As many of you will have probably already heard, Pope Francis came out recently with a message about faith and good deeds that turned some people upside-down in a scramble to creatively re-interpret it to mean what they thought it should mean.
What Pope Francis said was definitive. He was adamant about it.
The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone,” the pope told worshipers at morning Mass on Wednesday. “‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!
He didn’t say everyone has the opportunity to be saved if only they pursue a very specific teaching of Christianity. He said we are all saved, full stop.
It continues to amaze me that so many people, from fundamentalists to atheists, insist that it must be otherwise. To begin with, this view isn’t even supported by the Bible. The very lines cherry-picked to exclude non-Christians are part of a larger context which states the opposite. If you will forgive a little armchair theology, I would like to give my interpretation of these verses.
Romans 3:22[a]: This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.
This is an example of how tweaking the translation changes the meaning altogether to one which is convenient to the person using the text as a clobber verse. The original translation was “through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ to all who believe.” Suddenly the meaning of the text changes completely from “if you believe, you are righteous” to “you are righteous because of him, if you believe this story.”
Moreover, those who quote this often prefer to skip over Romans 3:22[b]-24, which states that all people are justified by the sacrifice. This is repeatedly upheld by Romans 5; verse 1, 9, 10, 11, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20 and 21. That’s pretty definitive as well.
But it all ties in with–
Romans 3:28: For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.
This is usually interpreted as a variant of “by faith, not works,” indicating that works alone are insufficient. Yet Romans 3 goes on immediately to say that God justifies everyone through the same faith, both Jews and Gentiles. How can this be, if Jews and Gentiles have different faiths? It then concludes, Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law. Upholding the law is a tenet of the faith, therefore upholding the law is upholding faith.
This is a recurring theme throughout the New Testament. Those who believe, do. Those who do, believe. The two are tied together, as we’ll see in–
John 14:6: Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
This one actually makes me angry. It’s such a dishonest reading of the text. It’s one sentence in a passage that says much more. John 14:5-14 is the whole of it.
Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”
Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.
The verse which, so carefully plucked from the whole, suddenly conveys a completely different message when laid back into its proper context. Suddenly it has nothing to do with faith in Jesus and everything to do with faith in his teachings. “How do we know the way to God?” Thomas asks, and Jesus replies, “I’m going to God, so just do what I do.” John 14:23-24 reinforces the message: Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me. Matthew 25’s description of the day of judgment drives the message in even harder.
Doing good deeds isn’t enough, no. My interpretation, reinforced by reading the Bible several times over, however, is that the faith in Christ has nothing to do with having faith in Christ as a deity and everything to do with faith in the meaning of his teachings. Christ taught sacrifice over and over. He taught that the greatest act of grace is to give up something of your own for a person with less, whether it’s money, possessions, time and attention or simply love.
Moreover, as Slacktivist members and Fred Clark himself have said over and over, if we are truly in the image of God and God is without our limitations, then God cannot have less love, mercy, justice or compassion than the least of us. If my love, mercy, justice and compassion are greater than God’s, then that cannot be a God worth worshiping — and I do not believe such an entity could exist and still be God.
I refuse to believe a sociopath can care more about people than God, and I love you all enough to make great sacrifices for you. Why should God be any different?