The Theology of Type 1 & Type 2 Errors: Deciding Who is Going to Hell

A large part of my day job is teaching statistics. I teach both undergraduate and graduate statistics classes. Theology--this blog--is really just a side hobby of mine. Little of what I talk about here on this blog makes it into my lectures on multiple regression, factor analysis, and Analysis of Variance.

But it is hard, at times, not to see theological issues emerging in my statistical lectures. Worlds collide was it were. For example, consider how Type 1 and Type 2 errors can help us think about who is going to heaven or hell.

What are Type 1 and Type 2 errors? When researchers look at trends in data sets they have to make a decision about if the trend they are looking at is real or illusory. By "real" I mean that the trend is due to some underlying causal mechanism. However, trends can emerge in data by mere chance. Think of the constellations in the sky. We see patterns up there--the figures of the Zodiac--but the patterns are the product of random forces.

In short, given our knack for seeing order in chaos researchers need tools to determine if a given trend is real or illusory. In the social sciences this tool is called Null Hypothesis testing. The Null Hypothesis is the assumption that the trend you are seeing, despite appearances, is illusory. It is "due to chance." Generally, an Alternative Hypothesis is pitted against the Null Hypothesis. The Alternative Hypothesis is the assumption that the trend is real, due to some systematic relationship between the two variables.

In Null Hypothesis Testing you assess the viability of the Null (by using probabilities) to see if the Null or the Alternative Hypothesis is the best explanation for what you are seeing. Starting with the Null the researcher faces one of two choices: Reject or Fail to Reject the Null. If you reject the Null you think the Alternative hypothesis is the best explanation for the data: You think the trend you are seeing is real. If you Fail to Reject the Null you stick with the Null and conclude that the trend you are seeing is illusory, likely due to chance.

Now what is interesting about all this is that the whole process is error-prone. You could reject the Null (think the trend is real) when, in fact, the trend was illusory. Or, you could think the trend is illusory (fail to reject the null) when, in fact, the trend is real.

In short, there are two kinds of mistakes you can make. The first is called a Type 1 error when you reject the Null (consider the trend to be real) when the Null is true (trend is actually illusory). The second is a Type 2 error when you fail to reject the Null (consider the trend illusory) when the Null is false (the trend is actually real).

Personally, I find this language confusing. An easier way to think of it is to note that Type 1 errors are "false positives": You make a positive claim but are wrong (i.e., you claim the trend is real but it is not). A Type 1 error is like crying wolf. You reject the Null and cry "Eureka!" But you are wrong. You didn't make the discovery you thought you made. Conversely, Type 2 error is a "false negative." Instead of crying wolf a Type 2 error is a Trojan Horse kind of mistake. You didn't raise the alarm, but you should have. You missed the threat (or that trend in the data set).

To illustrate all this I draw the following table on the board a couple of times a year:
Again, that table isn't very easy to understand so I use the following illustration to help my students get the logic of Type 1 and Type 2 errors. Imagine, I say, a guy who has just started dating a girl. He remembers that on their first date she mentioned that her birthday was coming up this week. But the guy can't remember the exact day. It might be today. Or maybe not. Embarrassed to admit to her that he didn't remember he decides to make a guess. He has two choices. When he sees her today he can say "Happy Birthday!" Or he can say nothing, hoping that today isn't her birthday. The reality behind the situation is pretty simple: Either today is her birthday or it isn't.

The four possible outcomes--guesses plotted against reality--are given below:
Saying "Happy Birthday!" when it is not her birthday is like a Type 1 error. It is a false positive: I'm saying it is your birthday when, in fact, it isn't.

Conversely, staying quiet when today is her birthday is like a Type 2 error. It is a false negative: Today is my birthday and you said nothing to me, you missed it.

Now at this point you are probably wondering, what does any of this have to do with theology? Well, the interesting thing in all this is that Type 1 and Type 2 errors are pretty much everywhere. And they often occur when you have to make decisions about people. Think about hiring practices or college admissions. On the front end you have to make a choice: Will they thrive or fail? After the selection (the hire or admission) the reality unfolds. They either do a good job or they don't. They either graduate or they don't. In short, whenever we make decisions about people we often make Type 1 and Type 2 errors. We hire people who flake out on us. Or admit people who can't make the grade. These are Type 1 errors, "false positives." But we also pass on people who would have made great hires. Or we deny admission to students who would have graduated. These are Type 2 errors, the "false negatives."

