Discuss Life and Religion with Tan Tai Wei

“Salvation”: saved from what?

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When I and my friends, who had a “religious experience”  in our latter teens and early twenties, were taught  what we had been “saved” from,  and why we had to “go into all the worlds and preach the good news to every person”, this is the kind of things our mentors said. That preacher, whom I said I had responded to in my “Testimony” posting, told us all, very young, to close our eyes and imagine what it would be like to hold a finger in fire for five seconds. Then he said “Imagine what it would be like to be whole bodily emersed in fire for all eternity!” That was why we had to “receive the Lord Jesus and be saved”. This is a crude picture of  the “orthodox”  Christian (also Islamic and Jewish) belief in “hell-fire”.

Now, this doctrine might well be the highest obstacle to belief in the loving,  good and all-wise God Christians, also Jews and Muslims preach. Everlasting torture, “burning and never being burnt”, and basically for the “sin of Adam” which all inherited due to no choice of their own (the doctrine of original sin)? What justice and love is that?

I recall a past pastor of the church I attend, preaching what amounted to this, that at “the last days”, people would be “raised from the dead bodily”, the majority, as they would be non-Christians, being so raised  so that they could be cast into hell and burn for all eternity (only physical bodies could suffer burns)! Even a bin Laden could not be that imaginatively evil! That Sunday, being “Holy Communion” Sunday for Methodists, I found myself disabled from partaking Holy Communion.

Even St Augustine,who thought he had to accept what he thought was Scriptural teaching on that theme, tried to make a non “scriptural” exception, saying that God would make the flames of hell less furious for babies (who nonetheless were sinners for having inherited “original sin”) who had died!

What loving and just God would send people to such “hell” through no fault of their own (Adam’s choice), or, even if for their own “sins”, send them to such everlasting  torture? Even asuming that the pain inflicted on sinners does compensate for their  sins, for what sins should we be so disproportionally punished (He “remembers that we are but dust”)?

First, let’s be reminded  that  “Gehenna”,  a name for hell, was an area  near  Jerusalem, that had become a refuse dump where “fire and worms” burned perpetually. Second,  that the belief that “Satan” existed as evil as opposed to good and God, and who would be “cast into the lake of fire with his angels”, wasn’t  originally  Hebrew, but came from Persia and Zoroastrianism, with their belief that evil and good are opposing and balanced forces in the present age, even though good would triumph eventually. Such a belief  strains  Hebrew , also Christian and Islamic monotheism, that God is one and omnipotent, and that He is “above all, and  in all”. (Consider all those stories of exorcism, where the devil seems often quite a force for God to deal with!) Satan, in the book of Job in Hebrew Scriptures, or the Christians’ Old Testament, is God’s emissary, sent “from the presence of God” to test Job!

No doubt, the notion of justice as “an eye for en eye” (which Jesus transcended, saying we should “love our enemies” instead) has had an “orthodox” history, and so , also, that unrepented opponents of “the faith” would be sent to burn in hell. But we must beware of people of old “making God in their own image”, who were at such stage of moral and cognitive development where they could not distinguish justice  from thirst for revenge, or thought that there was some intrinsic connection between evil and pain such that evil could be righted by the pain suffered by those responsible. Today, with our better enlightened moral understanding (which Christians surely should ascribe to Divine revelation, for “every perfect gift comes from above, the father of light”), shouldn’t we distinguish justice from vengeance? And if so, then we realize that the pain inflicted on the “guilty” as punishment, that might assuage our thirst for revenge, isn’t relevant at all to our aim, for the sake of justice, to right any wrong the guilty person committed. The pain would only worsen the wrong, as it would add to the amount of pain that is suffered in the world. As they say, “Two wrongs do not make a right”. I don’t see what the claim could mean,  that somehow pain has some intrinsic relation to wrongs committed, such that it is fitting to inflict it on those responsible for wrongs done. The claim seems to be only an attempt to rationalise a stubborn  adherence to past thinking. The only relevance to justice, of making rule-offenders to suffer as punishment,   must be that it is instrumental towards teaching and reforming  the offender or sinner. The pain inflicted might serve, say to help the yet-to-mature learner to distinguish between right from wrong in the only way he can at his developmental stage, ie. associating wrong with suffering.The intention is  that the person will, from that provisional distinction between pain and evil impressed on him, go on to learn and eventually acknowledge the intrinsic evil of wrong, and put right as best he can his past wrongs, thus contributing  to  the eventual state of justice, whatever that must involve.  But  that would at most admit of a sort of temporary “purgatory” in the after-life where a process of “soul-making” and correction  occurs, as believed by Roman Catholic Christians, and not everlasting hell for those unfit or could not be fitted for “heaven”,  as also believed by orthodox Catholics, and by fundamentalist Christians.

