Monday, June 13, 2011

The Zealot

The zealot served as a messman aboard the Furman during her time in the Portsmouth area.  He was a good person and a diligent worker.  He spoke both English and Spanish well, and he routinely sent money home to his relatives in Puerto Rico.  He was also very religious, and he read the Bible every day.  I was never able to determine to what denomination he belonged, or if he even belonged to any real denomination at all.  He had acquired his belief somewhere, though.  One shipboard critic dismissed it as “storefront religion run by a self-appointed holy man with dubious credentials.”  Admittedly this sounded harsh, but there may have been something in it.

One day when I was eating alone in the mess hall, the zealot cornered me.  He wanted to talk about religion.  He knew that I was young, that I had an even younger wife, and that I had recently been sick.  He wanted to help me and hopefully save my soul.  Conceding that he had good intentions, I listened and asked questions.  I realized that this fellow had very little formal education and that his logical reasoning skills were weak, so I took everything he said with the proverbial grain of salt.

As he described his beliefs, they sounded reasonable enough.  He was a serious Christian of obvious sincerity.  This had long shown in his behavior and was confirmed by his remarks.  He longed to reach out to his shipmates and help them to see the light and be saved, but, he admitted, he was often unsure of how to do this.  He seemed comfortable with me, though, and he spoke at some length.  When I mentioned that besides himself several fellows aboard the Furman were church-attending scripture-reading Christians, his comfort level seemed to diminish and he became quite agitated.  “That no good,” he asserted.  “They go to wrong church.  They all going to burn in hell.”

This response startled me.  With his demonstrated sincerity of purpose, he hardly seemed like the type to arbitrarily consign fellow Christians to eternal hellfire on account of their denominational affiliation.  Yet he did, and very emphatically and repeatedly.  We had colleagues who were Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Episcopalian.  I protested that they were good men and good Christians just as he himself was, but to no avail.  “That don’t matter,” he reasserted.  “They still go to hell because they go to wrong church.  They need to be born again.  Then they go to right church and go to Heaven.”

Wow!  This uncharitable attitude towards fellow believers was more than I had expected from a casual lunchtime conversation.  I could not help but wonder, who taught him this?  Where did he acquire such a skewed and judgmental version of Christianity?  How can he believe this and be happy?  Then I recalled what the other fellow had said about storefront religion and dubious credentials.  Sadly, this good-intentioned man had fallen for it and was taking it seriously.  Then I wondered, if he’s relegating other Christians to eternal hellfire, what would he say of the Jews or the Muslims or of nonbelievers?  I really didn’t want to find out, and I didn’t dare ask.  I reckoned I’d heard enough already.

Such a belief system flew in the face of the Lord’s remarks to the contrary:

I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live:  And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die (John 11:25-26).

And furthermore,

God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.  For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved (John 3:16-17).

Why would a loving God create the human species and then sacrifice his son to save people from their own imperfections only to sentence millions of them to the eternal torments of hell for the capricious and arbitrary reason that they attended the “wrong church?”  The inconsistency and irrationality that this man’s belief imposed upon God were incompatible with much that the Lord had taught in the New Testament.  I did not understand how anyone could take such a belief seriously, yet obviously someone did.  This belief led me to think of the Lord’s caution about such an attitude:

Judge not, that ye be not judged.  For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again (Matt. 7:1-2).

The Joseph Smith translation of this injunction is a bit more clear, especially in a society wherein we are called upon to make judgments of one kind or another almost daily:

Judge not unrighteously, that ye be not judged: but judge righteous judgment (Matt. 7:2 JST).

Considering this man’s lack of education and obviously skewed religious training but good intentions, I was disinclined to judge him harshly.  He meant well, even if he did come across in an unchristian manner towards other Christians.  The real villain was the preacher who taught him this outlook.  He was one of the “false prophets which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves” (Matt. 7:15).  How sad that the Christian teachings of love, kindness, forbearance, and charity could be so perverted.  This unauthorized alteration of doctrine defied the stated purposes of God:

For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man (Moses 1:39).

So much kinder, more reasonable, and more consistent with the teachings of Christ is the missionary invitation to all members of the world’s faiths:

We love those of other churches.  We work with them in good causes.  We respect them. . . .To these we say in a spirit of love, bring with you all that you have of good and truth which you have received from whatever source, and come and let us see if we may add to it.1

This naturally raises the question, what would we add to what others already have? The answer is plenty.  The Furman was full of morally good and decent Christian men who through no fault of their own knew nothing about the restored fullness of the gospel.  The world at large is likewise full of such good people.  Rather than consign them to an eternity of torment that they have not merited, it seems infinitely more in the spirit of Christ to add the good that we have to the good that they have.  Sharing such good as the temple ordinances, the eternal nature of the family, additional scripture, ongoing revelation, the Word of Wisdom, the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthood, etc., is so much more constructive and uplifting than condemning people to “burn in hell” because “they go to wrong church.”  By adding “the plain and most precious parts of the gospel of the Lamb which have been kept back” (1 Nephi 13:32) to the Christian backgrounds of others, we are steering them clear of misguided preachers who would burden them with perverted doctrines and we are helping them to achieve the fullness of eternal life.

Had the zealot aboard the Furman known that so much could have been added to faith that he already had, I think he would have been a much happier person, and with his enthusiasm for sharing the gospel, he would have made a great missionary.

1 Gordon B. Hinckley, General Conference address, Oct. 6, 2002, in Discourses of President Gordon B. Hinckley, vol. 2, pp. 198-199, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2005.

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