I came across a blog post yesterday with the title:
You Cannot Be A Good Person If You Do Not Believe In Heaven
I am in plenty of conversations with people who do not believe in heaven, or believe in something other than the Christian version of heaven, and they seem like pretty good people.
Yet I also understand (and experience) the biblical view that humanity is broken, flawed, sinful. How do we balance that with imago dei — the idea that we are also created in the image of God?
The blog post went on to say: “The Bible teaches that you cannot live a good life if you do not believe in God’s promises.” Anyone care to support that?
A re-current theme at our Pub Theology gatherings is ethics: How do we know what the good is? How do we live good lives? What is the grounding for our morality? Is God the source of all good? Are things good because God commands them? Or does God command them because they are good?
Some would say you can be perfectly ‘good without God’. They’ve even written books about it. They would say that we can live good and moral lives without supernaturalism. Given the friends I have who eschew faith in a divine being, I’m inclined to agree.
Most people of faith would say that without God we have no grounding to say anything is good. We must have an ‘objective standard’ upon which to measure our ethics. This also makes a certain amount of sense.
Still others would say that even if there were such a standard, none of us has objective access to it.
A great turnout last Thursday, and some very good conversation. With a pint from the cask in hand, we set out to respond to six questions I took from an evangelism questionnaire that I had used in college.
The questions surprisingly created a lot of good conversation and sharing about things, prompting us to wonder about the effectiveness of such a questionnaire, not to mention the idea of accosting random people to talk to them about deep personal matters.
The questionnaire is as follows:
1. How would you describe your life in one word?
2. What three things do you most desire out of life?
3. What do you think “God” is like?
4. Who, in your opinion, is Jesus Christ?
5. If you were to die tonight and found yourself standing before God, and he asked you, “Why should I let you into My heaven?” How would you respond?
6. If you could know with 100% certainty how you could get into heaven, would you be interested in hearing about that?
The first two questions created opportunity for us to share some things about ourselves that our normal questions didn’t necessarily prompt. So that was very cool.
The third and fourth questions began to lead us into theological territory – also somewhat revealing in the group, and certainly would be in an interaction with a stranger.
It seems, though, that it is all a warmup to no.5: the evangelical zinger. Give me the password that gets you into heaven. Answer correctly and you win! The prize: eternity in heaven. Answer wrong, and (cue the Price is Right wrong answer theme), sorry friend, the flames await you. Which made us wonder about the typical evangelical understanding of salvation, of evangelism, of faith, and all that. Is life really just a big prelude, and the goal, after all the major events, life learning, relationship building, personal growth, etc, is simply to answer a question correctly? And if I didn’t study adequately for the test, or if I somehow was never properly prepped, I’m doomed? That all seems like a cruel joke.
Perhaps a short answer might point to something deeper and and true in a sense, but the idea of having to answer a question at the gate seems sort of silly, and falls right into all the old cliches about St. Peter manning the door.
And of course question no.6 makes the whole thing seem like a sales gimmick. If you could be 100% certain of how to get no.5 right – would you be interested? In fact, we have a money-back guarantee! (Too bad you’ll be too dead to claim it though!)
We then began wondering about the whole idea of street evangelism, beach evangelism, door-to-door evangelism, etc. Can deep and serious matters be discussed or entered into at a meaningful level in a random encounter with a stranger? Should the gospel be peddled like it’s the next-best vacuum? Where do relationships come into play? Where does community fit in? What about discipleship? What about going forward?
I noted that in my experience of two summers doing beach evangelism in South Jersey, at its best, we had meaningful encounters with people and then encouraged them to find a local church to connect to. Even better were our relationships with locals through our summer jobs. But you wonder how effective this ‘drive-by evangelism’ really was for some random person on the boardwalk who was simply trying to figure out how best to devour the delicious elephant ear they were holding to suddenly realize the more pressing matter of hell was being shoved down their throat. As they stared dumbfounded at you, the eager college student with all the answers and the salvation guarantee, you wonder if there were moments we actually did more harm than good.
