If you do not follow Game of Thrones, please keep reading anyway. I promise that I will not make this post about the series, although I do want to use an incident from one of the recent episodes to illustrate a point. The show is seven seasons and a few years in, and it was only last week that I – a faithful adherent – recognised just how vividly and insightfully the story presents modern Christianity’s theological flaws.
The scene: after completely routing her enemies in battle, Daenerys’s troops round up the surviving stragglers of the defeated army and bring them before her. She addresses them from atop a large rock, with a terrifying dragon perched menacingly at her side. Initially, she demonstrates a promising empathy in understanding the plight of these commissioned soldiers, wrenched from their homes and families to bleed for a cause they do not really believe in. Throughout the series she has attempted to define herself as a defender of the people, a queen who refuses to compel others to follow her but insists that they choose to do so freely. Now she offers her prisoners a simple but horrifying choice: choose to join her in her war to liberate the world from tyranny (and incidentally to become ruler of every people) or die. The irony seems utterly lost on her. It is a refrain that has become –as far as I am concerned anyway – an annoying part of her character development: she is unbendingly insistent that everyone else acknowledge her rightful claim to the throne. She is admirably merciful to those who do… but not everyone does. The general of the defeated army and his youthful son (and only heir)refuse to bow. Even in defeat, their allegiance is unwavering. The director frames them as admirably honourable and we cannot but respect their decision. But with a cold imperiousness, and in spite of protestations and pleas for clemency from her advisor, Daenerys orders the dragon to incinerate them and they are obliterated in a torrent of flame.
If you believe that God speaks to people, and orchestrates events so that we can ‘hear’ Him, then this was one of those moments. That very morning I had been challenged by a Facebook post from one of the men I regard as a theological mentor, Michael Hardin. He had made the observation that in the gospels, forgiveness always precedes repentance, and not the other way around. Forgiveness, he argues, creates the environment in which repentance is possible; it can never be a prerequisite for forgiveness. Since it is impossible to legislate a change of heart, repentance can never be achieved by making it a legal requirement. While a law may compel people to modify their behaviour, it can never compel them to change their attitudes or beliefs. Certainly, true loyalty and devotion are not won through duress. Force only breeds resentment and anger, compliance possibly, but never love.
As I watched Daenerys’s failure to understand that hearts are not won at the point of a sword (or the maw of a dragon, as the case may be), her incomprehension that a choice between death and devotion is no choice at all, but simply another form of tyranny, I understood very clearly the fatal flaw in modern Christian theology. The choice Christian theology presents people with is exactly the one Daenerys offers her prisoners: turn or burn. Choose to love God or roast eternally. No choice to follow God, under those constraints, could be considered authentic. The only authentic choice possible is the flames. And that is supposed to be “good news”?!
Like Daenerys, we – Christians – are blind to the tyranny we perpetuate through our theologies. We cannot grasp that insisting that people must love God and bend the knee before they can be forgiven is monstrous. We cannot seem to see that such a theology is not consistent with a truly loving God. Love does not demand that the lover change, or even express a willingness to change, in order to be loved. But Jesus understood. Consider his interaction with ‘sinners’, if you do not believe me. Notice how he never requires tax collectors or prostitutes or lepers or religious zealots to change before he is willing to eat with them, to speak with them, to heal them. The words “your sins are forgiven” are never predicated upon a confession. If repentance is evident, it is born out of Jesus’ mercy; it is not the catalyst for that grace. Sometimes there is no repentance at all. At the cross, Jesus offers his most powerful teaching: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Whether the “they” refers to his persecutors or was meant to pertain to humanity as a whole, the principle remains the same: forgiveness is unconditional. Nothing is required to earn it. Not even repentance. Paul notes, in Romans 5 (my emphasis), “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us”. If repentance was a requirement for forgiveness, then God would be a tyrant.
That does not mean that repentance is unimportant, though. It is important for reasons other than the ones our theology assumes. It is not a precondition for acceptance by God. Repentance is important because it means we turn away from a system of social organisation that is founded on violence as the ultimate expression of power and justice. It means rejecting religious practice that requires scapegoating and bloodshed to win God’s favour. Repentance means – in Jesus’ words – “picking up your cross” and following him: refusing to participate in retributive justice, in violent and oppressive systems of power (if you are interested, watch Brian Zahnd’s excellent sermon on this at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yRtfKrbC4tQ) .Repentance means responding like Jesus did to those systems. And not because our salvation depends on it; because it is the only sustainable way to create a peaceful and equitable society. Repentance is a big “no” to the monster God embedded in our blood-soaked religions. If we want to understand God’s character, we need to turn our backs on the sacrifice-oriented theologies that are so deeply ingrained in us. Jesus’s extravagant and subversive forgiveness enables us to see that.
