Error is manifold. Truth is a unit; there may be any number of wrong explanations of scripture or a doctrine; there is only one right one. A crooked line may run in any number of different directions. A straight line can run in but one."
"Now the great majority of Christians know nothing of this great principle of Scripture revelation, and hence they are building upon, and resting in, the letter of the Word which brings not life, but death. Hence also the almost innumerable opinions, sects, and contradictions that divides and disgraces the Christian world, causing the people to stumble and God's name to be blasphemed, and hence discord and strife rend the church into many factions instead of there being "one fold and one shepherd." For example, a certain skeptical writer refers to this changeable character of the Bible thus, "Nothing is plainer in the Bible than that there is nothing plain in the book. There is not a heresy, theory, dogma, creed, proposition or tenet, however monstrous, however cruel, however pernicious, however childish, silly and absurd, that may not be substantiated or refuted, driven home or kicked out of doors, by reference to that marvelous compiliation."
AP Adams, Orthodoxy
During my discussions with Christians regarding my lack of belief, sooner or later I am usually presented with the fact that I am not saved and risk an eternity of damnation. Indeed, when I was a Christian, eternal salvation was something I did not take lightly. After all, what sane person would risk an eternity of damnation by turning away from God or questioning His precepts? Regardless, many well-meaning Christians tell me that I need to turn to the bible for my answers, that, somehow, via the rule of faith, God will once again “inspire” me to find the true meaning in those sacred words.
Ever the quick study, I decided to take those Christians up on their advice and once again found myself back in the Bible trying to figure out how one is “saved.” Logic would dictate that obtaining this salvation would be fairly straightforward and laid out in one easy-to-understand book—especially if said creator of this book wanted to make sure his followers were indeed “saved.” Of course, upon investigation I found that this is not the case. One Christian denomination tells us the “saved” were predestined. One tells us that baptism is required. Another tells us that baptism is a ritual and salvation comes through belief in Christ's sacrifice. Others say Christ's sacrifice alone is enough. Yet another stresses good works or the grace of God. In fact, depending on which denomination of Christianity one subscribes to, any combination of the following bible verses can be used to justify how one is saved:
By hearing the Gospel & Belief in God: John 5:24: “He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life.”
By Baptism: John 3:5: “Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.”
By Grace & Faith, not Works: Ephesians 2:8,9: “For by grace ye are saved through faith . . . not of works.”
By Faith and Works: James 2:17: “Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.”
By Keeping the Law: Matthew 19:17: “ . . . if thou wilt enter unto life, keep the commandments.”
By Belief in Christ: “ . . . whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
By Belief and Baptism: Mark 16:16: “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.”
By Words: Matthew 12:37: “For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.”
By Calling on the Lord: Acts 2:21: “whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Not works but by Grace and Baptism: Titus 3:5: “Not by works . . . but according to his mercy . . . by the washing of regeneration.” (Note: some denominations will say the washing refers to Christ's blood and sacrifice.)
According to Proverbs 16:4: God made the “wicked” for “the day of evil” (i.e. judgment & damnation). Of course, this makes no sense in light of passages that confirm or suggest that Jesus died for a small number of the elect, or that suggest all will be saved: John 1:29, 4:42, 1 Cor. 15:29, Hebrews 2:9, 1 Jn. 4:14.
Salvation Available to the Chosen Few: Matthew 7:14, 22:14, Luke 12:32, 13:24, John 6:37, Acts 2:21, Rev. 3:20
Salvation Available to Those Who Desire it: Matthew 7:7-8, 11:28, John 3:16, 5:40, 7:37, Acts 2:21, Rev. 3:20.
Now I'm sure some critics will say I'm taking those verses “out of context.” Well, to those critics I ask that a “context” be clearly defined and followed among Christians before you criticize my observations. If these rules were clearly defined among Christians, one would not see various Christian denominations debating the rules of baptism, women as preachers, interpretation of scripture, and the Trinitarian concept. Putting those critics aside for the moment, this leads us to the present day state of affairs among the various denominations of Christianity. Granted, I'm no theologian, but one would think a perfect God who knows “everything” would have forseen what these contradictions would do to his followers' faith. One would think that a perfect God would have directed His followers to write one sacred book. One would think that this one book would detail just exactly how one is to be “saved” and that this plan would be uniformly followed—at least among Christians. More importantly, one would think that Christianity would agree on just exactly how one is “saved.” Of course, once again confusion reigns!
