realities which the soul experiences alone, this state has to do with the resurrection and new creation.

The eschaton is the final state, the end of history, the teleos of creation. In this final state, there will be no more tears, no more pain, no more suffering, no more sickness, no more death. The lion will lie down with the lamb. Every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that Christ is lord. All the gentiles will be saved, all of Israel will be saved. Even all of the fallen Angels will have been saved.

The eschaton will not arrive until the missionary activity from heaven has succeeded and therefore every soul who is stuck in Gehenna has escaped. The joy of salvation cannot be complete until everyone has been fully saved. The eschaton represents the state of affairs when this has finally occurred. It is the most glorious state of all: No longer is there any impediment to the saved enjoying their salvation, because all of their friends and families have been saved too!

Furthermore, this is simultaneous with the resurrection, the Parousia, the final (general) judgement and the new creation. All the disembodied souls will be reunited with their glorified bodies, in a renewed and glorified physical reality that encompasses all of history and includes everything that has ever lived or existed. This is the true and final end to the story. So long as people fail to achieve heaven, heaven can’t really be heaven. But in the eschaton, everyone will have finally achieved salvation and therefore the joy of salvation will be complete. Finally we will all be able to enjoy God to the full, experiencing unadulterated, uninterrupted heavenly bliss, as well as perfect love for all people, all things, all creation and God himself.

Conclusion

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Heaven is not what we should be aiming for, and purgatory is not what we should be settling for. The eschaton is what we are working towards, and the good news of the gospel is that we can’t fail! Salvation is guaranteed, but it is not automatic: we still have to walk the path. But the good news is that we will walk the path. God guarantees and promises us that in the end, we will fight the good fight, we will run the race, we will win the prize. There is a crown waiting for each of us, and in the eschaton we will all be victorious, to the praise and glory of God.

7 Myths About Universalism

Robin Parry holding a teacup

Below is Parry’s article—originally published as Bell’s Hells: seven myths about universalism in the Baptist Times.


You can be a good evangelical without believing in eternal punishment, writes Robin Parry

On Tuesday February 22 2011, Rob Bell – the influential pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan – posted the promotional video for his new book, Love Wins.

Rumours started spreading almost immediately that Bell’s forthcoming book advocated universalism and, unsurprisingly, the Internet went white-hot. On Saturday February 26 Justin Taylor, a well-known neo-Calvinist, posted his provisional reflections about Bell as a universalist on The Gospel Coalition blog and, reportedly, by that evening about 12,000 people had recommended his post on Facebook.

That same day Rob Bell was in the top 10 trending topics on Twitter. And from there the number of blog posts exploded. Overnight, universalism went from being a marginal issue that most evangelicals felt that they could ignore to being the next big debate.

Feelings are running high at the moment and a lot of strong language is being used. I think that if the church is to have a fruitful discussion on this matter (rather than a bad tempered battle-to-the-death) then it is essential that we have a clear understanding of what Christian universalists actually believe. A lot of myths about universalism are informing the current debate and I want to explore seven of them very briefly below.

To begin it will be helpful to have a quick definition of Christian universalism. Christian universalists are (mostly) orthodox, Trinitarian, Christ-centred, gospel-focused, Bible-affirming, missional Christians. What makes them universalists is that they believe that God loves all people, wants to save all people, sent Christ to redeem all people, and will achieve that goal.

In a nutshell, it is the view that, in the end, God will redeem all people through Christ. Christian universalists believe that the destiny of humanity is ‘written’ in the body of the risen Jesus and, as such, the story of humanity will not end with a tomb.

Myth: Universalists don’t believe in hell

Many an online critic of Bell has complained that he, along with his universalist allies, does not believe in hell. Here, for instance, is Todd Pruitt: ‘Rob Bell . . . denies the reality of hell.’ Mr BH adds, ‘To Hell with No Hell. To Hell with what’s being sold by Rob Bell.’

Nice rhyming but, alas, this is too simplistic.

Historically all Christian universalists have had a doctrine of hell and that remains the case for most Christian universalists today, including Bell. The Christian debate does not concern whether hell will be a reality (all agree that it will) but, rather, what the nature of that reality will be. Will it be eternal conscious torment? Will it be annihilation? Or will it be a state from which people can be redeemed? Most universalists believe that hell is not simply retributive punishment but a painful yet corrective/educative state from which people will eventually exit (some, myself included, think it has a retributive dimension, while others do not).

So it is not hell that universalists deny so much as certain views about hell. (To complicate matters a little there have even been a few universalists that believed that hell is an eternal, conscious torment! An unusual view for a universalist but possible – honest.)

