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Mythbusters is one of my favorite shows. I like busting myths, too.
This article won't be as dangerous as blowing up a cement truck, but it may be just as explosive to those who aren't prepared for the results. Be forewarned.
Over the years of writing articles, I have collected what can be called myths dispersed in the church today, and it seemed good to collect these in one place for new readers and provide as well links for further study when possible. As of now there are 14, but the number is not set in stone.
These myths I believe cause harm to the church as a whole ranging from simple cognitive dissonance in individuals to outright apostasy in those who cannot reconcile the inconsistences.
I've also added an addendum of commentary on a list by a magazine called The Church Report on the 50 Most Influential Christians. I've put this here because many of these myths are being spread (or aided) by many of the people on this list.
But first, to the myths.
- Hell is a place of physical torture.
This myth has caused numerous people to question the fairness and justness of God. It is grist for numerous atheist critiques. While I once defended this view myself (albeit not to great depth, since I discovered the error in the process of research), and while I do not necessarily think atheist critiques of the idea are sound, there is certainly no reason to make things harder on ourselves and others.
Hell is actually more of a state than a place, and it is a state of shame, of exclusion from God's honor and presence, not a place of torture. See here.
A side point here is the related myth that Christians as a whole want to see people go to hell -- that's done by assuming that a Fred Phelps is the plumb line for believers.
- God is my buddy, Jesus is my friend.
The modern hymn calls Jesus a "friend" and some may appeal to a verse in John where Jesus calls his disciples "friends".
But the understanding of the word is decontextualized. People of the time of the Bible did not "get to know" each other as modern persons in the West do. A "friend" meant a person who looked out for your practical interests -- not someone you had beer and watched football with.
Even some preachers today (I am thinking of John MacArthur, but there are others) have lamented the modern view of God as a "buddy" as detracting from God's holiness. The result has been numerous corrupt theologies which see God as one who dispenses wealth like a gumball machine, and whose voice is constantly in one's head, sometimes defeating sound practice and doctrine but sometimes even just giving advice on what house to buy or what have you.
This myth is a common one perpetrated by some persons of influence listed below.
But really, even a more common view can be misleading. Many evangelists speak of a "personal relationship with Jesus". The phrase is used to mean something not too far from the "God is my buddy" idea, in essence meaning we can talk to Jesus any time, and so on.
If I had to correct this, I would say that what is required of us is a patronal relationship with Jesus. The NT explains our relationship with God in terms of a client-patron relationship, one in which God, patron, is remote; and Jesus, as a broker, mediates between ourselves and God. (I use these terms loosely; technically, in a Jewish sense, the words "suzerain" and "vassal" would be better; the point remains though that it is a relationship of mutual beneficience.)
Then we do have the indwelling Holy Spirit as a broker as well; but though the Spirit supplies us with mediation and perhaps power, there is nothing to show that the Spirit is some sort of intimate conversation partner.
Finally, since people of the ancient world seldom "got to know each other" personally (as is taken for granted in modern, Western society) there is no way that NT writers could have had an idea like a "personal relationship with Jesus" in mind in the first place -- not as we perceive it. The word "personal" is so broad in meaning that it could include a "patronal" relationship; but that is obviously not what most people have in mind when they use the word. They usually mean something like, God is approachable in the same way one of your sports buddies is.
It is not the words that are so much the issue as the particulars of expression.
Ironically, the view of God as a remote patron is the one that is most conducive to the view concerned Christians like MacArthur wish to see us return to. Perhaps then we would see a greater respect for God and His holiness, and less concern with self-fulfillment, ranging from best-selling books having titles like The Purpose-Driven Life to our most popular songs being titled, "I Can Only Imagine" (focus on experience, not on fact).
A reader recently noted a point related to this: The myth that "the purpose of coming to Christ is happiness, joy, all the feel good emotions we love (instead of forgiveness and atonement for sin)." This is tied in with such modern conceptions as use of personal testimony as the primary form of witnessing (when in the first century, it was the evidence for the resurrection and the life of Jesus that lay at the heart of evangelism) and the self-focus that makes people live as though God will not hold us accountable for our deeds.
- The end times are coming.
The entire package of "end times" belief and literature has resulted in excessive waste of resources -- pedantically, all the paper that has gone to print end-times novels and books; productively, encouraging a "pie in the sky" approach that engenders irresponsible stewardship. This is perhaps our most damaging myth, internally speaking, though it has also done harm externally by making Christians look foolish and paranoid.
I would add that the present state of understanding has also encouraged excessive credit to Satan as performing all sorts of deeds which detract from human responsibility. In turn this has encouraged Christians to see Satan under every rock and in every passage he is not in (like Is. 14 and Ez. 28).