And here is where the theological application emerges. Christians often divide the world into two groups, the saints and the sinners. The saved and the lost. The church and the world. Think of this as a kind of "admissions decision." Are you "accepted" into the "church" or not?

And these are not trivial considerations. How does the church define where its borders will be? Where does the right hand of fellowship begin and end? How inclusive or exclusive should we be? Who needs to be evangelized? Who is going to heaven and who is going to hell?

Importantly, Type 1 and Type 2 errors will be involved in this process. There will be people we fellowship who, in the eyes of God, stand under judgment. These are Type 1 errors. For example, many of my conservative readers likely think that my recent posts about same-sex marriage are courting a Type 1 error: Extending grace into an area that, in reality, stands under God's judgment. However, we can also make Type 2 errors. We might condemn or disfellowship people when, in fact, God's grace has welcomed these people into the church. In short, while a conservative reader might think I'm making a Type 1 error, I think, given how I see things, that he is making a Type 2 error.

The problem is, this side of heaven no one knows who is right or who is wrong. Which is frustrating for all parties. But I think something more can be said about the matter. Specifically, although we don't know in a given case if we are making a Type 1 or Type 2 error we can choose the kinds of errors we will generally make. And this raises a very interesting question: Knowing we are going to make errors, what kind of errors should we make? What should be our theology of error?

Let me explain what this looks like.

As I said above, Christians, while looking at individuals and groups, make judgments regarding the saintliness of other people. Are these other people "Christians" or not? Likely, these judgments are a mix of doctrinal and moral observations. What do these people believe and what do they do with their lives? Plot these judgments on a horizontal axis, from sinners to saints.

At the same time Christians are making these judgments, God is making his own judgments. Plot God's judgments on a vertical axis, also going from sinners to saints.

With both axes plotted we have something like the following, with the red dots representing people or communities:
A couple of observations about this diagram. What I'm trying to show here is that, while there is some agreement between God and the judging Christian, there is also some discrepancy between human and divine judgments. That is, when humans see someone as virtuous or wicked God, for the most part, agrees. However, the association isn't perfect. We might see someone a very virtuous while God knows him to be hypocrite. Or, we might label someone a "sinner" where God sees this person as a saint. That is, generally vice is vice and virtue is virtue, in heaven and on earth. But there are locations of disagreement. Our perceptions of morality don't always align with God's perspective.

Now, in light of these judgments Christians have to make a choice, grouping people into the categories of Saved or Lost. In statistical language, the point at which this judgment is made is called the selection ratio:
You can think of the selection ratio as a kind of "cut off" score where a decision is made. Like a minimum SAT or ACT score for a college admission. Scores above the cut off are "selected," admitted to the college. Scores below the selection ratio are denied admission.

But the selection ratio isn't the only thing in play. In heaven God has his own opinion about who is Lost or Saved. And God's decision is going to define the ultimate outcome. In statistical language God's decision is called the base rate. God's base rate is represented below:
With these ideas in hand we can now see how the church can make Type 1 and Type 2 errors. Specifically, using some sort of selection ratio the church carves up the world into the Saved and the Lost. The former are called "the church" and the latter are objects of judgment and evangelism. But behind all this is God's base rate, his own judgments about who he will or will not save. And, given that human and divine opinions are not in 100% agreement (due to our human limitations), we have the possibility for error. That is, we might see someone as Lost who, in the end, God will Save. Or, we can see someone as Saved who, in the the end, God will damn. These errors can be seen when we plot the selection ratio and the base rate together:
These errors are just like the Type 1 and Type 2 errors encountered above:
Okay, we are nearing the theological payoff of these observations. Here's the important point: By adjusting the selection ratio we can affect the kinds of errors we will make. We have two choices.

One thing we can do is adjust the selection ratio upward, moving it rightward. This is what we call "raising standards." As the selection ratio moves toward the right fewer and fewer people are selected because the standards are going up. Think again of college admissions. If we raise the SAT/ACT scores we move the selection ratio to the right. This reduces our overall admissions as we become more "selective."

The advantages and disadvantages of increasing the selection ratio are obvious. On the downside we are reducing quantity. But on the upside we are improving quality. And by improving quality we are reducing a kind of error. Specifically, we are reducing our Type 1 error rate. We are making fewer "false positives." By increasing quality standards we aren't admitting people who can't make the cut.

