Monday, November 19, 2007

The Nature of Grace

Grace Before Sin

I feel that I am going to fail to properly articulate my point. The truth of it is so simple, yet so profound. I feel like a great weight has been lifted, but I can't say why. This is an issue I'd like to further "unpackage" and explore. It is not an issue I wish to debate and argue over. I need to explore this issue, not hear why it’s wrong.

I've always entertained the idea that Islam, Judaism, and Christianity could, potentially, all be wrong. Well, "wrong" isn't the word: incomplete. But let's not be pretentious. Let me be brutally honest:
I've never believed Islam or Judaism were complete.
I've always believed Islam and Judaism were incomplete.
I've only ever entertained the idea that Christianity might be incomplete.

On Monday, November 20th, 2006, at 6:16am I crossed a threshold. I stopped entertaining that idea.

Christianity is incomplete. In fact, I'd go so far as to say Christianity is wrong. Well, at least its methodology is wrong.

The Religion of Christianity teaches that we begin, or start out, fallen. Our human condition's default is Sin. We need to have or accept the "bad news" before we can accept the "good news". Our goal becomes salvation through Grace and therefore Grace is the prize; it is the goal that must be attained! The division of denominations come about with the questions of "How do we attain grace?" or "How do we exit this state of sin?"

One side of Christianity acknowledges Original Sin as tainting and condemning all of humanity! Thus is introduced Infant Baptism. But this fails to address the conscious choice of the believer. It allows exceptions or conditions for a lack of understanding between Sin & Grace.

The other side of Christianity acknowledges the conscious choice of the believer, and introduces Believer's Baptism, but makes exceptions or conditions to rectify infant death with a non-scriptural formula of "Age of Accountability".

Both sides struggle and make exceptions to "biblical rules" and insert non-biblical conditions because of the assumption that we always have Sin, but we don't always have Grace.

What happens to a newborn that dies shortly after birth? What happens to an aboriginal heathen who has never seen a white man, let alone hears the gospel or of Christ, dies? Are they condemned to hell? Christian theology must compromise itself with “footnotes” and “exceptions to the rules” to explain these things. I’ve always been skeptical of rules or theories that contain “yeah, but…” statements.

God hates Sin, but loves Sinners. That was the reason why He died on the cross: because He hates Sin, but loves Sinners. If this weren't true then His death was - for - absolutely - no - reason. Let me repeat myself: God hates Sin, but loves Sinners. It makes no sense the other way around: Jesus died on the cross because He loves sinners, not because He hates sinners.

I dearly love my children. I wish I could say that about their behaviour at times too. There are times I could honestly say that I hate their behavior. But I never hate them. Would I lay my life down and die for my children? Definitely, and that’s because I love them. But would l lay my life down and die for someone I hated? Absolutely not!

The Flood was an example of the opposite of the Crucifixion. God hated the sinners and killed them all off, yet Sin survived, thrived, and continued! No Grace was given in this equation, and the outcome failed to destroy Sin (which is not to say God failed because we don’t know if that was His goal).

The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is yet another example of the attempted cleansing of Sin without Grace. No Grace was given to the sinners of Sodom and Gomorrah. They themselves (not Sin) were outright destroyed. Even Abraham missed this point! Abraham attempts to barter or negotiate with God. Abraham seems to think God's Grace can be earned or bought! What if there are 50 righteous people? What about 45? 40? 30? Do I hear 20? What about 10? Even if it is only one, Grace cannot be bought! Jesus’ parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Mat. 20:1-16) is a clear lesson that Grace doesn’t work on any sort of economic system. It isn’t mathematical.

God condemns a complete generation of Israelites during their 40-year exodus through the wilderness, promising only their children - their next generation - will see the Promised Land. Again we see an attempt to cleanse Sin without Grace, and again we see Sin's eradication incomplete.

The most difficult issue we struggle with in the book of Job is that Job is upright and blameless! (Even God admits it!) Job doesn't deserve what he's inflicted with. But isn't that the whole point? Isn't that what Job misses? Isn't that the lesson we miss? It's about Grace. It isn't that Job deserves what he's inflicted with, but that he doesn't not deserve it! That's Job's flaw. It's not that he's committed some sin and is being punished for it. It's that he believes that he somehow earned the Grace he is enjoying – that the Grace was his. He was coveting his exclusivity to Grace, where Grace isn't exclusive. Even at the end when Job "confronts" God in the storm, he pleads his case and maintains his innocence, God does not accuse nor reveals Job's sin - for Job is still blameless. It is only after Job acknowledges God absolute sovereignty and unquestionability does Job again enjoys God's Grace.

I walked through Zellers on the weekend and someone working there offered me a nice expensive pen for free! Well, that caught my attention! I'm then told that, if I apply for a Zeller's Credit Card, the pen's mine for free! Well...it's not free. Granted, it's a very good deal, but it isn't free. Not only is this paradigm wrong and doesn't work, it's an outright lie: We begin (default) in Sin and can attain salvation and grace by simply saying the "Sinner's Prayer" (for example). Hey! Wait a second! That is a great deal, but IT ISN'T FREE!

If this is Christianity, then I'm out. I'll hand in my W.W.J.D. bracelet, my "Admit One, Eschatological Pass/Soteriological Coupon", and my Club J.C. Card.

