This is a record. I have never spent so much time, so much energy, so many words on a single blog post. Thus far, I have written 2 complete drafts, only to scrap them entirely and start again.
I had promised another edition of my What I Believe series (where I broke up with my church and decided I’m not sure of anything), to whoever might still be interested in my post-evangelical philosophies (concerned family and new church friends mostly).
The first one I crafted was full of scripture references, arguments and intellectual debate. Like I’d been taught. A gospel staked out in careful boundaries, defensible territory against the attack, with a few darts strategically thrown at the theology I once called home. A gospel of knowing.
The second swung the other way entirely – a way we’ve only recently embraced. Apologizing for the years I believed that I (and those like me) cornered the market on truth. Offering questions in place of answers. Exploring a God who reveals himself through a bigger story, defying simplistic outlines and smug certainties. A gospel of not-knowing.
The truth is, I find myself somewhere in the middle. I wish I had the wisdom, ability and time to properly express the flavour and freedom of this knowing-but-not-knowing journey we’re on (no doubt this sounds utterly absurd to many of you – it certainly would’ve to me, until recently). We are Christians, but not the way we used to be.
The gospel I once knew
In this context I’m using the term “gospel” to refer to an overarching central truth, specifically as it relates to the purpose and message of Christianity. It is used interchangeably in many churches with the phrase “the Good News.”
The gospel I have believed most of my life goes something like this: God created humanity, but we rejected him (sin) and are as a result condemned to an eternity of punishment (hell), but God loved his wayward creation, so He sent his own Son (Jesus) to become human and take that punishment on himself (dying on the cross and rising again), now everyone who consciously chooses to believe this gospel (usually praying a prayer or having a spiritual experience) and live a Jesus honouring life (not as a prerequisite for, but as an inevitable proof of your sincerity) will become favoured children of God and eventually escape punishment.
This belief was the filter through which I understood the bible and the world around me. It was the motivation, sometimes inspiration and sometimes guilt, behind most of our life decisions. In theory, all evangelicals consider themselves missionaries. We wanted as many people as possible to know God and escape an eternity of brutal torture (and we would have been evil schmucks if we didn’t). It’s hard for people outside this paradigm to fully appreciate how all consuming this worldview is.
We all filter
A few years ago, a close relative of mine decided that there were only 7 righteous people left in the world (including him). Because that’s what the bible said. To him. He believed it sincerely, and everything he read in scripture and saw in the world only confirmed this further. It was his filter.
It seemed clear to us that he wasn’t thinking straight. This was not logical, nor was it an historically acceptable interpretation. But it seemed evident to him.
It’s entirely human to see what we want, what we expect. This is how we make sense of the world. It’s how our brains work. And we all do it.
Christian Smith describes this phenomenon when it comes to understanding the Bible as putting a puzzle together. Whatever picture you see on the box, that’s how you fit the pieces together. Some pictures (systems of belief) fit better than others and are more widely accepted, but there are always a few pieces that don’t work as well. We filter those through the words and ideas that seem more important, more central to our big picture, whatever that happens to be.
The picture on the box
My own experiences and interpretations of the Bible, of nature, and the still, small voice in my heart give me insight, but as a human being I can be misled, mistaken and willfully obtuse. History shows that the whole of the Christian church has been misled, mistaken and willfully obtuse over the years, on many issues.
But faith is not about perfect understanding or certainty, it’s choosing a confident hope. I still believe. I believe that a loving God created the world and redeemed it through Jesus Christ. I believe this powerful grace stretches farther and wider and deeper than I ever imagined.
This is the good news I embrace. A gospel where love has the final word; where Christ’s sacrifice to redeem all humanity is powerful enough to do just that. The picture I see is one of “Ultimate Redemption” – that while there will be judgment and may be punishment, in the end, all will have a clear understanding and ultimately be reconciled to God. To me, this picture better reflects the overarching story of a broken world and a loving Messiah than an extremely limited redemption of those who adhere to a certain theology, say the right words in the right order (sinners prayer) or live a certain lifestyle… most of whom are born in a specific time and place where this is a cultural inevitability.
There is a surprisingly strong scriptural basis for universal reconciliation (which has many different forms). It’s not simply wishful thinking. It’s not even a stretch. Some of the key bible verses are: Galatians, John 12:32, Acts 3:21, Romans 5:18-21, 1 Cor 3:12-15, 15:22-28, 2 Cor 5:19, Eph 1:10, Phil 2:9-11, Col 1:20, 1 Tim 2:14, Titus 2:11, 2 Peter 3:9, 1 John 2:2 – for a more thorough explanation of this picture: http://pantheon.yale.edu/~kd47/univ.htm.
This is not a new position. Historically it falls within the orthodoxy of Christianity, though some modern evangelicals like to believe otherwise. Even Gregory of Nyssa, who edited the Nicene creed (which is widely accepted as the most basic definition of Christian orthodoxy) taught this, along with several other significant fathers of the early church.
