I recently finished reading Rob Bell’s Love Wins and Marcus Borg’s Speaking Christian. My understanding of and belief in the concept of radical grace grows stronger and stronger. Simply stated, radical grace is the idea that God loves us wholeheartedly and has no intention of letting us go to hell.
The problem over the past 50 or so years, as Borg points out, is that our scientific, western culture expects everything to be factual and provable by the scientific method. A literal, factual interpretation of the bible was never expected; the notion would have been very foreign to the first century Christians who wrote the books that became the New Testament. They had a rich use of metaphorical language.
In the 20th and 21st centuries we’ve become very rigid on what is truth and knowledge. We come to understand truth as “facts”, as things that could be videotaped or otherwise documented as really happening in the physical world. This leads us to take the bible as a literal, factual transcribing of events and speeches. This literal/factual interpretation ends up making it difficult to compare different stories on the same topic in different books of the New Testament.
The other trend that springs from this tenet over the past 50 or so years is that God will turn his back on us if don’t think and say and believe the right words. If we do wrong we go to hell, forever: one trip, no return. My problem with this heaven-and-hell dichotomy is that it puts the emphasis on the wrong part of our relationship with God and Jesus. We end up in a one-on-one relationship, worried so much about believing the right things and spending all our time on this one topic. Jesus really had a lot to say about this. The Pharisees are the ones who spent time trying to follow God’s rules spending their lives worrying about not associating with the wrong (non Jews) rather than on distributing justice in the world. This takes their minds and hearts away from the work that needs to be done in this world to make it a better place: feed the hungry, heal the sick, clothe the naked.
I’ve been thinking of two bible verses when considering this topic
The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37)
Jesus tells the parable of the man walking between towns who was beaten and robbed. A Jewish priest and a Jewish lay associate both crossed the road to pass him by. It was an unclean, hated, foreigner; a Samaritan who helped the beaten man.
This means, to me, that Jesus is rejecting the notion that we need to spend all our effort focusing on the supposed rules God has set out for us. What is important is helping others; actually doing the work of God in the world.
Over and over again we see the key story of Jesus. He rejects the teachings and lifestyle of the hyper-religious Pharisees to work with the needy people of the world. He works to bring about distributive justice which will bring peace (rather than peace through military force). He is focusing on morality, not theology. He consistently associates with and dines with the very people the Pharisees (leading religious leaders of the day) had to connection to.
Spending your time following God’s supposed rules in order to get to a future promised land later takes us out of the world of need today. I don’t see this as God’s will
The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32)
This story answers the question of whether God ever gives up on us and consigns us to hell. A man’s son takes the unusually bold step of asking for his part of his inheritance and strikes off on a life of his own. Eventually he squanders all that his father gave him and is reduced to living with pigs (not a great thing if you are a Jew). He sees the error of his ways and sets his mind and heart on reconnecting with this father. As he comes back it is evident that his father has been faithfully looking for his wayward son every day since he left. It isn’t as though the son left and the father forgot him and let him go. He was always there on the lookout waiting for the son to return.
The son gives up on the father just as we may give up on God. We consign ourselves to our own hell But God’s love is steadfast, neverending, always watching. Who is to say once we die that God gives up on us? When we are ready to see God, God will be there for us.
Literal Factual Stories?
A note on the two parables. If we are to believe that the Bible is literal and factual, then are we to believe that Jesus was just relating two interesting events here? Did these two events actually take place? Could we have videotaped it if we had the recording equipment? I don’t think so; if Jesus is just relating a couple of stories from the news, these stories have nothing to tell us. If they are stories crafted to give us a bigger, richer meaning of life and our connection to God, they mean so much more.
Demoting sin as the dominant metaphor for our relationship with God (Borg p 140)
Borg argues that sin is but one of several images for the human condition. Other images are the release from bondage in Egypt and their return from exile in Babylon.
“The ancestors of the Jewish people were not in slavery because they had sinned. As slaves, what they needed was not forgiveness, but liberation. Imagine that the story offered them forgiveness, but left them in bondage. That would be a very different story”(Borg p 140)
Similarly the story of exile in Babylon shows the primary image used for their predicament was exile, not sin. Though sin may have played a part, What they needed was not forgiveness, but a path out of exile. (Borg p 140)
I think sin is not the primary problem of many people today. I think of people who were victims of abuse as children or in relationships. When they go to church where the focus is on sin rather than rescue, they take that problem and put it on themselves making them feel unworthy of love. They need liberation from bondage, not just forgiveness of sins (Borg p 151). No wonder so many churches are dying away.
God loves us and wills us to lead lives where we take this notion of love and put it in place throughout the world. Instead of spending our lives worrying and trying to believe the right words, believe in God’s love and go out and spread some of it around, like Jesus did. “If the Christian life is not about measuring up [sin], then what is it about? It is about liberation from that concern so we can particiapte in God’s passion for transformation – of ourselves and the world”(Borg p. 156)
One paragraph in Borg’s Speaking Christian gets to the heart of the matter of the problem I see today with evangelical Christian churches.
“Heaven-and-hell Christianity with its focus on the afterlife and its individualism obscures the dream of God for this world. God’s Word became flesh in Jesus not to take us out of this world, but to redeem this world. Recall that redeem means to liberate from slavery – to liberate the world from its bondage to the powers that obstruct God’s dream of a transformed world””