Universalism

To hell with hell: Actually, Jeffrey Epstein chatter points to news stories and hot sermons

To hell with hell: Actually, Jeffrey Epstein chatter points to news stories and hot sermons

It was another wild week, to say the least, for people who are following the hellish details of the Jeffrey Epstein case and the fallout from his death.

I am referring, of course, to his reported suicide in his non-suicide-watch cell, which contained no required roommate (check), no working video cameras (check) and no regular safety checks by his sleeping and maybe unqualified guards.

Forget all of that, for a moment. While you are at it, forget the mystery of how he ended up with a broken hyoid bone near the larynx, something that — statistically — tends to happen when a victim is strangled, as opposed to hanging himself with a sheet tied to a bed while he leans over on his knees. And go ahead and forget about that painting (or print) of Bill Clinton photographed in Epstein’s Manhattan mansion, the portrait of the former president wearing a vivid blue dress, red women’s high-heeled shoes and a come-hither look while posed relaxing in an Oval Office chair.

No, this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in) focused on some of the hell-based rhetoric unleashed by the disgraced New York City financial wizard’s death. This was hooked to my “On Religion” column for this week, which opened rather bluntly (if I say so myself):

So, what is Jeffrey Epstein up to these days?

When beloved public figures pass away, cartoonists picture them sitting on clouds, playing harps or chatting up St. Peter at heaven's Pearly Gates. The deaths of notorious individuals like Jeffrey Dahmer, Timothy McVeigh, Osama bin Laden and Epstein tend to inspire a different kind of response.

"The world is now a safer place," one victim of the disgraced New York financier and convicted sex offender told The Daily Mirror. "Jeffrey lived his life on his terms and now he's ended it on his terms too. Justice was not served before, and it will not be served now. I hope he rots in hell."

Social media judgments were frequent and fiery. After all, this man's personal contacts file — politicians, entertainers, Ivy League intellectuals and others — was both famous and infamous. Epstein knew people who knew people. … The rush to consign Epstein to hell is interesting, since many Americans no longer believe in a place of eternal damnation — a trend seen in polls in recent decades.

By the way, would this discussion or moral theology and eternity be any different if we were talking about the Rev. Jeffrey Epstein or Rabbi Jeffrey Epstein?

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Will everybody reach heaven? Are fights over hell about to grab some more headlines?

Will everybody reach heaven? Are fights over hell about to grab some more headlines?

Chances are churches frequented by your readers and listeners rarely if ever offer sermons about hell and damnation these days. And yet this rather unpleasant topic is eternally (so to speak) fascinating, and may be about to grab some headlines. That’s due to Eastern Orthodox lay theologian David Bentley Hart's acerbic Sep. 24 release from Yale University Press “That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, & Universal Salvation.”

Sample sentences: “No one, logically speaking, could merit eternal punishment.”

Also this: “If Christianity is in any way true, Christians dare not doubt the salvation of all,”

Yes, Hart is a Hitler-in-heaven sort of guy (see page 38), and your sources will have interesting responses. Lest Hart seem a rank heretic, the Very Rev. John Behr of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary blurbs that this book presents “the promise that, in the end, all will indeed be saved, and exposing the inadequacy — above all moral — of claims to the contrary.”

Heretofore Hart was better known for ridiculing non-belief, as in “Atheist Delusions.” The prolific author has held a succession of university appointments, most recently as a University of Notre Dame fellow. Catholic theologian Paul Griffiths (in the news when he resigned over Duke University’s “diversity” policy) proclaims Hart “the most eminent” theologian in the English-speaking world.

Terms Hart applies to centuries of traditional orthodox and Orthodox doctrines on hell and damnation include “absurd,” “ludicrous,” “nonsensical,” “incoherent,” “horrid,” “degrading,” “loathsome,” “diseased,” “perverse,” “cruel,” “wicked” and “morally repugnant.” He is mainly offended by the idea that punishment is everlasting, on grounds that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. Hart is open to some sort of cleansing to make sorry souls fit for heaven, but doesn’t spell out any version of Western Catholicism’s Purgatory.

