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    Imagine there’s no heaven

    Gustave Doré, Rosa Celeste: Dante and Beatrice gaze upon the Empyrean, 1892. The big red X is of 21st century provenance. Source: Wikimedia Commons

    What makes a Christian, a Christian?

    More precisely: Must one believe in heaven to be a Christian?

    A few days ago, I wrote an opinion piece for Religion Dispatches. In this article, I let slip one of my dirty little secrets. I don’t know what came over me. I didn’t think too much about it until I received some lovely love letters from my readers. In this collection of letters there are (at least) four types: First, there are those who point out substantial mistakes. These are fine and appreciated. Live and learn. Second, there are those who read into my words their own assumptions, saying I said things I didn’t say. This is to be expected. Third, there are letters of support. These are water for my thirsty soul. But the fourth group is what makes me really wonder. These are letters that insist that I must not be a Christian. Hmm, I think. Why would they say (or even imply) such a thing? There are two options that I can see from here: They say such a thing (1) because I don’t fit their idea of what a Christian is, or (2) because I am not a Christian.

    Let’s take option (2) seriously.

    Here are the things that the letters either stated or implied that make me non-Christian: (1) I do not have a substitutionary view of Christ’s death and resurrection; that is, I do not see him as dying “for our sins”; (2) I do not read Genesis literally, but rather as mythology; and — here’s the big one, my dirty little secret — (3) I admitted, “I know a number of practicing Christians who give very little thought to the afterlife. I am one of them. I will even go so far as to say that heaven may not exist. I just don’t have a lot of stake in that idea.”

    The first two I have no worries about. On the question of Christ’s death and resurrection, I never even said what I believe. What I did say is that not all Christians see Christ’s death and resurrection as being about humanity’s sin. On the question of Genesis, I am in excellent and wide-ranging company. But it’s the heaven piece that makes me put on the brakes and assume a thoughtful pose.

    Is heaven real?

    Now I did not say “heaven does not exist”; I merely expressed personal doubt. That got some folks pretty balled up, but that’s understandable: I know that the afterlife is a major part of Christianity. I’m willing to admit that the whole thing may fall apart without it. That’s why I’m taking this issue seriously and blogging about it instead of going to my History of Christianity class (apologies to David Pacini).

    I have doubts about heaven for a terribly simple reason: I am a pretty skeptical guy. I was trained as a physicist and was a researcher for a number of years. And it’s tough to shake the Enlightenment bias out of me. I am a little Buddhist-ish on this point: I trust my experience first. I am much like Thomas in this way. Yes, I know: “Blessed are those who do not see and yet believe” (John 20.29b); oh, I hear his voice now! But this is where I am. This is the deal. Granted, experience can be deceiving, but what can’t be? Another issue is, I know how much people — I — want immortality. It is so easy to fool ourselves. Who knows, though; maybe it’s just that I’ve been exposed to too many statements like “he’s singing with the angels now” at funerals, or to too many images of Big Strong Caucasian God and the angels floating about in the clouds.

    It is true that I don’t have much of a stake in the idea of heaven. It is not a part of my daily faith and it does not motivate me to follow Jesus. But I remain open; as I wrote in the article, “My view on this topic may change as I grow older and (hopefully) wiser, but today I think that the kingdom of God is about the here and now, which is all we really ever have, and not about the hereafter. This is not the orthodox view, of course, and many Christians disagree with me, and I take their disagreements seriously.” My doubt is real, but that’s all it is: doubt.

    Why do I not just give in and say heaven is a mere fantasy? Two reasons, really. First, I just don’t think that we know enough to say. I do believe in God, so why not heaven? It seems a fairly short jump. Second, I do believe absolutely in Jesus’s words about losing one’s life in order to find it (e.g., Luke 17.33). I have had many experiences of spiritual death in my life, some related to the physical deaths of others, some not. These experiences have occurred on every scale and level of my life (I mention one in a sermon here). Small events and large, I find that these words of Christ are true absolutely. And I like to think from the bottom up, so I find myself wondering, If one must die to live in a thousand (metaphorical) ways all throughout life, might it also be true at the end of life, where death is most literal and most frightening? Heaven makes sense to me on this level. That’s all I have.

    So: What do I believe?

    I believe I’m a Christian because I strive to follow Christ. I try to keep him in my sights. He is the model for my life. I do not believe he was just a great moral leader; I believe he was a window through which God shone perfectly. When you see Jesus Christ, you see God. When you shake hands with Jesus, you’re shaking hands with God. Jesus was a man who emptied himself of himself perfectly. He did much more than say “love your neighbor”; he loved his neighbor. In so doing he showed us what love is; he put content into the word “love,” that otherwise terribly, frighteningly empty word. And I think Jesus is alive today and is not just a figure in the past or in the words of the Bible, because the Holy Spirit is alive today (I’m all about the Trinity). I believe in the legitimacy of other paths, but not all other paths. I believe the Christian tribe is my tribe; I was brought up on the language, the stories, and the symbols. I love other paths but am in love with my own. That is, I believe it is not necessary to claim universality to be a Christian. Etcetera.

    These are the things I do believe.

    But when it comes to heaven, I harbor some doubt.

    Am I a Christian?

    Comment Pages

    There are 37 Comments to "Imagine there’s no heaven"

    • Barb says:

      Of course you are. And this is why:
      I believe I’m a Christian because I strive to follow Christ. I try to keep him in my sights. He is the model for my life. I do not believe he was just a great moral leader; I believe he was a window through which God shone perfectly.

      Disagreements about the nature of the afterlife make for interesting discussions. Certain Buddhists are currently up in arms about Stephen Batchelor’s assertion that there is no such thing as rebirth. You’re getting flack for questioning heaven. I say let’s just wait and see. In the meantime, we live our best life here and now. The rest should take care of itself.


    • cedric says:

      one of the finest and most honest i’ve ever met.


    • Brent White says:

      Of course you’re a Christian in the mold of one of my favorite Candler profs, Tim Jackson, who is also skeptical. He called it a “blessed hope,” but he didn’t stake much on it. He was more of a realized eschatology guy. His skepticism stemmed primarily from the danger of heaven as a bribe for virtue.

      My first response is: Heaven as that terrifying perch from which (a well-meaning aunt always reminds me on important occasions in my life) my late father looks down on me with pride holds little appeal. After all, if he can see me when I’m doing something praiseworthy, why can’t he also see me when I’m committing some terrible sin? See what I mean? Is there some lead umbrella under which I can protect myself from his prying eyes?

      Heaven as a disembodied intermediate state between death and resurrection has some biblical support (but still isn’t much to get worked up about), but I stand alongside scripture and the early Church in endorsing the ultimate and full-blooded Christian hope of resurrection. As Paul says, what Christ is in resurrection we will be (in 1 Corinthians 15). Of course, Paul also uses resurrection as a metaphor for Christian life now, and John’s gospel is all about realized eschatology (though it doesn’t deny future resurrection).

      Otherwise, in what sense does God “save” or rescue this good Creation without resurrection? Not just plucking souls out of this wicked world—like a firefighter rescuing victims from a burning building—but a transformed and renewed heaven and earth becoming one, a la Revelation 21, etc. While I may be perfectly content with life in the present—every moment is a gift, and I have no right to complain—the lack of an afterlife would raise troubling questions about justice for people not nearly as lucky as I am. Right? The scales, I hope, will be balanced—and I don’t know how else that is done apart from some eschatological event.


      • Paul Paul says:

        Brent, I received your comment while sitting in Tim Jackson’s Kierkegaard seminar. Very nice, eh?

        And I too think of those for whom the return of Christ and the resurrection of the saints provides inspiration and Christian hope — e.g., those who are systematically brutalized or enslaved. I can see that taking their resurrection and afterlife away would present grave problems of justice for them. Perhaps my perspective can only come from one who is relatively comfortable in the present world.


    • Brent White says:

      I actually very much liked C.S. Lewis’s chapter on heaven in “The Problem of Pain.” That whole book was surprisingly beautiful, not at all what I expected…

      I don’t know… I feel the impulse toward skepticism about the afterlife, but I feel more strongly that my skepticism was shaped by the propaganda of the Enlightenment and modernity.