The "end times" in fact took place in the first century, and we await only resurrection and final judgment. Satan is bound and not tempting anyone or doing anything else. Theroetically, there may still be minor demons loose, but I'd ask for proof of that. (That there's evil in the world isn't good enough reason: Humans are quite competent at that.)
For more on this issue, see here. This myth also appears among persons of influence.
- Faith is blind and has nothing to do with evidence.
This myth has enabled Christians to dispense with education and scholarship and made them look incapable on debate.
Faith in fact means loyalty based on prior performance. See here.
- Heaven is a place to relax.
Like the end times myth, this has encouraged lackadaisical behavior and in some cases has inspired dread among those who think Heaven will be a boring place.
Here I recommend, actually, a popular book by Randy Alcorn titled Heaven. Once past the first portion of anecdotes, this settles down into a fairly sound exegesis/narrative showing the Heaven is a place where we will have work to do.
- Certainty is a sin.
Modern persons, and postmodernism, have encouraged the myth that everyone's opinion is valid and deserves "respect" and/or wider hearing. This is not only non-Biblical (for those who respect that authority) but also self-contradictory, for it fails to respect the "opinion" that not everyone's opinion is valid.
The price of this myth has been to ineffectualize rational argument (and in turn, increase dependence on "blind" faith as above).
- Sanitized for your protection.
Modern versions of the Bible, and everyday preachers, have often failed to deal with "hard sayings" of the Bible, whether it be language that we would call objectionable (Malachi's "dung in your faces" phrase, etc.) or behavior that we would regard as immoral (the destruction of the Amalekites, etc.) One of my pastors actually carefully avoided using the word "foreskins" when preaching on 1 Samuel 18. (Another pastor, my current one, did not.)
The results of this myth have ranged from cognitive dissonance to apostasy, since Christians confronted with these passages are often shocked by them and have no idea how to defend or explain them) to a false "Victorian" understanding of Biblical morality.
Literature of the ancient world, as much as the Bible, was frank and straightforward; see here.
Related to this is a myth that Christians are "anti-sex." As a reader put it, when God told Adam and Eve to "go forth and multiply", we doubt He was talking about doing mathematics problems. The Song of Solomon is a case in point. As bad as it gets: the apostate's site "ex-christian.net" has featured "Christian Nude Art" as some sort of "in your face" precisely because of this myth.
- The Bible was written yesterday and for me personally.
Christians and critics alike are guilty of this one, what is properly called "decontextualization". The text is read as though the writers shared the same values and understandings we do (as one rather person allegedly suggested, "The Apostle Paul used the KJV and that's good enough for me.")
This has encouraged, as well, a refusal to do depth study, and to rest rather in "listening to the Spirit" for instruction on exegesis. From this has sprung things not all bad, but in some cases rank heresy. See more here.
- "Love" means sentimentality.
The Biblical word for "love" rendered from agape does not refer to sentiment or good feelings, but rather, to looking out for the greater good. The false view has led to misleading understandings of the role of confrontation, and to the excusing of criminal actions (eg, refusing to enact the death penalty out of "love"), among other things.
See on the true definition here.
- OT prophecy fulfillment is a good apologetic.
It actually isn't useful in the way it was at first. We need to understand (as do Skeptics) Jewish exegesis of the first century.
It is not so much that the OT predicted the NT events as that the NT writers looked at history and sought OT passages that echoed what they had seen. This does not mean that there is not actual predictive prophecy at all (for even then God may have orchestrated the pattern) but rather that we cannot present an apologetic on this basis as we normally have; or else we are forced into a corner of explaining ie, why the NT allegedly uses OT passages "out of context".
- Saints are "super-Christians".
We are all saints, according to the New Testament. This is not a Catholic thing I refer to; I mean that Protestants have a version of this in which Christian celebrities are idolized. Personality cults are a product of modern individualism.
This leads to a secondary point which is a myth from the other side: That Christians are "holier than thou" and/or that they are required to be. While some no doubt do act this way, it's not because they are Christians; there are plenty of people in other religions (and even atheists) who have the same attitude -- such as the guy who throws together a site titled "10001 Bible Contradictions" and uses nothing but Ingersoll as a source.
In that case it's more like "smarter than thou" but it all runs down to the same base assumption that "I'm better than you" when there's no evidence for it.
- "A" church is a building.
The ancient word ekklesia meant the people and the assembly of people, not where they met. The same goes for the precursor, the Jewish synagogue (which required ten men, not ten bricks).
This seems to be a minor semantic point, and for some people it is, but it has often taken the focus away from the body where it belongs and put it on things and programs where it doesn't belong. It does tend to encourage a view of people as statistics.
- All Christians are...
