In continuation of Wednesday’s post, today we are going to begin to take a look at Christian history and see if we can find within it any reason or motivation to consider a departure from what has been the dominate view of hell and eternity. In so doing, we want to ask questions surrounding the development of the dominate view and whether or not other views have been considered or embraced? Has the dominate view always been dominate? Have multiple perspectives been accepted historically? Do we find good reason to depart from the majority view today?
Before we consider these questions, let me admit that my path to ultimate redemption did not go very deep into Christian history. If you’ve read my original manifesto, certainly it was not a study of tradition that led me to consider the idea of ultimate redemption. Although I have browsed through Christian history somewhat since that time, to a large degree I will be studying this as we go along, and I would love for you to study it with me.
To begin, I want to ask a question I think will help to set the stage, a question that goes along with the idea of interpretive lenses and the influence of tradition.
The question is this:
To what extent does our current tradition and expression of faith in Jesus resemble the tradition and expression of the early church? What were the beliefs and practices of the early church and to what extent are our beliefs and practices similar?
To answer this question, we must admit that the church has gone through several, maybe innumerable, splits and divisions; and, while some of those splits were fairly minor, at least two or three of them had lasting and wide-spread results. For the purposes of this blog-post, I have intentionally done no additional study regarding these divisions, so just off the top of our heads, let’s see what we know.
What do you know about the circumstances surrounding Emperor Constantine declaring Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman Empire? What about the resulting effect on Christian belief and practice? I know almost nothing. I would even have to guess at the date. 300 A.D. maybe?
What do you know about the tradition and practice of the Eastern Orthodox Church and its many denominations? I know very little. I’ve been to a Greek Orthodox church once, I’ve done a little reading, and I’ve watched a video or two. That’s it. My knowledge is so limited I confess I don’t even know if “Eastern Orthodox” is the right designation, if “Greek Orthodox” fits within it, or if “denominations” is the right word to describe its segments.
What I do know is that in 1054 A.D. the Catholic church split from the Orthodox church in what has become known as the Great Schism. The Catholic pope excommunicated the head of the Orthodox church and vice-versa, and two different expressions of faith in Jesus were developed. I think the schism had something to do with the use of icons, but I’m guessing it had more to do with issues of hierarchy and authority.
What about the beliefs and practices in the 13th or 14th century that led to Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the birth of Protestantism? I know a little bit more about this, and I’m guessing you do as well, but I can’t say I’m familiar with all the causes and results of what is called the “Reformation,” although I’m sure it was partly responsible for the book Handbook of Denominations, which I have on the shelf in my office.
I guess my point is this: If these major divisions within Christianity history divided the Christian world into two camps, then at best our Protestant expression of faith is a response to “one half of one half” of what was the expression of the early church. (I’m borrowing that phrase from Richard Rohr. He used it on this podcast – you’ll have to scroll down until you find Episode 35. It’s a good one.)
What does the Eastern Orthodox church believe about hell and eternity? What does the Catholic church believe? What did the early church believe? To whom belonged the authoritative voices that shaped the trajectory of belief and practice in the early church and throughout Christian history? What did they believe about hell and eternity, and what was the response of the church to differing viewpoints or interpretations?
Did we land on the right side of the Great Schism and the Reformation? Did we end up on the wrong side? Or is it possible there is no right or wrong side, that there is something to learn from, something good about, each resulting perspective? Could not our narrow (one half of one half?) expression of faith in Jesus benefit from an examination of other expressions? I imagine it could.
Christian history and tradition is diverse and has produced a thousand different expressions of faith in Jesus, and I believe God is using it all. We have created our own boxes and God graciously works inside them . . . we are grateful He does. Still, the evaluation of our own box, and the consideration of other boxes, is a good thing and I look forward to evaluating and considering along with you.
I’m not sure yet exactly where to start, but maybe it might be good to begin with the first summation of Christian belief: the Apostle’s Creed.
We’ll look at it next time . . .
. . . but I’m pretty sure it starts with, “The gospel is really good news, really.” 🙂