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Thought provoking questions that
we have received, with our responses

Part 1

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Topics discussed in this essay:

bulletInteresting Emails discussed in this essay:
bulletMine is the only Christian denominations
bulletWho is a Christian?
bulletGroup prayer with an Atheist
bulletWhat religion should I choose?
bulletChrist: Lord, liar or lunatic
bulletI am being harassed; what do I do?
bulletThe cause of religiously motivated conflicts and genocides

Mine is the only true Christian denomination:

Incoming Email: "You are wrong when you state that Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, etc. are Christian. They are not because they hold unbiblical beliefs."

Our response: Your Email is the most common single complaint that we receive.

There is an enormous diversity of definitions of the term "Christian." You use one, which we can only guess at. We have a different one which we describe in the above essay. There are many dozens of other definitions -- all different.

I assume that you are a conservative Protestant. If so, then:

bulletCertainly Roman Catholics are not Christians, within your definition of the term. But in their statement Dominus Iesus (2000) they state that the Roman Catholic church was the only one created by Jesus. They regard the Orthodox Churches as "true particular Churches," and united with them. They believe that the Church of Christ is "present and operative" in those churches. But the rest of the tens of thousands of groups which call themselves Christian are not "churches in the proper sense." We suspect that this latter group includes your denomination.
 
bulletCertainly the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the other denominations in the Mormon movement are not Christians within your definition of the term. Mormons believe in Restorationism. This is the concept that:
bullet

The true Christian church died out early in the 2nd Century CE, when religious leaders abandoned many of the original teachings of Jesus Christ, Paul and the other apostles.

bullet

It was restored by Joseph Smith in 1830 CE, when he founded The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

They regard all of the other denominations -- including Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox churches, Protestant Churches, the Anglican Communion, etc. -- as mired in heresy. We suspect that this includes your denomination.
 

bulletCertainly Jehovah's Witnesses are not Christians, within your definition of the term. But Jehovah's Witnesses teach that theirs is the only true Christian church. They teach that when the end of the world happens in the near future, Jehovah's Witnesses in good standing will survive. However, all of the other groups who consider themselves Christian will be largely destroyed in the largest genocide in the history of the human race.

By now, the pattern is clear. There are over 1,000 faith groups in the U.S. alone that consider themselves to be Christian. Many, perhaps most, regard themselves to be the "true" Christian church. They look upon other denominations as being at least partly in a state of error; they can only be regarded as near Christian, quasi-Christian, part-Christian, or perhaps even unchristian.

There is no obvious solution to this problem. Each group is certain that they are following the religion created by Jesus and are in harmony with the Bible's message. A few denominations have attempted to entering into dialogue in an attempt to harmonize their differences. But this is rare.

So, our site is not in error. Your belief Roman Catholics and other denominations is not wrong. You and we are simply using two of the hundred or so various definitions of "Christian." We intentionally chose a more inclusive definition.

Who is a Christian?

Incoming Email: "...There can only be one Type Of Christian. There was only one Christ, thus there is only one type of Christian."

Our response: Your logic sounds neat, but it may contain a logical error. People who consider themselves Christians approach the Bible and 1st/2nd century historical documents with very different pre-conceptions. For example: 

bulletMost conservative Christians believe that the Bible is inspired by God and inerrant. They are immediately faced with internal conflicts: places where two biblical passages appear to conflict. Let's call them "A" and "B." Theologians often harmonize the conflict by interpreting one passage literally and the other symbolically. This approach immediately produces differences of opinion among Christians, because one denomination might select "A" to be the passage that is interpreted literally and "B" to be interpreted symbolically. Another faith group might select "B" to be understood literally. Multiply this confusion by the 200 or so apparent conflicts in the Bible, and you end up with the situation that we have today: over 1,000 Christian faith groups in North America, teaching slightly different belief systems. 
 
bulletMany liberal Christians believe that each of the authors of the Bible was trying to promote their own particular spiritual and religious beliefs. Many apparent conflicts in the Bible are real; they represent the different positions of the writers. The gospel writers, for example, reported some sayings and acts of Jesus verbatim, and some with poor accuracy. They created sayings and acts that promoted their own beliefs, and attributed them to Jesus. They incorporated some features of Pagan religions in the Mediterranean region in order to make Christianity more competitive with those religions -- the virgin birth, and bodily resurrection and ascension of Jesus were three such features. Finally, they inserted some anti-Jewish propaganda. Modern-day theologians then attempt to strip away these layers of theology in order to reach an understanding of the historical Jesus. Some interpret him as a Greek cynic philosopher; some as a student of Buddhism; some as a magician; some as a liberal Jew with a message of reform to his fellow Jews, etc. These theologians end up with many different versions of the historical Jesus. 