However, and this is the key insight, in decreasing our Type 1 errors we have increased our Type 2 errors. By becoming more selective we've eliminated our false positives but have increased our false negatives. That is, we are turning away more and more students from the school when many of these students would have been successful if we had admitted them.

This is, incidentally, a model for how conservative churches are handling the judgments of Saved and Lost. Conservative churches have increased the selection ratio, they raise holiness and/or doctrinal standards. And they do this to be "conservative," to reduce false positives. They want to be sure to fellowship only the true Christians. They don't want to waste fellowship on the Lost. This strategy is shown below:
By increasing their standards of fellowship the conservative church has become more choosy.

The trouble, as we see in the figure above, is that when you move the selection ratio rightward you are, indeed, decreasing false positives. However, while you are reducing false positives you are increasing your number of false negative (Type 2) errors. That is, by raising standards you are disfellowshiping many Christians whom God will save. You think a lot of people on earth are going to hell when, in fact, they are going to be with you in heaven. In short, heaven is going to be a lot more crowded than your selection ratio led you to believe.

So what happens when you lower standards, becoming more inclusive as we see in many liberal churches? This is what happens when you move the selection ratio leftward:
As you can see, when you move the selection ratio to the left, fellowshiping more and more people, you systematically reduce your false negative errors. By casting such a broad net of fellowship you "catch" all the Saved. But your inclusiveness also catches a lot of the Lost. That is, in reducing your false negatives you've increased your false positives. Just the opposite situation we saw in the conservative church.

Finally we can see the point I made above. That is, although we can never know when and where we are making errors (i.e., we don't know God's base rate) we can, generally speaking, choose the kinds of errors we will make. Specifically, we can increase or decrease our selection ratio. We can become more exclusive or inclusive. More sectarian or more ecumenical. So which direction should we go? Well, one way to make that decision is to think theologically about the kinds of errors related to those decisions. If we become more exclusive we make Type 2--false negative--errors. That is, we disfellowship actual saints. We've become stingy with God's grace. Conversely, if we become more inclusive we make more Type 1--false positive--errors. We extend fellowship to sinners. We've become too profligate with God's grace.

I think these patterns of errors can be evaluated on theological grounds. We can ask, should we be a Type 1 error (inclusive) or Type 2 error (exclusive) church? We have some control over this.

In my personal opinion, I think God wants me to be a Type 1 error person. I should err on the side of grace. True, my liberalism will cause me to extend grace where I shouldn't. I know I'm running a high Type 1 error rate. But I prefer this to the alternative: Running a high Type 2 error rate, being judgmental of people among whom God is at work. And I make these choices for a host of theological reasons. Call this my Nazareth Strategy. When people looked at Jesus and said "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" they were making Type 2 error. I don't want to make that kind of error. Because, yes, something good can come out of Nazareth and I want to spot it.

But of course, others might see this all differently. Regardless, I think this analysis highlights an important issue:

You are going to make errors about God's grace. You can't control that. So in light of that fact, what kinds of errors are you going to make?

Because you do have some control over that.

On to Part 2: Divine Base Rates and the Great Drama of Salvation

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48 thoughts on “The Theology of Type 1 & Type 2 Errors: Deciding Who is Going to Hell”

  1. Nice presentation - it underlines the failure of binary decisions. I try to work with what I have and whoever I meet - the opportunities for grace are manifold. I don't believe in 'going' as a future, but in presence as a divine and human reality. There is a circle of hell and we have been there. There are opening and closing brackets on judgment and hell in the psalter (early and late Davidic psalms 3-7, 9-11 and 138-145). It is from out of judgment and shame that we are redeemed and through which we learn and by which we warn ourselves and others. Takes psalm 38 for instance as a reminder of psalm 6. O Lord rebuke me not in your wrath. We are told specifically in the sermon on the mount and by the epistle to the Romans and of James - not to judge. If anyone comes singly or in pairs to this God of Jesus Christ, then this God is able to deal with each and every one and will teach the body's grace even if the local assembly knows zilch about it.

  2. Great post, especially as an apology for Type 1 living. Coupled with your earlier post - "What God would say" - as well as the posts on Game Theory, we can ponder the scriptural evidence for God's attitudes toward us as we err and the role of fear in our choices between Type 1 and Type 2 approaches.