[The author provides a table that illustrates his point. He includes in the table 15 different denominations, along with their authority (which bible, which Testament, which persons, committees, etc . . . that the denomination regards as authoritative), their view of how one is saved, and their view on women preaching. The table illustrates substantial differences in all of these areas. He then goes on to say:]
According to the 2001 edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia, there are 33,800 Christian denominations around the world. Just trying to research 16 such denominations was extremely challenging. Not only did I find variation between denominations, but also many times I found conflicting information within the same denomination on how one is saved. If these various groups cannot even agree (and believe me, some argue among themselves!) on a few basic beliefs, how can they seriously expect any outsider to consider their claims as valid?
Naturally, as I was looking at “how one is saved” I also started to wonder what they were being saved from and where they went when they were saved. I found that “most” were being saved from some sort of hell that the Christian God created to punish the sinners and non-believers. In addition “most” believers seemed to be convinced they were going to be rewarded at death with an eternity in some type of heaven. Past that, the only consistency I found seemed to be more confusion.
[The author then proceeds to present a table which lists the stances of the sixteen denominations on heaven and hell. He then writes:]
Quick recap: not only are Christians in disagreement regarding how one is saved, they can't seem to reach agreement on what one is saved from or where the faithful go after they are saved. Moreover, every denomination I researched has millions of followers, so no matter how you cut it, many people who think they are Christians are going to a yet-undefined hell. That is, unless the Christian version of God can get His followers on the same sheet of music! Regardless of these contradictions, time and time again I have been told that “faith” via the Holy Spirit has guided—and continues to guide—Christians in interpreting the sacred scriptures correctly. Well, history will show you that this “rule of faith” leaves something to be desired. For example, take the concept of the Trinity.
- 325 A.D.: Emperor Constantine calls to order the council of Nice and decrees that Christ is “consubstantial” (of the same nature) with the Father.
- 381 A.D.: Emperor Theodosius calls to order the First Council of Constantinople, there it is decided that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father.
- 388 A.D.: Emperor Theodosius threatens punishment to all who refute the Trinity.
- 451 A.D.: Emperor Marcian calls the Council of Chalcedon to order, there it is decided that Christ has both human and divine natures.
- 680 A.D.: Emperor Constantine Pogonatus holds the third Council of Constantinople, there it is decreed that Christ has two wills.
- 1274 A.D.: At the second Council of Lyons it is finally decided that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son.
- (Timeline verified in The Councils of The Church by Norman P. Tanner, 2001, and The Encyclopedia Britannica Online. It should be noted that any of the historical facts or denominational beliefs that are presented in this essay can be verified in any book on Church history, or for that matter, in any reputable encyclopedia or reference book.)
Another interesting fact that I came across relates to the Christian ritual of baptism. Up until roughly 354 A.D. the Church did not place a great emphasis on infant baptisms. That is, not until St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.) decided otherwise. On his 3 book series titles “On the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins, and on the Baptism of Infants,” Augustine explains why he thinks unbaptized infants are bound for hell: “If you wish to be a Christian, do not believe, nor say, nor teach, that infants who die before baptism can obtain the remission of original sin.” Augustine believed (as do many denominations today) that children are sent straight to hell due to the notion of “Original Sin.” Well, that's all good and fine, but it's too bad no one explained this to all those infants who allegedly got sent to hell!
Regardless of these conundrums, one has to wonder why two of the keys to salvation were not clearly defined in the bible in the first place? If the Trinitarian concept and the ritual of baptism were clearly defined in the Bible, there would not be denominations throughout history that keep disagreeing on them. Is it too much for a non-believer to ask why a God that could allegedly create “all this” could not inspire His prophets to write one book that is uniformly adhered to by His followers? In my opinion, suggesting anything less puts limits on a supposedly limitless God.
