TIDEWATER STAGE’S THE CHRISTIANS: ONE HELLUVA SHOW

Few of the “educated elite” in society still believe in the reality of Satan. C.S. Lewis exposed Satan’s now completed program to spread disbelief in The Screwtape Letters[i]:

I do not think you will have much difficulty in keeping the patient in the dark. The fact that “devils” are predominantly comic figures in the modern imagination will help you. If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in his mind, suggest to him a picture of something in red tights, and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that (it is an old textbook method of confusing them) he therefore cannot believe in you.

With Satan gone from the Western consciousness, the next target is Hell.

The attack is an old one. One of the first great heresies in the Christian Church arose from the theologian Origen’s teaching that everyone would eventually be saved, a doctrine, as espoused by Evagrius, formally condemned by the Fifth Ecumenical Council of May 553 A.D.

But, as they say, you can’t keep a bad idea down.

Hipster Rob Bell, for one, a former evangelical pastor and controversial author, has made a small fortune resurrecting the disgraced and discredited heresy as part of his emergent Love Wins bestseller rollout. Bell espouses a Bobby McFerrin theology of “Don’t Worry be Happy”, in contrast to that of St. Paul’s “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”

Like it or not, the idea of hell is as Biblically true as it is terrifying.

C.S. Lewis himself recoiled at the idea of hell:

We are told this is a detestable doctrine – and indeed, I too detest it from the bottom of my heart – and are reminded of the tragedies in human life which have come from believing it. Of the other tragedies which come from not believing it we are told less.[ii]

Out just this year, Lawrence R. Farley’s Unquenchable Fire. The Traditional Christian Teaching about Hell amasses an overwhelming amount of data from the teaching of Christ in the Synoptic Gospels, the views of Divine Judgement in the time of Christ, the witness of St. John and the Preaching of the Apostles, the idea of Divine Judgement in the Epistles and in the Apocalypse of St. John, and in the traditional teaching in the culture of the historic Christian church.[iii]

The question remains, who goes to hell?

The early apostolic Christian church had no problem with the question of salvation: They left it up to God. Salvation was, and is, not easily explained, deliberately on God’s part; it was, and is, a gloriously profound mystery. Saint Augustine noted that “God made you without your agreeing to that, but he will not save you without your consent.” Unfortunately, how he will save you, and by whom that consent is given, has divided the Church.

Only after the Bishop of Rome separated himself from the council of bishops, to inadvertently create what is known as the Roman Catholic Church, did one metaphor for salvation come to dominate the history of the Late Western Church; salvation took on a legal definition for Roman Catholics and the various Protestants which followed.  Death was re-conceived as legal punishment, an expression of God’s wrath. Death, in this judicial context, is the sentence for sin. According to the post-Schism Western church, God is angry, and we need Christ’s merit applied to us to satisfy his anger. Christ, according to this view, died as a sacrifice to appease the Father.

Good people, “saved” people, have faith in Jesus, whom the Father punishes in our place, so that they may go to heaven. Typical is Billy Graham’s comment, “God’s holiness demanded the most exacting penalty for sin, and His love provided Jesus Christ to pay this penalty and provide man with salvation.”[iv]“Unsaved” people suffer their just punishment and are cast into hell through their own choice.

The early church fathers, and Eastern Christians today,  do not share the western legal emphasis, nor the consequent view of atonement.

The fathers of the Christian Church, many of whom knew Jesus Christ, taught that humanity is the author of death, not God. God is salvation, and Jesus Christ is God Incarnate, through whom we are united with God. “No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). “Without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Jesus Christ is salvation from death, the result of sin, the final product that humans, apart from God, create for themselves through the gift of free will, which ensnares and condemns them.  For the Christian in communion with God, God’s love is experienced as transcendent joy whereas, those who have rejected God’s love experience it as bottomless despair and suffering.

The Church of Jesus Christ is the Body of Christ, an essential part of Christ’s Incarnation, through which we find communion with Christ. We are saved in the midst of the Christian community. Salvation is not individual, but corporate. The Church is where Christ our God saves us. Therefore, the Church is salvation, and salvation is found in the Church. The original Christian church believed that by His grace God has revealed and preserved “true doctrine” and “true worship” in the Church.

Does this mean that all now outside the Christian church will go to hell?

No.

Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware outlines the mystery, “While there is no division between a `visible’ and an ‘invisible’ Church, yet there may be members of the Church who are not visibly such, but whose membership is known to God alone. If anyone is saved, he must in some sense be a member of the Church; in what sense, we cannot always say”[v].

Salvation comes through God alone, not by the recitation or affirmation of any set of words. Christ our God may be working in others in ways unknown to us, and even to them, to bring them to salvation. And in due time, perhaps not till after death,  may they recognize God and accept Christ, and be united to His Body the Church, so that they may be saved.