    Again we are invited to ask this question, though: is "erring on the side of grace" identically a matter of binary choices? Human behavior and discernment are more complicated than that, in general, and it's often possible to conceive of "solutions" that are thoroughly grace-infused (solicitude toward the individual as a divinely beloved creature) but that can still claim a certain moral rigor (solicitude toward society's need for order amid chaos).

    I've been doing a lot of reading on Game Theory (thanks primarily to your wonderful series on that), and I guess in those terms what I'm referring to is analogous to "mixed strategies" as opposed to "pure strategies." It's not a perfect analog, but it gets close enough: the options available to me as a moral agent, especially when dealing with real people and real struggles and weaknesses, occupy more of a continuum than a discrete solution space. In that case, my available strategies are not (0,1) but [0...1] - perhaps with R>1 dimensions! - and although my overall character can be described IN PART as the central tendency of my P[0...1], we have to consider a great deal more than that to understand my character fully and to evaluate it in light of the grace and mercy of Jesus.


  3. And this: do you seek to *minimize* your Type 2 errors? If so, your Nash Equilibrium is to reduce your selection ration to zero, where a Type 2 error has negligible probability.

    If you don't set it to zero, then you have tacitly made at least SOME arbitrary decision about a level of risk you're willing to accept. On what basis do you make that judgment?


  4. Great post, Richard. I love seeing the thoughtful application from your work knowledge to your faith knowledge. I do take issue on two levels, both of which are fairly visceral.

    Firstly, based on the all-too-often public disgracing of church leaders and Christ's motley crew of friends and beneficiaries, and contrasted with the judgment calls of churches in my conservative background, I have to call your implication that the overlap between a the average churchgoer's judgment and God's judgment into question into question. There be dragons here as well as we're allowing a self-selected group to decide on heavenly admission, which can quickly turn to "Those who admitted are those most like myself."

    Secondly, I try and avoid this type of thinking altogether. As Bob says, your post "underlines the failure of binary decisions." I've seen too many times where this thinking has led people who speak of extraordinary grace to travel a road of overly-simplistic behavioral judgments. Additionally, with my level of knowledge, I'm simply not interested in becoming the arbiter of eternity. Instead, I've adopted a different goal of **attempting to bring everyone I meet, regardless of standing, closer to God, and attempting to draw near to God through them.**

    Despite these concerns, I love your conclusion, and I find myself consistently fighting to make errors on the side of grace when I cannot avoid the judgments altogether. I've been searching for awhile for someone as thoughtful as yourself, and I can't wait to see the continued direction of your writing.

  5. I'm new to your blog; I enjoy reading it and the food for thought it opens up. Thank you for putting your "experimental theology" out in the open for us to ponder.

    I agree in principle with your conclusion to this post that we can control the kind of errors we make in judgment and that God would have us be more lenient than strict (e.g. "Judge not lest ye be judged"). Forgive me if I'm posting out of turn, but there are a couple of counterpoints I'd like to throw out.

    First, you assert that God's judgment, His "base rate," is the ultimate deciding factor. But you leave His judgment as an abstraction, an arbitrary line on a graph. Taking a Christian point of view, God has revealed critical information about His "base rate" of saved vs. lost in the teaching of Christ. So when we define our human "selection ratio," it is not merely a theoretical line in the sand. I would suggest that Christians should firstly align our "selection ratio" as closely as possible with the divine "base rate" as revealed in the scripture while allowing for leniency due to our human limited capacity to comprehend the divine. This approach would surely establish some upper and lower bounds on just where the selection ratio can be drawn.

    Second, you say that conservative Christians are conservative so as not "to waste fellowship on the Lost." This seems an overly cynical characterization. I would think it fairer to say that conservative Christians are conservative so as not to lose the standards of the Truth. At some point "leniency" would become "compromise," wouldn't it?

  6. The fundamental flaw here is thinking that God either saves or damns based on his assessment of the saintliness or sinfulness of the individual. Positing that God has a cutoff level of saintliness, above which you are saved and below which you are damned, is salvation by works, and is entirely contrary to scripture.

  7. Joshua, thanks for this.

    To clarify a bit, this post is largely playful. Not to say that the background issues are unimportant, but the whole either/or nature of the post is pretty poor theology.