Regardless, this tradition of confusion continues today. Most Protestants and Catholics believe that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son equally. In contrast, most forms of Eastern Orthodoxy believe the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, through the Son. In addition, recently the Roman Catholic Church has ruled that it will not accept Mormon baptisms do to the Mormon's concept of the Trinity. In the Mormon view, the Trinity is three separate entities, whereas, in the Catholic view, God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all one and the same. Certainly both denominations can't be right, yet they both gather under the banner of Christianity.
Keeping with the theme of confusion, during my research I discovered that the Southern Baptists have recently reaffirmed that women will not be allowed to be pastors. Much like many other Christian denominations, the Baptists base this affirmation on the following Bible verses: 1 Corinthians 14:24: “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law” and 1 Timothy 2:12, “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.” Flying in the face of this Baptist decree is the ministry of Anne Graham Lotz. On June 3rd, 2001, the television program 60 Minutes ran a segment titled, “The preacher's daughter: from child to marriage to being a preacher, the life of Anne Graham Lotz as Billy Graham's daughter.” In this segment Mrs. Lotz defends her ministry and bases it on the following biblical passage: John 20:17-18, “But go to my brothers and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples . . .”
It is Mrs. Lotz' contention that since Christ instructed Mary Magdalene to spread the “Good News,” this gives women the divine authority to be ministers today. Now I'll be the first to say I respect Mrs. Lotz for challenging the blatant sexism that still pervades much of Christianity. Still I find this story amusing because what we have here is another case of dueling bible verses where each passage is being used to justify the individual party's respective stance. Not only that, but both verses come from the same “inspired” Bible and are being interpreted differently by members of the same denomination of Christianity!
So this brings us back full circle back to the “rule of faith.” I don't think it's too unreasonable to doubt this so-called rule. Since its inception until present day, Christianity can't seem to agree. I can understand following along blindly without knowing about these denominational differences. Still, after a thorough examination of the evidence, it is literally beyond me how anyone can keep their faith. Though I may disagree with Christianity in general, I still respect the Christian's right to practice his or her religion. I only ask that Christians extend the same courtesy to me and realize I did not turn to atheism on a whim. In fact, I have spent a great deal of time researching my decision, and it is my hope that most Christians will not interpret my frustrations with Christianity's hellish doctrine (or Christianity in general) as a personal attack. Regardless, my position can best be summed up by the words of Robert Green Ingersoll: “Every sect is a certificate that God has not plainly revealed his will to man. To each reader the bible conveys a different meaning.” [end of essay]
So, what's my point? How does the essay just presented argue for Universalism? I will try to explain. It is a tenet of Universalism that we cannot arrive at truth by interpreting scripture apart from larger philosophical considerations or themes. I would go further than that: I would suggest that it is impossible to arrive at truth apart from these larger themes, and that the bible was so crafted that any other approach is doomed to failure.
Let's start with the fact, underscored above, that Christianity at present is comprised of no less than 33,800 sects. Are they all wrong? Are they all right? Are they all taking different paths to the same truth? Are they all mixtures of truth and error? Is one the holy God-breathed truth and the other 33,799 a set of damnable lies set on fire by hell?
I would like to propose the following answer: Any one of the 33,800 opinions is as good as any other. Just consider: Most of the 33,800 sects subscribe either to some form of Calvinism or some form or Arminianism. Now, my object here is not to prove that both of these belief systems are wrong, although I believe they are. It is merely to prove that each system has equally valid biblical and philosophical grounds for opposing each other, and that, on this fact, it is fair to say that each one's opinion is as good as the other.
First, let's consider Calvinism. Calvinism contends that God has reprobated most of humanity, while electing a few. The Arminian looks at this and sees a Prima facie case against it in the form of verses like these:
God is love (1 Jn. 4:8)
Say to them: ‘As I live,’ says the Lord God, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. (Ezekiel 33:11)
The Calvinist answers back with verses like:
"What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory."
Now, I don't wish to cite every verse the Arminian can employ against the Calvinist, or vice versa, but all will agree that both sides can present a great deal of verses to support their case. They can also also present compelling philosophical and moral reasons. But each side will have an answer to the other side's reasons. And I don't wish to argue here as to which side has the better answers. My point is that Calvinism and Arminianism are more than the sum total of their verses: They are systems. Each is a way of putting things together. They must be considered as a whole. And no set of verses, no matter how powerful, can overthrow the system as a whole. But what does it take to understand a system as a whole? Well, you have to belong to that system, don't you?
