The exclusivity claims of Christianity have done untold damage to individuals and families, particularly in an era when more and more Christians who believe that a personal relationship with Jesus is the only way to avoid eternal damnation have friends and family members who are not Christian. This morning, the Washington Post had a wonderful family profile of a black family in which two of the sons have converted to Islam.
Personally, I’ve always wondered what kind of God would damn someone to eternal torment for making a theological mistake? I’ve held many beliefs that I now think are wrong, I’m sure later in life some of the beliefs I now hold I will later regret, and if after death I do find out what beliefs are correct, I’m sure they won’t be the ones I hold.
Religion used to be largely inherited (and it still is) but more and more people are faced with choices between competing religions. How is one to choose between Islam and Christianity? And is ones eternal salvation really at stake in choosing? I don’t have answers, but I do have a few thoughts that will hopefully point in the correct direction.
First, had I been raised Muslim, I would probably still be Muslim. Though some people convert, most people stay in the religious tradition they are brought up in. For God to damn all Muslims simply for growing up Muslim seems capricious and malevolent. The same is true if God were to damn all Christians for being Christian. If Christ is not divine then we’ve definitely broken a central tenet of monotheism.
Second, Muslims and Christians worship the same God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. From a Christian perspective, failing to recognize God’s son would be a major theological mistake, but not necessarily one that merits eternal damnation. Again, the same is true if Jesus is not God’s son and we’ve elevated a prophet to divine status.
Third, I grew up Lutheran and am still Lutheran, and two things that I take from my faith tradition are the paradox of all human beings being at once saint and sinner, and the importance of grace. Luther recognized that if our salvation depended on works-righteousness we were all damned (literally). The same is true if our salvation depends on what I’ll call beliefs-righteousness, or getting all of our beliefs about God correct. This simply is not a possibility for human beings. We rely on God’s grace because our thoughts and actions are always going to be imperfect.
Fourth, though faith and belief are often used interchangeably, there is an important difference. Beliefs are a set of propositional truths that can be affirmed or negated. Faith is an act of trust. Unlike beliefs which assert propositional truths about God, faith involves a direct trust and reliance on God. I both hope and believe that we will be judged on faith, and not on correct belief.
None of this is to say that it doesn’t matter what we belief about God, because it does matter. It affects how we act in our daily lives and our ability to relate to both God and neighbor. These are important and I encourage discussion and disagreement. But I don’t think that arguing that the failure to hold correct beliefs automatically leads to eternal damnation is helpful. Christians need to take the time to seriously reconsider their exclusivity claims before it destroys more families and communities.