The Plausibility of Belief
There are quite a few passages in scripture that can be considered overarching, fundamental, basic, bottom line.
One such in the Old Testament might be: "And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God," Micah 6:8
In the new Testament we have these from James:
"Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." James 1:27
"Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom." James 3:13
Then there is Peter's insightful observation:
"And Peter opened his mouth and said: "Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him." Acts 10:34-35
I find the most fundamental and overarching theme to be: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself." Matthew 22: 37-39
Others point to this as the overarching theme of scripture:
"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." John 3:16
That one is not as compelling for me. If God wanted his creatures not to perish why could he not simply will it so? Why would it be required that he impose a burden on his son to achieve the desired effect? It took the church ages to develop a ransom theory. Why only prevent the believers from perishing? What is so special about them? Some people will believe in anything. Why are not the more discerning and critical valued as well?
I prefer the other verses because they are more universal in their scope, avoid theological innuendo, and favor those individuals with a positive attitude toward goodness.
There are several such verses [mentioning belief]in the book of John revolving around the same theme as:
"But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name." John 1:31
"Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son." John 3:18
What is it that bothers me so much about these verses in John?
I would list the following problems:
They seem to contradict other verses in scripture.
Jesus’ statement in Matthew seems to be in conflict with his statement in John. "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven." Matthew 7:21
Matthew records Jesus saying that the exclusive requirements for salvation are how one cares for the poor and needy. "Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not." Matthew 25:41-43
The verses in John say that belief is the sole criterion for salvation yet in Matthew we are told that the sole criterion for salvation is caring for the poor and needy and those who do not do so will forever burn in fire. Is it reasonable to assume that God expects one to decide which of these options is correct and for God to condemn those who pick the wrong option?
For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. James 2:26
The Greek word pistis is used more in the sense of trust in the three synoptic gospels. It is used more as belief in John's gospel. In fact The Scholars version of the Bible actually translates pistis into English as trust in the synoptic gospels and as belief in John's gospel.
Belief is held up as an ultimate criterion in the gospel of John; yet belief has no intrinsic capacity for selecting absolute truth.
The Aztecs would have us believe that to keep the sun revolving around the planet it is necessary to offer the hearts of fellow humans in a sacrifice of appeasement. If belief is such a virtue, then why not belief in the Aztec sun God? When the white man invades his territory with a story about belief in a Jesus as messiah, who’s religion should he choose? The religion apparently successful in maintaining the sun in the sky or the religion expounded by those murdering his brothers? What a dilemma!
Would God answer with a simplistic verse: "Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only SON."
Would the Aztec citizen retort: "…but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only SUN"?
Is belief still a noble religious virtue when applied to other religions? Some say belief or faith is a gift from God. Does that idea of gift apply to other religions as well?
These verses in John carry a sinister corollary.
By accepting these as exclusive terms for your salvation are you not also saying that it is acceptable to worship a god who condemns others merely because they are not convinced of the divine nature of Jesus? Do you approve of a god who would condemn those who do not believe in his name?
Would you be willing to worship a god who would eternally torture others with fire just because they are not convinced of the divine nature of Jesus if in the process you could save your skin?
These verses tie God’s hands in that they reduce his options to a questionable and capricious formula.
Those Christians who accept the Westminster Confession assert that faith alone justifies and a faithful one can never fall from the state of justification. Accepting only on the basis of belief or faith can have peculiar ramifications:
"Gee, I don’t really want him up here. You know Hitler will be a troublemaker when sitting at the same table with Abraham and Jacob; but after all he did satisfy the criterion; he had BELIEF; he was an altar boy in his youth."
These verses make a virtue out of the concept of belief.
I can understand courage and truthfulness as virtues. But belief? Why? One can hold a belief about anything.
Prudent individuals make choices in life on evidences to the extent that they can. The advertisers will simply want them to believe that their product is best. Yet the prudent shopper will want to investigate the claims of the competing brands. The shopper might want to get the opinions of those who have previously bought the product or to read consumer reports. Or to inspect the product. In the ordinary run of human affairs mere belief does not cut it. Evidences are sought.
In science a speculation or hunch or belief is tentatively held until tests to its validity can be made. A contention is doubted until secure proofs are secured. In science belief is NOT a virtue.
Should the tentative nature of belief be turned around when it comes to the cosmic questions posed by religion. Should not belief be tempered by a bit of humility? Should not more care be exerted when attempting to obtain answers for the cosmic questions? Are not answers to the cosmic questions harder to verify? Would not a reasonable God understand this?
The conditions for avoiding condemnation are not available to all.
The conditions were unavailable to the Aztec nation before the arrival of the great white hope.
The bargain is realistically available only to only those in certain cultures. I am reminded of the Jesus recorded in Matthew when he wasn’t sure how far beyond the concerns of his immediate society his mission should extend. "He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.’" Matthew 15:24
Does God really favor those in the Scottish culture over the Asian?
John’s contention requires a validation that he does not deliver.
Is its God’s intent to favor the most gullible of society - those who would subscribe to any position put before them. Is its God’s intent to disdain those who are more critical? Those who would be more certain before stipulating that something in print originated with God?
John’s gospel thinks evidences are available for validation of his demands for belief. "But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name." John 20:31
Yet John’s gospel was the last gospel to be written. It portrays Jesus in a type of deep theological self dialogue never seen in the synoptic gospels. Does John envision a vain Jesus hungry for self aggrandizement with less concern for the poor and needy? Or perhaps the verses reveal more about John’s theological reflections and that of his community. What type of evidences are these when they seem to contradict the salvation theory of Matthew’s gospel?
The relatives and associates of Jesus had misgivings about his mission. His own family didn’t always understand him. "Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, 'He is out of his mind.'" Mark 3:20-21
John the Baptist witnessed some remarkable manifestations at the baptism of Jesus: John the Baptist baptized Jesus then "As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’" Mathew 3:15-17
Yet even with these extraordinary happenings John the Baptist was not yet persuaded as to Jesus' mission as told in this text: "Now when John had heard in the prison the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples, And said unto him, Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another? Matthew 11:2-3
Jesus at one point in time was unaware of the scope of his ministry when he answered thusly: "He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.’" Matthew 15:24
Should those far removed from these recorded events have a firm conviction that those on the scene lacked?
The church must regard the standard of belief expressed in these verses as incomplete.
In the creeds we find the doctrine of Trinity. In John’s gospel, Jesus is shown to make frequent mention of his relationship with his father. Yet no mention is made of the Trinity in any verse of his gospel. Are we to hold in high esteem and have special fondness for verses in scripture that hold out salvation for those willing to embrace and affirm two thirds of the Godhead?
Uncritical belief can sew the seeds of fanaticism.
These verses encourage uncritical belief. They give no comfort to those not impressed with the evidences. [If you don’t believe what we tell you, you are out of it!]
"But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name…Whoever believes in him is not condemned."
And now that you are assured of salvation, I have this building I would like you to drive an airplane into.
The implication is that God created some to be condemned.
If you take the corollary, "but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son" at face value, the inescapable conclusion is that God created some of creation to be condemned. Obviously, there are many in various and sundry cultures in parts of the world that would never hear of Jesus - the Aztecs before the arrival of the great white hope, for example.
The coupling of a demand for belief with a threat of condemnation for non-compliance is a powerful carrot and stick argument for the institutional church to acquire a large membership. That is why we likely find it in John. John is careful to leave the word condemned unspecified but Matthew offers a vivid description of an eternal hell of fire.
Hey buddy do you want to have everlasting ecstasy in the world to come or would you rather burn in eternal fire? I have some snake oil that will solve all your problems. Or better yet sign this statement of affirmation - you won’t have to DO anything. Belief without responsibility. Forget about the social gospel. You won’t even need to have a positive attitude toward goodness. Come join those who have self defined their way into heaven.
The requirements for salvation expressed in these two books, John and Matthew, represent a contradiction. Yet the attempted synthesis of the ideas expressed in these two books presents for some a vision of terror and a blueprint for fanaticism. Belief is not something that everyone can assent to off the wall as in choosing a pair of black over brown shoes. Belief for some is an involuntary expression of the preponderance of evidences.
One could hold the secular belief, for example, that the "Excelsior" is the best and most service free of all refrigerators.
Yet, upon verifying from numerous friends that they had experienced frequent and repeated service calls and that the refrigerator's door often opened unexpectedly, that the device failed to keep meats cold, and that the unit frosted over, one could no longer "believe" the "Excelsior" to be the best and most reliable of refrigerators. Try as one might, one could not hold such a relief about "Excelsior."
Beliefs arise involuntary because of evidences and experiences. They are not merely something one formally agrees to after breakfast. Inauthentic belief for some is a violation of the divine injunction to love God with ones whole mind. Some discerning individuals will not find John’s evidences compelling.
It is not the affirmation of Jesus as messiah with which I quarrel; after all, I call Jesus my Lord; it is the exclusivity demand that I find offensive. I would assume that if it is meaningful to call God good [in any reasonable sense of that word] that it is his prerogative to choose whomever he wants for his heavenly banquet yet it would not be permissible for him, as a moral agent, to threaten or effect eternal torture for any of his creation.
I get the impression that by the time John was written, there was a shift in what the community (or John's Christian Community) meant by belief - that in John the emphasis was more on the person than the message. There are likely historical reasons for this shift.
Most of gospel exclusivity seems to emanate from John's gospel. A friend of mine explains that John’s gospel need not be interpreted as exclusively as it sounds. Apparently, the seeming hyperbole about "belief in Jesus" in this particular gospel has to do with the fact that it was written about ten years after the last synoptic gospel and was written - AFTER the early Christians had been expelled from the synagogues. This gospel, then, affirms the nascent Christian community in exile from the synagogues.
He analyzes, this particular text, "I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to God except through me." John 14:6 He points out that this verse is the attribution most frequently cited by Christian exclusivists to explain that there is no salvation for those who do not "believe" in Jesus. He analyzes the verse in the following manner:
As we are taught in grammar school, the subject and the object of a sentence using the a form of the verb "to be" are interchangeable making "I" and "the way, the truth and the life" interchangeable in the first part of the verse. This being true, the last part of that verse could read either:
This rearrangement makes the verse more in line with the spirit of the synoptic gospels where Jesus is far more concerned with how his message was received, adopted, and carried out than any personal aggrandizement his NAME might receive.
The rearrangement is NOT a redaction. It is merely a linguistic rearrangement that goes a long way to recapture an earlier Christian approach, more or less latent in John.
Does it not follow that all those who follow the truth, the way and the life, can find God -- not only those who proclaim the name of Jesus?
Pope John Paul II, the titular head representative of Christianity, received surprisingly little notice when he spoke against the notion, central to much of Protestant thinking and most of Catholic history, of salvation exclusively through Christ, when he stated his opinion in December of 2000:
"The gospel teaches us that those who live in accordance with the Beatitudes--the poor in spirit, the pure of heart, those who bear lovingly the sufferings of life--will enter God's kingdom," regardless of whether they profess Christ. While there are passages in holy writ that could be construed otherwise.
I agree with the Roman Pontiff on this issue. He seemed to agree with Peter:
Acts 10:34-35 And Peter opened his mouth and said: "Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him."