The Significance Of Universal Salvation…. A Wrap-Up

Here we are at the end of my study into universal salvation as presented by Philip Gulley in his book “If Grace Is True”. It took a lot longer to get here than I originally thought but this is a very serious subject so I shouldn’t be surprised. I am still not totally in the camp of universal salvation but I am definitely leaning pretty severely that way. I guess the lingering doubt has to do with all the years that it was drilled into my head that Jesus’ sole purpose for coming was to die for me a sinner. That type of guilt trip is hard to counter. As I am reading  the Bible going forward I will do so with universal salvation in mind and see if that affects my thoughts.

On reason I am leaning toward universal salvation is I’m sure a push back against being told all those years that God viewed me totally as just a poor miserable sinner. I know the apostle Paul almost fixated on that but I really don’t remember many words from Jesus emphasizing it.  I grew up with a very low sense of self-esteem and I’m sure the “poor miserable sinner” mantra  being drilled into me contributed toward that feeling of incompetence. I have eventually come to see God not as a wrathful being but a God who has agape love for all his creation. Yes, he is likely disappointed in our obedience to his demand to love each other but since agape love is all encompassing he loves us despite that falling. Why shouldn’t God’s total and unending love be the primary lesson for all who grow up in a Christian family? Why do we need to fear God when He says he is all about love?  I wonder how much different the world would be if more Christian kids were taught that God loves them and wants them to accomplish great things in their lives?

What if universal salvation is true? What are the consequences? To me they are many and significant. Christians spend so much time trying to get sinners to come to Jesus but if that has already been taken care of then we seem to be wasting our time doing something that is already a done deal. If we want people to understand who Jesus was then the best way to do that is to live our lives as Jesus taught us. He gave us that message more time than I can remember.

Of course if universal salvation is true then we can no longer believe that we will be the only ones in heaven. We can’t believe that the other 39,000 versions of Christ are wrong. We can’t make enemies of those of different faiths. Universal salvation makes the crusades and all the other murderous ventures that occurred in the church’s history totally senseless. It also takes  power away from the myriad of “fire and brimstone” religious leaders and put it back on God and His love where it belonged all along.

When it comes right down to it God said he wants everyone to come to him. Who am I to try and deny him that power??

Paul as Usurper of Christianity?

Apostle PaulSource: Paul as Usurper of Christianity? « Common Treasury.

I am aware that there has been much discussion in the past on the alleged contrasting visions of Jesus in the gospels (especially Matthew, Mark, and Luke-Acts) and the message in the Paul’s letters. There is something to the charge I think (not that I have studied this in great detail); I have on a couple of occasions tried to get into Ludemann’s examination of the issue in Paul: The Founder of Christianity but have never really got past the first chapter, perhaps I’ll try again in due course….

[W]e would be hard put to recreate anything of the gospels’ description of Jesus in the letters of Paul. Indeed, it is fascinating to ask whether any details of Jesus’ life and ministry, any of his words or deeds, play any role at all in Pauline letters or theology. Jesus’ life is for the most part irrelevant to Paul; his death functions as the means to his resurrection and the salvation of humankind.

The words above are from a fellow blogger who is likely much more versed in theology than I am. His are words that I have been thinking about but have not had the courage to vocalize. In studying the letters of Paul I have been constantly struck by the feeling that they have nothing to do with Jesus or his life’s lessons. Paul seems to simply use Jesus as a receptacle for his version of Christianity. This seems especially true for the Protestant brothers among us.

As I have mentioned before I spent the first twenty-five years of my life  in one degree on another as a Catholic. I was an altar boy who responded in Latin to what the priest declared during the mass. As I remember, and I my memory may be incomplete, most of my lessons in Catholic grade school came from the Gospels and the Book of Acts. But in reality the Bible itself was seldom used as a source for my Christian upbringing.  Instead it was literature and books published by Catholic publishing houses that referenced the Bible itself. We seldom picked up the actual Bible itself. Paul was not absent from my teachings but he was by no means the center of my Catholic instructions.