    • Brent White says:

      Ha! That is nice! I love him. I took his survey ethics class and his stand-alone Kierkegaard class. I also watched him match wits with and utterly defeat (not that it was a fair fight and not that I should take pleasure in it) Christopher Hitchens in a live debate at the Margaret Mitchell House back in ’07. I felt offended at Hitchens’s surprise that Jackson wasn’t some yokel. Like… who did you think you’d be dealing with when your agent scheduled a professor from Emory? Pat Robertson? Or worse… Al Mohler? ;-)


      • Paul Paul says:

        Wow. I need to ask him about that. Debated Hitchens? Utterly defeated him? Marvelous! I told him about your comment arriving during his class and he laughed, asking where you are and how you’re doing. He asks about you — you ought to send him a note: just click here. See? I’ve done the work for you!


    • Edie says:

      Dear Paul,
      I think when Christians focus solely on heaven, that it is possible to fail to learn how to live here. It is impossible for me to imagine time/space without myself in it, so the idea of eternal existence is compelling to me. I like to imagine that heaven is a place where I will have “enough” time with the souls of those who have gone before me. Yet, I can’t really comprehend existence in a place with no pain or sorrow. Worrying about an afterlife and what it may or may not be like is simply not on my radar.

      “The Kingdom of God is near” says to me that in our human frailty we are taught by the Holy Spirit how to love one another, live in peace, care for our neighbor and truly worship that which is beyond. To me, that is the point. Heaven is just icing.

      Thanks, Paul, for a provocative piece. I appreciate your mind. :)


      • Paul Paul says:

        Dear Edie,

        Thank you so much for your abundantly kind words. I have been somewhat in need of encouragement lately and your comment has given me some strength. Thank you also for reading psnt.net.




    • Elizabeth Wallace says:

      You are a Christian, because I said so, and you should believe most things I say. I’m looking forward to conversation over a glass of wine tonight.



    • Brian says:

      Paul –

      The concept of heaven/afterlife is not on my radar much these days either. I don’t know when it started to fade, just within the last few years. I don’t know if comes down to me not believing if it is real or not as much as it is that the whole concept is something that I don’t know if I can get my limited, earth-bound brain around! Like you, I think that the Kingdom of Heaven is about what I can touch and partake in now, not about what it might be after my vital signs have all faded away. They say death brings us to a new birth. Great … I’m just not going to worry now about what it may or may not be.

      ” … thy will be done, ON EARTH as it is in heaven …” The “on earth” part is what I need to concentrate on; and actually, is all that I’m currently able to work on. And by the way, it is hard work.

      Oh yeah, I agree with Elizabeth.




    • david hooker says:

      Brilliantly said! I felt as though you were articulating my thoughts–both in terms of the early church’s hope of a full blooded resurrection and the question of justice. Curiously I am in a CS Lewis phase (again) at the moment. Trying to get through “Miracles” at the moment, which I think may help me approach the supernatural through the lens of enlightenment skepticism.
      Keep the faith, brother Paul (and sister Elizabeth)!


      • Brent White says:

        Thanks, David. I ordered “Miracles” the same time that I ordered “The Problem of Pain.” Haven’t read it yet. But the “Problem of Pain” blew me away. It wasn’t that Lewis solved the problem of theodicy so much as he gave a beautiful sketch of the meaning of the gospel. HIs chapter on heaven brought tears to my eyes. Have you ever read something and said, “Yes! This author has given me words to articulate some deep longing”? That’s how I felt reading that book, and especially that chapter.

        On theodicy, however, I did deeply appreciate Lewis’s words about the “sum of human suffering,” because that’s always brought up by skeptics whenever there’s a Haiti-like disaster. “How could God allow so many thousands of people to die,” etc. Lewis said there is no “sum” of suffering because no one suffers it. Of course, that’s true! One individual can suffer one death—and, while that may be tragic, that’s all that can be suffered. So if 500,000 people die, shame on God; but if only 5 die, that’s OK?


    • […] I wanted to address, though, was one paragraph that according to Paul got him into some trouble. In it, he "let slip one of his dirty little secrets": That he doesn't […]


    • Keith says:

      Well, mostly I was just looking for a button that would allow me to “like” Elizabeth’s comment, but alas.

      As long as I’m here, I will agree with the sentiment that regardless of its trust/provability/etc., the afterlife is not something I have a huge stake in either – meaning that if I were categorically convinced it didn’t exist, it wouldn’t change my faith. I do know that such a belief can be a source of great comfort in times of loss, and I would never want to take that away from anybody – including, from time to time, myself.


    • Todd says:

      OK, first of all, let me say that I have always considered you a Christian and I would never say that you aren’t. I mean, if Elizabeth says you are that’s good enough for me!

      But I have struggled with this issue at times with myself, and in conversation with my own wife. What does it mean to be Christian? I don’t consider myself Christian, but that doesn’t mean I know exactly where the dividing line falls. In fact, I don’t think there really should be a dividing line or that it needs to fall in any specific place. I think of it as something like Wittgenstein’s categories such as “games” – you can’t give an exact definition of when something is a game and when it isn’t, but somehow we can pretty reliably tell whether or not something counts as a game. In this sense, what Wittgenstein called “family resemblance”, it seems clear to me that you are a Christian. You are, perhaps, an atypical Christian, in much the same way that Dungeons & Dragons is an atypical game. Pat Robertson might not approve of your Christianity any more than he approved of D&D, but in my mind that only makes your case stronger.

      Me, I don’t know about. Maybe a case could be made that I am a Christian (but who would make it? Not I, at least, not right now.) I’m still trying to figure out what family I resemble.


    • SDJim says:

      Well, I came over her looking for some stuff about death, which is what I want to blog about tonight, and I think you have helped me, at least with a quote or two. Th post I am thinking about writing starts out with the idea that death, or the afterlife (which is our sugarcoat for it when we can’t visualize the nasty stuff), heaven, is one of the only mysteries left in this age of Big Bangs and Evolution–and I think the one mystery that faith in god can help us with. Or something like that.

      Oh yeah, to answer your question: Yes.


      • Paul Paul says:

        Hey SDJim. So I’m guessing SD is San Diego. Yes? I like what I’ve seen of your blog, but I haven’t had much time to poke around. Good that you’re back in the blogosphere.

        BTW, my post today is on death. You may have already looked at it. I just thought it’s timely. And thanks for your support of my own Christian status. Sometimes I wonder, and I wrote that post for just such honest replies as yours.

        Death as mystery. Yes it surely is. Thanks for the thought.


    • […] as to the question of who gets to go to heaven, here‘s my […]


    • […] out of love for another or otherwise dies to themselves. (About our own resurrection from the dead, here‘s my angle on […]


    • Tom Harkins says:

      Paul, I bounced down to this one from the link to yours on Hanukkah. Hope it’s not too late for a comment here! I think belief in Heaven is actually an essential part of what it means to be a Christian. Perhaps the most important reason is, God is good. Being good, he rewards good behavior. If God took no notice of what anyone did, good or evil, it is problematic to me that he would be “good.” By the same token, why do we put murderers and child abusers in prison? One of three reasons: (a) get them away so they cannot do more harm; (b) make conditions horrific enough that they (or others) will turn from their evil ways; or (c) because, being bad, they DESERVE to be punished.

      Which brings me back to the afterlife. Are there not tremendous injustices in this life? Sure there are. Well, the afterlife is where God “sets all things straight.” Although certainly not Jesus’ only point about the afterlife, Lazarus, who got only “bad things” in this life, was taken into Heaven, whereas the rich man, who had only good things in this life, was taken to Hell. (Actually, I submit, not primarily because he had good things, but because he was such a selfish lout that he did not deign to share any of his wealth with the poor soul lying at his gate.) The point being, “if in this life only we have hope in Christ Jesus, we are of all men most miserable.” But we have not simply “this life.”

