Wednesday, September 25, 2013


Albert Einstein once said: 
If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough.  
I once brought up that quote and someone tried to argue with me, telling me how detailed and complex some of Einstein's work was.  I went on to explain that I feel that what he was getting at was this: sometimes we have to work really hard to convince other people of a truth.  We have to put painstaking details into our proof of a theory or principle.  But if we cannot summarize this theory or principle in a way that is simple and easily understood, then we don't truly understand the principle ourselves.

So I would like to try to explain a theory I have - a simple idea which I believe allows one to take a new approach to perceiving all other truths.  The Truth which connects all truths, as it were.  So here I will attempt to explain this theory in a simple way.

I believe there are two forces that are in battle with each other, and that every struggle in this life can be boiled down to this struggle.  The two forces can be described in a variety of ways.  It can be said that they are relationship and separation, cooperation and competition, Heaven and Hell, or my favorite: love and non-love. 

Now I specifically choose to say "non-love" rather than any other term because I do not think we really have a word that describes the opposite of love.  Oh, people will try to argue with me and say that "hate" is such a word.  But if you really think about it, hate is not really the opposite of love.  Have you ever heard of a "love/hate relationship"?  Why do we talk in this way?  If you think about it, hate is never born from a vacuum.  Hate is the result of broken love.  Sometimes we hate another because we used to love them and they hurt us - our idea of that person came into conflict with their actions, and we decided that this idea of the person was an illusion and therefore we "hate" the real person.  Or sometimes a person takes something we love away from us, and we decide we hate that person.  Or perhaps we have been taught by someone we love to fear a certain type of person - so when we come across someone who fits into this artificial category we have been taught to keep, we decide we are duty bound to hate them.  But this, once again, is born from love as we take this attitude because of what we have been taught by those we love.  Therefore, I have come to the conclusion that the opposite of love is not hate, but is rather a vacuum.  Hate is merely imperfect love based on the illusions of separation and competition.  Hate is to love some, but not all.  Hate is loving parts of a person, but not accepting them wholly.

Let's try putting this in different but similar terms: existence is relationship.  I am unable to know anything outside of my relationship to it.  Christians believe in a concept of God as a trinity, which implies that God exists in eternal relationship.  Put this into the context of the fact that I John 4:8 and 16 says that God is love, and parables such as the sheep and the goats which imply that if we wish to show love to God, we must show love to our fellow man.  God is in a state of eternal, unbreakable relationship with us, and when we choose to love others in a way that refuses to break relationship no matter our differences or transgressions, we enter into that eternal fellowship.

I think that the majority of Christians totally miss the point in the way that they talk about Heaven and Hell (see my series: "Checkmate For Hell").  They come so close, though. They'll tell you that Hell is "separation from God."  But let's think about that.  If God is the source of all life (as in Num. 27:16, James 1:17 for just two examples), then total separation from Him would mean non-existence.  You cannot be totally separated from God and continue to exist.  And the model of God that we see in Jesus is a God who refuses to give up on us, no matter what.  The model of Jesus shows us a God who refuses to allow relationship to be broken - perfect love that lives out the model of I Corinthians 13.  Jesus modeled a love that refused to fight for his own "rights", even as he was led away to be slaughtered, and while hanging from the cross he said "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."  In this moment we find the perfect model of self-emptying love that refuses to allow relationship to be broken.

Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane in John 17 that we will be One, as he and the Father are one (verse 11), "as you [the Father] are in me and I am in you."  (verse 21)  This is the force of perfect love - relationship so close that the members of the relationship,
in their continual self-sacrifice for one another, cooperate in such a close relationship that they become "One".  Paul elaborates on this in Romans 12:4-5:
For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.
We are supposed to belong to each other, as cells in a body belong to each other.  The cells of a body serve the body, and in serving the body they are nourished and upheld by the body.  When a group of cells stops serving the body, and the cells seek to serve themselves, this is competition/separation/non-love and in the human body we call that cancer. 

The Bible has a way of talking about the concept of the powerful voices in society and/or government that coerce people into self-destructive collectives - the Beast.  The Beast tries to convince us to serve ourselves at the expense of others, and it feeds off of this while those in control - the rulers/authorities/powers spoken of in Ephesians 6:12 - grow off of this competition.  The people in society are largely harmed by it, but those on top grow in power and yet are never satisfied.  The Beast tries to tell us that we should scorn those who are different.  But the Bible provides a message that is a stark contrast to this, as we can see in I Cor. 12:12-26:

12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

15 Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
Life is a series of choices that can be boiled down to choosing whether to create and sustain a relationship, or choosing to close ourselves off from relationship.  When we break relationships - when we close ourselves off from loving our brothers and sisters - we choose Hell.  And when we create and sustain relationships in a radical, self-giving, scandalous, loving manner, we choose Heaven.  The language of Christianity has been subverted by many into a language of control - you must believe as I do, dress as I do, go to the same church as I do, or you're going to Hell.  But if you think very logically about the model of God presented in Jesus, this makes absolutely no sense at all.  Jesus is the God who died - the God who gave up all control and allowed harm to come to Himself rather than inflict harm in order to protect Himself.  So we take this model, and believe...that somehow if you you don't worship Jesus just the way He wants He's going to throw you into eternal conscious torment?  The God who died rather than lift a finger to protect Himself is going to throw us into Hell if we don't do just as He says?  It makes no logical sense.

The world is constantly trying to tell us that there are groups of people who are not worthy of relationship, or that the solution to a broken relationship is to take action that causes further separation.  These are the lies of Hell.  The Truth of Heaven is that we are all interconnected, and we need each other to survive.  When we open ourselves, and give our hearts to all, refusing to demonize anyone or shut anyone out, we have chosen Heaven.  We must fight the lies of the world, but we must learn to do so in a way that does not cause more schisms, but that seeks to mend the schisms themselves, and fight the lies that seek to create more schisms.  So often we are told that the way to fight a schism is to destroy (or shut ourselves off from) those who originally created the schism - fight fire with fire.  Fight non-relationship by creating more non-relationship.  Protect life by destroying life.  This is the lie of Hell.  Christians love to hiss about "the world" and look down in disdain at it from their lofty theological heights.  They love to say "in the world but not of it" - a phrase adapted from verses taken far out of context that has completely lost its meaning, because most who use the phrase seem to be modeling the philosophy of "make your own world and don't ever look outside of it" (which, curiously, sounds more like prison, or Hell, than Heaven).  What they forget is that God loved the world despite the fact that it did not love Him back.  God showed this through sending His Son into that world, and His Son loved that world even as it was putting Him to death: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."  

"Not of the world" doesn't mean retreating from the world.  "Not of the world" does not mean shutting yourself off from it.  "Not of the world" does not mean condemning the world.  "Not of the world" means loving the world even when it doesn't love you back.  "Not of the world" means rejecting destructive behavior and showing relentless creative love that restores relationship.  "Not of the world" means renouncing self and embracing interconnectedness and relationship so that we may be One as Jesus and the Father were One.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Throne of Judgment - A Short Story

This is a short story I wrote to attempt to illustrate some of the truths I was trying to communicate in my "Checkmate for Hell" series.

The Throne of Judgment
Before the white throne of judgment stood three men - Matt, Chris, and John.  The figure sitting on the throne was veiled in glory - light shone from His face with such brightness that one could not distinguish any features, nor sustain one's gaze for very long. 

