Recently I had another unsettling conversation in a crowded public space with a now angry man. The conversation was overheard by others, and his ire was directed toward me personally. Several months earlier we had talked about religion in a more amicable way.1 On this most recent occasion, he began, abruptly and rather confrontationally,
"Do you believe in Hell?"
"Where do you go to church?"
"Is that what they teach you there?"
"No; I assume that virtually all members of my church believe in Hell."
The conversation continued apace and then he left the area, returning momentarily to assert:
"You know what you are? You are an apostate. Do you know what that is?"
"Yes; and you seem a very angry man."
The conversation continued briefly in another room where I told him, "the term 'apostate' is not correct; in the past some have called me 'heretic," which is likely more appropriate." After a moment he said, "The reason you write those newspaper articles is to call attention to yourself."
Here are the definitions of the terms. Apostasy is "renunciation of a religious faith." With respect to the conversation above the accusation was that I had renounced the Christian faith. There is a passage in the New Testament that describes the circumstance of the one who commits apostasy: Hebrews 6:1-6 (using in Heb 6:6 the Greek word parapesontas, falling away, making a defection). In the view of the author of Hebrews, those who defect from the faith cannot be renewed again to faith. The actual word "apostasy" is used in Acts 21:21, where Paul is accused of teaching apostasia (apostasy, making a defection) from Moses; that is, Paul was accused of teaching that Jews should not circumcise their children and follow other Jewish traditions. It appears also in the deutero-Pauline letter, Second Thessalonians, where the "man of lawlessness" is revealed in the apostasia (the rebellion or defection, 2 Thess 2:3).
Heresy, on the other hand, is "adherence to a religious opinion contrary to church dogma; or dissent or deviation from a dominant theory, opinion or practice." Hence a heretic is "one who dissents from some accepted belief or doctrine." The word "heresy" (αἳρεσις; transliterated hairesis) is translated by the word "sect" in Acts 24:14, "factions" in 1 Cor 11:19, "party spirit" in Gal 5:20, and "heresies" in 2 Pet 2:1.The word is used to identify various factions in a given religious body, as for example in Acts 26:5 where Paul refers to the Pharisees as "the strictest party of our religion (compare also Acts 5:17; 15:5; 24:5; 28:22). The word "factious" (or it could be translated sectarian) is used to translate the Greek hairetikon in Tit 3:10.
It appears then that heretics are regarded as erring members of the faith community, and apostates, on the other hand, are no longer members of the faith community but have completely given up the faith.
There were in the early period no generally accepted standards for judging Christian beliefs, until in the fourth and fifth centuries one group from among the early competing factions in the Jesus gatherings achieved an ascendency in the ancient world. The ascendant group called themselves "the Orthodox." They adopted a canon (our current Bible more or less3) and creeds (the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed4). Then they judged others by the beliefs they developed for their own religious communities, and called those in other Jesus gatherings who had different views, "heretics." Of course those that the Orthodox declared to be heretical had a name for the orthodox—it was "heretic." In the game of right belief and wrong belief with respect to religion, the correct answer depends on whose argument one finds most persuasive.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
1 See Hedrick, "Did Jesus Believe in the Christian Hell?" Wry Guy Blog, September 9, 2017.
2 See Hedrick, "Does Hell Exist," Wry Guy Blog, August 29, 2015.
3 See Hedrick, "When did the Bible become the Word of God?" Wry Guy Blog, January 26, 2015.
4 See Bettenson and Maunder, Documents of the Christian Church (3rd ed.; Oxford, 1999), 25-29.
I like it when people come together and share thoughts.
Great website, keep it up!
I've been labelled a heretic and it's good to know that it really only means having a different contrary view to others. Nothing to get upset about although the one calling me a heretic was upset.
I am so sorry you experienced this confrontation, Charlie. It is always upsetting to find that civil discourse isn't possible. I have lost long-standing friends in this way. Why does this seem to occur primarily in conversations centering on politics and religion? Is it because the core of these conversations rests on beliefs (faith) versus knowledge?
