What If You Woke Up in Hell?

Hell   Earlier this week, a good friend of mine was challenged by a co-worker who claimed to be an atheist.  The challenge — “What would you think if you died and ended up in hell?”  This is an interesting challenge, especially from an atheist, and is normally a pointed way of asking, “What if you’re wrong?”  However, when we consider the challenge with careful thinking, we’ll find that the atheist has actually gained little ground here.  In fact, he may have actually lost ground.
   First, I believe in Jesus Christ — so if I died and woke up in Hell, I’d know that I was wrong.  But what was I wrong about?  Specifically, I was wrong in what I thought was necessary for salvation.  I believe all that is required is a belief in the saving work of Jesus Christ…if I’m wrong about that, then I’ll likely wake up in Hell.  That is, belief in the saving grace of Jesus Christ is NOT all that is required for salvation.  But that’s about it.  I think somehow the challenger thinks that if we concede this point, then they’ve “won.”  However, if I die and wake up in Hell, that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t exist.  It doesn’t even mean that Jesus is not God.  It just means that I — and many other evangelical Christians — got salvation wrong.  Going further, if Hell exists, then the Hindus are wrong too.  And so are the Buddhists, as neither Hinduism nor Buddhism believe in the existence of Hell.  In fact, the atheists are wrong too — they also deny the existence of Hell.  And so do Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are annihilationists.  And the Mormons are also wrong, as their lowest level of Heaven (Terrestrial) is just a perfect Earth, and the “outer darkness” where evil people go is just ethereal existence, it is not the eternal conscious punishment of Hell.  Naturalists are also wrong, as Hell is clearly a supernatural place (unless he suggests it’s purely natural, just on another planet or in another universe we haven’t discovered yet).  Unitarians are wrong (all religions lead to God), universalists are wrong (everyone gets saved)…when it comes down to it, if I die and go to Hell, nearly everyone (including me) is wrong.
   Second, when faced with this challenge, if the challenger thinks he’s somehow “got you” or made points with this question, he’s mistaken.  Even if I grant the conditions of the question (me going to Hell), he still hasn’t made much progress in his argument.  He has provided no positive argument for atheism, or any evidence or argument against theism.  At best, all it means is that a central doctrine of Christianity is wrong.  If I die and go to Hell, it means I was wrong about what it takes to be saved.  That’s all.  It doesn’t mean naturalism is true.  It doesn’t affirm atheism.  In hindsight, a fun way to respond would have been, “Well, if I die and wake up in Hell, I’ll know with a high degree of certainty that atheism and naturalism are false.”  Stated simply, if Christianity’s salvation doctrine is false but Hell exists, then nearly every other religious view — including Hinduism, Buddhism, Universalism, Unitarianism, atheism, and naturalism — is also false.
   Fortunately, Christians can rest comfortably in the doctrine of eternal salvation.  Few things are stated more clearly in Scripture.  Unfortunately, the doctrine of Hell is equally clear — so the real task at hand is how to take this question and turn it into an opportunity to minister or witness to the atheist.  Now, THAT’s a challenge!

Should a Christian Join the Masons?

Today’s question is another good one from Aaron in Alexandria. The question is simple — should a Christian join the Masons? Most folks have seen the signs all around us…not just in the movies, but on buildings, bumper stickers, and everywhere else. If you happen to live in the Washington, DC area — as I did for several years — then the signs of them are even more prevalent. Who could miss the massive monolith that dominates the Old Town Alexandria skyline and the King Street Station metro stop? But how should a clear-thinking Christian approach the Masons? Is it just another civic club, like Kiwanis or Rotary — or is it a secret Satanic cult? I’ve actually heard both opinions on more than one occasion, so let’s get to ground truth.

