Friday, September 13, 2013

Checkmate For Hell - Part 9: Two False Gospels, and a Man in a Pit

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

Ok, let’s talk about the Gospel – specifically, we need to talk about the two kinds of false gospels.

The Two Kinds of False Gospels
First off, it should be noted how quickly false gospels began to spring up.  We can conclude that they began to be an issue within just two decades of Jesus’ death and resurrection, as Paul states in his letter to the Galatians:

Galatians 1:6-7
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.

So, seeing as how quickly this started to happen, we should humble ourselves and remember our inability to perceive the truth on our own.

Now there are two categories of false gospels – but it should be noted that most often, the false gospels people believe in are actually a mixture of both categories.  The first category is legalism.  Legalism is fairly self-explanative, and believes that we have within ourselves the power to save ourselves through obedience to the law.  We can save ourselves through works.  This false gospel arose primarily through Judaism in the early days of Christianity.  The Jews in the early church would try to force the Gentiles in the church to obey the Torah, and did not believe one could be saved otherwise.  But here’s the problem with legalism:

Galatians 3:10
But those who depend on the law to make them right with God are under his curse, for the Scriptures say, “Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the commands that are written in God’s Book of the Law.”

James 2:10
For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it

The second category of false gospels is Gnosticism.  Gnosticism is a little more complicated and difficult to explain, partially because there is more than one version of it.  “Gnostic” comes from the word “gnosis”, for knowledge, and so we can correctly guess that the basic central idea behind Gnosticism is salvation through knowledge or belief.  But it gets a bit more complicated than that and if we look a little deeper you might be frightened to find that Gnostic Christianity is still being preached in some form or other in churches all around the world today.  Varieties of Gnosticism included both asceticism and hedonism. defines asceticism as:

1. the manner of life, practices, or principles of an ascetic.
2. the doctrine that a person can attain a high spiritual and moral state by practicing self-denial, self-mortification, and the like.
3. rigorous self-denial; extreme abstinence; austerity. 
It defines hedonism as:

1. the doctrine that pleasure or happiness is the highest good.
2. devotion to pleasure as a way of life.

Now, asceticism and hedonism were extremes of Gnosticism, but the basic principle of Gnosticism was a belief that having proper knowledge – what you believe – is the means to salvation, and that spirit is good and flesh is evil.  Hmm, the extremes between asceticism and hedonism sounds a little familiar, don’t it?  Sounds a bit like a certain debate between two prominent Greek philosophers which I outlined before, don’t it?

In his book “Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church”, N.T. Wright describes Gnostic thinking like so:

The Gnostics believed, like Plato, that the material world was an inferior and dark place, evil in its very existence, but that within this world could be found certain people who were meant for something else.  These children of light were like fallen stars, tiny pinpricks of light currently hidden within a gross material body.  Once they had realized who they were, though, this knowledge (Greek gnosis) would enable them to enter into a spiritual existence in which the material world would no longer count.  Having entered upon that spiritual existence, they would then live by it, through death, and into the infinite world beyond space, time, and matter.

You see, basically, Gnostics believed that you had to come to a place of understanding – a place where you possessed “secret knowledge”.  Once you came to that place, you would transcend this mortal plane and become immortal.  So asceticism and hedonism were just two different methods for arriving at “secret knowledge”.

A Man in a Pit
One of the effects of Gnostic teaching is that focus is taken off of the message Jesus taught, and instead people are taught to believe in the Gospel about Jesus.  That might sound confusing, but think of it this way: early Christians were known as followers of “The Way”, because they believed Jesus taught a way to live.  But instead of viewing Jesus’ teachings as a way to live, churches that teach Gnostic gospels simply teach about Jesus, as if they’re merely telling a nice story, and the only point of that story is to believe it’s true.  And of course, at the end of the story, we’re invited to say some magic words and we’ll have assurance of salvation.

To illustrate the problem with this idea of the gospel, we’ll use a story I heard that was designed to illustrate the differences between Christianity and other religions.  In it, a man fell into a pit.  The pit was deep and wide enough, with straight, smooth walls so as to prevent the man from being able to climb out.  Also, in the bottom of the pit was a large, venomous snake.  Naturally, the man was terrified and screamed out for help.