    The origin of the post came from one of my classes. One day I was trying to explain Type 1 and Type 2 error and I, off the top of my head, came up with this example of liberal versus conservative churches trying to figure out who was going to hell. I was being playful, trying to come up with a metaphor that the students would remember and find interesting. After the lecture was over I thought to myself, "I should write that example up on the blog."

    And here it is.

  8. Well, thought-provoking and well-written nonetheless. I haven't been following along here long enough to have an adequate perception of what might be in jest.

    Great post! :)

  9. But you leave His judgment as an abstraction, an arbitrary line on a graph. Taking a Christian point of view, God has revealed critical information about His "base rate" of saved vs. lost in the teaching of Christ. So when we define our human "selection ratio," it is not merely a theoretical line in the sand. I would suggest that Christians should firstly align our "selection ratio" as closely as possible with the divine "base rate" as revealed in the scripture...

    That's a great point. One I thought of while brushing my teeth today. So a second post is on the way dealing with the base rate.

  10. Do you believe that our salvation is based on God's evaluation of the degree to which we have lived up to the teachings in the Sermon on the Mount?

  11. In my opinion, God calls us to embrase all sinners. Why be afraid of commiting any "error"? Our alpha level should be 1, Richard.

  12. While I certainly appreciate the spirit of this post (and I love a good discussion of statistical theory), it does sort of make me want to scream: "Saved" is not a Boolean variable!!

  13. Dr. Beck,

    I am very appreciative of your thought provoking posts. And thank you for simplifying the statistics.

    Through my growth since I have been in college, I have come to the realization that my opinion of who is saved or not and my standard of such is of absolutely no importance. And I am very thankful that I do not have to make those decisions. I have found that when we try to classify people as saved and unsaved, we (myself included) might be more inclined to treat "them" (yes a reference to Us against Them) differently than we should. Maybe we don't have as much faith in "them" as much as we should, or love "them" as much as we are called to. Again, I'm not saying everyone does that, I have just experienced it before. That is why in my life now I try to extend love without discrimination.

    For clarification, you mention that you might tend to extend too much grace. Would love be a better term? Or maybe you mean, showing God's grace? I think I might just be confused with the wording, I am an accounting major for a reason.

  14. One thing I've found to be a differential in the salvation assessment framework is the way "belief in Christ" is understood. One way it's understood, mostly in conservative evangelical churches, is to be primarily an acknowledgment of the facts of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, and the meaning attached to those facts. The faith professed is then lived out accordingly ... theoretically. Another way, as with MacDonald, belief is to take Jesus' life and words as if He meant them, to "take up one's cross and follow Him," and thus believe Christ Himself, life lived out in faith by following Christ, engaging heart, mind, soul, strength/loving neighbor as self ... not merely acknowledging the facts of His history. So depending on now one sees what it means to become/be a Christian, it changes the angle by which one defines the look of salvation in others.

  15. Though the conservative position you outline here isn't mine anymore and I share your desire to decrease the selection ratio, I do think it's worthwhile to mention some other possible reasoning behind the conservative desire to limit who counts as saved.

    Specifically, some conservative Christians would argue that Type 1 errors are actually at least as harmful as Type 2 errors -- and this is not because there isn't enough grace to go around or even because they want to keep the community of faith uncontaminated.

    Rather, they'd argue, if we allow people who are not saved to have our affirmation in thinking that they actually are saved, then these people will not go on to take the necessary actions to become legitimately saved. Thus, the argument goes, we could be party to avoidable damnations by loosening the criteria.

    Type 1 errors, they'd continue, will cause a few people discomfort in this life because they miss out on our affirmation -- but who cares about that minor inconvenience if they get to go to heaven in the end? And wouldn't it be worthwhile to cause a few more people this temporary discomfort if it means that more people overall will be saved eternally because we keep the standards clear?

    Sure, a lot of less noble reasons (and just plain meanness) get mixed in, and it definitely has plenty of flaws (including a questionably rigid dichotomy between temporal and eternal), but there is at least some sort of reasoned argument for the conservative position.

  16. I have given your position a considerable amount of thought, and I have given this response a considerable amount of prayer. I have always respected your work as a research psychologist, and many of your posts have given me food for thought, so it upsets me to say this.

    I will not be returning to this blog.