The origins of Freemasonry are debated within Freemasonry itself. Some say it is traced back to the medieval craftsmen in the seventh century, others claim the Freemasons are a continuation of the fourteenth-century Knights Templar. There is no documentation dating Freemasonry back prior to 1717, but that hasn’t stopped Freemasons from embellishing their history a bit. Freemasonry has also developed somewhat differently in Europe and in America — there are traditions and rituals in European Freemasonry that are not found in American Freemasonry, and vice versa. In general, Freemasonry is a brotherhood — a Fraternity of members — who get together to participate in various rituals. They also partner with each other in service projects and other community improvement efforts. Their Lodges are places where the brothers gather together to aid each other in spiritual development and pass on ancient (usually “secret”) wisdom. Also, Masonry is to be commended for expecting high moral standards and a life of virtue from its members — there are many positive things that could be said about the Lodge.

But, history aside, the question to a Christians is clear — what do the Freemasons believe, and is it consistent with the core beliefs of Christianity? On the plus side, Freemasons at every level must affirm the existence of a supreme being, normally called the “Great Architect of the Universe.” Unfortunately, this “Supreme Architect” is intentionally inclusivist, denying the exclusive claims of Christianity. That said, they will not expressly deny the deity of Christ, but they affirm the deity of all. Sure, Christ is god — but so is Allah, Krishna, Jehovah, Mohammed, or whomever else is your favorite “flavor” of god.

Second — similar to the “Great Architect” being synonymous with god — the “Celestial Lodge” up above is their version of Heaven, and getting there is no easy feat. Though the specific procedures and rituals for advancing through the Masonry levels is shrouded in secrecy, a bit of focused research will reveal most of the rite and ritual in readily-available books and accounts of former Masons. Regardless, it’s quite clear in all the ritual that the work of Christ on the cross has absolutely nothing to do with reaching the “Celestial Lodge.” Most prominently, access to the Celestial Lodge is offered to all Masons, including those who expressly reject Christ, so we can be sure that this Celestial Lodge is not consistent with the Biblical view of Heaven.

Third, some original Masonic teachings equate the Masonic patriarch Hiram with Christ. In fact, part of the ritual for a third-degree candidate involves the candidate playing the role of Hiram, through which the candidate identifies with Hiram through his death, burial, and raising (not resurrection). Most Masons are encouraged to imitate Hiram’s virtuous conduct, and to welcome Hiram as a messenger from the Great Architect. The more one reads about Masonry, the more one starts to see clear parallels between the Christ of Christianity and the Hiram of Masonry.

These are just a few examples of the teaching of Masonry…there are others, and there are portions of their rituals that are downright scary (at least, should be scary for Christians). I’m also aware of the occasional (even frequent) comparisons of Masonic ritual to Satanic ritual, but I think that’s a stretch — and it’s not necessary. Simply based on their rejection of the exclusive claims of Christ and Scripture, their rejection of the saving work of Christ on the cross, and the elevation of Hiram to Christ-like status, clear-thinking Christians can confidently reject Freemasonry as clearly inconsistent with a Biblically-based belief in Christianity.

I suppose it is theoretically possible for a mature, Biblically-grounded Christian with excellent discernment skills to participate in Masonic ritual without abandoning or compromising core Christian doctrine, but why? At best it will confuse and tempt, at worst it will mislead. Should a Christian join the Masons? Absolutely not.

A Knock at the Door…

Nearly every Christian in America — at least, every one that I’m aware of — has received that telltale knock at the door. A quick peek through the curtains or the peephole reveals two young men in white shirts and black tags, or perhaps two or three women with copies of “Awake” in hand. How do you handle those encounters? Most Christians I know are surprisingly “unChristian” about these encounters…many don’t answer the door, or pretend they’re not home. Others answer the door, but respond with a curt “No thanks, I’m a Christian” or similar dismissive response, most often closing the door without waiting for a response.

