Skip to content

Judging salvation

November 29, 2010
by

While this article is not a sequel to “How do we know what we know?” I will be drawing on some of the ideas contained in that article in this discussion. This article came out of an incident in which I was involved and in which someone claimed to know whether or not a number of fairly specific people were saved. I felt that they had overstepped their bounds and within a short time I was thinking about how we might know whether anyone (including ourselves) will be saved and why we might want to know that.

I’m going to start in very abstract terms and I’m going to start with other people. Assume for a moment that you are uncertain about whether people who fulfill a particular criteria will be saved. Odds are good that you actually are unsure about this and so those of you who don’t like working in abstraction can pick a real example. Are you wondering about whether people who have never heard the gospel have a chance to be saved? Use that. Are you wondering whether the Germanic tribes evangelized by Aryan Christians in the 400s have a chance at salvation? Use that. Are you wondering whether people who read from Bible translations other than the King James can be saved? I’m a bit confused as to why you read our blog, but use that. Now, given that we are uncertain about this particular criteria for salvation would we be better off making a firm statement or admitting doubt? I won’t specify which way we make the firm statement, I’m simply asking whether we should throw up our hands and say that we don’t know or whether we should take our best (but not very good) shot at it and make a definite pronouncement.

Imagine that we make a definite pronouncement. There are several advantages to this. We can give very definite advice. We will feel that we know what needs to be done. We will also feel confident about our own salvation, because we will know where we stand. We are also going to be much more likely to be wrong, and make statements that hurt people on some level. This will be a bad thing. More worrisome are the things that will be bad but will feel good. We will be able to judge where others stand.

I want to focus on this for a second, because I feel that this is a very poisonous motive. Initially this can feel like a good thing. You can know if your friends and family are in or out. Perhaps this will lift a huge burden from you. But the danger is that it won’t stop there. The danger is that soon you will use it as a means to rank others, especially the others that aren’t making it. Maybe you’ll do this to puff yourself up. Maybe you’ll do this so that you can mentally discard those unsaved people and stop caring about them. What I can’t see is a place where you need to judge these people because you love them. I’ll admit that I don’t have children and I suspect that if I’m wrong here it will be in regards to people who are worried about the spiritual health of their children, but I certainly have seen the ugly side of this judgment.

Before I finish out this example I want to ask a related question: what about seeking out a firm answer for yourself? This question is closely related to the question, “Is this a sin?” which, in my experience, is often asked by people who would like to push things as close to that border as they can without crossing it. Similarly, “What must I do to be saved?” often means, “What’s the absolute minimum I must do to be saved?” As a teacher I can tell you that I would not be pleased if a student came to me asking what they needed to do to get a D, because they didn’t want to fail, but then told me they didn’t want to put in any more work than that required to prevent failing. I have trouble believing that God is particularly pleased by people trying the same tactic with Him.

I bring this up because there’s a natural response to this problem: the minimum you need to do is stop trying to do just the minimum. As long as the attitude is to do what God wants to the minimum possible you aren’t doing it right. You aren’t caring about God. You aren’t trying to push God’s agenda. You are blatantly trying to work God like a vending machine. This is, in fact, far more like the magic of the Ancient Near East than anything else. Take, as an example, the Egyptian Book of the Dead. There are many variants, but the text is half guide to the afterlife and half magical text. The purpose of the book is to tell the dead person (the book is buried with the corpse) what to expect and how to get through to the afterlife even if they don’t actually deserve to get there. I’ve only read small excerpts of the text in a collection of other ancient Egyptian works, but what struck me in the excerpt I read was that much of the section was devoted to instructing the dead person on how to use a set of magical phrases to bind the gods to their will. (I’m aware that not everyone will be comfortable with the fact that I read a translated section of a magical text from a dead pagan religion. I’m not ignoring this, I simply don’t have the space to break mid-thought and address that.) The text assumed that the dead person might have some trouble passing their morality test to enter the afterlife, and so the solution was to use magic to force a number of the gods to serve as character witnesses. This brings into sharp focus the condemnation of magic in the Old Testament, but it also isn’t very different from trying to find the minimum to do to get saved. Both approaches are wrong because through them we are trying to use God to get what we want. (A common Christian critique of magic, that it uses demonic spirits, is not applicable to at least this section of the Book of the Dead, which did not make mention of any sort of power beyond special phrases to bind the gods.)