  17. I found this very interesting, and I love your graphs. It takes time and effort to create a well-designed graph.

    Others have argued cogently about the assumptions you make in this post, so I will leave that to those wiser theologians. I just wanted to say that I have been wondering lately how statistics fits in with faith, so I find this application of statistics to one aspect of theology to be fascinating and fun. Sometimes I feel that I am living in cognitive dissonance, being a statistician (if a poorly trained one) and a Christian (also poorly trained!). In a broad sense, can we say that a particular phenomenon is random, and also believe in a God who gives purpose to the universe? If we believe in such a God, can we say anything is truly random? Does God have a random number generator? How would statistics deal with a miracle – assign a dummy variable? Just a few of the questions rolling around in my poorly trained head, with no answers looming into sight. Thanks for writing this blog to help me spend at least a little time thinking about these things.

  18. I would concede that "working out ones salvation" in day-to-day decisions is rarely black-and-white or "boolean," in terms of ultimate destinations, it seems to me that salvation is definitely a boolean question. In Luke 13:22-29, when asked about the number of those saved ("Will those who are saved be few?"), Jesus characterizes the saved as those "inside" the master's house and those unsaved as "outside," seeking to get in but unable to do so. There is no middle ground in Jesus' teaching on ultimate destinations: it is either destruction or life; deprivation or banqueting; pain or solace. These destinations are always opposite and mutually exclusive (those in one condition are prevented from entering into the other). This is stated explicitly in the parable of Lazarus in Luke 16:26. Is this not a boolean condition?

  19. Well, I think it is pretty clear when you read the Sermon on the Mount that, according to Jesus, your status in heaven will be determined by how well you follow the Sermon. So I conclude, in answering Charles' question, that, yes, my salvation is determined by my obedience to the Sermon on the Mount. And I believe this because that is what Jesus teaches.

    To be honest, this all seems pretty straightforward to me. I can't imagine any serious Christian thinking that the Sermon on the Mount and your relation to it isn't going to come up on Judgment Day. And in a pretty significant way.

  20. Reminds me of a skit the bible class kids put on at church- various people fronting up to St Peter and wanting to get in. The usual good living religious person turned away, the believer welcomed in, the thrust being that belief and acceptance of Jesus' PSA essential to salvation.

    I remarked to my wife later that Jesus did a similar sketch (aka parable), recorded in Matthew 25:31-46. Same scenario, but quite different outcomes. We decided that Jesus' sketch would not be acceptable in our church.

  21. I guess I'm confused because it seems to me that none of us follow it very well, so does that mean no one is going to Heaven? Or, does Jesus mean that the more we follow the Sermon the closer we will be to Heaven, bringing Heaven here? Thus, if we don't live like the sermon says, we are creating Hell around ourselves? I don't know.

    It does bother me if Jesus simply says that our salvation is measured by the Sermon on the Mount because I don't want to follow it because I am scared of Hell. I would want to follow it because ... well, just because it was good and beautiful.

    There honestly is something here that is confusing me, and I can't sort it out. And I'm not trying to be ornery. But thanks for trying to explain.

  22. also, I had never heard it really put that way before. that does *not* mean you are not right. I'd just never heard something quite like this before.

    But if you are right, then I bet Jesus hates me and wants me to go to hell. Because I try to follow the things in the Sermon on the Mount (the ones I can remember - currently taking a much needed break from the Bible). I try not to objectify or hate people like he said not to do. But I also fail all the time.

  23. No worries. I, too, find the whole thing confusing.

    Here's the deal. As best I can tell, the New Testament doesn't offer up a fully consistent system of salvation. I think is pretty hard to make the Sermon on the Mount reconcile with a variety of theories related to the atonement. And let's not even talk about the disagreement between Paul and James regarding the role of faith and works.

    So, to be perfectly honest, I don't know how to answer your question. A lot of people could give you an answer. They could, for instance, offer you Martin Luther's theory of "justification by faith." But that's a relatively new theory in the history of the church. And it's one that has trouble with Jesus and James. So I think, if you look at all the biblical data and hold it all in tension, you don't get something neat and clean. What you get is a set of tensions, a collection of magnetic poles that attract and repel each other. It is faith and works. The Sermon on the Mount and grace. How it all works I can't really say. And if anyone tells you that they know how it all works, how the answers here are neat and easy, well, he or she is either lying or seriously deluded.