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Big theology news: Pope Francis agrees that various world religions were 'willed' by God

Big theology news: Pope Francis agrees that various world religions were 'willed' by God

Believe it or not, the language of theology can make news, every now and then. This is especially true when the person speaking the words is the occupant of the Chair of St. Peter.

However, this goes against one of the great unwritten laws of journalism, which appears to state something like this: Whenever the pope speaks, even in a sermon, the most important words are always those that can be interpreted as commentary on events or trends in contemporary politics. This is consistent with this journalism doctrine: Politics is the ultimate reality. Religion? Not so much.

For a perfect example of this law, please see this story in The New York Times: “Pope Francis Breaks Some Taboos on Visit to Persian Gulf.”

The taboos that make it into the lede are, of course, political and, frankly, they are important. This is a case in which Times editors really needed to insist on a difficult and rare maneuver — a lede that lets readers know that the story contains TWO very important developments.

The political angle raised eyebrows among diplomats. But there was also a theological statement linked to this story that will trouble many traditional Christians, as well as Muslims. Then again, Universalists in various traditions may have every reason to cheer. Hold that thought. Here is the political overture.

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Pope Francis used the keynote address of his roughly 40-hour stay in the United Arab Emirates to breach delicate taboos on Monday, specifically mentioning Yemen, where his hosts are engaged in a brutal war, and calling on countries throughout the Gulf region to extend citizenship rights to religious minorities.

The remarks by Francis were exceptionally candid for a pope who as a general rule does not criticize the country that hosts him and avoids drawing undue attention to the issues that its rulers would rather not discuss. …

But on Monday, during the first visit by a pope to the Arabian Peninsula, where Islam was born, Francis was blunt in a speech before hundreds of leaders from a broad array of faiths on a day used to underscore the need for humanity to stop committing violence in the name of religion.

“Human fraternity requires of us, as representatives of the world’s religions, the duty to reject every nuance of approval from the word ‘war,’” Francis said at the towering Founder’s Memorial in Abu Dhabi.

“Let us return it to its miserable crudeness,” he added. “Its fateful consequences are before our eyes. I am thinking in particular of Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya.”

Yes, the reference to Yemen was big news. Yes, that had to be in the lede.

So what was the theological news?

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Was it anti-Semitism to invite a Messianic pastor to pray at a GOP rally, after Pittsburgh?

Was it anti-Semitism to invite a Messianic pastor to pray at a GOP rally, after Pittsburgh?

No doubt about it, inviting a pastor from a Messianic Jewish congregation to pray at a GOP campaign event is going to be controversial — under any circumstances.

Extending that invitation in the wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre was an even riskier political move, one that raises all kinds of questions about the Republican leaders who organized a Michigan campaign stop for Vice President Mike Pence.

However, the first wave of coverage and partisan commentary has left me rather confused about some crucial facts in this story.

Let’s start with key sections of the basic Associated Press report — as it appeared online at The New York Times. For starters, I would have used a neutral term in this lede, such as “pastor” or “clergyman.”

WASHINGTON — A rabbi invited to pray at a Michigan campaign stop with Vice President Mike Pence on Monday referenced "Jesus the Messiah" at the event.

Rabbi Loren Jacobs of Messianic congregation Shema Yisrael offered prayers for the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre. Messianic Jews follow Jewish law but believe that Jesus is the Messiah.

The major denominations of Judaism reject Messianic Judaism as a form of Judaism, and Jacobs' participation was condemned by Jews on social media.

A Pence aide told The Associated Press that Jacobs was invited to pray at the event in suburban Detroit's Waterford Township by GOP congressional candidate Lena Epstein and said Pence did not know who he was when he invited Jacobs back onstage to offer another a prayer for the victims, their families and the nation. As Pence stood next to him, Jacobs ended his prayer by saying, "in the name of Jesus."

