Monday, 17 October 2011

God's will and ours

In Wesley's day, the dominant Protestant theology was Calvinism. Calvin didn't invent the idea of predestination; he inherited it from Augustine. Calvinists did, however, put a new emphasis on it. There was nothing good in humanity; we were, in Cranmer's phrase, 'vile earth and miserable sinners', totally dependent on God's grace for salvation. that grace was irresistible; if God had decided you were to be saved, you would infallibly be saved; if he had decided you were to be damned, you knew where you were going. Naturally; it wasn't God's fault if you went to hell; it was because of your own wretched sins, even if God had predestined them.

It doesn't add up. I get a picture of God sitting there in eternity, tossing dice. If he gets six sixes in a row, the soul goes to heaven. If he doesn't, it's fuel for the eternal fires somewhere down below.

The Wesleys were born into a world which was beginning to change; they lived through the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, and John was still alive when the Bastille fell. At the same time, they also saw Britain's last civil war, the Jacobite 'intestine jar' in 1745. Populations were beginning to shift; new mines were opened, and communities sprang up around them. Centres of industry began to grow. The Anglican parish system was unable to adapt, and people were living beyond the reach of the church. They were still essentially Christian, and with a bit of reading between the lines, it sounds as though some of them were going in real fear of hell fire. Not for the last time, it looked as though to be poor was, in many cases, to be damned as well.

The Wesleys and their friends found a practical answer; they went and preached to communities like the Kingswood miners, near Bristol, and they flocked to hear them. The theological answer came later, encapsulated in Wesley's 'alls'. All men (sic) need to be saved: All men can be saved: All men can know they are saved: All men can be saved to the uttermost. They only go back about a century, but they do sum up his message. God offered his free grace to everyone, and it was up to us whether we accepted it or not. Grace was resistable, and if we were sinful enough to do so, off we went to the eternal fires.

That's all right if everyone is, more or less, a believer. If anyone scoffs at the message, it's clearly because they choose to reject it. However, what of the person who's born in a village in Saudi Arabia, becomes a devout Muslim, and never meets a Christian? Or the one born to militant atheists, who never knowingly meets a Christian socially, and only encounters Jehovah's Witness types on the doorstep? They've never heard the message in any meaningful sense, so how can they be said to have rejected it? In a world which is essentially non-Christian, we're in trouble again.

I remember a particularly daft fundamentalist pastor who insisted that Methodists were hypocrites. He had all sorts of excuses for this claim, but the one that struck me was that we'd bury a 'sinner', who might not have gone to church, might have spent their evenings in the pub, and, horror of horrors, might even not have been officially married to their spouse (I've got particularly strong views on the latter nonsense, but that's a subject for another post), and we wouldn't mention at any point that they were going to hell. Well, how could we say that? I think most people can see that any such stuff would be fundamentally wrong.

I wonder how many Methodist preachers ever mention hell at all in their sermons? I remember one from years ago, with a habit of striking a pose and punching his Bible with vast emphasis whenever he wanted to condemn something he tought was terribly sinful. He did this in every sermon, and managed to look extremely silly in the process. But he was an exception. Hell has effectively disappeared from British Methodism, and no loss either in my view. I read my Bible, and it seems to me that judgement is followed by mercy. God gets terribly upset at the Israelites because they won't stop bowing down to the Baals, and sends them all off into exile. Then he calms down, and raises up Cyrus to let them go home again. Perhaps there's mercy for us after all, even after we die in our sins. If not, Heaven's going to be pretty empty.

That brings me back to grace. It's hard to see how a miserable human can resist God's mercy indefinitely, but maybe we can square the circle and suggest that he has eternity to work with. Death may be the last enemy, but he goes down before the divine legions in the end. Our obstinacy is merely human, and thus limited; God's patience is infinite.

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