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NewsFlash: Christians Think the “Believing in Jesus” Thing Important

March 15th, 2006 · 8 Comments

TalkLeft is upset by Jerry Falwell’s “latest knucklehead theory” that Jews and Muslims won’t get to heaven. Which is a little weird, because I always supposed that the “knucklehead theory” was pretty much a mainstream view: Belief is a prerequisite for salvation, and not just any old Belief—in Vishnu or Allah or Baal or even Jehovah-sans-messiah, but the Jesusy kind. The Bible doesn’t seem terribly ambiguous on this point; John 4:16 has J.C. saying “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Now, for very good essentially strategic reasons, it seems like the bien-pensant consensus now is that the major religions all, somehow or another, have nice moderate mainstream versions that cohere nicely with the underlying principles and values of liberal democracy. And insofar as there are plenty of religious folk out there, I’m happy enough that this notion has some currency. But someone who suggests that perfectly decent, kind, good people will be tortured for eternity for having the wrong religion is not necessarily, it seems to me, a crazy extremist warping the warm and fuzzy tenets of his faith. The view, of course, is extremely repugnant—but it doesn’t follow that it isn’t therefore an authentic tenet of the religion. Most of the major religions seem to assert things at least that crazy, sometimes crazier—it’s the moderate, reasonable version that requires some torturing of the text to get at.

I guess I’m mostly glad that people are willing to do the torturing—that the impulse to be a reasonable person who can get on with other reasonable people trumps the impulse to interpret the “revealed truth” in the most obvious or natural way. But I’ve always sort of wondered what the point is. If the idea is that the “revealed truth” is supposed to trump your fallible human judgement, then why filter that revelation through what seems decent and reasonable to you? Why not either follow the revelation in its full, crazy glory, or just dispense with it altogether and admit you’re being guided by your own sense of what’s decent and reasonable?

Tags: Sociology



8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 marc w. // Mar 15, 2006 at 7:58 pm

    “If the idea is that the “revealed truth” is supposed to trump your fallible human judgement, then why filter that revelation through what seems decent and reasonable to you?”
    I’m guessing the answer is that those who believe in ‘revealed truth’ DON’T do a whole lot of filtering. The numerical dominance of those who ‘torture’ the revealed truth into something altogether more humane don’t believe in ‘revealed truth’ at all, and instead treat the text more as philosophy. Or, they go to church for the sense of community and purpose it brings.

  • 2 Gil // Mar 16, 2006 at 1:46 am

    Perhaps they find it convenient to take responsibility for their decisions (and the consequences) when they want to, and also to abdicate responsibility when they don’t.

  • 3 Gene Callahan // Mar 16, 2006 at 8:52 am

    The official doctrine of the Catholic Church on this point is that any good person may get into heaven. And, if you’re Catholic, that is revealed religion.

  • 4 Jon Rowe // Mar 16, 2006 at 11:40 am

    Good point, similar to what Sam Harris says in his new book.

    1) There are some moderate Christians who don’t believe in taking the Bible literally, and thus have less problem “explaining away” some of the really strange stuff in sacred texts.

    2) Then there are those who claim that Revelation is inerrant, but still nonetheless offer “literal interpretations” that seem somewhat consistent with pluralism.

    3) Then there are those total nuts who literally interpret their texts, pluralism and liberal democracy be damned.

    Robertson Falwell etc. are probably at #2. #3 are the Christian Reconstructionists, who believe as the Old Testament commands, that we should stone to death homosexuals, adulterers, recalcitrant children, those who encourage you to worship false Gods, etc.

    You can make the argument that those at #3 are being the most honest and faithful servants of the sacred texts.

  • 5 Julian Elson // Mar 17, 2006 at 5:11 am

    What if Falwell interprets the texts the way he does not in spite of their opposition to common sense and decency, but because of it? That’s not to say that his interpretation is wrong, but you seem to assume a tension between the desire to be sensible and the desire to look at the Bible literally, at least from my reading.

  • 6 Lee // Mar 17, 2006 at 11:56 am

    Seconding what Gene Callahan said, that’s also the basic view of mainstream Protestantism. And the Bible isn’t as unambiguous on this point as one might think. 1st Peter, for instance, talks about Christ going to hell to preach to the dead who didn’t have a chance to hear his message because they were born before he was. It’s not a crazy extrapolation to think that some kind of postmorterm interview with the boss might be available to adherents of other faiths.

    And, anyway, the text from John can (and has been) interpreted in various ways. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, to say that those who are saved are saved by Christ isn’t the same thing as saying only those who know Christ will be saved. I think it’s important to distinguish between exclusivistic truth-claims and and exclusivistic salvation-claims.

  • 7 Charles // Mar 19, 2006 at 2:27 pm

    Heaven is an imaginary private club. I believe people’s aversion to actual private clubs which exclude minorities, religious and otherwise, has extended to heaven.
    How soon until the principles behind the civil rights initiatives which throw open the doors of private bigoted institution will throw open the doors of eternity to all who wish to enter?

  • 8 R.J. Lehmann // Mar 19, 2006 at 8:45 pm

    It’s arguable whether Judaism truly has a concept of heaven. Most Torah references to Sheol are much more similar to the Greek Hades than to what has become the Christian heaven. And there is also a notion of reincarnation that remains strong in the Orthodox sects, but decisively less so in most Reform congregations.

    In any case, the official Jewish view has always been, back to the Talmudic rabbis, that all righteous descendents of Noah have a chance at salvation. B’Nai Yisrael are guaranteed that salvation, but the terms of the deal are a hell of a lot more stringent.