Scared of Hell: Evangelicals don’t really know if they are saved?

Byline: Does the difficulty in feeling assured of salvation dissolve the practical differences in “works”-focused vs. belief-focused religion?Hell Awaits You!

I used to think that the problem of assurance of salvation was a big practical difference between Mormons and Evangelicals.  I am not so sure now.The theological differences seem stark. According to the rough academic analogy, Mormons believe that everybody is born with a passing grade, and you have to decide to fail.  So long as your intentions are in the right direction, and you are living up to your potential , you are going to the Celestial Kingdom. If you fall short you are going to get a great consolation prize– eternally living in heaven with Jesus forever.   If you criminally screw up and reject Jesus,  you are going to suffer for your  sins but eventually you will be in a heavenly place with the eternal joy that the Holy Spirit can bring you.  Mormons believe (or used to) that some striving souls could get a “second endowment.”  An ordinance performed in the temple that seals a person with their spouse to the Celestial Kingdom.  They have their “calling and election made sure.” Anymore, this concept and practice has practically disappeared from the Church.  Mormons are left completely sure they are going to heaven, but always unsure of which heaven they will go to. I believed that whatever I–or nearly anybody else–was in for in the afterlife, it was going to be a whole lot better than this world.

Contrasting my experience with the children of Evangelicalism. I can see how the “faith alone” doctrine would have scared the hell out of me.  Evangelicals believe you are born with a failing grade– the default is hell.  People qualify for salvation by correct belief and reliance on the work of Jesus alone.  It seems to me that if you are an Evangelical facing the never-ending torment of hell, you’d better make darn sure you are saved.  And the problem is, because non-saving faith can masquerade as true belief and faith, there is a lot of room for consternationJust as Mormons obsess about doing enough to be “good enough” , it seems that doubt-prone Evangelicals can easily fall into a cycle of severe anxiety trying to assure their faith is “true” enough.  And the stakes– and possibly the potential anxiety seem considerably higher.  It seems that many Evangelicals indeed have this problem of assurance gauging from this article in Relevant Magazine, by J.D. Greear, Evangelical author of Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart.    

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We Pretenders

When I was a kid, I loved to pretend.  My life was filled with forts, guns, armies, horses, dragons, talking animals, magic swords, and space armadas.  You didn’t have to point out to me that I was pretending, I was doing it on purpose.

Jesus pointed out the pretenders who did not seem to know they were pretending. To the Romans he pointed out that they were merely pretending to be the masters of the world. In fact, the Kingdom of God was in our midst and held sway over what mattered.  To those pretending to be good, he said there is no good but God.  To those pretending to honor the temple of God, he dealt a beating.  To those pretending to be his disciples, he exposed as denyers, betrayers, and court jesters. Jesus was God who pretended to be a man and–in the end–He exposed this pretense as well.

Few would disagree that those who follow Jesus only pretend to.   The Old Testament teaches us that we are foolish and pretending children to a Perfect Father who has given us his law, the New teaches us that we are all fallen and lost, incapable of following the law God gave–we can only pretend. The Book of Mormon teaches that when it comes to obedience, we are less than we are not the dust of the earth, only pretending to be submissive. Joseph Smith taught that our compliance and authority is often–because of our nature and disposition–simply pretense to fulfill our pride and hide our sins. Jesus’ apostles made it clear that Jesus was the Christ, we merely pretend to be Christians. Paul taught that whatever we are of Christ is not us, but Christ in us.

Ironically, Christians also like to point out pretenders.

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Be afraid. . . be very afraid.

I saw this video the other day, and I have to say that it struck a deep chord. At first it made me very happy that BYU was finally allow some open social outlet for gay students to socialize.  Then it hit me how big a challenge it will be for Mormons and Evangelicals to deal with the fact of homosexuality.

Listening to these kids stories about how they discovered that they were gay in the context of being active, faithful mormons made me realize, perhaps for the first time, how ridiculously awful it would be to be a 12 year old mormon kid discovering that you were gay.  I remember how religious I was at that age, how devoted, finding out that I was gay would have been the ultimate betrayal and would have ended my spirituality or my connection to the Church.  And the nature of the reaction of my friends and family would be the test of whether Christianity was bunk or not. Perhaps the reason that when I was young, I never saw or heard anything like what I hear in the videos. Because it was not in front of me, it was really easy not to realize the crucible that the believing Mormon gay child is in. If I had, it would have been hard to stay Mormon or Christian at all.