    So where do I land on all this? Well, like I said, I think it is pretty straightforward: I try to follow the Sermon on the Mount as best I can. Of course, I fail miserably at this. But I keep trying. And I'm not trying to "earn" a thing or work my way into heaven. Who the hell thinks they could do that? I'm just trying to follow Jesus. Because, yes, I find his way intrinsically beautiful. And I'm also not trying to avoid hellfire. I'm trying to lose my life so that I might find it.

    But what is going to happen in light of all my failures? I don't know. I'm told by Jesus that God will forgive me as I forgive others. So I try my damnedest to forgive people. My soul, it appears, depends upon it. Yet I still hold grudges. I still struggle to forgive. But I'm convinced, given the weight of Scripture, that if I give the Sermon on the Mount my best then Jesus has got my back in all this. So I don't worry a lot about heaven or hell. I just get up each day and work on the Golden Rule. I'm confident that God will work out the rest.

    Seriously, that's it for me. I work on the Golden Rule and leave the rest up to God.

  24. About 30 years ago i endured a dreadful course in "library management" with a teacher who insisted, from the first day, that "everything can be quantified." i asked, "Jokes?" She just looked at me, blankly. Your statistical analysis of errors in human perception of ultimate destiny once more raises the question, "Can everything be quantified?"

    Close on 50 years ago, in that little college in Abilene, i enjoyed a wonderfully subversive course in "general semantics," which forever liberated me from the need to form generalizations about human groups and their ultimate destiny. When we speak of "heaven" and "hell" and God's judgment, consigning other human beings to eternal damnation or eternal bliss, based on our inherently fallible human perception, without concrete referents in our own experience, then we have climbed so far up the semantic "abstraction ladder" that the air is too thin to breathe.

    i have ever since admired Ambrose Bierce's definition of a "saint": "A dead sinner, revised and edited."

    God's Peace to you.


  25. I'd love to join you in your well written benefit of the doubt Joanna, but what I see, especially among the Christian right, is a deeply felt need to have an enemy; it's as if their very ground depends on it.

    What I see among the Christian right, is not so much a seeking of God for His Love, but for His size.

  26. Well said Patricia; I'm reminded of Matt. 25 where Jesus didn't recognize the ones with all the right Christian lingo, but the ones who without the benefit of such lingo, lived Christ's life in their lifting of the down trodden, these he recognized as His family.

  27. Thanks ... that does make more sense, even if I don't understand it any better! Seems like God and reality like to be messy and mysterious. Which somehow makes it easier to trust and get going with living life as it's meant to be lived.

  28. I love your questions here CHM- I would like to add to your questioning this idea: If we are co-creators with God, in a way that is truly profound, shouldn't we on the human side of the equation/partnership, be given the ability to shape or author a statistical environment?

    In other words, in a world that is more accurately described by the science of complexity, where events aren't so much caused by a linear chain of previous events as the, "next link in a chain", but rather *emerge* out of a nonlinear environment of events; that is the event has complex causation which can't always be neatly traced: and more, an event can be more than the sum of its parts.

    In a world constituted through complex causation, it seems to me that statistical frameworks point to our situation to be, not random, but emergent.

    What would it mean then, if the Kingdom of God was in reality, an emergent phenomenon, rather than a "caused" one?

    And more, what kind of environment would we need to create, so that it would be statistically favorable in fostering the emergence of a Kingdom of God environment?

  29. Thank you, Mike, You're right about the lingo. It's taken me a few years to deprogram from it myself.

    The churches that take the Gospel as a one-time acceptance, with salvation assured after the fact, have bred a legion of those who care for their prescribed doctrinal purity, but prove graceless, arrogant, and screechingly fearful when it comes to interactions with fellow humanity. They demand that all conversations end in what they want to hear. But if the Gospel is more than one-time mental acknowledgment, and more of a lifelong application, Jesus' words and teachings make more sense. If that's "works" then Jesus' own answer to it is in Matt. 7:21-27.

    My Dad died last year, and my mother is concerned that, although he had made a "profession of faith" as a child, as an adult he had told her he was not a Christian. So she has been in some angst and asked me what I thought about it this summer. I told her that, from my understanding, belief is not merely what you verbally profess, it's what you live out. She didn't like that, I think more for her own sake than my dad's.

  30. This makes me happy. I'm so glad I'm not the only one who thought these thoughts when I was taking multivariate analysis 30 years ago. I'm NOT a fourth standard deviant!! :)

  31. Generosity suggests that phenomenon might well be explained by considering the well established "publicly vocal minority/silent majority" idea. Not many people I know believe that; and if you look in the dictionary under "Christian Right," that's my portrait you see there. qb

  32. I consider myself a very generous fellow qb, and by your picture here would consider you deserving of generosity. When I looked up your citation though, I found your picture marred by graffiti written by people who obviously we're hampered by logs in their eyes.

    Their graffiti-ed slogans amounted to propaganda as they were sorely disconnected from reality, and only connected to ideology. Sadly, the graffiti obscured any language in your dictionary which might indeed connect to real things.

  33. What an utterly awful and offensive blog-post. You should stop imposing your fundamentalist views on liberal Christianity.

    We accept, welcome and include *all* because God loves and saves *all*. There is no "false-positive".

  34. Very interesting article.

    Dr. Beck you said in the comments:
    "Here's the deal. As best I can tell, the New Testament doesn't offer up a fully consistent system of salvation. I think it is pretty hard to make the Sermon on the Mount reconcile with a variety of theories related to the atonement. And let's not even talk about the disagreement between Paul and James regarding the role of faith and works."

    To me that's pretty profound. Most Christians I associate with might not agree with your statement, but would solve the dilemma through a theological system. This tension has bothered me for some time and I'm glad to hear you verbalize it to confirm I'm not just stupid :-)

  35. Where do you find that your salvation is determined by your obedience to the Sermon on the Mount?

    You are already talking over my head with your post....but I'd give you a statistical "zero" chance of salvation......if what you said is true.

  36. I know I'm late to this conversation, but as I read Scripture today, I see that Paul wrote most often about our reconciliation (atonement) accomplished through Jesus. Jesus tended to speak more about the quality of life He desired for us to experience (salvation) and warnings about the destructive traps He wished to rescue us from. With this perspective, there is no contradiction about "salvation" because we have been reconciled in Christ and we experience the reality of life in the kingdom to the degree that we follow Him and His words to us.

  37. Sorry for this late post, but this subject is way too important (to me) not to comment. First of all, this is a beautiful illustration, and that graph of Divine Judgment vs. Human Judgment nicely sums up our soteriological attitudes relative to God and others.

    I think the first crucial error might occur with where we place the HORIZONTAL cutoff line (Divine Judgment) relative to OURSELVES. Generally, I don't think we place the HORIZONTAL cutoff line high enough. I don't think it takes too much digging Scripturally to argue that NOBODY touches/surpasses the HORIZONTAL cutoff line.
    It's possible that many of us are mistakingly making a Type 1 error concerning our own personal salvation while simultaneously making a Type 2 error concerning others (hypocrite - failing to judge others by the same measure we judge ourselves).

    If we took more of a Type 2 approach for ourselves (the tax collector who beat his breast), we might show more grace/mercy (in practice) to others.

    Gary Y.

  38. if one errors on the side of grace, telling a lost soul that they are saved, then the consequences are catastrophic. As a born-again Christian, I have been accused of being a grace hound for many years, but as I examine the reality of the curse, I have gotten to the point where I am confident of no ones salvation but my own. If I am wrong, what are the consequences? I might have offended a few people.

  39. I would say that if we make the choice to be more inclusive in our fellowship, while at the same time teaching the individual responsibility (which is borne out in the New Testament writings "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling") we have not brought about any catastrophic consequences.  Far from it!  We've instead executed on the command to go out into the highways and byways and compel them to come in.  Jesus certainly wasn't afraid to fellowship with prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers and other "undesirable" classes of folk and neither should we be afraid of following in his footsteps.

  40. I think I read somewhere that the definition of Christianity was living our lives in a way that would foster the emergence of God's Kingdom on earth..  or maybe your post just caused my "truth meter" to activate.  ;)

  41. Something is wrong here, and it's not your statistical analysis of human behavior.  Rather it's the behavior that your statistical analysis is predicated upon.  It's not the proper job of humans, saved or not, to assess the "savedness" or "savability" of our fellow humans!  Anytime we, as Christians, involve ourselves in a discussion of who "deserves" to be party to the state of salvation we enjoy, we are acting on the wrong side of God's grace.  We don't do the electing that makes the saved the elect.  God does.  It's our job to have our conversation before men be such that everyone who encounters us will desire the assurance and grace in life that our salvation grants us.

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