Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Our Confusion About Christianity

Recent events in Australasia show how confused we are about religion and Christianity. First, the terror attack in Christchurch caused an outpouring of compassion. Rightly, we cried, we prayed, we laid flowers, we reached out. And so we should have. We even put on hijabs and joined in Muslim calls to prayer (although some Christians were uncomfortable with this).

Then, Israel Folau dared to say on social media what Christianity has always believed, even if clumsily and inappropriately in my view: that those who are sinners who refuse to repent will not be included in God’s world to come. This is indeed what Islam believes, through the lens of faith in Allah and Mohamad as his prophet. This is what Christians believe based on our view that Jesus is Savior and Lord. Yet, our society turns from approval to condemnation. We cry foul! Much umbrage is taken. Then, Notre Dame burned down. It is a tragedy, absolutely. We should be grieved. Yet, remember that this is a building built by people who believe what Israel Folau believes.

There are ironies everywhere in this. How is it that we can be so grieved about a shooting and a building (which we should be), and yet hang this young man out to dry for daring to express the views held in those buildings where these tragedies occurred. Can we really have it both ways?  

The truth is we tolerate Christianity and religion if it tows the line, shows love and mercy and never expresses its full theology. We love its cathedrals (one can think of the public furore over the Christchurch cathedral). We love its works of service (the Salvation Army and so on). In fact, our societies ideology is to a large degree based on its premises. But we are so selective. We have picked the bones off its carcass and woe-betide the person that dares to tell the world around the full story. If someone dares to speak publicly concerning its belief system, we are up at arms. Irony! We are indeed completely confused about religion and Christianity. On the one hand, we embrace it and reach out with compassion to its people. Yet, we condemn their beliefs when one dares to say it publicly. Our confusion and duplicity is palpable.

Is Israel Folau Right?

Israel Folau claims that a range of sinners will go to hell unless they do not repent. How does this stack up in terms of what the Bible teaches? This is not an easy question to answer in a few words, but in my capacity as a Biblical scholar, let me have a go.

It is true that the teaching of Jesus and the authors of the NT reject a range of sins as less than God’s ideal. This includes any sexual activity outside of monogamous, heterosexual, marriage. So this would include masturbation (this is debated, forgive the pun), sex before marriage, sex with someone other than your marital partner, sex with another being (e.g. an animal), and so on. These fall short of God’s ideal.

It is equally true that Jesus and the NT writers rejected a whole raft of other attitudes and behaviors, especially those that cause injustice and oppression. Materialistic greed was especially singled out. Similarly, bad attitudes like envy, arrogance, hatred, destructive speech, anger, violence, are all rejected. While the NT was not explicit on matters like sexism and slavery, many texts point to the end of patriarchy and the enslavement of the other. Jesus was opposed to anything that is unloving toward others and is destructive of relationships. This is why Christians were at the forefront of women getting the vote (e.g. Kate Shepherd) and ending slavery (e.g. William Wilberforce).

Now the NT is also clear that everyone is a sinner before God. God is articulated as holy, perfect, and pure, without any corruption. Humankind are all flawed, and stand before him as imperfect. So, we are all guilty of sin before God.

The end-game in the NT is that the final outcome of history is that from humankind, those who want an ongoing relationship with God and place their trust in him, will be with him forever. He will accept them into the age to come. He will remove their sinfulness from them once and for all. Only those who have been transformed in this way will enter into eternity with God.

The NT uses a range of terms to describe what is required to have God forgive us of our wrongs and accept us into eternity. Israel Folau picks up the term "repentance" or "repent." The Greek means "to change one’s mind." In a religious sense, it means turning from a desire and propensity to sin to an intention to no longer do so. In that the NT makes it clear that Christians are still sinners, this is about intention and desire as much as outcome. We seek to live the life God wants for us.

Yet, the main term the NT uses for qualifying for eternal life is not “repent” or “repentance.” Rather, it is “believe, have faith.” It is those who believe or place their trust in God and Jesus who will experience eternal life. Repentance language dies out through Acts, although it is there on and off, and there is a move to belief language as seen through John’s and Paul’s writings (also Peter and James). Paul in Acts is nicely summarised: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.”