Myth: Universalists don’t believe the Bible

One does not have to read Bell’s detractors for long before coming across the following sentiments: Universalists are theological ‘liberals’ that reject the ‘clear teaching of the Bible’. Surely all good Bible-believing Christians will believe that some/many/most people are damned forever? ‘If indeed Rob Bell denies the existence of hell, this is a betrayal of biblical truth,’ says R Albert Mohler. David Cloud, concerned about Bell’s questioning classical conceptions of hell, writes, ‘It is evil to entertain questions that deny Bible truth.’

So, are universalists really Bible-denying? No.

Historically, Christian universalists have been Bible-affirming believers and that remains the case for many, perhaps the majority, today. The question is not ‘Which group believes the Bible?’ but, ‘How do we interpret the Bible?’

The root issue is this: there are some biblical texts that seem to affirm universalism (eg Romans 5:18; 1 Corinthians 15:22; Colossians 1:20; Philippians 2:11) but there are others that seem to deny it (eg Matthew 25:45; 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9; Revelations 14:11; 20:10-15).

At the heart of the biblical debate is how we hold these two threads together. Do we start with the hell passages and reread the universalist texts in the light of them? That is the traditional route. Or, do we start with universalist passages and reinterpret the hell texts in the light of them? That is what many universalists do.

Or do we try to hold both sets of biblical teachings in some kind of tension (and there are various proposals for how we might do that – some leaning towards traditionalism, others leaning towards universalism)?

There is also the question of wider biblical-theological themes and their relevance. For instance, biblical teaching on God’s love, justice, punishment, the cross-resurrection, covenant, etc. How might reflection on those matters influence our theology of hell?

This is not just about finding ‘proof texts’ to whip your opponent with (both sides are capable of that) but about making best sense of the Bible as a whole. And when we follow the big plotline of the scriptures, which ending to the story has the best ‘fit’? Universalists believe that the ending in which God redeems his whole creation makes the most sense of the biblical metanarrative. Traditionalists disagree.

My point is that this debate is not a debate between Bible-believing Christians (traditionalists) and ‘liberals’ (universalists). It is, to a large extent, a debate between two sets of Bible-believing Christians on how best to understand scripture.

Myth: Universalists don’t think sin is very bad

Blogger Denny Burke thinks that Bell’s ‘weak’ view of hell if based on a ‘weak’ view of sin which, in turn, is based on a ‘weak’ view of God: ‘Sin will always appears as a trifle to those whose view of God is small.’

Universalists ‘obviously’ think that sin isn’t something to get too worked up about – after all they believe that God’s job is to forgive people, right?

Once again we are in the realm of mythology. Propose a view on the seriousness of sin as strong as you wish and you’ll find universalists who would affirm it. Does sin affect every aspect of human life? Is it an utter horror that degrades our humanity and warrants divine wrath? Does it deserve eternal punishment?

Universalists could affirm all of these things so long as they believed that God’s love, power, grace, and mercy are bigger and stronger than sin. Universalists do not have a low view of sin, they have a high view of grace: ‘Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.’

Myth: Universalists believe in God’s love but forget his justice and wrath

Here is Britten Taylor’s response to Rob Bell: ‘God is love. But, He is also just. God pours out His mercy, but He also pours out His wrath.’ The implication is that universalists overplay divine love and forget that God is also holy and just. Right? Wrong.

Christian universalists have a lot to say about God’s holiness, justice, and even his wrath. Typically they think that God’s divine nature cannot be divided up into conflicting parts in such a way that some of God’s actions are loving (eg, saving sinners) while others are just and full of anger (eg, hell).

They see all of God’s actions as motivated by ‘holy love’. Everything God does is holy, completely just, and completely loving.

So whatever hell is about it must be compatible not simply with divine justice but also with divine love. Which means that it must, in some way, have the good of those in hell as part of its rationale.

Universalists feel that one potential danger in traditional theologies of hell is that while they make much of God justice and anger they appear to be incompatible with his love and, as a result, they divide up the unity of God’s nature.

Myth: Universalists think that all roads lead to God

Here is Kevin Mullins’ definition of universalism in his discussion of Bell: ‘Universalism – the belief that everyone, regardless of faith or behavior, will be counted as God’s people in the end. All roads lead to Him. All religions are just different expressions of the same Truth.’

That idea is what underlies crparke’s comment that, ‘If Rob Bell denies hell then he denies the need for a “savior” and makes the sacrifice of Jesus irrelevant.’

Here our Internet conversation partners have confused universalism (the view that God will one day save all people through Christ) with pluralism (the view that there are many paths to God and that Jesus is simply one of them). But Christian universalists deny pluralism. They insist that salvation is found only through the atoning work of Christ. Without Jesus nobody would be redeemed!

Now there is a disagreement between Christians about whether one needs to have explicit faith in Jesus to share in the salvation he has bought. Some Christians, called exclusivists, think that only those who put their trust in the gospel can be saved.

Others, called inclusivists, think that it is possible to be saved through Christ even without explicit faith in him.