You can only truly appreciate a system from the inside. A non-Calvinist cannot really appreciate what Calvinism is all about. He can only understand it superficially, perhaps as “that crazy system that says God hates us.” And so the “outsider” cannot understand how certain verses, which seem to refute Calvinism, must, nevertheless, be made to fit due to the simple fact that Calvinism, as a system that reflects the truth, must ultimately embrace the entire biblical witness.
But consider the implications of this thinking for evaluating other belief systems. The Calvinist will look at another system and cite verses that clearly and explicitly refute it as grounds for rejecting that system. And yet adherents of that system find ways of fitting those verses into their system. Why? Because their system as a whole is true; hence any verse that would seem to contradict it must be understood in a way that does not go against the tenets of that system.
You Must Believe in Order to See
Here's the thing: To see how certain verses fit into certain belief systems, you must first believe that system, then make the necessary effort to fit that verse into the system. From the outside a certain verse stands as clear proof that a system is wrong; from the inside, however, that same verse is seen as compatible with the tenets of the system. We cannot really understand the isolated verses apart from their place in the whole, and who can really understand the whole except those who belong to it? How can we evaluate someone else's system any more honestly than they can evaluate ours? They all squeeze certain verses, which on the surface contradict their beliefs, into their system by giving them a certain twist, or context, that makes them fit. This context cannot be appreciated by someone outside the system and will in fact seem like nothing more than an outright distortion. And these distortions are not minor; they are major. They are gigantic. And every system has them. No system therefore is really in any position to judge another system from the outside, for it is only from the inside that the context they give certain verses will make any sense.
And so I would suggest that either we are forced to admit that there's no logical or biblical basis for preferring any sect above any other, or else we must reconsider our hermeneutic. The bible says the letter kills, but the spirit gives life. Now, of course every sect thinks they are guided by the spirit. But unless the fruit of the spirit is division, confusion, factions, and disunity, then they are wrong. And so perhaps here it's worth asking: What does it actually mean to be guided by the spirit rather than the letter? Well, I would suggest that it means we pay attention not only to words (the letter), but to themes. And frankly, I don't see how any of the 33,800 sects are interpreting any of the themes of the biblical narrative in a spiritual way, in a way that's consistent with God's nature, His revealed character in Christ, His promises, His testimony about the purpose and duration of punishment, or the reason and conscience He gave us. Consider:
- When the bible says God is love, they say: But what that really means is . . .
- When the bible says He created man in His own image, they say: Yes, but this means absolutely nothing.
- When the bible says He created man for His own pleasure, they say: Yes, but it's His pleasure to torture them forever in hell.
- When the bible says He has claimed ownership of man, they say: Yes, but only in order to give them over to the devil forever!
- When the bible says He is the father of all men, they say: He's not our father; He's only our creator!
- When the bible says Christ tasted death for every man, they say: Oh, no He didn't!
- When the bible says He justified every man, they say: Not true!
- When the bible says He desires that all men be saved, they say: Wrong; He desires that most be damned!
- When the bible says that every tongue will confess Christ as Lord, they say: Yes, but only because they are forced to do it!
And most incredibly of all, they do all of this in the name of context. What context? The context of hell, of course.
The simple fact is this: A system must be judged as a whole. The truth is that we cannot square any system with all of the bible verses. Moreover, certain verses, when taken in their natural sense, will explicitly contradict any system. Even Universalism! And that is why we must use reason. We must pursue consistency not simply by trying to make every verse match up with every other, as if putting together a puzzle, but by putting things together in a way that actually gives us at least some semblance of harmony and unity. If the final picture is at variance with God's nature, His revealed character in Christ, His promises, His testimony about the purpose and duration of punishment, or the reason and conscience He gave us, then we ought to consider the possibility that we started from the wrong point.
"Words are facile vehicles of thought, easily twisted into almost any shape, and made to answer almost any end. This is shown in the framing of laws, when, notwithstanding the utmost care, the legal formula is found to be capable of several different meanings, giving rise to oceans of talk, and endless complications, to puzzle judges and to defeat the ends of justice. Thus is it also with the letter of the Word; it is oft times capable of various meanings, and in the absence of any authoritative standard of interpretation, one man's opinion is as good as another's . . ."
