Wednesday, June 04, 2008


In the midst of the church's eternal quest for theological purity, it's not uncommon for the people the church supposedly consists of to get lost in the shuffle. We get so caught up in debates over Greek words and various -ologies that we forget to pause to consider what effects our doctrines and dogmas have on individuals in the real world. Surely, we think, if our stance is "biblical" then it can only produce good results in the lives of those around us.

So what do we do when our theology passes all the criteria of orthodoxy, yet causes more harm than good in practice? There's a balance to be maintained here, to be certain; it would be irresponsible to toss a doctrine out the window simply because somebody registers a complaint against it. But we must also take care to avoid falling into the habit of playing "blame the victim" as so many fundamentalists do.

As a case in point, consider the exclusivist view of salvation. According to many Christian traditions, the vast majority of those who have ever lived will spend eternity in hell. The exact nature of hell is open to debate, but the size of its population is less frequently questioned. Even some inclusivist viewpoints expect a large percentage to end up eternally separated from God.

But what are the fruits of such a belief? How does this idea play out in real life? In my observation the predominant effect is to instill two emotions in believers that one wouldn't expect to stem from a God-inspired doctrine:

1. Pride. It's a subtle thing (as pride often is), but many Christians seem to take pride in the fact that they're part of an exclusive, privileged group. This is especially prevalent in churches that have adopted a separatist mentality, but even outside of such enclaves one hears stories of Christians whose attitude toward outsiders (and even members of other denominations) is one of disdain and condescension.

2. Fear - specifically fear of Hell. This can be both fear for one's own salvation and fear for loved ones. It's entirely understandable that many Christians become consumed with fear for the eternal souls of those they care about (I certainly don't wish an eternity of gruesome torment even on those who wish me harm), but fear causes us to act in irrational ways. Legalism is rooted in such fear, as are "tough love" and a host of abusive behaviors.

If the fruits of the Spirit are love, peace, joy and the like, it seems reasonable to expect that any God-inspired doctrine will tend to nurture an increase in those positive traits in those who worship him. What, then, can we say about a doctrine that consistently cultivates negative traits like pride and fear? No doubt some will choose to defend the doctrine at any cost; admitting that we may be wrong about what we so sincerely and fervently believed to be God's plainly spoken truth can be a humiliating experience.

But what if God never meant for us to become so wrapped up in worrying about our (and others') eternal destiny? What if being one of the "chosen few" has less to do with being heaven-bound than it does with being set aside by God to be a blessing to the world around us? Note that such an idea doesn't require adopting a universalistic view of salvation; one can accept that some people might freely choose eternal separation from God (whatever that may look like) even after meeting him face to face, without having to spend this life consumed by fear for the eternal souls of one's family and friends. The "good news" of the gospel can be worth sharing with others even if it doesn't contain an underlying threat of endless torture.

But I digress. At the end of the day, it's worth asking whether the things we believe help to nurture and increase our love for God and for others, or whether they weigh us down by cultivating traits like pride, fear and self-absorption. Such an evalutation can't be our only guidepost, but it's one we ignore at our own peril.

1 comment:

Doorman-Priest said...

I think some branches of the church foster the Pharisee which lurks in us all.