Over the past year I have had a number of “dialogues” with my Christian friends about religious faith. One thing that has surprised me about these conversations have been the wide differences of opinion among Christians in what they believe. To illustrate this point, I thought I would summarize some of those differences with respect to a few fundamental Christian beliefs. And, yes, each of these is a firm and sincere belief espoused by one or more of the Christians with whom I have discussed these matters.
Who will God save?
- All and only those who believe in God and in Christ’s resurrection and who have asked for forgiveness for all of their sins.
- All and only those who believe, whether or not they happen to have unforgiven sins at their death.
- All those who live good lives, whether or not they believe in God or Christ.
- Everyone, regardless of their behavior or beliefs.
Is Christ coming to earth a second time?
- Yes, there are signs that his second coming is immanent, and we need to be ready.
- Yes, but the focus should be on how we conduct our lives so that we can be saved at death.
- Not something that we talk about.
When would I go to heaven?
- Immediately after death.
- Only after Christ’s return. Before that all who die will be in “soul sleep.”
- In my case, never.
Is there an evil force in the world?
- Yes, Satan (aka Lucifer, etc.) and his minions challenged God’s leadership and plan and is the source of evil and suffering on earth.
- No, Satan is simply a metaphor for sin and suffering that are the natural result of humans’ disobedience of and separation from God.
Is there an actual hell?
- No, it is just separation from God.
- Yes, but those going to hell will eventually just cease to exist.
- Yes, and those going to hell will suffer for all eternity.
How and when did God create the world?
- God created everything in six literal days less than ten thousand years ago, as Genesis 1 describes.
- God created the heavens and earth billions of years ago, as stated in Genesis 1:1, but created life, including humans, several thousand years ago, as described in the remainder of Genesis 1.
- The Genesis creation story is metaphorical. God set up the physical laws, including evolutionary forces, and once humans evolved infused them with souls.
What should be the primary focus of our lives?
- To follow Christ’s example of love and sacrifice and to live a life of love and service to others.
- To accept Christ as our savior so that we can spend eternity in heaven (and avoid “the other place”).
We each find our own way to a personal view of the world. So why should I be surprised at these differences? The answer is that all of the individuals expressing these diverse views are using the same source—the Bible—to support their point of view. If they are all relying on the same source for their beliefs, why shouldn’t their beliefs be the same? The response, of course, is that different passages of the Bible are subject to different interpretations. But if the Bible is in fact the word of God and a seamless whole, why shouldn’t everyone interpret it the same way? Perhaps more importantly, how does one know which interpretation to believe?
There is also the faithfuls’ riposte that this is not a problem unique to Christianity; those relying on science have the same problem. Are there not several diverse competing theories in the various scientific disciplines from nuclear physics to evolution to cosmology? Yes, but here is the difference. In science competing theories are weighed on the scale of objective investigation. The point of science is to design valid tests of theories, to conduct those tests, and to evaluate and modify the theories in light of the results of those tests. But in religion the validity of a particular scriptural interpretation is judged by reference to other scripture rather than by reference to extrinsic evidence. One quotes scripture to support an interpretation of other scripture. In essence, the process is circular. That does not mean that a particular interpretation is wrong. But, in light of the fact that there are numerous conflicting interpretations, anyone relying on scripture should ask why his interpretation is correct and someone else’s is wrong?
© 2014 John M. Phillips