Jesus died on the cross for ALL PEOPLE. This is Grace incarnate. We don't start in a state of Sin and climb into a state of Grace. We begin in a state of Grace. Grace is not a transaction or an exchange. Grace must by definition be free and must be for everyone - and when I say everyone, I don't mean every Christian. No sir! I mean everyone: Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Agnostic, Atheist, you name it! Grace for ALL. Grace can't be earned and can't be attained by our own methods. GRACE IS A FREE GIFT !!

A newborn isn't a Christian, or a Muslim, or a Jew, or a Hindu, or an Agnostic, or a Buddhist, or an Atheist! But a newborn already has God's Grace. We begin our journey with it.

And the Religion of Christianity voices in with, "But this is Universalism! The bible doesn't teach that 'all will be saved'!" No, this is not Universalism. And no, there is no longer Original Sin. And there is an Age of Accountability, but it is to opt out of Grace, not into it. No, this isn't Universalism because people can and do opt out of grace. It is a free ride for all, but not all accept it.

One denomination, in an official publication concerning its belief, makes the following statement:
“Some people inconsiderately accuse us of rejecting the atonement of Christ entirely because we dissent from the view that the atonement was made upon the cross as is generally held. But we do nothing of the kind. We object to the view that the atonement was made upon the cross, because it inevitably leads to one of two great errors, thus, Christ on the cross bore the sins of all the world. John said, ‘Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away (margin, ‘beareth’) the sin of the world’ (John 1:29). Peter tells us how Christ thus bore the sins of the world. ‘Who His own self bare our sins in His own body on the tree’ (1 Peter 2:24). Paul says that ‘He died for all’ (2 Cor. 5:14,15). That which Christ did on the cross, therefore, was done indiscriminately and unconditionally for all the world, and if this was the atonement, then all the sins of the world have been atoned for and all will be saved – but all men will not be saved; hence the sins of all were not atoned for upon the cross.”

Little comment needs to be made about this quotation except to point out that the writer sees clearly that, if the usual understanding of the cross of Christ is accepted, all men will be saved. Hence, in order to maintain that not all will be saved, as he thinks, he claims that the atonement was not made upon the cross. ..
Through the centuries the Christian understanding has been that when Jesus hung on the cross and cried, “It is finished”, the problem of atonement was settled for all time. We do not have, therefore, a gospel of chance, either first chance or many chances. We have a gospel of grace.
Dr. Loyal Hurley, The Outcome of Infinite Grace

"Grace tells us... we are already in unless we want to be out." (Spencer Burk, A Heretic's Guide to Eternity, pg. 61)

These two paradigms are in conflict and is an extremely dangerous path to follow. If we can understand that Grace by definition is a free gift paid for and given by Jesus on the cross, then we must also admit we all begin with it. So now we have an apparent contradiction of facts: We always have Sin and we always have Grace. They must both be defaults to the human condition. If Adam and Eve brought Sin into the world - caused the problem - “broke it”, as the case may be – and Christ resolved the problem - cleansed it - “fix it”, then the problem must actually be fixed. If we are still born into Sin, then the problem isn’t fixed. We are, and the world is, still “broken”. Christ has failed. Paul argues this very point in Romans 5:18,

“…just as the result of one trespass[Adam] was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness [Jesus] was justification that brings life for all men.”


We know that Grace can trump Sin. But the Religion of Christianity teaches Sin first and then Grace (maybe). In this scenario Sin can trump Grace because we’ve been kept in the dark about the Grace we already have. It comes down to a question of which default/fact do we choose to embrace, Sin or Grace? If we are to believe the lie Religion teaches, that we have Sin but need to attain the gift of Grace, we're in a lot of trouble!

The Religion of Christianity teaches that Damnation is the rule and Salvation is the exception. Christ's Crucifixion allows that Salvation is the rule and Damnation is the exception.

We all have Free Will. But the question is, what is the choice? Christ's death and Crucifixion on the cross is God's Grace. I think "Christ" and "God's Grace" are synonymous. I think Religion even asks the wrong question: "Do we accept Christ, or deny Him?" Whereas the real question should be, "Do we accept the Grace we've already have been given?” or "Do we hope to attain a Grace we don't have?" Grace is not something we can attain. It is only something we can lose.

Marcus J. Borg articulates this exact point very accurately when he states

“Of course, the earlier paradigm [a more Traditional Christianity] uses the language of God’s grace and compassion and love, but its own internal logic turns being Christian into a life of requirement and rewards, thereby compromising the notice of grace. Indeed, it nullifies grace, for grace that has conditions attached is no longer grace.”
Marcus J. Borg, The Heart of Christianity, pg. 11

No other perspective works.


The Born Again Problem

It is at this point when some people – most especially the Evangelical or Born Again Christians – will state that this idea doesn't biblically align itself with being “Born Again”.

“Born Again” = Adult Baptism = “Saved” = Salvation is an erroneous assumption.

Jesus didn't tell Nicodemus that he needed to be born again to get to heaven. What He did say was that everyone – Nicodemus included – needs to be born again - born from above - in order to enter into the Kingdom of God. (John 3:5)

Adult baptism is often assumed to be synonymous with being “born again”. Another, seemingly unrelated topic, is the assumption that the Heaven of the Afterlife is synonymous with the Kingdom of God.