Final word to Jesus
When Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God, he didn’t diagram, or alliterate, or clearly outline the steps to get in – instead he told stories. “The kingdom of God is like this…” he would say. Telling ridiculous stories about a love that defies the rules, that was, and is still today, a scandal to good, moral people.
Jesus declared freedom to the oppressed, an end to the Law and an inclusive grace. This is the picture I see now, and it fits. I’m trading in systems of sin management, a focus on who’s in and who’s out, a fear-driven and defensive perspective – for freedom. To trust that Jesus has both the power and the will to reconcile all things to himself. To extend the same unconditional love to others without agenda (which sounds pretty, but can actually be very uncomfortable). To see that there is more to truth and to life than my own perspective – but all truth is God’s truth, so this is nothing to fear.
The kingdom of God is like this: we need, God provides.
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Jesus],
and through him to reconcile to himself all things,
whether things on earth or things in heaven,
by making peace through his blood,
shed on the cross.
So here’s me, embracing a new picture of God and the world around me.
Stay tuned for my final installment:
What is a Progressive Christian Anyway?
Why I support feminists, gays, tree-huggers and other crazy liberals Mark Driscoll has been warning you about.
April 30th, 2014 at 8:07 pm
[…] Embracing a Bigger Gospel – why I no longer call myself an evangelical. […]
May 1st, 2014 at 7:27 am
I love this post Christie! It resonates with me because God has been teaching me alot about this too. Certainly about how narrow my own idea of what a Christian should look like! So much freedom is found in the truth of this bigger Gospel!
May 1st, 2014 at 9:02 pm
Thanks – sounds like we’re on a similar path.
May 1st, 2014 at 7:35 pm
A very interesting blog, Christie. I look forward to discussing this with you and Glen when you visit this summer.
May 1st, 2014 at 9:03 pm
It’s a date!
May 4th, 2014 at 8:00 pm
Blessings to you as you journey in freedom. It is a mind binding, frightening, but finally fulfilling way to walk. I like your attention to the storied character of the gospel… it sort of steers a middle way between rigid orthodoxy and absolute nescience. A good story is open, but not without direction, and the parables are among the bet of stories.
May 6th, 2014 at 12:46 pm
I love that phrase “the storied character of the gospel.” It is a scary journey at the outset, but so fulfilling, yes. Thank you!
May 6th, 2014 at 10:23 pm
[…] I’ve added another post to my What I Believe series about my changing views on God and the world and our place in it: Embracing a Bigger Gospel […]
May 7th, 2014 at 3:46 pm
Christie, I looked up the Bible references and read the link you provided and am not convinced. For instance, Col. 1:20 is speaking of ‘things’ not people ( see Ro. 8:21-22). Col. 1:21 addresses people.
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him. John 3:36
May 7th, 2014 at 9:18 pm
This is certainly how I would have interpreted those passages before, so I know where you’re coming from.
I don’t see any reason why humanity should be excluded from “all things” in heaven and on earth, as it is translated in KJV or NIV, or simply “everything” in other translations. Here a few more passages that make the ‘all people’ more clear:
“For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” (1 Cor 15:22)
“Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5:18-19)
I should mention that I don’t have all the hows and whys figured out. There are many different positions within the Ultimate Redemption camp, but in my view the exact details of how the afterlife will play out aren’t possible to grasp, or even necessary to fully comprehend. I believe there will still be judgement and possibly punishment (a review, a refining…), but neither preclude the opportunity to believe Christ. I believe that ultimately every tongue will confess he is Lord (Phil 2:11), but if there is anyone who perseveres in rejecting him, Jesus’ parables suggest to me that these will be those who refuse to accept an inclusive grace which extends mercy to all.
I used to assume that after death we are out of chances. No longer. “For this reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead…” (1 Peter 4:6) I used the NSRV here, because the NIV translators add the word ‘now’ to the passage, which they admit isn’t in the Greek, but fits with their understanding and the doctrine they support (see NIV study bible)- hmmm… troublesome. See also 1 Peter 3:19-20.
Anyway, sorry to ramble. I’m obviously interested in this discussion right now, but in the end, it’s possible to go around and around and around. I appreciate you taking the time to look into this and comment, even though we’ll have to agree to disagree.
May 15th, 2014 at 6:37 pm
Sorry I did not see your response until last night.
And I want you to know that I do realize that you believe in hell-but you believe that it is temporary, not eternal.
You use 1 Cor. 15:22 to support this belief, but the verse is speaking of ‘In Adam’ and ‘In Christ’. We all once were in Adam, but those who trust in The Lord Jesus are now ‘In Christ’ and in Christ all will be made alive.
I also believe that ‘every knee shall bow and every tongue confess Jesus as Lord.’ Every knee shall bow now or when the Lord Jesus judges ‘those whose names are not found in the book of life.’ (Rev. 20:15) They will have to own that the Jesus they rejected is Lord of all. According to Rev. 21:27, those whose names are not written in the Lamb’s book of life can ever enter God’s presence.