I’ve welcomed literally hundreds of missionaries through my door. Let me propose a new way for you to handle these encounters, one that actually shows that you are what you claim (a Christian), and one that might give you an opportunity to share your faith as well. It’s quite simple, almost common sense — based on five very basic principles:

1. Answer the door. This is often the hardest step for many people. Hiding behind a peephole, or hiding with the lights off hoping they’ll think you’re not home, is not only childish, it’s unChristian. And don’t just answer the door, open the door, actually remove the barriers between you and your visitors. Don’t talk through a glass or screen door. No, answer the door, open it, and greet them with a warm welcome and a handshake. Trust me, after a year or two on the job, these missionaries have had dozens of doors slammed in their faces, have heard “sorry, I’m a Christian”, more time than they can recall, and have walked away from many houses they knew were occupied. By simply answering and opening the door, and greeting them with a warm welcome, you will place yourself in the top few percent of their visitations that day, and likely in their entire mission.

2. Invite them in. Don’t just answer the door, and don’t just open it. Actually invite them in! Invite them to have a seat, offer them something to drink (with appropriate sensitivity to their religious restrictions), and treat them as guests. I recognize, only at step two, some of you may think I’m approaching the ridiculous — even the unthinkable. I also recognize that some of these suggestions aren’t practical for everyone — some stay-at-home moms, for example — who may not feel safe inviting two men into their home, or perhaps there is a baby sleeping upstairs. If these are your reasons, that’s understandable. If your reason for refusing to answer the door is that you’re afraid of what you may be asked, or you are sorely unprepared to articulate your faith or even present a basic description of what you believe, then you have failed the most basic task of an ambassador (2 Corinthians 5:20): to know the message of the Sovereign and convey it to His intended audience.

3. Listen. As an Alpha male, this one is especially hard for me…but it is critical. after you’ve invited them in and offered them something to drink, I strongly encourage you to do the one thing you want to do least — listen. Let them speak, and actually listen to what they say. Practice active listening, by making eye contact and even taking notes. Resist the urge to jump in and contradict or challenge every point they bring up, even if you disagree. Just listen. It’s hard, but it will be worth it and you’ll see why in a moment.

4. Offer a short response. Here is where your training, and all your clear thinking as a Christian, will pay off…and where your patient listening will pay off as well. When they have finished their presentation, and you have listened quietly, actively, and patiently, simply ask the same in return. Perhaps something like, “Thank you — that was fascinating. I’ve listening to everything you’ve said, and I do have several questions…but would you mind doing the same favor for me in return?”. Or perhaps, “Thank you. I’ve listened quietly and carefully for fifteen minutes — would you do the same for me for five?” Whatever works for the situation. The point is, common courtesy, even human decency, almost requires that they now listen to you for a duration. Be ready. I could write for pages on what to say, and I’ve screwed it up as many times as I’ve gotten it right, but simply present a basic gospel message. Don’t try to refute every point you disagreed with. Above all, don’t debate! Tell them who Christ really is, and perhaps a short version of when He means to you. Be brief, be kind, and largely non-confrontational, because you are going to…

5. Invite them back. Even better, feed them. A nebulous “come back some time” just won’t cut it here. Set an actual date and time, and invite them back for dinner. Give yourself a week or two — if you listened carefully and took good notes during their talk, then you will have lots of homework to do. When they come back, start over with point #1 above. After dinner, if the opportunity presents itself, mention their prior visit and ask a simple question. Again, don’t feel obligated to play point-counterpoint, at least not yet. Just ask a simple question and follow the conversation from there. Ask questions. Take notes. Offer an alternative. Repeat.

It’s not easy, it’s not fast, it’s not always comfortable, but it works. It doesn’t work every time, but it works.

What are Relativism and Postmodernism?

In my blog on “What Must We Believe,” I start with the statement, “I fear that the encroachment of relativism and postmodernism has greatly affected the Christian message…” Over the weekend, I received a question on this statement from Aaron in Alexandria via email. He had gotten into a discussion with some co-workers, and they had all reached some confusion about the ideas of postmodernism and relativism — what they are, why they matter, and most importantly for Aaron, why a clear-thinking Christian should care. Let’s see if we can help him think through this.

