This post from Unfiltered Theology got me thinking. The central example the post used was the existence or non-existence of hell and justifying one’s position according to the Bible. The point of the article was that we can use the Bible to say there is a Hell and we can use the Bible to say there isn’t a Hell so take care in how you proceed within those types of discussions. In other words, the author questioned the concept of certain absolutes from a Biblical perspective. The part that got me thinking was this fairly innocuous (and slightly reworded for clarification purposes) question: “How do we decide which Biblical texts to use to define our theology?”
Honestly I thought the question was the thesis for the post but when it turned out not to be I decided to answer the question for myself. I know my personal take but before I reveal the correct answer according to Minnow I want to throw out a few options. Some might say Paul should have more weight than John or even Peter since Paul’s writings were more prolific and reasoned. Others might suggest when looking at scripture that the New Testament trumps the Old since Jesus took care of the law and the Prophets. A few–those Red Letter guys–would argue the Gospels themselves are the most important since they are filled with Jesus’ words and actions and He is the way and the truth and the life. While, the traditional crowd would insist the Bible in entire (of course they actually mean their favorite English translation) must be taken as the infallible word of God. Period. Exclamation point!
My answer to the question is personal, somewhat Biblical, and emotionally driven. And I suppose, it can also be described as egotistical and self-serving, especially if you want to discredit it. I choose to interpret what scripture says or is said to say based on what picture the given interpretation paints of God. I embrace those parts of scripture that most readily produce an image of God as desiring relationship with His creation. I emphasize scripture which attribute to God qualities of compassion, patience, hopefulness, encouragement, understanding, forgiveness, mercy, generosity, and grace. In other words, I affirm the characteristics that can also be associated with a loving Father. I tend to reject the attributes, or rather the expression of attributes, that are not tempered by the characteristics I just mentioned. Justice or judgement without mercy, for example, is not descriptive of the God in which I believe.
Let me explain why I suspect someone could say my motives are egotistical and self-serving. Because of what the Christian faith teaches I am expected to see God as all knowing and all powerful, a Higher Power that has the ability to do whatever He wants whenever He wants to do it. But because I also am expected to worship Him, I personally need to believe God loves His creation and wants relationship with it. I need to believe He loves me. And no duh, I want His love to be the all patient, all merciful, all forgiving kind because selfishly it’s to my advantage, as a very fallible being, if I’m in the good graces of THE all powerful know-it-all. In truth, the Christian faith teaches that God does love His creation, wants relationship with us, and sent His Son to establish that relationship.
The details of the last phrase is where I tend to part company with the traditional point of view. Tradition would assert that while God (or in this case the Jesus part of the Trinity) did it all, man must accept it all before the all (summed up by the word salvation) is all done. Those of us on my side of this difference of opinion stress the fact that you can’t keep your cake and eat it, too. AKA: Either man must “work” for (do something to earn) his salvation (via a proclamation of his need for a savior and acceptance of Christ as that Savior) OR Jesus really did do it all and we are all “saved” regardless of our participation. I understand how those on the other side see my point of view as unjust. It’s like I’m saying not only should the protesters of the war benefit from the sacrifice of the soldiers who fought in the war but it doesn’t even matter if they acknowledge the soldiers exist. That’s just not fair. Never the less, I must land where I do because of the alternative picture painted of God when I do not.
In order to accept the God sends non-believers to hell point of view I conclude I would need to see God as suffering from a split personality disorder which is triggered by the physical death of one of His creation. Please, hear me out. If an individual during his life time has not been “saved” (through confession) God’s heart toward that individual changes immediately and profoundly upon the individual’s death–no more compassion, no more forgiveness, no more love. He had his chance and he blew it. At the precise moment of death God changes into a monster who demands that His subject burn in endless torment. And the offense which results in this horrendous punishment is not that she abused her children or he raped his nephew. The individual didn’t commit adultery, isn’t a habitual liar, didn’t defraud the government, isn’t even a sadistic serial killer. The person simply did not receive the “gift” of salvation–didn’t choose to believe, repent, confess, and receive.
For me, calling such a God good feels too much like saying genocide based on religious differences makes sense and having power gives us the right to perpetuate evil. I just cannot do it. Power, whether in the hands of a god or the hands of an individual, gives us the ability to oppress others and coerce compliance. But, it does not make using that ability righteous.
I readily admit my motivation for choosing to land on the side of interpreting scripture through the lens of love is self-serving. It lets me sleep at night and wake up with a hope-filled heart. Where do you land? And when you’re totally honest with yourself how do you get there?