Christians know, first, that not all in the Church will be saved, and second, that some who are never visibly in the Church are nevertheless near and dear to the Lord. Jesus Christ is the exclusive Judge of all. On the last and great day, all human beings who have ever lived will be brought before the Lord for the final Judgment. Sheep on the right, goats on the left. Only the Lord has all the facts regarding the saved and the lost. God is Love; He alone is just and merciful.

Nevertheless, Christians are instructed by Christ to quietly, courageously, and consistently live the true faith, proclaiming His undiluted and unchanged gospel.

Which leads us to Lucas Hnath’s fascinating, and terrifying play, The Christians.

Had Hnath presented a congregation of Christians upholding the original ancient Orthodox Christian tenets of salvation, he would have had no drama. So, as a fine dramatist, Hnath presents a post-schism Protestant evangelical congregation, reading the scriptures as if they were clear legal mandates God obliges us to understand fully, carry out, and enforce to the letter.

The Christians in Hnath’s play believe that unless one has been baptized, one will, upon death, be cast forever into hell. Into a growing, and now debt-free mega-church Hnath introduces the ancient heretical doctrine of Universalism as espoused suddenly by Head Pastor Paul. The resulting chaos and ruin, to not only to the church, but to all of Pastor Paul’s relationships, give true testimony to the effects the heresy of Universalism has on a Christian church.

First, Joshua, the Associate Pastor,  leaves with a small (the Biblical apostolic number of 50) contingent of the congregation. Then a Deacon reports that attendance is dangerously down. Then the Pastor’s wife  reveals a fundamental disagreement with Paul which leads to a wholesale breakdown of their marriage. Toss in the heartbreaking testimony of a pathetic congregant, Jenny, and you have a picture of Satan triumphant.

Satan’s method is the same as when he first tried it out in the garden of Eden. Then, in the disguise of a serpent, he sowed doubt with a question, “Did God really forbid you to eat the fruit of that tree?” Here, in the compassionate heart of an earnest pastor, he again sows doubt with a question, “Did God really say there is a hell?”

The assembled cast of actors  nobly enact this horrible catastrophe in the lives of countless thousands of people. Actor Daniel J. Roberts clearly tries to lead with his heart, boldly striving to bring his flock into the Valley of Compassion, only to find it a Valley of Death in disguise. Joshua, the Associate Pastor, is played with winning gusto by young-actor-to-watch Lyeneal Griffin. His shock and indignation at hearing Pastor Paul’s new theological position echoes the reaction of St. Nicholas when he punched the heretic Arius in the nose at the Council of Nicaea. Joel King reveals a skill for serious drama at least the equal to his flair for comedy as displayed in a recent Noises Off. His deacon is the kind of guy you’d like to give you bad news if you had to get bad news. Pastor’s wife Elizabeth is played with feist and courage by skilled actress April Poland. The timid congregant is in the capable hands of Abigail Ebensberger, who reveals a character growing despite her pain. The choir members are game but few, led by three beautiful soloists and an organist, who, unfortunately, are not identified in the program.

David Shuhy’s scenery includes all of the elements one associates with mega-churches – high tech audio and visual wizardry (though not quite state of the art), bland but expensive décor, and plenty of pacing space for the preacher. C.J. Hill’s costumes indicate that the megachurch has not yet reached the point of $5,000 suits and dresses for the pastor and wife. Marianne Savell’s direction gives each character a fair shot at stating their case and moves the action along with grace, making the very most of the few properties. She wisely  keeps whatever her personal point of view of the matter under wraps.

We live in a mystery, as St. Paul realizes

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.” [vi]

In 1911 Rev. W.A. Fletcher put the same sentiment into the play’s final song:

Farther along we’ll know more about it,
Farther along we’ll understand why;
Cheer up, my brother, live in the sunshine,
We’ll understand it all by and by.[vii]

The Christians brings to mind another of St. Paul’s admonitions:

“Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them. For those who are such do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly, and by smooth words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the simple.”[viii]

Tidewater Stage’s The Christians   is a depressing, but powerful,  warning about the evil of heresy in our times. “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour”; The Christians is about what happens when we ignore St. Peter’s words. In The Christians we see the devil devour hundreds of relationships, break apart friendships, families, and marriages, even the marriage of a sincere pastor and his once devoted wife.

[i] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters. (New York: Macmillan, 1961 <Chapter VII, p. 33.

[ii] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1962). pp. 119-120.

[iii] Lawrence R. Farley. Unquenchable Fire: The Traditional Christian Teaching about Hell. Chesterton, Indiana: Ancient Faith Publishing, 2017.

[iv] Billy Graham, Peace with God. Thomas Nelson, 1953.

[v] Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Church, p. 248, 1993 edition

[vi] 1 Corinthians 13:7-13

[vii] Romans 16:17-18.

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