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The Grace Project

Is Our Brand of Christianity Really Christian?

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The Lord often has a nice way of bookending things.   Two recent events served to ensure that the half-filled bookshelf that is the state of my thinking about a particular subject didn’t fall over.   Here’s the thing, I’m becoming increasingly troubled by the blind literalism that seems to frustrate any open debate among so called ‘Bible-believing-Christians.’  
The further I venture into what one might call the second-half of life (the first half-of-life being characterized by absolutism, knowledge and the maddening need to be right rather than being comfortable with ambiguity, wisdom and the freedom from the compulsion to have to validate oneself) the more I see that what we call heresy doesn’t necessarily mean that someone believes something that is unbiblical, what it means is that that person holds a view that is unorthodox: thus a heretic is someone who has any opinions or doctrines at variance with the official or orthodox position.   
To the Pharisees Jesus was a heretic!  It is clear from John’s gospel (e.g. chapter 7) that among the Jews a Rabbi’s teaching derived its authority from the fact of its accordance with TRADITION.  Heresy it seems is not heretical because it is contrary to the Bible it is heresy because it disagrees with accepted bible teacher teachings.   In Jesus’ day He confronted those who’s teaching honoured the letter that kills but strangled the Spirit that gives life.   
So with that in mind back to my bookends:  They were placed on my ‘shelf’ either side of our recent trip to Atlanta.   Allow me to explain: 
I don't make a habit of reading the New Statesman Magazine (NS) but one of the many comforts of the BA lounge at T5 is that you get to hoover-up the complementary magazines.  So there we were, Hayley leisurely flicking through a stack of promising looking glossies whilst yours truly had his head buried in the 5-18th April edition of NS.  
There was much to keep me occupied until BA227 to Atlanta was called including a mouth-watering hors d'oeuvre entitled "Islam can do without Simon Cowell".   It was a hard-hitting rant by Mehdi Hasan about the idiocy of heralding celebrity conversions to Islam (an article that might be worth publishing in a number of Christian magazines me thinks).  It seems that Mr. Cowell is under some pressure to convert to Islam in order to please the family of his fiancee Mezhgan Hussainy (yeah right! - I can't quite see the Malcolm X Factor going over too big on TV somehow.)  
Anyway I digress, it was the cover story entitled "Faith Speaks Volumes" grabbed my attention.  Courtesy of the NS readers were provided with an at-a-glance guide to the world's major religions.  A Smörgåsbord of implausibility structures if ever there was one.  
Now for the jaw-dropping bit --the overview of "Christianity" billed as the world's largest religion.  Apparently some 2.1 billion of us are adherents to a religion who having carefully read the characteristics of are well, how can I put it delicately?  - Ah yes NOT CHRISTIAN!  
In the UK at least we’re living through times when "Christians" are being seriously marginalized. Some would say that Christians are persecuted in Dawkins-Deluded-Britain (Richard Dawkins is the author of an extremely influential book entitled The God Delusion.  
Dawkins, is an atheist, he does not believe in God.  I'm a Christian and I do 
believe in God.  However, I'm alarmed to say that I'm becoming less and less certain that I believe in God that the vast majority of 'Christians' apparently believe in.  
I want to draw your particular attention to 'what is prayer for?' what is goodness? and 'what comes next?'   Have a read …

Christianity At A Glance


There is one God, who consists of three "persons": The Father, The Son and the Holy Spirit.


The Book of Genesis records that God created the earth and the universe from nothing in six days and six nights.


It involves praising God, surrendering to His will and recognising the need for His forgiveness.  For Catholics, it also involves petitioning the Virgin Mary or particular saints for intercession


Christians must model themselves on Jesus's life and teachings, which emphasise the love of God and the love of one's neighbour 


On the Day of Judgment, devout Christians will undergo a bodily resurrection and God's eternal Kingdom, which will descend from heaven to earth. Sinners - that is everyone else will be cast into hell.


