Handling the Contradictions with Humility

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No matter what your particular belief flavor (assuming you are a Christian), there are holes and contradictions in your Bible if you take it at face value. In his recent online post, “Thoughts About Rob Bell, John Piper, and Justin Taylor,” blogger Jason Boyett says:

“Reading and understanding the Bible involves lots and lots of interpretation. Not just in light of the world and culture around us, but in reference to other parts of the Bible. At best, there are things that are unclear and not easily harmonized from Genesis to Revelation. At worst, there are things that seem to be downright contradictory. That’s why I have doubts. That’s why theology can be so controversial.”

For too long, we’ve dismissed legitimate questions—questions that demand thoughtful consideration. I think we need to be honest and humble enough to admit that we’ve gotten some things right, and just maybe we’ve gotten some things (or a lot of things) wrong. It takes a lot of humility to admit that maybe we didn’t have all the answers like we thought we did. The more I learn, the more I realize that I didn’t have it all figured out—nor do those who profess to.

Here’s a few selected thoughts from the article I referenced above. I hope you will follow the link and read this in context, but I liked the grace and honesty with which the author shared his thoughts on the recent topic du jour—Rob Bell’s Love Wins!

1. This is why people hate us. There is no meaner, more hateful person on Earth than a Christian who suspects you have gotten your theology wrong. Labeling that mean-ness as “being faithful” to the Gospel doesn’t make it less hateful. While Taylor’s post was fairly calm, the response to it by his readers was not. Bell got skewered in the comments, on twitter, and in other blog posts.

2. Really, John Piper? Your Reformed followers can be obnoxious at times, but I’ve always hoped you were above that. Sometimes you say things that make me roll my eyes. Most of the time, though, you’re way more gracious than your fans. But “farewell, Rob Bell”? What a disappointingly smug, arrogant tweet. It’s worth pointing out what Scot McKnight told Christianity Today about the matter: “The way to disagree with someone of Rob Bell’s influence is not a tweet of dismissal but a private letter or a phone call. Flippancy should have no part in judging a Christian leader’s theology, character or status.”

5. But here’s where Taylor’s and Piper’s responses annoy and frustrate me: They are so absolutely certain that they are right. Because Rob Bell seems to be indicating that hell might not be a place of eternal suffering—or might not exist at all in the way traditional Christianity thinks of it—then they say he is flat-out wrong. Dangerously wrong. False-doctrine wrong. Opposing-the-Gospel wrong. But you know what? The Bible is really squishy on the subject of hell. The everlasting-torment hell of Dante and Jonathan Edwards doesn’t exist at all in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, Jesus talks about hell a lot, but sometimes in ways that a reasonable person could interpret metaphorically (like when he calls it Gehenna, after a real-life burning trash heap outside Jerusalem). And for centuries, some Christians have tried to make the case that, when Paul says Christ died for all, he really meant it. Not some. All.

No, universalism isn’t an orthodox Christian position. Hell is. But are we not willing to admit that, maybe, over the years, we could have gotten something wrong? Is it so wrong to maybe hope that everyone gets saved? That hell doesn’t exist? Because I totally hope that to be the case.

The truth is this: In order to be an everyone-get-saved Universalist, as Taylor claims Bell to be, you have to elevate some biblical passages and ignore (or explain away) others. Because there are definitely some passages that seem to be about eternal punishment in hell.

But…

In order to be a predestination-style, God-saves-the-elect reformed Christian—like Taylor and Piper—you have to elevate some biblical passages and ignore (or explain away) others. Because there are definitely some passages that seem to contradict predestination.

But…

In order to be a free-will Arminian Christian, you have to elevate some biblical passages and ignore (or explain away) others. Because there are definitely some passages that seem to confirm predestination.

See where this is going?

In order to be an Evangelical Christian…

In order to be a Roman Catholic Christian…

In order to be a Pentecostal Christian, a cessationist, an End-Times date-setter, a female pastor, a pacifist Christian…

Reading and understanding the Bible involves lots and lots of interpretation. Not just in light of the world and culture around us, but in reference to other parts of the Bible. At best, there are things that are unclear and not easily harmonized from Genesis to Revelation. At worst, there are things that seem to be downright contradictory. That’s why I have doubts. That’s why theology can be so controversial.

And that’s also why theology is best done with humility and a recognition that certainty is very hard to come by. When we become so certain that our theology is ironclad and right, that’s when we become smug, arrogant, and dismissive of people who disagree with us. That’s when we do things like tweet that a thoughtful, hopeful, influential Christian like Rob Bell is dead to us.

