Theology on a Train: A Multi-Faith Dialogue

Characters: Atheist, Southern Baptist, Presbyterian, Catholic A, Catholic B, Reformed Jew, Messianic Jew, Sunni Muslim A, Unitarian, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Orthodox Jew, Mormon, Reformed Baptist, Anglican, Charismatic, Lutheran, Kantian Philosopher, Sunni Muslim B.

It’s a Saturday morning and the New York City subway is filled with passengers. A group of people scramble to enter the most recent train to stop at their station. Noticing a passenger reading the Bible, one commuter asks a question.

Eternal Damnation

Atheist: Why do you read that thing? Don’t you think it is irrational?

Southern Baptist: In what way would you say it is irrational?

Atheist: I’m an Atheist but I’ve studied Christianity and I’ve observed that the god of the Bible sends people to eternal torment simply for not accepting his message about his son. Don’t you see that as being evidence of a system that is irrational?

Southern Baptist: Well, I’m a Baptist and let’s assume what you say is true, how is it irrational?

Atheist: I don’t know if you have children, but would you send your own offspring to eternal torment?

Southern Baptist: I do have children, but I don’t believe I would ever send them to hell, no.

Atheist: See, even you are more rational and loving than the god you read of in that Bible.

Southern Baptist: My children haven’t committed any offenses against me that would require such punishment. But the God of the Bible is an infinitely holy being, so any offense against him deserves eternal torment. The good news is that he offers the Gospel as a way out of eternal punishment. Instead of the offender suffering in hell, Jesus suffered on the cross for their sins. If they simply have faith in Jesus and repent of their sins, they will avoid hell and God’s justice will have also been satisfied.

Atheist: But the god of the Bible knows who will accept, and who will reject his message even before he creates them, yet he knowingly creates those who would be damned. Now, would you create your children if you knew they would spend eternity in hell?

Southern Baptist: God knows who will reject his message, but he gives them free will to choose, so they willfully choose hell.

Atheist: But he still creates them, knowing they will willfully choose hell, which seems sadistic. What makes the matter worse is your bible says God predestines some to heaven, which clearly indicates he predestines some to hell. It even says Jesus was predestined to be slain before the foundation of the world and Judas was the one who caused the crucifixion, so Judas was predestined to betray Jesus and go to hell.

Presbyterian: I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation. I’m a Presbyterian and might I add suggest that God does predestine some to heaven but does not actively predestine anyone to hell. He simply passes over the reprobates and does not give them the gift of regeneration, which is what they need to become spiritually alive and respond to his message.

Atheist: Even worse, because this alleged god has the ability to save said reprobates but still creates them, knowing they will go to hell, and does not provide them with the ability to be saved.

Presbyterian: Perhaps God has not only a desire to show his mercy in salvation but also to show his justice in damnation. One can only appreciate God’s mercy against the backdrop of his justice.

Catholic A: I’m a Catholic and I don’t mean to barge in but I’d have to say I agree with the view that God predestines some to heaven and passes over others by not providing them with persevering grace, and I’d agree he does so to demonstrate both his justice and his mercy, but I also agree this is not what I would do as a father. However, we must keep in mind our human understanding and standards of love and fatherhood does not equal God’s love and fatherhood. We can say that they are analogous but not equivocal.

Catholic B: I’d disagree with you there, my friend. I’m also a Catholic and I believe we can have a reasonable hope all men will be saved. Salvation is only through Jesus and His one body, the Church, but people may be saved by the grace of God, through the work of Jesus, if they are invincibly ignorant and follow their conscience, through an implicit desire to enter his church.

Catholic A: That might leave the door open for some exceptions, but your turning the exception into the rule.

Catholic B: No, I’m just saying we can have a reasonable hope.

Catholic A: But one of the ecumenical councils condemned the notion of apokatastasis, which is the view that all will eventually be restored to god after a period of suffering, and also one of the Pius’s condemned the view we can have a “great hope” that those outside the church will be saved.

Catholic B: I’m familiar with those references but the language of those teachings are very technical and can thus be reconciled with my position.

Atheist: Not only are you two missing the boat, but your way off topic. Like I said before, even human fathers wouldn’t create their children if they knew they would be tormented eternally, so are humans more loving than the god of the Bible?