      Let me hasten to say, I don’t think Paul literally meant totally “no benefits now.” We have to give scripture writers the same benefits of hyperbole or overstatement or emphasis that we do ourselves, or other writers. Certainly there is much to be said for the benefits to the spirit from being Christlike. But I still believe Paul to be emphasizing that the sacrifices God calls upon us to make for him are ultimately “justified” because God is good–he rewards such sacrifices, and not only in some “internal” sense of “I’m being good,” or, “I’m helping others,” or the like. Point being: God never asks us to be good SOLELY “for goodness sake,” like Santa Claus (however, even Santa is also said to be checking on “who’s naughty or nice”). Try finding “be good simply for goodness sake” in scripture. I, at least, missed that part.

      Instead, from the beginning to the end of the Bible, God promises to “curse” those who are evil and “bless” those who are good–tangibly, not merely spiritually. Case in point–the “rich young ruler,” who said he did what was right, but nevertheless was not willing to part with his wealth now to receive eternal life. So, what did Peter say about that? “What about us? We did leave everything for you. What’s in it for us?” Jesus did not tell Peter he was on the wrong track. He promised great rewards. However, Jesus also points out that the path to greatness in eternity is the willingness to be a servant and sacrifice for others now. But he never says that sacrifice is simply “its own reward.” It may in fact BE spiritually rewarding. But God is not going to “leave it at that.” He is going to “reward” Stalin for the agony and murders he brought about, and he is going to “reward” Mother Teresa for the blessings she brought about through her sacrifices.

      Ultimately, it is just “not right” for the “evil” men to “have all things easy” and the “sacrificial” men (and women) to “have all things hard.” The “tables will be turned” some day. And that day is the Judgment Day, when God “opens the books” and “judges everyone according to their works.” Revelation 20:12. Following which, people end up in either Hell or Heaven. Revelation 20:15, 21:3-8. I don’t think I am doing full justice to the point I’m trying to make here, but ultimately it is the very nature of God as being whom we should love that is at stake which is shown when he says: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.” Matthew 5:10. See also vs. 11-12 (“great is your reward in Heaven”). In no way is God going to let those who sacrifice for him end up with “the short end of the stick” at the end of the day. Hebrews says, “without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he REWARDS those who earnestly seek him.” 11:6. We just have a wrong view of God and who he is without the confidence of him being the one who will “make all things new” in the end. Revelation 21:4-5. That’s my take on why a belief in Heaven and Hell in the afterlife is not merely some “superfluous” aspect of the Christian faith, but a central and, ultimately, essential aspect of it.

      Tom Harkins


    • How interesting and refreshing – clearly I have a lot of reading to do on PSNT before I have a more thorough understanding of your beliefs, Paul. I wish we had known each other at Furman!

      I think this post is largely about definitions – what does it mean to be a “Christian”? Where is the line drawn? Belief that Christ was the son of God? Wholesale acceptance of the Bible as the inspired word of God? Or perhaps somewhere in between.

      Interestingly, your post touches on one of the things that pushed me away from Christianity. Yes, I am of the same Christian “tribe” as you are. I was taught as a young man (in church) not to “cherry pick” aspects of Christianity that I liked, and reject others. That I should either believe, or not believe. That was what faith was all about. Belief without questioning or doubt. Not sitting on the fence. The hope of things not seen. Confronted with that ultimatum, I chose not to believe, as what I felt was a matter of my own intellectual integrity. I did not believe in several of the basic tenets of Christianity, how could I describe myself as a Christian? Sure, there are many of the conventional virtues that Christ supposedly taught (for the sake of argument, let’s assume Christ’s historicity). I agree with many of the church’s teachings regarding goodness, virtue, benevolence, etc… I don’t accept an incarnate deity, resurrection of the body, that the crucifixion of anyone 2000 years ago makes me OK with the author of the Cosmos. I don’t believe any of the miracle stories in the Bible you mention, nor do I believe in an eternal afterlife complete with reward and punishment. I don’t believe that a loving, omnipotent, omniscient God would create for humans the scenario described in the Bible (undeserved tragedy, inequity, unfairness, the whole “Secret handshake” business about making it into heaven, which some are exposed to, some not, i.e. the “Good News”). In my book, rejecting those beliefs makes me a non-Christian. Say Christ actually lived – OK, he was a fine example of how we should strive to be. I’m fine with that. All the rest of the supernatural hocus-pocus? No. Don’t believe it.

      Are you a Christian? If we define Christian simply as one who follows the example and seeks to emulate the historical figure Jesus of Nazareth, then yes, you are. I guess I am too, using that definition. You carry your belief further by accepting Jesus as God incarnate. But I don’t think many Christians would accept that I am one of them. More fundamentalist types would say you are not one of them – Thank God : ) Obviously, your friends and family describe you as a Christian. To be themselves Christians, and do otherwise would be to suggest that you are deserving of eternal punishment, and eternal separation from the flock and God. But how much of the supernatural do we have to buy into to call ourselves “Christian”? I think we can choose whatever labels we want for ourselves. Hopefully, they are meaningful, and give some sense of who we are to the others we come into contact with. I call myself a Pantheist, and a Secular Humanist. In short, the only thing I find worthy of worship is the entire, I’ll use the word Cosmos to mean all of space and all of time, and whatever else there may be beyond our mind’s ability to conceive. God is everything, and everything is God. God is matter, antimatter, the vacuum of space, whatever is beyond everything, and before and after anything. That’s Pantheism. That, I can worship. The Biblical God seems kind of small to me. One who is interested in controlling, or failing that, punishing poor little weak-minded, frail, ephemeral beings/motes of dust like we are. I just can’t square it. It sounds too “parental.” Like a story I’d make up if I were trying to control a child’s behavior. (Santa Claus, anyone?) My behavior is informed by Secular Humanism – in a nutshell, I strive for those same conventional virtues that Jesus is supposed to have espoused, just without the “No man cometh unto the father but by me” exclusionary heaven/hell stuff. I strive to live a good and ethical life, and avoid doing harm to anything or anyone.

      Here are some reasons I don’t believe in an afterlife.

      1. There is no compelling reason to believe such an egocentic concept – “The universe just wouldn’t be the same without me.”
      2. To carry forward into an afterlife anything that makes me “me”, is to carry forward whatever pain and loss, whatever bad things happened to me in life into the afterlife, for all eternity. Doesn’t sound compatible with eternal bliss to me. To not carry forward my “ego” if that’s the right term, is to be a soul “tabula rosa”. And what’s the point of rewarding (or punishing) that?
      3. To carry that thought further, what about my mother? If anyone is going to make it into heaven, she is. She would, however, be heartbroken to discover that her only son is being eternally char-broiled by the God she worships. I think deep-down, she’d be more than a little pissed off at God for allowing me to suffer such a fate. That situation and knowledge would not be ‘heavenly’ for her at all.

      I’m sorry, I’ve rambled enough – I feel I should be apologizing for taking up so much space! Pantheist blessings and goodwill to everyone here,


      • Paul Paul says:

        Hi Andrew. I have a few points I’d like to respond to.

        1. You write: “Confronted with that ultimatum, I chose not to believe, as what I felt was a matter of my own intellectual integrity.” That’s good. I personally think it’s more than intellectual integrity. I bet it’s something like personal integrity as well. At least it was for me when I threw off the Christian label. When I was a senior in high school, I stood in front of my (rather large) congregation and delivered a mini-sermon. I remember when it was over I felt as if I had lied, just said words that sounded right. It was just a few months later that I let Christianity go. One must be honest, all the way through!

        2. You write, “I don’t accept… that the crucifixion of anyone 2000 years ago makes me OK with the author of the Cosmos. I don’t believe that a loving, omnipotent, omniscient God would create for humans the scenario described in the Bible (undeserved tragedy, inequity, unfairness, the whole ‘Secret handshake’ business about making it into heaven, which some are exposed to, some not, i.e. the ‘Good News’).” If this — as you describe it here — is the Good News, then I don’t believe the Good News either.