We must live by Jesus's teachings in order to reach God's kingdom, a place of peace and happiness with no sickness, grief or death. (no comment)



If you're part of the grace community then I can guarantee that you’re   horrified by the ‘What is Prayer For?’ and the ‘What is Goodness?’ sections but my guess is that the 'What Comes Next?' section didn’t phase you at all.  
I have to confess to you that when I read it, it really got my (sheep and) goat. Now before you dive off the deep end I believe in the existence of Hell.  I am not a Universalist, but I can't reconcile in my mind the ‘Christian’ concept of Hell with the Bible’s vision of the nature of God.  I believe in Hell but what I know about God is forcing me to rethink how Hell fits into the plan of redemption.    
In the in-box this week was a troubling note from someone who'd attended the Radically Better Conference.   The sender begun by saying that they'd thoroughly enjoyed the Conference until the Q&A session. 
So what you may ask happened in the Q&A that caused the writer to have a change of mind?    Well it was to do with a couple of responses that I (not Steve McVey) gave regarding the subject of Hell.
In the e-mail the sender wanted to know, in light of what I said, what my take was on various verses.  They proceeded to rattle of a series of texts that included all sorts of dark images about sheep and goats and people being cast into outer darkness.   
Now remember I believe in the existence of Hell show you're pushing against an open trap-door with me on that one.   Since we’re here, it is worth reminding ourselves that the shepherd is shepherd of both the sheep and the goats and he is the one and the same shepherd who laid down his life for both the sheep and the goats.   
We must learn to challenge our assumptions if we’re going to grow.  Seeing doesn’t come easily when we’re blinded by literalism.  Yet we must accept that for every Matthew 25:32-46 there is a John 12:31-32, for every Matthew 12:34 there is a Romans 5:18-19, for every John 14:6 there is a 1Timothy 4:9-10, for every Hebrews 3:17-19 there is a 1 Corinthians 15:25-28 and so on and so forth.
But here's the thing that troubles me the most -- surely the most thrilling (albeit most shocking) thing that was discussed at the conference was the situation regarding Hell.   
It was whilst I was working on the manuscript for my book Safe & Sound that I first realised that if I were to embrace God is Love (1 John 4:8) as a total truth then it would not be too long before I found myself estranged from mainstream evangelical thought.   
The gravitational pull of the Gospel is restoration through love not retribution through wrath.  I'm stuck.  I'm stuck because I can't quite square the circle that is the nature and sovereignty of God with this bleak and frankly seemingly unchristian view of Him. 
So I find myself as one of an increasing number of people who having 'repented' (by that I mean changed my mind concerning the essential nature of God) coming back to the Scripture this time looking through the spectacles of love to explore whether is another way of seeing things. 
I should say that I'm not fixed in anything yet save for the fact that what I used to take as read I simply can't read in Scripture any more because it simply isn't there.  I've seen the cow of love (for those of you who were at conference) and I just can't un-see it.  I just can't!  It's there. Whereas I couldn't see it before I cannot not see it now.  
So now I'm left with the thrilling opportunity to explore what might be out there driven by the biblical axiom that love always hopes.   I see hell as real place with real people inhabiting it.  But, and here's the big difference. To me the purpose of hell is not to punish it is to restore and rehabilitate.    
I appreciate that the leap of faith that is required for my grey to be either black or white is that one has to allow for the possibility of redemption beyond the grave.  
I get that and I get that fact that people who are black and white have dismissed that as being heresy, but first and foremost lets not forget that heresy is to disagree with what tradition teaches about Scripture not what the Bible actually means and you need to know that there can be a world of difference between what something says and what it means.  I hope I made that case clearly enough at the conference. 
Be that as it may can you think of anything more heretical than teaching that God's going to make 90% of the world burn in hell for ever and feel good about it?   
I think that idea that we might have a hope for those who did not accept Jesus in this life to receive him in the next to be the most thrilling thought imaginable.  Don't hate me for hoping.
I have an irreducible belief in the (1) faith as a prerequisite of salvation (2) and unwavering conviction in the finished work of the Cross.   I know that the work of Last Adam trumped the work of First Adam and I know that First Adam caused us all to die --  I guess what I'm saying is this love has caused me to hope that It will be all right in the end and even if it isn't knowing God as I do, I've got a hunch that its not the end …