I was chatting online with an old friend and past pupil a couple of weeks ago, and he remarked that Christianity was useful only as an ambulance for the weak, but that it had no value in moving the human race forward. I would agree, if the only ideological beliefs of Christianity were the personal salvation, holiness-code-obsessed, me-my-Bible-and-Jesus ones that dominate contemporary Christian theology. I, too, see no value in a theology that depicts Jesus as a Daenerys-like figure, demanding that we love him or die, or which exists to provide a sort of psychological security blanket to a clearly delineated in-group in the form of free fire-insurance and a Sunday morning entertainment and coffee club for the middle class. But that is not the Jesus of the gospels. And when I look at the mess the world is in today, where we use difference (whether race, religion, sexuality, gender, culture, age, political affiliation or favourite sports team) to justify violence against others (and liberals are as guilty of this as conservatives – look at the way we talk about Trump or neo-Nazis, for example), then the only way I see of moving the world forward is through forgiveness. And not the sort that requires the other to acknowledge her wrongdoing first. Conditional forgiveness is a veiled attempt to wield power over another; it uses the moral high-ground as a platform to launch an attack. Conditional forgiveness is oppressive. A free and peaceful society cannot be built on demands to bend the knee. I think Christianity – following Jesus’s teachings – is the only way forward for humanity. Time and time again we have borne witness to humanity’s inability to learn from history. Violence breeds only violence. Hatred gives birth to more hatred. What we need is Jesus-style forgiveness. Extravagant. Self-sacrificing. Completely contrary to all of our notions of common sense. If we want the world to be other than it is, we cannot keep insisting that others conform to our definitions of good and right, that our own sense of justice must prevail. We need to give up the right to hate. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
If you want to understand repentance, read Paul’s account in 1 Corinthians 13. Repentance, born out of being loved, seeks to love. It discards childish ideas of a God that needs to be appeased, gives up the right to judge, surrenders the moral high ground, recognises that adherence to some social or moral code is inadequate:
13 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
I read your post with interest.
The logical conclusion that I draw from it, is that all humans will be saved. If no repentance is required, it follows that every human will enter the kingdom of heaven. But this is not what we read in Mathew, 25, where it would seem clear in the imagery of the sheep and the goats on the day of judgement, that there will indeed be one of two different eternal destinies for individual humans.
Also, your post brings one to the logical conclusion that regardless of what religion one adheres to, or indeed if one adheres to no religion at all, ultimately God forgives all, accepts all and all will be with Him eternally.
I am not sure that this was the message that Jesus was putting across in his great words recorded in John 14:6 when he clearly tells us that HE is the Way, the Truth and the Life. I see in the unfolding of Scripture, that there is a clear choice that mankind has, to accept or reject Jesus; and that this is a choice that will have consequences . These consequences will be seen in the life of love that a believer lives, as his own heart is transformed by the Holy Spirit, to love others as himself, and in terms of the ultimate destiny to which he is heading.
We read in 1 Peter 2:24
“He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed”
This is the glorious truth and centre of the Christian faith. It affects everything from the gratitude to God with which we live our lives, to our ultimate destiny.
If all are forgiven, regardless of whether or not they confess this great truth, the power of the crucifixion is null and void, all will be eternally with God, and Christianity is annihilated, meaningless, and simply untrue.
Your posts always challenge the root and centre of the Christian faith. I think it’s great to be challenged and have to think through these things carefully and clearly. But I have to say, with love and sincerity, that the doctrine of all religions leading to the same God and same ultimate destiny, is simply not compatible with the teachings of Christianity as we see it in Scripture.
Yours in His great service, from a redeemed sinner
It is with all sincerity that I say thank you for taking the time to comment so graciously and extensively. You honour me by feeling free to challenge me and so kindly.
But I want to make something clear about my intentions. I am not challenging Christianity; I am challenging what I believe is a very toxic version of it. I am challenging an interpretation of te gospel, not the gospel. In fact, I think what I am proposing is closer to the teachings of the gospels than the dominant theology in western churches at the moment.
Let me start with this point: if Jesus is God, then to understand God, we need only look to Jesus. He is the closest picture of God we can get. Everything must be interpreted through him. I would (and I say this in genuine humility) like to know where any of my theology does not root itself in close observation of Jesus’ ethics and practice.
You correctly point out that Jesus claims to be the way and the truth and the life. I absolutely believe that. But that does not mean making an intellectual confession that he is God. “The way” is a path – a way to live – not a once-off decision. IN Matthew 25 the basis for the separation is not repentance or a particular confession of faith. It is how people treat the weak. It is a way of living in community. IN other words, it is devotion to Kingsom living, Kingdom relationship; there is no evidence in the story of the necessity for personal confession and repentance. Likewise, the Peter quotation does not mention repentance. It speaks to Jesus bearing our sins in his body on the cross (no mention of God punishing Jesus, just of Jesus bearing sins: the one does not imply the other). the clue is that Peter mentions that we are “healed” by Jesus, not justified, not freed from a death sentence. Healed.