Indeed,  most “fundamentalist” Christians would reject that  literal description of hell. Crudely speaking, “souls” can’t literally burn; and even with a “resurrected physical body”, physical bodies can’t literally burn and yet never be burnt!  One fundamentalist preacher said to us, explaining “heaven and hell”,  that heaven is where God is, and hell is where  He is not. Now, as it will be clear from my following discussion, I can well go along with this saying, so long as it is left to remain general, and not be substantively detailed  along so-called “orthodox” lines again, even if without literal fire.

From what, then, should we be “saved”?

We might  note first, that “fundamentalist”, “Bible-believing” Christians should learn, as I have, from such Bible scholars as CH Dodd, that the biblical teaching of  “condemnation for sin” is not static “word of God” but underwent  developmental change even within the same “Sciptures”.  The earlier apostolic writings, even Paul’s in his early days, taught that the last judgement, and Jesus’ “second coming to judge the quick and the ressurrected dead” was at hand, when  eventually,  the majority of mankind whoever lived but who are “unsaved” will “be thrown into the lake of fire”. The early Christians  thought that that would literally happpen in their lifetime. But  that did not happen. There  had to be a reinterpretation of “the words of the Lord”.  Now,  St John of the Gospel of John, whether John the disciple or another John (John was a very common name), writing at about the close of the first century AD, represents a significant stage, if not the culmination of that reinterpretation. In the Gospel of John, Chapter Three, after saying that “God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world by Him would be saved”, goes on to explain the nature of that “condemnation”, saying  “this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and man loves darkness rather than light “. In other words, it is the self-condemnation of staying oneself within the “darkness”, and not acknowledging one’s “darkness”and come into the light. And that “condemnation” is “everlasting”, as long as our decision to stay in the darkness, and not come into the light persists, our loving God being indefinitely patient, whilst respecting the freewill He has endowed us. And as regards the early belief in “the second coming of Christ” to bring about “the last judgement” that  will culminate in the greater part of humanity who are “unsaved” being resurrected only to be “cast into the lake of fire”, John in his famous story of Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead brings out a revised interpretation. When Jesus came to the aid of Martha,whose brother, Lazarus, had died, Jesus reassured her that “your brother will rise again”. Martha, of course, thought He meant the crude, literal resurrection of all at the last judgement, and she said so: “I know that he will rise again at the last day”. But Jesus corrected her, proclaiming “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. And whoever believes  and lives in me shall never die, but is passed from death unto life”.  In other words, John is saying that “the last judgment” ,  and  its promise to the “saved” of resurrection to life, isn’t a thing yet to come, but is  already come for those who respond to and believe in Christ . And this reading of John is in accord with the thrust of the message of his Gospel, that the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus confront humankind with a choice crucial for their salvation and life eternal, therefore  comprising a crucial judgmental event for humankind. So John prefaces his description of the passion of Jesus with his Gospel’s thematic proclamation , put into the mouth of Jesus, “Now is the judgment of this world”. CH Dodd, from whom I learnt most of  this, says  John means by it  “the Last Judgment”. Now, what we must see in all this, that pertains to our discussion of “hell”, is that John’s Jesus, by whom mankind is already resurrected and favourably judged should they choose to be so by their response, has nothing  to say about hell for those who don’t respond. In the sequel to  that encounter of Jesus by Martha, Lazarus would have merely remained  entombed had he not responded to Jesus’ call to “come forth”.

Dodd also notices such a shift of interpretation even within the writings of one man, Paul. In his letters to the Thessalonian Christians, early in his ministry, Paul writes of the “second coming of Christ” and “the last judgement” in the crude way we indicated above, ending it all saying “those who do not know God and who do not obey the gospel of the Lord Jesus will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from His presence”. But, in his later writings to other churches, he develops a more mature understanding of the last things. So, in his letter to the Roman Christians, his most mature theological statement, instead of ruling the vast majority of humans who ever lived and will live to “everlasting destruction” because they know not God and refuse Christ, he now is prepared to concede that those who live outside “the Law” ( of God) will be judged in accordance with how they respond to “the law written within their hearts”. (Romans 2:14) Elsewhere, in later letters (especially those to the Corinthians and that to the Ephesians), he contemplates such an eventuality as  Christ’s  having gathered together all under Him, and then  presenting everything to the Father of all, so that “God will be all in all”. And so he quotes with approval the saying that  “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord”. “Every knee and tongue” of those who lived and will live!  So, also, there is in these later thoughts no mention of hell.

