Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Confusion at the Gate

Kevin Parry had a dream. The angels at the Pearly Gates couldn't decide if he was to be allowed into heaven. He was once a Christian, but now he's not and the angels have a dilemma. Kevin creatively addresses the issue of what we in Christian circles call 'eternal security'. Since nobody at Kevin's blog had much to add concerning the theological point in question I thought I'd see if anybody is willing to take it up here. For convenience I have presented most of Kevin's original post and a mostly original, somewhat modified version of my comments after that.

Kevin's original post:

Kevin: Um, hello? What's happened to me?

Angel 1: Hello there. You have just died. Welcome to the gates of heaven.

Kevin: Heaven! Oh, my word! I was wrong. God really exists!

Angel 2: Indeed he does. Now, what is your name?

Kevin: My name?

Angel 1: Yes, we need to find your file.

Kevin: Okay. I'm Kevin Parry. That's Parry with an 'a', not an 'e'. (A few moments pass as a large file is recovered from a cabinet and placed on the table. Both angels start reading)

Angel 2: Oh, dear. I'm sorry, but it looks as if you cannot enter heaven. Eternal torment for you, I'm afraid.

Kevin: Darn! I knew I should've taken Pascal's Wager more seriously.

Angel 2: You see, your file says that you are an atheist. I will make arrangements for your transfer to Hades. . .

Angel 1: Hang on a moment! It says here that Kevin was a Christian. That means he qualifies for heaven.

Angel 2: (sighs) No, no. Kevin was a Christian, yes. But he has since rejected the saving grace of our Lord Jesus. He has lost his salvation.

Angel 1: Since when was that a rule? Once saved, always saved, right?

Angel 2: Where did you learn that?

Angel 1: Err . . . well, that's my interpretation of the Word.

Angel 2: You have obviously interpreted incorrectly. The Word states that any person who stops believing is like the branch that breaks off the olive tree. Romans 11:17-22.

Angel 1: I beg to differ. The Lord himself, In John 10:27-29, says that no believer can ever be plucked out of his hand.

Angel 2: You are not reading that verse in context.

Kevin: Excuse me. . . .

Angel 1: But many of the Lord's followers believe in eternal security. Take the Calvinists, for instance. . .

Angel 2: The Calvinists are wrong. It's the Methodists that have it right: a human can loose his or her salvation.

Kevin: Sorry to interrupt. Are you going to let me in or not? I've had a bad day, being dead and all, and I want to get this over with.

Angel 1: Sorry about all this. You see, there are so many different teachings on important issues; so many interpretations of the Word; so many verses that seem to contradict each other. It's all a bit confusing really.

Angel 2: I'm afraid you will have to go back to earth until this is sorted out with the boss up stairs.

Kevin: Does this mean that I will have a second chance at salvation?

Angel 1: Yes.

Angel 2: No.

* * *

My postscript:

Serendipitously, Jesus walks past within sight of the gates.

Angels 1 and 2 (yelling out in unison): Jesus! Jesus!

Jesus : Yes, what is it?

Angel 1: Lord, we have a problem here. This gentleman's records are somewhat ambigious. Angel 2 and I disagree as to whether he is eligible for admission.

Jesus (under His breath, shaking His head in resigned frustration): Why must we repeat this nonsense every day? (To Kevin) Man!

Kevin: Yes, Jesus.

Jesus: Would you like to come in?

Kevin: Not really.

Jesus: Then go.

Angel 2: Ha! I told you.

Angel 1: But Sir, I have documentation that says this man is a Christian.

Angel 2: ...and he thinks that once a person is saved that he can never become unsaved, but that can't be right. This man here is proof!

Angel 1: What about John 10:27-29 where it says no one can pluck them out of your hand?

Jesus: A worthy passage.

Angel 2: But what about Romans 11:17-22 where it talks about branches that, once broken, can't be grafted back in?

Jesus: Another worthy passage. Both are true.

