23 March 2006

Alienating People from Christ

There are some times I think I'm Alice and that I have fallen down the rabbit-hole. I've been feeling that way these last few days.

On one of the Christian discussion groups I frequent, I have read the following statements from two different people:

1) One was a person who considered themself a heretic for having a hard time with the belief that God sends people to a torturous hell in the next life as punishment for not being a Christian. This person reckoned that they stood on the fringes of our denomination for not believing this.

2) Another was a person who reckons that they cannot be a Christian because Christianity demands the belief that God needed to hurt someone in order to satisfy his wrath and forgive humanity. Since the person could not conceive of God in this way, they reckoned that they cannot be Christian.

Frankly, it angers me no end that people have got the idea that being a Christian demands believing that God is angry and wrathful and into torture. Of course, the Church did teach about 'God The Angry and Wrathful' for centuries and we have to bear our responsibility for our history, whether or not we are personally implicated in propogating those beliefs.

But secondly, I have to wonder whether mainstream Christians like myself have been too silent in not putting these horrible beliefs to rest. Like many, I know that I've been (perhaps still am) too afraid at 'what people will think' if I get up and explicitly say that I don't believe in a God who uses violence as a means of keeping order and that I don't believe in a God who uses the threat of violence and torture as a way of getting people to behave.

Right now, I'm angry. One person has exluded themself from the Church because they can't believe in penal substitutionary atonement and the other is lurking on the margins of the church nursing a secret fear that their disbelief in a torturous hell is heretical and possibly unChristian.

Mainstream Christian preachers have to preach the Good News. *I* have to preach the Good News. We have to preach systematic theology and let people know that not only is it 'OK' to believe in a God of Grace and Mercy, but that this God is precisely what being a Christian is about. The idea that 'no-one admits that they are a sinner unless they are threatened with punishment' isn't a Christian idea, it's an idea born of sin. As Scripture says, 'the devil' is a liar and one way that Evil lies is to perpetuate the idea that God is evil and that humanity cannot be forgiven unless violence is done first. May God forgive us.


Brett said...

The final authority on these questions needs to be scripture. Not our popular beliefs. The gospel is indeed good news, but it starts off bad. The Bible teaches that God is Holy and cannot tolerate sin. It clearly teaches that his death was to pay the price of our sins (If this isn't true, what does Christ death mean?) In order for us to understand where we are now in Christ, we must understand where we were.

PamBG said...

Assuming you are not a 'hit and run' poster...

OK, let's take it as a given that we disagree about the theology.

I think the pastoral question is more interesting as I sincerely believe that people are being put off Christianity. But given that you hold the beliefs that you do, how would you make people struggling with these issues welcome in your church, if at all? How would you nurture their faith?

Sally said...

I agree Pam that we must see this as a pastoral issue first and I wonder reading Bretts comments if we know what true holiness is, for surely it encompasses compassion and purity...God is Love first and foremost we need to work from that point as we preach and teach a balanced systematic theology.
Lets ask God to reveal to us his thoughts on the human condition to us and hear his words afresh...I desire mercy not sacrifice!
I have a post on holiness on Emerging Voices...

PamBG said...

I guess there are pastoral issues here for two different sets of people.

In another group I frequent, with mainly American participants, a minister is convinced that it is harmful to try to re-express any traditional idea in ways that might cause people who hold them to doubt.

I don't know if there is a 'right answer' here but I think that the church has majored on NOT re-expressing traditional ideas to the point that the message is becoming difficult to communicate.

But there is probably a more basic difference between people like you and me and people who brett represents. The more I study and pray the more I do become absolutely convinced that all preaching and theology must be done from the point of view that God is love. It is God's LOVE that convicts us of our sins. I'm convinced that unconditional love is the real scandal of the Gospel.

Sally said...

Only joking on the book tempter thing!!!

I like the idea that Gods love is the real scandal of the gospe, it certainly seemed that way this morning as we looked at Isaiah 40 11-12 and considered Gods heart for those who struggle and are weak.

Like you I believe that revalation of Gods love reveals our true selves and then we come face to face with our sins, in a gentle and loving way that will not be achieved by barraking or bullying people into repentance.

Anonymous said...

The message of the gospel, "good news" is one of love. People who are preaching or teaching violence and torture need to study their Bibles a lot more. They are mistaken.