First to be called to the throne was Matt.  A voice rang out - a deep, powerful voice that carried the weight of authority: "Matthew, you stand before the throne of God on judgment day!  What do you have to say for yourself, and the life you have led?"  Matt humbly bowed and said "Lord, Lord, I know I am a sinner in need of grace.  But I had faith in your son Jesus, whom you sent, and in his blood.  I prayed the sinner's prayer when I was a child, and I invited Jesus into my heart, and for the rest of my life I went to church every Sunday and sang your praises, and listened to words of wisdom about you, and prayed to you each week." 

The voice boomed out again: "Well done, my good and faithful servant!  You have done well - what reward is your wish?"  Matt spoke once again: "Lord, I ask that I be rewarded with entrance into Heaven!" 

The voice boomed forth one more time: "And what say you to the fate of your brother, Christopher?"  At this, Matt teared up, and said: "Lord, it saddens me to know that Chris never accepted your son into his heart.  I wish he had converted to Christianity.  I tried and I tried - many nights we argued over evolution, over the historical proof that your son lived and died for him, and many other things.  But I was never able to convince him!  I tried so hard to warn him that this day would come, and it breaks my heart to know his fate.  But I know that you are just, and I know that your love will heal me, and will wipe away my tears." 

The voice from the figure on the throne boomed forth once more: "What you have requested is granted to you!"  And a large, golden gate appeared, guarded by angels, who swung open the gates just for Matt.  Matt ran through them to find everything he had ever wanted - riches, fame, people who admired him, wonderful food, and anything else his heart desired.  As soon as the gates closed, they disappeared. 

Chris was left standing before the throne - his head bowed, his gaze averted from the throne..  Tears had begun to stream down his cheeks.  But they were not tears of shame, or tears of sadness.  They were tears of anger.  "WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO SAY FOR YOURSELF?", the voice from the throne boomed out accusingly. Chris looked up, gazing at the light even though it hurt his eyes, and shouted with anger and defiance: "GO AHEAD!  DO YOUR WORST!  YOU NEVER CARED FOR ME!  YOU NEVER DID ANYTHING TO HELP ME!  YOU LEFT ME TO DIE!  EVERYONE LEFT ME, AND NONE OF YOUR FOLLOWERS EVER DID ANYTHING TO HELP ME OUT OF MY PAIN AND MISERY!  I WOULDN'T WANT TO BE IN YOUR HEAVEN IF YOU OFFERED IT TO ME!  SO DO YOUR WORST!"

John ran towards the throne, and fell to his knees in front of Chris in tears.  He shouted out: "LORD!  Do not send Chris away to torment!  I cannot bear the thought of the endless pain and misery he will go through!"  The voice boomed forth: "John, I know all things, and I know that you also said the sinner's prayer and invited Jesus into your heart.  I cannot send you to Hell.  Likewise, I know that Christopher did not accept the love of my son, and therefore, he must face judgment."  John ran to Chris, embracing him, and shouted: "LORD!  I will not abandon Chris!  He doesn't deserve this!  If anyone deserves such a fate, it is me!"  At this, Chris' anger softened.  His muscles, tense up until this point, relaxed, and he began to weep.  He said: "NO!  John, you don't even know me!  You can't do this!  You don't know what I've done!  You don't know that for years I struggled with drug addictions.  You don't know that I stole from my mother and my brother to pay for my habit!  You don't know the things I've done to get my daily fix!" 

John wept, and said: "Chris, I don't know you as well as I should.  But I remember you now.  I remember now that I ran into you twice during my lifetime on earth.  The first time was when we were teenagers - we went to the same church then.  I didn't know you well, and we never hung out.  But I remember that your parents were going through a divorce, and I remember hearing that your father was abusive.  I remember now that your mother was trying to get custody, and your father used his friendships with some of the elders of the church to get your mother excommunicated.  I didn't see you for a long time after that, and the next time I saw you I didn't recognize you.  But now I see clearly, and I realize that I did see you a second time." 

"The second time I saw you, you came into my church one week in tattered clothes and smelling quite awful, looking broken and alone.  I was an usher that week.  A couple of the members complained about your presence, and I gave you a twenty dollar bill and asked you to leave.  I was rich then, though I didn't realize it.  I see clearly now, though - I didn't think of myself as rich, but now I realize what a great number of people were struggling when I was not.  I was a vice president in my company, and I could have easily put you up somewhere for a few months and taken care of you until you could get on your feet again.  I could have changed your life, but instead I asked you to leave my church because your appearance made some people uncomfortable.  My conscience bothered me that day, but I didn't want to offend my 'friends', and so I gave you a measely $20 and asked you to leave."  John turned to the throne once again and shouted: "LORD!  I could have changed this man's life!  And I didn't!  He wasn't rejecting you, he was rejecting the false image of you that the elders of the church who excommunicated his mother portrayed, and the false image of you that I portrayed when I sent him away years later!  Do not send him to torment!  Send me instead!  I deserve it, because I could have changed his life and saved him from this fate!"

John buried his head in Chris' shoulder and wept - "I'm sorry!  I'm so sorry!", he kept repeating.  Chris tried to push John away and said "No!  John, you can't take this punishment!  I can't let you!  LORD, do not accept John's offer!  You can't send him in my place!"

There they stood - John refusing to let go of Chris, weeping, and Chris trying as best he could to push John away, weeping as well.

The figure on the throne sat there in silence, watching.  But something strange began to happen - the light streaming from the figure's face began to dim.  Or maybe John and Chris' eyes were becoming accustomed to it; it was hard to tell.  Actually, it seemed almost as if John and Chris had begun to shine as well.  They began to see more clearly - whereas before, all they had noticed was the throne, and the darkness around it, now they began to notice the beautiful landscape around them.  They were in a beautiful field, covered with flowers, with lush, green mountains around.  Trees bearing all kinds of fruit were planted all around as well.

Suddenly, Chris gasped.  John looked at him to see what was wrong, and saw that Chris was looking directly in the direction of the figure on the throne.  He looked too and saw something unbelievable.

The figure had risen from his throne and begun to walk towards them.  What John and Chris beheld was something unbelievable, yet comforting.  The figure's features were at once both strange and familiar - it was as if they recognized their mothers', their fathers', their sisters', and their brothers' features in this figure, but at the same time the figure looked unfamiliar.  They could discern no sex, as the figure seemed at once to be both male and female, but this was not strange to them, at least not in a way that made them uncomfortable - rather, it was something wonderful and new.  The figure had no discernible nationality, but at the same time seemed to represent all nationalities.  He/She looked at once both young as an innocent child, and weathered and wise as an elder.  And His/Her eyes...those eyes drew them in with their gentle, peaceful, loving gaze.  Tears of joy were streaming down this figure's face, and when He/She reached them, He/She reached up and began to wipe the tears from their faces, and then joined in the embrace, seeming to completely envelop them in love with His arms.

The figure spoke - actually, it almost seemed as if He/She were singing.  Not just with one voice, but with multiple voices, in a beautiful, rich harmony.  But this was not strange to John and Chris, but instead it was the most comforting thing they had ever experienced - tension, sadness, and pain melted away with each note.  The figure spoke/sang "Welcome, John and Chris!  I have missed you so much!"  John and Chris looked quite confused at this - and John spoke first: "what do you mean, you've missed us?  We just arrived, and neither of us had ever met you before!"

