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February 2, 2014

Catholic Morality: Part Four

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Written by: Duane Covrig
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This is the last in a four part series on Catholic morality. In Post One I praised Catholics I knew who taught me about Christ and helped me get back in a right path with God. In Post Two, I mentioned what I love about Catholic moral theology and practices. In Post Three I took up the melancholy task of talking about unique Catholic moral theology or practices I think are hurting Christians.

In this post I review four areas of moral theology in Catholicism that have spread to Protestant moral teaching and created a distortion of Christian ethics. The last point spreading deeply into my own denomination of Adventism.

These teachings distort the moral basis of the Kingdom of God and hurt the Christian’s approach to morality that presents a beautiful image of God’s power to build ethical and moral thinking that leads to good action in all His children.

ONE: Many Protestants with the Catholics teach an ever burning and tortuous hell. This teaching and some of its spin-offs (immortality of the soul, purgatory and universalism) have weakened the teaching of the Bible on the moral government of God and the need for individuals to make moral choices that will determine their future in that government.

These false teachings basically go like this: God will eventually send evil people to hell to burn forever. He will keep them alive so they can be continually punished. This is His wrath. They deserve it.

What makes this deceptive is it is mixed with some truth and some passages of scripture. What makes it distorting is they capture only part of the picture of Hell.

To soften its teaching, the Catholics invented  purgatory—a place for second chance decisions so that the the heat of a tortourous hell wouldn’t be so repulsive, but in doing a quick fix they have created an equally hellish doctrine. It assumes God love second change choices created by torture. If we just turn up the heat, people will agree to God.  I fear any kingdom whose citizens are forced into patriotism.

Others, realizing the difficulty of a ever-burning torturous hell, try to create a more reasonable explanation of why people keep burning for ever. They have come to the view that God would just keep resuscitating dying people to keep them alive for more torture so Christians have sided with the Greeks to image the immortality of the soul.

This teaching has gotten so complex for some, especially Calvinist who believe in the sovereignty of God and His massive live, that they have had to swing all the way from hell and purgatory to the other extreme of universalism—that all will be saved.

What is missing from all this is a more reasonable understanding of what God is wanting and willing for humans to experience as a free choice to be part of His kingdom. They can build on the Rock or build on sand, but the results count. They count, not because of a crazy tyrannical God, but precisely because God is just and reasonable. You can sow and expect good stuff to happen. There is a reasonable moral order in this universe.

I fear the distorted teaching about hell is hurting Christian morality and those wanting to be Christians.  Billions I fear are being kept from embracing the moral kingdom of Christ because they can’t trust a God who diabolically likes to stoke fires of torment. They can’t stand the character of God presented in teachings about Hell. Who can blame them? If God is a God of true moral wisdom they would be attracted to Him, but not this God.

I believe Satan has fostered these lies about God’s way of relating to His wayward human children when final judgment is given. It is the final chance Satan has to confuse people about God’s benevolence.

This teaching actually hurts on two extremes, both designed to distort moral agency—fear driven anxiety that places arbitrariness into moral judgment, or naïve disengagement that finally are moral choices don’t amount to much as God will save regardless.

Adventists and other groups, like the Jehovah Witnesses, present a more biblical view of hell and death. For a useful overview of the SDA teaching see Dwight Nelson series on the topic at http://www.pmchurch.tv/article/21/archives-dvd-s/the-truth-about-hell  or Doug Batchelor’s commentary through the YouTube video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XkExgUCYxZA ).

This Adventist view does not impugn God’s character and rejects the image of a moral government that uses torture, either to get obedience (compliance), retain it (purgatory) or punish it (ever-burning torturous hell). Yet, at the same time it preserves a sober appreciation for the choices of this life. He will work with you here and now and your decision He will respect. There is no purgatory for second thinking our choices, but also no universalism that circumvents your choices.

Getting this issue right is crucial to get Christians on a reasonable track of building on the Rock a house of morality worth living in. It suggests God seeks to work with us NOW to make moral responsive actions that fit with His universe. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth.” There is no checking out of our moral role—a noble calling—to engage in beliefs and actions that will bring God’s reasonable rule to earth TODAY.

The biblical picture of God toward even his most rebellious creature, Satan, and his wayward children, show His patience toward us and that He is not a God of torture but of reasons (Isaiah 1:20).

All these angry hell teachings and distortions rob humans of the freedom and reasonableness they need to believe in to become full moral agents who take seriously the need to respond to God’s love and moral order because these responses have eternal significance. Our choices matter. God does not distort those choices with sweeping sovereign acts that disrupt the moral apple cart of choice and consequences He has created. He saves us from evil for good—good now and good then.