I understand your dismay at people who stay outside of the church over such things. As a ministry student, I have run into similar issues. I have several suggestions. Can you have an "off campus" Bible study with any of these individuals, even one on one over a cup of coffee? This would give you the opportunity to share scripture that answers their individual concerns.

As for the person who feels they are a heretic, this is common among people who do not know their Bibles well. First assure them they are not a heretic but then use the opportunity over time to teach what scripture says. As you study, you will find, as I did, that hell does exist and some people will go there. It is intended for Satan and his demons, not people. The part that is not well understood is that those people who go to hell will deliberately choose to go there. God doesn't send us, but we have free will, so it is our choice. It's beyond me why anybody would choose hell but there are all kinds of people out there. It's a lot more complicated than that but that is the bottom line.

God didn't "need" to hurt anybody in order to satisfy his wrath. We live in a fallen world where Satan is very active. He is called the god of this world. The evil comes from Satan who is much more powerful than humans. But God is more powerful than him. (You need to look up the theology of why God didn't just zap him) God doesn't want us to hurt, but the only way to stop it was to come down and die on the cross for us. It was not to appease God, but to defeat Satan that Jesus came and died on the cross. (Jesus defeated the "bully" that was causing us much harm in the most thorough way possible. That's not being mean. He knew what he was doing and why even if we mortals find it hard to understand. Jesus did it on purpose because he loved us, not because God made him.) Sin is much, much worse than we, in our limited understanding, can comprehend. (Over time, I suspect it is kind of like compound interest in that, given enough time, even a little sin grows huge and it never stops growing)

Please spend time with the people who have mistaken ideas about God. It simply means they don't know enough yet. It's hard work to dig out all the theology and scripture to teach them but it is very much worthwhile. God is love. Satan is a liar. As a minister you are called (among other things) to expose those lies in a loving manner.

How can you make people welcome in your church? Be nice to them, take time for them, treat them with love and kindness. Ministry is about relationships. Take them out for a soft drink or a cup of tea, be their friend, talk to them. Neutral ground, such as a coffee shop or cafe or even your home can be a great place for low key ministry. Do not condemn them but do take opportunities to teach as they arise. If they come to your church, get together afterward and be available to answer questions or to just be their friend until they are ready to ask or listen. If you don't know the answer, tell them you will find out and get back to them. Then do it.

You must be working under a person who preaches this way. Keep studying your Bible and learning so that, when it is your turn to be in charge, you can handle things more kindly but still Biblically. Please, before you do anything I said, look it up in the Bible so you are convinced for yourself and can give Bible references.

Brett is not wrong in what he is saying. Sometimes the direct approach appeals to men more. He will reach a certain group of people with this direct approach. Others will have to be won through other approaches. Methods can vary but be careful never to compromise on the teaching of the Bible.
God Bless You!

PamBG said...

Dear Anon, thank you for your heart-felt response. Unfortunately, these are people on internet discussion groups, so it is hard to have personal contact with them. I did manage to have a discussion with the person who thought that not believing in a hell of torture put him on the fringe of British Methodism and that person now seems to believe that s/he is actually well within the majority of British Methodist thinking.

For the record, my placement minister does not believe in a hell of torture and I think he'd be horrified at the suggestion. This is stuff people somehow pick up during the course of their lives and I think it's still a view of Christianity that is quite frequently heard.

Also for the record, I believe God will allow us to choose to be outside God's presence in eternity if we so wish; I don't see otherwise how we can have free-will. I understood brett to be saying that he believes in a hell where God sends people in order to punish them. If I have misunderstood him, then I stand to be corrected, but otherwise I don't see how his view can agree with mine; they seem diametrically opposed. Either God tortures people in eternity or God does not - we'll know when we get there, I guess!

Bad Alice said...

This is really speaking to me today. I work for a conservative denomination that definitely believes in God's "discipline," wrath, and Christ as bearing God's wrath on our behalf. Anything else is dismissed as liberal, corrupt, and not Christian. I find it very difficult to believe in hell as torture or to see God as hating us so much that he had to find something else to take it out on.

On the other hand, the OT is full of God's wrath. He destroys because he's angry--the flood, the Egyptian first-born, Sodom and Gomorah. The Bible makes it hard enough to be a Christian!