Thus, for inclusivists it is possible to be saved even if, for instance, you have never heard the gospel. Inclusivists would maintain that if someone responds in humility, love, and faith to the truncated divine revelation that they have received then God can unite them to Christ and they may be considered as, perhaps, ‘anonymous Christians’.

But we need to be careful not to confuse the discussion between exclusivists and inclusivists with the issue of universalism. Many people make that mistake. The former debate concerns how people can experience the salvation won by Christ while the latter concerns how many people will be saved. Two different questions.

Thus, some universalists are inclusivists (eg, Rob Bell) but others are exclusivists, maintaining that only people who trust in the gospel can be saved. (Obviously exclusivist universalists have to believe that salvation is possible after death.)

But whether one is speaking of exclusivist or inclusivist universalists, neither relegate Jesus to the sidelines.

Myth: Universalism undermines evangelism

Here is Matt: ‘I do think the Scripture is clear that salvation at least has some limits. If it doesn’t, then preaching and evangelism are ultimately wasted activities.’ And R Albert Mohler worries that, ‘If indeed Rob Bell denies the existence of hell, this . . . has severe . . . evangelistic consequences.’ Why, after all, would anyone bother to go through all the effort and struggle of evangelism if God is going to save everyone in the end anyway?

So must universalism undermine evangelism? Not at all. There are many reasons to engage in mission and evangelism, not least that Christ commands it. And it is a huge privilege to join with God in his mission of reconciling the world to himself. The gospel message in God’s ‘foolish’ way of setting the world right so, of course, universalists will want to proclaim it.

Fear of hell is not the only motivation for mission. And, what is more, the majority of universalists do fear hell. Whilst they may not view it as ‘the end of the road’, they still consider it to be a dreadful state to be avoided.

And historically universalists have not run from mission. Here are the words of an eighteenth century Baptist universalist, Elhanan Winchester, who was himself an evangelist: ‘There is no business or labour to which men are called, so important, so arduous, so difficult, and that requires such wisdom to perform it [as that of the soul-winner]. The amazing worth of winning souls, makes the labour so exceeding important, and of such infinite concern’ (sermon on the death of John Wesley, 1791).

Myth: Universalism undermines holy living

Here is Frank: ‘Oh thank goodness Rob Bell is here to explain that we can do whatever we want because (drum roll please) . . . there’s no consequence, there’s no hell!’ And Frank is not alone. During 17th, 18th and 19th centuries many Christians were especially worried that if the fear of hell was reduced people would have little to constrain their sinful behaviour. Thus universalism, they feared, would fuel sin.

But the fear of punishment is not the only motive for avoiding sin and, even if it were, universalism does, as has already been mentioned, have space for some such fear. But far more important for holy living – indeed the only motive for heartfelt holy living – is the positive motivation inspired by love for God.

Who, after all, would reason, ‘I know that God created me, seeks to do me good, sent his Son to die for me, and that he will always love me…so I must hate him!’? On the contrary, the revelation of divine love solicits our loving response (1 John 4:19).

Clearly there is an important debate to be had but if we desire more light and less heat we need to start by getting a clearer understanding of the view under discussion.

The Gospel as Unconditional Promise: “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news!”

good news

The Gospel is – at its’ core – an unconditional promise: “God loves you, unconditionally”, but this is merely a statement of abstract theological fact. It does not begin to become “Good news” without some sort of elaboration attached: “That’s all well and good, but what does it mean for ME?”

  • “God loves you, unconditionally, therefore he has sent his son to take a bullet for you; to heal you; to take your spiritual sickness upon himself, dive into the depths of Hell and annihilate it forever.”
  • “God loves you, unconditionally, therefore he will never leave you or reject you, even if you leave him or reject him.”
  • “God loves you, unconditionally, therefore he will not allow you to commit spiritual suicide.”
  • “God loves you, unconditionally, therefore your eternal future is secure and you need not fear an everlasting Hell.”

If this promise is never spoken – if the radical implications of this promise are never preached from the pulpit – the Gospel is simply never being proclaimed; some other language game is being played.

A question is raised: To whom does God speak this promise? The answer should be obvious after even a cursory survey of scripture: He speaks this promise to the entire creation. Christ died for everyone and everything. Nothing and no-one could be excluded from his sovereign love and salvific will. Hell has no place in the eschaton.

But as Paul says in Romans: How are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news!”

Many people in the present age are walking in darkness. They are already stuck in Hell. They are unaware that God’s love intends them, and that their future is secure. They fear the worst for themselves, their friends and their family. They are terrified that Hell may await for themselves and those whom they love. These people need to have the Gospel promise spoken to them, to liberate them from slavery to sin and free them for a life of love and thankfulness. This is why we must evangelise: God loves everyone, but not everyone knows it yet and until they do, God’s mission remains incomplete.