These false teachings of hell create several extremes that are working against Christian moral maturity. First, purgatory and an ever-burning hell are inconsistent with the way God works with evil people. It subtly makes us receptive of torture techniques to get people to comply. The scripture is clear that is not God method. Look how patient He has been even with His most obviously crazy enemy, Satan. He will eventually destroy Satan but only after demonstrating extreme patience and amble opportunities for him to change his thinking (Revelation 18-21).

Yes, it is clear He will do a strange act of terminate evil and evil-doers  (see  Isaiah 28:21). But He does so with the clear statement and evidence He takes no delight in the death of the wicked (see Ezekiel 18:32, 33:11) and prefers people repent—change their minds and attitudes and set their feet on a new pay.  So, while He doesn’t tolerate the foolishness that leads to death, He doesn’t need to add insult to injury by kicking and torturing those who chose the stupid life of lies.

God’s morality does not need a torturous vindictive view of God and in fact that is contrary to the reasonable moral discourse and expectations that are pictured in Scripture.

When I was reading Luke 8 one day I realized where this distorted view orginated. It is only demons who seem to foster a warped view that suggests God has a personality to torture others. In the story of the demoniacs (see Luke 8:26-39), the demons cry out the blasphemous words: “have you come to torture us.” It was the evil views of the demons that have now been wrapped in a Christian doctrine.

And this warped rebellion-producing doctrine has disastrous implications for moral decision making. A tortuous leader never creates the freedom needed for moral choice to occur in a redemptive and long-term stabilizing way.

Catholics and Protestants who promote an ever burning hell send a message that negates the reasonableness of God’s moral kingdom, distorts Christian theology and ethics and most of all robs Christians of a reasonable invitation to build a moral life on the Rock and reap the long term benefits of doing so.  Christian’s moral life can be crippled by distorted fear on one extreme or a flight into passive living with a view of universalism on the other extreme. God wants something more engaging for us. He wants to partner with Him us to build His principles of heaven into our lives now, knowing that one day we get to continue with that moral living in the more unrestrained place called heaven.

God is not vindictive but truthful and just in his actions toward sinners, giving them ample time to repent. But if they do not, He will not force them to have life. We should use this biblical teaching to drive home the importance of moral decisions.

Revelation shows the patience of God with Satan, the Beast and the False Prophet, but also His plan to overthrow this false trinity and render final judgment on them and all who live by their methods of being “cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death”  (Rev 21:8). There is fire but it consumes to death.

I fear teachings of a torturous hell really make the work of Christian ethicists hard as they take out the love engine of morality more likely to produce godly people. The Trinity of Love is lost and in its place is put a capricious God who is not reasonable but always angry or arbitrarily redemptive by sovereign fiat.  This all works to distort morality and takes us off the more exciting and sober responsiveness we need to God’s kingdom.

My appeal to Christians….stop using hell’s abusive fear-creating demonic distortion to create moral appeals. It backfires by making either cowards or rebels, not moral agents who embrace the freedom to co-create with God moral experience down here that mimic his system up there.  God honors and respects our judgment. We have God-given human dignity to make wise judgments about morality: ours, others, and Gods. That gets distorted massively in this false teaching of hell fire.

Sadly, to escape these false views of death and hell, many Protestants are swinging to an equally distorted extreme lately. Rob Bell and Tony Campolo seem to be finding the only solution to bad teachings about hell in the bad teaching of universalism.  This also distorts the respect God gives to free will moral choices and takes the Christian off the path of co-creating with God a moral life worth living.

TWO: Protestants respect law, but seem to willingly or ignorantly agree with the Catholic power to change laws when they continue to view Sunday as the Sabbath instead of the original Saturday Sabbath of scripture. While scripture is clear that Sabbath is Saturday, the Catholic church continues to dismiss this and persistent in calling people to a different day. This weakens both the authority of God and the freedom God seeks to create to generate better morality.

From the Waldensians to now there has been groups willing to keep Saturday Sabbath even when the Catholic church persecuted them. Oddly, Sunday Sabbath has been enforced more by law and degree than the Saturday Sabbath. This has distorted God’s purpose of creating willing and voluntary worship. The legislating of Sunday has worked against the basic argument that worship and morality are built best by force and sanctions of arbitrary imperial force.

Lacking in this is the freedom that alone fosters worship and I believe also encourages a more fundamental experience of morality.

Tonstad in The Lost Meaning of the Sabbath does an effective job of contrasting Sabbath to Sunday. Sabbath has been a day set in liberty for all men everywhere. You can keep it or not. It is a gift from God. If you don’t, you will die, slowly of heart attachs or through the debauchery that comes from neglected relationships. Sunday, however, has always been a day that seems to have to have laws to force its observation. It represents the imperial way of worship—forced, required, obligatory, and not based on freedom.

