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Tuesday, March 04, 2003

Making God In Our Image-Josh started out this food fight with this post
Agape Press is running a story on a Harris poll that found "a growing acceptance of other religious beliefs -- even among those who call themselves 'Christian.'" The poll demonstrates a number of areas in which this is true, but one that sticks out in my mind is the shrinking belief in hell, and the growing belief in many different paths to heaven. This can be attributed to a number of things, and most are too obvious for me to point out here. Suffice it to say that people are much more comfortable with conforming God to their own wishes and designs than conforming their minds and hearts to His. This, I believe, is at the heart of the matter.
Richard Hall returns fire at his site
About two thirds say they believe in hell, though 84% believe in the survival of the soul after death. These statistics are taken to imply a creeping erosion of true Christian belief - "people are much more comfortable with conforming God to their own wishes and designs than conforming their minds and hearts to His" - and I'm not convinced that it's any such thing. First, as I've commented on Josh's site, I don't think the two statements "I believe in God" and "I believe in hell" are equivalent in Christian terms. "Belief in God" (for a Christian) is far more than a propositional statement about God's existence. It has to, because the Christian God is not distant from the world, aloof and indifferent. For a Christian, belief in God implies a commitment to worship and service. If that worship and service are absent, the statement has no meaning, it is merely a cover for what has been called elsewhere "practical atheism".
What that means is that about 20% of the population are either universalists or believe in reincarnation, assuming that all the Hell-believers assume the soul lives on after death. If there is no Hell and people live on after death, there is some place that they go, and unless you're into reincarnation that means that all dogs go to Heaven. Given the liberal nature of many denominations, that 20% universalist figure seems about right. Hall continues to question Josh's premises
Secondly, is it really true that hell and the survival of the soul after death are core Christian beliefs? They were not included in the Apostles' or Nicene Creeds. Scriptural teaching about the nature of judgement is hardly straightforward, and during the centuries of the church its teaching has been complex and nuanced. It could be argued (and I think I might!) that "survival of the soul" is anything but a Christian idea; we believe in resurrection, not survival and these are very different ideas. With Josh, I'm convinced that there are many who prefer to conform God to our minds rather than being conformed to his. I'm very unconvinced that Conservatives are any less susceptible to this than others.
Let's trot out the Nicene Creed
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
The word soul doesn't come into play here, but the last sentence strongly hints at the soul moving on to Heaven, else what would we enjoy that life of the world to come? We might be playing semantics on whether our soul dies and then is resurrected or merely survives death. Either way, the believer's soul makes it to Heaven. Hell doesn't come directly, either, but the section about judging the living and the dead points to something other than a universalist view. Let's look at the Apostle's Creed; I'll use the more traditional English version
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic Church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.
Here, they have Jesus descending into hell; granted, the newer translations will use "the dead" rather than "hell." We could get into a nice fight over what Sheol or Hades means, but to say that Hell is absent from early Christian theology is a big stretch. They also talk about an everlasting life that sounds an awful lot like heaven. Given that scripture talks about us having new bodies in heaven, it's the soul that's the constant in the equation. It seems that while conservatives can be guilty of creating God in their image, they're less prone to that problem than liberals are. The GOP God might be more warlike and capitalistic that the Liberal God, but it fits better with the above creeds.

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