That changed dramatically when, after a fifteen year hiatus from everything religious, I approached a Lutheran version of faith. During those years I found Paul to be the primary emphasis of what it meant to be a Christian. It was strange to my Catholic upbringing that almost all of the so-called foundational issues with most Protestant denominations centers primarily on the letters of Paul. Almost all of their doctrine and dogma are from him.

The more deeply I entrenched myself in this new version of Christianity the more it was obvious to me that Paul knew very little if anything about Jesus other than he was raised from the dead.  For the most part it seems that there are two completely different belief systems within the same context.  Yes, to me it almost seems like Paul is indeed the usurper of Christianity. Me, I choose to follow Jesus. Paul  not so much.  Jesus gave us the reasons for his church; Paul gave us all the rules and beliefs that we are supposed to follow.

I am still working through these feelings. More on this in future posts….

Saving Jesus — (Part 2) Post-Easter Jesus

This is a continuation of my review of the book Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus by Robin Meyers. Here are the quotes we will look at on this post:

Adoration of the post-Easter Christ so dominates the language and liturgy of the church that the wisdom of pre-Easter Jesus is all but lost.

We know that Saul of Tarsus, who never met Jesus, became the apostle Paul through a completely mystical experience and seemed to care nothing for the earthly teachings of Jesus, only his “adoption” as the Son of God through the resurrection. Not only did he alter the nature of the gospel from a story to an argument, but his letters and those written by others in his name are the earliest Christian documents we have, written long before the gospels.

These words above were an eye-opener for me. I had been studying the words of Jesus in a serious way for over three years before I encountered them. It had just not occurred to me that there is indeed a very different view of Jesus by many after his resurrection than before.

The post-Easter Jesus was radically different from the pre-Easter Jesus in the eyes of many. To some he suddenly turned from a teacher of great wisdom into a God to be prayed to instead of followed. I think Jesus wanted us to remember is words more than that he conquered death as he had predicted. We need to learn how to take the stained glass off the gospel text and put back the life messages Jesus gave us. That is what he intends.

As Mr. Meyers said Paul was one of the dominant figures in creating the post-Easter Jesus. Paul, in fact never mentions any of the actual messages of Jesus but since he never actually met him that is understandable. The gospels were years away from being written when Paul penned his letters to the various churches so he did not have them to use as a reference. Paul’s words, even though inspired by God, were mainly from his background and experiences as a jewish authority.  When he was struck down on that road to Damascus he knew that Jesus was God. That, not the lessons Jesus taught, was the theme of most of his writings.

Coming from a Roman Catholic background to a Lutheran one I often found it interesting that the Protestant focus is primarily of Paul. The words of Jesus seem to take a background. Especially now that I have left the Lutheran fold I find it strange that they filter the words of Jesus through the words of Paul and not the other way around. Jesus spent three years with his disciples teaching them daily what it meant for the kingdom of God to come to earth. Since many of the words of Jesus were not recorded until years after his death I wonder how many of his precious messages from those thousand days that were lost due to incomplete human memories.

We must always remember to filter the words of Paul, and all the other words in the Bible, through the words of Jesus.  To do it any other way is just “bass-ackwards” in my mind.

Shouldn’t you read Paul in light of Jesus, instead of reading Jesus in light of Paul?”

I started out my Spiritual journey as a Catholic because that is what my parents were. I came to find out that they were only tepid Catholic as they really didn’t go to church themselves very often but more often just dropped us off and then went home.  Upon entering high school I went about twenty years moving between an inactive Christian and an agnostic verging on atheist. Then as a result of getting married I joined a Protestant congregation.  When I was going to a Catholic grade school I remember hearing a lot of things about Jesus and not much about the letters of St. Paul or any of the other “epistles”. But when I joined the Lutheran church Paul strangely seemed to be front and center on their theology.

Martin Luther’s epiphany was based on Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians about being saved by grace and not works so I guess I should not have been surprised to see Paul not Jesus to be the center of that congregation’s beliefs. It was not until I started seriously studying the words of Jesus that I came to fully realize that Jesus must be the total focus.

When I started out blogging here more than four years ago I promptly got a comment from someone rather high up in the Lutheran church. He chastised me saying all the words in the Bible are from God so none are more important than any others. This statement amazed me because it said that Jesus’ words were no more important than any others in the Bible. Of course I have come, after years of serious study, to totally renounce that man-made belief.

