At times I felt your "Can we find a better way of viewing the future?" chapter overlooks folks from denominational traditions like mine, whose systematic theologies solve much of the glaring hopelessness in others -- no "secret" rapture, no eternal torment -- but still envision a future not completely reconciled. What do you say to people who can't fathom a future in which God wins over every heart?
Yes, I focus on the conventional Catholic and Protestant view that the future is predetermined and described in the Bible. Other views, like the views of Adventists and Universalists, have arisen in recent centuries seeking to modify various features of the conventional view, trying to make it more humane or reasonable. But all of these views share two things in common, I think. First, they read passages in Daniel and Matthew 24 and the Apocalypse as referring to an end of the world in the future. And second, they assume that the story ends in an eternal state of heaven or hell, however many people are assumed to be in each.
I'm questioning both assumptions. First, I'm suggesting that much in those passages thought to be about the end of the world, and maybe most of them, and perhaps even all of them, are in fact referring to the end of the world as Jesus' contemporaries knew it. That world -- centered in temple, sacrifice, priesthood, holy city, and an elite chosen ethnic group -- came to an end in AD 70 when Jerusalem was destroyed. I'm inviting people to spend some time letting that possibility sink in enough to disturb the assumptions we have inherited about the future.
If people can't fathom a future in which God wins over every heart, I don't think I can help them much. I'm concerned about helping people who can't accept that God would destroy good things, including the precious image of God which I believe lies at the heart of all people. If people can believe that God will destroy good things along with evil things, I don't expect I can help them much.
As for the lake of fire imagery, I think that any fire associated with God must be a purifying fire, not an indiscriminately destructive fire, and the only things destroyed are evil things, not good things. If it makes people feel better to think that some people are purely evil, that there isn't a shred of anything good left in them to be saved through the fire, I'd want to ask them what negative consequences they could imagine flowing from that belief that they need to guard against. Because in the end, they're responsible for the unintended negative consequences of their beliefs, just as I am of mine.
What makes these various positions you take in the book different than what one might label a "post-modern creed"?
Thanks so much for asking this, because it's really important. First and foremost, I'm not offering the positions in the book in that way at all. In most cases, I'm simply reporting on what's already happening, what's already being said among those who are on a quest for a new kind of Christianity. In a few cases, I may be offering something with some fresh elements to it, but when I do so, I'm offering it like an opening volley in tennis -- not as a slam to win the game, but simply as my contribution to an ongoing conversation.
It's interesting that the Bible itself doesn't give us creeds. It gives us stories and poetry and letters and other forms of literature, from which people constructed creeds for various reasons at various times. Perhaps there are postmodern creeds to be written; I'm not sure. In some ways, the very idea seems oxymoronic. At any rate, my focus in this book is on raising worthwhile questions that will promote constructive conversations that will in turn foster friendships as we move forward on the quest or journey of faith. That may be a quest that never ends. After all, what limit could there be to God's unfolding creativity and goodness? Will we ever be able to say we have fully explored it?
Melvin Bray is the coordinating author of The Stories in Which We Find Ourselves: A Bible Story Project to write/collect re-tellings of biblical narratives that resonate with various emerging, missional, 'post-ism' and/or otherwise progressive sensibilities.