Ask a Christian fundamentalist what the “gospel,” or “good news,” of Christianity is, and the answer you get will likely not only be very passionate, but also, as I will argue, very strange and ultimately very cruel. The gospel for fundamentalists is basically the set of beliefs you must affirm, or at least not deny, in order to be “saved,” by which they mean in order to obtain eternal life. Most will acknowledge a fair amount of ambiguity in exactly how to delineate this set of essential beliefs, but a typical summary (for the more extreme representatives of fundamentalism at least) might run something like this:
In order to obtain eternal life you must believe:
Without getting into the historical distinction between the two categories, most of today’s evangelical Christians do not identify themselves as fundamentalist, because they think of themselves as more flexible than the term fundamentalism implies. So most of them probably would not consider the above summary of the gospel to be an entirely accurate representation of their position. This essay is therefore not directed against these people, because to whatever extent they do not hold this view of the gospel, they have no reason to be offended by my words. But in my experience there are also many evangelicals for whom this view of the gospel actually is a reasonably fair picture of what they proclaim, or at least not as much of a caricature as they might like us to believe. While these people would insist that the final destiny of every person is left to God, of course, I think in many cases in practice they would also consider any substantial deviation from the above list of beliefs to be a fairly strong indication that someone is at least quite possibly (in many cases quite probably) on the road to hell, regardless of that person’s claimed faith in God and/or apparent moral character.
I wish to point out, however, that this view of the “gospel” is in fact a very strange and cruel doctrine, in the first place because it suggests a very strange and cruel view of God. Point #7 is technically called the penal substitution theory of atonement and is a specific variation of the satisfaction theory of atonement which was first spelled out by Anselm in the 11th century. This doctrine rather obviously raises serious questions about God’s sense of justice. So does the doctrine of eternal torment in hell (point #6), a theory which also obviously raises real questions about how God could possibly be viewed as a being of infinite love.
The strangeness of the summary point #8 is also worth elaborating. That the previous seven points are all essential parts of the gospel message is a rather ironic conclusion to draw in light of the fact that there is no clear evidence that Jesus himself taught any of these specific points during his life and ministry in Galilee, in which he was explicitly said to be proclaiming the “gospel of God” (Mark 1:14). Neither did Paul nor any of the other New Testament authors ever clearly delineate this or any similarly detailed list of specific beliefs in their summaries of the gospel message, nor did they ever clearly state or imply that not holding such beliefs was an automatic ticket to hell. Which of these points the New Testament authors even believed themselves is highly debatable. (In my opinion there is no convincing evidence that Paul agreed completely with any of them at all, though he admittedly believed that Jesus had risen from the dead in a unique way, that as Messiah he “stood in” for God and exercised his authority in a unique sense, and that faith in Jesus would guarantee salvation from a future punishment by God upon the wicked in some fashion.)
I think even those who hold (without very convincing evidence) that Jesus and Paul and the first Christians actually believed every one of these points would have to admit that these particular beliefs are not emphasized in the Bible nearly as much as one might naturally expect if they were really considered to be central to the Christian faith or essential for salvation. For example, it is questionable whether or not Paul ever called Jesus God at all in his epistles—the handful of proof-texts are all highly debatable at best. At any rate he certainly did not identify Jesus with God as often or as clearly and directly as would be expected if he considered this an important part of his message.
Perhaps the cruelest feature of this view of the gospel is best illustrated by comparing the situation of today with that of several thousand years ago, before the birth of Jesus and even before the first scriptures were written in any form at all. Most evangelical Christians sensibly realize that a good God almost certainly would not have damned the entire human population to hell in those days. They rather hold that even at that time, there were people whose beliefs and actions were pleasing to God. More specifically, I think most would quite reasonably hold that if a person of that time looked up at the stars at night (to use the common cliché) and believed in his or her heart that there must be a good God who created us all and loves us all, and if that person also sincerely desired therefore to love God in return and to practice that love by also trying to do right by other people, then that person’s faith would be counted by God as righteousness, and that person would have eternal life.