What About Love? Isn't that Enough?
And what about love? Love is an evidence of salvation. But what kind of love? And how closely must it be tied into a particular faith system? How should it be manifested? By preaching? Actively caring for the sick and poor? Is Billy Graham's love equal to Mother Teresa's? I have observed many different forms of “Christian” love, and frankly, some of them seem more like hate. For our purposes here, I will note five individuals and the particular brand of love they practice or practiced, along with some comments about the implications of this love for their salvation.
- Mother Teresa Mother Teresa practiced love by tending to the poorest of the poor. She supplemented her faith (which she had at first, lost, and never regained) with works of charity. This women, who had works and no faith, is revered by the Catholic church as a model of faithfulness and, presumably, as a model of how to get to heaven.
- Billy Graham Graham preaches the gospel worldwide. He believes God will try to save all people of all walks of life, including those who have never heard the gospel. I haven't researched this, but I have to believe many conservative Christians don't approve of such a sentiment, and in their eyes the fact that he holds it probably does not bode well for his salvation.
- Joel Osteen Mostly preaches a kind of feel good and be successful kind of gospel. His love is all about sharing the wealth available in Christ. Many—if not most—conservative evangelical Christians would look upon him with great suspicion, and question whether or not he's truly saved.
- Harold Camping He preached over the airwaves for over forty years. His preaching was pure fire and brimstone Calvinism. His idea of love was to tell people that God hated them, but that if they cried out for mercy, there was still hope. He had no use for good works of the kind Mother Teresa performed, and insisted that we care for the sick and poor by means of sharing the gospel. He later converted from eternal torment to annihilationism, and declared that the doctrine of eternal torment was evil and unbiblical.
- Fred Phelps He's the God-hates-fags guy. He's the one that sends the members of his congregation to funerals to heckle the family members of the deceased. Like Camping, this Calvinist preacher equates love with bringing what he believes to be the message of the gospel.
Five prominent Christians; five distinct brands of love. Which is the right one? They are all supposedly biblically based. I haven't selected examples from Islam or Buddhism, or even, for that matter, from the more obscure sects of Christianity. These are all mainstream Christians. And yet from looking at them, you can't help thinking that these folks don't see love the same way. In fact, some on the list wouldn't even approve of the way all of the others on the list go about loving, nor would some think that some of the others are true Christians. Surely all four, along with the entire civilized world, would denounce Phelps as an unloving non-christian wacko who brings nothing but dishonor to the faith. But what about the revered Billy Graham? Would the others approve of his brand of love? Would they think he was “saved?” I know for a fact Harold Camping wouldn't. He believes anyone who preaches a free-will altar call style gospel is part of a false gospel, and surely he would include Graham in this category. I have also heard him say that people like Mother Teresa, who emphasize works in salvation, are not really saved. I doubt Osteen or Phelps would fair much better in his evaluation. In fact, Camping pretty much thinks that the only saved people in the entire world are himself and a few of his faithful Family Radio listeners—probably the way Phelps feels about himself and the few faithful members of his own Westboro congregation (mostly members of his own family I have heard). The ecclectic Graham and Osteen would probably extend at least the possibility of salvation to most of the others on the list; I don't know what Mother Teresa's view might have been—probably whatever best reflected the thinking of the Catholic Church and the Pope.
You're Guess is as Good as Mine
At any rate, do you see my point? About how arbitrary the whole thing is? Which church you belong to is arbitrary. Which conception you have of the trinity is arbitrary. How you regard baptism is arbitrary. Even the kind of love you practice—and its implications for salvation--is arbitrary. And whatever you do with regards to these and other matters of the faith, you are still on the wrong course in the eyes of many of your so-called brothers and sisters in Christ. And maybe they are right, although not for the reasons they think. In fact, maybe all of your worship is actually doing you more harm than good. Consider this: If you worship the God of eternal torment, then you are doing so, at least to some degree, out of fear. You are worshiping, to a large degree, against your reason and conscience. Now, why exactly would God honor this? Do you not know where cowards have their part?
But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” (Rev. 21:8)
One last point. One might object that while I have perhaps succeeded in casting a pall over Christianity in general I have done nothing to make the case for Universalism. After all, isn't it just another one of the 33,800 creeds? And aren't there differences among Universalists, even as surely as there are among other Christians? The answer to both of these questions is: Yes. Just like all the rest, I do believe my creed is right and the other 33,799 are wrong. But with three differences:
1. I don't believe the members of the other 38,799 sects are going to hell for being wrong.
2. I do not base my belief on something arbitrary. I do not say: God is poised to torture the vast majority of men in hell forever, but I'm exempt because . . . I say: God is our Father by virtue of the fact that He's our Creator, and because of this He is pledged to our ultimate good.
3. I base my belief on God's revealed will for all of mankind. I do not say, as do the Calvinists, that God has two wills—a hidden will and a revealed will—and that His will for me is good and His will for you is bad. I do not base my theology on inferences which stand in opposition to God's revealed will, but rather in reconciling all of scripture to His revealed will. God has sworn that He takes no delight in the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11). The Calvinist says He does. God has sworn that every knee will bow to Him in voluntary submission (Phil 2:10). The Calvinist says it will not happen.
Also, remember what I said earlier, about how every sect has ideas which, from the outside, clearly contradict certain bible verses; in other words the verses must be made to fit into a larger framework in order to make sense. Now, one might say to me: But aren't you guilty of the same thing? Aren't you judging the meaning of certain verses from the inside of the Universalist system? The answer to that is yes and no. Yes, of course, upon becoming a Universalist, one does develop a different interpretation of the judgment verses. But the truth is that the theological arguments I employ for Universalism are the same ones I saw clearly, but felt compelled to reject, while I was not a Universalist. I saw from the outside the same thing I now see from the inside.
Likewise, I saw from the inside of Calvinism the absurdity of a God who is not your father, only your creator. But I nonetheless embraced this idea because the letter of scripture seemed to demand it. As an Arminian, I saw from the inside the absurdity of a God who wanted to save me, but perhaps couldn't. But I nonetheless embraced this idea because the letter seemed to demand it. And so we see that from the inside of the Christian religious system we must accept ideas that are logically impossible. Does this not suggest that we have been sucked into a trap? That maybe the truth lies outside the system? Is it possible that the bible has been so crafted as to “conclude us all in unbelief”? Is it possible that the entire Christian religious system is looking at things from the inside of a maze, or trap, that God has set for them? Is it reasonable to believe that God, the Creator of the Universe, is Himself inside the maze, siding with one of the 33,800 sects? One whose “truths” differ only marginally from most of the rest? Or is He outside, and with a radically different truth? Namely, the gospel: God was in the world, reconciling the world to himself, not counting people's sins against them (2 Cor. 5:19). Isn't it likely that in the end, we shall see that Bible interpretation, like all things man has attempted without God's help, has been a total failure?
In closing, I would like to pose four questions to those who believe they belong to the “right” religion and are “saved” and that the rest of us are not.
1. Do you rely on the bible as the sole source of your authority? Or do you rely on the theological formulations of theologians? For instance, if you believe in the Trinity, do you believe what the bible says about it? Or do you rely on the Church to tell you what the Trinity is and the role that believing in it plays in salvation? Can you honestly say that you do not read the bible through the lens of the particular denomination you belong to? And if that's true, then can you honestly say that the bible alone is your authority, and not the bible and the theology of the particular system to which you belong?
2. Don't you find it amazing that out of 33,800 sects you just happen to belong to the right one?
3. If you believe the bible is perspicuous, or easy to understand, then how do you account for the 33,800 sects? If you believe God hides the truth, then how do you know you have found it? Are you a better detective than He is a concealer?
4. Do you honestly believe that anyone can worship a God of eternal torment without suppressing their reason and conscience to some degree? And is this not cowardice? And why would God honor cowardice?
What Kind of Christian are You?
So, what kind of Christian are you? Are you a mother Teresa Christian? Have you obeyed Christ's command to "sell all of your possessions" and to "hate your mother and father" in renouncing all things for His sake? Are you a Harold Camping Christian? Do you immerse yourself in bible study--perhaps three to four hours a day--and in sharing the gospel? While living a clean, sanctified life free of almost all worldly corruption and indulgences? Are you a Joel Osteen Christian? Do you pray for--and receive--abundant material prosperity? Are you a Fred Phelps Christian? Do you crash funerals holding signs and hurling insults?