Now, in the version of the story I heard, it kind of had a “pwned” sort of attitude where it demonstrated how much better Christianity was than any other religion.  I happen to think Christianity is pretty awesome myself…however….I’d like to tell a different version of the story in order to give us an attitude of humility, which is an important Biblical virtue.

In my version of the story, first a couple of Christians come walking along – one is a little older, and a mentor to the other – and hearing the man’s screams of terror they look down at the man in the pit and say “oh…this man is a sinner.  He has voted for liberals, and supported equality for marriage…oh and I think I saw him doing pot once.  He must be in this pit because God has allowed him to face the reality of Hell.  Let this be a lesson to you to avoid all sin and fear God!”  They walk on.

The man continued to scramble in the pit trying to avoid the venomous viper when another Christian walks close by the pit and stops over to see what’s up.  This man takes compassion.  He calls down to the man in the pit: “all you need is Jesus!  Just say the sinner’s prayer, and invite Jesus to come live in your heart, and then pray to him, go to church every Sunday, and sing praise songs!  The snake does not matter!  When you die, Jesus will take you to heaven!”  This Christian also walks on.

As the man is beginning to collapse from exhaustion, Jesus passes by and sees what has happened. He jumps into the pit with the man, places His own body between the man and the snake, lifts the man onto his shoulders and pushes him up and out of the pit just as the snake bites Jesus on the leg.  The man escapes the pit and Jesus dies from the fatal bite.

This story illustrates an important difference in our attitude towards sin, and towards the importance of this earthly life.  You see, all too often, “sin” is used as a dividing line between groups of people who are in and groups of people who are out.  The “in” crowd lists off all the sins of the “out” crowd as proof that they are “out”, and then says “let us, the true elect, pray for those poor sinners.”

The comedian Hannibal Buress once said:

I don't like it when people say 'I'll pray for you, I'll pray for you.'  You're gonna pray for me? So basically you're gonna sit at home and do nothing? Because that's what your prayers are. You're doing nothing while I'm struggling with a situation.  So don't pray for me - make me a sandwich or something. Cause I'm very upset right now and I can't make my own sandwiches, so that would be cool if you made me a sandwich instead of praying - that's very lazy.

I think we need a radical transformation of the way we think about sin.  Too often we think in simplistic, legalistic terms when it comes to sin. But Jesus showed us that what God really wants is to heal and restore us.  And Jesus taught us that all of the law is summed up in two commands: love God, and love people.  Love isn’t just a list of “don’ts” – love is an action.  Yes, love abstains from certain things – because those things would cause harm to the beloved.  But love is more than abstaining – it’s actively seeking to heal and restore the beloved.  I think we need to find a way of viewing sin that evokes empathy, and not condemnation.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said:

Nothing that we despise in other men is inherently absent from ourselves. We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or don't do, and more in light of what they suffer.

So I propose that we need to stop seeing sin in literal terms, pointing to a checklist and then pointing back at the “sinner” in condemnation.  Rather, we need to look for the suffering and seek to alleviate it.  When we point out “sin” in another, we should not do so in condemnation – but rather, we should do so out of love, pointing to the suffering that the “sin” is causing, and seeking to alleviate that suffering.  Or, the inverse would be to strive towards the goal of love – as Romans 13:10 puts it:

Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

So what is the True Gospel?  We’ll get to that soon – first, I think we’re now ready to start really dismantling the Six Line Narrative.

So once again, we're going to take a break.  But when we continue, we are going to dismantle the rest of The Six Line Narrative.  Here's what you have to look forward to:

Dismantling The Six Line Narrative: Creation / Fall
Dismantling The Six Line Narrative: Spirit, Soul and Body
Dismantling The Six Line Narrative: The True Gospel
Dismantling The Six Line Narrative: Deconstructing Our Ideas of Heaven
Dismantling The Six Line Narrative: The Role of the Resurrection
Dismantling The Six Line Narrative: But What About Spiritual Bodies?
Dismantling The Six Line Narrative: A New Diagram
Conclusion: Testing the fruits.


  1. I think you meant "hedonism" for your dictionary definition above.

    1. Wow, weird - somehow I left off the hedonism definition and screwed that whole section up, and no one told me until now. Thanks! I've fixed it now.