Seeing the kids in the video, still very much engaged in Mormonism on a sincere level, It made my heart hurt. I don’t know really how I would be able to deal with it. My brother, who knew gay friends at BYU, and struggles with depression, told me with all sincerity that he would have certainly killed himself if he was gay. The straight majority in the church simply does not recognize the gravity of the situation.   These kids cannot be both gay and Mormon without seriously twisting something that is part of them.

The fact that homosexuality exists as a natural phenomena among those that are close to God within the faith throws a very powerful curve ball at both Mormons and Evangelicals. Unlike with heterosexuality, which is channeled and controlled, homosexuality must be eliminated, or certain deeply held tenants must be abandoned.

When it comes to Evangelicals or Mormons I don’t know who has the bigger problem. For Mormons, being gay shatters the careful conception of what the pinnacle of life on earth is all about (covenants, eternal marriage, pro-creation). In my experience, People don’t talk about being gay in Mormon Church, it is not accepted, most of what is said about it is by the vocal minority who is firmly anti-gay.    Evangelicals might have an easier time.  I think it may be easier to “sin” and talk about it, and even being an active sexual “sinner” and still feel connected to Evangelicals christianity.  Partly because Mormons may kick you out if you are at all open and unrepentant about it.  However Evangelicals seem to play a lot bigger part in anti-gay activism, because of the sheer size of the group in comparison with Mormonism, and the de-centralized nature, there are a lot more vocal bigots in Evangelicalism.

The problem is that both groups can be deeply un-Christian about how they approach the problem.  The black mark this leaves on Mormonism and Evangelicalism, in the eyes a gay person who embraces their sexuality, or to anybody else who holds their sexuality dear is difficult to overstate.   An institutional stance that is anything short of deeply empathetic and loving makes a church seem like a absurd charade of the love that Jesus spoke of.

The reason why homophobia may be intractable is that Mormons and Evangelicals should be afraid on an institutional level.  The fact of natural homosexuality requires institutional change if either group is to remain followers of Jesus.  It’s hard for me to see how either group provides a satisfying answer to the person who feels God in and through their experiences of sexuality AND openly embraces a “alternative lifestyle”.   Which means, no matter how spiritually compelling either Mormonism or Evangelicalism is, they are going to appear to be very limited or broken for anybody who understands that God wants some people to be gay AND close to Him.   Just as they have to tweak their theology to account for the unfathomable size and complexity of the universe, they are going to have to change in order to get in line with this reality.  Of course this very sort of change may cause foundations to crumble.

I never quite saw this fact before this video. Hearing and seeing the human problem is necessary to make non-gay realize it.  My guess is that more open, honest and loving discussions of homosexuality within Mormonism and Evangelicalism will mean dramatic changes within both, or simply a larger exodus from a faith that has lost touch with the real world.

At this point, if my child was gay, I would actively try to de-convert them from both Evangelicalism and Mormonism because, at least to this child, neither seem to be carrying the torch of Christian love and understanding.

Believers, what can be done?

Why the Mormons have to be on the right track regarding Jesus.

Who best knows what Jesus taught, or did or thought (or thinks)? 

To some, apparently Evangelicals included,  the answer is the Bible. . .

Jesus love me, yes I know, because the Bible tells me so.

To me this song was always a bit baffling.  If Jesus loves you, and he is alive. . and is GOD it seems that we would be able to find out from Him directly whether he loves you.  Depending on the Bible alone, and the teams of unbiased scholars it would take to approach an accurate exegisis of a 2000 year old document seems like a strange approach indeed.  When the bible text is limited and not completely clear, theology becomes a slave to scholarship and scholars, collectively, rarely agree on anything. 

