I know! Astonishing! There are things that, when we are being very honest with ourselves, completely flabbergast us. Like, for example, what happens to the “noble savage” (I know it's not PC, but I think it sounds so cool, and I've never been too scared of the PC police) – the one who lives his life according to what little revelation he has of God from nature and his “primitive” religion, but never hears the Gospel. Does he go to hell? Does God know that he would have accepted Jesus, too, had he heard the right message? Does he go to purgatory?
We don't know. But there are other, less serious questions which also baffle us, if we're being totally honest with ourselves, like whether or not God wants Christians to have awesome sex. Does God want Christians to have good sex? There's a large section of Christianity which believes that God absolutely wants us to have awesome, wonderful, amazing sex provided it's within the bounds of a marriage, because it's a good gift and as long as we use it in the way he intended it for us, we'll be fine. There are other Christians, apparently, who seem to think that asking the mere question is scandalous, to say the least. Like they somehow think that God gets all awkward and uncomfortable too, whenever we bring up sex, because it's not like he really meant for it to be so darn fun, and now it's turned into this big deal, and gah, the worst part of his evenings are always when all the married couples go off and have great, passionate, wonderful, non-sinful sex because he can't exactly get mad at them for doing what they're supposed to do, but darn it, they're just having too much fun... Because, you know, God is just as freaked out by sex as we are. How droll.
It's funny, because I used to be there. I used to be very fundamental. I mean, I still believe that the Bible is the most reliable source of knowledge about God we have, and that everything we experience in life should be tested against what the Bible says to make absolutely sure that it is, in fact, from God. I believe that there are some people who will go to hell, though I won't presume to say which ones. See, it's little things like that which make me not a fundamentalist. Because I will stand up and say with conviction that homosexual behavior is sinful and not to be tolerated, let alone encouraged, in a church community – but we are called to love those who struggle with homosexual desires and not treat it as though it's any worse of a sin when they slip up than when we slip up in struggling with our own sins. It's the unrepentant part that's the problem in this picture, not so much the homosexuality part. That's a sin, but so is lying, stealing, cheating on your wife, looking at porn, valuing money over God, and a whole host of other things that the rest of us struggle with, so it's not like being gay makes you a worse person than I am. You just struggle with a different sin than I do. At least you're struggling, and you haven't just given in, because that's where the problem lies.
But the extremest of the extreme refuse to hold any conviction lightly. Do I believe in dispensationalism? Not really, but I don't think you're going to hell if you do. Actually, Systematic Theology III had a whole unit on eschatology and what people think about the end times, and I still don't know what I believe about it, but I also don't think that it matters very much. And, to be quite honest, I think that the people who are such strong dispensationalists, or amillennialists, or whateverelseists, are completely missing the point of the passages they use to back up their views. The point is not whether Jesus is going to reign in a figurative millennium or a literal one, whether there's going to be a rapture (personally I don't think there will – it's always seemed kind of weird to assume that God's going to pull out all the loyal people and then let the bad ones go fight it out among themselves like some kind of global cage match for our amusement, because he doesn't strike me as that kind of God, but I digress). The point is that God loves us more than we could ever hope to comprehend, and we were really screwed up but he came into our screwed up world and died and rose again, not for his own amusement but because he wanted to fix it for us. He wants us to be with him, because we are his creation and he loves us. At that point, the little details of how the last couple events in the big time-line are going to go down really seems superfluous. Definitely not worth arguing over.
So I really struggle with people who post things on the web that fill the stereotypes of the fundamentalist Christian who is so narrow-minded and judgmental that Jesus himself would be cringing. Or, you know, calling them Pharisees and perhaps even a brood of vipers, because Jesus wasn't really the sort to just sit back and let people like that destroy others.
Take, for example, alittleleaven. Now, I do not know this man personally, so I don't want to say anything about him as a person. For all I know, he could be the sweetest, most loving person in his whole state. But that's definitely not how he comes off in the videos he has posted questioning the theology of people like Joel Osteen and Rick Warren. (By the way, I love how he compares Warren to a member of the Evil Empire on that video. Because, didn't you know, the Emperor preached that God wants us to do what we were created to do, too!)
Now, I have my quibbles with Osteen and Warren. Osteen does seem to slip into the prosperity gospel too often for me to be wholly comfortable with him, and Warren the same to a lesser extent. I haven't finished reading Purpose-Driven Life yet (my first copy was *ahem* borrowed and never returned, and the second I got at a thrift store for about a dollar and just haven't spent the time with it) but from what I read, it did seem to flirt with prosperity gospel now and again. However, little as I know about Osteen, Warren has always seemed to be a pretty orthodox kind of guy. Not entirely perfect – none of us can truthfully claim that – but his heart is in the right place and he has some good things to say about Christianity. I would like to say the same of Osteen, but I don't know enough to say for sure, so I'll hold off.