Because that’s what “Farewell, Rob Bell” means, isn’t it? You’re dead to me. What I believe is right. If you oppose it, then I’m done with you.

Read the rest of this article…

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  • http://thehomespunlife.com Sisterlisa

    Yes, this is part of the reason why people hate Christians and the god they try to introduce. I just can't imagine being in etiquette class and God insisting…"Now..little children..when you introduce me to people, MAKE SURE you tell them right away that I plan on torturing them in fire forever if they don't accept my Son…then open the curtain and show them my son on the cross..all bloody and groaning in pain.. ya that'll make them love me" Then people read my analogy and they gasp.. "I wouldn't introduce God like that! I wait until I tell them of God's love first, then I tell them God will burn them." oh ya..that makes him more likable. O_o and the fact of the matter is THIS IS how people introduce God and this is why so many don't want anything to do with him. Would we allow our daughters to marry a guy like that? No way! I have studied hell in the Hebrew and Greek and find the term hell is widely abused and twisted into something the Bible doesn't even teach. But because it has been so twisted over the years..slowly..this is now what we have. A distorted view of God and Christ and what he did for us.. reconciling us to God. A reconciliation doesn't involve threats. It involves love. I do wonder though if they are humble enough to apologize for their public display of unChristlike behavior or just pump up more hate and defend their misunderstanding because their pride gets the best of them?

    • jferwerd

      Sisterlisa,
      You make some great points. Unfortunately the hell doctrine gained momentum to such an extent that almost every Biblical teaching became intertwined and distorted. It is a big job to untangle and unravel and get back down to the simple truths. We are saved from death, the curse of Adam's sin, not hell. Spiritual death is no greater in its influence and control than physical death. Death is merely a state of being for anyone not connected to the Vine but it is instantly resolved through obedient trust in Christ. As in Adam, all die, so in Christ, all will be made alive. But each in his own order…" 1 Cor. 15:22-23

  • John

    The suggestion (however, implicit) seems to be that orthodox Christians are more likely to display an unwarranted certainty and arrogance than universalists are. But aren't you as sure in your beliefs as orthodox Christians are? Doesn't your system of beliefs also 'decide' what will happen to someone's soul after death, even if they happen to disagree with you here on Earth? If I was an atheist, I would view both traditions as equally arrogant.

    I guess I see the point of migrating away from a philosophy due to empirical errors. I have much less sympathy for migrating away from a belief because "people hate us." Whatever the belief system, it's going to be composed of human followers who make mistakes. While we should try to avoid these mistakes (and in the case of Christianity act in a Christlike manner), the mistakes of humans are not a sufficient reason to move towards a new system of belief. I'm not saying you're doing this, but 'what other people think of us' seems to be a primary driving factor behind some of these posts and comments. The reality is that there will be poor representatives of every belief system. But dismissing orthodox Christianity because some appear obsessed with hell is like dismissing Islam because of a handful of terrorists, or dismissing Christianity as a whole because Westboro Baptist happens to call themselves a church. It's a sweeping generalization that may be true of some individuals, but is not necessarily true of the wider belief system.

    • jferwerd

      Hey John, you make some great points here. I agree that there is the temptation for both sides to be arrogant and dogmatic, and we must all work toward love and humility. Having said that, of course we have beliefs and things we are convinced about and that we want to share with others. I guess for me I would just say that I feel I have objectively weighed both options and universal reconciliation makes a lot more sense and answers a lot more questions. I feel that many Christians don't take the time or are not willing to legitimately consider both sides before making a judgment, and that is the only thing that gives me license to be more confident in what I believe (but I still have the responsibility to be humble and I do fail at that more than I would like to admit).

      Atheists are much more warm-hearted toward an inclusive love of God than toward a god who would have a finish line on his love and send people to hell. That makes perfect sense to me. I find my atheist friends defending my position at times to other Christians and I get warm fuzzies.

      You are right, to be hated is not sufficient reason in itself to migrate from beliefs. But the question becomes, WHY am I hated? Is it the message or the messenger? WHO is doing the hating? Jesus was not hated by the world, but by religious people. Same with Paul. The world accepted the message with joy and grace.

      I did not move toward my new belief system because of the mistakes of others. I did it because of sound reasoning and careful contemplation. I did it because of my conviction to follow where the evidence led, not because I was unhappy or uncomfortable where I was firmly planted. But either way, you are absolutely right and I agree that there are poor representatives everywhere we go, and I have been one of those at times myself.

