From time to time, I hear people make statements about the Christian faith as if they were true. They assume these statements are common wisdom. Let’s examine some of them a little more carefully.
1. “The Bible is the word of God.”
It strikes me that neither the Bible nor the ancient creeds of the church talk about scripture as the “word of God.” What the Bible does say is that “all scripture is inspired by God” (2 Timothy 3:16), but that’s not the same as saying it’s God’s word. “Inspired” comes from a Latin root which means “breathed into”. To say that scripture is inspired is to acknowledge that God breathes life into scripture; dead words become living truth as we are inspired.
The gospel of John says that the Word is actually not a book, but a person — namely, Jesus: “In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” In other words, Christians believe that God is revealed to us primarily in a person, not in a static book. It’s an important distinction to make.
2. “God helps those who help themselves.”
Every time I hear this, I cringe. The truth is that the Bible says exactly the opposite: we are to care for and look out for each other, and especially for those who cannot help themselves. Over and over again in the Old Testament, the people are urged to care for “the widow, the orphan, and the stranger within your gate.” (eg Deuteronomy 27:19) These three groups of people were the most vulnerable in ancient Israel and other ancient societies. They cannot help themselves, which is why they need our care.
This saying is usually attributed to Benjamin Franklin, quoted in Poor Richard’s Almanac in 1757. A little further research discovered that the modern wording comes from Algernon Sydney, an English politician from the 17th century. Further research shows that this sentiment was already quite common in ancient Greek tragedies.
3. “Canada (or America) is (or was) a Christian nation.”
This may be a wonderful story to tell about our origins and ourselves, but it has never been true. Greg Boyd points out in his book The Myth of a Christian Nation that if the US (and by extension, Canada) followed the principles of the kingdom of God, it would probably collapse.
We’ve been killing people and stealing land since day one. We have been governed by self–interested and self–serving people who have exhibited all the triumphs and flaws of what it means to be human. Canada as a Christian nation never existed.
4. “When you die, your soul goes to heaven to be with God.”
Many Christians believe that having the soul leave the body and go to heaven is the goal of Christian faith. I’ve written before that faith is not about what happens after we die, but about how we live on this earth.
But the other part of this idea — that the soul leaves the body — isn’t from Christian faith. It comes from Plato, the Greek philosopher who thought that the physical realm was bad and the spiritual realm was good. The early church condemned this way of thinking — called dualism — as heresy.
The Bible tends to talk about the human person as a unity: body, soul, mind and strength. What happens in death is a mystery, but the one thing I’m pretty confident about is that this unity is not split into its constituent physical and spiritual parts.
5. “Jesus talked most often about hell and heaven.”
In the gospels, Jesus uses words often translated as “hell” exactly eleven times. The word “heaven” shows up 123 times in the four gospels, but most of them come from Matthew who used “kingdom of heaven” as a synonym for what the other gospel writers call “kingdom of God.”
When we look at “heaven” more carefully, we discover that Jesus never talks about heaven as a place where we go. Not once! As I’ve written before, Jesus didn’t’ focus on the afterlife. He talked about the kingdom of God (or the kingdom of heaven), which referred to his movement of love and justice, and what life would be like if God were truly in charge.
Jesus was most concerned with how we treat one another in this world, how we live together in peace, and with that kind of distributive justice which ensures that all people share equally in the wealth of the universe. Jesus’ focus was intensely this–worldly. As the Great Commandment puts it, “Love God with all you are and love your neighbour as yourself.”
Imagine what our world would be like if we were to take Jesus seriously. That’s work enough for all of us.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook