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Ideas That Challenge our Assumptions

Plato said the unexamined life is not worth living. Could it also be true that the unexamined faith is not worth believing? That might overstate the case. But there is value in holding our beliefs up to scrutiny, seeing how they fare under critical analysis.

There is risk in this, too. We might be misled to believe something that is false. On the other hand, we might learn a truth we had not known before.

If a new idea leaves us unconvinced, our effort will not have been wasted. We will have gained understanding of a different belief, strengthened our convictions and shown we do not fear ideas that challenge our assumptions.

In this spirit, it is interesting to read books such as A New Christianity for a New World by John Shelby Spong (HarperSanFrancisco, 2001) and What Does the Bible Really Say About Hell? by Randy Klassen (Pandora Press U.S., 2001).

Spong promotes an idea few have imagined: “non-theistic Christianity.” By this he means a faith that draws its inspiration from a “God who is not a being but Being itself.” For Spong, God is not a supernatural entity but the essense of life and love that is in the world and within each of us.

Spong contends that traditional theistic faith is dying because it is a concept invented by pre-scientific people who needed to explain and find comfort in a world that was mysterious to them. The idea of a “supernatural being who lives above the sky … is no longer a possibility for the belief systems of modern men and women,” Spong writes.

Christians who have experienced a personal relationship with God would say Spong is wrong about that. Spong throws in phrases like “who lives above the sky” in an effort to make those who believe in a supernatural being look foolish – people who think that heaven, and not the void of outer space, is what you’ll find beyond the atmosphere. He ignores the countless intelligent Christians who believe in a God that is a being but do not cling to pre-modern notions about matters such as where heaven is located.

One suspects few devout Christians will find Spong’s arguments convincing. But his critiques of the Bible and of church traditions provide interesting insights into how a skeptic might view traditional Christian faith claims.

If reading Spong feels like treading on foreign soil, Anabaptist readers might feel more at home with Klassen, who grew up in the Mennonite Brethren church and was ordained as a minister in the Evangelical Covenant Church. Some may find Klassen’s thesis almost as surprising as Spong’s.

Klassen contends that the Bible does not support the belief that hell is a place of never-ending torture. “Jesus no more intended a literal description of hell than for his hearers to cut off their hands or legs or pluck out their eyes,” Klassen writes, citing Mark 9:42-48. “Consequences of rejecting God’s grace are fearful, but the picture of sinners being roasted over an open flame for all ages belongs in the caricature section of the local tabloids, not the doctrinal statements of Christian churches.”

Klassen examines the meanings and the contexts of the biblical words Sheol, Hades and Gehenna (which was a garbage dump outside Jerusalem) – words often translated as “hell.”

He seeks to affirm both the Bible’s “judgment passages and the universal salvation passages.” As examples of the latter, he cites I Cor. 15:22, “As all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ,” and Rom. 5:18, Rom. 11:36, Rom. 14:11, I Cor. 15:28, Eph. 1:10, Phil. 2:10-11 and Col. 2:21. He contends that “hell is that state in which God’s judgment is executed until repentance is given.” He cites I Peter 4:6 in this context.

He adds that this does not diminish the importance of fulfilling the Great Commission, because, in the New Testament epistles, “nowhere is the church enjoined to rescue people from hell. The motive in their evangelism is to proclaim Good News precisely because it is such ‘good news’!”

Whether one agrees or disagrees with Spong and Klassen, we can affirm a statement by theologian John Stott, whom Klassen quotes: “The hallmark of an authentic evangelicalism is not the uncritical repetition of old traditions but the willingness to submit every tradition, however ancient, to fresh scrutiny and, if necessary, reform.”

This column was reprinted with permission from Mennonite Weekly Review.