Always interested me that people get angry because I don't believe the way they do. Why the anger?
It helps the creative juices to have readers!
Good Morning Al,
But never forget that in the "good old days" heretics came in for much rougher treatment than simply being denounced!
Good morning Marcia,
I have always thought that because the zealous traditional believer thinks of the fundamentals of whatever faith with a capital T, rather than a human statement describing the beliefs of whatever community of faith. At some point the "confession" or the "creedal" statement becomes identified as eternal Divine Truth.
Good Morning Mike,
There is likely a deeper seated reason, but on the surface it is because they are on the side of the faithful "right" and you are seeking to undermine "the faith once delivered to the saints."
As you suggest, it seems that perceptions of who might be heretic or apostate is in the eyes of the beholder. I'm sure in the eyes of a hardline Christian fundamentalist I would be heretical in such matters as the virgin birth, a literal second coming, literal interpretation of miracles and so forth. On the other hand I think that the observations, aphorisms, analogies, and stories of Jesus point to the way-truth-life; Paul called this 'the law of the spirit of life in Messiah Jesus' (Rom 8:2).
I also think that Paul has set us in the right direction of interpreting the human condition in his contrast of flesh-law-sin-death with spirit-faith-fruit-life. On the other hand, viewing sin in this way as central to the human condition (Christian orthodoxy) probably is not in vogue with the views of a contemporary liberal progressive follower of Jesus.
I have gotten away from active involvement in any church largely because the teachings of Jesus are ignored in the emphasis on life after death. The church still lives in the 1st/2nd century expecting Jesus' return any day.
On the matter of what is the source of righteous anger over heresy and apostasy: perhaps it has to do with temperament in the form of the degree of ability to tolerate ambiguity in the face of uncertain and unknown conditions.
The oft-quoted remark, "I would rather have questions that can't be answered than answers that can't be questioned" probably fits in here somewhere, but I prefer T.M. Luhrmann's "Fiction helps us learn what we find emotionally true in the face of irreconcilable contradictions." I put the emphasis on "emotionally true."
Pervo, in Dating Acts, wrote what to me was a good thumbnail sketch of the development of the term "heresy" in the first and second century "Christian" writings. It was never neutral, but it seemed to have developed over a century of use.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Thank you for this absolutely provocative and fabulous insight: fiction as a witness to emotional truth.
I will check it out.
Thanks as always for an honest response!
It sounds as if you have given up on the "church," and granted that the church in general in today's would is as much about propaganda as about the "care of souls," if not more so. But what began as gatherings in Jesus name of likeminded people can still contribute to human welfare even in the political institution into which it has evolved today. It is still the only place in an average community where people with inquiring minds can gather to explore the eternal verities of life--if eternal verities there be. In the class that I have found the teacher does not lecture but leads the class in a discussion where (up to a point) all views are respected. The literature that we must use (from my point of view) is propagandistic but we are at liberty to disagree with the literature, if necessary.
For me it is a satisfying experience every Sunday to see intelligent adults males at the far end of life trying honestly to make sense out of: what they have been taught in their youth, what the text says, and what they have come to know of how things in the world actually work.
We do not always arrive at the "school solution" to the problems of life and faith.
So look around.
Thank you for sharing those thoughts. Our emphases seem to be a bit different.
You appear to be benefiting from honest and non-judgmental dialogue in an educational setting. This seems to be quite natural for a life long educator. Are there any worship elements at all incorporated into the experience.
My concern seems to be more about honest worship, challenging the congregation with the life of Jesus, which I might be able to personally find fulfilling. I don't doubt that other worshipers find fulfillment in what's occurring now, so who am I to feel left out!!!
Charlie, I take from your remarks that the worship experience isn't something that is important to you. Is that accurate?
