Generous Orthodoxy

Measuring the Width of the Narrow Door

I have expressed my discomfort at the very idea of hell; however, it is not because of discomfort that we must be generous with our orthodoxy. An aversion to eternal punishment may be emotional, but diffidence in proclaiming it–that is demanded by simple logic.

We cannot believe that anyone who rejects a handful of facts pertaining to Jesus Christ is damned, and that anyone who accepts these facts is saved. Even the most fundamentalist Christian will agree with the latter statement. The former is often contested. But one need not contest this in order to believe that Jesus is the “Way, the Truth and the Life,” as it is possible to walk down a road without knowing its name.

Imagine that some evangelists give a Bible to indigenous tribesmen in South America, and that this tribe converts to Christianity. However, it turns out that someone performed a search-and-replace on this Bible, replacing “Jesus” with “Obama.” Is this tribe going to hell? I don’t think so. Now, imagine that all of Paul’s epistles are missing, which is a big deal, considering that the evangelists believe in a very Pauline Christianity. Hell? Probably not, unless everyone who met Jesus in person is going there too. Finally, imagine that when the tribe hears the gospel message, they exclaim “We knew it! We believed something just like this before you got here, but now we know what it’s called.” Minutes later, a volcano erupts and kills everyone on the island. Did the evangelists save all those souls by arriving a few minutes early?

I am loath to force the point, but it is an untenable theology that regards people as saved or damned solely on account of factual knowledge. To sustain the idea that God sorts people at all—what with their transition through person-states, and extreme circumstantial differences—is a mind-rending exercise in an of itself. But to presume an understanding of what the outcome will be? This entirely misses the point of believing such things in the first place. The doctrines that we consider orthodox are a collection of words and ideas that do not necessarily correspond to anything consistent in all the people who believe them. You may think that you believe otherwise, but I’m pretty sure that you don’t.

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One Response to “Generous Orthodoxy”

  1. Stephanie Says:

    I tend to stick to “Whatever is not of faith is sin” and “For one who knows something good to do and does not do it, to him it is sin.” Thus, those with more factual knowledge are held responsible for understanding and following its teachings, and those without are held responsible for what they might reasonably come to understand on their own through searching their consciences and observing the world around them.

    The ultimate point that should not be overlooked, though, is that no man can know the fate of another man’s soul; all we can do is encourage and exhort one another to grow in godliness, starting from wherever we are spiritually right now.

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