The Intolerance of Truth? Really?

Is ‘truth’ intolerant?

In one sense it could be argued that objective truth, by its very nature, is absolutely ‘intolerant’. The sum 2 + 2 = 4 is ‘intolerant’ in the sense that the operation “2 + 2 =” cannot possibly accept any answer other than ‘4’. The answer ‘5’ is as intolerable as the answer ‘1,236’ and is no more intolerable than the answer ‘4.001’; all these three proposed solutions to the operation are, in a sense, equally intolerable. They are intolerable on the basis that they are simply wrong, according to the rules of arithmetic. Just as the human body cannot ‘tolerate’ the ingestion of certain substances, so the arithmetical operation “2 + 2 =” cannot ‘tolerate’ any answer except ‘4’. Any physical application of a calculation that included “2 + 2 ≠ 4” would, more probably than not, have disastrous, or at least, embarrassing, consequences.

Category error?
Now it may be argued that my use of the word ‘intolerant’ is a category error. Truth can no more be ‘intolerant’ than pink can be hungry or the number 15 could be angry! It is simply an inapplicable adjective to the noun being qualified. And that is true. I am using the word ‘intolerant’ in a metaphorical sense, because essentially the concept of ‘tolerance’ applies to attitudes held by people, rather than to the inherent validity of propositions.

Unfortunately, however, intolerant attitudes are frequently justified with reference to truth, by which I mean “true truth” – Truth with a big ‘T’ – rather than “my little subjective truth”. This is evident not only among many religious people, but also among many vocal atheists. There is a constant appeal to ‘truth’ to justify at best, a subtle exclusion and disdain for those with differing views, and, at worst, a complete scorn and condemnation of those people. Even worse perhaps is a rather patronising form of ‘love’ for those with whom we disagree, in which we pity their ignorance and delusion (or ‘lostness’) and try to convert them to our point of view (but in a way that fails to listen to anything they actually have to say to us, and to respect their own ability to reason).

The unpleasantness of dogmatic, proselytising and bigoted attitudes could lead us to assume that ‘truth’ is too dangerous and too divisive a concept to entertain, except perhaps at the rather less controversial level of practical science and applied and pure mathematics: “as long as we get science and maths right, then all the other religious and metaphysical stuff can be regarded as an airy fairy irrelevance”.

At times I cannot help but sympathise with this attitude!

However, is it really justifiable to appeal to ‘truth’ to promote a view of reality in which the human race is so sharply and clearly divided between those who are “with us” and those who are “against us”? In a limited sense there are inevitably divided views about all manner of topics, and therefore there is validity to this position. But how far can we take this?

The Bible and absolute truth
As a Christian, I am concerned primarily with how this subject relates to the attitudes and actions of both myself and my fellow believers. Does Christianity – or, more specifically, the Bible – promote this view of truth?

Now there is plenty of ammunition in the Bible for those who wish to champion the exclusivity and divisiveness view of truth. One popular verse is a saying of Jesus Himself: “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34)

This is often quoted to justify the divisive nature of Christianity, and, dare I say, provides an excuse for those who profess faith in Jesus, but who act in the most obnoxious way, such that they attract thoroughly deserved rejection from others. They can then claim to be ‘persecuted’, and this martyr status provides a psychological fillip, which then perpetuates their unfortunate behaviour. (Interestingly this saying of Jesus could be interpreted completely differently. The context is rejection by one’s own family, and it could very well be the case that someone, who makes a stand against bigotry and prejudice, could suffer just this kind of fate!)

The unique Saviour
Another saying of Jesus also seems to dismiss the views of billions of people, and provide comfort for those who take a more exclusionary view of the Christian faith. This concerns His status as the unique Saviour of the world: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6) This is confirmed by the Apostle Peter’s words in Acts 4:12 – “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

The message of these verses seems indisputable: to be saved (which ultimately involves going to heaven when you die rather than hell) involves consciously believing in Jesus Christ, and if you fail to do so then you will be damned.

Here we have an example of ‘truth’ (big ‘T’ Truth), by which we can divide the human race into the saved and the damned, the redeemed and the lost, and the factor by which we can make this distinction is “the conscious and active profession of faith in Jesus”. In other words, if you are a Christian, you are saved, and if you are a non-Christian, you are damned.

Superficially this seems to be the message of the Christian gospel.

But is it?

Let us just explore this a little bit further…

Here is an analogy. The only way to get from where I live near London to New York within a day is by air. I could say that if I needed to get to New York by tomorrow then “there is no other method within the transport methods on offer by which I can achieve this other than by air” or “no one gets from London to New York in one day except by air” (to paraphrase the above two Bible verses). I cannot fly myself to New York. All I can do is consent to be flown there. This ‘unique’ method of transportation is not dependent on my efforts.

Now suppose someone suffered from a serious health problem, and he urgently needed some specialist treatment in a New York hospital (no criticism of our health system; it’s just an analogy!). Let us suppose that he was also in a coma. He was then flown from London to New York quite without his knowledge or consent. In this scenario, is the method of transportation any less unique than if he had consciously consented to the journey? Of course not! The uniqueness of this method of travel within this context and time-frame does not depend on any subjective factor on the part of the traveller. Its uniqueness is an objective fact.

Or let us suppose that the traveller was suffering from some condition in which he was overcome by powerful delusions, and he needed treatment in New York. He was in no fit mental state to consent to the journey, but he was taken on the plane nonetheless, and, as a result of his delusions, while in the air he was utterly convinced that he was travelling somewhere by sea. Does the fact of his mental state, which did not correspond to the reality of the journey, compromise the uniqueness of the method of transport of the journey he was taking? Again, of course not!

The point of this analogy is to explain that the status of an objective fact is not dependent on subjective factors.

A biblical analogy
This is further supported by a biblical analogy, which is the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan is presented as the person who ‘saved’ the man who fell among thieves. There is no indication from the parable that the man being rescued consented to his deliverance, and, in fact, he could very well have been lying there unconscious. There is no indication that the injured man had to profess a “correct view of the nature and work of the Samaritan” in order for the latter to help him. In fact, the injured man could very well have hated Samaritans, and yet he was still rescued by a Samaritan. Nothing about the state of the wounded man related to the unique status of the Samaritan as his ‘saviour’.

But the doctrine of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as Saviour is often presented as it were dependent on the human response. Thus the doctrine has been changed from what is, for Christians, an objective fact, to merely a description of human religious affiliation. Thus the Bible is subtly rewritten to read: “No one comes to the Father except by conscious belief in Me” and “there is no other belief system under heaven given among men by which we must be saved”.

Man as co-saviour
The implications of this are obvious. Jesus saves. The uniqueness of Jesus’ role in salvation is not dependent on the state of the person being saved. In fact, if it did, then Jesus would not be the ‘unique’ Saviour, but He would be the co-saviour with the person being saved, given that the latter has to make a contribution to the process. This is the supreme irony of exclusivist Christianity.

Now some may argue that this smacks of predestination, which rides roughshod over human free will. I certainly believe in the importance of human free will and I also believe in God’s desire to save all people and that Christ died for all without exception. But the exclusivist view actually undermines human free will. Unless we believe in reincarnation, then we have to accept that no one chose to be born into this fallen world. Billions of people are brought into this world, without any reference to their consent, and various systems of thought are imposed on them through the culture in which they grow up. If God does not take the initiative to save these people, because it would violate their consent, then one has to ask why God has allowed their consent to be violated by allowing them to be born into a non-Christian system of thought. By refusing to save these people, is God not actually violating their consent?

But then someone may object by saying that if God simply saved these people by decree, doesn’t that imply universalism, which is clearly unbiblical? My answer to this is: no, it does not imply that, because God may accept a person on the basis of the light He has given them, while that person is free to resist that conviction of the Holy Spirit.

A humbling truth
God, in His sovereignty, is at work throughout the world in different cultures among people with vastly different levels of spiritual accountability (as the Bible says: “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required” – Luke 12:48 – with the obvious corollary: “to whom little has been given, from him little shall be required”). Therefore we don’t know exactly what God is doing in the lives of the millions of apparent non-Christians around us. Salvation is His work, not ours, and, as Jesus said concerning being “born again”: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8). The work of the Holy Spirit cannot easily be subjected to the scrutiny of man, even of the most spiritually minded in the Church. As Jesus said, it is a mystery. The proper response to mystery is, of course, humility.

Therefore there is no contradiction between upholding the objective truth of the uniqueness of Jesus as the only Saviour of mankind, and believing that God’s work in the world is rather more inclusive than we are often led to believe by some teachers and preachers in the more conservative parts of the Christian Church. The doctrine of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as Saviour simply tells us that… Jesus saves. How man is supposed to respond to that, and how we are to assess who is ‘saved’ and who is not, is rather more complicated.

Commanding the sun!
As I have mentioned, the supreme irony is that the doctrine of the exclusiveness of a particular kind of response to God as a condition for salvation actually undermines the uniqueness of Jesus as Saviour, in much the same way that if I had to speak to the sky to command the sun to rise every morning, one could not say that the motion of the earth turning on its axis was an operation completely independent of my actions. Just as the rising of the sun has nothing to do with me, so, in a sense, have the actions of God.

The truth of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as Saviour of mankind should therefore cause us to respond to others with humility, not intolerance.

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What is a “lukewarm Christian”?

In Revelation chapter 3, verses 15-16, Jesus described the church at Laodicea as ‘lukewarm’. What does this actually mean? Does the text give us any indication as to how to interpret this saying accurately?

The passage is as follows:

3:14 And to the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; These things said the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God;
3:15 I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot: I would you were cold or hot.
3:16 So then because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.

3:17 Because you say, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and know not that you are wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked:
3:18 I counsel you to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that you may be rich; and white raiment, that you may be clothed, and that the shame of your nakedness do not appear; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see.
3:19 As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.
3:20 Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.
3:21 To him that overcomes will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.
3:22 He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit said to the churches.

It appears (from numerous sermons, articles and videos) that the most popular and prevalent interpretation of the highlighted verses goes as follows:

An unbeliever is ‘cold’.

A fervent, zealous and utterly committed radical Christian believer is ‘hot’.

An undisciplined, half-hearted, worldly, lazy, cowardly, non-committal professing Christian is ‘lukewarm’.

Jesus has told us that He would prefer a Christian to be an out-and-out unbeliever than to be a half-hearted believer. Thus ‘cold’ is preferable to ‘lukewarm’.

The text in Revelation therefore presents us with a spiritual thermometer, in which the mercury rises as spiritual commitment increases, and yet our Lord hates the middle temperature more than the lower one.

A legalistic measuring stick
This interpretation thus provides the ammunition for certain church leaders to castigate their flock with accusations of “not doing enough for Jesus, not giving enough time or money; not evangelising enough and so on”. Those who wish to crush and control Christian believers with guilt and fear naturally champion such a reading of this text. Interestingly there are many images on the internet under the phrase “lukewarm Christian” which feature a thermometer. Clearly the idea of “cold – lukewarm – hot” is promoted as a rather legalistic measuring stick to assess a Christian believer’s level of commitment.

It might come as something of a shock to such overbearing leaders that this interpretation is completely false, as the application of common sense logic will reveal. A different – and indeed far more radical – interpretation can be deduced from the text itself, and this is supported by some background information regarding geographical context.

In verse 15 of the above mentioned biblical text we read: “I would you were cold or hot”.

Jesus made clear that He wants the believers at Laodicea to be either ‘cold’ or ‘hot’. Does Jesus Christ want professing Christians to be unbelievers and totally alienated from God? If this is what ‘cold’ means, then that is exactly what He wants! In the context of the entire testimony of Scripture, this is clearly absurd.

Scale of preferences
Of course, some may argue that what it means is not that Jesus really wants Christians to be out-and-out unbelievers, but that He would prefer that to their being ‘lukewarm’. There is a certain feeling of plausibility to this reading, but it is not supported either by the testimony of the rest of Scripture or indeed by this passage of Revelation. The verb ‘prefer’ or an equivalent does not appear in the text.

The original Greek word for “I would” is ophelon. W.E. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Zondervan: 1940) explains that “Ophelon (the 2nd aorist tense of opheilō, to owe) expresses a wish, “I would that”, either impracticable, 1 Cor. 4:8, R.V. (A.V., “would to God”); or possible, 2 Cor. 11:1; Gal. 5:12; Rev. 3:15.”

Clearly the verb expresses desire, and the use of the aorist tense indicates that the action should be understood to relate only to the immediate context in which it is relevant. Concerning the use of the aorist tense, the New Testament Greek scholar J.W. Wenham in his book The Elements of New Testament Greek (Cambridge University Press: 1965) states: “The action of the verb is thought of as simply happening, without any regard to its continuance or frequency.” (emphasis mine).

Therefore the use of “I would that” relates directly and immediately to a particular church, that is, the Church of Laodicea, in which all to whom our Lord was speaking were professing believers in Him. Now it clearly makes no sense for Jesus to say to such people: “I would prefer that you were unbelievers than non-committal, compromising believers”. The point is that they were already believers, at least nominally. Was it really our Lord’s desire that they should completely unlearn and ‘unknow’ what they knew about the Christian faith and remain in that state of ignorance?

This would be as absurd as saying that a mathematics teacher, who is concerned about the educational attainment of his pupils in this subject, would say to those who are lazy and fail to do their homework: “I really want you to forget all about mathematics. Reject the subject and do all you can to obliterate all you have learnt from your memory.” Of course not! A responsible teacher would say: “What I really want is for you to knuckle down, do the work and get a good grasp of the subject”.

If the “spiritual commitment thermometer” reading of Revelation 3:15-16 is correct, then the only conceivable desire Jesus could have expressed is: “I would that you were hot, and not cold or lukewarm.” Now, as mentioned, someone may counter this by bringing up the question of preference: “OK, it is true that Jesus would really want believers to be ‘hot’, but He would prefer believers to be ‘cold’ rather than lukewarm.”

As I have already stated, this view sounds superficially plausible. The only problem with it is that it contains a terrible irony.

Second preference compromise
The whole point of this interpretation of Jesus’ words to the church at Laodicea, is that it speaks against compromise. Compromise is seen as the worst of all worlds. How then can such a position be defended by imputing compromise to our Lord? If what Jesus really wants for believers is complete commitment described by the adjective ‘hot’, then why would He state a second preference, namely, ‘cold’, and settle for that as long as His people were not ‘lukewarm’? The whole point of this interpretation is that there are no second preferences! There is no tolerating a ‘Plan B’ that falls short of God’s perfect and uncompromising desire for the Church. It is “all or nothing”.

Thus the interpretation shoots itself in the foot. How can we be expected to uncompromisingly serve a compromising God? It simply does not add up.

If the interpretation is not that of a spiritual commitment thermometer, then what is the correct reading of this text?

A question of water supply
Clearly both ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ are equally desired by Christ. Both describe genuine spiritual commitment and fruitfulness. In the context of the original saying, it really is not hard to understand that this is the case. ‘Hot’ and ‘cold’ concern the temperature of something to drink, which is, quite obviously, water. In a hot climate a cold drink is refreshing. Hot water can be therapeutic.

This interpretation is supported by the geographical and historical context of the city of Laodicea.

Laodicea was located near two other cities: Hierapolis to the north-west and Colossae to the south-east.

Hierapolis (today known as Pamukkale) was a spa town, with a natural spring producing hot water. This natural benefit induced the inhabitants to worship Heracles, the god of health and hot springs. Today there are seventeen hot springs at Pamukkale whose water ranges in temperature from 35 to 100 degrees centigrade.

Colossae was situated on the Lycus river, which disappeared underground for about 900 metres just north of where the city was located. The phenomenon would have cooled the water, and hence it explains the presence of cold springs near the city. It is understood that the ceiling of this underground chasm collapsed in the earthquake of AD 60.

Unlike these two cities, Laodicea, despite being the wealthiest city of the region, had no natural source of water. Water had to be piped in from other areas via an aquaduct. When the water arrived it was usually lukewarm and contaminated with various minerals.

It is therefore easy to understand how the Laodicean Christians would have understood Jesus’ words. Their water was neither refreshingly cold nor therapeutically hot. Being lukewarm, it had an emetic quality, likely therefore to cause vomiting.

The geographical context of the Laodicean Church strongly indicates that ‘cold’ cannot possibly describe anything other than spiritual blessing. In a hot climate cold water cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered ‘bad’.

Therefore ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ represent qualities of spiritual blessing and fruitfulness, with neither one being superior or more desirable than the other. Both are facets of Christian commitment. For this reason Jesus desires them both and they simply characterise different approaches to the work of the gospel. This is further confirmed by other biblical references to cold water, representing the work of the Holy Spirit, for example, John 4:6-15, when Jesus, being wearied from His journey, asked the Samaritan woman to draw water from the well and give Him a drink. Obviously this water would have been cold water, and Jesus then likens it to “the living water” that He can give and that will become in the person receiving it “a well of water springing up into everlasting life”. Are we seriously to believe that the drink Jesus asked for really represents “unbelief and a lack of a relationship with God”, because it was a drink of cold rather than hot water?! Clearly this is nonsense.

Set against the ‘good’ of “hot and cold” is the evil of ‘lukewarm’. The adjective ‘lukewarm’ clearly describes the kind of ministry and spiritual life, which falls short of providing the benefits that, spiritually speaking, “hot and cold water” provide. Cold water brings refreshment in a hot and arid land. Hot water has a healing property. Cold water relieves those who are burdened and exhausted, while hot water comforts and heals those who are broken by illness. By contrast lukewarm water falls short of providing both these benefits.

The message is very clear.

What a lukewarm Christian is not
The lukewarm Christian is not someone who just doesn’t measure up against a legalistic “spiritual thermometer”. It does not describe someone who isn’t giving enough in terms of time, money and commitment to the local church. But rather it is someone who manifestly fails to bring refreshment, healing and deliverance to those who are weak, burdened, ill and suffering.

Those who take it upon themselves to trouble other Christians with accusations of half-heartedness and compromise, really ought to consider whether they themselves are actually candidates for being vomited out of Jesus’ mouth. Burdening other Christians with guilt and playing on their vulnerability and fear of God’s judgment is not consistent with ministering the cold water of refreshment and the hot water of healing.

Those who refuse to live in the liberating grace of God and discourage others from doing so, are the true “lukewarm Christians”. As Galatians 1:6-7 indicate, they are “preaching another gospel”: the gospel of legalism. For this reason they are the ones who, tragically, will suffer the kind of judgment described in Revelation 3:16. Continue reading