The emphasis in faith is not what one turns from, but what one orientates their life toward: God and his Son. It also holds an implicit recognition that none of us are perfect even after coming to believe in Jesus. We do repent, but our repent is inadequate. Indeed, Christians are no or little better than other people who do not believe. In some cases, we are worse. What differentiates us should be our trust in God and his Son and our desire to be repentant (even if we are imperfect).

By choosing repentance language, Israel amplifies the negative rather than accentuates the positive. I would urge him to think about shifting his language to “repent and believe” or “believe.” E.g. “Those who do not believe in God will go to hell.” Yet, I would not use the latter phrase.

This brings me to the last part of that statement: “go to hell.” Hell is a complex idea among Christians and what it entails is far from agreed. Popular ideas of Christians believing that everyone goes to burn forever are actually increasingly rare. These owe their origins to Greek myth, Dante’s Inferno, and literal interpretations of texts that are metaphorical. To put it plainly, “fire” and “burning” in the NT is figurative language. We can see this in texts where fire and darkness are impossibly juxtaposed (e.g. Jude 6–7). Indeed, across the Bible, fire speaks of God’s judgment, and should not be read literally.

However, hell language is used, so what does it entail? This is uncertain. Some argue it points to an actual place where people live on but experience eternal suffering. Some think it merely points to living on with eternal separation from God and all that is good. Some go as far as speaking of eternal solitary confinement. Catholics hold to purgatory, a kind of middle ground, a temporary time of purification before eternal life. Some protestants hold a similar view; that, the gates of hell and heaven are always open and one can move from one place to the other. Others hold that hell is essentially a metaphor for being dead forever. Either, one is judged and then destroyed forever. Or, that when one dies, one stays dead forever (which is what secular people think happens to us all).

So, to use going to hell language is very unhelpful as it brings up a whole range of ideas that most Christians are uncertain of. It needs to be unpacked so much that is just breeds uncertainty. I don’t think we are meant to have a perfect and complete understanding of hell. All we need to know is that it will suck compared to the wonders of living on with God forever.

If we take a traditional view of hell, are all homosexuals going there? Even Israel does not fully answer the question. He says they must repent. What does that mean? Never do it again? If so, most of us are stuffed because we all tend to sin in our areas of weakness repeatedly. I do. Is perfect repentance required? Can one repent, muck up, repent again, muck up, and do this repeatedly and be saved? The language is not the best way to speak of what is required, and this is why the passages Israel quotes don’t use it. The language of faith and trust and a consequent intention to please God in all we do is what is required. We will stuff up, I do, but we seek God’s forgiveness, accept it, and go on, trusting in him, and praying that we have the strength not to do it again.

The Bible never says that those who are adulterers, gay, lesbian, greedy, prone to anger, who are jealous, patriarchal, arrogant, are definitely going to hell. It speaks of them not entering the kingdom of God. The same writer who says this, Paul, says clearly that entry into the kingdom is by believing. When we enter, we remain sinners, but declared righteous by faith. This includes all manner of sin. So we can't simply say that those who do such things are going to hell unless we rip the passages out of the context of Paul's whole theology. The truth of the gospel for Paul is that we are all sinners. If we believe, our sins are dealt with. We should seek not to sin, but if we do, God's grace will deal with it, if we truly believe. There are plenty of adulterers, idolaters, and heterosexual sinners who are trusting in this grace. The same goes for homosexuals as much as any group.

Furthermore, hell may not be a place. We all do these things. Let those of us who are not sinners, cast the first stone. We all do the things God does not want of us, to some degree, some of the time. It does not mean we go to hell, whatever hell is.