However, Luke 17:20-21 describes the advent of the Kingdom of God in some particular details: Our Lord says it comes not with observation; that is hasn't a geographical locale (“Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo, there!”); and that “...behold the kingdom of God is within you”. It may not be abundantly clear what the Kingdom of God is, but it is clear that it is not the Heaven of the afterlife, and therefore cannot be referring to salvation.

So, if Nicodemus must be “born again” to enter the Kingdom of God, then Jesus is not referring to adult baptism, being “born again” (as it is commonly understood today), or being saved. To be born again, according to Jesus, is to dedicate oneself to the Kingdom of God and it's purposes. It is to begin a journey with God in order to make the world a place of grace.

The pharisee Nicodemus' perception of an exclusive religious community or institution which dispenses salvation was in fact not only ignorant of the truth of the matter, but in conflict with God's plan and his Kingdom. This flies in the face of Pre-Vatican II Catholicism's salvation only through the Church as well as certain “Born Again” Christians' beliefs/theology (Adult Baptism only, to be saved.)

The Spirit is like the wind, Jesus tells Nicodemus “The wind bloweth where it listeth”. We can hear the wind and see it's effects, but we have no idea where it comes from or where's it going.
“...and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh , and whither it goeth.” (John 3:8)

God's Spirit – like the wind – is not something we're meant to control. The Spirit as a wind starts us on a journey. The Spirit now resides within us and inundates us. We now learn to live, breathe, and walk in the way – in the way of the Spirit and in the method of the wind.

We become a new creature.
We are renewed.
We are reborn.


Grace and Mercy


Grace: Getting something you have not earned or deserved (in a positive manner, i.e. a gift).

Mercy: Not getting what you do deserve (in a negative manner, i.e. a punishment).


When either Grace or Mercy are present without the other they can successfully be identified.
When both Grace and Mercy are present they can still be successfully identified.

For example: I steal $100 from you. You catch me and I stand before a judge in a court of law. Before the judge passes sentence you say that you wish to drop the charges against me. That is an act of Mercy. I was guilty and deserved punishment, but you showed mercy. Mercy is present but Grace is not.
Now after withdrawing the charges of theft against me you add that since I obviously need that $100 more than you do that I may keep the money as well. That is Grace. I didn’t earn the money, and I don’t deserve it either.


However, when both Grace and Mercy are absent they become blurred and indistinguishable.

For example: When I say the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah shows no Grace, some might say that I am confusing Grace with Mercy. Sodom and Gomorrah were guilty and had that punishment owed to them. Judgment was passed and justice was served. God simply didn’t show Mercy. But He also didn’t show Grace because He didn’t give them what they didn’t deserve; namely forgiveness and exemption.


Is the absence of Grace or Mercy the same as their opposites?
What are Grace and Mercy’s opposites?
The opposite of Grace must be not getting something you haven’t earned or deserve, which would be fair and just.
The opposite of Mercy must be getting what you deserve, which would be harvesting what you sow, which would also be fair and just.
So we can say that both Grace and Mercy’s opposites are the same thing: Justice through Righteous Judgment.
Therefore if one can opt out of Grace (and Mercy) you are faced with Justice through Righteous Judgment. So, if God chooses to pass judgment and justice, He also chooses not to show Grace or Mercy. Thus the example of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is an example of showing no Grace.

What is the absence of Grace and Mercy? I don’t think their absence is the same as their opposite. Grace is active, while Mercy is passive. Grace is an action while Mercy is inaction. Their opposites – Justice through Righteous Judgment – are also active. Their absence must not be active but passive.
If Grace and Mercy’s opposites are Justice through Righteous Judgment (active), their absence must be the lack of justice (injustice).


Grace in the Evangelical

Evangelical Christians say we are called to evangelize. That statement is a little too simple I think.
What does ‘evangelize’ mean, and why are we called to do it? What are the reasoning and the drives behind it?
There are only 3 reasons why Evangelical Christians believe they should evangelize.

A) Because we are told to
B) Because we are commissioned by the Lord to make converts
C) Because so many people will be damned to hell without evangelizing.


Realistically, most Evangelical Christians are a combination of these 3 points, but we’ll address them one point at a time.

1) “Because we are told to.”

The problem with this reasoning is that we don’t know what we’re doing. We can’t answer the question ‘why evangelize’? If we cannot answer why then we also cannot answer how? If we aren’t sure why then we aren’t sure how. If we’re not sure how to evangelize then the margin for error becomes enormous because we’re not sure what the goal is.

2) “Because we were commissioned by the Lord to make converts.”

I don’t believe we were commissioned to make converts. We were told to make disciples, which are pupils or students. This is another topic worth discussing, as to what exactly making disciples, or students, or pupils, means, but suffice it to say that for our intent and purpose now it does not mean to make converts.

3) “Because so many people will be damned to hell without evangelizing.”

This point may manifest itself in different expressions: The positive being, “Who goes to heaven?” and the negative being, “Who gets condemned to hell?”
This is the most complicated answer of the three. What does the Evangelical Christian say happens to a newborn baby who dies directly after birth? Do they go to heaven or hell? We know what scripture says the “criteria” of receiving salvation is, and a newborn clearly doesn’t meet these “requirements”. But the thought of an innocent newborn infant suffering eternal conscious torture at the hands, or will of God seems inconceivable! Most will answer and say that this innocent will go to heaven because God’s Grace is large enough (which I personally agree with). They will generally answer that it has to do with the formula of “Age of Accountability”, which isn’t scriptural, but is an attempt to better understand and systemize salvation (which I also agree with). I don’t have a problem with this belief, but with this methodology.