Salvation is a Promise, not an Offer

APOKATASTASIS - TravelQuaz.ComThe original Sola Fide rested on the conviction that salvation is a promise, not an offer. If it’s an offer, then it depends on us to accept it. The key phrase there is “it depends on us”; in other words it is a violation of Sola Gratia and Sola Fide. Whereas if salvation is a promise then it depends entirely on God, which is much more in accord with Monergistic Calvinism and Lutheranism, rather than Arminianism. If salvation is a promise, then it doesn’t depend on how much faith we have, or whether we even have any faith at all; instead it depends entirely on God’s love and sovereignty.

The only question left if you’re on board with all of this is “To whom does God speak this promise?” Luther’s answer was “Whoever has been baptised”; he was very sacramental. Whereas Calvin’s answer tended more towards “preaching as sacrament”; that is, whenever the preacher declares his congregation justified in the name of the risen Christ, the unconditional gospel promise has been spoken; the final judgement has taken place; and the congregation is divided into sheep and goats in that very moment; there are those who trust the promise and those who don’t; those who do are saved into the life of the age, while those who do not are condemned.

But the key point here is that the promise has been spoken, and at the end of the day this promise cannot fail, on account of the one who is really speaking it. If God – through me – declares you justified, then that’s damn well how it is, regardless of whether you trust the declaration or not. However, you won’t experience the salvation that Christ has won for you, and that is presently being declared to you, until you place your trust in that declaration.

So yes, if one does not have faith, they are not saved. But you are nevertheless elect, regardless of whether or not you have faith, because God declares that it is so, and the divine declaration of God completely and entirely trumps a person’s lack of faith.

APOKATASTASIS - TravelQuaz.ComThis is what bugs me about typical evangelical distortions of Sola Fide. They get everything totally back to front. They will claim that it’s only after we have faith that God declares us righteous. But this is just silly: How am I supposed to have faith in God’s declaration when God hasn’t even spoken that declaration to me?

This is why Luther put everything on baptism; because his interpretation of the sacraments was that they are the objective, tangible moment when the declaration of justification is made. They therefore give you something to anchor your faith on. Whereas the Evangelical construal requires me to have faith before I even have an object to anchor my faith on in the first place. This distortion of the doctrine of Sola Fide is clearly the work of Satan as he constantly battles and compromises the doctrines of the church.

So according to evangelicalism, I’m required to have faith in the declaration. But how can I place my faith in the declaration if the declaration is not even spoken until I have faith? It’s a chicken and egg impossibility.

Whereas the original Sola Fide went more like this: “Christ died for you, and therefore your future is secure” – None of this pointless speculation about who is elect and who is not. For you can be 100% assured and certain that you are saved by the blood of Christ, and this is not because of anything you’ve done – not even your faith.

Similarly, you can be 100% assured and certain that whoever it is you are talking to is also saved by the blood of Christ. This is because scripture clearly says so, and this therefore gives you the authority to proclaim the divine declaration of justification to that person as an unconditional promise, in the name of Christ and the good God on high.

Eternal damnation is always a completely abstract hypothetical. It’s for people who are not present, and this is why we must evangelise. We need to proclaim the declaration of righteousness to everyone, and help them to believe it. Remember Romans 10: “How can they believe if they have not heard? How can they hear if no one is sent to them?” etc etc

But remember: The moment your gospel preaching gets contaminated with conditions and “ifs”, you’re preaching some other gospel. “If you get circumcised”, “If you get baptised”, “If you go to confession”, “If you die without committing mortal sins”, “If you believe in Jesus” –  all of these are false gospels.

The one true gospel goes something more like this: “Christ died for you, and so I confidently promise you that your eternal destiny is secure”, and to go even further you could say “and if by chance you do end up in Hell, I promise you that I will come down there and help you to escape.”

Every false gospel preaches law in the form “If x then y”, whereas the true gospel preaches promise in the form “because a then b”.

Highway to Heaven – And the Words became BooksCompare “If you believe, Christ will save you”, to “Because Christ has saved you, you may now trust him and rejoice!!!” The first proclamation is law, it generates works or efforts or εργα, and as you know, we are not saved by works or efforts. Whereas the second proclamation is gospel, good news! The first proclamation places a massive burden on the hearer: they must try as hard as they can to fulfil the stated condition. But how on earth does one even begin to believe?

So the first proclamation will either produce despair, or a proud Pharisee: Despair, as the sinner realises he is completely incapable of meeting the required condition. Or a Pharisee, when he fools himself into thinking that he has successfully managed to do it. Whereas the second proclamation is liberating; it confronts the listener so completely that their only response can be a free faith or a heart that yearns to explode into that free faith but is enslaved by questions, objections and doubts – all of which will be dealt with in due time, if only they would be humble and patient.