What cruel irony, therefore, that some of these same Christians proclaim that now that Jesus has come and we have a Bible, that simple kind of faith is no longer sufficient to be saved! Now, these fundamentalist Christians believe, sincere trust in a good Creator is no longer enough. Sincerity is a false hope, they sometimes warn. Now a person must also believe specifically in Christ, by which they mean he or she must affirm or at least be very open to all the points of the “gospel” or else end up in hell. So if there are people who sincerely trust in God and yet find some of the specific points of this fundamentalist gospel unconvincing or irrational or impossible to make sense of, then unless they are so weak-minded that they can will themselves to believe the unbelievable, they are doomed.
How can this be? Is God no longer as tolerant and kind-hearted as he was back in the good old days? Did Jesus come to make it harder to get saved? Did God give us the Bible to make it more difficult to genuinely please him? I doubt if any evangelical Christian would explicitly draw such conclusions, of course, but in some cases I think those things are exactly what they really believe, or at least what they would believe if they consciously thought through the implications of their gospel. Ironically, while of all Christians they are probably the most insistent on the idea of faith alone for salvation (often unreasonably charging that “liberals” and other Christians who do not share their fundamentalist beliefs are trusting in “works” instead of in God), their beliefs tell a very different story, pointedly revealing that in truth they have very little faith in the grace and love of God. Instead, they seem to be dominated by fear that God is a cruel monster who will ultimately turn against everyone who sincerely trusts him unless he or she also believes the dogmas of the fundamentalist gospel. They do not realize the large extent to which they have substituted faith in faith (or really faith in their interpretation of orthodox belief) for faith in God.
My point, in conclusion, comes down to a simple plea: Even if you believe that Jesus is God and that the Bible is inspired or even inerrant, stop and think how little sense it makes to interpret the gospel in the strict, fundamentalist way outlined at the beginning of this essay. The gospel of Jesus and the grace of God is not “good news” if it makes it necessary to hold positions that are harder to believe than the simple faith you admit was sufficient before Jesus came. The proclamation of the gospel of fundamentalism does not lift people’s burdens but rather lays further burdens upon them, burdens that for thinking people may well be even heavier than the burden of observing the Old Testament law that Paul so strenuously fought against, or of participating in the various practices of medieval Catholicism that the reformers so strenuously fought against. In my opinion this fundamentalist “gospel” therefore deserves to be denounced as the heinously strange and cruel perversion of the message of Jesus that it truly is.
|||As a former fundamentalist myself, I feel this sense of strangeness and cruelty
quite keenly now, with frankly a little embarrassment at having once held substantially
the same position.|
|||Very briefly, fundamentalism was a Christian movement that became especially
popular in America in the early 20th century. Fundamentalism chiefly opposed theological
liberalism, or modernism, in the mainline Protestant churches, insisting on strict
adherence to certain traditional, “fundamental” beliefs. Evangelicalism
broadly refers simply to the idea that salvation and Christian identity is a matter of
personal faith (as opposed to church membership or baptism, for example), but these days
the term is probably most often used with loose reference to the movement sometimes
called neo-evangelicalism that emerged out of fundamentalism in the 1950s when
evangelist Billy Graham broke with his fundamentalist background to begin working in
cooperation with non-fundamentalist Christian organizations. Since then, evangelicalism
in this new sense has struggled to define its own theological boundaries as an identity
somewhere between fundamentalism and mainline Protestantism. In its core theology it is
usually much closer to fundamentalism in my observation, with most churches and
organizations that call themselves “evangelical” still insisting on roughly
the same set of basic doctrines that the fundamentalists did. Still, the evangelical
label certainly connotes more doctrinal flexibility than the fundamentalist label
This page copyright © 2014 Edward A. Morris. Created July 31, 2014. Last updated August 9, 2014.
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