At this point we should have muddied the waters quite a bit. It’s wrong to try and manipulate God (hopefully we can all agree on that) and I think it’s safe to say that this means it’s unlikely to work. A hard, set-in-stone standard cannot take intent into account. It’s probably best, then, to avoid making such pronouncements to someone who desires only to squeak by on the minimum requirements. This does not mean, though, that one cannot give advice. This is why I stopped in the middle of discussing how to deal with judging whether others are saved to go on this tangent. They re-converge here. The advice for the person who is trying to do the minimum is not to give them a minimum, it’s to point to the maximum and say, “It’s somewhere that way.” The place where not having a firm line to point at could be criticized was that without a firm line you can’t give advice.. Could we advise people without being sure? Yes. We can tell them, “I don’t know where you are now, but I can tell you that safety lies that way.”

There’s sometimes a thought in Christian circles that this isn’t good enough. If God’s mercy is going to extend beyond the boundaries we’ve set then there’s no point in sharing Christ. On the other hand, if I said hot lava was going to rain from the sky in large dispersed clumps the fact that some people could stand out in the open and not get hit would not prevent most people from wanting to build lava-proof shelters. In fact, what might prevent people from doing this was the sense that doing all that work when less might suffice would be a waste. But wouldn’t that just be trying for the minimum?

In short, I can’t think of any particular downside to abandoning the claim that we know where the line is provided we can still claim to know which way safely-over-the-line is. Does confessing to Trinitarian beliefs push you over the line? I don’t know, but it’s the right direction. Does getting angry and punching someone for insulting you prevent you from crossing into safety? Again, I’m not sure, but it’s certainly the wrong direction. The only thing I can’t do is tell you when it’s safe to stop trying to, in the words of Leviticus, “Be holy because I [the Lord] am holy”. But then again, I don’t think it ever is.

On the flip side, I can think of a lot of upsides to abandoning the claim that we know where the line is. It removes from us a great source of temptation to judge others. And, perhaps more importantly, it removes one of the great temptations to see God as a vending machine, as bound by our sinner’s prayers as the gods of Egypt were bound by the magic of the Book of the Dead. Do any of us really wish to serve a God Who must accept the unrepentant, but thoroughly-scared, mass-murderer simply because he mutters a deathbed confession as a ward against Hell? I think not. And, thinking not, I do not believe in a God Who could possibly be bound by such things.

Advertisements
3 Comments leave one →
  1. Josh Reynolds permalink
    November 29, 2010 7:07 pm

    For starters, this article is all over the map.

    “This article came out of an incident in which I was involved and in which someone claimed to know whether or not a number of fairly specific people were saved. I felt that they had overstepped their bounds.” Just for clarification. Let’s say that the apostle Paul walked up on a Buddhist camp. According to you, he should not have proclaimed the gospel message of the narrow way (faith in Jesus Christ) to Heaven thus condemning their fallacious beliefs and “hurting their feelings”. But rather, he should have said something like this: “Hey guys, ‘I don’t know where you are now, but I can tell you that safety lies that way’”. To be honest with you, Paul wasn’t a pansy like that and would be willing to tell people the truth even if it hurt their feelings.

    I want to focus on this for a second, because I feel that this is a very poisonous motive.” What motive? All you’ve done is build a straw man!

    “But the danger is that it won’t stop there. The danger is that soon you will use it as a means to rank others, especially the others that aren’t making it.” These are the kinds of facts I’ve come to expect from you! What kind of scientist are you again? <-That’s rhetorical

    “Maybe you’ll do this to puff yourself up.” Straw man

    “Maybe you’ll do this so that you can mentally discard those unsaved people and stop caring about them.” Straw man

    “What I can’t see is a place where you need to judge these people because you love them.” As you mentioned, kids are a prime example. I’m guessing it pained you to write that…

    “ I’m aware that not everyone will be comfortable with the fact that I read a translated section of a magical text from a dead pagan religion.” It’s not that we’re uncomfortable with it; it’s that we could care less about it…

    “At this point we should have muddied the waters quite a bit.” You think?

    “It’s wrong to try and manipulate God (hopefully we can all agree on that)” It’s impossible.

    “perhaps more importantly, it removes one of the great temptations to see God as a vending machine…” Who believes this? All I see is yet another straw man. Next time I’m bored I’m going to try this whole debating against things that I make up and attribute to others.

    “Do any of us really wish to serve a God Who must accept the unrepentant, but thoroughly-scared, mass-murderer simply because he mutters a deathbed confession as a ward against Hell?” Again, who believes this? Do those that believe God's truth is absolute and definitive and clear believe this? Straw man deluxe…

  2. Eric permalink
    November 30, 2010 12:14 am

    I think you’ve basically misunderstood what I’ve said and interpreted it as an attack on people you would identify with so I’m giving you a pass on a comment that seems to be mostly composed of insults. After all, you probably think I started it.

    “For starters, this article is all over the map. ”

    For starters, you never demonstrate that. This would be a place where I can’t figure out why you’d say this except to be rude.

    “Just for clarification. Let’s say that the apostle Paul walked up on a Buddhist camp. According to you, he should not have proclaimed the gospel message of the narrow way (faith in Jesus Christ) to Heaven thus condemning their fallacious beliefs and “hurting their feelings”. But rather, he should have said something like this: “Hey guys, ‘I don’t know where you are now, but I can tell you that safety lies that way’”. To be honest with you, Paul wasn’t a pansy like that and would be willing to tell people the truth even if it hurt their feelings. ”

    You say both that I say Paul shouldn’t have preached the gospel but that he should also have said “safety lies that way” (i.e., preached the gospel). That’s just nonsense.

    C.S. Lewis fairly notably seemed to believe that God would save some people who did not know the gospel. Specifically, he seemed to think that some people with access only to common revelation would be saved because they worshipped all of God that they knew. I’m in this camp – and would argue as well that some of those who have only known the gospel of the angry fundamentalist uncle who screams at people and is full of hate may have rejected the name of Christ for a love of Christ’s nature. Given this, I cannot say I know whether someone is going to Hell or not.

    Of course, unless you have a much more interesting life than I think you do most of the time the question will actually be about whether Bob who goes to church only irregularly and is perhaps dragged there by his wife is saved. It makes far more sense to tell Bob to do more rather than try and evaluate his case (which you can’t do very well anyway, unless you’re about to claim omniscience).

    “What motive? All you’ve done is build a straw man!”

    This one: “We will be able to judge where others stand.” This is sort of the obvious reason for judging where others stand.

    “These are the kinds of facts I’ve come to expect from you!”

    This is nothing but insult. It also makes no sense. You’ve just quoted me saying, twice, “the danger is…” and then told me that the danger I present is not fact. No, it’s not. It’s a dangerous possibility to avoid. That’s why I called it that.

    “Straw man”

    Both the things you label as straw men start with the word “maybe”, which means that if they are straw men you need to demonstrate that no one has ever done these in the history of the world. That will be difficult since I know people who fit both examples well. I wrote this article because, as I said at the start, I was involved in a debate where someone felt it helpful to comment on the salvific status of others. I feel that this action opens one up to some real dangers of pride – it is these dangers which I have commented on. Please prove that these dangers do not exist. Do not bother proving that they are not universal, I know and have expressed that already.

