The Narrow Gate
Once upon a time, Christians behaved almost as badly as the recent Caliphate. Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to Henry VIII, led a campaign of art destruction in England on par with that going on in Iraq today. The wars of the Reformation devastated Germany. St. Augustine advocated torture as a tool to turn people into Christians. We also had assorted crusades, inquisitions, and witch hunts. The pattern extends into the modern era. Both the United States and Canada forcibly adopted Native Americans into Christian homes and schools to enforce conversion.
I guess I should say more than once upon a time. Christian history contains an embarrassing quantity of ugliness. Perhaps a wee bit of humility and hope is in order when comparing the Christian and Moslem worlds.
A wee bit.
Christianity did not start out as a conquering religion. Jesus taught his followers to eschew violence, to focus on being moral paragons vs. enforcing morality in others. Paul taught the early Christians to have their own courts with standards higher than the world around them, but to limit punishment to shunning for those who fell short. Only when Jesus returns are Christians to resort to conquest, and if conditions even remotely resemble the visions in Revelations, the world will be quite ready for an orderly surrender.
Those Christians who advocated violent conversion and/or doctrinal enforcement were in clear violation of New Testament teaching. Jesus and the Apostles gave instructions on how to be moral exemplars while surrounded by heathens. Even the Old Testament limited enforcement of the Law of Moses to the holy land. The Israelites were ordered to be examples to the world, not conquerors of the world.
The New Testament calls for religious freedom, and it was a very religious United States that wrote religious freedom into its constitution.
I’ve heard rumors that this is less the case for Islam, but since I have not read the Koran, I can neither validate nor refute such rumors.
So why did Christians go so wrong time and time again? Was it merely corruption and the malevolence of fallen humans? I think not. Many of the Christian leaders who advocated such horrors were ascetics, making great sacrifices for their faith. They believed they were doing the right thing. (The corrupt also got in on the action, as there is indeed loot to be had in the event of a genocide or inquisition.)
How did their beliefs go so astray? I think it generally stems from a connected set of theological errors. The unifying error was failure to heed the lesson of The Narrow Gate, a lesson difficult to swallow even to this day.
13 "Enter through the narrow gate, because the gate is wide and the way is spacious that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it.
14 But the gate is narrow and the way is difficult that leads to life, and there are few who find it.
Jesus was looking for the few, the humble, those willing to be good while surrounded by a world of sin. This is difficult. Even to this day there are millions who are willing to be good on the condition that their neighbors have to be good as well.
Nonetheless the truly devout are up to that task, and as I said before, the truly devout were often behind the aforementioned atrocities. Where the devout often struggle is contemplating the fate of those on that wide path that leads to destruction.
For Your Own Good
Which is worse: burning at the stake here on Earth, or burning in Hell for eternity?
It is no contest. Burning at the stake is the merciful option given this dilemma. Any conceivable torture by mortal humans is preferable to eternal torment in a burning pit. Benevolence dictates using any means possible, including transient cruelty, to force as many people as possible through The Narrow Gate.
But forcing people through The Narrow Gate is an act of defiance; it is attempting to prove Jesus wrong. And make no mistake: the image of few making the grade is not limited to this one scripture. Quite a few other passages make it clear that Christianity is not for everyone – at least not in this life.
If we were dealing with a malevolent deity, one like the Old Gods from an H.P. Lovecraft story, resorting to horrific means to rescue as many people as possible from a more horrific fate would be theologically consistent. But the Bible says God is love.
How can a god that is love create billions of people primarily for the purpose of populating an eternal torture chamber? And if we take the predestination passages seriously, those fated for damnation have no say in the matter, no true guilt to be worthy of any punishment, since it was all set from the beginning.
We have contradictions. To swallow contradictions while taking them seriously is madness, and the Christian world has gone mad repeatedly. For this reason many people who value peace and/or liberty are at war with serious Christianity, demanding that it be limited to toothless ceremony, or even less, and are willing to kidnap children, infiltrate priesthoods, and/or expand the public square into all but the most private life, in order to make Christianity about as toothless as European monarchies.
In this series I propose an alternative: fix the theological errors that lead to the contradictions. The fate of those who don’t get through the gate is not quite as grim as often advertised. Jesus spoke of degrees of punishment. He also hinted at rewards for non-believers for good behavior. Jesus spoke on degrees of reward as well. The Bible describes a set of afterlife options far richer than a binary Heaven or Hell upon dying.
I will also throw in some speculations as to why the Gate is narrow. And will attempt to reconcile the predestination passages (and prophecy in general) with culpability and free will.
This series is the heaviest batch of Bible study and theology on the site.
Why the Theology?
This is fundamentally a political site, yet I include some pretty heavy duty Bible study and theological ruminations. What’s the deal?
One answer is that I write on theology for the same reason that Ayn Rand wrote on philosophy. Political decisions are in large part extensions of moral assumptions. Change the “sense of life” and legislative changes follow. The United States is at its roots a Christian nation, despite efforts on the part of the elites to change this.
There is another reason: I am a Christian. Convincing my fellow Christians to actually do what Jesus commanded vs. resorting to violent shortcuts is important to me. It should be more important than any political impact. The benefits of living in a freer society in this life are transient. Treasure in Heaven has rather more long term benefits.
My admonitions to come to terms with The Narrow Gate apply to “liberal” as well as “conservative” Christians. While “conservative” Christians resorted to violence in order to force people through the Gate, “liberal” Christians have tried to widen the gate by dumbing down what it means to be a Christian. During my lifetime the mainline Protestant denominations diluted doctrine in order to be more inclusive. Whether certain parishes of my childhood denomination even qualify as Christian is debatable. This could be the path to a Post Christian future.
This pattern is not new. The ancient Church absorbed many pagan practices and holidays in order to get people in the door. Worship on Sunday instead of the Sabbath is likely a compromise with the state religion of Rome. Christmas conveniently falls at the time of an assortment of pagan midwinter celebrations – Saturnalia, Yule, etc.
The Reformation in part was an attempt to remove such pagan cruft. The original War on Christmas was waged by Puritans, not secularists.
So, whether you wish to ensure that Christians act more like Christ than ISIS, or you wish to avoid a Post Christian future, it behooves you to come to full grips with the lessons of The Narrow Gate. The lessons require many chapters, covering grace vs. works, afterlife options, the price of being a true Christian and more. There is too much material for on sitting, so be sure to bookmark your place. Either that, or print out the chapters. (The site is more printer-friendly than it looks. The banner and sidebar should not print.)