The wonder of the Christian message is not so much our propensity to sin (all guilty as charged), but that God still loves us and wants to be our friend. He extends grace to us. It is not so much that he is offended by our sin, but that he weeps over us being sinned against and broken. He wants us to realize he is there, come to recognize that Jesus is Him, injected into the world to show us what he is like. He yearns for us to come to him, broken and sinful, and ask his forgiveness and believe in him. If we do, he fills us with his Spirit and we live with him forever. First, in this life, him in us, strengthening us to face the challenges of life that come at us day after day. Second, on the other side of death, we will be with him forever. This offer is the same for rich and poor, male and female, slave and free, gay and straight. 

This offer is open to all humankind. It is not so much that people who do the things in the lists of Israel and the NT are “going to hell,” it is that we all do these things, yet, our God still wants to be our friend and walks with us through them.

Jesus was the friend of sinners. Sure, he warned them of eternal destruction in some form. This is necessary to rid the world of evil (to me, hell is just God ridding the world of evil). But more importantly, he offers another way. It is the way of faith in God and his Son, love of all people no matter who they are and what they have done, and hope in the eternal future we have with this God.

I would humbly suggest that all of us who are Christians are very careful with the way we attempt to articulate this message. Bald statements that all sinners are going to hell unless they repent are likely to offend more than invite. They are full of associations, many of which are unhelpful. They are in actual fact wrong, as it is not that simple. 

Interestingly, hell does not feature in any of the sermons of the first Christians recorded in Acts. Repentance is, but not eternal destruction. Rather, they painted a picture of Jesus as God’s presence in the world and invited people into this world.

As Jesus says in John 3:17, he did not come to condemn the world, but to offer himself to the world as its salvation and prime example. As the previous verse says, if we believe in him, we will not perish but have eternal life. We are all sinners. We all sexually sin. We cannot stop ourselves. This is our “orientation.”  This is where God stepped in. Knowing this, he entered history, showed us what love looks like, invites us into his life, urges us to go out and share this with the world with grace and mercy, and then to live with him forever freed from all the crap that fills our hearts. In this life, we should seek to stop sinning, whatever our predilection. But lets not pretend that we are not all in the same boat. 

I would urge all Christians to think very deeply how we articulate our message to the world. Otherwise, many will be reinforced in their rejection of it. In a world coming apart at the seams, it is our hope.


Should Israel Folau Lose His Job?

The previous two blogs have asked whether Israel Folau is a homophobe and guilty of hate speech. Of course he is not. This misrepresents him and his views completely.

Should he lose his job? On the face of it, he has brought his sport into disrepute. He has gone public saying that God is going to send a whole range of people, including homosexuals, to hell, unless they repent.

Yet, if we stop and think about it, should he lose his job for this? Really. Imagine if he had tweeted that God loves everyone and they are all going to heaven. Or, he had tweeted that he is praying for people that they enjoy wealth, health, and fruitfulness. Or more daringly, he tweeted that God loves all people and all those who have done anything wrong will face God in judgment after death. Should he lose his job for these comments?

These comments would barely raise a whimper and would likely go unnoticed. Yet, they are all religious comments involving what happens to people when they die.

Imagine if he had tweeted something like: “my heart goes out to all Muslim people after the horrific shooting in Christchurch.” Or, “prayers and thoughts for them.” This is religious speech in the public arena. It is very appropriate, and these two things I would agree with totally! They would widely be accepted.

Why then would we single out a religious tweet that does not advocate violence, includes no abuse by a person or incites it, is about a religious worldview many do not hold, and then say, “you’re fired!” to that person?

To fire Israel Folau for this is in my view, bordering on religious persecution. It is silencing a person who wishes to express to enquirers on Twitter his answer to their questions. 

Is it that the real issue is that sponsors are unhappy. Why is that a concern? Because sponsors pay for the game. Down here in NZ and Australia, we desperately need their money for the game as we try and keep our players here.

Mmmm, sponsors, money, mmmm. Sounds like materialism to me. In the teaching of Jesus, he mentioned a god called Mammon (it is the Sermon on the Mount I mentioned in my last blog—“you cannot worship God and Money [Mammon]” Matt 6:24). So, the good of the game is not really what is threatened, it is our god, Mammon. Indeed, sport itself is a god here as is the money that lubricates our society and keeps us entertained. The real issues of our cultures are not sexual immorality, a tweet about eternal destruction, but the love of money. We are embedded in consumption, imprisoned in a society that feeds our desires through advertising and demands we consume (or the economy crashes).

