Can a minster of religion be an atheist?

I was surprised, but not shocked, to learn that one of the congregations in my denomination is led by a self-confessed atheist whose ‘post-theistic community focuses on cares and spirituality, without resorting to scripture, or prayer, or mentioning the word God.’ I have been proud to be part of a church that welcomes the divorced, unmarried couples, homosexuals, skeptics and doubters but now God is excluded. Is this the inevitable destination for disciples of Anti-wrath?  

 

VG

 

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Dear VG

 

The Gospel of Wrath differs from the Gospel of Anti-Wrath in that one has a single, invariable, unquestionable destination while the other encompasses all possible destinations.  This difference flows from our understanding of God’s will and human freewill.

 

The Gospel of Wrath teaches that God has laid down precise laws and enforces them rigorously. The cornerstone event is Original Sin in Eden. For a single infraction, Adam and Eve (and the entire human race) were subjected to eternal wrath. Salvation was offered to the Israelites in return for 100% perfect obedience to long lists of rules revealed in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (the ‘Old’ Testament). There is considerable debate about how many Israelites, if any, actually escaped God’s wrath under the regime of Laws. Similarly there is considerable debate about whether any Gentiles in Africa, Asia, or the Americas, prior to Jesus, were able to escape the wrath of God by good deeds or ‘faith’ in some abstract event (the crucifixion and resurrection) which had not yet happened and had not been prophesied to them. This brings us to the Christian era.  Disciples of Wrath have been quick to condemn heretics (there are hundreds of varieties) and apostates (Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants mutually accuse one another of deviating from the true faith), and then there are hypocrites who continue to be secret sinners, backsliders who repeatedly break the laws, weak-willed doubters, and stiff-necked unbelievers.  The theological destination for the Gospel of Wrath is a road that becomes increasingly narrow until only the rigorously orthodox few remain on course for salvation.  Disciples of Wrath believe that God’s justice is made manifest by punishing multitudes, while divine love is expressed by saving only a chosen few. 

 

The Gospel of Wrath becomes dangerous when its disciples believe they have authority to express God’s wrath toward sinners with punishments, including the death penalty.  The ancient Israelites enforced the Mosaic Law to the letter.  Christianity has spilled oceans of blood to appease a dark vision of a wrathful God. In contemporary times the most terrifying disciples of Wrath are enforcing Sharia Law on sinners, apostates, and enemies of Allah.  

 

The Believer’s Dilemma website has gone to considerable pains to demonstrate that the Gospel of Wrath does not believe in human freewill. Augustine, Luther and Calvin literally believed that humans have not possessed freewill since Eden. Other disciples of Wrath allow that freewill exists but they insist that any exercise of freewill, apart from perfect obedience to God’s will, provokes divine wrath. God may have endowed us with freewill, but we are forbidden to exercise it. The Gospel of Wrath  offers one path only, via an exceedingly narrow gate, to salvation. Every other path leads to eternal destruction. The Gospel of Wrath is a dark and dangerous religion, but terror has always been powerfully persuasive.

 

The Gospel of Anti-wrath is a radically different religion. Disciples of Anti-wrath are free to think for themselves and their God is exceedingly tolerant and long-suffering. The Gospel of Anti-wrath is not a single theology but is permission for men and women to seek truth in their own way, which may involve specific rules and beliefs, and may not. Disciples of Anti-wrath are free to choose their own journey. For some this is a liberating freedom, for others a terrifying responsibility.

 

If the Gospel of Anti-wrath can tolerate endless differences of doctrine, differences in morality, and differences in worship, it must also find a place for those who do not believe in God. It might seem counter-intuitive that atheists would wish to remain part of a religious family, but there is no reason that atheism cannot be a legitimate method for seeking the truth. If bad things happen to ‘good people’ how can we be sure there is a God of love? If ‘bad people’ flourish with impunity, how can we be sure there is a God of justice? Theology can provide explanations which involve heaven and hell, but these are matters of faith.  In the here and now, ‘No God’ is a perfectly valid theory.  A church full of pacifist atheists is much less of a menace to the world than disciples of Wrath hell-bent on inflicting punishments on people they judge to be their God’s enemies.

