December 19, 2010

Damnation And Worship

A couple of interesting questions from one of my Twitter followers:

@Ben Weasel - If the guy I just read doesn't understand Christianity based on his statement about damnation then please enlighten me. Because I truly want to expose my kids to some kind of faith because I believe it's healthy. But I find it difficult to take seriously because everyone seems to have some variation of the damnation threat. Maybe I'm misreading it, or maybe the bible thinkers trying to save me in the past have been misinformed themselves. I do most definitely believe in the concept of god as a higher power, but have never found anything from any organized religion I could accept as a whole package. How can a person that leads an otherwise good life be damned in the end for not getting on their knees and giving themselves to the prophet with the right name? How can anybody be vain enough to demand outright worship and really be "righteous".

Some Christians believe that God is a judge who will send us to heaven or damn us to hell based on our unwavering allegiance to Him. The problem with this view is that it reduces God to little more than a egomaniacal man, albeit an omnipotent one. A God vain enough to demand our worship and to doom us to a fiery hell for eternity if we don't please him wouldn't be worth worshipping: he'd be a petty tyrant.

The book of Genesis tells us that we're created in God's image, but that doesn't mean that God is a superhuman. He's not just one of us, only better. Rather, God is the literal embodiment of love; He is the source of everything that is good. Our entire basis for the concept of good comes from God. And we're created to be naturally inclined towards good.

The Fall of Man marked man's turning away from God. This is the original sin. Christians believe that the warping effect of the original sin has been passed down in our spiritual DNA, so to speak; we're all marked by it and have been ever since the Fall. Protestants believe that Jesus Christ was the sole exception to this. Catholics believe that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was also conceived without stain of original sin, in order that she might be a pure vessel for carrying Christ into the world; this is referred to as The Immaculate Conception.

Christians believe that because God is the embodiment of all good, and because we are made in His image, our happiness requires obedience to Him. Not because God's ego needs stroking, but because "God is love" is a spiritual fact, just as gravity is a scientific fact. Since God is the source of all good, when we turn away from Him, we refuse to be in union with "good." God doesn't need us to obey Him in order to feel better about Himself; he wants our obedience to Him in the sense that our eternal happiness is impossible without union with Him.

Some evangelicals like to say "Jesus died for your sins." That's true in the broadest sense but putting it that way can be misleading. It makes it sound as though Christ died because you told a lie, or, worse, that because Christ died for your sins, whether you sin or not doesn't really matter anymore. Neither of those things are true.

When we sin, we deliberately turn away from God, the source of all good. Original sin marks us and inclines us to this disobedience. But Christ's sacrifice on the cross removed the "damning" effects of original sin. It didn't remove the mutation to our true nature that was caused by the Fall, but it removed the previously immutable consequences of original sin: eternal death. For the first time since the Fall, we were given the ability to confess our sins, and to be forgiven by and reconciled to God. And although we're bound to keep sinning due to our inherited inclinations from the Fall, we can continue to confess and receive absolution when we sin. Catholics confess our sins to a priest, who, acting in persona Christi ("in the person of Christ") is authorized to absolve us. Protestants confess their sins to God privately in prayer.

The man who persists in sin isn't judged by an angry God and sentenced to eternity in hell upon his death. Rather, of his own free will, he rejects God and thus faces the inevitable consequences. Hell isn't a place where God puts "bad" people (in fact it isn't a place at all; it's a state of being). Hell is simply a possible consequence of free will. God is "judge" in the sense that He is the measure by which good is determined. Again, "good" is not an independent concept that God happens to excel at; he literally is what we know as "good." That doesn't, however, mean that God is impersonal. Very much the opposite, in fact; the Church notes that God the Father is, along with God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, three persons in one. He became the perfect man in Jesus Christ, both fully human and fully divine, thus enabling us to know Him on a human level. Of course, God is much more than a man, but by entering human history in the person of Jesus Christ, he assures us that he is not a distant, aloof ruler, but rather that he is interested in and involved in our salvation.

When we talk about worshipping God, some people get an idea that we're slavishly devoted to a despotic, maniacal ruler who demands our constant adoration. At best, an eternity of this would be excruciatingly boring; its own sort of hell. But that's not what worship means. Worship is first of all an acknowledgement of God's greatness in comparison to our weakness. It's an exercise in humility, not because humility is a virtue to be paraded around in order to make other people think highly of us, but because we've come to the understanding that God is greater than us and that we can't be complete without Him.

But most of all worship is our attempt to be in union with God. Most of the heavy lifting is done by God, not us. The most crucial element of our own contribution is our willingness to humble ourselves and recognize that our happiness is entirely dependent on that source of all good that we call God. When we speak of the eternal worship of God, it doesn't mean we spend eternity on our knees before Him. It means that we return to Paradise. Each action we undertake - our whole existence, in fact - naturally praises God because we're finally in union with Him. We're not automatons, mindlessly bowing and scraping; we're individuals who experience firsthand true peace and happiness. We don't become slaves - we experience the full consequences of using our free will to choose life over death. We are more alive than we ever were before, and we finally become our true selves; something we were never able to be while marked by the stain of original sin.

In Milton's Paradise Lost, Lucifer claims that's it's better to rule in Hell than to serve in Heaven. He believes that he can make of himself his own God. If we reject the notion that our happiness depends on union with God, the immediate question isn't whether such a view is moral or immoral, but whether it's true or false. We all have to wrestle with that question.

When we come to conclusion that God is the source of all good, we spontaneously wish to worship him, in prayer, sacrifice, song, thought, word and deed. God doesn't demand our worship in the sense of giving us an order; He demands it in the same sense that natural beauty demands a reaction of wonder and awe. And when we come to conclusion that we ourselves are the source of good and that we're entirely self-sufficient, God doesn't damn us to a horrifying eternity as punishment. On the contrary - we choose a lie, in spite of God's many efforts to help us turn back to Him.

Posted by benweasel at 04:01 PM