It has been five days since my last letter to you. In that time, you have sent three notes to me, and I wanted to let you know that I received them. Each one posed thoughtful questions with regard to my current views on important issues, and I thank you for sending them.
In response to my two letters in which I tried to answer the question “What exactly is the Gospel?” you asked me to say more about how I understand the term “salvation.” You wondered what I believe was accomplished through the death of Jesus on the cross, and you asked what I now believe about hell as a place of conscious torment and punishment for those who die in their unbelief. Those questions were all in the first of your three recent notes.
In your second note, you picked up on a term I have used frequently as a way of describing the heart of God’s purpose for the church: The church is the agent of the kingdom of God on earth. You asked me to push that idea out a bit further and to offer some specific examples to illustrate what I mean.
And finally, in your most recent note, you asked if my “new way of seeing” had changed my views on human sexuality. Specifically, you asked my opinion of same-sex marriage in the culture at large and whether I believe persons with same-sex orientation can be genuine Christians, fully integrated into the life of the church.
When you and I first contemplated this exchange of letters to coincide with the forty days of Lent—a time of inward reflection and spiritual preparation for Easter—and when we agreed on the purpose for this series—a way for me to present a systematic description of the changes in my thinking over the past ten years and the reasoning behind those changes—I fully expected that we would eventually touch on those very topics, among others. I still plan to address them. What I did not expect was the depth of emotional response your honest yet probing questions would stir up in me.
Please understand. You have carried out your role in this exchange in exemplary fashion. Your questions, while serious and pointed, have been thoughtfully composed and respectfully presented. I am the one with the baggage here.
In my last three letters before the five-day hiatus, I spoke to the question of why I have been less than totally forthcoming about how my “new way of seeing” has changed my thinking on what some might call essential topics. In short, I wrote, I’ve wimped out. I wasn’t ready or willing to face the “consequences” of being criticized and ostracized by a community that used to be such an important part of my life. In the third of those letters, however, I alluded to the fact that, based on my new awareness of the vastness of God and the universe, I need to show some courage, make it clear what I believe on the most important and controversial issues of concern to contemporary Christians, and, as they say, let the chips fall where they may. That’s what I intend to do.
But before I could do that, I had to walk a five-day path through the “slough of despond.” I veered off onto that side road when I began to think about what I referred to above as the “community that used to be such an important part of my life.”
Very often when I reflect on what used to be or what might have been, I fall prey to self-pity, and that exacerbates my innate depressive tendencies. After living with it for more than fifty years, however, I’ve learned that, in most cases I can just ride it out. If I hunker down, very often with a hymn book and a prayer book beside me, I can eventually say, in the words of scripture, “It came to pass.”
After five days this time, I think it is safe to say that, for now at least, the clouds have parted. To quote the title of one of the best songs on the best album by the best band of all time, “Here comes the sun.” 🙂 (Especially for my fellow boomers, here’s a link to the song on YouTube. It’s not the Beatles, but it’s a really good cover.)
So, where does that leave us in this exchange of correspondence? Well, within the next few days, I hope to address the questions you raised in the letters I have not yet answered. You will, no doubt, want to pose some follow-up questions or move to other areas that pique your interest. We have twenty days until the end of Lent. That should be enough time for an exchange of eight or ten more letters.
For today, let me offer the beginning of a response to your question regarding my current views on important themes such as salvation, atonement, justification, the “wrath” of God, and hell. Without impugning either the methods or motives of scholars and teachers who maintain the “classic” evangelical view of these topics, I have to say that my own thinking has changed dramatically.
In the classic view, a version of which most evangelicals embrace—which emerged, as we know it today, out of the Protestant Reformation—human beings, who were created without sin, fell into disobedience and rebellion against God and brought upon themselves the wrath and judgment of God. To provide a means by which sinful humans could avoid condemnation and punishment, God sent Jesus Christ, the Son of God, into the world to bear the judgment of God on behalf of humanity.
That was accomplished in his death on the cross. Thereafter, the benefits of Jesus’ substitutionary sacrifice would be applied by God to the life and future condition of all who exercise faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus. In that way, Jesus would become the “savior” of the world (although salvation would only extend to those who believe in Jesus, acknowledge their sin, and call upon him to save them).
I still believe in human sinfulness, and I still believe that Jesus is the savior of the world. I define those terms a bit differently than I used to, however, and I now believe that the salvation which Jesus brings to the world extends to the whole created order and is far more than merely a way for individuals to give assent to a theological “formula” and thus assure their transport to heaven after death. Salvation is far more than that, far better than that. And the more I ponder it, the more I understand this truth to be really, really good news.
I will need to leave it there for now, Kathryn, but I promise I will revisit this theme in the near future. I look forward to hearing from you soon.
All the best,