The figure spoke again: "John, Chris - I've been with you every moment of your life!  I watched in eager anticipation as you grew in your mothers' wombs!  When she used to rub her belly, waiting for your arrival, marveling at the miracle of you when she felt your tiny, but powerful kicks - I was there, marveling and waiting in excitement for the miracle of your birth!  When you took your first breath, and cried out after having left the warmth of her womb, and she cuddled you up tightly and kissed your messy face and poured out her love on you - I was there!  When your father took you for the first time with an overwhelmed look on his face - when the love in his heart overcame the fear that he didn't have it within himself to handle this great responsibility, that was me!  I whispered into his heart the secret of your importance that gave him the will to overcome his fear!  When you smiled for the first time, I was there marveling at your beauty as if I'd never seen a smile before, and I whispered that joy and wonder into your parents' hearts!  As you grew, I watched with pride when you took your first steps, and I moved in your parents, inspiring them to tell everyone about it as if no one before you had ever taken a step - as if you were the ones who had invented the technique of putting one foot in front of the other!  When you skinned your knees for the first time, my heart burst over the pain you felt, and I moved in your mother, telling her to clean your wounds and bandage you up and wrap you in her arms and comfort you!"

"Oh, we've been through some tough times, too.  I was there when you felt alone - like there was no point to life.  And I gave you the strength to keep going even though it made no sense.  I gave you the hope that went against reason - the hope that some day it would be better.  I shouted into the hearts of those around you!  'Don't you see this child?!', I shouted at them!  'Help him!', I cried into their hearts!  Some of them had hardened their hearts so much that they didn't hear anything but a faint whisper, and some of them felt awful for the rest of their day because they had heard me. 

"John, when you were struggling to start your career, and every week you weren't sure if you'd be able to pay your bills, it was me who gave you the strength to keep going, and the illogical hope that it would get better!  And when your career began to take off, I wept that the difficulty of that journey had convinced you that it would be folly to be generous to those less fortunate.  I whispered into your heart every day, trying to tell you that I had always been watching over you, and that I had other children who needed your help."

"Oh, Chris, I have wept so many times for you.  Those people who cast you out in my name?  They were not me.  And their hearts accused them daily with their judgment - the judges that they had set up in their hearts to accuse you only turned around and accused themselves each day, and they tried so hard to deny it.  And all the while, I was shouting in their hearts to love you - telling them of the freedom they could have if they would just give - but all they heard was a whisper, and they kept answering that whisper: 'what can I do?  It's not up to me.  Am I my brother's keeper?  Besides, I have my own needs to take care of.  I have a family to provide for.'  But they didn't see that by only taking care of themselves, they were empty - without meaning and purpose in their lives.  They were the world's true poor, and I was trying to lead them to true riches!  Oh, Chris, how I cried for you!  I always wanted you to see me as I truly was, and when John stood up for you, that was it!  That was me!  I told him to do that!  I love you so much, Chris!"

"Oh, John - you've had some good days and bad days, too!  I've been there the whole time, loving you!  You were involved in a daily struggle between your own desires and mine.  Some days you ignored my cries, and I was so sad to see how you tried so hard to fill your heart with the emptiness of the world's riches.  But you had a good heart, and though the world had fooled you into thinking you had to play by their rules, some days you would perform the most extravagantly generous acts, and on those days I would leap up and down inside of your heart for joy!  You felt it, too!  You'd say to yourself 'wow, this was great!  I feel so good!  I wish I could do this every day!'  And I would keep that feeling of joy going for a few days as I whispered 'come on, do it again!'  I always knew you would come through in the end like you did for Chris!  I love you so much, John!"

The three stood there in a warm embrace for a long time, weeping tears of joy.  It was like meeting for the first time, and it was like a family reunion.  John and Chris felt a peace they had never felt before, and all their bad memories started to feel as if they belonged - they were no longer wounds, but scars of victory.  Here they were, wrapped in love - healed.  But then John and Chris remembered Matt.  "Father", they both spoke in unison - they had dropped the "LORD" bit, as it no longer seemed a natural name to call this being, who had been their best friend for their whole lives even when they didn't know it.  "What about Matt?  Where did he really go?"  The Heavenly Father's face fell as He looked downward and a tear began to form.  "And why the throne of judgement, with the bright light streaming from your face - why not appear to us like this from the start?", Chris added.

"Oh, my beautiful sons", the figure sang/spoke, now with a bittersweet sadness in His song.  "What you heard before was not me, but your false images of me.  The images you had made of me obscured my true nature from you.  I do not judge - I told you that in my Word!  When you stood before the throne, listening to the judgment your own selves pronounced through the false image you had created, I was weeping for you, but I never lost hope - I hope in all circumstances!  Matthew had convinced himself that I was a tyrant, and he believed he had found the way to win the game he had invented in my name.  I wept as he went away.  Behold - there he is!"

John and Chris looked, and a long way off they saw that Matt was running and laughing in the field.  But John and Chris now saw with a new kind of vision.  It was as if they saw in multiple layers all at once.  They saw that Matt was in the same beautiful field they were in, but it was also as if they could see through Matt's eyes, and what Matt saw was not the field.  Matt was seeing a burgeoning city of concrete, filled with large and ornate chapels and churches, and with prosperous businesses.  The church services in this place were long, filled with hymn after hymn after hymn, and followed by praise song after praise song, and in Matt's church he was looked up to and admired - people would compliment him on his ability to quote chapter and verse, and no one ever questioned him.  He had been granted wealth and fame, and he was surrounded by people who seemed to worship him, but really only wanted his wealth for themselves.  At the same time that John and Chris saw these two layers - the layer of Matt's false perception of where he was, and the layer of the truth of the beautiful field around him - it was as if they could also see two layers of time: the present, and the future.  They saw that all this stuff that Matt thought was bringing him comfort was only going to decay into ashes and dust, and they saw that what he thought was happiness was only going to bring misery.  The church Matt attended in this false Heaven looked beautiful now, but no one in the congregation served, and over time this place would be filled with dirt and would start to fall apart, and no one truly loved each other as there was no sacrifice.  And the great wealth that Matt possessed was only mere pieces of paper, which would slowly turn to ash, and even the clothing on his back would be as rags to him.

