Whenever I am in a conversation with another another Christian over some issue, and when the person I am conversing with claims that his or her position is the biblical view, I like to respond by asking, “Which one?” The fact is, there are generally several different biblical views or perspectives on any given theme. One of the things we have become aware of with the discovery of such documents as the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary and some other ancient Christian writings is that early Christianity was even more diverse than scholars originally thought. Early Christianity was quite diverse.
This is particularly true with regard to the Christian view of salvation. Generally, there is no one biblical view about anything. There are biblical views and emphases. And yet throughout Christian history we have seemingly been obsessed with trying to synthesize and systematize the teachings of scripture. What typically happens is that the one person or group of persons doing the systematizing favors a particular understanding, then proceeds to organize the rest of scripture around that particular understanding.
Of course, we all do this to some degree. We are socialized and indoctrinated into a particular version of Christianity. We may be born into it. Or we may be converted into it later in life. But whatever the timing and the process we are taught a particular understanding, and then of course, our tendency is to read all of scripture in light of that particular understanding. It was quite an awakening for me to see how narrowly and rigidly I once interpreted scripture and the way I made everything fit the particular view I held at that particular time.
In the New Testament there are different ways of understanding and appropriating the good news of salvation. When it comes to understanding salvation, the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke tend to share a common view, though there are clearly individual differences. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke salvation is about living in the kingdom of God. The healings and exorcisms of Jesus in these three Gospels are ways the Gospel writers symbolize and actualize the good news. The individual stories of healings and exorcisms function almost like parables of salvation. The passage today is an example of that. Jesus heals the sick and sets free those possessed by unclean spirits, and he does this as he proclaims the gospel of the kingdom of God.
The power of the kingdom of God according to the Gospel of Mark is the power to heal our brokenness and save us from the anti-human powers that would oppress us and possess us, so that we are free to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. If we are pervaded by greed, by prejudice, by jealousy, by anger, by unforgiveness, if we are deluded and controlled by sexism, racism, elistism, egotism, materialism, classism, or any other destructive “ism” we are not free to serve and love others. The power of God to save in Mark’s Gospel is the power to free from these sins and anything that would hold us down, from all negative patterns of thinking and behaving, so we can engage and participate in God’s work to create a good and just world.
The power to save is the power to free us from our negative self-images and negative judgments of others, so that we can be healthy and whole, so that we can be loving, kind, compassionate, honest, humble, caring, empathetic, generous, and gracious, and can participate in God’s dream for a world of peace and equality. The power to save is not just to transform us individually, though certainly God cares deeply about our individual transformation. But ultimately God’s plan is to transform our world through our families, communities, organizations, and the institutions we are part of. The power to save is personal, but it is also communal aimed at our common good and the good of the planet.
In our Gospel text there is a sense of urgency in spreading the message and participating in the healing and liberating works of the kingdom of God. When Jesus withdraws in solitude to pray, his disciples go get him and say, “Everyone is searching for you.” But Jesus can’t stay in one place too long because he feels compelled to get the message out. He says, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also, for that is what I came out to do.” That’s his mission according to Mark. So he goes about from one place to the next preaching, healing, and liberating folks from the life diminishing powers that possess and oppress people and communities, so that people and communities are able to truly love and care for one another. That’s what salvation looks like in Mark’s Gospel.
Now, the next big question is: How does one experience it. In the Synoptic Gospels it’s by following Jesus. By following Jesus we learn to let go of and turn from negative and destructive ways of thinking and living, so we can love God and love neighbor. By following Jesus we learn to trust in and be faithful to the way of grace and truth, mercy and justice, compassion and love. The biblical words used for this are repentance and faith. Turning from all these life-diminishing ways, trusting in and being faithful to the way of Jesus is what repentance and faith are about. We learn to do this by following Jesus, by being an apprentice or disciple of Jesus. That's how we experience salvation.
Now, the other big question is this: Is following Jesus the only way one can experience the healing and liberating love and grace of God? Another way to ask that question is: How big and inclusive is your God? If you were taught what I was taught for many years and haven’t changed then you will most likely say: No, there is no other way. Now, that's not what I believe today, but that is what I was taught and believed during the early part of my ministry.
Back in the summer of 2006, Newsweek magazine featured a cover story about Billy Graham. Probably no figure in conservative Christianity has been more loved and revered than Graham. He has spoken to millions around the world, counseled U.S. presidents, and strongly represented the evangelical view of Christian faith. As a young Southern Baptist preacher I took my cue from Graham and with every point of my sermon I would billow out in typical Graham style, “the Bible says.” In this rather remarkable interview with Newsweek, the elder Graham was much more humble and less confident in what the Bible says. He admitted in the interview that he no longer thinks one needs to take every verse in the Bible literally (that’s a big admission for a biblical inerrantist). When he was asked whether heaven would be closed to Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and other non-Christians he refused to be decisive. He said, “Those are decisions only the Lord will make. It would be foolish for me to speculate on who will be there and who won’t.” Then he said, “I believe the love of God is absolute.” He told his interviewer that he was spending more time on the love of God in his final years and that he believed God loves everybody regardless of what label they have. If I remember, he took some heat from the evangelical community for saying that. Billy Graham came very close to letting go of his exclusive view of salvation that he preached all his life.
A few years ago I wrote a piece for the Unfundamentalist Christian Blog at Patheos. When I submitted the article I titled it, “Rick Warren’s Conundrum.” The editor changed the title to “Eliminating Evangelical Double-speak about Salvation.” (That will make sense to you in a minute.)