When I came across the words below in a book entitled “A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith” by Brian McLaren who is a Protestant clergy and author, they verified what I already knew:

Like a lot of Protestants, for many years I “knew” what the gospel was. I “knew” that the gospel was the message of “justification by grace through faith,” distorted or forgotten by those pesky Catholics, but rediscovered by our hero Martin Luther through a reading of our even greater hero Paul, especially his magnum opus, the Letter to the Romans. If Catholics were called “Roman Catholics” because of their headquarters in Rome, we could have been called “Romans Protestants,” because Paul’s Roman letter served as our theological headquarters……

He then asked me how I would define the gospel, and I answered as any good Romans Protestant would, quoting Romans. He followed up with this simple but annoying rhetorical question: “You’re quoting Paul. Shouldn’t you let Jesus define the gospel?” When I gave him a quizzical look, he asked, “What was the gospel according to Jesus?” A little humiliated, I mumbled something akin to “You tell me,” and he replied, “For Jesus, the gospel was very clear: The kingdom of God is at hand. That’s the gospel according to Jesus. Right?” I again mumbled something, maybe “I guess so.” Seeing my lack of conviction, he added, “Shouldn’t you read Paul in light of Jesus, instead of reading Jesus in light of Paul?”

Today I firmly believe that to be a follower of Jesus Christ we most put our almost total focus on his words. At best we should use the other authors as reinforcement of Jesus not a replacement for him as I see in many congregations today.

About The Epistles….

I am well aware that there are Christians who believe that all of the bible is the words of Jesus and must be taken literally and totally without the possibility of error in every regard.  On my very first post on this blog almost four years ago I was confronted by this belief by a person rather high up in the Lutheran denominations. I have always been a person who asks questions about everything. Always asking questions has gotten me in trouble throughout my life but never more so than in the secular realm.  When I study the bible I just find too many inconsistencies in the stories and especially about the spirit of God to believe it to be from God’s lips that is if he actually has lips.  As I have evolved I have come to take the bible as inspired stories about the history and yes even the myth of what we now call Christianity. The bible contains many valuable messages but it is just not intended to always be taken literally.

When I came across the blog by Rachel Held Evans I discovered a young kindred spirit. She, like me, is not afraid to ask “why” even to the biblical text.  She learned much earlier in her life than I that in mine that the bible contains valuable stories about Jesus and God but was not dictated, either literally or otherwise, by God. Here is an excerpt from one of her postings.

The epistles were never meant to be interpreted and applied as universal law. Rather, they provide us with an instructive and inspired glimpse into how Jesus’ teachings were lived out by real people, in real communities, facing real challenges. It is not the details found in the letters that we should seek to imitate, but rather the attitudes. The details (head coverings, circumcision, meat offered to idols, widow management, hair length, etc.) are rarely timeless, but the attitudes (“as much as it depends on you, live peaceably with all men,” “do not cause your brother to stumble,” “avoid the appearance of evil”) provide guidelines that can instruct us as Christians today. So the questions we should be asking ourselves today are not: Should we eat meat offered to idols?, or Should women wear head coverings?,  but rather, How can we find peace when Christians feel convicted in different ways? and How do we avoid unnecessarily offending others by our appearance? 

When read this way, I am constantly impressed by the degree to which these early Christians were willing to sacrifice beliefs and traditions they held dear for the sake of love and for the sake of advancing the gospel. Such a reading does not devalue scripture, but rather honors it for what it is, not what we try to make it. 

From Rachel Held Evans   via About The Epistles…..

Rachel is a very prolific blogger! I don’t know how she keeps up the multi-day postings and I am a person who has four blogs running.  She is on my daily read list and I have just ordered her first book entitled Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions.

I could not have said it better so I will leave her words above to stand on their own.

A Vast Institution Based on a Few Bones…..

This is going to be a short post about the religious establishments of today. I hope this closes out my recent thoughts in this area. I really want to move on to other things about Jesus. This post is based on some words in the book entitled If the Church Were Christian by Philip Gulley. Here are those words:

We have built a vast institution based on these “hints” Jesus gave us.  But we should never delude ourselves into thinking that today’s church sprang directly from the mind and witness of Jesus.  All we have is extrapolation, a few bones upon which have been erected a larger organism.”