 

This is the state of contemporary Christianity. On one side, disciples of Wrath, who have ready answers for difficult questions – often in stark black and white – and are loud in their warnings for sinners to repent or suffer wrath. On the other side, disciples of Anti-wrath have few sure answers, but continue to believe in goodness and love and social justice and are prepared to serve as the hands and feet and heart of their God in this suffering world. Some people join the army of Wrath to escape the impending judgement. Others reject the Gospel of Wrath and become disciples of Anti-wrath. And some of those will be atheists. To make matters even more confusing, some atheists will create a regime of Wrath to exterminate their enemies and impose their power through a reign of terror.

 

We can only understand our human condition by knowing if we have freewill; not an easy question to resolve; and if we do, are we free to use it?  If our will is free, there is good evidence that it is damaged. We make irrational choices that go against our best interests and our stated intentions. We act in ways that are harmful to others – even people we love– and we are self-destructive. It is not the selfish gene that drives us but a stupid gene.  This is the nature of sin.  It is irrational, destructive, and unsustainable. A sinful culture will eventually destroy itself.

 

What about God? Does he regard us as sinful objects of wrath because we are imperfect creatures that fail his perfect standards?  Is God quick to anger or long-suffering?  Are our fates predestined or are we free to make our own choices? Are we designed for blind obedience or a painful process of trial and error?

 

The Gospel of Love provides some insights. We are endowed with at least some freedom of will. We are also responsible for our choices and actions. There are consequences.  Few of us in this world will have time to learn who God is and to choose an eternal relationship. The Gospel of Love provides a time and place to complete the unfinished business of this world. There will be an opportunity beyond the grave, but before eternity, to understand the consequences of our choices and to change our ways.  The Gospel of Wrath adamantly refuses to admit that our learning process does not come to an abrupt halt at the end of this life. Every version of the Gospel of Wrath refuses to recognize the parallels between Eden, described in the first book of the Bible, and the 1,000 year resurrection of the dead, described in the first book of the Bible. The Gospel of Anti-wrath dismisses both as allegories that tell us nothing about life, death, or eternity.

 

The Gospel of Love offers a vision of sin and salvation that is not impossibly narrow, grotesquely selective, or blindly incomprehensible. The Gospel of Love offers a vision of judgement and justice that balances accounts for divine patience and mercy with personal human responsibility. And the Gospel of Love offers a vision of heaven, hell and eternity that is fair and equal for the entire human race, no matter when they lived in history, or what belief system they inherited.

 

Consider the atheist minister you wrote to me about. He is free to exclude ‘scripture, prayer, and mentioning the word God’ from his religious practices but if there is a God there will be consequences here and now. A big issue right now is people who refuse to vaccinate their children for deadly diseases. The anti-vacination people claim that the science is flawed, or that scientists are lying to them.  If the anti-vacination people are wrong, their children will be infected with life-threatening diseases. Those are the real life consequences. Atheists who refuse to pray to God will deprive themselves of blessings. Many disciples of Anti-wrath are also skeptical of prayer, because they have seen too many people make foolish prayers and too many prayers unanswered. For them, prayer is a spiritual activity and something of a mystery.

 

Disciples of Wrath believe that all prayers are answered, that their God incessantly intervenes in the world. Disciples of Wrath are particularly fond of petitionary prayer and treat their God like a cross between a personal ATM and a personal butler. They ask their God to send them a husband or a wife, find them a new job or a car, send down rain, change the wicked government, protect the innocent, cause their home team to win the big game, heal the sick and cure the incurable. Eventually they will realize that petitionary prayers are not answered. That is not the way that God works. Disciples of Wrath will turn inward and blame themselves for being sinners and incurring God’s wrath, or they will decide God is testing their faith by causing them to suffer. Or they will become ‘realists’ and embrace the Gospel of Anti-wrath.  Or they will become enraged, indignant atheists.

 

The Gospel of Love offers a different vision of God: neither absent nor omnipresently blessing and cursing the human race. The Gospel of Love answers prayers that involve righteousness. The God of Love will assist the pilgrim on the journey from sin to salvation.  Jihad is very much in the news in recent years.  There two types. The big Jihad means to wage a war against sin in the world. This is the war that engages disciples of Wrath, no matter what religion they practice. They want to impose their rules on others. They want to use force. They make the world a dark and dangerous place. The little jihad means combating our own inner sinfulness, our own irrational, violent, destructive inner demons.  The God of Love is always willing to assist in that struggle. Prayers for holiness are answered. Lives are transformed. This is all we need to know to fight the good fight.

 

 


Click here for more about how historical belief systems evolved.

 

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