    “As you mentioned, kids are a prime example. I’m guessing it pained you to write that…”

    What I said was that I can’t see a need to judge someone’s salvific status. I don’t see a need with children. I see a want. I’ve also seen plenty of cases where that want has turned into an excuse to be a jerk to one’s children all the time – it’s not free from the dangers of any other desire to judge others.

    It does not pain me to write these things because, unlike you, I do not skip critical words in my own sentences and then read them without those words.

    “It’s not that we’re uncomfortable with it; it’s that we could care less about it…”

    Did you have a purpose in putting this here other than insult? I happen to know several people who read this blog who probably will wonder about this. I write to my audience. You are not a major component of my audience – I see no real purpose in writing to people who are implacably hostile and willfully misread things.

    “It’s impossible.”

    No, it’s actually quite easy. Again, you’ve skipped a key word: try. It’s very easy to try and manipulate God. It’s impossible to successfully do so but that’s why I choose my words carefully – like the word “try” which does not indicate success.

    “Who believes this?”

    Do you actually not know anyone who believes that because they’ve said the sinner’s prayer Jesus is obligated to save them no matter what they do? Perhaps more to the point I do know such people, so yes, I’m addressing real people. Actually, I’m addressing people who are probably not in this camp but might be unable to articulate exactly what the problem with it is. Identifying it as vending machine theology should cover that base.

    “Again, who believes this?”

    Really, would it help you if I gave names? If I said, “I actually had just this conversation with Joe Smith two weeks ago. He’s a lapsed Catholic and he absolutely believes that deathbed confessions made in the presence of a priest obligate Jesus to save you, no matter what,” would that help? You don’t know these people. You can’t even verify that they exist.

    “Do those that believe God’s truth is absolute and definitive and clear believe this?”

    To the best of my knowledge one’s views on the nature of truth do not show any particular correlation to this belief.

    Most of your comments would make sense if you believed that I thought, say, that all religions lead to the truth. Given that you’ve shown a past tendency to associate me with some people who probably do believe that it’s worth pointing out that I absolutely do not (and that you are generally very bad at figuring out what I believe despite copious posts on exactly that subject). However, most of the comments do not make sense if we assume that I am what I am: an evangelical Christian who would like people to consider the dangers of pride and avoid the pitfall of being a jerk.

    Of course, it’s hard to tell when you make statements that don’t seem to mean much. I, after all, believe that God’s truth is absolute – although our perception is not. (Mind you, disagreeing with me on this will place you in a camp opposite Total Depravity. Total Depravity was initially framed against the idea that some part of humans [like their minds] was not tainted by sin and could perceive God without error. That’s why it’s total – it encompasses everything.)

    Similarly, what does “definitive” mean? I assume you mean something like “authoritative and exhaustive”. Well, I certainly believe God’s truth is authoritative and exhaustive.

    Finally, clarity doesn’t mean much unless we know who God’s truth should be clear to. I, for instance, find the Bible to be fairly clear but I also watch a lot of people get hung up even on basic comprehension. And there’s always Revelation if you get too cocky. I also think that God’s truth includes all the lesser truths of the universe, like, say, quantum physics (God’s truth is exhaustive). Is that also clear?

    Again, though, I’m not writing an article to convince everyone to be fuzzy-headed. I have very well-defined (if complex) doctrinal ideas. I’ve written an article calling into question the need to judge the status of other people’s salvation. Evangelize, absolutely. But there’s really no need to decide whether people are going to Hell if you don’t evangelize them – if you can evangelize them then, obviously, they were lacking before you came. All judging people does is allow us to move from judging to being judgmental. That’s not inevitable but I don’t see any reason to be tempted.

  3. Eric permalink
    November 30, 2010 12:22 am

    You know what? I have another short question. Did you mean this?

    “These are the kinds of facts I’ve come to expect from you!”

    See, if you answer yes then the only possible reason for you to read this fact-free crazy blog is to fight with me. If that’s why you’re reading this blog this will be a short discussion: trolls get banned. You’ll get to be the first.

    If you answer no then this is just an insult and publicly admitted as such.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: