Walk Humbly: Heresies, Damn Heresies, and Universalism

All posts in this series refer back to the conversation found here.

I seriously have a difficult time believing that you are a saved believer with the way you speak about God and His Word.

That’s Damon (as usual).  Following the head explodey moment that I discussed last time, things do begin to get really nasty.  I think this is the first time Damon says explicitly that he doubts my status as a Christian, and for anyone who’s been reading along, it’s definitely not the last.

The issue here, as far as I can tell, seems to be that Damon believes my position on the nature of Jesus’ ministry (that Jesus, as one part of the Trinity, had full authority to ignore portions of the Law as necessary to better fulfill its central purpose as he laid it out in Matthew 22:37-40) and of the Bible (that it is divinely inspired, but it is not inerrant) are heretical and actually dangerous to the spiritual well being of other Christians (“[T]he Bible warns about continued interaction with people who teach such outright lies and blasphemy in the name of Christ.“).

Damon doesn’t cite a specific text here to back up his assertion, but I’m guessing that he’s thinking of 2 Peter 2.  It’s quite a chapter.  Peter pretty much lays out a heap of condemnation on what the NIV calls “false teachers.”  These false teachers “in their greed […] will exploit you with fabricated stories” and “they mouth empty, boastful words” (2 Peter 2:3, 18).  There’s more than that, so here’s the chapter for anyone who’s curious about all the awful things Peter has to say about false teachers.  Damon may also be considering 2 Timothy 2:14-19 or 2 Corinthians 11:1-15, though I don’t know his mind.  The point seems pretty clear that there are always people who will aim to lead us from the path of Christ.

As I’ve said, I’m not a fan of proof texting, so instead of whipping out a counter verse that contradicts this stuff, I’m going to point toward a passage that I think helps refine the meaning here.

19 This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: 20 If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God 22 and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. 24 The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us. (1 John 3:19-24)

That whole chapter’s actually fantastic if you’d like to go give it a once over.  False teachers miss the point that the writer of 1 John makes about declaring Christ and demonstrating love.  Defining love is a complicated thing, but I think here the definition that Paul puts forward in 1 Corinthians 13 (that most ubiquitous of passages) will suffice.  All I have been arguing from the beginning of this conversation is that the gospel is founded on the commandment to love.

In writing to Damon, I don’t make reference to many passages from the Bible, but that’s largely because I’m arguing about an interpretation that’s looking at the broad trends of Scripture.  Honestly, pointing out all these passages feels a little uncomfortable after my last rant about proof texting, but I think at this point it’s important for the sake of flashing my Christian credentials to the fundamentalists who would deny that I have a right to that identity (since that’s what people like Damon want: evidence that I can make an argument based on the Bible).

Of course, that’s not the biggest ‘heresy’ that I’m espousing.  I happen to be a universalist, which completely blows Damon’s Calvinist paradigm.  The thought that a Christian might not believe that God intends to damn people to eternal torment is apparently anathema, since when I brought this up in passing, it was pretty much the end of the conversation.  As Damon put it after I finally got fed up and wrote my spiritual history for him,

“Nearly every paragraph leads me to believe that you are not part of the Body of Christ, culminating in your universalist claim, which is, and I cannot say this strongly enough, ABSOLUTELY heretical and completely not in line with the Gospel or any other Biblical teaching. Simply put, I cannot fathom how anyone can read the same words I do and come to such a conclusion.”

And you know what I gather from this reaction?  Damon, and fundamentalists like him, can’t stand the fact that God’s big enough for people who understand him differently.  It’s the only explanation I can come up with to explain being so resistant to the idea that other Christians may disagree with them on a variety of theological points that are all debatable.  Then again, I doubt many fundamentalists of this stripe are comfortable with allowing anyone besides themselves to own the Christian label.

Let’s back up for a second, though, and consider why Damon says that universalism is heresy.  Now, to start off, I should clarify that when I identify myself as a universalist, I’m doing so with a hopeful stance.  I can’t be dogmatic about the existence or nonexistence of hell (the Bible gives conflicting evidence), but based on how I understand God’s character, I find the nonexistence of hell more morally consistent.  I hope it is the case.

As for why Damon thinks this is such a bad thing to believe and counter to the gospel, I suppose it goes something like this.  Many people are familiar with the famous video from Penn Jillette where he discusses what kind of mindset a Christian who believes in hell must have to be so persistent in trying to convert others who really don’t want to be converted.  If you believe in eternal conscious torment, and you believe Jesus is the way to avoid it, then it is not in line with a gospel of love to fail to tell people about that.

Okay, so far that makes sense, but if you throw in the monkey wrench of hell not really being something that’s hanging over everyone’s head, then what happens?  Where is the motivation to continue telling everyone about Jesus?  Heck, what did Jesus do if he didn’t save us from hell?  This problem goes back a ways to what Damon said about substitutionary atonement as the explanation for the Crucifixion:

“If the death of Christ is not the complete substitutionary atonement for all sins of all believers across all time, then what is our faith in at all? […] To what end do we believe?”

Without hell, what was the point of Jesus dying?  I don’t know.  It’s a mystery.  At best, I can say that he died as a means of saving us from our sins.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that we were hellbound before the Crucifixion, because sin is pretty destructive all on its own.  Nonetheless, the gospel isn’t about avoiding hell.  It’s about loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself.  I don’t see anything about a particular doctrine of hell that impacts that message.

I find Damon’s assertion that the nonexistence of hell is heretical troubling, not only because it denies my identity, but because it suggests that at the core of his understanding of the gospel is fear.

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:18)

I am only trying to drive out fear, so all this ‘heretic’ crap needs to stop.

Denying people’s identities is one of the most debasing things you can do to them psychologically, and it infuriates me to see evangelical fundamentalists (which seems to be more and more the primary group within evangelicalism at large) doing this very thing in such a shamelessly hostile way.  All it does is circumscribe the tribe and insulate the people on the inside of that group so they can believe that they are a persecuted minority while the rest of the Church is just trying to get on with doing good work in the world.

God is for everyone who wants him, and I’ll be damned if someone else is going to tell me I’m not a Christian.

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