        3. You write, “You carry your belief further by accepting Jesus as God incarnate.” I do accept this, yes. But it’s a lot more than that, because if you think about this seriously — and not in some “Jesus knew nuclear physics” kind of way, you will see that there are a lot of interesting consequences. In other words, this belief is a big step. It carries a lot of other things along with it. But you know what? I had to spend a lot of time calling myself a Christian before I began to understand anything of the mystery or significance of the Incarnation. In my experience it’s not something you “buy into” up front. It develops, like any interesting reality of life.

        4. You write of my friends and family, To be themselves Christians, and do otherwise would be to suggest that you are deserving of eternal punishment, and eternal separation from the flock and God. You make an excellent point. I think there may be self-serving reasons for people to call me a Christian, yes. Many people are afraid that they don’t believe what they themselves think Christians are supposed to believe. If I’m not a Christian, then what about them, etc.

        But your statement as it stands is simply not right. I can’t stress enough that Christianity for me — and for many, many dear people that I know and love — has nothing to do with eternal punishment or reward. These are not radical liberals or pseudo-Christians. They are average churchgoers. Christianity has to do with the here and now, the everyday, and how to see this world clearly.

        5. You ask, How much of the supernatural do we have to buy into to call ourselves ‘Christian’?” I don’t know. I don’t really think about it in terms of supernatural or natural. Back when I was in grad school and was a brand-new Christian, I argued a lot (too much) with non-Christians. I thought a lot then about the natural and supernatural. But that’s not a useful distinction for me anymore. Whenever I dwell carefully on things I think I “know” — ants, my children, gravity — I find myself utterly speechless with amazement. The so-called “miraculous” sits at the mysterious, unknowable center of everything. But you have to pay attention to see it.

        You strike me as the kind of guy who likes to notice things. Have you ever been deeply impressed with some aspect of nature? The moon? Trees? I mean, really moved by these things? That’s what I’m talking about, really. These things that move us beyond words — these are echoes and intimations of God. Whether or not you call it God. (I am not saying the universe is God, as you might, but these things are related to God.) I don’t want to get all Hallmarky here, but I think God is right in front of our faces all the time. We just need, as Christ said, “eyes to see.”

        On this point, there is a terrific essay by Simone Weil called Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies. There are some nice quotes from it here. It’s all about cultivating one’s attention. For me (and ultimately, for Weil) it’s about seeing God in the way I’m trying to explain.

        6. You write, “The Biblical God seems kind of small to me. One who is interested in controlling, or failing that, punishing poor little weak-minded, frail, ephemeral beings/motes of dust like we are. I just can’t square it. It sounds too ‘parental.’ Like a story I’d make up if I were trying to control a child’s behavior. (Santa Claus, anyone?)? Yes; I think that many Christians (myself often included) suffer from Small God Disease. One of the reasons I started this website is to counteract that idolatrous idea. Any conception of God you can imagine, even the highest and best, is very much not God. God is reality, not an idea or an image. And definitely not a pissed-off old man with an inferiority complex.

        Have you ever heard of panentheism? Yes, I spelled that right. I may be close to being a panentheist, but I’m not sure enough to call myself one. Click on the link for a decent overview.

        6. About your concept of the afterlife and your reasons for rejecting it: If that’s what there is to the afterlife, I would definitely not believe in it either. As it is, I’m agnostic, but I’d be an outright “afterlife atheist” if I was supposed to believe what you don’t believe.

        I could say more, but it’s getting a bit late. Thanks for your input, Andrew. Looking forward to more.


    • Tom Harkins says:

      Paul and Andrew, I think I agree with both of you that we have a “definitional” issue of what it means to be a “Christian.” I already responded with respect to my view that a belief in the “afterlife” is part of what it means to be a Christian. With respect to this “definitional debate,” I notice above several references by others to some C.S. Lewis books. Lewis says that words tend to get “watered down” as to what they reference by “spiritualizing” them (not his term, I don’t think, but the basic idea). As an example he gives “gentleman,” which originally had a meaning like “landed gentry”; but, over time, people said, “It’s not really the ownership of property that is essential, but if one ACTS like a ‘gentleman’ would.” So now “gentleman” hardly means anything more than a “good guy.” (I acknowledge doing a poor job of summarizing what Lewis said eloquently.)

      Similarly with “Christian,” originally that meant a person who held a certain set of beliefs and acted accordingly. The exact content of the beliefs might be debated somewhat, but Lewis does a notable job of enumerating them in MERE CHRISTIANITY. Over time, though, people have said, “It’s not really the beliefs that are important, but whether someone attempts to live with Jesus as their model”; or, even more weakly, “as a good man should,” or the like. By “watering down” the content of the word, we less and less mean anything specific when we use it.

      I like Lewis’ view that there must be a close relationship between (a) one’s acceptance of biblical teachings and (b) properly characterizing that person as a “Christian.” What are those teachings? Well, obviously the Bible itself is the ultimate reference point. Lewis’ MERE CHRISTIANITY is a substantial summary. However, if I had my go at it, then I think, with the possibility of perhaps falling into an occasional error, I would say basically the following beliefs are necessary:

      (1) God is a personal being who intentionally and actively created the heavens and the earth. (I don’t say you necessarily have to go with a literal Genesis 1:1-2:3 view of how that happened, though I do so myself.)

      (2) God has certain standards of conduct that he requires of his rational creatures, particularly mankind. (Incidentally as to this one, I note, Andrew, that you believe God, were there one, would be something of an ogre or the like to require such conduct. However, I don’t think we are the ones who can tell God how he can be. If he EXISTS, we just have to adjust to however he may actually be, if we know what is good for us. Lewis himself said if it had been up to him, he would rather God were something like a kindly grandfather, who at the end of the day would say, “And a good time was had by all.” However, he agreed it was NOT up to him (Lewis) to decide what God should be, or how he is. Thus, God is simply however he actually is (“I am that I am,” he said to Moses), and there is basically nothing we can do about it, except, as I say, learn how he is and out of common sense act accordingly. Assuming, of course, for present purposes, that he exists, as a matter of determining the distinctively “Christian” beliefs.)

      (3) We, men and women, have fallen quite short of such required conduct, and therefore have become separated from God (which, in its most ultimate result, is an ETERNAL separation from all that God is and provides, i.e., all good things, because “every good and perfect gift comes from God,” James 1:17).

      (4) Only God is capable of bridging this gap (obviously, since we continually fall short, we can’t “get there” ourselves), but (and I realize this one is a “stumbling block” to many, but at the same time it is hard to argue against its consistency with scripture) this “bridging of the gap” may only be attained by some “atonement” for the disobedient acts. Let me pause briefly to see if I can perhaps give a partial picture of this point, acknowledging its controversial nature, and also the fact many who do attempt to base their believes on scripture differ as to the exact nature of this teaching, as Lewis notes. If a person has committed a crime, then under our system of justice frequently a prison term is required, but that sometimes may be avoided through the payment of a fine. However, the fine may be completely out of the criminal’s reach, so he has no other option but to face his sentence. Nonetheless, if someone had such enormous funds, and cared enough about him and his situation to be willing to part with those funds to “redeem” him from this imprisonment (which could be for life, or even the death penalty, depending on how egregious it was), he might make such a payment for the criminal so he could avoid that punishment. So, the criminal could do nothing to alieviate his plight, but his benefactor could. I believe the Christian picture is like this illustration (though the truth is much more profound and nuanced). The ultimate question is, WHAT HAS TO BE PAID to “rescue” us lawbreakers from our sentence? God says, the payment that the benefactor has to be willing to pay is to take the very punishment that we lawbreakers deserved. We can of course argue WHY that should be the case, and wax eloquent about various theologies which deal with the subject, but the fact remains that scripture teaches, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” Hebrews 9:22. (Again, we are not at the moment concerned with the TRUTH of such matters, but rather what the beliefs are which the Bible teaches, the acceptance of which beliefs I argue are part and parcel of what it means to be a “Christian.”) Before we recoil too violently from this required payment, we should consider the fact that God himself, as the benefactor, WAS willing to suffer this penalty himself. He did not make things harder on us than what he was willing to endure.

