r m p




 Gandhi's Ticket to Hell

Yesterday a friend and I had a conversation about whether there is something inherent in the Christian faith that has given rise over the centuries to atrocities like the Inquisition, the witch-burnings, and the pogroms against Jews. Is there some taint, some terrible pox bred into the Christian DNA and ready to manifest itself when conditions permit? To put it another way, if today's Christians suddenly had the legal opportunity to begin burning heretics at the stake as their forbears did, would they do it? 

A conversation I had with another friend today leads me to suspect that perhaps they would. Out of the blue came the comment that for all his good works Mohandas Gandhi, having studied the New Testament and rejected conversion to the Christian faith, remained "a heathen." I asked if this meant Gandhi was frying in Hell today. My friend refused to pursue the logic of her claim, saying she was not God and could not say. But it was only a strategic retreat. I know she holds that only through explicit belief in Christ can one be saved and that a Hell awaits those who do not hold that belief. 

If someone really believes what I deem the barbaric absurdity that God is going to slate anyone for eternal torture (an act that would by itself qualify him as Satan's understudy, Wormwood to his uncle's Screwtape), then even though that person may not (thank God!) have the opportunity himself to light the match, he is predicting that the nonbeliever will one day light up the night like one of those trick birthday candles that will never go out. And he is blessing that choice. If this is what Christianity is about, even what it permits, it is Hitlerite evil. 

When we are told that Gandhi rejected Christ and thus deserves Hell, we are told some crucially mistaken things about Chris tianity.  First, did Gandhi reject Christ? He demurred to undergo baptism, to renounce his ancestral Hinduism. But he lived a strikingly Christlike life, ministering as Jesus did to the loathsome, the outcast, the untouchable, calling them, as Jesus did, the children of God. Has one who does this "rejected the Son of God," as my friend maintained? No, for he who  does the works of the Son of God has accepted the Son of God. At least in my book. 

But not in my friend's book, which is the Bible. My friend argued that the Bible says good works do not earn salvation, that salvation comes only by accepting the death of Jesus on the cross for one's sins. 

But who's saying that Gandhi's good works saved him? No one is saved except by grace. I am merely saying that the lack of belief in the Christian religion did not damn him. 

She argued that Jesus says in the Bible that one must believe in him to be saved. I cannot accept this. True, the Gospel of John depicts him saying this, or something like it, but this Gospel, like all other New Testament writings, presupposes a stage of things that Jesus never envisioned, a time when his death had occurred and was interpreted and reinterpreted as an atonement for sins. 

In John's gospel Jesus is made the mouthpiece for dogmas which only arose at this fairly advanced stage, much as Plato makes Socrates the literary spokesman for his own, later ideas. Indeed, given the state at which things stood in Jesus' lifetime, had Peter suggested to Jesus that only by virtue of faith in Jesus could a person be saved, Jesus would have rejected the suggestion as blasphemy, perhaps regarding Peter as insane. It means some thing quite different for Christians to look back on Jesus, after all the subsequent developments, as their blessed Savior, some thing I am glad to do. 

But we must not read the Bible as a flat text without the depth of historical development that lies behind and beneath it. If we do, as my friend does, we will misconstrue the sense of various texts, using them for an alien purpose. But my friend is only doing what Christians have always done. 

O the ironies of doctrinal evolution! I am currently absorbed in the reading of Deconstructionism. The father of the movement, Jacques Derrida, speaks of "the supplement," a strange and ubiquitous paradox whereby something that is ostensibly a mere addition to a prior reality actually has the  effect of subverting that reality, undermining it by putting it in a radically new light. This has happened in the case of the Christian gospel. 

In all probability, the construal of Jesus' martyr death as an atoning sacrifice arose first in the preaching by Greek-speaking Jewish Christians to Gentiles. The idea was current among Greek-speaking (or Hellenistic) Jews that the martyrdoms of the righteous at the hands of pagan oppressors might be counted by God as an atonement for the sins of Israel. 

These Hellenistic Jewish Christians were faced with the problem of how God could accept Gentile pagans for whom there was no Levitical provision. Temple sacrifices did not cover their sins, so how could God accept them? Suppose he was graciously willing to count Jesus' martyr death as an atonement for the Gentiles? Thus Jesus died for the sins "of many," as Mark puts it. Not all, since Jews' sins were already dealt with quite adequately through the biblical system of sacrificial atonement. Temple sacrifices availed for Jews, including Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah, but Jesus' death availed for "the world," i.e., everybody outside Israel. (Christians use the same idiom when they speak of reaching "the world" with the gospel, i.e., present company excepted, since they, Christians, already have the gospel.)

So the doctrine of the atoning death of Jesus was meant as a way of including the excluded. It was a way of widening the scope of God's mercy. But what happened? Once Jewish Christianity died out and Christianity had become almost completely a Gentile religion, the notion that Jesus had died for "the world" meant, in Gentile ears, absolutely everybody, including Jews. So the evangelistic pogrom began. What had begun as an attempt to include had now become a tool to exclude. You were barred from salvation unless you believed in Jesus. 

Even today many or most Christians are quite willing to believe that if Jews do not believe in Jesus Christ they are headed for an eternal Holocaust infinitely more hideous than anything the diseased mind of Heinrich Himmler could conceive. And they judge it impious ­not­ to believe so! 

The same perverse reversal can be shown to have overtaken the Reformation doctrine (possibly the Pauline doctrine) of salvation by faith alone. Originally it meant that one need not agonize over one's failure to carry out the law of God perfectly, that pure, receptive faith could by itself accept the saving grace of God. But now the preaching of grace has itself become the most ironclad of laws! Faith has come to be redefined as believing a doctrine about the saving death of Christ, a doctrine one must believe, a law of the mind that must be obeyed. 

Even Paul already speaks of "the obedience of faith," which is to make faith into its opposite, a yoke of law. If one breaks this law by not believing in it, in the saving death of Christ, one is doomed and damned. Thus in the supposedly gracious New Testament we hear of an eternal Hell of torture, a monstrous notion undreamt of in the supposedly stern, unforgiving Old Testament. \Which Testament is the legalistic one? You tell me! 

Yes, there are New Testament texts that would provide Gandhi's asbestos ticket to Hell, all right, but then they are thus revealed as being that poisonous DNA that has deformed Christianity again and again throughout its history. And there are other terrible texts which women, homosexuals and others have cause to fear as well. 

But these reprehensible passages have subverted the very essence of Christianity, which is, I believe, still dimly discernible here and there in the blood-spattered pages of the New Testament, pages stained not so much with the blood of Jesus as with that of those whose persecution was mandated by those pages. But their martyrdoms repeat that of Jesus himself. If their sufferings can cause us to read Christian scripture in a new way, perhaps their deaths at Christian hands will have saved us, and we will have come full circle. 

Robert M. Price


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