Grace vs. Accountability

The Age of Accountability says that under a certain age (and I’m not interested in debating what that age is) the child lacks the proper facilities or tools to make a proper choice or decision. Therefore they cannot be responsible for that choice and they cannot be accountable. Responsibility and accountability have everything to do with harvesting what one sows.

Accountability means we can be judged on it. Either we are accountable or we are not. Either we are guilty or we are innocent. Accountability belongs in the realm of judgment and justice. Grace is an all together different creature! There is no guilty or innocent in Grace. The question of guilt isn’t even asked.

For someone under the ‘Age of Accountability’ God really cannot show Grace but can only show Mercy. The infant is tainted and guilty of Original Sin. Being guilty of sin is punishable by death (‘the wages of sin are death’). If the newborn lives, it is a sign of God’s Mercy (not getting what it deserves because it deserved death). If the infant dies, which is the ‘wages of sin’, it is God’s Righteous Judgment and Justice (which is the opposite of Grace and Mercy, which means no Grace and no Mercy). So, when the Evangelical Christian evokes the ‘Age of Accountability’ and God’s Grace in the same breath, I’m forced to ask, “Well? Which one is it? Grace or Accountability?” I can’t see where or how – in this context – Grace could be applied. But I do believe God’s Grace can be and is applied!

Regardless of whether the newborn infant lives (Mercy) or dies (Judgment) Grace has already been gifted freely! Grace cannot have anything to do with guilt or innocence. It cannot have anything to do with what you’ve earned or deserve. It cannot exist in the realm of analysis or judgment. It is free. Grace is boundless. The only limiting or controlling feature on Grace is God’s will. It is His to give freely and I believe He did so on the cross.

They are willing to allow the Grace of God to be large enough to make exceptions, but I can’t help but think this is not an actual belief, but rather an intellectual exercise. Because once it is applied to others (Jews, Muslims, non-believers, agnostics, homosexuals, etc.) suddenly God’s Grace dries up! Where God’s Grace was once large and overflowing suddenly has become finite and very limited.

Now, I realize I am making generalizations of all Evangelical Christians. Before you accuse me of creating straw men to knock down allow me to continue; There is another type of Evangelical Christian who does honestly allow for God’s big Grace and acknowledges and accepts that we don’t know who “makes it” into heaven. They do allow and entertain the concept of others receiving salvation. This theology or belief puts salvation and damnation into God’s hands exclusively (where I believe it belongs). And when who is and who isn’t saved ceases to be an issue, then the focus must also shift away from the Afterlife.

But it is here that this option becomes plagued with a problem. If the question is “Why do we evangelize?” and the answer is, “Because so many people will be condemned to hell without evangelization” they cannot shift that focus away from the Afterlife, while not defuncting their very own definition. It creates a conundrum. It removes their reason, motivations, and impetus to evangelize. Ultimately we are led back to attempting to answer the question, “What does ‘evangelism’ mean?” This option has begun with spreading the “bad news” (you are a sinner) followed by spreading the “good news” (there is hope in Christ). If the “bad news” is removed from the equation and if we are left with only the “good news”, what does that look like? And, more importantly, are we ready to accept it?

“In a very real way, they don’t even hope for universal salvation. After all, without the fear of their unsaved loved ones’ eternal damnation, how would they motivate one another for outreach and missionary service?”
Bart Campolo, The Limits of God’s Grace

“…many [Christians]…evangelical in attitude…insist that they want to see the wicked saved, nevertheless tend to anger if they are told that God is going to do just that for all the wicked. They are not willing for God to save the lost ultimately, unless He does it according to their theological scheme. They are like Jonah, who was angry because God spared the wicked city of Nineveh.”
Dr. Loyal Hurley, The Outcome of Infinite Grace

If we are only focusing on accepting God’s Grace that has already been gifted to us, ‘evangelizing’ becomes an open invitation to a celebration and a joyous exploration. The paradigm shifts. There ceases to be a “them” and “us”, the focus leaves the Afterlife and centers on the Now. The kingdom of God begins to grow and nurture here and now! Orthodoxy bows to Orthopraxy. Proper Doctrine takes a back seat to proper practice. Doctrine and Orthodoxy define the distinctions of denominations. Denominational lines blur…unity begins…we enter a post-denominational age. No longer are we focused on gaining converts to our religion. No longer must things be only our way: Fundamentalism dies. No longer must we amass our numbers. Our control stops mattering: nobody can claim exclusivity. There is no fear in our “sales tactics”: we don’t need to “sell” our faith with “hell and damnation”. No longer can we condemn the non-believers: the words infidel and heathen are removed from our vocabulary. There stops being a “them” and “us”. The only reason we have left to knock on someone’s door is to say hello! We can all hold hands with a bottle of Coka-Cola and sing “I’d like to teach the world to Sing”. Well… that might be taking it a little too far, but you get the idea. We can stop focusing on the hereafter and begin focusing on the Now!

I believe the Kingdom of God can be here now. That it is in us (Luke 17:20-21). It is attainable! So why are we so obsessed with making it heaven?


