When I was seven years old, my family joined a fundamentalist church which taught that if we did not observe the laws of the Bible we would burn forever in hell. I embraced this concept completely.
For the next ten years, I tried my best to live according to the rules I was taught. We couldn’t work on Sunday, so I wondered if I should avoid organizing a little play area I was creating. Though a good student, I made poor grades in high school PE class because I would not wear the required shorts; I also would not shower with naked boys.
After high school I began to question whether some of these rules were valid according to the Bible. Years later, I concluded that the entire concept of legalism is both misguided and harmful. Some years after, I realized the Bible doesn’t teach the concept of eternal punishment in hell that I had been taught was so central to Christian belief.
The Claim: Abandoning the Law Results in Sin and Immorality
As expected, I received opposition when I expressed my views about legalism or when it became apparent that I no longer lived by ‘rules’. I was told repeatedly that without rules to guide me, I would fall into sin and wind up in hell. “What is Christianity if it is not observing the rules of God?”
I understand that living by rules is comforting. If we have a list of rules to follow, we don’t have to think about decisions when faced with moral situations. No decision is required except whether or not to obey the rule; our responsibility is only to observe the rule.
For example: one of the strongest rules in my life was never to lie; and I didn’t—no matter what. The situation didn’t matter and the consequences didn’t matter. Had I been in 1940s Europe and Nazis came to my home and asked, “Are there any Jews in this house?”, I would have said, “Yes sir, they are behind that false wall.”
The consequences of my truth did not matter; only following the law mattered. This does not mean I think lying is okay—I certainly don’t, but a rule is not more important than people. To tell the truth about the hidden Jews in that situation would be immoral.
When dealing with moral issues, I believe we must be guided by something other than rules. A list of rules can never cover every situation; but, more importantly, following rules relieves us of our responsibility to make moral judgments and appropriate decisions.
If we cannot depend on rules to guide us, then what basis do we have for moral choices? I will address that in a moment, but first let us consider another claim.
The Claim: Abandoning Belief in Hell Removes all Motivation for Living Right
There is a similar objection to rejecting the idea that God punishes people in hell: Without the threat of hell there is no incentive for anyone to live morally.
I am often accused of interpreting the Bible differently so that I can indulge in whatever sins I choose. This accusation is not true of me, but it might reflect the thinking of some people regarding morality. I’ve had Christians, who were totally devoted to the church, and who attended every service, paid their tithes (and more), and constantly warned others to be ‘saved’ to avoid God’s wrath, tell me that if they thought there was no hell they would sin with abandon.
I don’t think this represents all legalists who believe in hell, but this attitude is NOT morality. True morality comes from the heart; fear-driven morality is dry and ineffective, except that it might actually restrain a person from some destructive behaviors. It is also a hard and harsh morality; this morality is a burden, not a joy, to those who follow it, and it harms others in that it produces destruction of its own in judgmentalism, dehumanization, and often domination of people’s lives to keep them in line.
This is not morality at all. But where, then, can we find a true guide to morality?
A Superior Foundation for Moral Living
Jesus gives us the principle of moral behavior—to love the Father, in response to his love for us, and to love others as ourselves. When we learn the good news that the Father loves us, we are able to love ourselves appropriately, begin to see others as the loving Father sees them, and treat them with good will. This is the foundation of morality—treating ourselves and others with our best intentions.
So, as to whether abandoning legalism and belief in hell destroys moral behavior, the answer is ‘Yes’ and ‘No’. If a person’s desire is to behave immorally, but they avoid doing so due to fear of punishment, then abandoning legalism and belief in hell might very well allow them to act on their immorality.
However, if a person receives Jesus’ good news of the Father’s love, begins to love themselves, and treats others appropriately, their sense of morality is far stronger than that of keeping rules. Even though we all make mistakes in practicing these principles of behavior, we continue to grow—and love, peace, and reconciliation abound.
This is true morality…but what are the real-world implications? We will talk about that next time.
Photo Credit: Krzysztof1986 via Compfight cc
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Have a great day! ~Tim