I found my copy of the book. Where do I find Richard's comments on "heresy"?
Please tell me what you understand a "worship experience" to be, and I will be glad to comment on how meaningful such an experience is to me.
Good afternoon Charlie,
In my experience both personally and in what I've observed publicly- I've never seen a Christian express anger or indignation over someone who does not believe in heaven. If the subject comes up about not believing in heaven, then the reply I usually hear is "Oh well, that's too bad," with little to no emotion.
However, I am astounded at the level of not only indignation but outright belligerence Christians express towards other people (particularly to a fellow Christian) who hold the view that there is no hell... Or simply have questions about its existence. Why the anger? Not just anger, but a whole different level of engagement in the conversation. Watch their eyes and observe their body language- it's infused with an energy that I have never seen directed at people who question the existence of heaven. Only the subject of hell gets some Christians incensed to a level that is quite puzzling. The extent to convince people about the existence of hell far exceeds the efforts to convince them there is a heaven.
The NT alone has far, far more references to hell than the OT does. In fact, I think hell is the basis of Christianity period. Not so with the roots of Judaism.
One thing I appreciate about Judaism is the lack of interest in hell.
Charlie, do you get more questions about heaven or hell?
Many thanks, Elizabeth
PS: I appreciated your reasons stated to Gene about why you attend church. However, I don't think you realize how rare it is for different view points to be tolerated in Sunday school classes. I haven't attended your Sunday school class but my guess is that you yourself are one of the main reasons that so many points of view are discussed and validated. I think that your presence fosters an environment of openness and free exchange of ideas, which I'm sure is appreciate by many (but maybe not all) who attend that class with you.
I'll gladly try to share what I mean by 'worship experience,' but I was really hoping that you would reply based on your own definition of worship experience.
For me, honest worship is participation in a ritual (a repeated but open-ended organized behavioral set) that allows the individual self (soul) to escape its own limited narrative and to soar above the mountain top and participate in the emotional truth (using Marcia's phrase) narrative of the world-self or universal-self (speaking metaphorically), where the individual self is redefined by a vision of its role in life's larger narrative.
One way to define the larger narrative would be pursuit of the kingdom of God as defined by the life and teachings of Jesus, and not to be considered a contradiction:
Another way to speak of the larger narrative is found in Lloyd Geering's Coming Back to Earth (216),"The salvation of the earth and the salvation of our species have become one and the same goal. And since the concept of God may now be seen as a symbol for the responsibilities and virtues we feel bound to manifest, and since caring for the earth can now be seen as our supreme duty, then our traditional responsibility to God and our newly found responsibility to the earth have become virtually the same."
Perhaps the reason for the angst over the loss of hell is the perception that it would mean, from the point of view of some, the loss of a just-world. If the rain falls and sun shines on the righteous and unrighteous Mt 5:45), there is 'no hell to pay' in this life, so to speak!
Page 261, in his comparison of the way terms are used. He also compares Acts & Josephus' use of it on p. 168-170. (My largest, probably my only complaint, about Polebridge books is the lack of or the insufficient indices. I end up making up my own inside the covers!)
Dennis Dean Carpenter
It is a solid brief statement (as one would expect from Richard) and broader than the one I offered the readers of my blog.
Thanks for a descriptive summary of your view of worship; It helps me position my view better. I don't think that there is any one proper way of worship that everyone should practice, which is why I am so suspicious of courses in spirituality. I would have to describe my own approach as more cerebral than visceral. That is I don't "soar over mountain tops." For me in the later stages of life worship has become a pondering of the un-ponderables--sort of a quiet meditation. In public "worship" of the protestant Christian variety it was only in the music that I was earlier in life able to come close to your flights over mountains. The rest of the service was telling me how I was supposed to experience but in the music I was able to transcend the persistent propaganda have my own experience.