I take up this issue elsewhere so will not discuss this further here.

THREE: God’s judgment is everywhere in scripture (see Hamiliton’s argument that it is the unifying theme of scripture) and Revelation 14 suggests we are now in a special time focused on HIS hour of judgment. Understanding HOW and WHY and WHAT God judges is crucial to contemporary Christian ethics. Too often Catholics and Protestant reject or circumvent God’s judgment of the Christian and non-Christian in the final days and reject an important understanding that can help in moral living. It is a very reasonable teaching that suggests a reasonable God who has good reasons to hold us accountable for the gospel we have received. We will give account of this gospel and giving an account can be the most glorious experience we can imagine (see Matthew 25). Having a redemptive view of judgment makes us want to be good stewards. We are not driven by fear of an unreasonable punishing God, nor seduced into lazy living, that God somehow naively overlooks. No, we know we will give an account of every idle word but in the atmosphere of redemptive judgment.

I take up this issue elsewhere in my posts so will not dwell on it now except to chastise other Christians for harassing Adventist about having desire to teach the biblical theme of judgment as central in their doctrines. Christ is central in the judgment and we believe following Christ requires us to talk about judgment—a central theme He places in scripture. Granted, Adventist have often distorted this teaching but we are getting better at uncovering its beauty. See Roy Gane’s works on this especially his book on Who Is Afraid of the Judgment.

FOUR: Works Religion: morality is more than my response to God but a loving gift He gives me to live a better life in Him. This is the biggest distortion of Christian morality that plagues every community of faith, including my own. It is a belief that once I accept God as my savior that I work out my morality as a gift to Him. What makes this so detrimental is that it stokes a works religion and a works religion can never be satisfied with its own works, and definitely never satisfied with the works of others. In fact, a works religion can only get satisfaction by reducing the moral expectations of God to make it fit my narrow practices.

Morality can never be enough for the human soul because only a relationship with God can suffice. Morality is a gift of restoration, an outgrowth of that relationship and something that God works in us and through us to recreate.

Jesus put it simply, “Make the tree Good and the fruit will be good”  is the Christian approach to morality. God wants to so transform us that carrying out His will can become our desire and triumph in Him.

“If you are in Christ, you are a new creature. Behold all things are new.”

Or my favorite versus in the New Testament on moral growth:

“To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy—to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.” Jude 24, 25

Morality is something we participate in, a building project we don’t naively flee from, but which drives us to God for Him to work in us to create that solid footing. He seeks to work out in us a will and a doing of good living.

This alone will keep moral living from being an area for boasting or undo stress and strain. It will become instead one of the many things God does in us and brings us great joy through.

Believing God will use His power to help you grow into the moral image of Christ takes away any reasons for moral superiority even as it also suggest immoral debauchery is not His option for you.

The story in Luke 15 of the Prodigal Son addresses both extremes on moral living.  For a Christian, immorality occurs when we our outside a relationship with God. Living in God’s moral government (His house) requires relationship. Living in it without a relationship makes us crusty old elder brothers. Living outside the “house rules” lead to debauchery.

Stringing together a few passages of Philippians and we can see morality is something He wants to do in us….

“He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.(1:6)… For it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. (2:13) My God will meet ALL your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus. (4:19). That you will shine among them like stars in the sky. (2:14)”

The Good news about Christian morality is not only that is has a high moral standard, and creates better societies, but that it is something God can accomplish in all who come to him.

However, bad they have been, He will wash theme thoroughly and create new patterns of moral thought and action. He Can. He Will. He is the creator!

For Adventist, I highly recommend the writings of the late Morris Venden. His book on Salvation by Faith and Your Will is one of the most precise deconstruction of works religion and morality by works into a morality of God’s love I have read. Its complexity and simplicity continue to amaze me to this day. ( I fear other attempts to try to disentangle this create a distorted view of grace or discount the role of moral choices).

Hans Kung—My Struggle for Freedom—documents well the challenge of bringing freedom to the tight structures and traditions of the Catholic church. “Only in time will doubts arise for me: is the fulfilment of the will of God—in the Spirit of Jesus—identical with total faithfulness to the rules, painful self-control and complete submission?” P. 65

All denominations know this penchant for taking away freedom, and all swing back and forth between the two sons lost without the Father.

My prayer for my Catholic friends and for my own denomination is that we find safety is staying not only in the House but in relationship with the Householder.



About the Author

Duane Covrig
I teach leadership and ethics at Andrews University. I am a Seventh-day Adventist eager for the Second Coming of Christ and positive about His judgment hour work (Rev 14:6-12). I use that reality to understand morality and ethics.




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