So there is not a single version of Christianity; there are literally thousands. Many of these faith groups believe that they alone are following Jesus' teachings; they are the "true" church. The Roman Catholic Church issued a formal statement to that effect in 2000-SEP. Although many ecumenical efforts are active today, the Christian religion remains split into thousands of denominations -- in essence thousands of varieties of Christians.

Group prayer with an Atheist:

Incoming Email: "I am a public school student. I asked my group whether they would like to pray together before each meeting. They all seemed to agree, but I asked anyone who wasn't comfortable with the idea to see me privately. Nobody did. Before the next meeting, I asked the group again to pray, and mentioned that anyone who didn't want to pray could simply not join the group, or could stand with us and remain silent. Before the next meeting one of the group came to me and said that they were an Atheist, that what I was doing was wrong, and that it shamed our group and organization. 

Did I do wrong? What do I do now?

Our response: Some people might tell you that what you did is illegal because it violates the principle of separation of church and state. The U.S. Supreme Court has read this concept into the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Some people believe that public schools should be religion-free zones. But they are wrong. Students can pray, carry their Bible, read their Bible, talk about religion, wear religious T-shirts, etc. They can do these things on the school bus, by the flagpole, in the school corridors, in the classroom before and after a class, in the cafeteria, etc. If the school allows as few as one extra-curricular student-led club, then it must allow students to organize and advertise a Bible club. Since you are a student, you have every right to pray before a non-classroom student meeting, and to invite others to join with you in prayer. In fact, there are relatively few forms of religious expression that are forbidden students in public schools before, between and after classes. 

You showed a great deal of sensitivity to the other group members. Religion is a hot topic. There is always the possibility that in your group, there is one or more students who are members of a non-Christian faith. To them, a Christian prayer would be very offensive. Imagine how you would feel if the majority of your group were Hindus and wanted to pray to a Goddess before every meeting. Also, there is the possibility that one of the students is an Atheist, Humanist or other non-theist to whom a prayer to a personal God would be stupid -- as as ridiculous as a prayer to Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. Some Atheists might consider prayer to be as disgusting as a racist, sexist or homophobic statement.

But perhaps a better way to implement a prayer might have been to contact each member of the group individually and in confidence to see if any objected to the prayer. By asking them as a group, there is always the possibility that one team member felt awkward about public prayer but was reluctant to come out and say so due to peer pressure.

What you did is certainly not "wrong" in the legal sense. A student can pray; a group of students can pray; a student can suggest that other students pray. If you were a staff member of the school, then you could not pray out loud or gather students around to pray because this would be promoting religion over a secular lifestyle; that would be unconstitutional.

So your question becomes:

bulletWhether your actions were wrong religiously? In Matthew 6:1-6, Jesus is recorded as forbidding public prayer. Prayer is only to be done in private, alone. The Living Bible paraphrases this section "go away by yourself, all alone and shut the door behind you and pray to your Father secretly." So at least according to that one passage, public prayer is wrong.
 
bulletWhether your actions were wrong morally? Almost all religions have an "ethic of reciprocity" which governs how their members should behave towards other humans. In Christianity, this is called the Golden Rule: to do onto others as you would have them do onto you. Group prayer is apparently causing  significant levels of discomfort to at least one member of your group. I would suggest that you try to find another way to accomplish your goal, without causing distress. I suggest that you talk to the Atheist, explain that you understand his/her objection, and that you would like to try an alternative procedure. You plan to call over your group, and give them a short, purely secular, pep-talk about striving to accomplish their personal best, to behave in a responsible manner, to work effectively as a team, etc. Then you will ask for a moment of silence so that the members can meditate, pray silently, or simply think about the task ahead. Each student would then follow the dictates of their own heart. Everyone on the team would probably be comfortable with at least one of the three alternatives. I think that this arrangement would be sensitive to the Atheist's concerns, and would not be offensive to anyone. There is also the distinct probability that there are others on the team that were uncomfortable with prayer but did not want to object for fear of being alienated; these teammates would probably feel more comfortable with a multiple choice option. Matthew 6 would not be a concern, because it would not be obvious whether anyone was praying.