Good Morning Elizabeth,
I have not had many discussions with others about either heaven or hell. In the Hebrew Bible there is no hell as such. The ancient Hebrews believed in Sheol, as did most of the ancient world (see wry guy blog "Does Hell Exist?" August 29, 2015).
Me in the Sunday School class: There may be some truth to what you say. I don't ever argue with anyone. I mostly ask questions and if someone disagrees I don't generally push back. I am just grateful that I can express my views and suggest other ways of looking at the text. I don't really care whether anyone agrees with me or not. But all that said there have been at least two heated reactions to something I said in class, when I perhaps pushed a bit too far onto the toes of someone's deeply held religious belief.
Your comment that a belief in Hell is the basis of Christianity: I have always thought that love is the basis of Christianity at its finest.
I should have added to my statement that I like your idea of life's larger narrative! And you are correct that our faith should lead us out of ourselves into a larger world of faith.
Wow, Gene, it's really funny you said that! Just today, I heard an irate lady on a talk show going off about Robert Mueller's investigation and how she hopes there is a "special place in hell" for him. She seemed very much convinced that that is where he is headed... The person interviewing her said, "Well I don't really see what that has to do with anything going on right now... even if that were to happen, you wouldn't be able to witness it." And her reply- this is an exact quote- "Well it gives me great satisfaction just thinking about it."
You have no idea how right your words are- and how much of an authority people think they hold over who deserves to go where in the after life. What moral authority does this woman think she has to decide something like that? And what kind of person gets satisfaction thinking about such things. That mindset is what gave us the torture of heretics in past times, i.e. the Salem witch trials.
I know Charlie says that Christianity is based on love, but I think he may wear rose colored glasses a bit in this instance. No disrespect to Charlie, of course. Sometimes I can wear rose colored glasses myself. I just don't see very much love being demonstrated by the Christian community, but I guess I should keep looking. I certainly can't see everything- I'm not omniscient! Elizabeth
Charlie, If you don't mind- I'm curious how you say that love is at the basis of Christianity? Do you state that from experience or from an ideaoligcal standpoint? In other words, is that an idea you have heard or read about that appeals to your values and beliefs?
Personally, what I've read about Christianity in books and what I've witnessed with my own eyes are two different things. But as it has been written- perception is selective.
Dennis, you may or may not be able to answer this about heresy. If not, don't worry about it. From what you have read about heresy and heretics in Christian church history, is it true that the ancient Christians were more cruel with regard to the punishment/torture of so-called "heretics" than other religions, i.e. Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism? Do any of those stated religions have a history that even comes close to the amount of cruelty and physical torture that was inflicted upon Christian believers whose views deviated from the established orthodoxy? Thank you, Elizabeth
Good Friday Morning Elizabeth,
Professionally I am primarily interested in Christian origins, and only have a general interest in the historical evolution of Christianity as a religion. As a religious movement it has been around for roughly 2000 years. During this historical period it has evolved into many different forms, has had many faces, diverse theologies; much that is bad has been done in its name as well as much that is good. In short, there is not one Christianity; there have been and are many Christianities. I tried to focus on what I thought was the finest concept that the religion has contributed to the world--self-sacrificing love. You have focused on one of its negative features. If we want to talk negative aspects of Christianity, I would likely have picked its narrow-mindedness and self-righteousness.
Thank you Charlie... I hope someday you can elaborate on "the many different Christianities" and how you view them today. It sounds like you joined Christianity because you were drawn to the idea of self-sacrificing love. It does not sound like you made that decision because someone told you that if you remained a non Christian, you would end up in hell. Have a good weekend, Elizabeth
Good Morning Elizabeth,
There were many hellfire and damnation sermons from the pulpit in the Southern Baptist church in which I was reared; perhaps more of those than sermons on love. The truth of the matter is that growing up in the Mississippi Delta in the 1950s there was little danger that I would have become anything but one of the many varieties of Christian. The atmosphere was heavily Christian and I was on the cradle roll of First Baptist Church of Greenville.