      (5) Arising from (4), God DID do what was necessary to “bridge the gap,” by becoming, as the “Son” “part” of God’s triune nature or identity (a mystery I cannot do any justice to, were I even able to fully comprehend it myself, which I am not), a man, who endured what men have to endure (the beginning event of which we even now celebrate as the Advent), without himself falling into disobedience, Hebrews 4:15, and then “took our sins upon himself” (that is, made the required payment for our disobedient acts) by dying “in our place” on the cross (which we celebrate with “Good Friday”).

      (6) Nonetheless, God, and his goodness, cannot ultimate suffer permanent defeat in this God-created universe. When God’s Son dies, he rises again from that death (which we celebrate with “Easter”).

      (7) Because the penalty for the lawbreaking has now been paid, at God’s own enormous expense, the gap has now been bridged, and we can, as it were, “cross teh bridge” to come into “fellowship” with God again; including, ultimately, being “with him where he now is.” John 14:3.

      (8) Nonetheless, there is, if you like, a “catch” to this picture. God does not force anyone into accepting such a relationship with God, even though the price to pay for that relationship has been made. We still have to be willing to “come to God,” as it were. I like, as one of my favorite verses in the Bible picturing this situation, Revelation 3:20. “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.”

      (9) How does anyone come to God (continuing with, and I am drawing near the end of, the “essential” teachings of the Bible)? What is the “opening of the door” that is required? I refer to it as “switching sides.” This is encompassed in or encompasses scriptural terms such as “faith” and “repentance.” Consider another example. At the end of the War between the States, armistice was offered. The Confederates could avoid punishment for having fought against the Union by “laying down their arms.” However, this armistice obviously would not have been “accepted” if the Confederate soldier refused to quit fighting against the Union soldiers and maintained his allegience to Jefferson Davis instead of converting it to Lincoln. He had to quit fighting for the one and “join” the other. In a similar fashion, one has to “stop fighting against God.” The things God says are good, we accept as being good. The things God says to do, we attempt to do (though, certainly, no one does so perfectly–else we would not have needed the “payment” in the first place, had we had such an ability–indeed, our very willingness to acknowledge we have no such ability is part of the teaching: “‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner!’ ‘I tell you, this man went home justified, not the other'” who thought he was “good enough”). We “join God’s side” in the “battle.”

      (10) Last one. Whether someone makes this “choice” to switch or not is the ultimate thing that a person can do, because, among other things, it determines his eternal destiny. No question but that the Bible clearly teaches there is a Heaven and a Hell. Jesus himself mentioned Hell more than any other one person in the Bible. At the end of all the earth, there will be a Judgment Day, and those who have “switched their allegience” get to go with God and all that comes with him, and those who have continued to rebel right up to their death will go to the place where God is not, which is, indeed a terrible place. See Revelation 20:11-21:8 for this scenario.

      Well, that was quite long, and, again, I am not presently making any argument about whether what a person has to believe to be a Christian is “true” or not (though I certainly believe that to be the case); instead, that this is what it means to be a Christian–to accept these truths and make this “change in allegience” as a result.

      Tom Harkins


      • Paul Paul says:

        Tom, I think you are right about the definitional piece. And I think your idea of what a Christian is quite orthodox (for me, orthodox is good) and is shared by many.

        You know what? I would be really interested to know what others think if the question: What is the list of requirements for being Christian?

        I am about to open up a new space here at psnt for letting people discuss things like this among themselves. Kind of a central room for discussion. I’m going to call it “Room for Debate” and I will open it up later this week.

        This would be a great “starter question” to get the conversation going.

        Hope you’re well,



    • Andrew says:

      Paul, I think as muh as our worldviews are diferrent, we share a lot of common ground. A bit about my history; I was brought up in pretty mainstream Baptist and Lutheran churches. There was no speaking in tongues, not much in the way of fire and brimstone, just your friendly neighborhood Protestant churches. It was made pretty clear to me from day one that God’s plan for my eternal salvation was for me to accept Jesus as my personal lord and savior, ask for the forgiveness of my sins, repent from my sinful ways, and be baptized in the name of the father, son, and holy ghost. Having checked those blocks, I just needed to basically try to live a good life, follow Jesus’ example, obey biblical commandments, continuing to repent and ask for the forgiveness of my sins as I would continue to fall short of the glory of God. I should share my faith with others, etc, etc. When I died someday, having done those things, I would be saved not by my works, but by God’s grace. I would then spend eternity in heaven, basically in the presence of The trinity, and whatever else heaven entails. Not to follow that plan of salvation would result in my spending eternity separated from God, burning in hell, something along those lines.

      You refer to yourself, Paul, and many others you hold dear, as being agnostic about an afterlife at all. Personally, I think that’s great – but it’s not in accordance with biblical teachings, is it? If I’m wrong here, please set me straight. I respectfully submit to you that to make that statement, and others you’ve made, makes you (and them) some pretty unconventional Christians! I happen to admire your willingness to question, to throw the BS flag when necessary, and to keep your personal/intellectual integrity intact. But I don’t think many churches would tolerate your questioning an afterlife from the pulpit- that’s their biggest selling point! I’m just sayin’. A UU church would certainly tolerate such heresy, but we all know they’re not Christians, anyway!

      This statement of yours:
      You strike me as the kind of guy who likes to notice things. Have you ever been deeply impressed with some aspect of nature? The moon? Trees? I mean, really moved by these things? That’s what I’m talking about, really. These things that move us beyond words — these are echoes and intimations of God. Whether or not you call it God. (I am not saying the universe is God, as you might, but these things are related to God.) I don’t want to get all Hallmarky here, but I think God is right in front of our faces all the time. We just need, as Christ said, “eyes to see.”

      Makes me think I’ll make a good Pantheist out of you yet! (just kidding, I have no designs on changing your worldview, nor would I wish to. I hold sacred, if I may use that word, our right, indeed our obligation, to develop our own sets of beliefs. Yes, I am familiar with Panentheism, Honestly, I’m just not sure where I fall on that continuum – I use the term Pantheist partly out of laziness, because it’s shorter, I get fewer “Huh? Don’t you mean Pantheist?” questions, and partly because like you, I just don’t know.

      One more thing, and I’ll shut up – Tom, I’m curious as to how you draw the conclusion that I would have heartburn if God existed and he had rules, or a code of conduct he expected us to follow, especially in light of my other posts. Quite the opposite is true. I would hope, I would expect such a God to have rules for us. The difference is, I would also hope and expect that such a deity would follow those rules himself, even set the example of how to behave. I will again sadly point out the cognitive dissonance between a “God of love”, and a God who’s going to kick the shit out of whoever doesn’t play by his rules and torture them forever. Really? Talk about mixed messages, in clinical psychology, this is a form of abuse referred to as “crazy making”, and it’s not a nice thing to do to someone.
      Thanks again for the fascinating conversation,


      • Tom Harkins says:

        Andrew, thanks for your comment. I apologize for not being as up on your other posts as I should be. I’m still a relative newcomer here (though a vociferous one!). It sounds like you had a background similar to mine, except mine was probably “more so,” since my dad was first a Southern Baptist preacher and then missionary to South Korea. Still amazed how I could have “moved away” from all of that at Furman (Paul may be able to identify). Ultimately, though, our main point of difference seems to be my current belief in Hell. Not a popular view, of course. But I don’t think it can be avoided in the determination of whether someone is a “Christian” or not, since it is so pervasively taught in scripture, and especially spoken to by Jesus–the man everyone wants to emulate. Hard to have it both ways. Take some of the things Jesus says as “what everyone ought to do,” but forget about the fact this same fellow said people would be “cast into outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Matthew 8:12, etc. So, if you will, it is not me you are “arguing against” so much as Jesus himself, as well as scripture more generally, when you say there cannot be any Hell.