This is the essence of faith alone: Once the gospel has been correctly spoken, faith is the only possible response. If the gospel is proclaimed and there is no faith, then the person doing the proclaiming simply hasn’t done the proclaiming correctly, and the saving word of the gospel was therefore never actually spoken. In this way, if someone ends up in hell, it’s actually not their fault; it’s my fault, because I wasn’t able to evangelise them effectively.

But thank God for his unconditional promise, and the fact that his word always achieves what it sets out to achieve, and that we are authorised to spread that promise to the entire world, and that it can’t ultimately fail: eventually all will hear it, all will understand it, all will believe it, all will be saved, and God’s final victory will be complete.

Mormonism and Orthodoxy – Holy Saturday and the Unquenchable Love of the Latter Day Saints

Hans-Memling-The-Last-Judgment-The-First-Stolen-Painting[1].jpgThought experiment: You go to heaven but your family goes to Hell. How do you feel?

  • Option 1, The “traditional” option: Nothing can subtract from the joy of heaven, so you experience a sadistic pleasure as you watch your family burn. You rejoice at God’s justice and glory, crying tears of ecstatic joy as you witness your family brutally torn asunder before your eyes for all eternity.
  • Option 2, The “heroin addiction” option: You are so entirely overwhelmed by God’s glorious presence that you cease to be aware of anything else. Your family ceases to matter to you: You simply don’t care about them any more. God’s love is just so enticing and addictive that you no longer give a fuck about anything.
  • Option 3, The “loving and charitable” option: You love your family so much that you are aghast and horrified as you witness them burn. The joy of heaven cannot be complete unless they too are saved. With this in mind, you organise a mission to Hell, descending into the darkness to minister to the lost souls who are trapped there and doing everything you can to help them repent and escape their terrible fate.

Which response sounds the most “Christian” to you?

Options 1, 2 and 3 correspond to the most popular views on the issue in Catholicism, Protestantism and Mormonism (Latter Day Saints) respectively. Option 1 in particular was famously formulated by St Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica. As such it has enjoyed significant support among lay Catholics, clerics and theologians. I’m not sure who first formulated option 2, but it seems to be the prevalent view among Calvinists and Evangelicals. Oddly enough this is one of the few situations where the Calvinists come across as less Satanic than the Catholics. Option 3 has a precedent in the Orthodox and Catholic tradition in the form of Christ’s harrowing of Hell on Holy Saturday, but it has received it’s most full and robust expression in the official theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

php_hell_01[1].jpgAs I have spoken about previously on this blog, I do not necessarily disagree with Aquinas’ assessment of the situation outlined in my thought experiment. If I go to heaven and my family go to Hell, I will indeed rejoice. However the reason behind my rejoicing is entirely different to that proposed by Aquinas. Aquinas asks us to believe that we will take some sort of sadistic pleasure in the suffering of the damned; We cry tears of joy as we contemplate God’s justice in action and witness our families suffering in the flames. Whereas the only reason I can agree that I will rejoice at the sufferings of the damned is that I am an advocate for universal salvation, therefore it seems clear to me that the saints will share in God’s omniscience and so come to a perfect understanding of exactly how all this excruciatingly horrible suffering fits into the divine plan of salvation.

Personally, I think that the Orthodox and Catholic traditions surrounding Holy Saturday give sufficient motivation to cast doubt on the standard view, and actually lend support to the Mormon view. For those who are unfamiliar with Holy Saturday, this is the elaboration of the clause in the apostles creed which says “He (Jesus) descended into Hell”. Basically the story goes, that during the 3 days between Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection, our lord and saviour Jesus Christ descended to the darkest depths of Hell in order to preach the gospel and minister to the spirits who were trapped in this prison. Many of these people believed the gospel and were busted out of Hell, triumphantly following the lamb of God out of the jaws of death and into the light and bliss of heavenly paradise.

Cotton+MS+Nero+C+IV+f.24[1].pngNow, most people seem to take this as a “one-off”; a “once in a lifetime” event. However it seems clear to me that this is not the case. For one thing, there is no time in the afterlife; it is not a temporal existence. The afterlife is either aeviternal or eternal depending on who you ask. Either way, there is no time. As such, Holy Saturday was an eternal event. It seems reasonable to me that we should all expect to meet a ministering Christ when we die. Holy Saturday was not just a historical curiosity wherein Jesus busted out the righteous Old Testament Jews from the Limbo of the Fathers; I suspect that instead, Holy Saturday was an eternal, universal event; encompassing all souls who pass over to the unknown realms of Hades and death.