The Gnostic Escape

In “The Purpose Driven Life”, Rick Warren says, “This life is a preparation for the next” (pg. 36), and “…earth is only a temporary residence” (pg. 47). The whole of chapter 4 has this theme. “Earth is a staging area”. To me, this is really saying we were not made for this world, but for another. If we weren’t made for this world, then what are we doing here? Are we just passing through? I’m sure many Christians believe and teach this. I also believe it is wrong. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus is quoted as saying, “Be passersby” (Thomas 42)

This world = bad.
Next world = good.
This reality (physical) = bad.
Next reality (spiritual) = good.


Our focus is to either ignore or gloss over this world and its problems (because this world doesn’t really count, does it? Its just a practice run!), or to focus on the next world and the escape from this one! Salvation, being “born again”, and being “saved” have the risk of, not being about making it into heaven, but about getting the ticket out of this world and it’s problems! This is Gnosticism.

I think Qui-Gon Jinn gave excellent advice to a young Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

Obi-Wan Kenobi: “But I thought Master Yoda said to be mindful of the future?”

Qui-Gon Jinn: “Yes, but not at the expense of the moment: You must be mindful of the Living Force.”


One of the greatest pieces of wisdom I’ve heard comes from the Rabbi Israel Salanter.

“Normally, we worry about our own material well-being and our neighbours’ souls; let us rather worry about our neighbours’ material well-being and our own souls.”


Words for a Christian to live by. Interesting that they would come from a Jew. I think the Evangelical perspective sees things backwards. Last year I took a course at a Baptist Church and had a man named “Jack” introduce himself. “Hi! My name is ‘Jack’.” He said while extending his hand, “I’ve been saved since March [3 months ago]. How long have you’ve been saved?”

I shook his hand in stunned silence. I didn’t know whether to laugh out loud or cry. He then proceeded to discuss his and his fiancĂ©’s concern about proper methods of prayer.

“Jack” was speaking English. I speak English too and I’d like to think I have the same size vocabulary as most people. I understood every word he spoke and used. But he wasn’t speaking English. I had to think fast! I had to switch my internal-language-button over to the “Christianese” setting.

Not only was “Jack” speaking a language the vast majority of people don’t understand, he was asking all the wrong questions, and making all the wrong statements. The paradigm’s all wrong. And this was a product of Evangelical Christianity! What? Is he supposed to go out into the world and evangelize and ‘witness’ to people? Yikes! What is he really saying? And more importantly, What are people really hearing? “I’ve got my one-way ticket out of this ‘dump’ and the Good News is you can buy a ticket out of here too!” That’s the message I got loud and clear.

“Well, I’m not quite ready to leave this ’dump’ because this ‘dump’ is my home and I belong here. And as far as buying one of your tickets out of here…well, I’m not sure I like the brand name you’re selling. No thanks, I think I’ll pass.”

What would the Evangelical Christian thoughts or response be to that be? Some would think that I’m lost. The bolder ones would say I’ve rejected Christ at the risk of eternal damnation. Some might “shake the dust off their feet.”

I’ve always had a difficult time identifying the moment you are ‘saved’. I’m entertaining the idea more and more that we’re born ‘saved’. As I’ve said before, Grace tells us we are already in unless we want out. From this perspective the question is never “How long have you been saved?” The only applicable question is – and it’s a dark path to travel – “At what point did you opt out?”


Forfeit

Once we realize and accept that we have always had the gift of God’s Grace – that we’ve never had to attain it – how do we live this life of Grace? This question takes on a very different dimension once we realize that it applies to the believer, the non-believer, and people of other belief systems as well. We’ve transcended the bounds of Religion and entered into the realm of the Spiritual.

What would a person’s actions/thoughts look like to reject the grace of God that was already given? How exactly would one do that? Is there any biblical indication to support this? To blaspheme against the Holy Spirit.

“…but whosoever shall blaspheme against the Holy Spirit hath never forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” Mark 3:29, ASV


If we forfeit Grace - if we opt out of God’s Grace - we are choosing Righteous Judgment and Justice in its stead. Luke 18:17 says, “I tell the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it” (NIV).

This is an interesting verse. It seems to confirm that the kingdom of God already is a child’s. It also puts things in the context of “who will not receive” rather than “who will accept”, again reinforcing that it is a denial of something already in existence rather than the acceptance of something new.

But what does this rejection look like? Traditionally the Religion of Christianity would say that it is specifically rejecting Christ, and then would go on to apply this to Jews and Muslims, and nearly every other faith. Again, attempting to reinforce their exclusivity. I believe Christ is God’s Grace incarnate. I think it isn’t so much rejecting Christ as it is rejecting God’s Grace.

I recently got into a conversation with a Christian Fundamentalist friend of mine about whether or not a homosexual could really be a Christian. I had never really even considered this an issue before. “Of course!” was my train of thought. But apparently not. I was told in clear and concise terms that homosexuality was abhorred and loathsome to God. It said so in the bible – most especially in the Old Testament. He then proceeded to quote the actual verses to me. I won’t bother you with these references.

“Well, I’m damned to hell too,” I said, “because I have tattoos. Leviticus 19:28 clearly forbids it.”

As he began to explain why this didn’t apply to me I continued, “And so are you because you’re clean shaven! Leviticus 19:27 forbids it!”

He continued by explaining that we are freed from the Law by faith in Christ. We are ‘covered’ by God’s Grace...we are seeing the impossible concept of a conditional grace rising it's ugly head again.

Jesus said,

“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.” Matthew 7:1-2 (NIV)


I think this is clear. If you are to judge and condemn a homosexual according to the Law, then you too will be judged and condemned according to the law. You can choose Grace, or you can opt out and choose justice through Righteous Judgment. To me, judging others is one possible method of rejecting God’s Grace, or at least showing contempt towards it. In romans 2:1-4 Paul is clearly making the distinction between God's Righteous Judgment (Justice) and man's judgment (Injustice).

I’m not sure what rejecting Grace looks like. I suppose becoming an actual Atheist would do it. But how can we truly tell the difference between an Atheist and an Agnostic? I am very hesitant at systemizing this. I don’t think it’s that cut and dry. I really don’t think this is the point. In fact, if we begin to obsess about how do we reject Grace, or how do we opt out of it, we are returning to that old paradigm. It isn’t our place to judge. This is something between God and the individual. We have no business there. After all, we were called to make students. A student’s job is to learn. We learn by asking questions. Our job at evangelizing is an open invitation to celebration and exploration. It doesn’t matter who you are. If you’re interested, then you are engaged. In you are engaged you have begun that journey. If you have begun that journey, you are a student. I think it’s as simple as that.


Mission: Impossible

In the movie Mission: Impossible 2, Tom Cruise answers Anthony Hopkin’s character, “This is going to be difficult.” Without missing a beat Anthony Hopkin answers, “Well this isn’t ‘Mission: Difficult’, this is ‘Mission: Impossible’; ‘Difficult’ should be a walk in the park for you Mr. Hunt.”

I love that line. And we as the movie viewer fully believe Ethan Hunt can pull it off! We have enormous faith in Tom cruise… so why don’t we have that kind of hope and faith in God?

“[God] …our Saviour… who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” 1 Timothy 2:4 (NIV)


If this is what God wants and hopes for, could we not say this is also the will of God? I have been told that I have misinterpreted 1 Timothy 2:4; that it means that God hopes, desires, and wishes for all to come to Him and be saved, but that in actual fact, not all will. Why not? Is this “Mission: Difficult” or “Mission: Impossible”?

"I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted." Job 42:2 (NIV)


Job clearly states that God’s will and plans cannot be altered. Whose will is greater, man’s or God’s?

“This interpretation makes the will of man more mighty than the will of God. God wills (or wishes) all men to be saved, but His is not able to get His will (or wish) fulfilled. Man wills not to be saved, and he is perfectly able to have his will fulfilled! That deifies man, and dethrones God. Man is able to get his will done, but God is not.” Dr. Loyal Hurley, The Outcome of Infinite Grace


Pope John Paul II focused on this very verse when addressing this same issue and problem,

"In Christ, God revealed to the world that He desires “everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). This phrase from the First Letter to Timothy is of fundamental importance for understanding and preaching the Last Things. If God desires this – if, for this reason, God has given His Son, who in turn is at work in the Church through the Holy Spirit – can man be damned, can he be rejected by God? … But the problem remains. Can God, who has loved man so much, permit the man who rejects Him to be condemned to eternal torment? … The Holy Scriptures include the concept of the purifying fire. The Eastern Church adopted it because it was biblical, while not receiving the Catholic doctrine on purgatory…. The “living flame of love”, of which Saint John [of the Cross] speaks, is above all a purifying fire". Pope John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, pg. 185-186



A Living Flame of Love

Most Protestants readily agree that, even though saved, they are still in sin. The fact of the matter is even more obvious: we still commit sin. We may be more aware of it, and we may put significantly more effort into trying to avoid sin, but we are still sinners. Catholics share this same belief. If they didn’t there would not exist the Sacrament of Confession.

Most Christians also believe that this process of becoming Christ-like is never accomplished – at least in this lifetime. We strive and hope to become more and more holy and pure. I would be very suspicious of anyone living who claimed to be sinless, Holy, pure, and perfectly Christ-like. It simply isn’t going to be accomplished in this world!

Most Christians also believe that God is absolutely Pure, absolutely Holy, and absolutely Perfect – so much so in fact that His very nature cannot abide the presence of Sin – or maybe, inversely, Sin cannot survive the presence of His Perfection.

But these beliefs create a problem. Somehow from the moment we are “saved” (whenever and however that works) to the moment we stand in God’s presence (whenever and however that happens) we absolutely must go through some sort of transformation or purification. And since we’ll readily agree that this transformation or purification “process” may only begin in this life – in this world – but is never completed here, then it must be completed after death. There is no way around this issue. If not, then Sin will be allowed to enter Heaven: We will carry all of our sin and problems with us.

Catholicism has the Doctrine of Purgatory, which is a bone of contention to most Protestants. Yes, in the past the Church used the Doctrine of Purgatory to make the abuses of Indulgences, and possibly still does today, but I’m not interested in the history of Purgatory or the abuses of Indulgences.

What I am talking about here really isn't Catholicism's Purgatory, but may be better referred to s the small “p” purgatory. The fact of the matter is, somewhere, somehow, after death this purification process must be made complete. For the moment I’m not interested in whether the process lasts for decades (like Catholicism’s Purgatory might suggest) or if it’s a near-instantaneous process of being ‘cleansed’ by fire, but only that this purification, or purgation, has to exist. In Mark 9:49, Jesus says “Everyone will be salted with fire” gives us some sort of suggestion of this.

Catholics cite 1 Peter 3:19-20 and 2 Maccabees 12:43-46 as scriptural “evidence” of Purgatory. Protestantism has done away with the books of the Apocrypha and so have written off the authenticity of the 2 Maccabees reference. The Apocrypha are completely another topic that I don’t wish to explore at this time, so we’ll look at 1 Peter 3:19-20.

“By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.” 1 Peter 3:19-20, (KJV)


Most Protestants do not interpret these verses as evidence of purgatory but meaning only that it was the Spirit of God, or the Spirit of Jesus, who completed and motivated Noah to preach to the pre-flood people (Antediluvians). The reference to “those in prison” is meant to mean those that are now in prison (awaiting judgment). That is definitely one interpretation. I cannot really argue with that. But it is 1 Corinthians 15:29 that really catches my attention.

“Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? Why are they then baptized for the dead?” 1 Corinthians 15:29 (KJV)


Taken as a historic fact, being baptized for the dead was indeed practiced in New Testament times, and apparently supported by the Apostles also. This cannot be ignored. If no postmortem state of purgation existed, then the dead are either saved and in heaven, or already condemned and in Hell and beyond hope.

What I’m going to propose is this: That there exists no Hell in the traditional sense of the Doctrine of Eternal Conscious Torment. That Hell is simply a state of non-existence (utter separation from God), or annihilation. For those who are not saved and ‘condemned’ to hell, there is no suffering but they are simply extinguished.

But to those who are not condemned to hell we are still faced with this problem of being impure before God. What I am proposing and exploring is that all (Believers and Non-believers alike) will be subjected to this Fire. This Living Flame of Love is not hell (although this process could potentially be hellish ). This Fire would best be compared to that of the Blacksmith’s – it is for the purpose of refinement and purification.

“Remove the dross from the silver, and out comes material for the silversmith” Proverbs 25:4 (NIV)


I think this is a very good analogy. This Fire burns off the dross and leaves only the pure and refined silver. I believe this is part of the process I am speaking of.

"On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine – the best of meats and the finest of wines. On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth". Isaiah 25:6-9 (NIV)


This theme, however, seems to follow the idea of Universal Reconciliation, in that everybody would seem to be saved. However, verses like Ezekiel 22:18-22, Jeremiah 6: 29-30, Proverbs 27:21 and Zech. 13:9 (to name only a few) seem to very strongly suggest that not all will survive this process; not all will be saved – or that some are nothing more than only dross, and after the dross is ‘burnt’ away, there is nothing left. Again, we are revisiting the idea that “hell” (or a permanent separation from God) does not involve Eternal Conscious Torment, but annihilation. But this concept of hell makes it not so much of a place but more of a state of being (or in this case, non-being).

"…[Pope John Paul II] explained, heaven and hell and purgatory are not abstractions or physical places, at least in our experience of place. They are relationships, or lack of relationships, with the Holy Trinity". John J. Dietzen, Catholic Q & A, pg. 469


Pope John Paul II makes good sense when he relates these “states” in terms of one’s relationship to God. They are states of being rather than actual physical places or locals. For if heaven or hell (or even purgatory for that matter) were actual physical places then we would be subscribing to a pantheistic belief system, which I firmly do not belief Christianity or the bible supports.

God is described numerous times in the bible as being “up”, or “in heaven”, or “above”, or various terms suggesting anywhere but here. God is described as being, not natural (pantheistic), but Supernatural. But He is also described as being here amongst us. Paul describes Him as the medium in which we exist (Acts 17:28). What we have here is not a naturalistic or materialistic God (pantheistic), but a panentheistic God. He is both supernatural and pantheistic. All of the universe, all of reality, all of Creation and existence resides within Him, but yet God is still “more” and beyond.

But it is here that we run into a problem with the Traditionalist’s Hell and the Doctrine of Eternal Conscious Torment.



Christianity is definitely a panentheistic belief-system. As such, we can readily accept heaven as a “place” or state of being “within” God. But hell becomes much more difficult to accept. Either hell - within a panentheistic belief - is a permanent separation from God in a state of non-existence (annihilation) - since all that exists must exist “within” God. Or hell must be deliberately designed, ruled, and maintained by God for the explicit purpose of torture for no other reason than to inflict pain and punishment, but teach nothing. This hell truly has no hope.

There can be no argument that this possibility is within God’s power, right, and authority. However, is it within God’s nature? 1 John 4:16 says that “God is love”. It does not say that God is loving. It says that God is love itself, and love and hope are intricacy connected. 1 John 4:18, reads:

"There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love."


And again, Psalm 103:13:

"The Lord is like a father to his children, tender and compassionate to those who fear him."


Please don't miss my point here. Some Christians see "fearing God" as a judge or master and tremble in fear of punishment. However with the verses I've quoted this doesn't fit at all, especially 1 John 4:18.

There are two types of fear, servile fear and filial fear. I believe the only justified fear (for a Christian) is filial fear. Servile fear is the fear of a slave and has NOTHING to do with the type of fear that is the origin of wisdom. Filial fear (of the father-son kind) "drives out all fear" (1 John 4:18), it drives out servile fear - it drives out the fear of a slave - the fear of punishment, the fear of "holy terror".