Re: Would Hell make for a "just" world?
Justice might be in the eyes of the human beholder. My eyes see a just world based on the laws of the universe. These laws always serve out a justice for human actions and thoughts. The justice may not always be perceived as occurring or might not be perceived as the justice humans value, but they are served.
Humans have conceived a justice that cannot be fully served for all human actions & thoughts. This lack of ability and perceived lack of justice induce a desire for some "higher power" to eventually serve out the human desired justice. There is no clear evidence that such justice is completely served.
Good Morning Jim,
Thanks for weighing in. One "law of the universe" with which I am familiar is gravity. Why would you describe violations of the "law of gravity" as justice? Or to put the question differently: why should the death of someone who violates the "law of gravity" through no fault of his or her own (such as an accident or murder) be considered just?
How many "laws of the universe" enjoy the full support of the academic community and what are they?
Re: Justice of laws of the universe
The laws of the universe are not violated, e.g. one does not violate the law of gravity. One only receives what might be called "justice" when experiencing the laws of the universe whether the experience is either beneficial or detrimental. The wonderful characteristic of the laws of the universe is they cannot be violated by humans.
Re: How many laws of the universe enjoy the full support of the academic community and what are they?
The support of the academic community of the laws of the universe are dependent on the knowledge of that community. The scientific community accepts all of them they have accurately ascertained to date.
Can I assume everyone responding is familiar with two modern day heretics, Carlton Pearson and Rob Bell? Both were pastors of evangelical megachurches and both have renounced a belief in Hell. Seems like heresy is alive and well.
Could you share what the criteria is for being a "law of the universe." For example, are "love your enemy" and "judge not lest you be judged" laws of the universe? If not, what disqualifies them for that status?
Good Morning Marcia,
I was not familiar with either of them--never heard of them in fact. I looked them up on-line and found them interesting. Both have had experience in traditional Christianity but have evolved into something different.
Where can I find a list of the "laws"?
A friend told me about both. A new play, "The Christians," (recently performed by Springfield Contemporary Theatre) is probably based on the experiences of these two ministers. There is a new Netflix movie about Pearson called "Come Sunday," and Rob Bell is profiled in the Nov.18, 2012 issue of The New Yorker. Heresy may no longer cost you your Life (big L) today, but it certainly cost these men their lives (little L) as they knew them.
Are you talking about physical laws--which I assume to be unversal--or moral laws, which might be culture driven? And why do we always talk about justice? I thought Jesus preached mercy.
In Jim's case I am assuming that they are the "physical laws." But let's see how he answers. In the beliefs of the canonical evangelists Jesus did teach mercy, but I am not certain off the top of my head if the historical figure had that much to say about mercy.
Re: Criteria for laws of the universe
Your question caused me to realize there are numerous sets of laws that may be confused with those I labeled as "of the universe". I should have specific I was referring to the Physical Laws of the universe. I have attached a description of those laws.
Several general properties of physical laws have been identified. Physical laws are:
True, at least within their regime of validity. By definition, there have never been repeatable contradicting observations.
Universal. They appear to apply everywhere in the universe.:82
Simple. They are typically expressed in terms of a single mathematical equation.
Absolute. Nothing in the universe appears to affect them.:82
Stable. Unchanged since first discovered (although they may have been shown to be approximations of more accurate laws—see "Laws as approximations" below),
Omnipotent. Everything in the universe apparently must comply with them (according to observations).:83
Generally conservative of quantity.:59
Often expressions of existing homogeneities (symmetries) of space and time.
Typically theoretically reversible in time (if non-quantum), although time itself is irreversible.
This is very helpful. If you did not invent it in your head but took it from another source, I would like to know the source.
Has someone published a current list of all the known physical laws of the universe, or at least a near complete list? I am assuming the list would enjoy a near universal agreement of all physical scientists.
A brief google search gave the Wikipedia discussion of the Laws of Science.
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