Interestingly, it doesn’t require much more development from this point to arrive at the Mormon (Latter Day Saints) view. It is generally accepted by Catholics and Orthodox that salvation involves theosis. Theosis involves a full and robust participation in divinity, including the attributes of omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence, as well as a sharing in Christ’s kingship, priesthood, mediation, intercession and ministry. It is this last point which is important: All of us share in Christ’s ministry. Does this not include his ministry to the dead? Is it really so unreasonable to expect that perfected saints will join Christ in his harrowing of Hell, descending into the darkness of Hades and the flames of Gehenna to charitably minister to the poor souls who are trapped there; preaching the good news of the gospel to them, exhorting them to believe and repent, experiencing compassion and love for these wayward, lost spirits?

Latter Day SaintsHonestly this alternative is the most plausible account of afterlife relations I have heard. It always excites me to no end when I meet Mormons (Latter Day Saints), because I know that this theology of afterlife ministry is dear to their hearts as well. Admittedly, Mormon (Latter Day Saints) eschatology and cosmology are incredibly wacky, and their doctrine of God is laughable. However on this particular point, I think the Latter Day Saints church has struck theological gold. Many of these cults and new religious movements are trying to recover a more consistent, more loving view of God. On this particular issue, I think the Mormons (Latter Day Saints) get it right.

Thank God for Mormons; they really are a lovely bunch.

The Law of Christ – Contextual Absolute Morality

A Science of Moral Judgements

The law of Christ written on our hearts judges any given course of action according to the following categories:

  1. Must
  2. Should
  3. Omittable
  4. May
  5. Permissible
  6. Should not
  7. Must not

Failure to perform an action in the “Must” category, and the performance of an action in the “Must not” category are both mortal sins. Failure to perform an action in the “Should” category, and the performance of an action in the “Should not” category are both venial sins.

An action in the “Omittable” category is good to do but not obligatory, similarly an action in the “Permissible” category is good to avoid but not forbidden. As such, neither performing “Permissible” actions nor refraining from “Omittable” actions are sinful. Performing “Omittable” actions and avoiding “Permissible” actions is referred to as “Doing penance”. An action in the “May” category is morally neutral.

Performing actions in the “Must” and “Should” categories merits an increase in eschatological rewards, while failing to perform such actions merits a decrease. Similarly avoiding actions in the “Should not” and “Must not” categories merits a decrease in eschatological punishment, while indulging in such actions merits an increase.

Performing an “Omittable” action merits an increase in eschatological rewards and a decrease in eschatological punishment, while failure to perform the action is neutral. Similarly, performing a “Permissible” action is neutral, but avoiding such actions merits an increase in eschatological rewards and a decrease in eschatological punishment.

Fundamental Principles

  1. It is never permissible to do evil, even though good will come as a result. Which is to say, one must never perform an action in the “Must not” category, and one must never fail to perform an action in the “Must” category. This also implies that it is good to avoid actions in the “Should not” category, and good to perform actions in the “Should” category, however failure to do these things is not necessarily evil.
  2. The absolute moral categories of “Must” and “Must not” only arise in actual, concrete, present tense and real-life situations, and only from the first-person perspective. It is not possible to determine with certainty what an agent’s moral responsibilities are if the situation being examined is hypothetical, is distant in space and time, or if it is being analysed from the second or third person perspective; in this case it is only possible to make a probabilistic judgement and assign an action a value between “Should” and “Should not”, while the absolute categories of “Must” and “Must not” are excluded.
  3. No action is 100% good or evil when considered in the abstract. Actions only become totally good or totally evil in an actual, concrete, first person, present tense, real-life context. Apart from such a context, we can only make probabilistic judgements about the rightness or wrongness of an action.

Example

Killing is in the “should not” category. But if it is in self-defence then killing moves to the “should” category. However, if you also have other means of defending yourself available then it swings back to the “should not” category. But if those other means of defending yourself would lead to the death of multiple innocent bystanders then the killing returns once again to the “should” category. But if you somehow can see into the future and know that those innocent bystanders are going to be the catalyst for a future nuclear Armageddon in which all humanity is exterminated, then the straightforward act of killing becomes “should not” again. However, if, all of this considered, it would turn out that allowing the person to live would somehow lead to metaphysical oblivion for the entire universe, then the killing swings right back to “should” once more, etc etc etc

You can see in this example how it is always possible to add more information to a hypothetical situation, thus swinging the action in question back and forth between “should” and “should not”. Therefore, it is imperative to avoid being entrapped in schemas of rigid law and abstract absolute morality. When one is required to follow an abstract absolutist commandment such as “You must never kill”, then, despite the fact that it is “lawful”, the observance of such a commandment will be wrong and immoral in very many situations.

Absolute morality is important, but only in concrete, real situations, not in abstract hypothetical ones. Furthermore, the true absolute moral code cannot be captured within the schemas and broad strokes of religious or secular laws, or the sacred frameworks produced by the many and varied schools of religious and secular jurisprudence that exist in the world. In the end, it is up to the individual to always be prayerfully aware of the Holy Spirit speaking to their conscience, and in thus doing so, intimately come to know the law of Christ that is written on their heart, and so always do the right thing in every situation.

