Postcards From the Edge of Non-Liberal Protestantism
A response to Bishop Spong
Bishop John Shelby Spong's questioning of the existence of the afterlife is revealing in many respects.
One can sympathize with the argument that much that passes for belief in the afterlife in the church is not well-grounded in Christian theology or the Scriptures. It is simply wishful thinking. One can also agree with the complaint that it is wrong to suggest that life is meaningless without a vibrant belief in the afterlife.
There is a difference, however, between a life that has meaning and one that is grounded in something of eternal significance. It is also easy to understand, and even identify with, a brave struggle toward a viable faith in an afterlife after having witnessed profound suffering.
What is missing, however, in this whole debate is any sort of solid grounding in the Scriptures. The reason, it appears to me, is a loss of belief in the authority of what the Scriptures teach on such matters.
Here are my responses to the bishop's reflections:
* Heaven and hell are not symbols; they are places in the universe that parallel the material universe--namely, the spiritual realm. Consider for a moment just the New Testament. In the Gospel of Matthew alone, the term "heaven" recurs repeatedly as a roundabout way of referring to God, so certain is the author that there is a place where God dwells, namely heaven. In the earliest Gospel, Mark 1:11 records the fact that God spoke to Jesus from heaven--a place, not merely a state of altered consciousness. One may also wish to consider the likely authentic parable of Jesus about heaven and hell in Luke 16:19-31. Though the parable involves metaphorical speech, it is metaphorical speech that speaks about a real place. In John 14:2, Jesus speaks of the spaciousness of heaven, where there is plenty of room for those who believe in God and in Jesus. In Acts 2, the church is said to have received the Holy Spirit from heaven; and Paul speaks plainly about life in heaven, where one is "absent from the body and present with the Lord" (2 Corinthians 5). Finally, the book of Revelation is replete with visions from and of heaven, something John of Patmos fervently believed in as a place separate from earth and the material realm.
* The bishop has obviously not been paying much attention to recent Gallup polls, which make clear that a majority of Americans believe in a literal hell, and a vast majority (over 80%) believe in a literal heaven. One suspects that the bishop has been circulating too long in circles of a tiny and dying minority--liberal Protestantism. When he insists that such ideas are now meaningless or vacuous, it is appropriate to ask--to whom? Certainly not a majority of people in our country or a majority of those in the church.
* It is more than a little ironic that a bishop who himself has sought to deconstruct the very substance of orthodox Christian faith in doctrines such as Jesus' virginal conception and bodily resurrection now says he wants to hold on to some form of traditional belief in the afterlife.
Having made himself the arbiter of whether the Scriptures tell the truth about such matters, he now wishes to hold on to something approximating a belief in a positive afterlife, bemoaning the loss of what he himself has helped to try and exterminate.
But Spong has no viable basis for such hopefulness, unless he reverses field and admits that it might just be possible that God could reveal the truth about these things in his Word.
Tradition, reason, and human experience can, at best, provide only supplemental evidence for the viability of a robust notion of the afterlife. These other authorities need to be critiqued by Scripture. Simplistic talk about the "fact" that God as a judge of human actions can no longer be believed reveals more about the state of the observer's belief system than about whether the Final Judgment will one day come to pass.
I quite agree with Spong, however, that Christianity ought to be founded on the basis of some "facts"--in particular, the historical fact of Jesus' bodily resurrection on Easter. It is not the "facts" about the state of modern unbelief that determine the viability of such concepts but rather the historical event that stands behind assertions such as that of the Apostle Paul's: "if Christ is not raised, our faith is in vain; we are still in our sins."
Christianity is a religion founded on the particulars of ancient history, especially the particulars about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and about his earliest followers. No amount of rationalizing or philosophizing after the fact can eradicate the facts of past history. Not even sophisticated demythologizing in the postmodern era can wipe out such facts or the solid faith that is grounded in them.
So in the end, I must agree with the bishop. It is time for Christians to face the facts--the question is, which facts, and who gets to decide what are facts? Perhaps it is also time to stop theologizing in a purely speculative mode that is not well-grounded in a detailed examination of the Scriptures. Modern unbelief is no certain guide for those perplexed about what will or will not be encountered when we die.