"He was not invited by the VP's office to speak on behalf of the Jewish community," the aide said.

OK, let me offer some initial questions and comments.

First, I think that it’s crucial to know who invited Jacobs to offer this prayer. Several news reports have assumed, or implied, that Pence offered this invitation — as opposed to being the headliner who arrived at the last minute after locals had made all the arrangements.

At the same time, it’s crucial to know when Jacobs was invited. Was his appearance set up before or after the Pittsburgh massacre?

Rally organizers were in trouble, either way, of course.

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Jesus and the 'spirits in prison' -- Is this toughest passage in the New Testament?

Jesus and the 'spirits in prison' -- Is this toughest passage in the New Testament?

JOEL’S QUESTION:

[Explanation:] The pastor of a New Jersey Protestant congregation sent in several “questions that have come up here.” One of them is how to understand the passage in the New Testament letter of 1st Peter about Jesus Christ preaching to “the spirits in prison.”

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

The Bible’s major teachings are clear enough. But Joel and his parishioners shouldn’t be embarrassed if they’re confused about this particular New Testament head-scratcher. Even Martin Luther (who so energized Bible study 500 years ago by sparking the Protestant Reformation) said it’s “certainly a more obscure passage than any other in the New Testament. I still do now know for sure what the apostle means.” Robert Mounce, president of Whitworth University, agreed that this section is “widely recognized as perhaps the most difficult to understand in the New Testament.”

Here’s the text at issue: “Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah . .  .” (1 Peter 3:18-20a, RSV translation).

The following analysis relies especially on commentaries by Mounce, an American, the German exegete Leonhard Goppelt, and England’s J.N.D. Kelly. Scholars candidly admit that each explanation has problems. Among them:

(1) Between his death by crucifixion and bodily resurrection, Christ visited the realm of the dead and preached to Noah’s wicked contemporaries. That was the view of early church “Fathers,” notably Clement of Alexandria.

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Bracing for the next news story: Was Bernie Sanders actually pushing 'secular humanism'?

Bracing for the next news story: Was Bernie Sanders actually pushing 'secular humanism'?

Does anyone remember the days, a decade or two ago, when the official boogeyman of religious conservatism was a cultural tsunami called "secular humanism"?

I sure do. That nasty label was being pinned on people all over the place.

The only problem was, when I went out to do my religion-beat reporting work, I never seemed to run into many people whose personal beliefs actually fit under the dictionary definition of "secular," which looks something like this:

secular (adjective)
1. of or relating to worldly things or to things that are not regarded as religious, spiritual, or sacred; temporal: secular interests.
2. not pertaining to or connected with religion (opposed to sacred ): secular music.

I hardly ever met culture warriors who didn't have religious beliefs of some kind. Oh, there were some atheists and agnostics in these dramas. But what what I kept running into were packs of evolving, progressive, liberal religious believers who rejected the beliefs of traditional religious believers, almost always on issues linked to sexuality and salvation.

Yes, there were also some "spiritual but not religious" folks, but when you talked to them you discovered that they would be perfectly happy in a Unitarian folding chair or an Episcopal pew -- if they wanted to get out of bed on Sunday mornings. And if you probe those Pew Research Center "Nones" numbers, you'll discover that most religiously unaffiliated people are rather spiritual, on their own "Sheilaism" terms. You can toss the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism trend in there, too.

Variations on all of these themes popped up this week when Todd Wilken and recorded the new "Crossroads"podcast (click here to tune that in). We discussed my new "On Religion" column about the recent U.S. Senate hearing showdown between Sen. Bernie Sanders and Russell Vought, the White House nominee to serve as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.

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Heaven and hell: (a) Evangelicals are weird, (b) Americans are confused, (c) both

Heaven and hell: (a) Evangelicals are weird, (b) Americans are confused, (c) both

How do you write a logical, coherent news report about a survey that offers evidence that Americans are not the most consistent pack of people in the world when it comes to matters of absolute truth and eternal life?