        Let’s assume for a moment that you are right. “No Hell below us.” Two things: (1) Does this mean the other part of the couplet, “Above us only sky,” is also true? In other words, though there may be no “bad end” for anyone, there is no pleasant one either? Because basically it is the same Bible that tells us of Heaven that speaks of Hell. Can we reasonably believe in one without the other? (2) Is it really meaningful, or correct, or “helpful,” to say that someone who rejects Hell, or Heaven, is “Christian,” when so much of the Bible speaks to such “endings”?

        Tom Harkins


      • Paul Paul says:

        Hey Andrew. Hope all is well with you. I have two answers for you. First, there are lots of ways to interpret nearly any passage in the Bible. Saying “the Bible says…” is not too much different from saying “the public library says…” OK, that’s an obvious exaggeration, but, as you say, I’m just sayin’, is all.

        My second answer is that to sidestep this one is pretty disingenuous. I don’t pretend to sidestep it. I know it’s a hole in my theology, but lately I’m able to live with it. (As a pastor friend once told me, one’s theology is largely a matter of what holes one can live with.) So it’s a point that I haven’t given much genuine thought to.

        Yes: I can’t say that stuff in the pulpit and keep a job as a pastor. That’s why I’m not going to be a pastor. I just couldn’t do it. I want to remain working on the science-religion boundary as a writer, speaker, and teacher.

        Finally, my real answer to your question is this. I may not have the afterlife thing very clear, but I do have this clear: God’s love does not depend on getting doctrine right. And if there is an afterlife, what happens there has nothing to do with which doctrinal boxes I check off here. I just don’t buy that. Life and faith, to me, are a lot bigger than that.

        Stay well,



    • Andrew says:

      Hey Tom,
      You and I are in complete agreement on this one. I don’t think one can have it both ways with the Bible and Christianity either. That’s one thing the Bible is pretty unambiguous about. Take the Bible as truth, you must also believe in heaven and hell.

      A lot of Christians where I come from when asked whether Paul is a Christian would hesitate and say “Well, his heart’s in the right place, but he’s a little confused”. Paul, for what it’s worth, I think you ‘re spiritually light-years ahead of pretty much all of your fellow Christians, and you can call yourself whatever you want. But I would be sincerely interested to know what you think about this too!

      Consider this question: as an atheist, do you see my desire to lead an ethical, benevolent life as ‘purer’ than the same desire in a Christian? As an atheist, my aspiration is untainted by any promised reward or threatened punishment in the afterlife. I simply want to be “good for goodness’ sake”. I am, of course playing devil’s advocate here, but I’d like to know what you guys think, and who better to play devil’s advocate than a godless atheist/Pantheist/humanist whatever I am! : )

      And “above us only sky?”. Absolutely. When my life is over, it’s over. When the electrochemical activity in the neurons of my brain ceases, what makes me “me” will be no more. Memories of me will live on in the minds of those who knew me, for as long as they live. My body will return to the dust from whence it came to be recycled in an infinite possibility of other forms, other lives. “I am made of the dust of stars, and the oceans flow through my veins.” (that’s a Neal Peart lyric that brings me comfort when I am feeling just too insignificant.)

      Imagine all the people, living life in peace.

      Best, Andrew


      • Tom Harkins says:

        Andrew, as to your question about the “purer” moral life, I, first of all, agree that “athiests” can live “moral lives” in the sense of following certain ethical precepts. In fact (and this is “my idea,” not something all Christians subscribe to), I think that if there is a Judgment Day, as I believe, then whatever good or ill someone has done in this life will be “taken into account” in determining their ultimate state. Everyone will be judged “according to their works” or “according to what he had done.” Revelation 20:13. I don’t believe everyone who is as Christian will be rewarded equally in Heaven, or all who do not believe will be at the same “level,” if you will, in Hell. So, by all means, continue to live as moral a life as possible, in all events!

        With respect to obedience to moral “imperatives” being “purer” (“better”?) depending on whether there is a belief in rewards or not, we might wonder, “Who’s to judge?” as it were. Without some “rules of engagement” and someone to declare a “winner,” can we say there is any meaningful “contest” or “comparison” between the two in the first instance? But if you are asking “my opinion merely,” I would have to say, and at the moment I am basically talking “off the top of my head,” that I think moral precepts are often “learned in the first instance” through a “rewards and punishments” scenario. Being in the middle of raising two kids, my experience has clearly been that if it had not been for the threat (and sometimes reality) of spankings and monetary benefits for certain behaviors, my kids would likely not be turning out as “well” as they are in the “moral” department. I think most people start out with a pretty strong bent for selfishness as their primary state, and rewards and punishments are virtually a necessity to encourage one to become more “public minded.” So I think that God (assuming his existence, of course) operates in the same manner, and this is, at a minimum, “okay.”

        Second, though, ultimately we hope that our children may “progress” to the point that they want to do what is “good,” not so much primarily for “goodness sake” (who determines what is “good” in the first place?), or out of a rewards and punishment motif, but out of LOVE for the persons for whom or to whom they are responding. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul extols love as the greatest of the virtues. So, I think that (a) there is nothing wrong with acting out of a desire not to be punished or a desire to achieve benefits; in fact, I would say that is A good thing; but (b) it is not the GREATEST good thing, which is love.

        So, I doubtless have not really answered the question regarding where wanting to do good “just to be good” falls in the spectrum. Might I ask, though, how anyone came up with the list of “what is good” in the first place? Could there not be a society, at least in the abstract, where people were extolled for their ingenuity for “ripping off” dullards? Indeed, under a “survival of the fittest” rationale, wouldn’t the biggest and strongest or smartest who could move to the top of the pack “by hook or crook” be rather the paradigm than the outcast? (In fact, a substantial chunk of our own society today seems to operate on that basis, practically speaking.) I guess my point is, without a basis such as the “Judeo-Christian heritage,” how do we come up with the list of “what is good”? And if we are willing to go with that heritage, and it relies heavily on rewards and punishments as valid, if not essential, as a sociologically valid, if not essential, proper motive for good behavior, can we just set that aside? (That’s why we give “A’s” in schools and put criminals in jails.)

        Finally, I think looking at acting out of a rewards/punishments motive may actually be looking at things sort of the “wrong way around.” If God is “good,” wouldn’t this mean that he would make things better off for good people and worse off for bad people? Isn’t the fact that God “is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him,” Hebrews 11:6, a statement about who GOD is? Personally, I prefer a God who cares about what people do, and “rewards” those who act properly toward not only God, but their fellow man, created in his image, and likewise “punishes” those who, for example, kill, mutilate, abuse children, rape, etc. for their lack of “humankindness,” over a God who simply sits back and lets people act however they may choose with no consequences. And I like a universe with the biblical God in it over one in which everyone makes a list of “good” and acts accordingly out of nothing more than some vague “commitment” to “goodness.”

        Well, that’s about the best I can do at the moment. Tom


    • Andrew says:

      Paul, I just noticed your question mark after my Santa Claus comment above – it almost slipped past me! It has been suggested that the Santa Claus story is a child’s preparation for accepting Christianity as he gets older. Consider this: an invisible entity who always knows what you’re up to, must be believed in, evaluates your behavior, and gives ultimate punishment or reward on a special day of judgement. Are we talking about God or Santa? Interesting, huh?


      • Paul Paul says:

        Oh, I fully got you about the Santa thing, and I’m with you 100%. I think we’d all be better off (at least in America) if we’d just never heard of the guy. Drives me up a damn tree. Elizabeth and I really downplay the Santa thing at home because of the problem you pointed out in such an insightful manner.