Catholic A: Again, our love is not equivocal with God’s love.

Reformed Jew: I’m Jewish and I have to step in and defend the god of the Bible, at least the Old Testament, and say I’d agree with you that such a god would be a monster and would be unloving. We Jews don’t believe in hell.

Messianic Jew: I’m a Messianic Jew and I have to defend real Judaism, which does teach in the Book of Daniel about eternal damnation. I’d also add that some other branches of Judaism hold to a form of hell, so your view is not representative of Judaism.

Sunni Muslim A: I’m a Muslim and not all of us agree on the nature of hell, but I do believe in an eternal place of torment. However, I do see the merit to the argument that hell is unloving of God, from a logical standpoint.

Catholic A: It is odd that you are using logic in this discussing given Muslims seemed to have abandoned rational inquiry and philosophy after Averroes.

Sunni Muslim A: We could debate the nature and place of reason and philosophy in Islam, but we would be way off topic if we did.

Atheist: Please don’t get into that, I’m mainly just curious how you all can maintain your god is a god of love but also maintain god creates souls that he knows will go to hell for eternity.

Unitarian: I’m a Unitarian and I believe all will go to heaven. I don’t agree with these others who take the Bible literally and teach God sends people to hell. A loving God would never send someone to eternal torment.

The Canon of Scripture

Atheist: It is interesting many of you do not agree with each other and you use the same Bible.

Catholic A: In fairness, we don’t use the same Bible. Some of us have a different set of books in our Bibles.

Reformed Jew: And some of us don’t use the New Testament, we stick to the Old Testament, in addition to the Talmud.

Sunni Muslim A: And some of us don’t believe your Old Testament and your New Testament are the testimony of what was really delivered to Moses and Jesus. We believe you all have corrupted the Scriptures and we Muslims have restored them with the Quran.

Baptist: We use a shorter version of the Old Testament than Catholics, but we maintain the same New Testament, which is mostly where the doctrine of hell comes from.

Eastern Orthodox Christian: I hate to interrupt, but it seems everyone else is free to offer their own opinion so don’t forget about us Eastern Orthodox Christians. We have a slightly larger Old Testament than the Catholics.

Catholic A: Believe it or not, our canon is not settled. We do have a definitive teaching that the Deuterocanonicals are part of the Old Testament, but the fathers at the Council of Trent chose not to make a judgment on the slightly larger canon you have.

Oriental Orthodox Christian: Don’t forget us either. We Ethiopian Orthodox have a larger New Testament than all of you.

Orthodox Jew: I’m an Orthodox Jew and I don’t agree with the Reformed Jewish position. You have abandoned all serious consideration of the Tanakh and the Talmud.

Messianic Jew: And we would say both the Orthodox Jews and the Reformed Jews do not properly understand the Old Testament.

Catholic A: You Jews did not even have a set number of books in your Old Testament until after the second century. Some of your believed in only the first five books of the Bible. Jews in Palestine held to 39 books while Jews outside Palestine held to a larger set of books. Even worse, Essene Jews held to a broader canon than everyone else.

Atheist: I had no idea we had so many diverse people on this train and all willing to share their different opinions on their faith. And some of you are very knowledgeable about your own beliefs, which tends to be rare in my experience. Usually, most people are stumped when I question their beliefs.

Presbyterian: Some of us are sincere and desire to know why we believe what we believe.

Atheist: I commend that, but you all clearly have different versions of Scripture, so what is one such as myself to do and believe?

Presbyterian: My friend, I regret we have scandalized you with so many different beliefs on what Scripture is. This should be a reflection on us humans and how weak we are and not a reflection on God and his Scripture.

Atheist: Well, I am not necessarily scandalized, I didn’t realize you all had so many different positions of which books belong in the Bible, but I knew you all have a corrupt set of scriptures that cannot be what the original authors wrote. I’ve done my homework by reading Dan Brown and Bart Ehrman.

Catholic A: Dan Brown is utterly devoid of any historical knowledge. His work is primarily one of fiction. Nobody can take him seriously from an historical perspective.

Presbyterian: And Bart Ehrman’s position can be addressed, allowing one to legitimately maintain the that we have the original readings of the autographs.

Sunni Muslim A: I don’t think so; your New Testament is corrupt, and the prophet Muhammad has restored the true message of God that was delivered unto Moses and Jesus.

Mormon: I’m a Latter-Day Saint and we would say that we have the true restoration of the words of Jesus.

Presbyterian: And we can know our message has not been corrupted and that neither of you have the truth teachings of Jesus for the same reason that we can say our New Testament is reliable.

Atheist: How can you say your New Testament is reliable when you have had so many translations and so many scribes have made errors in transmitting the New Testament? How do you know what was written down was really what Jesus and the apostles taught?

Presbyterian: Neither translations nor scribal errors impact the transmission of the New Testament. And we can know what was written is of apostolic origin.

Atheist: How so?

Presbyterian: Because the New Testament message was proclaimed in the first century all across the Roman Empire, so the message was known orally and was not contained in only one region. If someone came with a message that was contrary to that which the apostles delivered, and some like the Gnostics did, then the communities to whom the message of the apostles was proclaimed would immediately recognize the alteration in the message. Also, if a scribe made an alteration, deliberate or not, that would not impact the various manuscripts elsewhere throughout the world. So, one can identify a scribal error or some other variant, by comparing it to the rest of the manuscripts that have survived from different parts of the world.

Atheist: What if someone collected all the manuscripts, burned the originals and altered the New Testament text?

Presbyterian: You mean like Caliph Uthman did with the Quran?

Sunni Muslim A: We may deal with Islam another time, stop avoiding his question and provide an answer, if you have one.

Presbyterian: There was never a time that one person had control over all the manuscripts of the New Testament. So, no such thing could have ever happened.

Atheist: Among all your variants, how do you know the original text survived?

Presbyterian: In the case of variants, it is not that we don’t have the original reading. There is no evidence to believe the original reading has been lost. In fact, the problem is just the opposite. We have too many readings. Among the variants, however, we have the original. It is like a one-million-piece puzzle with one million and one thousand pieces. All of the original pieces are there, but it is the job of the textual critic to determine which is most likely the original reading.

Sunni Muslim A: “Which is most likely the original reading”. Notice those words. You don’t know which reading is original, it is guess work.

Reformed Baptist: If I can interject, I’m a Reformed Baptist and I’d say it is not “guesswork”, as there are very logical principles used in textual criticism to determine which reading is the original. However, these variants do not affect doctrine.

Catholic A: I would agree these variants do not affect doctrine, but how do you determine what is orthodox doctrine and what is heresy from your perspective?

Magisterium

Eastern Orthodox: I’m sure me and my Oriental Orthodox friend would be interested in hearing an answer to that last question, as well.

Anglican: Before you answer, I’m an Anglican. I belong to the conservative branch so please don’t lump me together with the liberal leaning Anglicans. I think we are getting off topic. Can we return to the original question?

Reformed Baptist: We are off track, but I think it is a fair question and I’d like to answer it. We believe in the perspicuity of Scripture. So, we believe Scripture is clear in all matters of essential doctrine, and able to guide the Christian in such matters.

Anglican: Aren’t you begging the question? How do you know what is essential doctrine?

Reformed Baptist: Scripture is clear on what is essential and what is not. Anything central to the Gospel is an essential. So, the Trinity would be an essential doctrine because it directly affects the nature of salvation and the atonement, but whether we use the normative principle or regulative principle in worship is adiaphora.

Anglican: Can you explain those terms?

Reformed Baptist: The regulative principle is that we worship God only according to the pattern found in Scripture and the normative principle is that we can worship God in ways not prescribed in Scripture, as long as they don’t violate Scripture. Adiaphora refers to a doctrine that is not essential but is one on which two Christians can legitimately agree to disagree.

Catholic A: I’d highly contest that Scripture is clear on the essentials. You would say justification is essential to the gospel but you Protestants have a major justification controversy going on with the New Perspective on Paul. Plus, Martin Luther’s view of justification was not found prior to himself, so it is debatable whether Scripture is clear on such matters. However, you can’t even tell me which books belong in the Bible in order to make determinations on doctrine.

Eastern Orthodox: I’d agree with my Catholic friend here.

Catholic A: That is great, but you and I differ on this matter, believe it or not.

Eastern Orthodox: How so?

Catholic A: Because, both of us agree an ecumenical council can determine what is dogmatic and essential to the Christian faith, but you Orthodox don’t agree with each other on what constitutes an ecumenical council. It is we Catholics alone who can provide an answer to this question.

