I never cease to be amazed at how Christianized church people aren’t.
Just because you have the freedom to accept or reject whatever you want, it doesn’t mean that reality tailors itself locally to your opinions. Even if you don’t believe in gravity, you will die if you jump off a cliff; even if you do not understand aerodynamics, airplanes still fly. A person’s right to believe a falsehood doesn’t make the falsehood true. It only means the person believes a falsehood. This must apply to theological truth too, or theology is about nothing. If there is any spiritual reality at all, it is possible to make a false statement about it.
In objective reality, we can be wrong, because objective reality stands outside our beliefs and opinions. In a subjective reality, like a dream, we can never be wrong, because that subjective reality consists of our beliefs and opinions. In objective reality, we may think that we are alone when others are with us. In a dream, we may think that others are with us but we are alone.
We rightly recognize that no one has a prefect understanding of objective reality, and that no one should claim that they do. We rightly recognize that it is good to be tolerant of other people’s beliefs, because they could be right, or even just because it is polite. So far, we’ve got it right. Since the truth about objective reality is independent of anyone’s beliefs, it is our task to investigate it, to refine our knowledge about it, and to conform our beliefs to it. For that we need teachers as guides. Those teachers must recognize that they cannot have full knowledge of the Truth, because it is greater than they are, and that we only chose them to be our guides because we see that they are ahead of us on the path.
I propose that if there is no objective spiritual reality, that if it is not possible to make a false theological statement, there can be no hell, but that also means there can be no heaven. If it is all subjective, one of two things happen at death: our private deity, who lives in our brain, dies with us, and that is the end of us; or we each go to our own heaven, isolated from all others, because no two people share the exact same subjective reality.
You can only tolerate a disagreement. Tolerance says, “I believe you are wrong, but you have the right to be wrong, I will leave you in peace.” These days, however, we tend to believe that tolerance means agreement, that tolerance means believing that everyone is right in their own private universe, which means that no one needs spiritual healing.
I Didn’t Follow my Own Advice
Some years ago, I was looking out the window at work. All of a sudden, a fierce storm came up. The wind blew, the rain fell, and it was very violent. I said, “This looks like a hurricane!” to my coworkers.
Then suddenly I remembered the tornado when I was caring for a friend in hospice in my home. My mother was screaming that the tornado was coming right at us, that it was ripping the second floor off buildings in the neighborhood, and that the man on television said we should be in the basement. I looked out the window and I saw the trees touching their toes. I saw branches and metal objects fly parallel to the ground. I was worried the front door would pop open under the strain. But my friend was paralyzed and blind and on the second floor. I had returned the wheelchair to the rental company, so I could not move him, and even with a wheelchair, I could not get him down two flights of stairs in time. If anything happened to him while I abandoned him for my personal safety, I would never survive the trauma. So I stayed on the second floor, grabbed the railing of his bed, and prayed. Hard. The tornado came straight for the house—and jumped over it. My house was dead center in the path of destruction through my neighborhood.
Suddenly, I was conscious of the office again. While I was looking out the window at the violent storm, I had a post-traumatic stress flashback. I hadn’t had one in two years, so I didn’t expect it. I had seen the weather, and in my mind and emotions, I was transported back ten years. Someone asked what was wrong with me, and I explained that I was having a flashback. Here is what I did wrong: I went to the center of the building into a room without windows and stayed there until I calmed down and the storm was over.
What I Should Have Done
Afterwards, I realized that I had not done what was best for me, because violent storms still have power over me. What I should have done is face the storm, I should have stared at it out the window, and watched it rage impotently. Then I would have experienced that violent storms cannot hurt me, and they would no longer give me flashbacks.
Tolerance is not Agreement, and Accommodation is not Transformation
So to my point. A person has a trauma in their life. Instead of healing them, we accommodate them; we encourage their disability! We rewrite the whole Bible and redecorate the church to remove anything that might trigger an adverse reaction. I don’t think we do this for any noble theological reason. Transformation is noisy and messy. It gives us temporary pain and permanent resolution. Accommodation is quiet and orderly. It gives us temporary resolution and permanent pain. We so this because it is more pleasant now, without regard for the long term.
We celebrate our differences instead of our common humanity. We dig moats around ourselves instead of building bridges to each other. Instead of affirming with Paul in Galatians 3 that our diversity does not matter, we say that it does, and we celebrate it. Instead knocking down the walls that separate from us from each other, we festoon them with decorations and make them stronger!
If Jesus really is the Son of God, incarnate by being born of Mary, then Mary is His mother, God is His Father, He has the substance and authority of God, but we are God’s artifacts. “Son” in the New Testament means “business agent” more often than it means “male offspring,” which is why Paul includes women as adopted sons of God in Galatians 3. Jesus lifts us from being mere artifacts to being adopted sons of God. As adopted sons, we become God’s business agents in this life and receive rewards in the next.
Then come the people who were traumatized by abusive fathers, so we allow them to call God “mother.” This has theological consequences that we did not intend. If God is mother, we are born of God, not artifacts of God, we are of the substance of God, God is not redeeming us but wooing us back into our rightful heritage. This god does not stoop as low or lift as high as the biblical God. What, then, do we do when we encounter people who were traumatized by abusive mothers? Can these two groups of people have any fellowship at all?