I am not challenging Jesus at all. I am challenging how we read him, how we interpret the gospels. And yes, I believe all are forgiven:”for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24). that does not mean that all repent. And I do believe that in a Kingdom lifestyle, those who insist on separating themselves from those they deem lesser,as in Matthew 25, who insist on personal holiness over relationship, who see God as violent, will not – cannot – exist happily in a society governed not by justice but by love.
The heart of the gospel is certainly what happened at the cross. But what happened at the cross was not God punishing Jesus. It was not a twisted form of retributive justice. It was healing. Jesus showed us the way to live in the Kindom. He showed us the truth and the light. In his treatment of others, his grace, his unconditional forgiveness, his rejection of violence and especially of a violent God, he demonstrated the way to the Father. And I believe him that this is the only way to understand and live in a world under God’s rulership.
I do not believe that making God’s forgiveness conditional nullifies the cross at all. I think its power and beauty lies in its universality. I do not think that makes it meaningless. Love is not powerful if it i conditional. Forgiveness has no meaning if obtaining it requires anything of the transgressor. Love is only love if it is free; forgiveness only has meaning if it is unwarranted. And that is what the gospels show.
I will certainly explore these ideas more in future posts, and would love you to keep challenging me. I do so appreciate it. And we may disagree, but I know we both love Jesus. And we are both commited to lighting the way for others to see his love and grace. We just understand that differently. Please remember this if I ever come across as condescending or dismissive. That is not my intention. While I cannot accept your interpretation of the gospels, I completely accept you as a sister in Christ.
I really enjoyed this piece. I admire that you keep challenging your beliefs, despite the uncertainty that can bring. I seem to remember Eddie Izzard touching on a similar idea in an old skit, in which he described how Christians are essentially offering a choice of “Cake or Death.” It must seem like an absurd choice to non-Christians.
The suggestion that God’s forgiveness is universal is powerful to me, particularly because I came to a different conclusion a few years ago. I thought about this God who had offered His Son as the (only) way into His Kingdom, but left the majority of the world without access to Jesus or his Word, and the only answer that made any sense to me was that we had been wrong all along – He doesn’t care about us after all. So I certainly appreciate the idea.
I need to clarify though – is this entire argument based on the idea that Hell doesn’t exist? I think you wrote about that a while ago. If so, it might have been useful to make that clearer, because the argument doesn’t really hold up without it. I really resonate with your action-based approach to love, and the way it extends to unconditional forgiveness, but that only accounts for forgiveness of acts and ideas. The widely accepted belief that you are going to Hell if you don’t repent and accept Jesus into your heart stands in direct opposition to your argument, and since that belief is so significant, it is probably worth throwing more weight against it. I don’t know if I’m communicating that delineation very well?
As far as forgiveness before repentance – in our world – goes, how do we put that into practice? I appreciate wanting to forgive white supremacists and the like, but when they exist within a system that perpetuate their power structures and allows them to hate, how should other people respond practically? I think there are amazing examples in the last century of people responding to hate with love and forgiveness, and reaping the rewards of a changed system, but I don’t think those are a rule. When the people in power look at your love with condescension and continue to disenfranchise you, how should you respond? How do you – from a position of disadvantage – reconcile the need to forgive your oppressor with your need to push him back?
I think I’m wandering off on a tangent. My thoughts are a little hazy today. An aside: if you haven’t read the books that Game of Thrones are based on, then I highly recommend it. Game of Thrones is an exciting, blockbuster-y, adaptation, but the books are infinitely more complex and moving.
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Thank you for the detailed feedback. I do appreciate your taking the time not only to read my ramblings but to engage with me too.
I do agree – obviously – that the choice is an absurd one. I also do not believe it is what is at the heart of the gospel. If one steps back for a moment from the cultural accretion around interpretation of the gospels, and contextualises Jesus and Paul in 1st Century Jewish thinking (instead of 16th Century Reformation thinking), then the whole concept of Hell becomes absurd. The minute one derives theology from Jesus’ ethics, teachings and praxis rather than from Reformation readings of the Bible, which should seem an obvious step but regrettably is not so clear to most, then theology has to look different. So yes, my argument is premised on the belief that a doctrine of Hell is non-existent to Jesus, and that the core message of the gospel is not “invite Jesus into your heart or risk eternal damnation”.
The “how” of forfiveness and love-oriented living is a difficult issue. I will attempt to provide some insight in future posts. But I like the work of Walter Wink on it, and will probably start there when I look into teh question. Please bear in mind that most of my posts are a sort of thinking aloud, so I am grappling with the issues as a I write about them. I don’t have answers to all the questions I raise, but am frantically looking. THis is one of those questions.
I will try get a hold of the books and read them too. You are not the first person who has tried to persuade me of the necessity of reading them. I guess it’s time to give in to the inevitable 🙂