As Mr. Gulley pointed out further in his book this is like building a dinosaur skeleton based on just a couple of vertebrae. Its seems a stretch to do that but in reality that is what actually happens at least with dinosaurs.

These words by Philip Gulley have had a serious effect on my life. Up until I read them I, as most people seem to do, ignored that Jesus said very little about establishing a formal religion to replace the then current day Judaism. As Mr. Gulley says we have taken a few bones and erected a vast institution around them. Since we are actually so fragmented you might even say we have established many vast institutions and each one thinks that they are the only ones to truly follow Jesus’ few words in this area.

I am hard pressed to really know what the “proper” response to this dilemma should be? Most of what we know as the Christian church is actually based on the words of Paul not Jesus. I know Paul was a big time guy in the Jewish hierarchy so starting a new religious establishment is where he would naturally migrate. Was Paul inspired by God? At some level I’m sure he was but was it really Jesus’ intention to let Paul and a few others  show us the “rules” on how to live as followers of Jesus? I personally am just not ready to accept that premise in totality.

About the Bible –Part 3.. Other Views

This time I am going to go over a short list of things that are somewhat widely accepted by some twenty-first century Christian denominations but of which I basically disagree. Most of these topic titles are  from texts of discussions I have had with Christians on various topics. I put them in a special category here because they were so deeply felt by others.

  • All the words in the Bible are the words of Jesus (ie. every word punctuation mark, and space comes from God). This title came from a person fairly high in the LCMS Lutheran denomination. He used this statement to refute my belief that some of the Bible writing were not meant to be taken literally. To me instead of enhancing the rest of the Bible I think he was really degrading the actual words of Jesus. I don’t know if he included all of the Bible or just the New Testament in his statement. I am hoping he meant to only include the New Testament as there are many stories in the Old Testament that I most certainly would not put on Jesus’ lips.
  • Nothing is required of Man to be called a disciple of Jesus– Those who oppose this concept call this statement “Cheap Grace”. Anyone who has read even a few of my postings here know that this is one of the very sore points for me. To the ones who believe this I often come back with the statement that if that is true then we should eliminate the New Testament almost entirely and simple jump from Jesus’ birth directly to his death and resurrection. If Jesus did not expect anything from us “poor miserable sinners” then why did he continue to teach his apostles and us through them lessons about living on this earth? To take any responsibility of our existing on the earth away from us is almost to say that God creating the universe was unnecessary. At the very least it is to say that Jesus wasted his breath during his three year ministry as nothing he said makes any difference.  Those are fighting words to me 🙂
  • One verse negates other verses.. For people who say they are literalist when it comes to the Bible to then latch on to one verse and seemingly negate others is a mystery to me? I take as an example the topic above. Most of the logic for “nothing is required” comes from one sentence in the letter of Paul to the congregation of Ephesus.  That verse Ephesians 2:8 is as follows: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is a gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast”.  These words with taken alone seem to be a powerful  re-enforcement of the belief that nothing is required of us. But if they are put in the context of many many of Jesus’ messages they take on a different meaning. And then there is James, the brother of Jesus, who makes if very clear that, from his brother he learned that faith without works is a dead faith. In the not too distant future I will be addressing the letter to the Ephesians in much more detail via a post to this blog.  But this is enough for now. When I look at all the words of Jesus I cannot negate them simply because of this uttered sentence in one of Paul’s many letters to troubled congregations.
  • My interpretation of the Bible is the only correct one…. In my opinion this is one of the most damaging aspects of biblical beliefs.  Some are absolutely convinced that they alone know the true heart of God and anyone who disagrees with them is simply wrong!! An example of this are those who believe in the 24 hour version of Genesis go on to totally disrespect those who believe in the day age version. The 24 hour believers go so far as to shun any believers in their congregations who differ from the literal belief. To some extent I am personally a victim of this practice. When we continuously divide ourselves over personal interpretations we do a great disservice to God!
Next time I will be talking about a group of beliefs of some Christians today that I think damage the word of God more than help it.  I try to  leave biblical interpretations up to the individual but there are some circumstances where it is necessary to take a stand. More on that the next time.