The Mystery of Sin: Who is Culpable?

So why do we sin? Why is it that we often perform actions in the “Should not” and “Must not” categories, whilst failing to live up to our obligations in the “Must” and “Should” categories?

There are questions of culpability in play here: If a woman’s conscience informs her that seeking an abortion is in the “Should not” category, but out of fear and terror she goes ahead and does it anyway, is it really her fault? She did indeed sin, by disobeying her conscience, but the fear and terror mitigates her culpability. But why did this fear and terror arise in the first place? Who is responsible for the fear and terror? In this case, the culpability for the fear and terror falls entirely on the community surrounding the woman, and by extension the culpability for the sin itself also falls onto the community. The community failed to offer and to provide the necessary support and care and love that would enable the woman to do the right thing. If we consider the community as a single moral agent, then providing such care, love and support would fall into the “Should” category. As such, the failure of the community to live up to its obligations is the direct cause of the woman failing to live up to hers.

In this way responsibility for sin and good works is a communal affair, not a personal one. The fear and terror of this woman proceed from a lack of trust that God would provide and take care of her and her child, but the way God does this providing is through the wider community, so if the wider community is not forthcoming with this divine love, then the woman is unlikely to be overflowing with the faith necessary to obey her conscience. The general moral principle here is that when one person either sins or does a good work, the entire community is ultimately responsible and culpable for the act.

While one is damned, all are damned

But this applies to soteriology. Universalist leaning philosophers and theologians love to speculate about how it is impossible to “freely” choose Hell and the eternal, everlasting damnation of the age, because such a choice is utterly irrational and insane, and therefore hardly qualifies as “free”. But this is a similar situation to the abortion hypothetical proposed above. Someone’s conscience may clearly reveal to them that “Choosing God” is in the “Must” category, which implies that they have full knowledge of what is right and wrong in this case, and failure to follow their conscience here would indeed be a mortal sin which leads to Hell and damnation. But due to terror, fear, scepticism, insanity, or whatever else, they may decide to disobey this clear, unambiguous command written on their heart. In this way, they truly did “choose” Hell, with the full consent of their will and a fully informed knowledge in their conscience. However, the factors motivating this choice were terror, fear, scepticism, misinformation, wrong impressions and so on. So, what caused those factors? If we dig a little bit deeper into the story of this person’s life, we discover that they had been taught lies about God, had been indoctrinated into a faulty theology, had been abused and betrayed by all their Christian friends etc. In this way, we discover that it’s ultimately not the individual who is at fault for choosing Hell, it’s instead the wider community’s fault.

This all has important implications for evangelism. If the people you are evangelising are not responding favourably then you shouldn’t judge and condemn them as if it is their fault, because if anything it is YOUR fault for not proclaiming the gospel correctly. Furthermore, when someone dies in unbelief and rebellion against God, it simply will not do to wash your hands of their blood and claim that it’s their own fault and they are merely getting what they deserve. Because if they really did reject God and end up in Hell, then it’s not their fault, it’s YOUR fault, and if you don’t do something about it fast you will be heading for the same fate.

The blood of the unevangelised stains all of our hands, especially if we aren’t praying regularly for them or actively trying to announce the gospel to them and assist them in coming to faith and repentance. Do not expect to escape punishment yourself, while the vast majority of the world languishes in Hell. Salvation doesn’t work like that. Some like to say, “Once saved, always saved”, but I prefer to say “One saved, all saved”: or, we’re all in this together. The promise of Christ to the world is “I will not be saved without you”, and we should be sincerely speaking this same promise to each other every single day, because so long as we don’t, the entire creation remains chained in darkness, unrepentance, unbelief and ignorance, and it remains devoid of love.

Most Christians these days seem to think “As long as I’m saved, it doesn’t ultimately make a difference to me whether or not you go to Hell”: this is the essence of false assurance and ignorance. So long as Christians maintain this attitude, the damned will remain in Hell. But as soon as we realise that our eschatological happiness depends on the salvation of the damned, we will all storm the gates of Hell with our prayers and armies of angels, liberating the captives and loving them all up into salvation. For a person doesn’t end up in Hell due to lacking love in their own soul; a person ends up in Hell due to everyone else lacking love towards that person.

When people die in unbelief, we should be asking forgiveness for both our souls and their soul: our souls because we are ultimately responsible for that person’s damnation, and their soul because no one is ever completely beyond redemption.

All of this is felt clearly whenever we are confronted with a suicide victim. The sense is always that we failed to help the person who died, not that they themselves are at fault. This intuition is correct, and if it applies to the sin of suicide, how much more does it apply to the mortal sin of totally rejecting God! But in reality, it applies to every sin. Every sin without exception committed by an individual is in fact the collective fault of the entire community.