But John and Chris saw with the eyes of Perfect Love, as well, and they hoped in all circumstances, as their Father did.  They saw that just when Matt had fully realized the depth of his own emptiness, he would cry out.  They saw that Matt would remember his brother, and would feel a great sadness at the memories of Chris.  They saw that Matt would remember the good times he had enjoyed with Chris - the times they laughed; the times they had stayed up late into the night whispering even after their mother had scolded them and told them to go to sleep; the pranks they had pulled together when they were in High School; the times that Matt had stood up for his younger brother because he knew the pain Chris felt.  They saw that Matt would remember that hurt, and would release the false judgment he had pronounced on Chris, and would feel this uneasy feeling: wondering if maybe Chris' circumstances had wounded him so much that he couldn't see clearly.  They saw that Matt would begin to ache for his brother, and to wish that he had simply loved him as best he could rather than judging him for "leaving the faith."  They saw that after thinking these thoughts, Matt would forsake his false wealth and would cry out to His father to take it all away for one more moment with his brother, and his eyes would be opened, and he would see.  So John and Chris and their Father were One, and they upheld each other as they watched in patience and waited for that great day of apocalypse when Matt's world would be destroyed, and all things would be made new.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Checkmate For Hell - Part 19: The Golden Rule and the Holy Spirit

This is part of an ongoing series of blog posts, meant to be read in order.  In the first post, I introduced the concept of Universalism, and introduced the concept that I would be defending my position through a series of "chess moves".  I mentioned that I believe I have checkmate in 2 moves, but because a lot of questions would be left, I would use a series of further moves to keep the king in checkmate while I systematically removed the rest of the pieces from the board.  I would highly suggest you read the previous parts of this series before reading this one:

Part 1: Moves 1-3
Part 2: Moves 4-5
Part 3: Moves 6-7
Part 4: Move 8
Part 5: Moves 9-10
Part 6: Move 11
Part 7: Move 12
Part 8: The Six Line Narrative
Part 9: Two False Gospels, and a Man in a Pit
Part 10: Creation/Fall and Spirit/Soul/Body
Part 11: The True Gospel
Part 12: Deconstructing Our Ideas of Heaven
Part 13: Resurrection and "Spiritual" Bodies
Part 14: A New Diagram
Part 15: Creation/Heaven Fruits
Part 16: Hell Fruits
Part 17: What Is Hell?/The Narrow Gate
Part 18: Sin and Evil

The Golden Rule and the Holy Spirit
In Matthew 22:36-40, Jesus summarized the law in two commands: love God, and love your neighbor “as yourself”.  One thing that we learn in this second command is that there is a secret third command embedded within – love yourself.  This may seem wrong to us, but when you realize that seeing yourself as unloved or unlovable circumvents the commandment to love your neighbor, you realize that it is implied.  And I believe that loving my neighbor means that I must see them “in heaven” (keeping in mind a proper understanding of what that really should mean) just as I see myself “in heaven”.  I must bring heaven to my neighbor unconditionally, as it was unconditionally brought to me by Christ Jesus himself.

Thomas Merton wrote, in “A Year with Thomas Merton: Daily Meditations from His Journals”:

As long as a single person is lost I am lost. To try to save myself by getting free from the mass of the damned (massa damnata) and becoming good by myself, is to be both damned and absurd--as well as antichrist. Christ descended into hell to show that he willed to be lost with the lost, in a certain sense, emptied so that they might be filled and saved, in the realization that now their lostness was not theirs but His. Hence the way one begins to make sense out of life is taking upon oneself the lostness of everyone--and then realizing not that one has done something to "make sense" but that he has simply entered into the stream of realization. The rest will work out by itself, and we do not know now what that might mean.

It is through the Golden Rule that we learn that the secret to “getting out of Hell” is not to do whatever we must in order to get ourselves out of it, but to seek to get our neighbors out of it.  As we save our neighbors through love, we save our very souls.  As we love our neighbors, we begin to find ourselves to be loveable.

This understanding of the Golden Rule can help us to understand how the Holy Spirit works.  I must confess that I was never able to conceive what the Trinity really was, nor how it worked, until I became a Universalist.  I knew the proper language, but I wasn’t really a Trinitarian, to be honest.  But as I began to accept Universalism, and this opened me up to new possibilities, I began to truly understand passages like Ephesians 4:4-6, which says:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

Those who believe in eternal conscious torment have a possessive view of the Holy Spirit – only we have the Holy Spirit, not you.  They believe that the only way to experience the Holy Spirit is if you’ve said your proper magical incantation and accepted the correct doctrine into your head.  Anyone who has not done this cannot possibly do good.  But if we properly understand that God is love, then we can look at a man like Gandhi and see the image of Christ in him.  If we understand that the Holy Spirit works by appealing to the empathy in all men’s souls – whether they be Christian or Jew or Hindu or Buddhist or Muslim or Agnostic or Atheist (or any number of other possibilities) – then our eyes can be opened to the workings of “God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”  And it is then that we can understand the Trinity, expressed in the “body of Christ”.  When we understand how we are all – every single one of us – part of that body, we understand that the Kingdom of God is brought about by the body working together in love and harmony.  In a body, when a small group of cells begins to work for themselves at the expense of the body – hoarding the resources meant to nourish the entire body – it is called cancer.  Likewise, God has designed us to work together in love, as a body.  We are not meant to cast out certain groups merely because they are different – we are meant to work together in love and serve each other as the cells in a body would work together and serve the collective whole of the body.  It is an illusion to believe that we can be an “individual” – to believe that we have gotten where we are only through ourselves and none other.  And when we seek “individuality” and say to others “I will take care of myself, you take care of yourself”, we create schisms in the body – we give the body cancer.  Love is the only way to heal the cancer and mend the schisms and heal the body.

In John 17:20-23, John writes that in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus prayed:

My prayer is not for them alone.  I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.  May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one — I in them and you in me — so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

When we embrace empathy, and see others’ needs as being greater than our own, we are listening to the Holy Spirit, and this is how we may live in unity as Jesus prayed.  When we ignore empathy, it is actually a form of spiritual suicide – we are allowing our false selves to slay our true selves.  But as our true selves are born in the Holy Spirit and thus cannot be permanently killed, we will die daily if we live that way – we live in constant death.  It is only when we seek unity – love that transcends the artificial boundaries set up by society – that we can find the unity that Jesus prayed for.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in “Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community”:

Human love has little regard for the truth. It makes the truth relative, since nothing, not even the truth, must come between it and the beloved person.

It is through this kind of love that we realize that the only Truth is infinite love.

When I am faced with the evils of hatred, war, poverty, loneliness, broken relationships, prejudice, self-loathing, and addiction, I realize that the only thing that can overcome these things is perfect love.  As the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. said:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

I will leave you with one last verse:

Colossians 1:19-20
For God in all his fullness
was pleased to live in Christ,
and through him God reconciled
everything to himself.
He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth
by means of Christ’s blood on the cross.

Additional Resources

Friday, September 20, 2013

Checkmate For Hell - Part 18: Sin and Evil

This is part of an ongoing series of blog posts, meant to be read in order.  In the first post, I introduced the concept of Universalism, and introduced the concept that I would be defending my position through a series of "chess moves".  I mentioned that I believe I have checkmate in 2 moves, but because a lot of questions would be left, I would use a series of further moves to keep the king in checkmate while I systematically removed the rest of the pieces from the board.  I would highly suggest you read the previous parts of this series before reading this one:

Part 1: Moves 1-3
Part 2: Moves 4-5
Part 3: Moves 6-7
Part 4: Move 8
Part 5: Moves 9-10
Part 6: Move 11
Part 7: Move 12
Part 8: The Six Line Narrative
Part 9: Two False Gospels, and a Man in a Pit
Part 10: Creation/Fall and Spirit/Soul/Body
Part 11: The True Gospel
Part 12: Deconstructing Our Ideas of Heaven
Part 13: Resurrection and "Spiritual" Bodies
Part 14: A New Diagram
Part 15: Creation/Heaven Fruits
Part 16: Hell Fruits
Part 17: What Is Hell?/The Narrow Gate

Embracing Universalism Changes Our Attitudes About Sin and Evil
I believe that one of the positive fruits of Universalism is that it can give us clarity in our understanding of what exactly “sin” is.  I think that most Christians have a very “flat” view of what sin is: if it says it’s bad somewhere in the Bible, then it’s sin, but if it says it’s ok, then it’s not.  But we’ve seen problems in the past with this kind of literalism (slavery, witch hunts, inquisitions, crusades), and I believe we’re working through one of the problems with this definition of sin currently as the debate over the proper Christian attitude towards sexuality rages.  Many people who believe in Hell won’t even dare risk thinking about the possibility that homosexuality might not be a sin, even though many scholars have offered up alternative interpretations to passages used to condemn homosexuality (side note: check out this excellent post on the topic of the Bible and homosexuality for a good summary, and just one of many examples of an alternate take).

