Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Most Misunderstood Passage of the Bible

By Edward Smallwood

I intended when I started blogging to stay off of the subject of Religion, and to stay on the topic of Politics. The big problem with that plan was that many of my political opinions are rooted in my religious beliefs. Although my religious interpretations have been in flux to a limited extent, the net results have been largely the same. In order to understand many of my political positions you will have to understand at least some of my religious beliefs. Here are just a few.

For a long time I’ve been rather critical of one passage of the Bible. It is almost certainly the most popular single verse, emblazoned on T-Shirts and displayed by sign-waving enthusiasts in sports stadiums throughout the world. I’m certain many people reading this know it in its entirety: John 3:16. For clarity I’ll quote the New American Standard Bible:

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

I much preferred the passages from Matthew 25:31-46, also popularly known as “the parable of the sheep and the goats” and “the parable of the judgements.” As you can see, it’s 15 verses long. That’s pretty long for an essay, but I’m going to put it in anyway. Here it is:

31 "But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne.

32 "All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats;

33 and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left.

34 "Then the King will say to those on His right, 'Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.

35 'For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in;

36 naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.'

37 "Then the righteous will answer Him, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink?

38 'And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You?

39 'When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?'

40 "The King will answer and say to them, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.'

41 "Then He will also say to those on His left, 'Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels;

42 for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink;

43 I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.'

44 "Then they themselves also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?'

45 "Then He will answer them, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.'

46 "These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

To me, this was the more important passage. It still is important to me. This is the only place in the entire Bible where Jesus himself says how someone can get into Heaven. Feed the hungry, house the poor, visit those in prison, take care of the sick. In short, do good works.

One of the reasons I disliked John 3:16 was that it seems to imply that all you have to do to make it into heaven is to believe that Jesus is your savior. I’ve heard others say this outright. Many, many people believe this. However, let’s look at it again:

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

What does it promise if you believe that Jesus is your savior? Eternal life. Many people interpret that as meaning you will go to Heaven when you die. Does it? I started thinking about it carefully, and I realized that it may, in fact, promise eternal life, but it doesn’t make any promises whatsoever about the quality of that eternal life, or where it will be spent. There is nothing in John 3:16 that promises that you will spend eternity in Heaven simply because you believe that Jesus is your savior.

Don’t believe me? Look it over again. Take your time. It’s pretty short. See there? Not one word about where that eternal life will be spent. Nothing about how much you will enjoy that eternal life. In short, John 3:16 is little more than the headline of an article, while Matthew 25:31-46 is the opening paragraph. You can find the rest of the article in the Gospels of the Bible.

I still find blasphemous the theory that getting into Heaven involves nothing more than belief in Jesus as our savior. Those who try to sell this religious theory are clearly guilty of religious malpractice. Why would I make such a claim? Because allowing people to believe that belief in Jesus as our savior is enough allows them to do evil with a clear conscience. If you are saved by simple belief, then it doesn’t matter what you do to others, you are saved regardless. See someone in pain, in need of help? Ignore them, it’s okay since you’re saved. See someone without a home, without a meal? Who cares? You can let them find their own food and shelter since you’re already saved. John 3:16 says you are these people claim. Except we already know it doesn’t. Matthew 25:31-46 makes it clear that belief is not enough, and what’s more, Jesus himself says it.

Really, the theory that John 3:16 allows you to go to Heaven based on belief helps those who wish to do wrong, or wish to convince others to do wrong. It is the pet theory of the lazy and wicked. It’s the kind of theory that Satan would come up with to convince large numbers of people to indulge themselves and end up in Hell. And that is why I have decided to write this blog entry. Generally, I feel that forcing ones religious opinions upon others is impolite at best. However, I also feel that it is necessary to give people the best, most accurate information in order to make the right decisions.

For most of my life I have watched carefully the actions of our politicians. We heard in President G.W. Bush’s first campaign how he was a devout Christian, and read the Bible regularly. We are hearing this now about John McCain. We have been hearing this about Republican candidates for all kinds of elected positions as long as I can remember. But I really have a hard time reconciling the actions of the Republicans with the teachings of Christ in Matthew 25:31-46. I can’t reconcile Ronald Reagan’s ignoring the AIDS epidemic or ignoring the homeless with Christ’s teaching to take care of the sick and shelter the homeless. I can’t reconcile G.W. Bush’s handling of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans with Christ’s direction to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty, or help those in need. I cannot believe that when Christ said to visit those in prison, he meant that you should go in there and torture them, as the current administration has at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. And the reality is that I know of no Republicans who follow Christ’s teachings in Matthew. The platforms of the Republican Party seem to be more toward enriching the rich than in helping the poor. They do seem to mention Christianity a lot, but they really don’t seem to believe in Matthew 25:31-46. The only way I can reconcile their claims to Christianity and their actions is if I apply the theory that actions are unnecessary and Belief alone is enough to be saved. If I do that, then their actions make sense.

But this means that the Republican Party cannot be “God’s Own Party,” as I have heard it called. You cannot be with God if you ignore His teachings. That is clearly what the Republican Party has been doing for all of my life. I clearly cannot side with them and still be a good Christian.

I would guess that there are those who will claim that God was punishing these people. That those with AIDS were cursed for sinful behavior. That New Orleans was hit by Katrina for their sins. I could go on. I personally believe that God was testing us. How would we, as Christians, respond to those in need? In all of the cases I mentioned, and in many more than I could possibly chronicle, the Republican in power failed the test miserably. In fact, they often did the exact opposite of what Christ called upon us to do.

Republicans are very good at talking the talk, but are absolutely miserable at walking the walk. For these, and many other reasons, I cannot in good conscience vote for any representative of the Republican Party. I urge everyone who reads this to follow my lead on this issue, and to let them know why.

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