Mormons take a different approach, we posit that Jesus must be speaking to some or all of his followers directly and try to find out the truth by listening and recognizing his voice.  We teach our kids: 

I know my Father lives, and loves me too, the Spirit whispers this to me and tells me it is true. 

Personal revelation as well as global revelation is the conceptual center of the Mormon faith. The Mormon mantra, is their testimony that God speaks to us today, Joseph Smith was a prophet and there is a living prophet on the earth today.  How do Mormons know this?  From the voice of God himself, by the voice of his Spirit. 

Joseph Smith, speaking for God, declared:

” For verily the avoice of the Lord is unto all men, and there is none to bescape; and there is no eye that shall not see, neither cear that shall not hear, neither dheart that shall not be penetrated.” Doctrine and Covenants 1:2

Speaking for himself he taught:

“God hath not revealed anything to Joseph, but what he will make known unto the Twelve, and even the least Saint may know all things as fast as he is able to bear them…”  –Discourses of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 150-151

Of course I know that non-mormon eyes start to roll at this point.  People who speak for God, or as God, are a dime a dozen and there are always a bunch of suckers ready to buy the story.   Any charismatic preacher with a egomaniacal bent can form a sect, cult, following, denomenation  (pick your term).  Joseph Smith, they say, was just one of a long list of self-proclaimed (false) prophets.   

I hear the argument loud and clear, and it is certainly compelling.  (Mormons think all those other people were false prophets too! )

However, even if I was convinced (as evangelicals are) that Joseph should be lumped in with the Mohommeds of the world and the Book of Mormon with the Urantia book, Its difficult to argue against the approach and reasoning: i.e. Go  first to God to find what God thinks and then listen to his answers.   If you want to know what Jesus really taught, why can’t we dial him up now, or least find some sort of spokesman.  Even the organizations devoted to Mammon have customer service representatives, how much more should God, our father who loves us, provide contemporary customer support?

As an attorney and a student of philosophy,  I have lost my faith in debate and analysis to untangle complicated events such as the life and ministry of Jesus.   In my experience, its nearly impossible to figure out with certaintywhat was said and done last year, let alone alone 2000 years ago. It seems that if that examination of the known facts and documents of historical christianity is our best path, then we are destined to be “Ever learning, and never able to come to theknowledge of the truth.”

Evangelical Prophets vs. Non-Charismatic Mormons

I was reading an evangelical theology blog called Parchment and Pen and discovered that there has been a deep and active debate among Evangelicals about something that has always been used as a support for the LDS church:  according to the Bible, God would still be sending prophets, angels and visions today.  The hallmark of the LDS missionary invitation and the LDS testimony is that we have a “modern day prophet” that leads the church.   The book of Mormon especially points out that it makes no sense for God to stop sending prophets.

It may be news to some Mormons like me, who are relatively ignorant of other brands of christianity, that Evangelicals as a group are still wrestling with this question.  Some believe that the gifts of the spirit, including prophecy, are alive and well (called Charismatics and “continuationists”)  and some affirmatively believe that these gifts were meant to cease shortly after biblical times (the “cessationists”).

The irony of the current situation is that Mormons, whose meetings at the beginning of the church looked a lot like a pentecostal service with speaking and tongues and recounting of visions and dreams, have generally become some of the more boring and mundane in christendom.  While Charismatics, who believe in all of the spiritual gifts, seem to completely reject the notion of a modern prophet who is able to speak words worthy of canonization.

Here is the latest Mormon argument regarding the continuation of scripture.  Apostle Jeff Holland’s talk from April 2008 general conference asserting that Jesus’ words do not cease.

At any rate I found the discussion on the blog quite interesting and enlightening as to how Evangelicals have dealt with the question of modern day spiritual manifestations.

The Big Picture

I was recently reminded of the Evangelical view of the meta-narrative or “big picture” in the Bible.  Our view explains the story of the Bible and our own personal lives in this structure:

  1. Creation – “He said it was good.”
  2. Fall – separation from what God intended.
  3. Redemption – A way is made to return.
  4. Restoration – Back to the way things should be.

Since the Book of Mormon and other Mormon scriptures add to this narrative I wonder how Mormons would succinctly decribe their faith’s grand story. Is it the same or different?