      Trust me, I am not generalizing or dismissing orthodoxy because of the people. I am dismissing many of the beliefs I once held to because they are, in my opinion, unreliable and false. And because there is a better way to me that answers more of my questions and holds up to the tests where other beliefs failed.

      Thanks for this thoughtful post John. I think you have a very gracious heart and I do agree with many of your ideas.

      • AnotherFriend

        I don't think of Neo as a particularly religious person and he certainly hated Christians….so I don't think it is fair to say that the world is happy to accept Christ's radical claims and it is just the religious establishment that is the only or major bad guy. Just saying…

        • AnotherFriend

          That should be Nero, not Neo. :)

  • http://twitter.com/Michael_W_Camp @Michael_W_Camp

    John, I guess it all boils down to attitude. Both sides are susceptible to arrogance but in my experience the orthodox always have to come across as "absolutely certain." Why? Because anything less than that is interpreted as not defending the gospel or not being faithful to the Word of God. My universalist friends and I are regularly warned by conservative evangelicals that our belief is unbiblical and dangerous. I find most universalists, on the other hand, to be more cautious in pushing their position as absolute truth (some describe themselves as "hopeful universalists"). As Boyett said, whatever position you take, there always appear to be problems with it from other passages. Julie's plea is correct. We all need humility in addressing these issues. In my mind, humility doesn't write off people as "unorthodox" but is open to hearing a position out. As I have said in my writing (from an echo of Frank Schaeffer's books), our certainty must be balanced with our admission of uncertainty.

    You're right that "what people think of us" shouldn't be the driving force to rethink a belief system. For me, and many people who become universalists, it's not what other people think, but what we as individuals think! We see inconsistencies in the scriptures, the character of God, etc., and that drives us to rethink and look closely at the biblical, textual, and historical evidence. I assume that is what Rob Bell has done. When we look closely (like at least being willing to read someone's book before trashing it), we might find there's actually a strong biblical and historical case that universalism is actually orthodox. I did. For me, that's the irony of this issue.

    • John

      Michael, I'm sympathetic to many of your thoughts. Just a few comments of my own:

      - I think the temptation for arrogance among universalists arises not so much out of "absolute certainty," but out of the belief that they are farther along on their faith journey than "conservative evangelicals." Since most univeralists originally embraced the evangelical perspective, they feel they know both the ins and outs of the belief system and are all too aware of its deficiencies. As a result, the one thing that they are "certain" of is that classical views are wrong. But I think it's still possible for people to study the Bible and the available evidence in a deep and questioning manner and still remain orthodox (G.K. Chesterton has a wonderful book on this). I'm not saying that you deny this possibility, merely that it is a temptation that universalists sometimes fall prey to. When universalists and evangelicals talk, it's important to maintain an open dialogue in which BOTH sides admit to the possibility that they can be wrong. For the orthodox Christian, this may entail seriously re-examining the doctrine of hell. For the universalist, this may entail acknowledging the possibility that they are on the wrong track.

      - On the last point, I struggle with orthodoxy/heresy, and the level at which Christianity is proven or disproven. On one hand, it seems natural to argue that everyone needs to evaluate the evidence themselves, develop a personal relationship with Christ, and have a strong faith that is fully exposed and adapted to penetrating questions, paradoxes, and doubts. One should not be a blind sheep or swallow all the food that is presented at the table. On the other hand, I think there is a danger in a too individualistic version of faith — one that adapts itself to perfectly suit the individual adherent rather than reality. For this latter point, I think that there is something compelling, even Biblical, about establishing 'orthodox' belief and maintaining a strong community of believers and people who hold each other accountable to core beliefs — if only to keep people from running astray. Although not a Catholic, I wonder sometimes whether the schism of the church was an entirely good thing. We now have more varieties of belief than we can count, all supposedly inspired by the evidence or the Holy Spirit. They can't all be right. I guess the question is where you draw the line.

  • http://leadme.org Jeff

    Hi Julie,

    Just received an email from Steve (he's dropped by our site a few times) and he mentioned your book is just a few weeks from publishing. I'm really itching to get my hands on it and want to wish you both the best of luck!

    And clearly I'm pretty late to this particular discussion, but just wanted to give a big thumbs up to your message in this post. Humility, humility, humility. I don't think any of us can get quite enough, myself certainly included! It seems that for many Christians, theological humility is verboten because heaven and hell are at stake. Get too many answers wrong on God's orthodoxy checklist and you're going to land yourself in hell.

    Thank our good God that he doesn't operate like that!

    Keep up the great work.

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