Eastern Orthodox: We believe that the teachings of an ecumenical council must be received over time.

Oriental Orthodox: Received by whom? We clearly don’t accept your fourth ecumenical council, and the rest after that.

Eastern Orthodox: Our two communions have agreed the schism between us was mainly semantics and that our two communions should be restored to Eucharistic communion.

Oriental Orthodox: That is what some in our communions say, while others disagree.

Catholic A: You speak of reception, but I’d agree with the Oriental Orthodox that your position is arbitrary because it begs the question, received by whom? If you say, “the Orthodox”, then your reasoning is circular because you define who is Orthodox by who receives the first seven ecumenical councils as normative and apostolic. Furthermore, not all Orthodox have accepted your view of receptionism, as other methods have been proposed throughout history. You Orthodox do not have a clear answer to this question, while we Catholics have an answer because we recognize it is the Pope who determines which council is ecumenical.

Reformed Baptist: We recognize ecumenical councils are important, but we subject them to the authority of Scripture.

Anglican: I agree that ecumenical councils are subject to Scripture, but I would disagree with you on the number of ecumenical councils. I accept the first seven, while you accept the first four.

Catholic A: I’m not sure how you agree with the Reformed Baptist because you earlier noted essential doctrine cannot be determined by Scripture alone but now your saying an ecumenical council is subordinate to Scripture. So, how do you know what is an essential doctrine?

Anglican: We believe in the branch theory, and that is the view that Catholics, Orthodox and Anglicans/Protestants are all branches of the one tree, or the one Church. What we all share in common and what we all consider essential is what is essential to the faith.

Charismatic Christian: I’ve heard of that before, I think that is called “mere Christianity.” I’m a Charismatic Christian, by the way.

Anglican: Yes, that is correct.

Reformed Baptist: This notion of “mere Christianity” is arbitrary and it also leaves one with very few points of agreement, because we don’t agree on the Trinity, we don’t agree on the atonement, we don’t agree on ecclesiology, we don’t agree on justification, we don’t agree on Scripture, and many other matters of dispute.

Catholic A: Well said, so how do we determine what is essential?

Charismatic Christian: We simply have to be guided by the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures. He will place on our heart the true message.

Catholic A: So, since Luther and Calvin couldn’t agree on the canon and on the Eucharist, one of them didn’t have the Holy Spirit?

Charismatic Christian: I don’t really study them much, so I can’t say. But, I do believe the Holy Spirit is who guides us in this matter.

Catholic A: But your begging the question. How do you know who has the Holy Spirit?

Presbyterian: I think it is important for us to look at church history on this subject. I don’t believe church tradition is equal to Scripture, as I would maintain the primacy of Scripture or prima scriptura. But, I do believe church history is a good criterion on how to read Scripture correctly.

Catholic B: I would agree that Sacred Scripture is the primary rule of faith and that everything in Sacred Tradition is in Sacred Scripture, so I don’t think we are far off from each other.

Catholic A: I suppose you affirm the material sufficiency of Scripture, but not all Catholics hold to that view.

Eastern Orthodox: Some of us would also maintain what you are calling the material sufficiency of Scripture.

Catholic A: But again, how do we know which books are part of Scripture. We Catholics have an answer while you Orthodox don’t have a settled canon, since you don’t have a magisterium or a way of identifying ecumenical councils.

Eastern Orthodox: You said earlier that you Catholics don’t have a “settled” canon.

Catholic A: Perhaps, but as I said before, we do have a definitive position on the Deuterocanonicals, on the Protocanonicals and on the New Testament. We simply have not determined the canonicity of a few extra books. This is a far cry from you Orthodox, who dispute the canonicity of the Deuterocanonicals. Plus, we have a mechanism to determine the canon question, while you Orthodox, as I’ve noted, do not have such a mechanism. Perhaps we have not used our mechanism to determine an answer to every question yet, but we at least have such a mechanism.

Eastern Orthodox: What good is your magisterium when you don’t use it? Your current pope seems not only reluctant to proclaim any definitive teachings but reluctant to even maintain what you Catholics have generally maintained through the ages. Think here of contraception and divorce and remarriage.

