Is This Pastor Going to Hell?

According to an e-mail received by the Rev. John Shuck, he is. And what is the great sin for which he may already be damned? He has signed the Open Letter Concerning Religion and Science. Thus, according to the letter, he is teaching a “damning doctrine,” and may actually be reprobate. On the off-chance he’s not, the writer does pray that God will grant him repentance.

Now I have to just take a short side trip through the joys of soteriology, particularly views of the atonement and justification. Apparently, according to some, while you are justified by faith, apart from works, and you cannot earn your salvation through any good works, you can quite easily be damned by misunderstanding obscure points of doctrine. Apparently God’s grace is sufficient to cover murder, for example, but balks at failure to comprehend the true nature of the fall. This “salvation by correct doctrine” seems to me to me a new and damnable (gotta love that word!) form of salvation by works, only now the works are intellectual rather than spiritual. Pity the poor person who simply can’t work his mind around the precise doctrinal definitions required before one can receive God’s grace.

In any case, there is one other thing on which I wanted to comment. Rev. Shuck sees here an indication of the reason some people are so fiercely determined to make us accept Genesis literally as some kind of literal history of the cosmos. It’s because death, according to this view, must result from sin, so how could you have evolution before human sin? After all, it’s survival of the fittest, meaning some die, and that’s anathema (another word I can’t resist after reading the letter) to some Christians.

But here is where many Christians need to pay close attention. There is, in fact, only one of the many interpretations of Genesis that has a perfect world, into which physical death of all types is introduced by sin–young earth creationism. Other very common Christian interpretations, even among evangelicals, allow physical death before the fall. They have to. Where, for example, could an old earth creationist imagine fossils to come from? Old earth creationists aren’t that stupid–they believe that living creatures died before the fall. Many of them, by the simple expedient of thinking “spiritual/eternal” when they read of the death that followed sin, don’t have any problem with the fall at all.

Unfortunately many Christians who hold these various views other than young earth creationism are not aware of the various interpretations, and aren’t aware that young earth creationists aren’t arguing their view–that God is simply the creator, however he worked–but rather are arguing for a 6,000 year old earth, and some incomprehensible variety of ecology in which no living thing died. There’s a mental experiment for you. Design an ecology in which every living creature continues to live forever, and yet reproduces.

I suspect that the problem of the atonement does drive a great deal of creationism, and the entire debate would probably become a bit less contentious if the young earth crowd was not involved. Nonetheless it is interesting to see such obscure points of doctrine create such heat.

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  1. Your point about grace for murder but not doctrine is for me the most salient point. For me as I contemplate my personal theology, I have found that over time it occurs to me more often that esoterics of doctrine can’t be as damning as they seem. I’m still reluctant to belive that any doctrine can be sufficient, because that would be a form of “cheap grace”. But on the other hand, I think honest seeking for correct or proper doctrine is essential to ones faith journey.

  2. I think Shuck is right – the biggest problem with accepting evolution is the reinterpretation of the Fall it requires. It is just that very few – old earth creationists and theistic evolutionists included – have dared to address the question. Rather, they just live with the contradiction.

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