Q & R: Hell, etc.

Here’s the question:

I know you are very busy and I also know that the chances of my receiving a response to this email are pretty slim, but I must send it anyway….
I have read a lot of material on your website and have formed some assumptions based on what I read. First, It sounds like you believe in some form of relative morality based on your thoughts toward scripture. Second, that you do not believe in hell. And third, that you believe (based on some of your latest comments) that the god worshipped by Muslims is the same God that Christians worship.
Are these assumptions true?

Response after the jump

R: First, thanks for trying to test your assumptions or conclusions. Many people are happy to jump to conclusions – and even more disappointing, to judge motives.
On morality – I believe God’s morality is absolute. Only God gets it right 100% of the time. Our morality is at best a poor approximation, and at worst, full of self-deceit and delusion. I also believe that God is bringing us along the way a parent brings along his or her children, so God calls us to a higher and higher morality. I see this in Jesus’ pattern: You have heard it said … but I say to you … So, I believe the absolute moral bar is raised by God over time, relative to our growth and maturity.
On hell – You’re right that I don’t follow the conventional teaching on hell as eternal conscious torment for all nonChristians. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t believe the Bible: it means that I don’t believe many of us have rightly interpreted the Bible on this subject. If you’re interested in exploring why I would say that, you might be interested in reading a book I wrote on the subject – The Last Word and the Word After That. And my upcoming book will actually go into this as well.
On your question about the God worshipped by Christians and Muslims, here’s what I would say:
1. Do all Christians hold exactly the same concept of God when they worship? For example, does the concept of God held by Prosperity Gospel Pentecostals differ greatly from that held by double-predestinarian Calvinists? Does the concept of God held by a pacifist Mennonite differ greatly from the concept held by a pro-war believer in Manifest Destiny? Did Mother Teresa’s concept of God differ from Jerry Falwell’s? Of course, there are significant differences, so significant that some Christians deny that other Christians are truly Christians.
2. If Christians differ so greatly from one another in their concepts of God, then of course Muslims and Christians have significant differences too. Yes, both groups have important concepts in common – for example, both believe God is omnipotent, all-merciful, and without any imperfection. Both claim to believe in the same God that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and the prophets believed and followed. But Christians believe that God is revealed most fully and gloriously in a crucified person, and Muslims believe God is revealed most fully and gloriously in an inspired book. (Actually I’ve met a few Christians who seem to have a concept closer to Islam’s, substituting the Bible for the Quran.) So there are real and significant differences.
3. This raises a fascinating question: how merciful is God in hearing the prayers and receiving the worship of people whose concepts are less than fully accurate? If God requires 100% accuracy, we’re all hopeless since we all fall short in our understanding of God. In fact, I agree with C. S. Lewis in this beautiful poem …
He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow
When I attempt the ineffable Name, murmuring Thou,
And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart
Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing thou art.
Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme
Worshiping with frail images a folk-lore dream,
And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts, unless
Thou in magnetic mercy to thyself divert
Our arrows aimed unskillfully, beyond desert;
And all men are idolaters, crying unheard
To a deaf idol, if thou take them at their word.
Take not, O Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in thy great,
Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.