Sunday, January 07, 2007

Turn or Burn

"Turn or burn" nicely sums up one of the foundational beliefs of most evangelicals. (I recently encountered it here, but it is nearly ubiquitous.) Turn to Christ, or you'll be banished to hell where you will suffer for an eternity.

I well understand the motive for Turn-or-Burn. It seems Biblical to many, and it seems just. But let us see about the second. Is it just?

Let us conjoin to Turn-or-Burn a second doctrine admitted by all orthodox Christians. It is that we come into the world ruined creatures for whom sin is not merely likely but is inevitable. Let us follow Augustine and call this doctrine Original Sin.

Consider now Turn-or-Burn + Original Sin in light of the empirical fact that, through no fault of their own, that many have died with no knowledge of Christ. I contend that here we have an absurdity. For consider one who died with no knowledge of Christ. On Turn-or-Burn, she now roasts in hell. But she was not responsible for her sin-nature, nor was she responsible for her lack of knowledge of Christ and thus was not responsible for the lack of that knowledge that might have saved her. This is absurd. How would you feel if you were punished for a thing you could not help but do? What if I were to add that there was a way to save yourself, and that, though you could not be expected to know anything of it, we will punish you anyway. You would of course feel that you'd been treated unfairly, and you would be right.

Turn-or-Burn thus has no place in the Christian faith. It violates the basic principle of fairness that if one cannot help one's sinful state, and one cannot be expected to know how to put it right, one may not be punished for it. (Indeed it seems strange to even call it sin in such a case. Sin is a moral failure for which one can be rightly held responsible and thus sin must be free.)


C Grace said...

Most of these people if you confront them on this issue will admit that the "turn or burn" only applies to those who have heard of Christ and have refused him. They generally reserve that this is not strictly applicable to those who have not heard of Him. It is still a very narrow view.

Questioned closely most of these people would admit that God does not send people to hell for having the sinful nature but rather for the rejection of God. They then fail to see the difference between spiritual blindness and outright rejection. I prefer George MacDonald's ideas - God judges us on how we obey what we have managed to believe not on what we have not yet grown to the point of being able to believe.

Just a quick side note on the whole use of using the human judical understanding as an analogy for how God's justice works. I want to thank you for being a good midwife in this area for me. :) Your questions caused me to see the major shortcomings in this view that I had not seen previously.

I have been mulling over trying to find a better analogy for a long time and an insight came to me this morining. In human judicial systems we make the law and then enforce it. People are punished because of a human decision to punish them.

God's justice it seems to me operates more on the order of natural law. Can we say that God killed someone who jumps off a ten story building simply because He created gravity to be part of the laws of this universe? In the same way I think it a poor analogy to say that God deliberately punishes people for sin. People simply suffer the consequences of their own actions.

It seems to me that this analogy is still lacking somewhere but I am not sure in what.

Franklin Mason said...

For some time now, my wife has recommended to me the view you sugget in the last two paragraphs - that God's "punishment" is just the natural and inevitable consequence of sin given the God-ordained order of the world. It seems to me better - much better - than Turn-or-Burn.

This alternative to Turn-or-Burn seems to me to have this consequence: the so-called "Period of Probation" is literally infinite. (The Period of Probation is the name I found in the Catholic Dictionary for the time that an individual has to "get it right" before God passes judgment on her.) If "punishment" is the natural and inevitable consequence of sin, it seems that there's always a possibility that the sinner will turn to God so that she might end the pain that sin entails. God does not thrust the sinner into a hell where she will suffer no matter what she might do there. Rather, hell is, as it were, already here. It is the consequence of sin, and we can always get out. (I might add that I suspect that we can't get it right one by one. The sin that has so distorted our world is, at bottom, a corporate matter, and ultimately none will be saved until all are saved.)

I do have a question about this view, though: just what was accomplished by the life and death of Christ? Surely he was here to overcome sin in some way. But was his task purely pedagogical in nature? Surely not, for this would not have required the Incarnation. But if the task was not pedagogical and it was not substitutionary (and I've argued elsewhere that it can't be), what was it then?

C Grace said...

George MacDonald whom I consider more then anyone else my mentor (He had a large influence on CS Lewis also) would agree with your idea about the period of probation. CS Lewis's book the Great Divorce is fascinating if you have never read it.I also totally agree about the corporate matter-adding that each person that is saved contributes to the whole and makes the world better even for those who are not saved in a manner that goes beyond simply the acts of good they do in the world.

I have got to go finish cooking dinner. (I have already burnt it a few times because I got distracted on the blogs. :) but I will think and pray about how to answer your question about Christ. This question cuts to the heart of what Christianity is all about and I very much would like to help you find some light here. It is something you have struggled with I know.

C Grace said...


My answer got really long so I posted it at my new blog


I guess its vanity but if you could leave a comment here or there to let me know you read it I would appreciate it.

Franklin Mason said...

I've read the post at Contemplative Traditions (nice name), but I think I'll chew on it awhile before I comment.

Randy Kirk said...

First I would posit that God's idea of "fair" or better "just" probably isn't anything like ours. However, I will trust his "justice."

I doubt very much whether we humans will ever be able to be clear on what happens to folks who don't "hear." I've heard 100's of possibilities, but none are in the Bible.

We are called to turn from our sinful ways and enter into relationship with Christ if we want to inherit eternal life with Him in the light. It is clear from statements by David and Paul that this doesn't mean we will never sin again. I have to believe it has to do with turning from a life where there is no fear of God and his retribution (natural and spiritual)

Franklin Mason said...


I'm skeptical that a defensible theism would have us say that God's justice is nothing like our own. For how would we know that God was God if we could not recognize in him certain virtues? How in particular would we know that Christ was Christ unless we knew that by his actions he exemplified perfect justice? But if we know that Christ was Christ, we must have had some notion of justice that we found exemplified in him.

My point is this: unless we assume that we have some grasp of the attributes of God, it seems that we render all knowledge of God impossible, for we must be able to recongize in God's actions those very attributes.