Israel Folau has expressed his personal religious view in response to questions on social media. He did so with comments that appeared homophobic and hate-filled. As shown in the previous blogs, they are not. He simply has a belief system and expresses it. Surely, as he advocates no harm to others, his human right to speak his mind cannot be suppressed by an employer in this way? That is religious persecution.

Michael Chieka was interviewed on Aussie TV last night (I write from Melbourne) ( His only argument seems to be that while he agrees that Israel Folau can hold this view, it is now distracting the team. So, he must go. Well, I don’t think that will fly in court.

When someone has the stupidity or courage (depending on your view) to speak out against the mainstream worldview, they should not lose their job unless they are inciting violence, reviling their employer, hating people, threatening them, or abusing them. He did none of these. In fact, he was alluding to the apostle Paul, many of whose ideas form foundational pillars of western civilization.

We go into dangerous territory when we terminate contracts for people going against the norm. One thinks of Colin Kaepernick and the refusal of a whole raft of American athletes to stand for the National Anthem. What he and others did was to push back at the excessive nationalism and racism they perceive in the USA. Good on them.

Whatever our nations believe, when they move in the direction of stifling religious and ideological viewpoints which do not advocate violence in the present context but speak of things on the other side of this world, we go into dangerous territory. We become totalitarian. We all know where totalitarianism led us last century. In one direction we ended up with right-wing nationalist socialist Nazism with the attempted eradication of large portions of Europe’s diverse people. On the other hand, we saw the rise of Communism and the similar eradication of different groups including Christians the Soviet Bloc and other nations.

We sit in a dangerous world now. Both trends are at play. We see it in the clash of values around Brexit, in the USA represented by Trump and Sanders (not that I am calling them Nazis or Communists, I am making my point). They represent trends. Europe is a battleground for these ideas.

In my view, leave Israel Folau alone. If you disagree, speak out, exercise your right of free speech. Don’t threaten violence. Don’t abuse. Say your piece. Fair enough. If you agree with him, support him, speak out. Don’t threaten violence. Don’t abuse. 

What we mustn’t do is let “The Man” overstep the mark and suppress speech simply because we don’t like it.

I would urge Australian Rugby not to sack Israel Folau but work through all these issues and come up with a way of allowing people to hold their beliefs and express them, even in the public realm. Why not? What’s the problem if it is not inciting violence and abusive? I would urge them to back the player’s right to do so. There should be vibrant discussion concerning how to do this. That is a better path in my view. We cannot force the world around us to agree with our point of view and fire them when they don't. That is persecution.

Israel Folau, Hate Speech, and Religious Persecution

In my previous blog, I argued that Israel Folau is not a homophobe. Such a term is not appropriate to describe a Christian who holds his views. He advocates the love of all people, not fear of them, as the term homophobe implies. He is a homophile, even if his words are not received this way when abstracted from context.

Now I want to ask these questions. Is Israel Folau guilty of hate-speech? Then again, is he now the victim of hate-speech? Do we have a case of religious persecution in the way some people are responding to Israel?

First, is what Israel Folau has said “hate-speech?” The answer to me is clearly “no.” According to Google, hate speech is defined as “abusive or threatening speech or writing that expresses prejudice against a particular group, especially on the basis of race, religion, or sexual orientation.”

Did Israel Folau abuse or threaten people on the basis of race? No. Did he abuse or threaten people on the basis of religion? No. Did he abuse or threaten people on the basis of sexual orientation? No. Is he guilty of prejudice? Perhaps. Yet, it is not abusive and it is not threatening. 

As far as I can see, he said nothing abusive and threatening from a human perspective. He spoke of a God, who, after death, he believes, will send people to hell who are not repentant. There was no threat from a human source or in this world. He did not advocate mistreatment of any of those named. He did not urge hate toward them. He is not even prejudiced as he acknowledges his own sinfulness.