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Which religion should I choose?

Incoming Email: I was brought up as a fundamentalist Christian, but became an agnostic during my teenage years. I'm older now and am interested in finding a new religious path. Christianity is not an option; I can't believe that everyone who is not a born-again Christian will go to Hell. Eastern religions don't appeal to me. I am considering Judaism.

Our response: It is important to realize that the definitions of the word "Christianity" found in most dictionaries cover a wide variety of beliefs and practices. The religion is composed of fundamentalist, other conservative, mainline and liberal wings. They differ greatly over the existence of Hell, and its inhabitants:

bulletIt is mainly within fundamentalist minority that you find the belief that most humans are going to spend eternity being punished in Hell.  Fundamentalists are simply accepting, as literally true, many Bible passages which talk about the horrors of Hell and others sections which proclaim trust in Jesus to be the only way to achieve salvation.
 
bulletThe more liberal wings of Christianity reject such a belief. They feel that a kind and loving deity would be incapable of creating a Hell where people would be tortured for eternity without any hope of mercy or relief. Few humans would be that cruel. If one interprets certain biblical passages literally, then many people who did not trust Jesus during their lifetime on earth would end up in Hell because they had never heard of Jesus, the gospel or Christianity. Religious liberals generally reject such passages. They believe that it would be fundamentally immoral for God to punish people for what is, in essence, a thought crime. Also, they consider an infinite punishment for a finite crime to be unjust. Those beliefs imply that God is an intolerant, unforgiving, hate-filled deity. It places God in the same category as Gengus Khan, Hitler, Stalin, and other extreme human pariahs.

Non-fundamentalist Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and many religions may still be options for you to consider. See our religious menu for links to essays on many dozens of Christian faith groups and other religious traditions.

You might wish to try the Belief System Selector by SelectSmart.com and SpeakOut.com. It tries to link individuals to religions that meet their beliefs.

Christ: Lord, liar or lunatic:

Incoming Email: I read about the "Trilemma" in Josh McDowell's book "The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict." He argues that the New Testament record permits only three logical choices: that Jesus is either Lord, or is a liar or lunatic. He then proceeds to show that the second and third alternatives are unreasonable, and that the only conclusion one can reach is that Jesus is Lord. Is this a valid approach?

Our response: C.S. Lewis created a slightly different trilemma. He wrote in Mere Christianity that Jesus was either Lord, a lunatic or "the Devil of Hell."

As with almost every other question in Christianity, one must first decide whether the the Bible authors were inspired by the Holy Spirit to write text that is inerrant -- free of errors. There are many passages in the Gospels in which Jesus claims to be Lord. This is particularly true of John. If the Bible is without error, then Jesus must be Lord; the other two options in both trilemmas are impossible.

However, other alternatives exists. A liberal Christian might start with the assumption that the Bible is not inerrant. They might view the Christian Scriptures as a religious text like many others in the world -- written by authors who were motivated to promote their own faith group's evolving belief systems. Most theologians recognize Mark to be the first of the gospels which became part of the official canon of the Bible. Luke and Matthew are largely based on Mark, a lost Gospel of Q, and some material unique to Luke and Matthew. Mark presents Jesus as a 1st century CE charismatic rabbi, prophet and healer, some of whose sayings can be traced back to a liberal tradition within Judaism and in particular to Hillel, the great Jewish rabbi from the 1st century BCE. Others of his sayings can be traced back to a Pagan Greek "cynic" philosophy. The other synoptic gospels, Matthew and Luke, also mainly present Jesus as a human; however, since they were written a decade or two after Mark, they include more of the evolving tradition within the Christian movement and less of Jesus' actual life.  Meanwhile, the Gospel of John represents an entirely different Christian tradition -- one which was written about 70 years after Jesus' execution. It treats Jesus as Lord. The differences between John and the synoptic gospels are immense. If one accepts the Gospel of John as being an accurate picture of Jesus' life, death and resurrection, then Jesus must be considered to be Lord -- one of the options in both Lewis' and McDowell's trilemma. But if one assumes that the Bible is errant and selects the synoptic Gospels as much closer to the historical Jesus, then the trilemma needs to be expanded to a quadlemma. The fourth option is that Jesus was a charismatic prophet, a teacher and healer.

I am being harassed. What do I do?

Incoming Email: Help! I am a Humanist who has a good friend who recently became a Baptist. She is sincerely and heavily involved in her faith, and is trying to save me. She believes that repenting of my sins and trusting Jesus as Lord and Savior is the my route to salvation and to Heaven. I'd like to keep her as a friend.

Our response: I suggest that your first step would be to try to get into the mind of your friend. She sincerely believes that God has created two destinations in which people will spend all eternity: Heaven, where a small minority of people will receive immense rewards, and Hell where the vast majority will be eternally tortured. To imagine her motivation, suppose you were at a hotel at the top of a mountain and you saw a crowd of people loading onto a large bus. You know for a fact that the bus has no brakes, that the road from the hotel has a steep grade downwards, and that the bus would undoubtedly crash and kill everyone on board. Imagine how anxious you would be to inform the bus driver of the defective brakes, and save all those people who otherwise are headed to total destruction. She is experiencing some of these same feelings. She may well be absolutely convinced that of the six billion people in the world, only the one billion or so Protestants have a chance to avoid Hell, and most of them are not saved and are headed away from Heaven.

Your second step is to realize that it is probably impossible to change her beliefs to the point where she will accept the possibility that her concepts of Heaven, Hell and salvation may be wrong.

I would recommend that you explain to her that:

bulletYou are convinced that Humanism is the optimum spiritual path for you.
bulletYou understand her concern for your salvation.
bulletYou don't want to be the subject of her continual religious conversion efforts.
bulletYou want to continue your friendship, but without the salvation message.

If she insists on promoting salvation, you might have to terminate the friendship.

The cause of religiously motivated conflicts and genocides:

Incoming Email: Civil conflicts, mass murders and genocides are caused by "dark religions" that promote hatred. These are the ones to look out for.

Our response: I disagree. If we look at the countries of the world where massive loss of life has recently occurred or is ongoing, we see that the main religious involved in the murders are Christianity and Islam. Consider Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Cyprus, Nigeria, Sudan, Middle East, Iraq/Iran, Afghanistan, India, Sri Lanka, Philippines, etc. The strife is not caused by small, obscure, hate-motivated, evil religions; it is seen within the two leading religions of the world: Christians constitute about 33% of the world's population, a number which has remained constant for decades. Muslims total 20% of the world's population and is growing rapidly. The problem, then, is some serious defect in the world's main religions. I think that it is in the teaching of their Ethic of Reciprocity.

My personal belief is that almost all religions teach that one's primary responsibility is towards God -- viewed in different ways as a single unity, dual divinity, trinity, pantheon, etc. Although they do teach some form of Ethic of Reciprocity like the Golden Rule, this is often interpreted as applying mainly to fellow believers, and not to believers in other religions. This is a fatal flaw. It is too easy to discount the rights of non-believers; to treat them as sub-human because they deny the "true" God.

Many of these same religions teach that a hell exists after death for non-believers. The message implied by the existence of Hell is that God hates non-believers so much that he is going to torture them for all eternity without any hope of mercy or cessation of the pain. Thus, if a believer treats a non-believer as sub-human, they may see themselves as simply doing God's work on earth.

The end result is that too many Christians treat Muslims as sub-human and have even mounted wars of genocide against them, as in the case of Bosnia and Indonesia. Also, too many Muslims treat Christians as sub-human and have even mounted wars of genocide against them, as in the case of the Sudan and East Timor. Similarly, we have Jewish-Muslim, Muslim-Jewish, Hindu-Muslim, and many other combinations of inter-faith conflict. We also have intra-faith conflict such as is caused by Roman Catholic - Protestant hatred in Northern Ireland, and Sunni- Shi'ite hatred in Pakistan.

The solution is for all religious groups to:

bulletSoft-peddle the hatred of God (generally called the wrath of God in the
Bible) towards non-believers that is written into their religious texts.
bulletEmphasize that their Ethic of Reciprocity applies to all persons, not just for fellow believers.
bulletEmphasize the importance of human rights, including the freedom of religion, to all persons -- believers and non-believers alike.
bulletEngage in inter-faith and ecumenical activities with "non-believers."

Until the religions of the world realize that they are a main cause of hatred, strife, and genocide, the slaughters will continue.

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Copyright © 2000 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-SEP-23
Latest update: 2009-NOV-10
Author: B.A. Robinson

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