There’s a great post on the blog Slacktivist about evangelism (thanks, Steve!), where the following is noted:
Without relationship, it’s not really evangelism, merely sales. Evangelism should never be anything like sales. This is not a transaction, not commerce.
No doubt. They also note the important point that listening is key. Too often we are armed with ‘the answers’ and enter into a conversation so that we can tell someone what’s what. This is not a new tact:
The Cherokee Baptist theologian Bill Baldridge tells a story about white missionaries who arrived at the Indian settlement. “We are here to tell you the story of our God and of salvation,” they announced.
The elders welcomed them, brought them food, and gathered around to hear this story. The missionaries, pleased by this enthusiastic audience, decided to go with the Long Version. They started at the beginning and over the next several hours they told the whole great Christian saga of creation, fall and redemption.
When at last the missionaries were finished, the elders thanked them. “This is a good story,” the elders said. “Now we would like to share with you our story.”
The missionaries were furious. Hadn’t these people been listening? Didn’t they realize that they had just heard the One True Story and that their old story, whatever it was, no longer mattered?
The missionaries abruptly left, shaking the dust off their shoes and heading out to find some other group more receptive to to their message.
Sad, but I’m sure I could dig back and find similar instances from my own evangelistic efforts.
So it was a good night at the Pub last week, and I look forward to the next one, as learn to share our stories, our perspectives, our lives, and as we do so, may we remember that ‘our stories are not an argument.’ They are us. May we give them the respect they deserve, and not merely use (or abuse!) them to win a debate, but rather share them with one another, even as they are unfolding at that very moment.
It was a nice evening this past Thursday. A couple of birthday beverages were definitely enjoyed: Pinetop was in the cask, and the Black (Eye)PA was back, and it was *black*. A small crowd made for good conversation.
The topics were all taken from various tweets that came across my twitterfeed:
Topics for tonight via Twitter:
1. #God is all about people, not theology.
2. You don’t have to believe in heaven to find life after death
3. I really enjoy that my OT Teacher is talking about how sometimes we use too much history interpreting our text. i respect that.
4. If misunderstood / used incorrectly, theology can be the handmaiden of Satan… #discernment
5. What we see depends mainly on what we look for.
6. I believe that there is no more important doctrine for the church today than this: _______. If we understand this doctrine correctly, we will avoid many traps
7. Alienation is at the root of Marxism and theology. The difference is defining the object and subject of the alienation. #marxism #class #god
Given that it’s been a few days, not much on the recap this week… though I do recall the answer for no.6 – any guesses anyone has on what to fill in the blank? Or what you would put there?
Here’s a poem (untitled) from the backside:
On a hill above the days of winter There stands a child as lonely as the snow He is a question looking for an answer If you don’t have it kindly let him go
He is the offspring of an ice-storm fire Brother to the forest and the sea He’s walked the paths of hell; the hills of heaven Looking for the why of what must be
Give him what you freely have to offer Or simply walk beside him for awhile Don’t ask of him that which he cannot answer Or judge him harshly when he does not smile
For he may follow visions you’re not seeing A message that your ears may never know He is a question looking for an answer If you don’t have it kindly let him go
Love to have any thoughts you have on the above – as always feel free to post them here!
The Northern Hawk Owl amber ale in the cask set the tone for a nice, low-key evening of discussion, with some potentially hot topics. Great to have the wisdom of a philosopher again in our midst (C), not to mention the always insightful Presbyterian contingent (D and N), the resident a-theists (S & R), some new voices of wisdom (S, K and M!), and some of us who just like beer (J & A, and B). Not to be forgotten was the late arrival of our local fashion and health consultants (B and E). I am sure I have forgotten some others, but then I arrived at Right Brain at 2pm to reserve our usual seat -maybe I should rethink that strategy.
where is Jesus?