How then can this be “hate-speech?” 

Indeed, as noted in the previous blog, he loves all people and recognizes his own sin. If this is hate-speech, he hates himself. Which of course he doesn’t, because he repents.  

Further, if Israel Folau is a victim of hate speech, then so are people who have responded all over the media. Both the first time he tweeted and this time, I have listened to hours of NZ's radiosport, bits of other stations, and observed a range of other responses. Israel is the victim of a great deal of hate, and he is a victim of this on the basis of his religion. It is he who is the victim of hate-speech, and not the homosexual community (nor the atheists, drunkards, and so on). He has been mocked all over the place and people parody his view. Yet, he is not in fact a victim of hate-speech. I have not heard anyone advocate him being hurt or threatended. Yet, one might say that demanding he lose his job on the basis of his religion pushes into dangerous territory.

Yes, I will go further, and ask whether Israel Folau is now a victim of religious persecution? For decades, Christianity and Christians have been mocked in western nations. Celebrated TV programs mock us, e.g. Father Ted, the Vicar of Dibley. Our views are mocked and parodied. In the last weeks, I have heard many celebrating the idea of hell as they think it will be a hell of a party. This all in a society that is founded to a large degree on Christian views. 

Not to mention the enormous social work and good done by the church across NZ and Australia. 
Indeed, one wonders what would happen if the many NGOs, Social Justice groups, and local church ministries went away from NZ. Perhaps the streets would be overrun with the poor and mentally ill? We never complain that we are not appreciated. 

About half of NZ still adhere to the faith. Half a million or more go to church every Sunday in NZ. We sit quietly and do not hit back at the mockery of our nation and society. Even though we are constantly misrepresented and misunderstood. We receive little gratitude for the enormous amount of social work we do. 

Israel Folau hates no one. He loves all. So does his God. He believes we will all be held to account in the afterlife. He advocates no violence. He leaves that to a God he believes in. Is that a crime? Is he guilty of hate-speech. Hell no, or should I say, heaven no! He expresses his view and he should be free to, if it does not involve abuse and threat. Should he be so harshly treated as a result? No. That is bordering on religious persecution.

I ponder what would happen if a devout Muslim sportsperson had made this tweet in the wake of the Terror Attacks. I understand some Muslims would hold a similar view to Israel, from the perspective of Islam. I believe NZers and Australians would hesitate before condemning them. This would be a good idea. That is because it can easily cross the line into religious persecution to respond as many have to Israel Folau.  

I think we need to think very quickly before we jump the gun and react to things that annoy us, as this has done to so many. We do not want to be guilty of the very thing we are condemning as we do so. Reminds me of Jesus saying something about specks and logs in eyes. You can find that in Matthew 7:1–5. While at it, read the whole of Matt 5 to 7—that is the heart of Christianity. 

Israel Folau: Is he homophobic?

As is now well known, Israel Folau is in the news for his recent post as per below.

This comes after his earlier statements concerning this.

What to make of all this as a Christian? 

First, in this blog, is Israel Folau homophobic? I argue to call him homophobic is incorrect for a range of reasons.

First, homophobia combines two Greek terms: homo which means “same;” and phobos, “fear.” Rightly used, homophobia would be “fear of the same,” or if we locate it in a sexual arena, “fear of people of the same sexuality,” or as it is used today, “fear of people in same-sex relationships.”

Aside from extremists like those who disgustingly stand outside church’s with placards repudiating homosexuality and those who want the death penalty (which Christ did not endorse and so no follower of Christ would advocate), no Christian is afraid of people in same-sex relationships. Rather, the opposite is the case. The command of Christ is not to be afraid of people who hold a different worldview is to love them, and indeed, love all people. This is the case even with an enemy who hurts us, and people who disagree with us or live a life that differs from the life we believe is endorsed by God.

As will be shown further below, Israel Folau loves all people. He, like all true Christians, practices "homophilia," a term that compounds homo (same) and philia (love), i.e., the love of those who are in same-sex relationships. Christ and those who truly follow him are not homophobes, they are homophiliacs. He is not afraid. Neither should anyone be. All people are to be loved with a love that wants the very best for them.