There are several things this sentence ends with that don't work, such as: "anti-Semitists" (which is particularly ironic, considering the ethniticity of Jesus, the disciples, Paul...); "Republicans" (I'm an independent myself); "brainwashed/don't think for themselves" (presumably this includes scholars like N. T. Wright), and more that I am sure you can think of. It's just comforting generalization by a mass readership not able to deal with the actual arguments.
- The supernatural exists.
Uh oh, what am I saying? I'm saying that we've all fallen prey to the post-Enlightenment distinction between the natural and the so-called supernatural. In other words, this is an artifical category, one that has led to such silly ideas as that miracles (acts of God) "violate natural law".
God works in and through the natural world and within its "laws" -- while some miracles are beyond human capacity to duplicate, they hardly require any violation of nature's "laws" (other than perhaps, creation ex nihilo, and even that is not certainly a "violation").
Put it this way: Why is it not a "violation" of the law of gravity when I pick up a box? Why IS it such a violation when God picks up that same box?
The inconsistency was invented of itself, and unfortunately, we continue to let the debate continue on these terms, and this makes our apologetic for things like the Resurrection more difficult than it needs to be.
The ironic thing is that a humanist like Gene Roddenberry could conceive of beings like the Organians without blinking an eye, but also could reject the supernatural as impossible.
We may add more to this list, and readers are welcome to suggest ideas as well.
50 Influential Christians
A reader noted an item by what looks to be a fairly influential publication, listing the 50 Most Influential Christians in America. If it has any authority, it speaks fairly well to why Western Christianity is in such a lamentable state, for many of these persons spread or encourage one of more of the myths above, or even heresy; or else they encourage a mindset within which these myths can flourish.
We'll offer some expanded commentary on each of these persons as required. It should be stressed that the magazine was certainly not concerned with more than what might be called a "business" definition of success -- this is not meant to imply that the magazine endorsed heresy, or anything like that. They seem to be more observers and reporters of data here than anything else.
The page with the original list is now offline, but many blogs and other website re-report it; see here for example.
My comments here are based on the following considerations:
- Are these people propogating one of more of the myths listed above (or even a heresy)?
And if they are, do they do it in such a way that it damages Christianity? Certain things like the view of hell as a place of flame, or dispensational eschatology, can be taught in moderation without damage; but some make too much of it.
- Are they "falling down" on the job?
Arguably it isn't the place of some of these people in their jobs to be good defenders or informers, and that's why I've put some in a category to reflect that. But there are those who, contextually, SHOULD be doing more than they are doing.
By this I mean, if someone comes to them and asks, "What about the Gospel of Judas/The Da Vinci Code/etc.?" they should be able to at least point people to where to find sound answers. If they are the sorts who would reply with a useless answer like "just have faith" or would provide some off the cuff, unsatisfying answer that they think is sufficient, then they are not doing their jobs.
- Do they encourage serious study of the Bible and a serious understanding of the faith?
Or are they more concerned with comfort and feeling good?
And now the categories:
- Persons who teach heretical or questionable doctrines.
That people who can't even teach proper doctrine are on this list is terrifying in itself. T. D. Jakes, #1 on the list, teaches a form of modalism; he may do so in ignorance, but it speaks badly for Christianity that someone this ignorant is in such prominence.
Others I would put here are Osteen, Warren, the 2 Crouches, Meyer, McLaren, Schuller, Hagee, Hayford, Hinn, Haggard, Dollar, and Parsley.
Osteen has fallen for feelgoodism to the point that he refuses to teach about God's judgment. He's gone the "itching ears" route. See our entry on Osteen on in the November and December 2008 E-Block here.
My issues with Warren are laid out in my review of his book The Purpose Driven Life. Christian occupation with this book and its related programs has now (since I wrote the review) gotten to the point of being disastrous. The book and programs appeal to modern American individualism and selfishness and do little or nothing to conduct serious spiritual growth or contextual understanding of Christianity.
I recommend the resources here (a site where you can also find more info on some of the others named here).
The Crouches are known for being indifferent to correct doctrine and/or teaching false doctrine, and for inviting guests onto their televsion programs who promote heretical doctrines. One might even say that they are indifferent to the point of hostility. Hayford is their pastor and so shares in the guilt, but has in the past, on his own, offered some questionable teachings on spiritual warfare.
Meyer, Schuller, Dollar and Parsley all to some extent teach or encourage "prosperity" ("name it and claim it") doctrines (as does Osteen, though I think naively).
Hagee emphasizes dispensational eschatology to an irrational extent. (As an aside, I was surprised to not see Tim LaHaye on the list, but maybe he's #51.) See my review of his work in the May-June 2009 E-Block.
I don't think I need to comment on Hinn, unless someone reading just arrived from Mars. (The planet, not Texe, which is 2 Rs anyway.)