    • Hi Tom,
      Isn’t that another basic inconsistency in conventional Christianity? Judged according to our works? I thought we were saved by grace, and NOT works. Varying levels of reward and punishment? Now you’re sounding like a Mormon! Is there a biblical basis for this assertion, or is it just how you think it should be?
      Actually, you did answer my question about the relative value of being “good” just because you want to, versus being “good” in order to receive a reward or avoid punishment, although I don’t think you meant to answer it. You indirectly addressed it by saying that the ultimate goal for your kids is to have them act out of love, rather than the more basic, self-serving reward/punishment motif, love being the greatest good thing. I completely agree with that.
      Can you admit in the hypothetical, that the loving act of an atheist, with no thought of reward or punishment, is more admirable than a religious person doing the same thing while thinking they are laying up rewards for themselves in heaven? Or is there a problem acknowledging that atheists are capable of feeling, or acting out of love? Is love something that only Christians are allowed?
      Yes, there are human societies who don’t share our values. At the risk of offending, I won’t name them, but let’s just say that I have seen this in action. Proof that Yahweh either forgot about those people, or doesn’t care about them. You call our shared values “Judeo-Christian”, suggesting that without those religious traditions those values cannot be held. I submit that they can. Social animals evolve, and actively select for behavior which benefits the group (benevolence, altruism, etc.) This propensity, combined with our self-awareness, and evolving society has begotten those values, whatever labels you want to put on them. Our societal values continue to evolve over time, thank goodness. As an example, take the treatment of women. In biblical times, and by biblical sanction, women were basically chattel. Pretty much slaves. Of course, slavery is also biblically sanctioned, so no surprises there. In the 21st century, we have come a long way from the chattel/slavery model, and still have a long way to go. Was god confused back then, or did he change his mind? It’s one or the other, there can be no other explanation.
      I think we each have a conscience, which is a product of our DNA (nature) and our environment (nurture). As you point out, “Good” and “Bad” are very relative terms – good or bad for whom? Does this mean I give way to moral relativism? “Thou shalt not kill.” What if someone is attacking my family with the intent of rape and murder?” The bible doesn’t say “thou shalt not kill unless you really need to.”
      Maybe that’s my problem with religion – it’s all too black and white. Black and white thinking is regarded in psychology as a cognitive shortcoming.

      I have just been struck by the thought that religious folks want very much to feel that there is someone or something in control. (“God”). An all-knowing, and all-powerful being who is running things. Is it so unbearably terrifying to consider the possibility that the universe is simply unfolding as it will?
      Thoughts, anyone?


      • Tom Harkins says:

        Andrew, thanks for your comments. A lot to reply to! First, as to the relationship of grace and works. I certainly agree that SALVATION is, by God’s grace, through faith, as opposed to doing enough good works to earn our way into Heaven. Ephesians 2:8-9. Note, however, v.10, which states that one purpose of our being made anew by God is that we will do “good works.” In my opinion (and I will try to put in some passages as I can recall them), works are important for two reasons. First, faith without works is “dead”–as in, nonexistent. See James 2:14-26. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Matthew 7:21. “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” John 14:15. To be converted requires REPENTANCE. “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” That is, one has to acknowledge that God’s laws are what are correct, as opposed to my behavior in defiance of those laws, and, if I truly recognize that, then of course if I am coming over “to God’s side,” then I will make the effort to try to OBEY those laws. If I don’t, then I am fooling myself to think I am saved. Where grace comes in is God’s willingness to forgive the fact that I don’t always live up to those laws by allowing faith in Christ’s sacrifice in my place to “make up the difference,” as it were. But no one who has “true faith” can fail to “prove it out” by changed works. “You see that his [Abraham’s] faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.” James 2:22. “By their fruit, you will recognize them.” Matthew 7:16, 20.

        Second, once saved, God will REWARD Christians, and in fact judge EVERYONE, “according to their works.” Revelation 20:13. “But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken.” Matthew 12:36. “God ‘will give to each person according to what he has done.'” Romans 2:6. It would make little sense to argue that God “judges” everyone based on what they do, but that this doesn’t make any difference in how they will then be treated. And, in fact, that is not the case. See 1 Corinthians 3:10-14; Luke 12:47-48. So, “works” are definitely a fundamental tenet of “orthodox” Christianity, as I have described (though, as you know, not everyone agrees on all tenets of the faith; nevertheless, as I have shown, works playing that “dual role” seems clearly to me to be the teaching of scripture itself).

        Let’s see–which is more “noble,” a Christian who “loves,” and simultaneously knows his love will be “rewarded,” or someone who loves “knowing” there will be no reward? Let me turn this around by asking, which is a more noble view of God, that he tells people to be “meek” and just suffer, or a view of God that he ultimately rewards all acts of sacrifice on his behalf? See the Beatitudes, Matthew 5:3-12. The universe God designed is ultimately a “triumphant” one, not a “defeated” one. God’s goodness, and the wellbeing of all who come to him, will prevail. So, in a “good” universe, it is simply not possible to do things that are “good” and there not be “good” consequences flowing from it. You are asking me a hypothetical that cannot exist, and in general I have a policy of not trying to answer such hypothetical questions.

        And the fact is, I don’t think “love” fundamentally is actually something that “expects no return” ultimately. Love is given even to unlovely objects (which is the real challenge), but it expects love in return. A lot of passages support this view (despite naysayers), even if the verses don’t use quite my “terminology” to express the point. When Jesus gives the talents, he rewards those who use them to produce more, and casts out the one who did nothing with what he got. Jesus quite poignantly states this truth in Matthew 23:37-38: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate.” The whole fact that there is a Heaven and a Hell riding on one’s response to God’s love shows this conditional nature of love beyond any possible reasonable argument. So, perhaps one answer to your question is that love, as properly understood, and as scripture describes it even on the part of God, never was something that expected nothing in return, and hence “looks for a reward”–even if that “reward” is the very “return of love,” with love being ultimately the greatest thing, as we both agree. (Also, I should note that as to Jesus saying, “Give, expecting nothing in return,” he was speaking of expecting nothing in return from the person to whom you were giving–you would still expect something in return from GOD for doing so. And, I again think Jesus was speaking of things “in the short run” with that statement, not in the “ultimate end.”)

        “Is love something that only Christians are allowed?” Of course, the most basic answer is that anyone can love. That is the ultimate of all the reasons for which God made us–to be beings that love. Perhaps what you are implicitly asking is whether the “love” of an atheist is enough for God to allow even that misguided atheist into Heaven when he is “surprised” to find God does exist upon his death, or on Judgment Day. I’m afraid not. However, as I showed above, it IS enough to make a difference in “how [colloquially, ‘where’] one ends up in Hell.” No act of love, by anyone, will go totally unrewarded. But the love that makes the ultimate difference is love for God in response to the love of God. I realize this strikes some people as making some sort of ogre out of God, but, even if I am inadequate in explaining the point, that is not the case. God is ultimate goodness. God is ultimate love. To reject God is to reject ultimate goodness and ultimate love. There is something fundamentally wrong with a person who does that, regardless of any other good characteristics. Only the person who ultimately recognizes the unbelievable love of God which lead him to accept the agony of the cross on our behalf and is swept in love in response has the “character” that it takes to be material for living with that God forever in Heaven. If this still seems harsh, and I’ve done poor justice to the point, I just have to say as I did in another comment–God is how he is, and there’s really nothing we can do about that. What we are wise to do is to “act accordingly” if we do not want to suffer the consequences for our recalcitrance. It’s almost like saying, I don’t like the law of gravity telling me I can’t fly, so I am going to jump off a skyscraper. Well, whether you “like” gravity or not is of little moment–you will still come to a bitter end because gravity remains true regardless of how anyone may feel about it. And, not to put too bad a rap on God about this, just think about it–God has told us about all this, how he is and what he requires, and he paid the price to allow us into Heaven, so who is going to have any right to complain about where he ends up on Judgment Day? It’s his own choice.

        Then you have a long paragraph about how societies evolve and we are a lot farther along now than people were in earlier generations; and, you suggest, better than God called on people to be (or manifested himself to be) back in “Bible days.” The first thing I should do is admit to an overstatement, to the extent I may have indicated no one could be “good” without having been influenced by the “Judeo-Christian heritage.” That’s really not correct. God put a conscience in everyone, which basically gives a general guide to what his law requires of us. Romans 2:14-15. What the “Judeo-Christian heritage” does is “flesh that out” and support it with the understanding that this law came from God and that he expects us to comply with it. There is an “advantage” to being “entrusted with the very words of God.” Romans 3:1-2. But I think the major thrust of your argument is that we are “better” now that we have “left behind” what the Bible teaches as we have “grown wiser” through “evolutionary development.” I disagree with this, of course, but it requires some explanation.

        First of all, God hates evil, and will punish it, most totally in Hell. So when he wipes out a society that has “sold itself out” to evil, as he sometimes did in Old Testament days, he is manifesting that character, and giving people “fair warning” that they must “turn from their ways.” So this is not an “indictment” of God, except for people who think God should just let everyone live however they may want to live, with no consequences. I don’t think people actually believe that, if they fully stop and think about it. Do you have kids? If you do, is it true that you would have no objection to someone raping or mutilating them with no consequence? I don’t think so. (You indicate you feel the same way in one of your points later.) We don’t really think people should be allowed to do whatever hateful and horrid things they may choose to do–rather, we just disagree with God about some of the things he says are evil, or not evil. So, I don’t have a problem with the Old Testament.

        What about slavery and “treatment of women”? I think a couple of points should be considered, though I am on a litle more “shaky” ground here insofar as being able to cite “chapter and verse.” First, the state of the world in which the Jewish people lived when the “Law of Moses” was given is a bit different from the state of the world today, so that actually Mosaic law was a “big improvement” over what went before. It may be significant that God himself apparently directly stated the Ten Commandments, Exodus 20:1-19, whereas the other “detailed” directions were given via Moses, which latter I take to be directly applicable to the children of Israel, and via principle applicable to Christians today. Obviously the sacrificial, ceremonial, and dietary laws fall in that category. See Acts 10:15; Hebrews 10:1-9. This may be part of what Paul is getting at in Galatians 3:23-25 (as to which I prefer the King James “schoolmaster” as best expressing the point). I realize this gives rise to debates as to “which is still applicable and which is not,” but just because a point gives rise to some difficulties does not itself prove it is incorrect. In all events, as far as what is applicable, the New Testament and commands of Jesus can keep us pretty busy without “wrangling” over this or that being still applicable from the Old Testament, or not. (Notably, Jesus relied on the Ten Commandments himself.)

        Second, it may well be true that there has been “progress over time,” but this is actually not antithetical to Christianity, but largely as a result of it. Let me hasten to acknowledge that there has been a lot of “bad” done in the name of religion, including Christianity in particular. However, not everyone who “names the name of Christ” is actually a Christian. “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves.” Also, Christians are still “sinners saved by grace,” and have not “arrived at perfection.” “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect.” Philippians 3:12-14. Nonetheless, the move to end slavery was most especially advanced by William Wilberforce in England, a devoted Christian, and the Civil Rights movement in America was assisted substantially by Martin Luther King, a Christian preacher. In the past, most hospitals and universities were founded by Christians. As the true principles of Christianity through truly devoted Christians meet certain societal conditions, generally improvement tends to result. God never intended the Church to “stagnate” at a certain point, as opposed to growing and further fleshing out the gospel as it progressed. So, stones can certainly be thrown, but I think by in large “true Christians” have made marks of true progress as they have engaged society through the ages.

        By saying this, I certainly don’t want to be misunderstood to mean the Church progresses by moving beyond the Bible. Instead, it is a question of seeing what the Bible, strenuously clung to, mandates by its words and principles in given situations as they arise, consistent with the text, but understanding the purpose for which particular parts of the text were intended. Thus the example I gave about the sacrificial system having been intended to point us to Christ, and having accomplished that purpose, is no longer “in effect” as such. Scripture itself backs that up, as I noted. Insofar as God intended any portion of the Bible to have effect at any given time, that is the correct rule, regardless of what “society” may say or find to be “correct” through “progressive thinking.” All moral precepts of the Bible remain binding at all times.

        Lastly, as an end to this virtual “book” of a reply, I wanted to address your point of scripture being “too black and white,” and giving as your example, “Thou shalt not kill.” Obviously God did not condemn all killing–he ordered it from time to time in scripture. So what is the answer to that? I think that to the contrary of what you indicate as black and white, we often encounter “gray areas” where what the Christian action should be is “not always so clear and simple” to determine. Jesus gave the example of David going to the priest when his men were hungry and eating the holy bread, which was lawful only for the priests to eat. My “solution” to this “dilemma” is what I refer to as the “doctrine of competing principles.” In an “unwarped” “Euclidean” universe, all parallel lines would extend forever without intersecting. But in the moral universe, sin entered and “warped” the universe, so that lines which would originally never “intersect” now do. Perhaps that is not the best way of making the point, but clearly moral principles which are absolute in and of themselves nevertheless can now “collide” with each other, and the aftermath may be different from what either of those principles might have mandated standing alone. Thus, the rule was, only the priests eat the holy food. But another rule is, human life is precious and is to be preserved. When David’s men were starving and the only food available was the holy food, Jesus said David did not sin by eating it. In the same way, when you ask, “What if someone is attacking my family with the intent of rape and murder?”, an entirely different situation is presented than simply deciding you want to kill somebody. Various principles, unequivocally valid and not to be tampered with standing alone, are “intersecting,” and in this “gray area” it becomes necessary to “do the best you can” to balance things out in the best way possible, consistent with those principles. You might even have to pray about it.

        So, I do indeed prefer a universe with “the God of the Bible” governing it over what you say, “the possibility that the universe is simply unfolding as it will.” (Do you mean by, “as it will,” some intent, or just simply “as things happen to happen”?) Whether it would be “terrifying” to have “blind chance” govern things or not, that is certainly very much less “desirable” as an option over having my “God of love,” as love is correctly understood to be, governing what “unfolds.”

        Tom Harkins


    • Andrew says:

      So each of us has obviously spent a great deal of time and mental energy in arriving at our personal beliefs. We have elaborate and well thought out arguments as to why our own views are “correct”. We have just a little ego on some level, which hopes that others might be persuaded to our way of thinking, although we probably realize that is not going to happen here. We are educated, mature in our long and closely held beliefs, and very unlikely to fundamentally change those beliefs because of some rhetorical skill, or point made by another. I don’t think that reason holds sway in our choice of beliefs. I think it goes deeper than that. I’d suggest that our choices are influenced by, once again, our nature and nurture, i.e. The individual biochemistry in our brains and bodies, and our life’s experiences. Then, because others don’t share our beliefs, and because we’re not entirely sure of them ourselves, we justify them to ourselves and others as needed, using arguments that we are comfortable with. That’s okay – I respect what I consider to be the important parts of the Christian belief system – those values that we all share here. The details of your faith are not important to me. I form my opinion of you as a person based on your actions, and the integrity – the oneness, of your words and actions. So yes, I’m a “works” guy too. In fact, I think that works is all there is. I have friends and family who are Christians, Mormons, converted Jews, and atheists whom I love dearly, their faiths don’t matter to me.

      I hope we can agree to disagree on the dogmatic, religious, i.e. Biblical details of this discussion. I don’t claim to be a biblical scholar, but I do know the bible as well, if not better than many Christians, and I’m quite familiar with the precepts and teachings of Christianity. I was thoroughly indoctrinated in them in my formative years, even through my college years at Furman. I know your faith mandates that you share it with me, I can quote the Great Commission chapter and verse, and I appreciate your concern, but I guess I’m just more interested in what I’d call the “big” questions that science may not be able to answer, such as whether or not there is a God. Such a God, I would agree with Paul, would transcend our ability to discuss him in the queen’s English. Surely he is not some pissed-off old man up in the sky, playing a rigged game with his creations that he aleady knows the conclusion of. That’s a great way to keep the masses under control, but it doesn’t work for me. What is the meaning, if any, of our lives? What do we do with this amazing thing we call life? What is he nature of life processes and living things, is life “magical” or just a bunch of chemical reactions? Is there life after death? What is the nature of the universe itself, – it’s source, where it’s going, etc. If the universe must have a source, then doesn’t God need a source too, ad infinitum?

      Wishing each of you a happy winter’s solstice, and thanks again for the stimulating conversation!



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