Second, Israel Folau’s comments do not call for any violence against homosexuals or any on the list that is given above. In fact, he advocates no actions. He is merely stating his view on what happens after death, not in this world. He is also not stating that he is the agent of this, the actor is God and this after death, not in this world. He is not a crusader urging Christians to take up arms to rid the world of sinners. He is speaking of after-death. He is stating what a person must believe and do on this side of death to avoid his view of what happens to people after death. His words cannot be defined as hate speech as there is no hate involved. It is not homophobia. Indeed, I am not sure why people other than those who believe in the afterlife would be even interested in his view. 

Third, why single out homosexuality and homophobia? Homosexuality is now normalized in many parts of the west including Australia where it was passed in December 2017. Gays and Lesbians can marry. They can raise a family. Gay relationships punctuate mainstream media. Israel picks out a list of other people who punctuate our nations: alcoholics, liars, fornicators (people who engage in sexual relationships outside of a heterosexual monogamous marriage), thieves, atheists, and idolaters. He quotes Galatians 5:19–21 which has an even greater list. He could add a lot more. Such people are everywhere. They are all over the churches of Australia and NZ.

So, why is the media, social and mainstream, picking out so-called homophobia and condemn him for this? Yes, there has been a sad history of maltreatment of homosexuals in wider society including many Christians who have sadly been involved in this (violating the clear teachings of Jesus). For this, with many, I ask forgiveness. Yet, why single it out in this statement? 

What about those with problems with alcohol like my dear sister who died through a drinking binge? Why am I not going on the media and slamming him for his condemnation of “drunks?”

This is because this is not homophobia any more than it is adulterer-phobia, liar-phobia, atheist-phobia, and so on (not that it is phobia at all, above). It is none of these; it is one clip of his view which is framed by his clear understanding that all are sinners, God loves all sinners, God wants Christians to love all people, and that in orthodox Christianity, all must place their faith in God and Christ for salvation.

Fourth, Folau is being misrepresented. Even if we consider that he is not doing it that well (see further in another forthcoming blog), he is speaking out of love, recognizes that it is not up to him to judge a particular person, and acknowledges his own sin.

On the 8 May, he placed a tweet in which he says, “with great love I wanted to share this video in the hope that people watch it and think about it. Jesus is coming back soon and he wants us to turn to him through repentance and baptism in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:38) please don’t harden your heart.” This is where he comes from. I didn't hear an outcry against him over this. Why not? 

Folau has already expressed his opinion on his attitude in “Player’s Voice” (April 16, 2018: Here are some of the things he said:

“People’s lives are not for me to judge. Only God can do that. I have sinned many times in my life. I take responsibility for those sins and ask for forgiveness through repentance daily.”

 “I believe that it is a loving gesture to share passages from the Bible with others. I do it all the time when people ask me questions about my faith or things relating to their lives, whether that’s in-person or on my social media accounts.”

“There are many sins outlined in that passage from 1 Corinthians [6:9–11] and I have been guilty of committing some of them myself.”

It is easy to take a clip from a tweet conversation and turn it into a basis to condemn someone. The media are brilliant at this, plucking one comment out of context, and using it for their ends—to get people to engage so that they can make more money (more on this in forthcoming blogs).

Yet, this is just one man expressing his view to the world. He is not homophobic. He believes all people are sinners and must repent to be saved.

Condemnation of him for this comment can easily become Christian-phobia (although that is the wrong word of course) or Christian-bashing. It can quickly become religious intolerance and religious persecution. Indeed, one may argue that this is now happening (more on this to come).

We have recently had a group of religious people in this nation attacked violently in a repugnant attack on their religion and persons. Allowing people to hold diverse views and express them without excessive over-reactions and labelling should be part of who we are. 

Let Israel tweet his tweets, after all, the American president does it and some of his tweets are ridiculous. They are not homophobic. They are annoying as they single out groups. They also annoy many Christians who are not into the way he is expressing himself. But let's don't over-react.