McLaren is part of a movement that tends to dodge giving answers and say that settled doctrines are open for discussion. They do this in part because they don't have the knowledge they need. This isn't heresy per se but it is couterproductive. I am also compelled to put Bell in this category.
Questions about Haggard's orthodoxy have been raised enough by serious sources that I feel he should be put here. I'm also not too sure how much good is done by someone who writes a book like The Jerusalem Diet and now has been seriously scandalized. If he weren't here, he'd be in category 2:
- Persons who preach a model of a "personal relationship with Jesus" that defies the Bible's contextual teachings, or other sorts of "spiritual baby food".
By this I mean that they go with the "God is my buddy" myth described above. The Jesus they offer ends up being, as one reader puts it, "Dr. Phil with holes in his wrists." Or, they teach little or nothing of substance, offering sermons that are little more than extended pep talks.
I break these into two categories. The first are the popular evangelists (the 3 Grahams, Palau) and the second are the popular pastors (the 2 Stanleys, Swindoll, Lucado). I regard all of these as people who have "fallen short" in terms of providing substance that offers an adequate foundation for faith, and have instead presented a model of Jesus as a "buddy" and are most likely to answer questions about things like the Gospel of Judas with a shrug and an admonition to "just have faith" or an appeal to personal testimony.
With the evangelists, the fault is not as much theirs as it is an impropriety in how evangelism is done. Evangelism in the book of Acts WAS apologetics -- it appealed to the empty tomb, the fulfillment of prophecy, the performance of miracles; eg, facts and evidence. If you hear about any of this at a modern evangelistic crusade, it is always in passing. The focus is rather on personal experience.
This was illustrated for me one evening when Franklin Graham was interviewed and asked a number of questions, and each time deflected back to the same pat answer, in essence, "Well, we all need a personal relationship with Jesus Christ." You would never know why Christ was a worthwhile authority to believe in, based on his repeated, stock answers.
With the pastors, there is a certain degree of variance. The Stanleys offer the most "milk" of the four; Swindoll the least. The bottom line is that they still offer little or no solid foundation for belief. They may pay lip service to such issues as The Da Vinci Code, but it will usually amount to passing references (maybe one or two facts discussed) and a reminder to have faith.
I will credit Swindoll's ministry for at least referring people to material like Darrell Bock's on The Da Vinci Code and bringing it up in messages. Swindoll came very close to being rated a positive contributor, in my view, but that the bulk of his material is "milk" ended up putting him here.
- Non-religious figures.
I offer little or no comment on these as I don't think it is their job to defend or inform people (beyond the basic responsibility all believers have to be disciples). The list, as noted, was made with certain considerations I do not have in mind here.
But if you're wondering what I think of them anyway, I've put a plus sign (+) after those I have a positive view of, a minus (-) after those I have a negative view of, and a question mark (?) after those I know nothing about or do not care about one way or the other:
Bush (?), Hannity (+), Dobson (+) [I regard him more as a political figure these days, and his interest is more in psychology], Tada (+) [more of an inspirational leader, and a defender of the rights of the disabled], Barna (?), Sekulow (+), Towey (?), Santorum (?), Sommerville (?), McGraw (- Dr. Phil?). I'll also put Pope Benedict (+) and now McCarrick (?) in here, with the note that they both have scholarly backgrounds.
I don't know anything about 10 of these people (Hybels, Long, Barnett, Maxwell, Sweet, Lamb, White, Jackson, McManus, Vaughan) so I will not comment on them or categorize them.
- Positive Contributors.
On the positive side, I'd list 5.
Colson I list as positive because he does SOME apologetics and scholarship, and recognizes how important it is - though it's not why he's listed.
Kennedy likewise appreciates the importance of scholarship and defense of the faith.
Piper I was tempted to place in the same category as Warren because of his unfortunate defenses of Calvinism, but in the end I think the good he does outweighs the bad.
Wilkinson is here despite Prayer of Jabez simply because of the educational role he plays. But he comes very close to being in the category of Warren.
Moore actually does have SOME meat in her material, but not much; just enough to where she can be here and not in the Stanleys' category.
In the end, I can really say only 3 people (Colson, Kennedy, Piper) are strong representatives of where Christianity needs to be. Unfortunately they are far outnumbered by people who teach either heresy or "feelgood" doctrines, or whose teachings are so "milky" that they do more harm than good in the long run.
And so, in close, my same conclusion: It'll be a great day when these names include the likes of Witherington, Wright, and other scholars and apologists....but that day is probably a long way off, if it comes at all. In the meantime, the list tells us all we need to know about the state of the church and why we are caught flat-footed by things like The Da Vinci Code and The God Who Wasn't There.