First, I’m no expert here. I will rely heavily on a course I took on “The Challenge of Postmodernism” from Dr. Millard Erickson at BIOLA, and on the book, “Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Thin Air” by Greg Koukl. Credit given, let’s proceed.

Immediately, we are faced with the challenge that postmodernism is not monolithic. That is, there is no universally accepted definition of what beliefs or positions constitute postmodernism, and certainly no book (like the Bible or other definitive work) that serves as a common foundation or reference point for establishing postmodernism. However, with little disagreement, we can establish some widely-held concepts that most postmodernists will affirm.

First (and most importantly for the Christian), nearly all postmodernists deny the existence of absolute truth. All truth, then, is subjective — it is “in the eye of the beholder”. There is no such thing as an actual right and wrong, things being intrinsically good or evil, there are only opinions and personal preferences. I like chocolate ice cream, you don’t — I think murder is wrong, you don’t — these kinds of claims are largely equivalent. They’re just personal preferences. When a postmodernist or relativist hears you say something is “wrong,” all they hear is something equivalent to “yuck” or “eww”. To them, it simply means you don’t like it, no different than presenting me with pimento olives. YUCK. You’re just emoting, expressing displeasure.

Some claims, like “murder is wrong”, may have developed some social weight, such that they are frowned upon (even disciplined or punished) by society…but when you commit a murder all you’ve really done is violated a social norm. You haven’t done anything wrong, just gone against the norm a bit and offended some social sensibilities. Similarly, some behaviors (like murder) may be disadvantageous from an evolutionary perspective, and have hence fallen into disfavor…but again, they aren’t objectively or intrinsically wrong, just a dumb thing to do if your goal is to preserve the human species.

This rejection of absolute truth and relegation of all truth claims to the subjective is the basic definition of relativism. So, to answer one of the initial questions AB asked, relativism and postmodernism are closely related — so much so that relativism is likely one of the most significant defining beliefs of postmodernists. The two are related, but not equal…so almost all postmodernists are relativists, but not all relativists are postmodernists.

Hand-in-hand with a rejection of absolute or objective truth is the rejection of religious exclusivity. Most postmodernists will also embrace religious pluralism. To be fair, we can look at pluralism in two different ways — first, pluralism on one definition is a fact. There are many different religions, and they believe many different things. This is pluralism in a largely descriptive sense, and should not be opposed by clear-thinking Christians. However, in a more prescriptive manner, most postmodernists affirm that not only do many different religions exist, but they are all equally valid. No religion is better than any other, no one religion or denomination is “true” and others “false”, they are all equally true (or, for the large contingent of postmodernists who reject theism, equally false).

These two concepts — relativism and pluralism — are as close as we will get to core, defining beliefs of postmodernism. Of course, clear-thinking Christians should see that both views are objectively false, and pluralism is demonstrably false. Biblically, there are actual rights and wrongs, and things aren’t wrong just because they violate some social norm. The “wrongness” of murder and rape aren’t something extrinsic (defined by society or culture), nor are they subjective (defined by individual preferences), murder and rape and other actions are intrinsically, objectively wrong. Wherever murder goes, the wrongness goes with it. In the great words of Greg Koukl, “If you think torturing babies for fun is okay, I’m not going to ‘appreciate your alternative moral perspective’. I’m going to think you need help. FAST”. Beware of the slippery slope you’re on if you think society defines what is right and wrong, it’s a dangerous one. If the Nazis had won, then their values would have been the societal norm, and from their perspective, elimination of “The Jewish Problem” would have been the most advantageous from an evolutionary perspective.