But this "alittleleaven" person was ripping into them, completely unfairly, expecting them to live up to an incredibly narrow and limited view of what Christianity is. This kind of thing has bothered me for quite some time, so I'm going to address it here. I would like to remind us that salvation is not only about forgiving sin.
Yes, I'll give you a moment to let you recover from the shock.
Are we good? Have I thoroughly rattled your cage yet? Excellent. Now, let me explain. Salvation is definitely partly about forgiving sin. It might even be mostly about forgiving sin, though I don't know that I'd say so. But it is very certainly not only about forgiving sin. It is about restoring us – and all of creation with us – to a right relationship with God. His creation is meant for his presence. Not just on the obvious side, the “well the whole creation would cease to exist if God stopped supporting it for a split second” side, although that is also true. In the garden, before the fall, back when things were the way they were meant to be, all of creation was in constant fellowship with God. He walked in the garden with Adam and Eve. He talked with them. He provided for them. He was there. Salvation is about restoring the world to that, and maybe even something a little bit better. Thinking that salvation is forgiveness of sins alone is such a narrow view of what is really going on. Of course God wants to forgive your sins. But that is not the goal. He forgives your sins in order to have a relationship with you. It's not like you're forgiven and then you go on your merry way. You want to approach God, your sin makes that impossible, and so he clears away that huge, lumbering obstacle and now you can approach him, you can have a relationship with him, and it's redeemed. And all of creation is redeemed, too. We're not saved for harps and white robes and fluffy clouds and halos. We're saved for a party with God on the new earth that he's redeemed. Revelation describes it as a wedding feast.
Have you ever been to a wedding feast? I'm right at that time of my life where approximately everyone I know is getting married. I have been to at least one wedding per summer (two, this summer) for the past several years. I've been to quite a few wedding feasts. And they are not boring, solemn, stuffy events. There's great food, and laughter, and dancing, and silly traditions, and cake, and lots of joy and celebration centered around people that everyone present genuinely loves. (Even the most awkward wedding I have ever gone to, in which I knew neither the bride or the groom but was invited because my boyfriend did, was still awesome, and by the end of it I really did love Ben and Dana and was genuinely rejoicing for them. And since then I've gotten to know them a little bit better and I still love them. Weddings are just a great place for genuine love to happen, and not just the romantic sort.)
And you know what? To do all of that dancing (yes! Dancing! It's not a sin!) we need bodies. This is one of the most exciting things I have learned in seminary. I get a body when I die. And it's going to be a redeemed body, so while it'll be kind of like the body I have now in that it'll still be uniquely Brittany, it's not going to have all the PCOS and the overweight problems and the brokenness that this one has. Do you have any idea how much I'm looking forward to feasting with God and all his people, and getting to drink all the tea I want, eat all the delicious bread I want, all the ice cream I want, all the Snickers bars I want – and all the while enjoy a chat with C. S. Lewis, Jane Austen and Paul (the top three on my Christian Heroes I Want to Eat Dinner With list), about how awesome our host is, how much we love Jesus, and whatever else we want? That, my friends, would be heaven. Doesn't that sound amazing?
Now. Which version of salvation do you like better: forgiveness of sins, or the Party of Awesomeness With God and Friends that I just described? I sure hope it's the second one, because that's the one we get. It's not that forgiveness of sins isn't part of that. It's just that there's SO much more to it, and I hate it when people focus so much on one tiny detail that they miss the big picture of God and the huge, amazing, mind-bogglingly cool thing he's doing.
Certainly, you can pull texts out of the Bible which say that God forgives our sins, and we were all horrible sinners who deserved death and eternal damnation and Jesus saved us from all that. But you're missing half the picture when you do that, and it's the prettiest half! This is why prooftexting is such an awful thing. Because then you really are doing the blind man thing, and thinking that because you've held the elephant's tail, the elephant must be a rope. Only you're really worse, because you're just willfully squeezing your eyes shut, and if you'd just open them up you'd see that the rope is a very tiny part of a very big elephant, and you're missing out on some of its cooler features, like its awesomely long nose, or its big fan-like ears.
So, can I please, please, please ask my dear brothers and sisters in Christ to stop holding on to every little detail with such an iron grip? There are things about God that we don't know. That's okay. He's God – we don't have to know everything about him, like he knows everything about us. There are things we can hold loosely. If God did not create the world in six literal days and if perhaps he used some kind of evolution to get some of his work done, it will not be the end of Christianity. He's God – I think he can use whatever he wants to. Focus on holding tightly to the more important truths: God is love, he loves us so much that he gave his life so that we could be with him forever, and he will never ever stop being as awesome as he is right now and has always been. The rest of it doesn't matter one billionth as much as that. As long as we have that one truth, the rest of it we can hold lightly in our grasp and know that we're just trying to make sense of what we think we understand, and we don't have all the answers. But God does, and that is enough.