I would say that filial fear really isn't fear at all. It is interesting because if these types of Christians are scared to death of what God thinks of you or what he may do to you to punish, then, as 1 John 4:18 says, "...because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love."

It kinda makes me wonder about these people. Sounds to me like they're more slaves than children. In short, the Traditionalist’s Hell and the Doctrine of Eternal Conscious Torment fall clearly within the realms of a servile fear of God and what He, as a Slave Master, can or will do to you.

But for the Christian’s panentheistic belief-system, if we can understand and allow heaven and hell to be “states” of being rather than actual places, then we need to take a hard look at the concept of purgatory... or maybe the state of purgation.

… [Pope John Paul II] challenges us to take a fresh and thoughtful look at what we say we believe. When we hear key words of our faith, we often pay more attention to familiar and popular images than to the doctrines themselves. “Heaven”, “purgatory”, and “hell” are all strongly evocative words for Christians. A little reflection should warn us to be cautious, however, about the pictures and ideas these words inspire.

What Pope John Paul II has done is make explicit what has been implicit all the time. Does anyone really believe, for example, that heaven and hell are places in our ordinary sense of that term? Are they somewhere out in material creation on an unknown planet? In a galaxy on the other side of a distant black hole?

The same must be said of purgatory. It is not a “place”, he explained, but a “condition” of purification for the saved whereby Christ “frees them from their imperfections”. As the catechism says, purgatory is a process of purgation, of cleansing.

… we need to walk carefully here. When it says heaven is a “place”, it puts the word in quotation marks, indicating that, in this context, it does not have its usual meaning. Similarly, in the words of the catechism, the condition of self-exclusion from communion with God is what be call “hell”.

As for the graphic biblical descriptions of heaven and hell, John Paul II repeats the best long-standing Scripture scholarship when he says the symbolic and metaphorical language we find in the New Testament attempts to put into human words the reality of eternal “joyful communion with God”, or “the complete frustration and emptiness of a life without God”.

Far from downplaying the terrors of damnation, he contends that “the situation in which one finds himself after freely and definitively withdrawing from God, the source of life and joy”, can only be approached figuratively with images like “inextinguishable fire” and “the burning oven”
. John J. Dietzen, Catholic Q & A, pg. 488-489





1 A parallel to this saying appears in an inscription from a mosque at Fatehpur Sikri, India: “Jesus said, ‘This world is a bridge. Pass over it, but do not build your dwelling there.’”

2 comments:

Mike said...

That's a lot to chew on. Thanks for a stimulating read!

Daedelus76 said...

Hey Seph, interesting ideas.

I have kind of gotten tired of purely rational arguments myself. I'm actually reading up on anomalous religious/mystical experiences, like apparitions or near-death experiences.

Are you familiar with the Marian apparitions? I think it is interesting that the apparitions at Zeitun and Medjugorje both occured at global "hot spots" of warfare or unrest. It is also that both apparitions were weak on alot of Catholic dogma.

In fact the Zeitun apparition is approved by the Catholic hierarchy, yet the apparition didn't appear to speak at all in the main appearances. In one side appearance, an apparition resembling the Virgin Mary asked a Muslim man to stop pelting pilgrims to the church, and paint a white cross on his house, and the man did so but he remained a Muslim. Also, some Muslims were said to have been healed by being in the presence of the apparition- many Muslims were venerating the apparition with verses from the Quran. The Coptic Pope at the time believed the apparition was caused by political tension and threats against Christians there.

In Medjugorje, which is not yet approved by the Church (and may never be), the apparition also had a less dogmatic message. Pray, conversion/repentence, love, compassion, rosaries. The seers were shown an image that they understood te be "purgatory", and there was no fire there, just a dark mist and sad people- and they were told to pray for the dead there(they also saw hellish images where people were burned up, screaming and yelling, and were later told that people choose to go there- they were not told how long they would remain there, though). Also, in later appearances, "Mary" was asked about other religions, and the apparition said "It is you who are divided on Earth. Muslims, Orthodox, and Catholics are all equal to my Son and to me", "You are all my children. Certainly, not all religions are equal, but all men are equal before God", and "It is not necessary to belong to the Catholic faith to be saved, but it is necessary to respect the commandments of God in following ones conscience". As you can see, some in the church hierarchy are very worried by this (extra ecclesiam nulla salus- "outside the church there is no salvation", this has always been treated in a vague manner, what is the "church"), even though Medjugorje has attracted many lay Catholics, priests, and even non-Catholics still (the seers still believe they recieve messages).

Similar things were said at the Bayside apparition in New York, where the Virgin Mary allegedly appeared, and eventually made similar religious inclusivist statements, and asked a shrine to be built and a well to be dug which would produce holy water. The church hierarchy refused to investigate the apparition further, even though the site has some pilgrimage, people are officialy discouraged from going there.

Of coures, these apparitions are very mysterious, not necessarily good evidence for theology but they do potentially pose questions about some of the hard dogma of some organized religions (of course, a few Orthodox do put alot of credit in Zeitun is authentic, there is a long tradition of severe spiritual discernment in Orthodoxy, some see demanding a "vision" as wicked, and inviting Satan. Likewise, some tradition Catholics see the Devil in Medjugorje and Bayside, NY).