When it comes to pluralism, we can readily concede the descriptive point. There is no question that there is a plurality of belief systems and religions throughout the world. However, they are not all equally valid, nor are they all true. This is easily demonstrable by picking one of a thousand readily apparent examples. Picking an easy one, the Christians claim Jesus was the Messiah, the Jews claim he was not. Now, it’s possible that the Christians are right and the Jews are wrong. I’ll even admit that it’s possible that the Jews are right and the Christians are wrong (though I obviously don’t think that’s the case). However, I hope you can see that at no time, in no way, can they both be right. Christ cannot both be the Messiah and not be the Messiah at the same time in the same way, which is exactly what pluralists propose. This is one of the inviolable laws of logic, called the “Law of Excluded Middle” — something is either A or not-A, but cannot be both.

For clear-thinking Christians, both relativism and pluralism are highly toxic. Absolute (objective) truth exists and can be known, and Christianity is clear in its exclusive claims. You cannot simultaneously affirm the objective truth taught in the Bible and the subjective truth taught by relativism. Of course, you cannot affirm both the exclusive claims of Christianity and the “all are equal” mantra of pluralism. Christianity is objective and exclusive. Postmodernism is subjective and pluralist. Show me a Christian postmodernist and I’ll show you a married bachelor.

Q & A: Mormonism

I’m fascinated by the fact that my post on “Would I Vote for a Mormon” is my most popular blog yet — received almost ten times as many hits as any of my prior blogs. I’ve also received via email a lot of questions on the post, too many to answer in individual comments, so this follow-up blog will answer some of those questions I’ve received.

1. AB: Who defines what Christianity is?
A. No one person, at least no one on this Earth. The Bible clearly defines what a Christian is, and what beliefs are necessary to call yourself a Christian. This was largely the topic of my prior blog on “What Must We Believe“. So, as stated in that post, if you reject any of those key beliefs, or affirm beliefs that are clearly contradictory to them, then you cannot call yourself a Christian. Am I saying that Mormonism rejects some of the core beliefs or Biblical Christianity, or holds beliefs that are contradictory to those beliefs? Yes, and I think LDS adherents who are students of their faith and history would readily agree.

2. DM and AB: Have you seen the “I’m a Mormon” billboards with Mitt Romney on them? I am worried that the Mormon church will capitalize on this any way they can…”branding” Mormons as just a family-loving, God-fearing, Christ-loving people. That actually sounds like a pretty good “brand” to be associated with. What’s not legitimate about a faith that promotes those values?
A. I think you’re entirely correct about the “I’m a Mormon” campaign. Not only that, I wouldn’t for a minute dispute that the LDS are a family-oriented, God-fearing, Christ-loving people. I think all three are accurate characterizations of LDS, but we have to dig a little deeper. It’s a good “brand” to be associated with, and there’s nothing wrong with promoting those values. In fact, my entire post was intended to affirm the fact that I think Christians and Mormons affirm almost exactly the same values — I think it was clear in the blog that the very reason I’d vote for an LDS candidate is because we share the same values. The only aside that I mentioned, which really could be a whole series of blogs in itself, is that while Mormons and Christians affirm the same basic ethical, moral, and family values, they affirm a remarkably different set of religious/theological beliefs.

3. DM: Do you think a Mormon getting elected President will lend legitimacy to a cult system or belief that is contradictory to Christianity?
A. Possibly, but I don’t think so. I just don’t see enough overlap between a candidate’s political views and their theology. I don’t really see how getting elected President would “lend legitimacy to” his theological views. If we were in a country where the elected or appointed political leader was also the de facto religious leader (Saudi Arabia, Iran, arguably Israel), then certainly so. But in the United States, where we have a clear distinction between our religious and political leaders, the election of a candidate to political office in my view lends no special credence to their religious beliefs. At the end of the day, even if we concede that a Mormon President lends credence to their theology, that still is not in and of itself a reason not to cast that vote — at that point, a close examination of the alternative candidate becomes necessary.

Just my thoughts, others may disagree.