Angel 2: So can the saved lose their salvation or not? Why is there so much confusion?

Jesus: Have you ever wondered why you two are outside the Pearly Gates?

Angel 1: It is a position of honor!

Angel 2: We guard the Gates of Heaven!

Angel 1: Yes, we are both very proud of our service.

Angel 2: So will you settle this matter for us?

Jesus: Those who are granted admission into Heaven come directly into my presence. My Father gave them to me; they don't need to have their credentials checked by you two.

Angel 1: But Sir, the documents...

Jesus: I hold the Book of Life; all other documents are meaningless.(Looking at Kevin) You are free to go.

Kevin: Thank you.

* * *

The dilemma Kevin poses regarding eternal security (ES) is not the typical one. Most people who do not believe in ES think that a certain level of sinfulness (or any sin at all) in a Christian's life will 'undo' that person's salvation. Unless that person repents before he or she dies, it's the Lake of Fire for them. Others, like me, who hold to ES believe that salvation is irrevocable since it's difficult to see why God would originally grant it to me at a time when I exhibited (or inherently possessed) a 'certain level of sinfulness', only to revoke it later for the same reason. In other words, if my sin could make God reject me, why did He accept me in my sin in the first place? The John 10:27-29 passage Angel 1 refers to is a popular one for the pro-ES folk and it goes a little something like this:

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father's hand.

In Kevin's post, Angel 2 raises the issue of context, which is always important. Who are the sheep? What does it mean to be "snatched out"? What does Jesus mean when He says His Father has given them to Him? In context this passage is pretty easy to understand. I won't exegete it here. Additionally, if we have questions about the meaning of a passage we can look to see if the concept is affirmed elsewhere in Scripture. For instance we read in Romans 8:27-39:

For I [the Apostle Paul] am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This seems to offer some support to the pro-ES position. But again what about context? Who is "us"?, What are all these things that are listed? Is there anything Paul slyly left out of that list? If one had the time or inclination they could pursue it further.

Angel 2 counters with Romans 11:17-22 which says:

If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not boast over those branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, "Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in." Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either. Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off.

If context is important for the John passage it's also important here. Who or what are the branches? Who or what is the root? Who are those who were grafted in to replace those who were broken off? Can this imagery be validly stretched to include Kevin or any other individual as a branch?

If you're interested in the answers to these questions there are plenty of resources available and I'd be happy to suggest some.

* * *

It seems to me that Kevin has juxtaposed his knowledge of Christianity against his knowledge of other competing philosophies and Christianity came up short. It is possible he believes disagreement among Christians is evidence that 1) Christian truths, if there are any, can't be discerned from Scripture, 2) Christianity is false due to its internal contradictions which give rise to such disagreements, and 3) Christianity is false since there would be no disagreements if it were objectively true.

Kevin has stated in earlier posts that, even if God exists, he does not want to spend eternity in Heaven. Yet he also claims to have wanted to at some point in the past. This is where Kevin's argument is atypical. The 'ethical-standard' aspect of salvation is usually what's debated which asks, "How good must I be to keep God from rejecting me?" Instead Kevin says, "I reject God."

I don't know anybody who would take the side of Angel 1. I'm pro-ES and I don't. I don't think Angel 2 is correct, either. Why? Because being 'saved' is not another way of saying that one acknowledges theistic or even specifically Christian concepts, nor is salvation validated by or reliant on emotional experiences.

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me....My Father...has given them to me.

One way to define salvation is given in John 10—it is being known by Jesus because God has given you to Him. If you are known by Jesus then you know Jesus in a way that can't be denied or rejected as a mere intellectual acknowledgment or a passing emotional experience can. I am confident that a person named Kevin Parry lives in South Africa. But maybe "Kevin" is an concocted cyber-persona. I could become convinced no real Kevin does actually exist if I were presented with some counter-evidence. Kevin's wife, Cori, is confident that a person named Kevin Parry lives in South Africa. That same evidence would not cause her to change her mind. She has her own evidence. Maybe a particularly clever philosophy professor (if there is such a thing) could give her a moment's doubt, but she will just return home to her evidence. Will her evidence be sufficient to cause me to believe as strongly as she does? No; not until I experience Kevin in a similar manner.

Christians have this kind of evidence (and more tangible kinds as well). Sometimes a philosophical argument or a troublesome experience will challenge that belief, but those who know God because the are known by God will not, rationally cannot, turn away.

* * *

My goal here was to lay a very basic foundation for understanding what being a Christian, or being 'saved' means. In doing so I have tried to show that both angels in the dream may have erred by classifying anyone who claims to be a Christian as truly 'saved'. I have not tried specifically to refute Kevin's basic point (conclusion #2), that Christianity has an inherent contradiction regarding this crucial issue. Only those with some small knowledge of Scripture could even begin to make that case, and only those with some small knowledge of Scripture could begin to appreciate the case against it.


Glugster said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Glugster said...

I was under the impression, and was taught as such, that your salvation is pre-determined. Thus even when born into this world, it is already determined whether you will be save or not. If it is thus my wish to be saved and to go to heaven, but it is pre-determined that I will not, does it not make all my actions and thoughts futile. Why confess my sins and repent if my fate is already decided for me?

I'm obviously not as fluent in writing my ideas as you are, but it would be interesting to get your thoughts on this.

Laughing Boy said...

Welcome glugster,

This question has been discussed and debated for a thousand years and there are probably better places to get answers than at this blog, but since you asked I'll tell you what my current thinking is, for what it's worth.

I was under the impression, and was taught as such, that your salvation is pre-determined. Thus even when born into this world, it is already determined whether you will be save or not.

I agree with this. The bible makes it clear, not just in a verse here or there, but in the grand themes that run from Genesis to Revelation that those who come to saving faith are those, and only those, to whom God has shown irresistible grace. The bottom line of this doctrine is just as you say. God chooses us based solely on His grace without any regard for our 'good' deeds, 'good' thoughts, or any other quality of our life or character. I believe that, at least since the Fall, no person is able to do anything to earn God's favor. We are, in a sense, dead to God. Dead people can't do anything to improve their condition. Therefore, those who have 'life', those who are 'saved', are completely reliant on the grace of God.

If it is thus my wish to be saved and to go to heaven, but it is pre-determined that I will not, does it not make all my actions and thoughts futile.

Here is where our thinking starts to diverge. If what I said above is true and we are dead in our sins, dead to God, we then have no desire to be saved or to go to heaven, at least not the 'saved' or the 'heaven' of the Bible. We have no desire to accept our position as 'creature' to God's 'Creator', no desire to worship and obey Him, no desire to spend five minutes in humble prayer, or reading His Word, much less an eternity with Him in Heaven. But again, since you can do nothing to earn God's favor, yes, all your actions and thoughts are futile in that regard. However, those who abandon all adherence to moral standards and shun God's common grace will face a judgement all the more severe as a result.

Why confess my sins and repent if my fate is already decided for me?

If you have any inclination to repent of your sins it may be a sign that God is near to you. If you ignore or discount that inclination it may a sign of one of two other things: 1) you don't really want to repent and you are using 'predestination' as an excuse, or 2) it is the work of Satan (who is unaware of who will believe and who won't) trying to derail or delay God's purposes for you.

"If God want's to save me He will save me," may be a factually accurate statement, but to my ears it belies a callousness toward God and an indifference to the condition (i.e., dead) of one's soul.

Hopefully this is not the case with you.

This is how I see it now. I reserve the right to change my mind as I learn more.

Glugster said...

Thanks for the reply. Makes for some interesting reading.

Lydia Ma said...

Laughing Boy,

Thanks for the post. I realize it was posted a few years ago, but thanks nevertheless. I was just browsing Kevin's site cuz I think I'm done...and one page led to another and then I stumbled upon yours.