But before I get into defining what exactly “sin” is, I would like to make a proposal about how Hell changes our attitudes towards sin. I propose that pushing the consequences of sin out into eternity – a concept that isn’t really conceivable by our finite minds – might seem like it would encourage people to live right, but it actually seems to have the opposite effect: when you preach eternal conscious torment to non-believers, they find it offensive and silly.  Meanwhile, believers have stopped placing any importance on the consequences of their actions in this life, as they believe they have their “get out of Hell free card” because they said a magical incantation and dropped “in Jesus’ name” at the end.  So, with Hell being the consequences of sin, unbelievers stop taking believers seriously and believers stop taking sin seriously.  But if we can rationally discuss sin and point to its natural consequences in this life, appealing to compassion for our fellow man when the sin being discussed does not “directly” harm the sinner, we can start to change the world in a way that I believe would be pleasing to God.

Now, as I said, I believe that many Christians have a “flat” view of what sin is – they simply point to things that seem to be condemned in the Bible, and they condemn those same things without ever thinking about why they are bad (or considering the possibility that they were never really sin to begin with, but were simply part of the way ancient cultures thought).  But a couple books I have read (and a few conversations I have been in with well-studied individuals) have helped me to conceptualize what sin is at a metaphysical level.

To get to a proper understanding of what “sin” is, I think we need to start with its origin story – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis 2.  I think there's so much misunderstanding of that metaphor, and what people often turn it into is this sort of "just don't do what God says not to do" (which is really more along the lines of "don't do what my literalistic interpretation of this Biblical passage says not to do"), or an even stranger "you shouldn't seek wisdom" type of interpretation.  But what's curious about that passage is the fact that the tree represents the knowledge of both good and evil.  Now, if you’ve been following the creation story carefully, you should have noted that everything God created, He said was…what?  Good!  So theoretically, Adam and Eve should have already had a knowledge of good – they were surrounded by it!  So why wasn't this tree simply called the "tree of the knowledge of evil"?  But I think that's a major clue to our understanding of what sin, at a metaphysical level, is!  And a second clue comes in what happens immediately after Adam and Eve eat the fruit - they start pointing fingers at each other and the snake and even God and playing "the blame game" – Adam says “the woman you put here with me”, blaming both God and Eve in the same sentence, and then Eve points at the snake and blames him.  So when you think about "good and evil", how do we usually play the game of categorizing things into those two artificial categories?  Well, almost always, "we" (or rather "me and my tribe") are "good" and "they" (the unfamiliar, or people outside of our tribe) are "evil".  But there was no such separation into these artificial categories before they ate the fruit!  There was only one tribe – those created by God!  And there is still only one tribe, in reality – we’re all created by God, and are all related to each other in reality!  Tribes are artificial categorizations our fallen minds come up with!  So when you think of it this way, you realize that evil is not a "something" but rather it is an illusion!  Because if everything God created is good, then there is no "us" and "them" - we are all loved by God!  This fits in very nicely with metaphorical imagery in the Bible of light and dark, such as when the devil is described as the "prince of darkness" or the "father of lies", and Jesus is described in John 1:5 as a light shining in darkness - darkness is not a "something" but rather an absence of something!  And thus we find that evil is a lie, and the way to combat it is with the truth - once the truth is injected, that illusion is gone and "evil" ceases to be!

But to take this even one step further – “sin” in the original Greek meant “missing the mark”, and in Aramaic, the word for evil is also used to mean “unripe”.  So the original language for the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” was actually more along the lines of “knowledge of ripe and unripe”, as the Aramaic word for “good” was the same word for “ripe”.  With this insight into the Greek and Aramaic translations, we learn that there is a whole different dynamic to the understanding of “good” and “evil”, both subjectively (it's me who sees your actions as missing the mark) and objectively (your actions came from a place within you that was unloving or unready).  But if the Hebrew for "good" is "ripe" and for "evil" is "unripe", then there is no judgment involved – it’s merely an essence of time.  God declared us "ripe" but didn't necessarily declare us "ready" for the wisdom that would be necessary to hold good/evil and ripe/unripe in the paradox which arises in all Unity.  We "sinned" or "missed the mark" when we took on the trait of distinguishing good from evil on the basis of judgment/valuation rather than seeing them as wholly present within the sacred.  So perhaps the only true sin is when we live in black and white, and judge every other human being according to our own standards, rather than loving every creature God has made and seeking their wellbeing.

The dual meanings of "ripe" and "unripe" present considerable difficulty to those who do not believe in eventual universal redemption, but fit rather nicely within Universalism.  For a Universalist who recognizes that God loves all, and has declared all to be good, sin is a transgression against the Universal good.  Sin is that which separates.  So how do we deal with sin?  More separation?  Cast the sinner out into infinite torment?  No!  This would be madness!  Separation does not solve separation!  Unconditional, infinite love, which cleaves to the transgressor no matter the response is the only solution!

In his masterful book “The Idolatry of God: Breaking Our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction”, Peter Rollins describes sin as an unholy trinity: Original Sin, the Law, and the Idol are its three parts.  He describes the concept of Original Sin through a psychological concept of First Separation, where we feel that we cannot be whole without attaining something (the Idol) outside of ourselves.  When we do this, we put the whole of our worth upon this object or person or goal (the Idol), and the very possibility of joy in this life is conditional upon the Idol – as Rollins puts it:

An Idol is not an idol because of some property and object has; it is an idol because we project absolute value onto it.

Now, what the Law does is to provide a barrier between us and the Idol.  But what often happens is that this only produces one of three effects:

  1. If we seek to live a life in obedience to the Law, we still secretly feel in our hearts that our joy and satisfaction is “out there” in the Idol which we cannot ever have.  And because of this secret thought, we feel intense anger and jealousy towards those who are not living a life in obedience to the Law – those who possess our Idol.
  2. If the Law is successful in keeping us from our Idol, even though it is not by our own choice, we live under this illusion of hope that says that if we could only overcome the Law, we could finally have joy and satisfaction.
  3. If we do not choose to live by the Law, and we are able to attain our Idol, we find that it does not in actuality bring us joy and satisfaction.  So we either end up enraged towards those we feel have lied to us (telling us that this idol is valuable), or we seek more.  If our idol was money, then once we find that one million dollars did not bring us joy and satisfaction, we seek ten million – and so we end up in an endless cycle of seeking fulfillment that never ends.

Rollins then goes on to point out that many forms of Christianity are simply another form of the sin of Idolatry – they merely seek to fill the gap we believe is there because of Original Sin with another idol:

What we are seeing in the church today is the reduction of God to an idol, that is, to a thing that will satisfy us and fulfill the gap in our heart. In thinking of God In this way, the church ends up mimicking every other industry by claiming that they can take away the sense of loss that marks our life…they turn the good news of Christianity into the bad news of idol worship.

What Rollins suggests is that the God that Jesus reveals to us does not merely validate our need for satisfaction by being the ultimate idol, but rather, Jesus shows us through the cross that the whole system is in question.  The very framework of thinking that results in idolatry is being overturned through Jesus, in the way that he modeled servanthood and love to the outcasts, and in the way he gave of himself even unto death.  The climax of Rollins’ book is in this passage:

In contrast to the Idol that we experience as existing, as sublime, and as meaningful, the God revealed in Christ, as present in the work of love, resists each of these characteristics. While the Idol is a fiction that we experience as existing, we may say that the God of Christ is a reality that we experience as not existing.

Instead, this God is present as the source that calls everything into existence. The word “exist” literally means “to stand out.” The main characteristic of something that exists is that we are able to treat it as an object of some sort. We are able to hold it, contemplate it, smell it, touch it, or hear it. The God hinted at in Christianity is that which calls everything into existence, all the while defying objectification.

To understand what this means, think about walking along a busy street and coming upon someone you love. While walking you are passing hundreds of people, and yet you do not really “see” any of them. You perhaps register them as objects to avoid, but they do not stand out for you. However, when you see someone you love, she stands forth from the background. She arises from the formless mass of others as distinct. With this in mind we may say that God is the name we give to that experience where things are called into existence for us. In this way, it can be said that God is not seen but is testified to in a particular way of seeing. Previously we saw how the Idol is experienced as existing, until we grasp it and discover that it doesn’t. Here God is felt not to exist, and yet by this act of calling everything into existence it seems that the moment we stop trying to grasp God the existence of God is indirectly testified to in the existence of everything we encounter.

This brings us to the second aspect of God that is distinct from the Idol. The Idol is experienced as that which is utterly beautiful, that which is so radiant everything else pales into insignificance. But when we read that God is love, we are reminded that love cannot be directly approached as beautiful and sublime but as that humble reality that renders the world beautiful and sublime. Love does not say, “Look at me,” but invites us to look at another. Unlike the Idol that tries to capture our gaze, the God testified to in love avoids our direct gaze and invites us to be taken up by the beauty that surrounds us. The Idol is seen as beautiful only until it is grasped and we discover the beauty was a fiction. In contrast, it would seem that as we stop trying to grasp God as beautiful we discover that the source of all beauty is indirectly discovered as beautiful in the beauty of all things.

Finally, the God revealed in the Christian scriptures differs from the Idol in that this God is not meaningful. The Idol we desire is not only meaningful to us, it is so singularly meaningful that everything else effectively becomes meaningless. In contrast, the God found in love is not meaningful but is that reality that renders the world meaningful.

When someone is in love he cannot help but experience the world as meaningful, even if he doesn’t believe it is. While the one who does not love cannot help but experience the world as meaningless even if he believes that the world is meaningful. Love then infuses the world with meaning regardless of what one believes about it. By revealing God as love, the Christian tradition rejects the idea that God is a meaningful being in favor of the idea that God is that which lights up our world, rendering it meaningful to us. This means that unlike the Idol, which seems meaningful until grasped, the moment we lay down the idea of God as meaningful and find the world infused with meaning, we bear witness to the meaningfulness of the divine.

The point here is that we should avoid making the mistake of affirming the polar opposite of the proverb that states, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” (Psalm 14:1) For Christianity does not assert that we can directly know God any more than it says there is no God. In Christ we are confronted with a different understanding altogether, one in which God is not directly known (either as a being “out there” or as found in all things), but is the source that renders everything known.

To make the claim that you know God is actually to proclaim a no-God. It is to proclaim an Idol, masked as God. The categories of existence and non-existence begin to break apart when speaking of God. The Idol is a fiction that we think exists, a meaningless object that we bestow with all meaning and a mundane object that we believe is sublime. In contrast, we let go of existence, meaning, and the sublime as categories to describe the object “God.” Instead these become ways in which we engage with the world. Yet, as we affirm the world in love, we indirectly sense that in letting go of God we have, in fact, found ourselves at the very threshold of God.

I believe that the way of thinking that Rollins is hinting at is utterly impossible for anyone who is stuck within the Heaven/Hell paradigm.  As long as there is a possibility that some will go away into eternal conscious torment, we will always look at people and things that we believe put us “at risk” as being evil, and we will take the same attitude as our false god towards them: wanting to cast them out forever.

But what's interesting about the passages that people use to protect their views of "eternal punishment" is the choice of words in those passages.  The word that is used is the same word that is used to describe the process of pruning a tree for the purpose of causing it to grow.  This is a stark difference

In his book “New Seeds of Contemplation”, Thomas Merton writes:

Detachment from things does not mean setting up a contradiction between "things" and "God" as if God were another "thing" and as if His creatures were His rivals. We do not detach ourselves from things in order to attach ourselves to God, but rather we become detached from ourselves in order to see and use all things in and for God. This is an entirely new perspective which many sincerely moral and ascetic minds fail utterly to see. There is no evil in anything created by God, nor can anything of His become an obstacle to our union with Him. The obstacle is in our "self", that is to say in the tenacious need to maintain our separate, external, egotistic will. It is when we refer all things to this outward and false "self" that we alienate ourselves from reality and from God. It is then the false self that is our god, and we love everything for the sake of this self. We use all things, so to speak, for the worship of this idol which is our imaginary self. In so doing we pervert and corrupt things, or rather we turn our relationship to them into a corrupt and sinful relationship. We do not thereby make them evil, but we use them to increase our attachment to our illusory self.

What we learn from this view of sin and evil is that we cannot fight our separation by judging some things as evil and some things as good – this only causes further separation and isolation, and only increases the hurt in the world.  The only thing that can combat the separation we feel is by breaking free of the paradigm that seeks to serve ourselves through the use of outside idols, and instead seeking to bring the love of God to all beings, and serving them even to the point of emptying ourselves.  This is known in the New Testament as “taking up our cross”, and is modeled perfectly in this immortal passage:

Philippians 2:6-8
6 Who [speaking of Christ Jesus], being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
    even death on a cross!

By properly framing the idea of taking up our cross within the framework of giving up “our way” which leads to separation and isolation, and instead seeking a life that serves others, we can also learn the meaning behind the rich Biblical metaphor of the refiner’s fire.  When a gold refiner puts unrefined gold into the fire, the impurities rise to the surface.  He then skims them off of the gold with a tool, leaving the metal behind.  This process is repeated until the refiner is able to see his reflection in the gold – this is how the refiner knows the process is done.  In I Cor. 3:10-15, Paul explains that everything we’ve done in this life will be put through a fire, and that wood, hay and straw will be burned away.  Understanding this passage can help us to properly frame Hell – Hell is not an end unto itself.  God does not punish for the sake of punishment – His punishment is not retributive.  God’s purpose is to refine and redeem.  And often, as we watch those things we deemed precious burn away in the refiner’s fire, this feels like Hell to us.  But as God skims away the impurities, we begin to shine.

This view of God's punishment as a means to an end, rather than and end in and of itself, fits in nicely with the choice of language Jesus used to speak of punishment.  In the passages people use to try to protect their views of eternal damnation, the word Jesus uses for punishment is the same word used to speak of pruning a tree.  Pruning a tree is not an end of itself - it has a purpose!  To cause the tree to grow!  Pruning removes the unneeded excess that is holding the tree back so that it can continue to grow!  And so we seek to remove the excess from our lives - the stuff we "love" so dearly that doesn't really add any value to our lives, if we're honest.

Now it is time for another break.  When we continue, I will explore what I believe to be a proper understanding of the Golden Rule and the Holy Spirit.

Next: The Golden Rule and the Holy Spirit

Checkmate For Hell - Part 17: What Is Hell?/The Narrow Gate

This is part of an ongoing series of blog posts, meant to be read in order.  In the first post, I introduced the concept of Universalism, and introduced the concept that I would be defending my position through a series of "chess moves".  I mentioned that I believe I have checkmate in 2 moves, but because a lot of questions would be left, I would use a series of further moves to keep the king in checkmate while I systematically removed the rest of the pieces from the board.  I would highly suggest you read the previous parts of this series before reading this one:

Part 1: Moves 1-3
Part 2: Moves 4-5
Part 3: Moves 6-7
Part 4: Move 8
Part 5: Moves 9-10
Part 6: Move 11
Part 7: Move 12
Part 8: The Six Line Narrative
Part 9: Two False Gospels, and a Man in a Pit
Part 10: Creation/Fall and Spirit/Soul/Body
Part 11: The True Gospel
Part 12: Deconstructing Our Ideas of Heaven
Part 13: Resurrection and "Spiritual" Bodies
Part 14: A New Diagram
Part 15: Creation/Heaven Fruits
Part 16: Hell Fruits

What is Hell? 

In the beginning of this series, I mentioned that I was not “throwing out” Hell.  So then you might ask me what my definition of Hell has become.  I wouldn’t say that I believe there is no such thing as Hell.  Actually, Hell is a very good word to use, but I wouldn’t define Hell as eternal conscious torment for those who don’t recite the correct incantation in this life.  And I think the definition I use for Hell helps to understand the confusion we face in the multiple definitions of what saves us that I presented in an earlier section of this series.  So what is Hell?

War is Hell.
Poverty is Hell.
Loneliness is Hell.
Broken relationships are Hell.
Prejudice is Hell.
Self-loathing is Hell.
Constantly striving for an ideal that can never be attained is Hell.
Addiction is Hell.

And God hates Hell. He wants to throw it into a lake of fire – destroy it forever.

But just hiding under the surface, there is something else that Hell can be – something you’d never expect.  The Kingdom of Heaven can be Hell for those who have become stuck in hate, anger, prejudice, and fear.  In Matthew 7:1-2, Jesus says:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

When we become stuck in this judgmental view of the world, setting ourselves up as a god-like authority of what is good and what is evil, devoid of compassion and the knowledge that everything God has made is good, we become trapped in Hell.  And the profound mystery of it all is that this Hell can actually be a beautiful place for those around us who are not steeped in fear, anger and hate.  Our Hell might just be someone else’s Heaven.

So what is to be done?

The only thing that can stop Hell is the love that Jesus taught us.

I believe that the emphasis in the Bible on avoiding fear and turning towards love (see Chess Move #9) gives us insight into the nature of hell and how to defeat it.  Hell is born of the fear we produce when we tell false stories about our neighbors, and refuse to accept even the possibility of their even partially good intentions.  Hell is born out of the Us vs. Them paradigm where we set ourselves in opposition to a group of "outsiders".  And when we do this, we all too often refuse to hear their stories - we make a judgement without giving a fair trial that hears both sides and assumes innocence before guilt.  We decide in our minds that if anyone is from "that side", they couldn't possibly be right about anything, and must be out to lead us astray towards destruction.  "They" are only lying to us, on purpose, about anything and everything just so that they can destroy "my side".  This fearful attitude is what causes the pain and suffering in our world, and there is no way that we could solve it except by stepping completely outside of this way of living, and loving unconditionally.

This definition of Hell helps to understand why there are so many Biblical ways one can be saved – it’s not a question of the one single way to be saved from eternal conscious torment, it’s a question of what we are saved from: a broken and meaningless life.

When we redefine Hell as the suffering in this world that we have produced through our fear and judgement, we can come to a better understanding of salvation.  In “New Seeds of Contemplation”, Thomas Merton writes:

It is a pity that the beautiful Christian metaphor “salvation” has come to be so hackneyed and therefore so despised. It has been turned into a vapid synonym for “piety” - not even a truly ethical concept. “Salvation” is something far beyond ethical propriety. The word connotes a deep respect for the fundamental metaphysical reality of man. It reflects God's own infinite concern for man, God's love and care for man's inmost being, God's love for all that is His own in man, His son.

The Narrow Gate
I believe that this proper understanding of Hell brings to light the meaning behind some other Biblical ideas that would have previously eluded us without it.  In Matthew 7:13-14, Jesus says:

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

This passage highlights the difficulty of “salvation” – but it would make no sense to anyone who believed that “salvation” is found through the magical incantation of the “sinner’s prayer”.  Saying an incantation with the right words is a very easy thing to do.  And many men have done it and then gone about their depraved lives.  When Jesus told us to abide in Him and He would abide in us (John 15:4), I believe that what he meant was not to simply have a superstitious magical understanding that after saying the incantation his spirit would magically float into our soul.  Rather, I believe that what Jesus was trying to communicate is that the way to salvation is to follow his example – to love everyone with no favoritism, including our enemies.  And this helps us understand why it is so hard to enter through the narrow gate.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, in “The Cost of Discipleship”:

To be called to a life of extraordinary quality, to live up to it, and yet to be unconscious of it is indeed a narrow way. To confess and testify to the truth as it is in Jesus, and at the same time to love the enemies of that truth, his enemies and ours, and to love them with the infinite love of Jesus Christ, is indeed a narrow way. To believe the promise of Jesus that his followers shall possess the earth, and at the same time to face our enemies unarmed and defenseless, preferring to incur injustice rather than to do wrong ourselves, is indeed a narrow way. To see the weakness and wrong in others, and at the same time refrain from judging them; to deliver the gospel message without casting pearls before swine, is indeed a narrow way. The way is unutterably hard, and at every moment we are in danger of straying from it. If we regard this way as one we follow in obedience to an external command, if we are afraid of ourselves all the time, it is indeed an impossible way. But if we behold Jesus Christ going on before step by step, we shall not go astray.

Now it is time for another break.  When we continue, I will explore what I believe to be a proper understanding of sin and evil, and how to deal with them. 

