Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Grace Alone

I was flipping through the radio dials when I caught part of a sermon about the afterlife and hell. The preacher distinguished between Hades where the spirits of the dead hang out until Judgment Day and hell, where the resurrected bodies of the dead, reunited with their spirits, suffer eternal torment. The preacher made fun of folks like me who are skeptical about such a hell, and he argued that the existence of hell is not a reflection on God because nobody "had to go there".

I grew up with this kind of perspective and encounter it often. Think about what this preacher is saying. He reckons that God is subject to some higher power than Himself who has imposed the whole heaven and hell, sin and redemption scheme on Him. God is all merciful and doesn't want to condemn anyone to eternal torment, but He doesn't have any choice. He had to sacrifice his Son to redeem anyone because there was no other way, and even then it didn't work for everybody. That way, hell and evil are not God's fault, so you can't make any inferences about God from the existence of hell and evil. On the other hand, you might consider that God, being omnipotent and all, set up the scheme and has chosen to be bound to it in which case it is pretty problematic. Of course, the unnamed higher power poses a problem as far as I am concerned.

Them as end up in hell had a choice according to this preacher and others like him. All they had to do was "receive" Jesus as their savior to be spared from hell and to get a ticket to heaven. At first I thought the preacher was one of those folks who reckon that just saying or even thinking a formulaic prayer like the one in the back of the "Four Spiritual Laws" tract would do the trick whether you believed it or not. The prayer is magic, you see, so as long as you don't say or think it too incorrectly you're ok.

But then the preacher qualified it by requiring the lost soul to receive Jesus "with sincerity". That's all they have to do, and if they don't do it they have nobody but themselves to blame for eternal damnation. Apparently, the preacher is under the impression that anyone can will themselves to maintain any belief sincerely. Unless it's enough to want sincerely to believe, and I don't know many who would fall into this category, the preacher's cosmic perspective limits salvation to them as truly believe in Jesus. Unbelievers cannot receive Him with sincerity, can they? But belief, including belief in fantastically irrational and incredible religious propositions, is involuntary. Accordingly, belief in Jesus sufficient to permit an effective receiving of his grace is not within the power of any human being to attain by an act of will. The believer believes because he believes, and that belief is informed by the circumstances of the believer's life and his biography, not by his own volition. It makes no sense to hold anyone accountable for their beliefs.

Another implication of the preacher's perspective is that the grace of God is inadequate to save without an additional action on the part of the human to be saved, in this case an action that the human is incapable of performing by an act of free will. Them as don't believe deserve what they get even though it's not their fault that they did not believe.

Religion is not necessarily supposed to make any kind of sense, but this preacher's utterances make a mockery of the principle of internal logical consistency. Here's what I believe, and I reckon it's way more logical given the underlying metaphysical assumptions that I'm working with. God can reward or punish anyone He pleases, and there's nothing any of us can do to compel Him to reward us. There's no magic incantation and no degree of righteous thought and deed that will entitle any of us to anything from God. What we already have is a wonderful gift, and even if we live our ephemeral lives and disappear in death forever, God has been gracious. He didn't have to make us, and He didn't have to make us sentient. God will "save" such of us as it pleases Him to "save", and He will do so for His own reasons notwithstanding anything we do or believe. He has given me the gift of belief in Jesus Christ, for which I am grateful and for which I can take no credit or honor, for I did not choose to believe. This gift is infinitely valuable whether or not it is a prerequisite to paradise, and it allows me to be part of the unfolding of the Kingdom.

As for hell, I am a skeptic. But if there be a hell filled with folks in eternal torment, I reckon that they "deserve" to be there no more nor less than I will "deserve" to be there. Hell will exist and be populated in furtherance of the designs of God and for His pleasure, and none of us will have any entitlement to escape it except by the grace of God and nothing but the grace of God. If I manage to avoid hell, I trust that I will (a) be made to understand its purpose, or (b) kept in the dark about its existence, or (c) not.

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