Monday, March 16, 2009

Yeah, You're a Nice Person, but Jesus Hates You Anyway

One of the biggest sticking points I have with the core evangelical savedness script is the peculiar insistence that Hell is full of people who don't appear to in any conceivable way to have merited eternal damnation.

I was reminded of this while watching the highly entertaining film Ghost Town, in which Ricky Gervais plays an isolated and insufferably misanthropic dentist who ends up able to "see dead people." His partner in practice is a kind, gentle, genial Hindu. Even though he's constantly being graceful and pleasant to his maddening workmate, he's also precisely the sort of person who...according to the Good News of Jesus Christ, American Evangelical going to burn forever in the fires of Gehenna as his nice unbeliever flesh is flayed from his nice unbeliever bones by an unrelenting personal incubus.

The reasons that Christians invariably give for this are twofold. First, you can only be saved by Jesus Christ. Not a Christian? Not saved. Of course, that's not how Jesus describes the final judgment in the only place in the Gospels he talks about it directly...but that's a minor detail. We're sure Jesus didn't actually MEAN that.

The second and more prevalent is this: we Christians assert that you are saved by grace, and not by works. Therefore, or so the argument goes, someone who does good but has not proclaimed Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior is just doing "works righteousness," which is pointless and worthless.

There is, under this rubric, no difference between an "unbeliever" finding you injured in a wreck, stopping, bandaging your wounds, and getting you to the hospital and that same "unbeliever" finding you injured in a wreck, taking your wallet and shoes, punching you repeatedly, and then slitting your throat so you can't tell anyone. From the perspective of the evangelical movement, any distinction between these acts is meaningless to God. Both are equally evil, for the person undertaking them is automatically damned no matter what they think or how they act.

What's most difficult about this for me..beyond it's self-evident disconnect from the idea of "Good News" that it seems to radically misrepresent Paul's essential point about works, faith, and righteousness. What are "works?" Well, they're anything you do. Anything. Building a Habitat for Humanity house? That's a work. Popping a cap into some fool who disrespected you? That's a work. Taking a dump? That's a work.

What is Apostle Paul is talking about when he describes "works" that do not save? Random actions? Any actions? Evil actions? No. The "works" being challenged are "works under the law." What Paul is challenging is the idea that obedience to an external code of this case, the Torah...has any power to restore our relationship with God. Why?

Because law and legality assume an underlying enforcement through coercion. It's how the state runs. In the contract between a ruler and their people, failure to comply with the terms of a social compact will result in unpleasantness for those who mess up. That ranges from small fines to more unpleasant things, particularly if you live in the district of Sen. Vlad Dracul (R-Transylvania).

But if that's the reason you engage in moral action it means that you are, as Paul puts it, a slave to fear. You are not acting as one moved by Christ's grace, meaning you are not inwardly conformed to God's will through the action of the Spirit. You're just doing what you're told. It's a shallow, meaningless, untransformed obedience, rooted in a terror of divine punishment.

What Paul was doing was to proclaim that through Christ, that whole dynamic was shattered and replaced with an awareness of God's grace. Not God the divine autocrat...but God who moves to change our hearts to the good with a relentless and inexorable grace.

Yet when we see individuals who are not law-driven, when we experience souls that seem driven to show care for others not because fear of God but by some deep upwelling grace, for some reason we feel compelled to declare them damned by the name of Jesus.

In the name of grace, a sizable percentage of Christians are willing to be graceless. To fairly paraphrase Paul, "you who brag about grace, do you dishonor God by showing no grace? As it is written: 'God's name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.'"