Rick Warren is the pastor of a very large mega-church in California which he founded, and he is the author of The Purpose Driven Life which has sold in the millions (and is one of the best-selling religious books of all time outside the Bible). In a book by Rabbi David Wolpe titled, Why Faith Matters, Rev. Warren wrote the foreword. In fact, this was proudly advertised on the book’s front cover as a selling point: “Foreword by Rick Warren, author of The Purpose-Driven Life.” This is what Warren said about the book and Rabbi Wolpe:
“This beautiful book is a gift to all of us. So much of what is published today about faith just rehashes warmed-over clichés and feels out of touch with reality. In contrast, every page of this special volume has the smell of authenticity on it. . . . The closer I get to David Wolpe, the more I am impressed by this man of faith. As an author, religious teacher, professor, cancer victim, and television commentator, his unique contribution of experiences has given him a credible platform from which he presents the case that faith in God truly matters at this critical time in our world. Regardless of where you are in your own personal faith journey, I’m certain that his profound insights in this book will stimulate your thinking and even touch your soul about the reality of God in fresh and surprising ways.”
So that’s what Christian conservative, evangelical mega-church pastor Rick Warren said in the Foreword. Keep in mind that Rick Warren built his huge church on the foundational principle that only through faith in Jesus can one be saved. He built his church on an exclusive view of salvation. And it should be obvious to anyone that Rabbi Wolpe’s “faith in God” is not the same as “faith in Jesus,” which Warren believes is essential for salvation.
In 2012 Warren was interviewed by ABC’s Jake Tapper and was asked if he believed that Jesus is the only way to heaven. Warren responded, “I do believe that. I believe that because Jesus said it. . . . I’m betting my life that Jesus wasn’t a liar.” (Warren is referring to John 14:6 where the Jesus of John’s Gospel says that no one comes to the Father except through him.) Next, Tapper pointed out that Warren had a number of friends of other religious traditions and that he was involved in interfaith dialogue with these friends (like Rabbi Wolpe, who is certainly Warren’s friend). So he asked Warren, “Why would a benevolent God tell those friends of yours who are not evangelical Christians, I’m sorry you don’t get to go to heaven?” That’s a great question isn’t it? Warren danced all around the question. He clearly didn’t want to answer. This is how he finally sidestepped it. He said, “I don't think any of us deserve to go to heaven. . . I think the only way any of us get into heaven is God's grace. . . People say, well, I'm better than so-and-so. You probably are. In fact, I have no doubt many non-believers are better than me in certain moral issues. . . . I'm not getting to heaven on my goodness. I'm getting to heaven on what I believe Jesus said is grace. And the fact is it's available to everybody.” Now, that sounds good, but clearly, Warren didn’t answer the question. He dodged the question. So everyone gets in by grace, that’s good, but, here’s the question: Does that mean everyone has to believe in Jesus in order to receive grace (in which case, grace really wouldn’t be grace if you put that kind of stipulation on it)? Warren didn’t say.
Tapper was gracious and let it ride. He didn’t press him. He knew Warren didn’t want to answer the question and he didn’t make him answer. He let it go. I would love to hear Warren actually attempt to answer the question about his friends not going to heaven in a public forum where his non-Christian friends are present. Think about what Rick Warren said about Rabbi Wolpe’s book in the piece I just read. And yet according to Warren’s exclusive view of salvation which he founded and grew his mega-church on, Rabbi Wolpe is going to hell because he doesn’t believe in Jesus in any Christian sense. That is Rick Warren’s conundrum. My editor called it double-speak. I still like my title better. How can Warren say what he says about Rabbi Wolpe and not believe that Rabbi Wolpe is going to heaven? It all comes back to Warren’s very narrow, exclusive view of salvation.
It’s hard for people like Warren to admit they have been wrong. It’s hard for them to let go of their exclusive views even though they themselves have become more generous and gracious than the God of their exclusive views. I’m sure Rick Warren knows if he were to admit he had been wrong and if he adopted a more inclusive view of salvation it would most likely tear his church apart. That’s his dilemma. In my opinion he has spiritually and morally outgrown his theology but he’s trapped in it. Rob Bell, who is the author of the best seller, Love Wins, did the same thing. But Rob Bell refused to be trapped and refused to stop growing. When Rob Bell left his exclusive view of salvation he also left his church, a mega-church that, like Warren, he had founded.
I like Rick Warren. I am praying for Rick Warren. Warren is one of the few evangelical leaders today who at least doesn’t believe the world is flat and hasn’t fallen off the edge of it. There is a sincerity and authenticity to him. So I am praying that his eyes will be opened and he will find the courage to embrace an inclusive gospel, so at the very least the God he preaches is as gracious and loving as he is.
What if more of us believed in and trusted in a bigger, more inclusive God. What if more of us understood salvation in terms of healing and wholeness and liberation from the life diminishing forces that possess us and oppress us, so that we are free to truly love God and love others? What if more Christians, and not just Christians but religious adherents of other religious traditions who are exclusivists in their faith (Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, name a religion) – what if more exclusionists the world over would give up their exclusivism and become more inclusive in their understanding of God and God’s relationship to human beings? What a difference it could make toward vastly expanding respect and compassion for all people and advancing the common good. What a difference it could make in moving us toward equality and fairness and justice and world peace. Just maybe sisters and brothers, the salvation of the world depends on it.
Our good God I thank you for the salvation that we, in this church, have come to experience through our discipleship to Jesus. I thank you for the salvation that others have experienced in other ways through other means. I thank you that you are big enough and gracious enough to meet any of us where ever we are. Give us the passion and will to grow in your grace and truth. I pray that we as followers of Jesus might know and live daily the mind and love of Christ, in whose name I pray.