Most people are content to accept the terms of salvation as long as they believe they are embraced within those terms. And so what do they do? They find a scheme of salvation that embraces them. They will renounce what they can renounce and keep what they can keep and tell themselves this is what God wants. The Harold Camping Christian will convince himself that helping the sick and poor has nothing whatsoever to do with the true gospel, whereas sharing the word and living a certain kind of life is strong evidence of salvation. The Mother Teresa Christian will tell convince themselves that what counts is our good deeds, and he or she will spend their life performing them. The Joel Osteen Christian will convince themselves that God wants us for us essentially the same things we want for ourselves, and will devote themselves toward attaining those things. The Fred Phelps Christian will convince himself that confronting infidels with God's truth, however it is accomplished, is what God really expects.
So again, I ask: What kind of Christian are you? Let me tell you what kind of Christian I think you are. I think you are probably a Billy Graham Christian. You probably live modestly, but well. You drive a nice car, have a nice family, and do not want for material things. You have decided Christ's injunction to sell your possessions ought to be taken in the "context" of other verses that would seem to imply that no such thing is necessary. But surely something is necessary. After all, you believe in hell, and that most people are going there; hence surely something is required of you that will distinguish you from the vast majority of mankind. You have probably decided that something is a "sincere" profession of faith--perhaps the sinner's prayer--along with some prayer, some church, and some good deeds. Unlike Mother Teresa, your good deeds consist not in tending to the dying, but in more mundane tasks, perhaps some volunteer work, or lending a kind ear to your co-workers. Nothing heroic, but something. And unlike Brother Camping, your sharing of the gospel probably consists not in copious amounts of preaching, but in more subtle forms of communication--perhaps driving around with a Jesus bumper sticker or something like that. Again, nothing heroic, but something.
And let's not forget clean living and sanctification. I'm sure with regard to that you also do your share. You probably oppose abortion--perhaps even actively--but, I am guessing you probably don't feel as passionately about birth control, and have probably even used it yourself. You probably take a drink now and then, but you don't drink excessively. And you probably enjoy most of the same TV programs, movies, and books as do the rest of us, but perhaps with a little more discretion. This is the kind of Christian you probably are, and you probably believe that your conduct and/or faith are sufficient for your salvation. You believe you have been embraced within the terms that God has set for salvation. The question I have for you is: Why? You live a life barely distinguishable from that of the "infidels" of this world, and yet, somehow, you believe you have satisfied the "terms" of salvation. Why? Who set the terms? Can't you see that you set the terms? Maybe you can't, but many other "Christians" can, and rest assured, you are going to their hell.
A single text could be interpreted to serve diametrically opposed interests. The more people were encouraged to make the bible the focus of their spirituality, the more difficult it became to find a core message. At the same time as African Americans drew on the bible to develop their theology of liberation, the Klu Klux Klan used it to justify their lynching of blacks. Israelites who rebelled against Moses in the wilderness were exterminated; the indigenous Canaanites were massacred by Joshua's armies. Black feminist theologians have pointed out that the Israelites owned slaves; that God had permitted them to sell their daughters into slavery; and that God actually ordered Abraham to abandon the Egyptian slave girl Hagar in the wilderness. Sola Scripture could point people in the direction of the Bible, but it could never provide an absolute mandate: people could always find alternate texts to support an opposing point of view.
"But it is no different," he continued, "with the Bible. Isn't it just as hard to know whether our present understanding of biblical truth accurately reflects the infallible revelation that God has provided?--and isn't that why, once again, we need a set of procedures to make biblical doctrines clear to ourselves and to make sure that our overall interpre- tation of them is consistent? I mean, look at the bewildering variety of interpretations that exist. Every sect or denomination, every epoch, every culture seems to have a quite different interpretation of even very basic doctrines. The Western Church, for example, thinks it finds a substitutionary theory of Christ's atonement in the New Testament, but the Eastern Church is just as confident that no such doctrine exists there. Thank God, our most basic moral intuitions seem to be more stable (and more widely shared) than that!"
Let God be true and every man a liar.