Non-Christians are often ill-informed on Christian beliefs and have little understanding or interest in what goes on in a typical Christian congregation. The following paragraphs are written with the hope that they will shed a bit of light on the subject.
As I write this post, I must confess my inadequacy. I am no theologian, and my knowledge of the doctrinal beliefs of the various Christian denominations is very limited. I do know, however, that a wide variety of spiritual opinions exists within worshippers at any church. In the following, I express my own views from the standpoint of one who calls himself an evangelical, while acknowledging that this label covers a multiplicity of opinions on matters of faith.
Christians and Jews often suffer from the perception of those outside their ranks that they think themselves to be better than others, or “holier than thou”. The charge is not entirely without a basis in fact. Certainly, there are some who call themselves Christians and project an attitude of disdain toward those not of the true faith. Rigid fundamentalists, a small minority of professing Christians, tend to draw the circle of salvation so tightly as to put even Billy Graham and Mother Teresa outside the pale. In truth, this sort of attitude is completely at variance with the teachings of Jesus.
Within Christian churches there are varied opinions on the questions of salvation, damnation, heaven, and hell.
Generally speaking, liberal Christians tend to de-emphasize all of these subjects and take the Bible in a non-literal sense. Some even go so far as to question or deny basic tenets of the Christian faith – Jesus’s virgin birth, his divinity, his bodily resurrection, etc. Instead, they emphasize his humanity and his love. When pressed, most of them would probably express a belief in many paths to heaven (if there is a heaven) and virtual universal salvation. The “holier than thou” attitude does not exist among these liberal Christians, but some of them tend to look down on conservative or more traditional Christians with a sense of intellectual superiority.
Many old-line Protestant denominations are split between liberals and evangelicals, with liberals being dominant in many churches in certain areas of the country, especially in the northeastern states. There are also liberal Christian thinkers in many Roman Catholic churches, but unlike members of a liberal Protestant congregation, these Catholics are usually out of step with the church hierarchy.
Traditional church-going Catholics hold to the faith of the church as expressed in the ancient creeds and in traditions developed over twenty centuries. There is greater emphasis on liturgy and on the necessity of good works than in most Protestant bodies. Until relatively recent times the biblical knowledge of a Catholic layperson was chiefly restricted to catechistical instruction, but many Catholics now study the Bible and have much in common with their evangelical brothers. Both groups tend to be socially and politically conservative.
The label “evangelical Christian” covers those Protestants who take the Bible seriously and interpret it more or less literally (regarding it as divinely inspired, but allowing for some latitude in interpretation), and they probably constitute a majority in most Protestant bodies. They are especially strong in the southern and mid-western American states. Evangelical churches profess the ancient Christian creeds which emphasize Jesus’s divinity, his second coming, and a final judgement. Evangelicals place a great emphasis on spreading the faith and stress the Apostle Paul’s teaching on justification by faith, with good works being the natural product and evidence of faith rather than a requirement for salvation. They hold that true faith in Jesus means eternal redemption, but many also believe that works play an important role in the final judgement.
Pentacostals are those evangelical Christian believers who place a special emphasis on a direct personal experience of God through baptism in the Holy Sprit as described in the book of Acts in the New Testament.
The so-called Christian fundamentalists are a separate and much smaller group, and they believe in a strict, literal reading of the Bible. From evident fear of contamination, they tend to separate themselves from those so-called Christians whom they believe to be not of the true faith – which includes Catholics, liberal Protestants, and many evangelicals.
One New Testament verse probably creates more problems between Christians and non-Christians than any other. In John’s gospel, Jesus is quoted as saying, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” Some Christians interpret this verse to mean that no one can enter heaven unless he or she accepts Jesus as Savior. They think that everyone else is consigned to hell, either to the fiery furnace or to eternal separation from God. Of course, such an interpretation tends to infuriate non-Christians. They regard it as the apogee of intolerance.
The truth is, many Christians struggle with this passage, and they understand it in different ways. For example, my own thinking is along the following lines:
- The scriptures clearly state that we are not to judge others. The fate of one’s soul is between that person and God.
- Jesus condemned pride as a grievous sin. We are not to look down on others and consider ourselves superior. This does not mean that we should not condemn behavior the Bible itself condemns as sinful; but as we do so, we must acknowledge our own sinful natures.
- The New Testament clearly teaches that Jesus died as an atonement for our sins, and there is no danger of hell for those who accept His free gift of salvation. The Bible does not speak clearly about the fate of those who, for whatever reason, did not know Jesus as Lord.
- In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Rome he intimates that all people have an instinctive knowledge of God and of right and wrong, and, unless they are saved by faith in the risen Christ, they are accountable and judged by their works. (Romans 2).
- The New Testament identifies Jesus as the Son of God and part of the Triune Godhead. Jesus is to preside over the Final Judgement. As Paul described it “God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.” In a very real sense, therefore, Jesus is the only way to heaven. As the Final Judgement is described, it is also seems clear that works are considered in determining rewards and punishments for the saved and the unsaved. If that is not true, why the judgement?
We see through the glass darkly, and Christians can have different beliefs based on their interpretation of God’s word. This is especially true in Protestant denominations. After all, Martin Luther himself preached “the priesthood of all believers.” There are those in the church who would describe my own Biblical interpretations as heretical, but most of us are simply seeking the truth. Lord, help me in my search.
Each of us falls short of being the person God would have us be, and no one is in a position to throw stones. Not one of us should think himself or herself to be “holier than thou”.
Jesus taught one thing very clearly. When He was asked what is the great commandment, He said, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Love one another, just as the Lord Jesus loves us.