The death of twenty one Egyptian Coptic Christians at the hands of ISIS in Libya has rightly grabbed the headlines in the Western press. Without reading all the details of their grisly deaths, it was apparent that these men called on Jesus as they died. The appalling actions of the murderous Islamic faction have for many created a new crop of martyrs for the Christian faith. But for one Baptist preacher in the States, J.D. Hall, these Christians do not deserve to have this name of Christian. They ‘aggressively deny salvation by a personal saving relationship with Jesus Christ…… what on earth makes them think that they should be categorised as Christians?’ He goes on to say that they ’embrace a meritorious, works-based salvation nearly identical to that of the Roman Catholic church’.
The comments of Pastor Hall have, needless to say, raised a storm of controversy on the blogosphere. This is how this story has come to my attention. In my comments I don’t want to say more on how offensive Pastor Hall’s remarks are or even tackle his highly dubious theology of salvation. It goes without saying that his readiness to declare on behalf of God, no doubt, who is and who is not a Christian is an act of reckless conceit which I hope will go on being challenged by his Christian neighbours. No I want for moment to try and get inside the place of isolation, fear and mental imprisonment that a person of these views occupies. I see in these remarks something utterly dark, lacking in intellectual integrity or humanity. Theologically they seem to fit into a strict Calvinist position that defines very tightly who is worthy of salvation. Perhaps Pastor Hall will be congratulated for following the logic of his beliefs to the bitter end. But these beliefs are indeed bitter, both for himself and for his congregation.
As someone who was brought up entirely innocent of the Calvinist belief system, I remained for a long time in ignorance of the debates about who deserves to be called Christian. Still less was I aware of the agonising about who was going to be consigned to the pit of Hell. So I find it hard to imagine the place that Pastor Hall and his supporters occupy. To call it a loveless prison is perhaps an understatement. It is a place that lacks imagination, joy, wonder and the curiosity about the world that every child is born with. The attenders of the Southern Baptist church in Ohio are denied all these things in deference to certainty, the certainty of an inerrant Bible, the certainty of something called salvation. Certainty is designed to give you security, but I see only that this certainty also deprives you of all the things that make life worth living, the discovery of a world of wonder, beauty and discovery.
If certainty of salvation is rooted in a denial of all those things that make life worth living, then it is a utterly diminished place. I do not of course accuse every Christian evangelical of thinking like Pastor Hall. But I would point to the fact that his Calvinist world of creating boundaries and barriers, who is in and who is out, is also a world that starts to become like a prison. The person who seeks salvation in order to be safe, may find that their safety has become such a prison. Certainty and safety close down for many Christians the possibility of new learning and new discovery. If I am not allowed to think new thoughts, then my freedom is compromised. If I am not allowed to see things in a way that deviates from my religious leaders, then my freedom is also compromised. To give up freedom to think and to be is a very high price for becoming a Christian.
In concluding this piece, one that has generated in me a good deal of passion, I am reminded of Jesus’ first words to his disciples. He said the Kingdom of God is upon you; repent. I have preached numerous sermons on this single word, ‘repent’. It has little to do with the normal meaning of the English word, but everything to do with an attitude that I believe is at the heart of the Christian journey. It is a translation of a Greek word that means something like, turn around, change your mental attitude. There is also the implication that the person so changing their direction will be receiving something new. Jesus is telling his soon-to-be disciples to open themselves up to the reality that has appeared before them, the kingdom as embodied in his person and ministry. To repent, to receive the kingdom of God is to be open to the person and words of Jesus.
How Christians have in fact opened themselves to receive Jesus over the centuries is a long and complicated story. The twenty one ‘martyrs’ from Egypt who called on Jesus during the last moments of their lives were calling on him with equal validity to any theological professional who has studied the entire corpus of Calvin’s writings. My theological position thankfully does not require me to have any judgement about the ultimate state of other people’s souls or indeed their ‘soundness’ of their theology. For this freedom I am profoundly grateful, just I am profoundly grateful that my God allows and indeed encourages me to go on learning and discovering new things without fear of being led into error. My Christian faith may lack the precision of many ‘orthodox’ Christians, and indeed may be considered untidy. But I am grateful to have it just the same.