Friday, June 22, 2012

Sacred Cows

Authors/pastors such as Francis Chan, David Platt and Kyle Idleman have challenged our conventional wisdom on how we "do" church in the United States. Others like N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, and Mike Breen are redefining Kingdom and Gospel in the context of the first-century Jews who initially heard those teachings. Could it be, that more of what we take for granted as our "old-time religion" is wrong?

I've already hit on two extremes of salvation doctrine, the Sinner's Prayer and baptism as sacred cows that need to be re-examined. But what if more of our religious practices are merely "traditions taught by men"? (Mark 7) For example, from a young age, we are shown images of heaven as white fluffy clouds inhabited by angels with wings and halos and often playing instruments such as harps. Yet no such imagery exists in the Bible. The cute child-like cherubs of Hallmark porcelain are a far cry from Ezekiel's description of the Cherubim he saw in a vision: "I knew that they were the cherubims. Every one had four faces apiece, and every one four wings; and the likeness of the hands of a man was under their wings." (Ezekiel 10:20-21, KJV) or Isaiah's description of Seraphim: "Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly." (Isaiah 6:2, KJV) My son overheard a study I was doing once on the holiness of God and instantly connected the descriptions of angels in Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Revelation with the comforting teaching of guardian angels such that he is now literally afraid of angels.

The consequence of that tradition is easily repairable. But others are much harder to reconcile. Here I need to make a disclaimer up front- I have no formal training; I do not have a seminary degree nor any certification in Bible study; these observations are my own that have jumped out at me from my own personal study; these are not definitive and are not points that are worth me drawing lines in the sand doctrinally, however they are worth studying in more detail so that you can come to your own conclusions rather than relying on religious tradition.
  1. Hell: Rob Bell recently made waves with his book Love Wins which drew sharp criticism and immediate response from the likes of Tim Keller, et. al  and Francis Chan. He questioned the assumption that the lost spend an eternity suffering in Hell in light of an all-loving God. Admittedly, this is a stumbling block to many against Christianity- how can a just God condemn people for eternity for following a savior they may have never heard of. This question makes many uncomfortable when we think about our favorite Aunt Sally whom everybody loved yet never went to church a day in her life. Could a just God condemn her to an eternity in Hell? But what if our definition of Hell is wrong to begin with? What if the eternal suffering refers to the consuming fire itself and not the punishment? That is the premise of Edward Fudge's book, "The Fire that Consumes." Now I haven't read his book yet came to the same conclusion independently. In fact, even Chan in Erasing Hell makes this observation though he intentionally falls short of calling it a conclusion (and humbly so, I might add). Could it be that our religious definition of Hell as an eternal punishment is wrong?
  2. Eternal Soul: One of the counters to the argument above is that God made our souls eternal, and therefore cannot be annihilated. (Though who's going to stop God from doing whatever he wants?) Yet the only evidence anyone has ever been able to give me that our souls are eternal is the scripture that tell us that we are all made in God's image. And if God is eternal, then it follows so are we. Our bodies die and decay, so there must be some eternal component and there comes our common definition of a soul. Yet the word we translate as soul is also elsewhere translated in the Bible as heart, or body. The implication is that the word "soul" refers to our whole being. It is more a philosophical point than a theological one (for example, where in your body do you find thought?). The idea of a "being" or "essence" is where we get our word for soul. (And it even gets more complicated in the Greek when soul is translated from the Greek word psyche, as in "mind".) My son asks me all the time what a soul is and I always struggle to define it. I say it's the part of us that lives forever, but what does that really mean?
  3. Heaven or New Jerusalem: I ran into this one when debating with a Jehovah's Witness. They teach that only 144,000 go to heaven based on Revelation 7 and 14 (Of course, why is that number literal when the others in Revelation are not?) and that everyone else either goes to Hell or inhabits the New Earth. (It is important to note that early JW literature shows each of the 144,000 to be white, Anglo-Saxon while the inhabitants of Earth are Jewish and minorities. I don't know if that was ever intentionally addressed- especially considering their world missions, but I find it amusing nonetheless.) Despite the numerology, the Bible teaches of both a heaven and a new earth. Who goes where? I have yet to find an answer that satisfies my curiosity, but I do think it calls into question our standard dividing lines of heaven and hell.
  4. Gospel: I mentioned above that this definition is being challenged by others, so I encourage you to read their work and come to your own conclusion. But much of what we espouse as the Gospel is self-centered fire insurance. If we call into question our definitions of heaven, hell and our eternal soul, then what we present as the Gospel also needs to be reconsidered as well. Is the Gospel only that Jesus forgives our sin and saves us from hell? Is it not also that Jesus came to dwell among us and that his death reconciled our relationship with our creator? Could it be that the Gospel is more about our relationship with God than it is about our eternal destiny?
I call out these "sacred cows" because of the potential eternal impact they may have. From the Sinner's Prayer and baptism to our common descriptions of heaven and hell, changing our perspective to be more biblical and less religious affects what our churches are built upon and how we share our faith with others. These are no small matters and need to be taken more seriously because it coulde be that how we define church could be completely wrong.

No comments: