Love Wins – Reflections on Universalism

Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? Saith the Lord GOD: and not that he should return from his ways, and live? [Ezekiel 18:23]

Rob Bell’s (pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church) wrote a book a while back titled: Love Wins, that has raised a some controversy in Evangelical circles. He has taken the position that “love wins”, means hell is empty (or non-existent) and everyone goes to heaven. This is a doctrine known as “universalism” that is considered a heresy by many evangelicals. Eastern Orthodoxy has a softer attitude toward universalism, but also understands the problem in a different manner. I believe that most lines of Evangelical reasoning have the following assumptions:

  • God punishes people for their sins (unless they believe in Jesus).
  • Heaven is the presence of God where people experience the pleasurable love of God.
  • Hell is the place of exile from God, where people experience His wrath and punishment.
  • Heaven and Hell are distinct and separate places.
  • Since there is no repentance and change in the future, eternal punishment serves no corrective purpose and only exhibits God’s justice and wrath.

Given these assumptions, Rob Bell sees only two logical options:

  • If God punishes eternally, he is not a loving god, though he may be a just and/or an angry god.
  • If God is a loving god then he does not punish eternally (ie. there is no hell).

The first option is generally not acceptable to most Christians, forcing (as Rob Bell sees it) the choice of the second option. Most Christians do not like this rigid “either/or” choice, but it is hard to evade the logic1.

A Word of Caution

While universalism is generally not held by most Orthodox, it is not a heresy, and in various forms has been held by a number of prominent people in the Orthodox Church (Origin, St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Silouan and more recently by Bp. Kalistos Ware). While the early church condemned the followers of Origin’s Platonism, the church did not condemn his universalism. Before going into details, some general assumptions need to be stated.

  • Orthodox are dogmatic only about things that directly relate to our salvation, everything else is open to a ranger of opinion. Thus, the future (heaven and hell) are outside what we can do about our salvation in this time, and are considered speculation.
  • Orthodoxy cautions us not to judge our own salvation and future. We know that the Orthodox Church teaches the fullness of the true salvation, but what God does outside of the Church we cannot speculate. Rob Bell is correct on this point, we cannot say for sure that we know someone is going to hell (or heaven).
  • From a proper understanding of Christianity (not just Orthodoxy), I don’t look forward to an eternity in heaven. Heaven may be a place where my disembodied soul temporarly goes after death, but our hope is the resurrection and life in the new heaven and earth. We await the coming of the heavenly Jerusalem to the new earth as our home (Rev 21:2).

Different Problems

Rob Bell’s thinking is quite different from the Early Fathers. For him, the problem is the nature of God. His issue is philosophical speculation about how can God be both just and loving. The Church Fathers did not have this philosophical problem, for them the struggle was a subjective emotional issue, they personally knew the love of God and could not envision anyone not desiring it as they had came to know God’s love. Some, like St. Silouan, so intensely experienced the love of God that they subjectively found it impossible to think that even Satan could resist God’s love through eternity, and not be reconciled.

The real problem of Universalism

Both views of universalism have the same fundamental problem – human free-will either does not exist, or ultimately cannot resist the will of God. If everyone is reconciled to God, any decision to reject God becomes meaningless. This is a pastoral problem, because if our choices ultimately make no difference, then it makes no difference what choices I make at this time. Without free-will, my actions are of no consequence or significance; this is something that neither side really wants to say – we are insignificant beings. This is a problem that even the Church Fathers who leaned toward universalism acknowledged.

The Philosophical Problem

2From a traditional Orthodox position, there are two fundamental flaws in Rob Bell’s logic:

  1. That the determination of heaven or hell is God’s choice,
  2. The assumption that the heaven and hell are geographically distinct places.

To the first point, at the edge of speculative Orthodox theology, it can be said that there is no future judgment for sin – through Christ’s death and resurrection God has destroyed death (the power of sin), and has forgiven our sins. God is not juridically just, He is merciful, gracious and forgiving. Sin is no longer a barrier to God. Since death has been destroyed, there will be no future separation from God, everyone will be in his presence. This is approximately the theology of Basil and Gregory – “love wins”. However, in Orthodox theology there is still a problem with the second point.

The Perception of Fire

St. Basil and St. Gregory do not come to the same conclusion as Rob Bell – to them the problem is not God’s justice, but how we respond to and experience God’s love. Throughout scripture, there is the imagery of God as a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29): the burning bush (Exodus 3:2), the pillar of fire that led Israel out of Egypt (Exodus 13:21), the fiery chariot that took up Elijah (II Kings 2:11), the tongues of flame that came down at Pentecost (Acts 2:3). The critical question for the Church Fathers like St. Gregory was about how we will experience the love and grace of God which is this purifying, consuming fire.

The Free-Will Problem

Following this line of thought: there is no geography of heaven or hell, there is only the kingdom of God – God is  present everywhere.  Heaven and Hell are a subjective perception, how the love of God is experienced is the critical issue. This is not a choice God makes, but a choice I make about how I prepare myself to meet God. For those who have united themselves to Christ (have been justified), and to the degree they have purified themselves from sin (have been sanctified) the presence of God’s consuming fire will be an experience similar to the three men thrown into the fiery furnace (Daniel 3), it can be experienced as a cool dew. For those who have not embraced this refining fire and reject (or are not prepared for) God’s love, it may be experienced as a hellish torment, as it was for the soldiers who threw the youths into the furnace.

Practical Concerns

Orthodox are cautions about judging their own state of sanctification, and should be even more careful in judging others. Within the Orthodox tradition, the consuming love of God is a mystery that lacks full understanding, but this dual nature of its experience is taken quite seriously – the choices we make are significant. As such we are cautions in our prayers and pastorally focus on our need for repentance and cleansing. At every liturgy, before the Eucharistic sacrament where we consume the fiery body and blood of Christ, the following prayer is said: “may my partaking of your holy mystery not be to my judgment nor condemnation, O Lord, but for the healing of my soul and body”. This attitude was well expressed by Abba Sisoes (a 4thcentury monk, known for his holiness):

When St Sisoes lay upon his deathbed, the disciples surrounding the Elder saw that his face shone like the sun. They asked the dying man what he saw. Abba Sisoes replied that he saw St Anthony, the prophets, and the apostles. His face increased in brightness, and he spoke with someone. The monks asked, “With whom are you speaking, Father?” He said that angels had come for his soul, and he was entreating them to give him a little more time for repentance. The monks said, “You have no need for repentance, Father” St Sisoes said with great humility, “I do not think that I have even begun to repent.” “After these words the face of the holy abba shone so brightly that the brethren were not able to look upon him. St Sisoes told them that he saw the Lord Himself. Then there was a flash like lightning, and a fragrant odor, and Abba Sisoes departed to the Heavenly Kingdom3.

1 On a more technical note, the rejection of universalism by Augustine (and why the West is willing to call it a heresy) is because the question assumes that “punishment” is the active willing of God to meet out suffering on a select group of people to satisfy his justice. The issue of reconciliation would then demand a change in the (unchanging) will of God.
2 Much of the thinking about heaven and hell are bases more on pagan mythology than the Bible. For a more detailed explanation:

Is There a Hell?

This is another one of those issues where definitions need to be clarified before the question can be properly answered.  If Hell is assumed to be some dark cavern where souls are tormented in flames by pitch-fork wielding demons; then faced with the question of “Would a loving  God send people to Hell for eternal punishment?” my answer would probably be a strong ‘No’.  But then, like C.S. Lewis in his book The Great Divorce, I think the meaning of Hell needs some exploration before a good answer can be given.

I think the understanding of Hell requires unpacking three concepts:

  • Choice and Responsibility
  • Punishment and Death
  • Geography

Hell is a statement that we have free will (though to what degree is open to debate) and our choices make a difference. If we have no choice, then Hell is not a consequences but a sadistic playground for divine vivisection.  As Francis Schaeffer once said: In a materialistic, deterministic culture Hell (by any definition) is an optimistic statement that we have meaning and significance, we are not ‘Beyond Freedom and Dignity’.  We may question whether the punishment fits the crime, but we have choice and significance.

The second point brings up the crux of the issue:  not whether the punishment of Hell fits the crime, but whether Hell is a punishment.  Up until Augustine (4th century), Genesis 2:17 was interpreted as ‘on the day that you eat of the fruit, you shall die’.  Death was a direct consequence of eating the fruit, as illness is a consequence of a bacterial infection.  As St. Basil writes: “God did not create death, but we brought it upon ourselves.”  Augustine changed this interpretation to mean “on the day that you eat of the fruit, I will kill you”.  Death, rather than being a consequence of disobedience becomes a punishment for disobedience.  God is now cast in a very different role, and becomes the author of Death.  It is this understanding of Genesis, combined with Plato’s idea of eudomia, that gets worked out as Dante’s Inferno and later as Anselm’s penal substitutionary atonement.

This thinking is the foundation for most Western confessions of faith:

 If any man does not confess that the first man, Adam…through his transgression suffered the wrath and indignation of God and, because of this, death, let him be anathema.

Council of Trent (1546, First Canon, Fifth Session)

The punishments of sin in this world are either inward, … or outward, as the curse of God upon the creatures for our sakes, … together with death itself.

Westminster Confession Answer to question 29

Augustine went further and used Plato’s idea of eudomia (pleasure) to work out the geography of Hell.  Eudomia is the concept that people seek their highest good, or highest pleasure.  For Augustine, the highest pleasure is the presence of God; therefore, the worst suffering would be the absence or separation from God.  Hell, as a place of suffering and punishment implies a geographical distance from Heaven and the presence of God; a critical assumption with significant consequences.

Most Orthodox today follow the beliefs of the Early Church, rather than the later views that developed out of Augustine (although you may hear an occasional hell fire sermon in an Orthodox Church).  If  Hell is viewed as a place separate from God, this ‘location’ tends to run similar to C.S. Lewis (or a good understanding of Dante), that the punishment and suffering are the natural consequence of one’s chosen behavior; they did not, and would not choose to be anywhere else.

There is another model of geography, quite different from Augustine, and much older, that I find even more useful – Hell is the presence of God.  Hell is the love of God as experienced by those who reject God’s love..

It is totally false to think that the sinners in hell are deprived of God’s love. Love is a child of the knowledge of truth, and is unquestionably given commonly to all. But love’s power acts in two ways: it torments sinners, while at the same time it delights those who have lived in accord with it. (Homily 84) St. Isaac the Syrian.

Parallel to this is the image of love as a fire.  God is a consuming fire: the burning bush, the pillar of fire that led the Israelites out of Egypt, the flames of Pentecost, or the river of fire that comes from the throne of God.  But this image is also too sided, the fiery furnace (Daniel 3) can kill, or it can comfort like a cool breeze.  To those who have the flame of the Holy Spirit within them, to be confronted by the fire of God is to encounter one’s inner most identity.  To those who have rejected the Holy Spirit, the fire of God is alien and oppressive.

God is fire and when He came into the world, and became man, He sent fire on the earth, as He Himself says; this fire turns about searching to find material — that is a disposition and an intention that is good — to fall into and to kindle; and for those in whom this fire will ignite, it becomes a great flame, which reaches Heaven. … [T]his flame at first purifies us from the pollution of passions and then it becomes in us food and drink and light and joy, and renders us light ourselves because we participate in His light. (Discourse 78) St Symeon the New Theologian

For a more in depth perspective, I would recommend reading a longer article (and well footnoted) The River of Fire.

Orthodoxy is not a Goal

When people tell me they are interested in the Orthodox Church, or Orthodox Theology, I often cringe in reaction (hopefully not obviously so). I expect something like the ‘Seinfeld’ sketch where George thinks of becoming Latvian Orthodox to appease his current girl friend’s parents. When asked about what he like of the church, he replies ‘the hats’.

There are many interesting aspects to Orthodoxy that attract people, but I believe there is only one ultimate reason anyone should seriously investigate it – and that is to seek a deeper, personal and corporate relationship with Jesus. Anything else (festivals, culture, worship, music or hats) is secondary.

What the Orthodox Church offers is a deep and rich tradition of knowing God; a historical community of people (saints) who have intimately known the presence of Christ and the Holy Spirit in their lives, and have left detailed descriptions of what this is like and what is required to attain it. This is not just a written history, but also a living history of people who are reliable guides into the Kingdom. And these saints are a part of a Church that offers the instruction (worship) and support (sacraments) needed to equip people for the journey.

There are times when I think the Orthodox Church should come with three warning labels posted on the door. First, the spiritual journey is inherently difficult. In the words of Detreich Bonhoffer, the calling of God is a call to die; if not in literal martyrdom, then at least to die to oneself. Like going to battle, or building a tower, the cost should be understood before beginning. The second warning should be for the unnecessary barriers that many Orthodox puts in place, especially in the American culture. Many of the traditions that are dear to the hearts of some ethnic Orthodox are not necessary and make it difficult for non-Orthodox to see beyond the ethnicity and Byzantine practices to the real core of faith. The third warning should be for the Church itself, sometimes the dangers within the doors of the Church are worse than those outside. It must be remembered that almost every major historical heresy came from an Orthodox bishop. This should not be a surprise, as Paul in his epistles gives many warnings about the problems within the Church. In a paradoxical way, this is actually a strength; as nothing can separate us from the love of Christ, and these internal issues are just another way to learn to love those we disagree with or may even consider as our ‘enemies’. With some basic training, and a compass of love, this is just a part of the journey.

If you want to enjoy the hats, come to a festival for a day. If you are looking for the sure path of salvation, then Orthodoxy offers the best food, equipment and guides for the journey to Christ.

Sacraments and Sacred Space

Even after I acquired an Orthodox perspective, sacred space was difficult for me to grasp for a long time.  I could accept the idea of sacred relics (the Holy Spirit continuing to work in and through the bodies of people who were filled with grace) and sacred images, but space was more problematic.  If all the cosmos was God’s creation, how could one part be ‘more’ God’s creation than another part?  If Christ’s baptism in the Jordan was the restoration of water to its proper role, hadn’t all of creation begun the journey of becoming ‘New Creation’?  Sacred places and items were a part of the faith, but how did they ‘work’?

In the Old Testament, there was clearly the idea of sacred space; the burning bush, Mt Siani, the tabernacle and the temple in Jerusalem (Psalm 5:7).  What was hard to tell was whether the ‘place’ was sacred, or the presence of God was sacred and He just happened to be temporally in that ordinary location.  Could one space have a different quality than another, and what was that quality?

What was difficult at one time now seems obvious to me, but it has taken some time to form my new perspective.  For me, the understanding came with the change of several key concepts:

  • Sacraments as God’s uncreated grace being present  and offered as (and not just through)  the creation.
  • The grace we receive in the sacraments is not a ‘thing’, but God Himself in relationship.
  • Earth and Kingdom interact as different space-time dimensions rather than linear distanced points on a flat geography.

Sacraments affirm yet break down the separation between Earth and Kingdom*.  We need sacraments because the New Creation has not been fulfilled, and the resurrection is not finished; but sacraments are a reality, a statement, that the two are no longer separated.  Sacraments follow the paradigm of the Incarnation.  Bread and wine are bread and wine, but they are also body and blood; Jesus is one person, both fully human and fully God.  Sacraments are an extension of the Incarnation,  a part of the process of uniting all things in Himself.

While all of creation is to be “sacramental”, where each meal is to be a ‘Eucharist’ of thanks to God; the Sacraments of the Church are where this is most consistently and conventionally experienced.  We may think of a counterpoint concerto as the most characteristic of Johan Sebastian Bach’s music, but it is not the only music he played.

While from my Reformed Presbyterian background I always had a ‘high’ sacramental theology, I think I was led astray by the discussions about whether Christ came down into the Eucharist, or whether we were spiritually lifted up to be united with Christ.  All discussions assumed a flat geography with a constant ‘distance’ between heaven and earth, and any movement between the two was exclusively spiritual.  While C.S. Lewis did not call it ‘holy space’, his wardrobe passages between Earth and Narnia is a much better topology.  Heaven/Kingdom are more like parallel universes than different coordinates on the same map.  It may not be that my theology has improved, but that I have allowed an appreciation of Star Treck and quantum physics to penetrate my paradigms.

The most useful paradigm of kingdom and sacrament for me is the idea of ‘thinness’.  Sacredness is where the boundary between earth and kingdom has become thin, either where God pushes through (as on the Mount of Transfiguration); or where a Saint, by grace,  has purified and sanctified their life, and are so filled  with the Holy Spirit that they become a intersection (intercession) of heaven and earth, the separation has been rubbed thin.  The kingdom was always there, within us, but not manifest.  This is the life of Saraphim of Sarov, where the boundary of death is thin and fuzzy.  While in this world he experiences the light of God and talks with fellow citizens of the Kingdom, and after his physical death he has still not fully departed this earth.  He has ‘disrupted the space-time continuum’ and his person has become a mediating wormhole; though not a wormhole between two parts of this universe, but an opening into a parallel universe (or something outside of the universe).

Church alters and buildings are sacred spaces, because like their stone steps, they are worn thin by the regularly footsteps of people and the motion of sacraments.  Until the fulfillment of the Kingdom, when heaven and earth become one; any place where sacraments are received, prayers are offered up, or martyrs give their lives for the faith will hold a similar risk.

I would highly recommend N.T. Wright’s podcasts on “Space, Time and Sacraments”.  With more time, he does a wonderful job of unwinding the same line of thought.

*I would like to use the work ‘heaven’, but for me it still retains too much cultural baggage of dualism and Platonism (disembodied souls, floating on clouds and playing harps) – it is not physical enough for my liking.  I am still trying to find words that express the complex interplay of “…Thy kingdom come … on earth as it is in heaven.”

A Coptic fragment: Was Dan Brown right that Jesus was married?

The news has had a flurry of flutter about the release of a credit card sized fragment of Coptic papyrus, with words that seem to be talking about Jesus having sex with a woman.

As usual with these sort of discoveries, there is a flurry of rumor and hype as well as scholastic thought.  Those who follow the lead of Dan Brown (The DaVinci Code) get excited that a new historical discovery may prove that Jesus actually did marry, and was not quite the religious figure portrayed in the Bible.  I find that the reality is much less exciting.

First is the issue whether this is an authentic document, or a fake.  Some scholars like Francis Watson (and corrections by Mark Goodacre) are inclined in this direction, in which case all of the blog posts  are a lot of excitement over nothing.

Assuming it is an authentic document of the 2nd or 4th century, what would it really change?  In my understanding of the history of the Church – Nothing.  To affect my beliefs, a document must not only be genuine, it must also be authoritative.  From earliest times, the Church has always recognized that there were genuine documents circulating in and around the Church of varying levels of value.  Some like the Epistles of St. Ignatius of Antioch  or the Didache were considered to have authority in the Early Church, possibly on the same level as Paul’s epistles.  Though later excluded from the canon of scripture, they are still considered to be of value.  There were also other texts like the Gospel of Thomas that contain valuable insights into the history and time of the Early Church, but were not accepted due to their Gnostic influences.  Such books are worth reading, but are not a foundation for developing theology.  Like the history written by Josephus, they give us cultural and historical context, but they do not reflect the mind of the Church.  And finally, there are those texts that come from heretical or pagan sources.  They are genuine historical documents, but have little or nothing to add to our faith.

If there was irrefutable evidence that this document was penned by Paul or one of the apostles (an authoritative source), I might be a bit concerned; but it will take a lot more than this fragment to convince me that the Church fabricated the its view of history and suppressed the real truth (except for this fragment which they missed).

As a side note, I find the timing of the public release of this fragment to be quite ironic.  While the release of The Innocence of Muslims causes widespread reaction and unfortunate violence, the reaction of the Christian world to something that could be considered equally ‘blasphemous’ is little more than a fairly dull scholarly conference and a few words wasted blogging.

Pussy Riot

The Russian punk band Pussy Riot rushed onto the solea* of Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow and disrupted services by singing a ‘prayer’ for the removal of Valdimir Putin from office. They were then arrested and sentenced to two years in prison for hooliganism and blasphemy. Western artists and activists want to defend the three women members of the band in the name of free speech and artistic expression, but I think this avoids addressing a more complex situation. Whether the punishment fits the crime, and whether the ‘crime’ being punished is trespassing or offending Vladimir Putin only confuse matters further.

I believe this situation is more complex that the popular media reports, both in terms of the act committed, and how it needs to be evaluated. If nothing else, Russian law is not predicated on American ideals. There are at least four issues needing further exploration before clarity can be found:

  • Freedom and Authority
  • Church/State relationships
  • Sacred space (sacramentality)
  • The justice of God

All governments place limits on citizen behavior, though cultures differ on how important civil liberties are in relation to order and conformity. While some people in the United States don’t think breaking into churches and singing protest songs is a big deal, we are very harsh on people who rush into theaters and yell ‘Fire!’. Even in our country, free speech and artistic expression have limits; and ‘greater good’ does not justify breaking the law. In the West, we assume a ‘separation of Church and State’, however inconsistently this is applied. This is not a ‘given’ in Russia or other parts of the world. I personally tend to agree with Vladimir Putin that the experiment of separation of Church and State has been a failure (but that is another discussion). Russia, before the revolution, and presently, at some level sees the Church providing a broad foundation for all values, personal and social. The Church guides the government in making moral decisions, and the State helps the Church. This thinking is classic Orthodox theology coming out of Roman (Byzantine) Empire. While good in theory, history has not always been so kind to the Church in practice; rather than the world becoming like the Kingdom, often the Church takes on the habits of the world. If we understand the Church to be the “New Israel”, and we know our Old Testament history, this should not be a surprise to us.

It is difficult for us in the West to understand the concept of ‘sacred space’, as it is and was experienced in more sacramental cultures. In a materialistic society, all space is said to be uniformly the same. Spirituality (when acknowledged), is considered something personal and internal, not connected to particular places or objects. The Ground Zero Memorial in New York is the closest we have to the burning bushes, Mt Siani or Jerusalem, where the boundary between this world and ‘the other’ becomes thin. Elton John can rent out St John the Divine Cathedral in New York for a birthday bash, use the altar for a stage, and hardly anyone has a second thought. For pious Orthodox, the altar is a very special place like the Holy of Holies of the Old Testament Temple. This is where the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ; the kingdom becomes present on earth. In the Orthodox Church, only priests, and those with a special blessing are allowed in the altar area, and the whole church around the altar is to be treated with a special reverence.

If the first three issues set the context, it is the justice of God that is the critical question; and it is here that I think the Church has failed; not just the Patriarchate of Moscow for what was said and done, but all the others that remained silent. The history of God’s justice is the history of healing, and is tied to the bigger issue of new creation. God’s treatment of Israel, the Church and the creation is one of seeking forgiveness and embrace, not anger and separation. It is appropriate to constrain evil, and actions have consequences; but the response-ability of the Church is to see these as opportunities for love and healing, not righteous indignation and vendetta. If the quotes of a young Russian are correct, these are not the words we should have heard from the Russian Church. In my opinion, the Russian Church and State are working too closely to achieve earthly political ends, and missed an opportunity for a loving Christian response**. It is hard to see the Kingdom proclaimed by two years in prison. This sentence seems to be more of a vindictive political statement than an effort at reconciliation. If the crime was defacing the holiness of the Church, then maybe six weeks of scrubbing Church steps and some time helping the poor would be a better sentence.

There are two good in-depth writings on Pussy Riot which I would recommend:

Frederica Mathewes-Green writes from an Orthodox perspective, of what this violation of the sacred means to many worshipers.  She also  had an interesting interaction with a young Muskovite, who provides some interesting background.

Vadim Nikitin has some good insights from a political perspective.

*The solea is the space between where the people gather (sanctuary) and the altar. It is in front of the icon screen, where the people usually receive communion.

** I have written other blogs about my thoughts on blasphemy and how it should be treated, and will not repeat myself here.

“Innocence of Muslims” and the nature of God

The release of the film Innocence of Muslims on YouTube had unfortunate, but fairly predictable results (which may have been the intent). And while it bring serious questions like freedom of speech to the forefront; unfortunately, what gets lost in the furor of anger and apologies is a serious discussion of the underlying issue: what is the nature of God? Assuming the worst, that the film is a deliberate blasphemy against God (or at least his prophet Mohamed), we need to ask what blasphemy mean, and what should be the reaction to it?

There seems to be an underlying assumption that blasphemy diminishes God, taking away his dignity and status. While I can agree that blasphemy might diminish God in my sight, I find it theologically difficult to assume that God Himself can be diminished or harmed by such words and actions. I believe it uis in this distinction between perception and reality that a view of tolerance will be found. Traditional Christian theology holds that God is immutable and unchanging, beyond passions. Whether we love Him or hate Him, there is no change or threat to His being and security. This does not mean that God is inert with no passions, for God is love, but His love is unchanging. Thus His anthropomorphic reaction to the nations that rage against him is one of laughter – it is foolishness to consider them a serious threat. This being the case, God does not need us to defend him.

What is true for God is not always so much the case for us, especially in the fallen state of the world. To the degree that we find our identity in Christ, we have the same immutability of our being that God has – as the martyrs have shown, even death is not an ultimate threat to our existence. Due to our weakness, however; such blasphemy and threats can and do weaken our faith and resolve. It is here that the discussion of tolerance and restraint must take place. Ideally, we should be unaffected by external influences and allow total freedom to others; but as a society we need restrictions on freedom in order to protect our weakness. These two ‘fences’ mark the bounds of social discourse, and it is through legislation, social agreements and good manners that we determine where the fence posts are placed. Because the fragility of the nation of Israel requires a small space (the stoning of blasphemers – Leviticus 24:16), but this does not mean that Paul as wrong in his openness to the pagans of Athens (Acts 17:23). And even less does this give us as the right to take perceived in-justice into our own hands as individuals or as a mob. Christians have experienced similar ‘insults’ in film (The Last Temptation of Christ), books (The DaVinci Code) and art (Robert Mapplethorpe) but reacted differently.

This difference is rooted in theology, and the solution needs to be through theological discussion. Both Christians and Muslims ground our belief in God on the Old Testament books of Moses, and it is here that we should find common understanding to resolve these social issues.

I tried watching the Innocence of Muslims and had to quit. Irrespective of the content, the acting, dialogue and production standards were so bad that it was more than I could endure, it doesn’t even deserve the respect of laughter.