That's the challenge facing journalists writing about a new LifeWay Research survey probing the current status of several ancient Christian doctrines in postmodern America.

Based on two early reports, it appears that the crucial question is whether the survey is newsworthy because it shows that lots of Americans are out of step when it comes to holding on to core beliefs in traditional Christianity or because it shows that evangelical Protestants are out of step with ordinary Americans.

First, here is the top of a Religion News Service piece -- "On God and heaven, Americans are all over the map" -- on this subject. Spot the approach.

(RNS) Two-thirds of Americans believe God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
The exception: Americans with evangelical Christian beliefs, according to LifeWay Research’s 2016 State of American Theology Study. Only 48 percent of evangelicals share the belief God accepts all worship.

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That New York Times headline about Catholics witnessing to Jews? Look again ...

That New York Times headline about Catholics witnessing to Jews? Look again ...

Trust me, I know that it is hard to write accurate, easy-to-read articles about complicated Vatican theological documents. This is especially true when dealing with materials focusing on very nuanced issues that continue to cause behind-the-scenes debates among Catholics.

It's even harder to write informative, catchy and, yes, accurate headlines for these kinds of stories.

This brings me to a recent New York Times report that ran with this headline: "Vatican Says Catholics Should Not Try to Convert Jews."

The problem with that headline is that it is simplistic to the point of being inaccurate -- that is, if the goal is for readers to understand the document ("The Gifts and the Calling of God are Irrevocable") addressed in this story.

Now here is the ironic part. You can tell that the headline is inaccurate by carefully reading the actual Times story, which means reading past the flawed lede on which the headline is based. Let us attend.

ROME -- Catholics should not try to convert Jews, but should work together with them to fight anti-Semitism, the Vatican said on Thursday in a far-reaching document meant to solidify its increasingly positive relations with Jews.

Then, in the third paragraph, there is this:

Addressing an issue that has been a sore point between the two faiths for centuries, the commission wrote that the church was “obliged to view evangelization to Jews, who believe in the one God, in a different manner from that to people of other religions and world views.” It specified that “the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews.”

Did you catch the subtle, but very important, difference between the lede and the actual quote from the document? 

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Do all liberal Protestants in Germany think Christians are wrong to convert Muslims?

Do all liberal Protestants in Germany think Christians are wrong to convert Muslims?

There are times when I am tempted to believe that many journalists are so convinced that the religious left is right that they don't even pause to listen to what folks on the doctrinal left are actually saying.

This media cheerleader stance is -- gasp! -- not always in the interests of folks in the world of progressive religion, who are -- gasp again! -- not always of the same mind when it comes to some controversial, and rather basic, issues. Some of these doctrinal differences are rather subtle and it helps to actually be paying attention when they talk.

Consider this basic question: Does everyone on the religious left oppose evangelism?

After all, the New Testament and centuries of church doctrine insist that Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me." Does that mean that those who reject Christianity are, to be blunt, not going to heaven? Or, are there doctrinal liberals who are "Universalists" when it comes to salvation, but others who merely oppose what they believe are unethical and shallow forms of proselytism?

Now, what happens when you take complicated issues of this kind and stick them right in the tense and maybe even violent territory at the heart of one of the biggest news stories in the world? I am talking about the flood of immigrants -- about a million seeking asylum in Germany alone -- reaching Europe after fleeing the bloody hellstorm in Syria and Iraq. Here is what that looks like at the top of of an important story from Religion News Service:

(RNS) One of Germany’s largest Protestant regional churches has come under fire from other Christians for speaking out against efforts to convert Muslims just as tens of thousands of refugees from the Islamic world are streaming into the country.
In a new position paper, the Evangelical Church in the Rhineland says the passage in the Gospel of Matthew known as the Great Commission -- “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” -- does not mean Christians must try to convert others to their faith.

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