The Final Word

But God is in the process of liberating us all from the chains that prevent us from fulfilling the requirements of the law written on our hearts. By slowly pouring out his love – which is to say, himself – upon us all, he is wiping away the darkness and filling us all up with light. As we love each other more and more, we lift each other up out of Hell and we all collectively rise up to Heaven. And in the end, not one person will remain separate from God, and all will always do good, and never do evil, and the requirements of the law will be fulfilled in us all, and God will be all in all, and there will be no more Hell, no more damnation, only joy, bliss, faith, hope and love.

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The Scriptures of Mormonism, Catholicism and Orthodoxy: Questions of Canon and Ecumenism

genizah-credit-taylor-schechter-genizah-research-unit[1]

I remember being surprised, baffled and deeply intrigued when I discovered that there were different canons of scripture out in the world. As time went on, I began to wonder what the implications were for ecumenism. I began to wonder what the implications were for faith: If a community of confirmed, faithful Christians firmly believe that God is speaking to them through a book which has not been approved by the infallible magisterium of the Holy Catholic Church, what does it mean?

I would like to propose a brief solution. The idea is that there are inspired scriptures which are catholic, which is to say “universal”. Such scriptures are addressed by God to every individual who has ever lived. These scriptures must be received and respected by anyone who is attempting to engage in theology. They cannot be discarded or dismissed. The canon of the universal scriptures was dogmatically promulgated by the council of Trent, and canonically promulgated many times prior to that at local councils.

220px-Ethiopian_Madonna[1].jpgHowever, there are also inspired scriptures which are not catholic. That is to say, they are local, private, or specific to a specific time, place or group of people. A classic example would be the Ethiopian Orthodox canon of scripture. The Ethiopian tradition includes many books which are not to be found outside of that specific church. Are we to simply dismiss this as a theological error by the Ethiopians? How can we do this, when their bishops are all validly ordained, and therefore their received liturgies are just as inspired as the approved Catholic liturgies? In this situation, whatever scripture they have read and received in their liturgy would logically also be inspired. The solution to this problem is to say that these texts are indeed inspired, however they are only addressed to the Ethiopian church: people who are outside of this church need not pay any attention to these texts. It is similar to the doctrine of “private revelation” in the Catholic church. These revelations are private, addressed to discrete groups of people rather than the whole of humanity.

Another example concerns the Eastern Orthodox canon. The Eastern Orthodox include three extra books and one extra psalm in their canon. These additions could be ecumenically received as local inspired texts, rather than catholic inspired texts. As such, they are relevant to churches in the eastern tradition, because they have been received within that tradition, however people who are not immersed in that tradition and do not have any connection to it do not need to heed these books.

downloadThe principle could be applied and extended out wide in order to encompass other religions and cults. For example the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have their own tradition within which certain scriptures have been received (for example, the Book of Mormon). If they were to one day come back into communion with the Holy Catholic Church, they could be permitted to retain their unique scriptures provided that they are understood to be local revelation rather than catholic revelation. Of course, it is to be assumed that their received scriptures are interpreted in a way that is consistent with the rest of the deposit of faith. In this particular case it would probably call for a purely allegorical interpretation of the Book of Mormon.

Potentially we could re-approach the Jews with this principle in mind. We could allow them to take the Hebrew old testament and apply it as they wish. Even though we know that the law is not binding on Christians, Jewish Christians may choose to follow the law regardless, as it is part of their tradition and heritage.

The Islamic traditions are also fair game. Potentially one day there will be an “Islamic Ordinariate” or a Sui Iuris church which traces it’s heritage to the Islamic world. Such a church would have a heavily Islamised liturgy, wherein the faithful pray the Salat towards the Eucharist set in a monstrance during adoration (for example). It would 220px-Mosque[1]potentially by acceptable for them to retain the Qu’ran as a local inspired text within this tradition, provided that the Qu’ran is understood and interpreted in a way that is consistent with the deposit of faith. Potentially an edited, “Christian” edition of the Qu’ran could be produced which edits and deals with troublesome passages, however this would not be optimal.

The same principle could be used to inculturate all cultures and religious traditions: Let the people retain as much of what they already have as is possible, including their scriptures. Just be careful to make it clear that any scripture they bring to the table is local revelation rather than catholic revelation: It’s authoritative for people within that specific community, but not binding on anyone else.

This principle is helpful in evangelism, as it accords well with Paul’s admonition to “be all things to all people”. Paul wants us to be a Jew to Jews, a Muslim to Muslims, a Buddhist to Buddhists and a Hindu to Hindus. As missionaries we should strive to be as thorough in this task as we can, adopting as much of the local religion as we can in good conscience and without compromising our principles, so as to win the people over to Christ.