Catholic A: Odd you would bring those issues up since they are the very matters you Orthodox have waffled on. Plus, you Orthodox have different views of the role of the papacy and have canonized saints from the first millennium who taught papal supremacy. At least we can sort through these matters if we employ our mechanism. You Orthodox simply don’t have a definitive mechanism for determining orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Ours is one of moral failure, as we have failed to employ the magisterium in some matters that need a definitive answer, while yours is one of a complete inability to settle any doctrinal dispute. Not to mention that you all have no central point of unity, so the lines of communion are often blurred, and confusion and doctrinal and/or jurisdictional disputes reign supreme.

Atheist: Do you all see how I might not be persuaded by your message when you can’t even agree on what is essential?

Morality

Lutheran: I’m a Lutheran and though we may have doctrinal problems, have you considered that you don’t have a way of knowing what is good or what is evil without a supreme being?

Atheist: I believe I can. Society determines what is good and what is evil.

Lutheran: Was Nazi Germany right in determining the Final Solution was good?

Atheist: Ah, Godwin’s Law, there it is!

Messianic Jew: I find it odd you would note the Final Solution, given how anti-Semitic Martin Luther was.

Lutheran: We don’t agree with Luther on that issue. He was fallible and a product of the culture of his time.

Messianic Jew: What about the others in church history who maintained anti-Semitism?

Lutheran: It is important to note many in church history were not anti-Semitic but were anti-Judaism. They weren’t against the Jewish people as much as they were against Judaism after the advent of Christ.

Atheist: What of the crusades.

Catholic A: These were mostly overblown. They were primarily a response to Islam and the Catholic Church never sanctioned the persecution of the Jews during the crusades. In fact, many popes have established measures to protect the Jewish people.

Atheist: I wish our Muslim friend was still on the train to respond. Perhaps another will come shortly. But we are off track again.

Catholic A: We would maintain one can know what is moral versus what is immoral by the natural law and by supernatural revelation. We also believe that one of the proofs for the existence of God, according to Saint Thomas Aquinas, is that if you have a sense of good or bad, better or worse, then your understanding has to be measured by some ultimate good that is the ground and measure of all goodness.

Kantian Philosopher: How can you know there is an ultimate good? This requires that we can know causality but everything in the world outside our minds, the noumenal realm, can only be known through our minds. So, we can’t know there is anything such as causation, since it is all subjective on our subjective minds.

Catholic A: Well, as a realist and a follow of Saint Thomas and Aristotle, I’d say our senses are reliable and there is no reason to doubt their ability to tell us what an object, in and of itself, is like. So we can know causality and my argument still stands. As for you, if you don’t know causality is really real, how can you maintain anything is good or evil and how can you function as a human being?

Kantian Philosopher: I can know what is good because of the categorial imperative, which is the notion that there are certain things which are necessary and if necessary then we have a notion of morality. Since God is the author of this imperative, we can still assert a proof for God. Also, I’m not sure what you mean by how asking can I function as a human being without believing in objective causality.

Catholic A: Sounds to me like you just used an argument from causality. God created the categorical imperative, and we can use it to find our way back to God. As far as functioning as a human being, I mean if I were to punch you in the face in this very moment, and take your wallet, you would undoubtedly believe you really had money and that it wasn’t just some unknown object in the noumenal realm that was stolen from you. Furthermore, if you don’t believe causality is real, would you be willing to step in front of the train we are currently riding on and deny anything will happen to you? You simply function with the assumption that your senses are generally reliable and that you may know causality is real.

Atheist: Well, this is really getting interesting.

Sunni Muslim B: I am a Muslim and I would agree that we can know morality and that God is the ground for morality. I think that you, as an Atheist, have a serious problem in determining morality.

Presbyterian: Yet, you as a Muslim have a greater difficulty here since Islam teaches God is capricious.

Sunni Muslim B: And your god would not be omnipotent because He can’t change his laws.

Presbyterian: God’s omnipotence does not mean He can contradict Himself and the laws of morality that cannot change are based on God’s character.

Atheist: I’d like to know how any of you can speak of a good god when you all believe god commanded the Israelites to kill many men, women and children to dispossess people from the land of Palestine. However, this is my stop so we will have to continue this another time. hopefully, I’ll see some of you soon again, as I take this route often and some of your faces seem familiar. 

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