Whatever the trauma may be, instead of healing it, we accommodate it, and we end up helping that person invent a whole new religion centered on their unhealed trauma. We are not united, we cannot even speak to each other; we have no common language, no common ground. By each of us choosing our own reality, we have separated ourselves from any other reality. We choose not to live in the heaven in which there is a Truth independent of any opinion, in which God is the authority, and in which we live in fellowship with each other. We choose to live in our own private universes in which the truth is whatever pleases us, and in which we are the ultimate authorities and thus our own gods. That is how we help people choose their own rubber rooms in the insane asylum known as hell, and how we do it for ourselves as well.
You can jump off the roof or you can stay in the house; you are allowed to do either one. The fact that you have alternatives doesn’t make them equally good ideas. We can conform the gospel to ourselves, or we can conform ourselves to the gospel. We are allowed to do either one. The first possibility isolates us in a private world; the second transforms us into the image of God and places us in fellowship with each other and with the saints of all ages. This process of transformation, which Orthodox Christians call theosis, ends when we are exalted above the seraphim into the fellowship of the Trinity.
But there can be no fellowship in a private world; no transformation, no fellowship, no glory, except what we imagine for ourselves.
How To Choose Hell, in One Easy Lesson
There is a way in which you have the power to bind and to loose, that is, to forgive or to withhold your forgiveness. Either way, it creates a relationship between you and the other person that extends into eternity. Therefore, when Jesus says we have the power to loose, He encourages us, but when He tells us that we have the power to bind, He warns us.
Forgiveness is not resignation, which takes place in a subjective reality, and since you are alone in it, it affects no one else. Forgiveness does not mean resigning yourself to a situation that you cannot or will not fix, because resignation does not affect anyone but you. You are not reconciled to the other person in the objective reality that we all share. If someone says, “I am sorry that I did that. Please forgive me, I promise not to do it again.” If you respond, “I forgive you,” then the relationship can be restored.
If you never ask another person for their forgiveness, you cannot receive it, and if you do not confess your sins to God, you cannot receive His forgiveness, either. He stands ready to forgive, but you have locked the entrance to your soul.
It’s all about the relationships, because we all have to live together in the new objective reality, after the resurrection on the Last Day.
In the world to come, everyone knows everything about everyone else all the time. If two people aren’t on speaking terms, they both cannot go, not because one is thrown out, but because one refuses. Therefore you must seek to forgive and to be forgiven, and to live, so far as it is up to you, with everyone in peace. If anyone chooses hell to avoid someone in heaven, don’t let it be you.
[Jesus said] “If anyone listens to my sayings, and doesn’t believe, I don’t judge him. For I came not to judge the world, but to save the world."
—John 12:47-50, WEB
That is why I say that God does not need to send anyone to hell, because they choose to go there themselves. That gave rise to the question, “Why anyone would choose hell?” We can’t know why, but we can see how, since people are doing it all around us. They choose their own private reality that no one else can share. They do not reconcile themselves with their enemies, let alone with the people from whom they are alienated. They choose an eternal solitary confinement.
With whatever judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with whatever measure you measure, it will be measured to you.
—Matthew 7:2, WEB
Preaching Truth without Bossing People Around
Now and then we read an article in the religion section of the daily paper, with a photograph of a grinning theologian next to it. In the article, the theologian explains how modern advances have reduced the Christian message to myth, and gives us permission to be Christians without believing anything and without doing anything.
The power to loose requires the same authority as the power to bind; therefore, giving people permission to disbelieve is just as authoritarian as requiring them to believe. If I say that my parishioners don’t have to believe what a biblical writer advocates, then I am making myself out to have more authority than the Bible. I don’t have that authority, because I am just a human being who can be wrong. Nevertheless, just as a lawyer is obligated to argue his client’s case, I am obligated to argue the historic Church’s case. I argue for the Truth of the Church, the Truth of the apostles, the Truth of our Lord Jesus Christ; the Truth that is the basis of all reality. My listeners are the ones with the right to decide whether I’m right or wrong, and whether to believe or disbelieve. Even then, I don’t have the authority to reward them if they do or to penalize them if they don’t.
But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?
—Romans 10:14, NRSV
How can anyone make an informed decision about historic Christian orthodoxy if they never hear anyone advocate it? Unless I argue the historic Church’s case, my listeners are not really free to decide at all.
And so I preach: What shall we choose? Shall we choose what pleases us, shall we believe what pleases us, should we worship in the way that pleases us, even if it seems a little strange to God? Or should we work hard to choose what is true, to believe what is true, and to worship in the way that pleases God, even if it seems a little strange to us? If we strive to find the God who lives outside us, if we strive to be reconciled to everyone, if we strive to conform ourselves to the outside reality that is the Truth, then we fall before the throne of God in worship, with the people who cannot be numbered, from every nation, and century, and language.
If we make up our own religion with the things that suit our taste, we choose a reality that no one else shares; we have chosen eternal solitary confinement, and if that isn’t choosing hell, what is?