Now, thus far we have pointed out revisions towards better understanding of without doubt  “inspired”,  but only initial sayings that stood to be corrected by further “inspiration”, within Scriptures. But even had there been no such revision, we would still have to be intelligent and autonomous at using our divinely endowed minds at reading, and taking responsibility for our understanding of “inspired” writings. (We have been called to be “sons”, not “slaves”. “Hasn’t it been written of old that you are gods?” asked Jesus. Also, He asked, “Can’t you on your own discern that which is good?’) And once we so dare, we straightaway see the contradiction, between 1) what we learn, surely rightly, from Jesus, of God’s being the good shepherd relentlessly and painstakingly seeking the lost sheep until He finds it, or the loving father rushing out to embrace the prodigal son even before he reaches home, and Jesus’ own praying on the cross for forgiveness of His enemies “for they know not what they do”, and 2) all that depiction of vengeance and hell. Indeed, when we obey Jesus and “love God with all our minds”, we can’t help seeing that the belief in that sort of hell would pose the greatest “problem of evil” for the Christian ( Jew and Muslim too, and the like). How could that conceivably be reconciled with the even more “fundamental” tenet that God is all-just, all-wise, all-loving and all-powerful? And our God-endowed moral sense should point out for us which horn of the dilemma to take, and which to reject as being due to human limitations of moral and cognitive development. Such awareness explains why it had taken so long for the book of “Revelation”, in the New Testament of the Bible, to be accepted as Scripture  (it was long disputed and was among the latest to be accepted), and even Martin Luther, centuries later, rejected it as inauthentic.  The reason must be that such  depicting in “Revelation”  as  of Jesus mounted on a great white horse riding against his enemies with their blood coming up to touch the bridle, or his telling the “lukewarm” church that he would “spew thee out of my mouth”, isn’t consistent with the Jesus of the Gospels, who loved His enemies and prayed, even on the cross, that those who crucified Him should be forgiven. CH Dodd pointed out that “Revelation”  is really a Jewish “apocalytic”  document given a Christian sugar-coating. A genre  had developed in late Hebrew writings, using fantastic and exaggerated imagery in order to satisfy the Hebrew craving for final compensation by God for all their past sufferings when evil seemed to triumph and God’s “promise” of deliverance seemed long postponed. That sort of imagery of the last days of reckoning even Jesus seemed to have used, maybe in order to communicate with His contemporaries about things beyond their natural experiences in the idiom they were accustomed to. Remember that Jesus had that poetic cast of mind, and we may wonder how literally we should take His “apocalytic” sayings. And never forget that we do not have the verbatim report of His sayings, but only sayings of those who remembered and reported. The reporters might have coloured His sayings with their own literal takings of those things. 

So, affirmatively, what then is “salvation”? We may take it from that saying of the fundamentalist Christian preacher’s mentioned above, that “hell is where God is not”. Even without hell-fire in this picture, it cannot be taken literally, as that preacher must agree. For he would also say that “God is everywhere” as Scriptures contain  such sayings as “even should I descend into hell, God is there”. So, also, Paul quotes with approval the saying that God is He “in whom we live and move and have our being” and this must be so too even in “hell”!  So, if hell is where God is not, that state of being and experience must be a subjective one, God’s  seeming absence  being a subjective experiential state felt by oneself only, even though the loving God is still present, nay, especially present, to plead and woo the unrepentant sinner (recall the parable of the good shepherd who persistently seeks out the lost sheep until he finds it.)

This tallies with John’s account of Jesus’ saying, further  explaining  the notion of  “condemnation” in the same text referred above, that “he that believes not is condemned already”. So, even whilst seeming still alive and living, one is already in the state of  “condemnation” for not appropriating for oneself the “heavenly” blessings that come from repentance and coming to terms with the “truth” about oneself, the world, other persons and God. That is “the truth that sets us free” from the illusion stemming from self-centrednes, and from the “living death” of enclosing oneself within a  world of one’s own selfish making, where the right perspective of oneself in due relatedness to others, and God, is not maintained, where one is thereby not related to God and other persons “in the bond of love” for which we have been created. Such is the self-imposed “penalty of sin” from which we all need to be saved, for as St Augustine profoundly says, addressing his Maker, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts will not rest till they rest in Thee”.

This indication of the condition “salvation” is to save us from, as contrasted with what it emphatically is not, I hope to more fully discuss in the next posting.


Written by Tan Tai Wei

May 5, 2011 at 12:22 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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