I also agree that ‘now’ is added in the NIV to 1 Peter 4:6 to help give the sense of the verse. The Gospel was preached to those who were later martyred for their faith- dead as judged by humans but living according to God in the spirit.
And yes, we could could go round and round with these verses and the others you mentioned.
But what concerns me most is the statement that aion/eternal is not forever. Then God is not eternal. (Ro. 16:26) This Greek word was used by Plato and Aristotle to mean eternal in their writings, so eternal is not a new meaning. Eternal is contrasted with temporal in 2 Cor. 4:18.
And yes sometimes it is translated as age, but that is because it is used with ‘chronos’ meaning time.
Think of the parable in Matthew 25:1-13 about the wise and foolish virgins. Why didn’t the foolish virgins have oil? Did they think they could go in after the door was shut? They confessed the bridegroom as Lord, but he responds, ‘I do not know you’ and they are shut out from his presence. There is no second chance.
Thank you for reading my responses. I felt that I would be deceiving you by ignoring what you wrote and not answering.
May 31st, 2014 at 11:29 am
Sorry for taking so long to get back to this. There is little time and this is a heavy discussion. I’m sure that nothing I say will convince you differently, but I feel the need to show my family that these changes in theology have not been made lightly or without great depth of thought and study. I know the prevailing mindset (because I’m sure it was in the back of my head too) is that universalists are simply lazy and selfish, watching too many episodes of Modern Family and wanting to fit in. Which is why I appreciate the time and effort you have put into this dialogue.
For the sake of time and, as we both know, going round and round and round, I’m going to throw a few more thoughts out, and leave it at that (though feel free to address them if you like, I’m not needing to have the last word or anything; I do appreciate your viewpoint).
In my understanding the terms In Adam refer to our status as sinners (under the law), while In Christ refers to redemption (saved by grace).
The bible is certainly useful, our primary means of knowing and understanding God in this age, but there have been centuries of Christians who lived without it. No doctrine should be held based solely on the dissection of single verses or words, or such a belief should at least be held lightly. Where translators feel they must add a word (such as in 1 Peter 4) to help make sense of a verse according to their interpretational viewpoint, there is cause for concern. The assumption that the offer of grace has a hard and firm deadline has very thin scriptural evidence, while the heart of God to seek and save the lost is an overwhelming theme throughout the bible.
The word Aion has been disputed since it was first translated (and way before that, even Augustine who wanted to define it as eternal, admitted to being a poor Greek scholar and not knowing – this is an old argument). Does it mean eternal or simply – for long ages or pertaining to an age. God’s eternal nature is established in many places, and not simply through this one word, so that is not at risk by questioning the way it has been defined in the past few hundred years. On the other hand, it is used in Romans 16:25-26 “the mystery that was kept secret for aion but is now disclosed” and is naturally translated as “long ages”. For more on this, is a very thorough paper by a Rev. Hanson, a hard read since it is very scholarly and written in 1875, is nonetheless a compelling one on the subject: http://www.tentmaker.org/books/Aion_lim.html
I think we can agree that the parable of the virgins is about being prepared because life is short and might be over at any time (judgement is coming, ect). I think this is best understood in context with the rest of the chapter – first the investment of talents parable and then the King who said the same thing (I do not know you) to those who did not care for the least of those. This is not about salvation (which is not based on works), but about a “long age” of punishment and regret to those who waste chances in life to do good.
I believe that everyone will be given an indisputable chance to choose life or reject grace (with full knowledge of all that entails). I hope that all will be saved, but I’m not sure exactly how that will play out, I don’t think anyone can claim to have solved all the mysteries surrounding it. I’m not sure God intended us to.
OK, clearly I lied. Not just a few words after all. Sorry. Thanks for the chance to discuss it all. I know it freaks our family out and I feel bad about that. I don’t expect to change minds, but I’d like to be understood nonetheless.
June 4th, 2014 at 10:04 pm
[…] questioning and rebuilding my faith (see: Breaking Up with my Church, From Certainty to Mystery and Embracing a Bigger Gospel for more on that). It was in reading the parables that I saw my troubles most clearly. I am much […]
June 7th, 2014 at 9:04 pm
Thanks for writing this too, and What is a Progressive Christian Anyway.
I was reading these when I was inspired to write my latest post on leaving “parts of my old beliefs” behind as I’m venturing out into a wilderness previously unexplored in my life.
I’m very encouraged by your words. Thank you.
June 7th, 2014 at 11:26 pm
I was reading your blog before I read these comments, thinking “wow, here’s a much more poetic way to describe this same journey.”
I’m sure you’ve stumbled across a few of my old things along the path too, or vice versa. Maybe that picture of a disappointed God I used to keep in my back pocket at all times. Or my checklists of “shoulds” and “musts.”
It’s a great picture you’ve painted!
June 22nd, 2014 at 11:36 am
[…] to come: Embracing a Bigger Gospel and What is Progressive Christianity […]