Next: Sin and Evil

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Checkmate For Hell - Part 16: Hell Fruits

This is part of an ongoing series of blog posts, meant to be read in order.  In the first post, I introduced the concept of Universalism, and introduced the concept that I would be defending my position through a series of "chess moves".  I mentioned that I believe I have checkmate in 2 moves, but because a lot of questions would be left, I would use a series of further moves to keep the king in checkmate while I systematically removed the rest of the pieces from the board.  I would highly suggest you read the previous parts of this series before reading this one:

Part 1: Moves 1-3
Part 2: Moves 4-5
Part 3: Moves 6-7
Part 4: Move 8
Part 5: Moves 9-10
Part 6: Move 11
Part 7: Move 12
Part 8: The Six Line Narrative
Part 9: Two False Gospels, and a Man in a Pit
Part 10: Creation/Fall and Spirit/Soul/Body
Part 11: The True Gospel
Part 12: Deconstructing Our Ideas of Heaven
Part 13: Resurrection and "Spiritual" Bodies
Part 14: A New Diagram
Part 15: Creation/Heaven Fruits

Hell Fruits
One of the objections that has been raised over the idea of Universalism goes something like this: “if there’s no eternal hell, than what is the motivation to be good in this life?”  Well, let me ask you this: have you ever had a boss you didn’t like who was demanding and harsh?  And have you ever had a boss you did like, whom you considered a friend?  Whom did you do the best work for?  Whom were you more motivated to work harder for in order to please?

Mohatma Gandhi wrote (in "The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi"):

Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent then the one derived from fear of punishment.

I believe that one of the fruits of the belief in Heaven and Hell as places of final destination is that salvation is all about me – it’s a geocentric astronomy, as it were.  It’s about my belief and my salvation.  How can I be saved.  But when we release ourselves from this model, and believe in the kingdom of God, it becomes theocentric – it’s all about God, and his plans.  How can I be part of establishing his good kingdom on earth, as He has always intended?  And when we release ourselves from having to “save” others from their wrong beliefs – no eternal conscious torment for people who believe differently – we become completely free to love others, no matter what we disagree on.  Rob Bell says, in his book “Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith”:

If the gospel isn't good news for everybody, then it isn't good news for anybody. And this is because the most powerful things happen when the church surrenders its desire to convert people and convince them to join. It is when the church gives itself away in radical acts of service and compassion, expecting nothing in return, that the way of Jesus is most vividly put on display. To do this, the church must stop thinking about everybody primarily in categories of in or out, saved or not, believer or nonbeliever. Besides the fact that these terms are offensive to those who are the "un" and "non", they work against Jesus' teachings about how we are to treat each other. Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor, and our neighbor can be anybody. We are all created in the image of God, and we are all sacred, valuable creations of God. Everybody matters. To treat people differently based on who believes what is to fail to respect the image of God in everyone. As the book of James says, “God shows no favoritism.” So we don't either.

It is only within the “kingdom of God” paradigm, and through the elimination of the belief in Hell as a place of eternal conscious torment that we can truly understand what “chosenness” means.  In Galatians 3:8, Paul says:

Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.”

We were called for a purpose – not as a privilege that we get to soak in.  We were called to inaugurate God’s kingdom on this world, and bring His blessing to all people.  As Brian McLaren says in his book, “A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith”:

Chosenness... does not give one people privileges over others as God's favorites, but rather responsibilities on behalf of others as God's servants and as channels of blessing.

But as long as we live in the “Heaven/Hell/Rapture” paradigm, chosenness is about escapism.  Chosenness is about me and my personal salvation.  We can’t live the way God wants – as blessings to the world – if we believe God condemns it and wants to destroy it, or even if we just think He will allow such a thing.  Believing in Hell as a place of eternal conscious torment, and Heaven as a place of eternal reward fosters an attitude of elitism and disdain towards those who are not so fortunate to be in our group of oh so specials.

When we release ourselves from the belief in eternal conscious torment, we become free to listen to people who believe differently – perhaps we can even learn something from them!  I’m continually struck by the elitism in certain circles of Christianity that refuses to listen to anything that comes from atheists.  They will never even hear the criticisms – well deserved though they may be – of atheists who have left the church because of the pain it caused them.  Brennan Manning once said:

The single greatest cause of atheism in the world today is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, then walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.

When we release ourselves from the belief in a wrathful God who eternally punishes, we become free to stop taking simplistic approaches to defining sin.  We realize that God – as a loving Father who wants the best for us – gives us commands not because he’s a controlling dictator who gives commandments based on whims.  He gives us commandments because he wants to keep us from harm, and show us the way to have a full life.  And when we define sin in this way – as anything that keeps us from loving and causes suffering – then this will have a dual effect:

  1. We will have to use logic and reasoning to define an action as sin, showing concretely its harmful effects.
  2. Pointing out sins is no longer a guilt-ridden act of brow beating, but is a loving act of trying to steer people away from harm.

On the negative side - belief in Hell is bad for your mental health.  Check out this article, which talks about a scientific study published in the April edition of Journal of Religion & Health that found that people who believe in an angry, punishing God are more likely to suffer from mental illnesses.  The study also found that belief in a forgiving, loving God is associated with positive psychological traits – almost like an inoculation against mental illness.

And belief in Hell can be associated with other atrocities.  Take a look at this quote from “There is No Fire Burning in Hell”, by Thomas and Gertrude Sartory:

No religion in the world (not a single one in the history of humanity) has on its conscience so many millions of people who thought differently, believed differently.  Christianity is the most murderous religion there has ever been.  Christians today have to live with this; they have to "overcome" this sort of past....  If someone is convinced that God condemns a person to hell for all eternity for no other reason than because he is a heathen, a Jew, or a heretic, he cannot for his own part fail to regard all heathens, Jews and heretics as good for nothing, as unfit to exist and unworthy of life.  Seen from this viewpoint, the almost complete extermination of the North and South American Indians by the "Christian" conquerors is quite consistent.  From the aspect of the dogma of hell "baptism or death" is an understandable motto.

But perhaps the best proof I have of the good fruits of releasing the belief in Hell is my own self.  For many of you, if you are anything like me when I first caught ahold of some of these concepts, your heads are probably spinning.  You might feel a little like a ship in the middle of the ocean with no anchor.  This was how I felt at first.  But it was strange, because at the same time, I did not feel fearful – I felt excited.  And after a while, for the first time in my life I felt truly at peace.  And for the first time in my life, I truly felt love for God.  I had grown up in a Christian home, and for most of my life had believed in the Christian God.  But I always struggled to make prayer and study of scripture a regular part of my life.  I often struggled with the fact that my faith was so much of a smaller part of my life than many other things I was interested in and cared about.  But when these ideas were introduced to me, for the first time in my life I literally became obsessed with my faith.  I was constantly thinking about the concept of the kingdom of God – I would literally wake up in the middle of the night to pee and the first thoughts that popped into my head would be about the kingdom of God and what it might be like when it’s fully realized.  For the first time in my life, I actually hungered for daily scripture reading.  I had never really been interested in reading theology books, though I kind of wanted to get into the habit out of guilt.  But for the first time in my life I really wanted to read theology, and it didn’t take very long for me to create a wishlist of 300 theology related books I wanted to eventually read.  And for the very first time in my life, prayer became a natural part of my life. And it was no longer the selfish prayers for stuff, or the guilt-ridden prayers of confession.  For the first time in my life I was praying “Lord, how can I advance your kingdom?  How can I serve you?  Do you have a greater purpose for me than what I have been about thus far?  I want to serve you, Lord – how can I be part of the work of inaugurating your kingdom?”

Now it is time for another break. 
When we continue, I will explore what I believe to be a proper understanding of Hell.

Next: What Is Hell?/The Narrow Gate