For a while, I’ve felt that fundamentalism is works-based.
I don’t mean that as the typical accusation thrown against fundamentalism — the legalistic rules about not drinking or dancing.
I mean that, to me, there’s something in their view of Scripture and belief that makes that sort of Christianity burdensome, wearying, and, well, a striving of one’s own — works-based salvation.
Essentially, they turn belief into a work.
Fundamentalist salvation is knowledge-based. It’s dependent upon knowing and believing the Bible. We didn’t learn spiritual discipline in fundamentalist Baptist Sunday school; we learned apologetics. We learned how to defend Scripture against a secular world which would undermine our faith in the Bible.
Initial salvation came, in part, from hearing the Word rightfully preached and acknowledging it in your heart as true. The rest of your Christian life was dedicated to knowing why you believe what you believe in order to convince — sorry, convert — people to the truth of God’s Word.
And everything, everything hinged on you interpreting the Bible correctly — our country’s future, the survival of the church, the salvation of your friends, and, of course, your own salvation.
The more liberal-minded fundamentalists divided Biblical truths into two categories: salvation issues and non-salvation issues. This comforted us when faced with friends and family who, oddly, refused to acknowledge that the truth as we saw it was truth. If we only disagreed on non-salvation issues, we didn’t have to worry about their salvation. And if we ourselves were confused about a minute issue of theology, no worries — there was room for error with those sorts of non-salvation issues.
Of course, not everybody was as liberal-minded as my friends and family. Not everybody agreed on what counted as a salvation issue.
When I was a teenager, obsessed with the pursuit of truth, willing to believe and fight for anything, no matter how crazy or unjust, as long as I was convinced it was true — back in those days, we debated about whether creationism was a salvation issue or not.
On the one hand, believing evolution was obviously an egregious refusal to recognize the literal reading of Genesis 1 and 2, and, frankly, how can someone with a brain and the Spirit of God not see that? But, theoretically (not that we knew anybody like this, but theoretically), some real Christians might be duped by evolutionist lies. God can save anybody. You never know.
So we decided that there might be a handful of Christians out there who believed in evolution, but yeah, for the most part, it’d be impossible to be a Christian and an evolutionist at the same time.
I discussed this with my college-aged youth group leader, no doubt trying to impress him with my discernment and compassion.
“It’s obviously a huge issue,” I was rattling on, “because there’s really no way you can understand Genesis 1 and 2 as anything but a literal six day creation, but I don’t think it’s a salvation issue.”
“No,” he said flatly. “It’s impossible to be a Christian and believe in evolution.”
And then he questioned my salvation for even considering the possibility that someone could possibly be Christian and an evolutionist at the same time.
I fled, out of the church, behind the brick walls, and sobbed my heart out.
That is the time, in my memory, when the fundamentalist burden first perched on my shoulders.
This wasn’t theology, of course. Nobody said that your salvation depended upon your knowledge, upon a certain set of salvation issues, but it did. We all knew it.
Which is why, I think, I got into theology in the first place. I wanted to know the truth. That was the only way I would know God, and the only way I could escape the torment of wondering each night if I would wake up in hell the next morning.
There are several factors for why fundamentalists link correct knowledge (i.e., Biblical truth) to salvation. Basically, their syllogism is this: the Bible is clear and easy to understand to those who are of God. If you don’t find it clear or easy, you’re not of God.
Your relationship to the Bible determines your relationship with God
The problem with this sort of salvation is that somebody always has a more conservative, plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face interpretation of the Bible — a literalism to rival mainstream fundamentalism.
My husband was the first to point this out to me.
A chemist who learned biology from the faculty who sat next to us at College Baptist or St. Anthony’s every Sunday, he never understood my insistence on a literal six day creation. To him, it was both bad science and bad theology: the means of how God created couldn’t take away from the fact that God created.
The other day, he found a PDF of all the reasons why the earth is flat, according to the Bible. It was an even more radical Answers in Genesis, with the same basic argument: the Bible guides our view of reality, period, and the Bible says x. Therefore, x is the truth, no matter what evidence contradicts it. And, by the way, science supports this too — isn’t it funny how God works? Just look at the evidence with an open mind and ask God to help you see.
P.S. Anyone who believes the earth is round isn’t saved. Good luck!
The old anxiety came. My husband found me in the bedroom, scrolling through variation after variation of “Ten Proofs the Earth Is Round.”
“What are you doing?” he asked me. “Stop. Come shopping with me.”
“I have to know if it’s true.”
“Bailey!” he laughed, nervously. “Stop. Why are you doing this? Let’s go.”
“I have to know if it’s true.”
He didn’t realize that what was to him an instance of stupidity on the internet was to me the trigger to my sleeping fundamentalism.
And there I was again, as if under brainwashed compulsion, considering a conspiracy-riddled, catastrophized, ridiculous belief…because what if it’s actually true?
It clicked for me: the fundamentalist link between knowledge of certain Biblical truths and your salvation will never bring comfort. You always have to be studying, always have to be discerning, always have to keep rehashing the same arguments over and over again, because if you get in a car crash today and die and you believe the wrong thing, it’s too late.
You can’t afford to be wrong.
Recently, a woman asked a group of egalitarians how to deal with this fear. She liked the idea of egalitarianism, it seemed Biblical, but she couldn’t get over this: what if she was wrong? She was terrified of that possibility.
Because, in fundamentalism, your love for others, your love for God, your good intentions, your desire to know the truth at all costs — none of that matters (because good works don’t get you saved, see) if you don’t actually know the truth.
God doesn’t factor in your frailness, your journey, your intellectual or social or even spiritual roadblocks to understanding the truth.
But by the way, don’t rely on your knowledge either, because even if you know all the right things and do all the right things, Jesus can still say to you, “Depart from me, for I never knew you.”
But don’t worry! The peace of God brings certainty! Stop striving! Why do you feel the need to question your salvation?
That is the most wearying, oppressive part of this whole mindset: even though it demands the unconditional understanding, accepting, and promoting of the truth in order to be saved, it will never be enough.
They’ll get you for something — for doubting, for asking questions, for disagreeing with them, for not agreeing with them as quickly as you should, for just “seeming” to be someone who isn’t saved.
You’re never safe to stop your search. Just when you’ve accepted creationism, you get slammed for believing in a round earth, you heathen.
I heard it from my youth group leader, personally.
My family, one of three families attending the church, heard it from the pulpit: “I just get the feeling that some of you aren’t really saved.”
I heard it last summer, when someone kindly informed me that my intellectualism had blinded me from actually knowing God.
When I got that email, I screamed. I screamed for a lifetime of never knowing enough, not knowing enough, or believing enough.
“Why can’t I just love you?” I screamed at Jesus. “Why is that never enough?”