Does Jesus Conditionally Forgive Sins??

There are many places in the red letters where Jesus appears to conditionally forgive sins.  If you break certain rules your sins are not forgiven. The most obvious of these are sins against the Holy Spirit. I must admit that I don’t really understand that condition as much as I would like. But that is not the only place where Jesus appears to withhold forgiveness. There are many others. Several of them have to do with corrupting children. He in no uncertain terms says that if you cause a child to sin, faith or no faith,  you will not see the kingdom of God.

Withholding forgiveness is something that goes very contrary to many evangelical churches who latch totally onto Paul’s words in Ephesians to almost the exclusion of even the words of Jesus.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God not by works, so that no one can boast.

Did Paul understand this differently than Jesus? If that is not the case then why did Jesus say your sins are not forgiven in certain circumstances therefore requiring works? If there is only faith required without any corresponding actions then not forgiving sin seems meaningless.

Maybe we need to consult a third voice in the matter and that is James, the brother of Jesus.  James obviously was around Jesus most of his life and unlike Paul was there during Jesus’ entire three year ministry. In his Epistle James basically said the faith without works is a dead faith and therefore worthless.  Enough said…. I am one to take Jesus at his word.

Waiting to Die….

It seems that some Christians think that this world is simply a waiting area for the next one in heaven.  They take on the mantel of we are all just poor miserable sinners who are capable of nothing good. So the only thing to do is to wait passively to get into heaven which is their “true” home. This philosophy is primarily accounted for by the epistles of Paul.  Since Protestants latch onto Paul much more than Catholics this world view is associated primarily with them. Many hunker down in their churches each Sunday singing praises to God and waiting for the second coming.  Since they think so little of themselves and their God given abilities they think little or nothing is required of them.  What a sad way to live in this world!

I wonder just how surprised they will be when they find out that God actually intended them to do something while they were here.  I don’t know what the consequences of their inactivity will be? I will leave that up to God.  But, I think Jesus clearly pointed out a different tract for us to take. He meant for us to actively praise God through our actions and to love our fellow man.  To give our neighbors the shirt off our back if he needs it.  Yes, to even being a bleeding heart! Just casually looking at the red letters makes this very obvious to me.

God created the universe which is a vast and wonderful place. He set the earth in motion and then populated it with everything we need to make a fulfilling life here.  Some might say to even make his kingdom come to earth as it is in heaven. To waste all that by being passive is an affront to God in my opinion.

Jesus and Paul Comparisons – Harder than it looks..

I am having trouble with my project of comparing what Jesus said to what Paul said.  There are several reasons for this difficulty.

  • They, for the most part, didn’t appear to address very many of the same issues.
  • There is so much baggage associated with this topic it is hard to not be prejudged by it all
  • It seems I must extrapolate the two men’s actions as well as words to make any comparison.

This leaves me with some basic questions.

  • Did Jesus leave it up to Paul to fill in his blanks?
  • Did Paul take it upon himself to create a religion around the person of Jesus?
  • Just how much did Paul really know about Jesus’ life and teachings?

In scanning the current theological thoughts about this topic there seems to be two completely opposite camps. I am trying to come to my own conclusions about this matter but it is hard to not get dragged into one of them. I’m not sure I am really ready to objectively even do this. It seems hard to compare Jesus’ “oranges” to Paul’s “apples”.  It seems to me that Paul has latched on to some of the parts of Jesus’ message and totally ignored others.  It find it strange that Jesus mentioned “the kingdom of heaven” hundreds of times in the Gospel accounts but that thought never occured once in Paul’s many letters?

Paul seems to be more locked onto the “poor miserable sinner” side of Christ than his side of love for even our enemies.  But maybe I am missing some of that? It seems where Paul is a rule maker where Jesus is about love. I can certainly understand Thomas Jefferson’s belief that Paul took Jesus’ simple message and complicated it.

Is the Christian church as it developed with Paul as a primary source really about Jesus Christ? What would Jesus say if he came back today and saw it’s current state? Would he recognize it as following his words or has it become fixated on man’s rules and traditions? I just don’t know.