— In detail:
1. Studies show that empathy is tied to our awareness of our own and others’ mortality. Will heaven be without empathy?
2. Was Jesus able to come down from the cross? Could he have blown it to a ‘million smithereens’ if he wished?
3. A physicist: “One must always allow for alternative theories.”
A theologian: “Using God as an explanation is not an explanation.” What do you think?
4. ‘Freedom in Christ.’ What does(n’t) it mean?
5. What does it mean to say: ‘Jesus is here’?
6. “The traditional understanding of hell perpetuates the cycle of violence for eternity, and it is divine violence that does it.” Are we stuck with violence and evil forever?
7a. “Instead of bringing God to ‘unreached’ places and ‘unreached’ peoples, I find countless missionaries who say that, while this was how they once thought, time and again they find that these unreached places are the very sites where they must go to find God and to be reached. How many of us have learned too late that our initial idea, that by serving the world we will help bring God to others, has eclipsed the wisdom that in serving the world we find God there.” Is it presumptuous to ‘bring God’ somewhere?
7b. “There is no empathy in heaven, because there is no mortality. There is no empathy in utopia, because there is
no suffering.” In other words, those entering heaven will have to leave their empathetic sensibilities at the Pearly
Gates, because there cannot be empathy for those left behind. If there were, there would be regret and sadness,
and these are not permitted. What is interesting to note about the incarnation is that Jesus had to leave
‘heaven’ in order to properly empathize with us. Is heaven sterile?
8. “A story told often enough, and confirmed often enough in daily life, ceases to be a tale and is accepted as reality itself.” Discuss.
Through me the way into the suffering city,
through me the way to the eternal pain,
through me the way that runs among the lost.
Justice urged on my high artificer;
My maker was divine authority,
The highest wisdom, and the primal love.
Before me nothing but eternal things
Were made, and I endure eternally.
Abandon every hope, who enter here.
– Sign on the gate into hell, in Dante, Inferno, Canto 3
It’s been a couple days since, so I’ll focus the recap to heaven and hell.
Heaven was an interesting topic, as a couple of people felt that a utopian heaven of perfection would be theoretically impossible because different people would have different ideas of what perfection is, and therefore it would be impossible for everyone to be the same amount of happy all the time, forever. In other words, one person’s junk is another person’s treasure – but how do you account for everyone without making someone upset? Some also noted that anything that was repeated over and over forever would eventually become hell, even if it started out as your favorite thing (I do love Tetris though). Others of us felt that God would be able to pull off something that gave each person meaning and satisfaction that would not result in stupefying boredom, and that the presence of God himself would preclude that (though isn’t he present now?). We also noted that heaven (or the new creation), may well be outside of time as we know it, and so it is hard for us to think about what that is presently like, this side of things.
If you’re going to talk about heaven, hell, you naturally think about those who ‘don’t get in’. Will people in heaven be aware of them? Will this go over well? (We noted that Jonathan Edwards and others said that the chief delight of people in heaven will be awareness of the suffering of the unrighteous in hell. “Hey Joe – watch this guy – he’s going to really burn in a minute” Can you honestly imagine?) Will everyone eventually be reconciled to God or will some people remain in suffering forever? Discussion on hell was interesting, particularly the fact that no one seemed interested in defending the traditional view of eternal, conscious torment, even as I attempted to articulate it. Ideas of separation from God, of loneliness, of constantly needing more of your own space (a la The Great Divide), as well as – ‘maybe we’ve just made a lot of this stuff up by misreading texts and importing assumptions’.
There’s been a lot of talk about hell and universalism of late with Rob Bell’s new book impending. A couple of good blog posts on hell have shown up this week, so I encourage you to read them over:
To Hell With It on Gathered Introspections, by the incredibly wise and wonderful Christy Berghoef. (no relation) Wait – she’s in the other room! OK OK > she paid me to link to her post. With dinner.