A few weeks ago I took my wife’s car to get new wiper blades. Whatever radio station she had been listening to was garbled and staticky, so I turned the dial one notch to the right and picked up a strong clear signal from some Christian network. It was a call in show with two pastors advising callers who had questions about their faith, about their salvation, and about the salvation of their loved ones.
These two men spoke in calm, reassuring tones that reeked of confidence and sincerity. No doubt they were. Peppering their comments with biblical citations, they assured each caller that they were saved if they had been born again, and were keen to hear when and for how long each had been saved. They gently assured callers that their loved ones were yet condemned to hell if they had not been born again and accepted Jesus as their personal lord and savior. They expressed sadly voiced skepticism that any Roman Catholic could ever be saved. Other mainline Christians were possibly saved even if their denominations were seedbeds of the devil’s work. It all depended on whether they had been born again. Needless to say, they had no doubts about the eternal future of homosexuals who refused to give up their “life style.” Non Christians were without hope.
The callers were equally sincere, grateful for the answers to their questions and guidance for their lives. They were especially heartened to know that they had been saved, and most of them renewed their intention to do what they could to assure the salvation of their loved ones. At no time did I hear any mention of engaging with the world as agents of God’s kingdom in which the oppressed and marginalized are set free, and the broken healed. It was all getting into heaven after you die, or avoiding burning forever in hell. Is that what Christianity is about?
Maybe the ten or fifteen minutes to get to the dealer’s service bay was not enough time, but it was enough for me. Their theology is a popular one, but appallingly unbiblical no matter how many verses can be cited. It’s formulaic and legalistic. It expresses certainty about things that are uncertain. It compresses God into a tightly defined configuration that is fully reflective of the contemporary cultural values of a portion of the American public while simultaneously promising escape from the dangers of what they claim is the dominant culture.
There is another side. I ran into a brief post on a Facebook site called “Kissing Fish” that caught my eye. Whoever posted it said: “I don’t follow Jesus in order to go to heaven when I die — or conversely, to avoid going to hell. That’s a cheap form of faith that is really nothing more than fire insurance. I follow Jesus here and now for the sake of experiencing salvation (which means “wholeness” and “healing”) here and now – and to help others do the same.” I like that. Is heaven unimportant? No. Whatever heaven may turn out to be, it is our Christian destiny. However, in our affirmation of the truth of God as one God whom we experience through Jesus as Father, Son, and Spirit, we cannot deny that destiny to others, nor can we establish the rules by which God chooses to work things out.
Having said that, there is a plus side to the radio gang’s approach. Because we Episcopalians have a different theology of salvation, one solidly grounded in what some call incarnational theology, we are less inclined toward vigorous evangelism. In fact we are just plain lousy at it. On the other hand, because they are convinced that their loved ones will burn in hell unless they are saved according to the formula, they have every incentive to be as vigorous and forceful as possible. The eternal lives of others depends on them, and woe if they do not bend to the task of saving as many as possible. We could use some of that fervor. Not too much. All things in moderation. We are Episcopalians after all.