This article by Kel Richards appeared in this morning’s newspaper The Australian. Thousands of Australians will read and be challenged by this Gospel message. I never thought I would see the Gospel preached so well in a major Australian newspaper.
Israel Folau was only following God’s command:
“I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His Kingdom: Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all suffering and teaching.” 2 Timothy 4:1-2
“On April 10, Israel Folau posted on his Instagram account the following message: “Warning: Drunks, Homosexuals, Adulterers, Liars, Fornicators, Thieves, Atheists, Idolators: Hell Awaits You. Repent! Only Jesus Saves.” Next to this big, bold statement was the message: “Those that are living in Sin will end up in Hell unless you repent. Jesus Christ loves you and is giving you time to turn away from your sin and come to him.”
This eye-catching text was from the Bible, a loose paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10: “Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”
If someone else had posted this it would almost certainly have slipped under the radar. But Folau was being watched. Partly this is because of his brilliance as a footballer. He holds the record for the most tries scored in Super Rugby. In 2007 he won rugby league’s Dally M Rookie of the Year award for having scored the most tries in his debut year. In that same year he was the all-time youngest international player (he was 18 at the time).
But it looks as though Folau was also being watched for an opportunity to punish him for being a Christian; indeed, for being a blunt defender of the classic, conservative Christian faith.
The attack on Folau provoked an unexpected reaction: many Aussies were unhappy. They flooded open-line radio with calls in support of the right of Folau to hold and express his faith. This support was not limited to the 52.1 per cent of Australians who called themselves Christian in the 2016 census. A bucket load of callers took the line of “I don’t support what he said or the way he said it, but, hey the bloke’s obviously sincere so why is he being bashed up like this?”
Whether articulated or not, the underlying feeling of much of this response was: Australia is a free country. There was a distinct unease about the possibility of losing at least some degree of freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of belief and freedom of religion in this wide, brown land.
Tone deaf to the electorate Bill Shorten came down on the wrong side of this debate in the election campaign. Ignoring section 116 of the Constitution, which says there shall be no religious test for public office, Shorten demanded to know where Scott Morrison stood on the “gays/hell” issue. This blunder won him no friends (apart from the inner-city crowd, who were already on his side).
For Rugby Australia this is a lose-lose debate. The religious test they applied to Folau’s employment looked so unfair to him that he bypassed their internal appeal process as pointless and announced his intention to test them in the courts. So Rugby Australia now will either lose the court battle or lose its major sponsor. It has already lost its best player.
This is no storm in a tea cup: this is central to Australia’s character as a nation and raises three questions:
● Why should there be penalties for defending classical Christianity?
● Why do the rights of one group trump all other rights?
● What is the actual content of the view he is defending?
Let’s tackle them. First, why should there be penalties for defending classic, conservative Christianity? It’s not as though Christianity is an eccentric, minority belief system. It’s the largest faith on earth with 2.3 billion followers.
Some will say people can believe what they like in private but the views of classic Christianity do not belong in the public arena. The problem is that Jesus ruled out that option when he said: “Everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 10:32-33)
So according to Jesus there is no such thing as private Christianity — there is only whole-of-life Christianity (public and private). Being a Christian means speaking about it. The Christian faith is part of our community and not a private matter.
Some politicians will say, “Well, we have to balance the rights of Christians to speak their faith aloud with the right of homosexuals not to be offended.” But from the words of Jesus it is clear that telling Christians they are not permitted to speak their faith aloud is telling them they are not permitted to be Christian.
Which brings us to the second question: why should the rights of one group trump all other rights? In this case it appears that the right of homosexuals not to be offended trumps the right of Christians to be as Christian as Jesus intended. It is especially interesting to note that Folau included eight groups in his post — none of the others has complained.
Surely the issue is that none of those seven other groups is demanding approval from everyone. On the whole, drunks, adulterers and the rest don’t care whether you approve or disapprove of them.
The homosexual community, however, appears not to be willing to accept disapproval. They may say all they want is tolerance. But that’s looking increasingly like a dishonest claim. They won’t, it seems, settle for anything short of complete approval.
Devout Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, atheists, Christians or Calathumpians don’t expect you to approve of them. They think they’re right, and if you believe differently you’re wrong — and they’re quite happy to debate this with you. But they don’t demand that you be legally compelled to approve of them, and legally silenced and punished if you disapprove.
Which brings us to the third question: what is the actual content of the view Folau is defending? Is it simply a system of morality? Folau lists eight behaviours that with the support of the Bible he says are proscribed — unacceptable to God — so it could certainly look like a question of morality.
In part this is a problem created by the brevity of social media posts, which don’t allow for nuance. But Folau himself is pointing beyond simple moral judgment when he writes that “Jesus Christ loves you and is giving you time to turn away from your sin and come to him”.
He is drawing attention to the fact that classical Christianity is certainly about judgment, but it is also about sacrifice and forgiveness. For 2000 years Christians have been calling it “good news” because the news that God loves you despite your behaviour and offers forgiveness can only count as very good news, indeed.
This good news Folau is talking about addresses the fact of death. The Christian world view says “people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).
The point is that life is a journey and, like every journey, it has an end. It would be intelligent to give some thought to how and where the journey of life might end. You might protest: but we can’t know! It’s not possible to know what death will be like and whether we might survive it, and, if so, what that survival might be like.
Picture it as being like a group of travellers walking down a long country road. They fall into an argument about where the road will end. One of them may claim it ends at a steep cliff face and that’s it. Someone else may suggest it ends at a railway station where a train is waiting to take you back to the beginning so you can do the journey all over again. Yet another may suggest the road of life ends in a garden and, just like Christmas, everyone will get gifts and be happy. Another may argue there are two cities at the end of the road: a comfortable one (“heaven”) and a bleak one (“hell”) and that we can be switched from the bad option to the good option as a free gift because the lord of the road loves the travellers and has paid for the gift.
That is pretty much the state of the debate in the modern world, and that brings us back to Folau’s warning that we should avoid hell.
Cartoonists have had a lot of fun will hell through the years, picturing comic demons in red tights with pitchforks prodding hapless condemned souls into furnaces. However, all the amusing things, or silly things, that have ever been said about hell, or thought about hell, spring from our reluctance to seriously consider death — what it is and what it means.
Here’s a practical definition: death really means separation.
For a start, death is the separation of the mind (or soul if you prefer) from the body. Most human beings who have ever lived, from Plato to now, have believed that the mind (or soul) will survive this separation. If it doesn’t, then that answers our question of destination. But if it does it means we are on the right track in thinking about death as separation.
But there is another separation that counts as death: separation from God. In classical Christianity separation from God is spiritual death. This separation from God shows itself in a wide range of behaviours, including the eight behaviours listed by Folau in his Instagram post, but not limited to those eight. Because, according to the classically Christian world view, we are designed to function plugged in to God; once we are unplugged (separated) we are like an unplugged appliance — we don’t function properly or we don’t function at all.
That’s the danger Folau believed he was warning people against. He thought he was warning his followers that those people who ignore God, choose to be separated from God, are sending a message; are saying to God, “just leave me alone”. The danger is God will take them at their word: they will be cut off from God forever.
That being “cut off” is what hell is. Not the funny cartoons of demons with pitchforks but being cut off, isolated, exiled, expelled, separated. When Jesus himself pronounces judgment on people the words he says are “depart from me”, adding, “I never knew you” (Matthew 7:23).
But as Folau’s short post indicates, there is more to the story. Here’s the completion of those words from the Bible quoted above: “Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many” (Hebrews 9:27-28).
There is the offer of God’s love and forgiveness and restoration: switching at life’s end from the bad option (separation, isolation, “hell”) to the good option (connection, community, “heaven”) as a free gift. From the point of view of classical Christianity, Folau saw people in danger and shouted out a warning. In other words, the intention of his message was the exact opposite to how it has been portrayed. And for that Folau is being punished.
Kel Richards is an author, journalist, radio personality and lay canon at St Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney. He is the author of The Aussie Bible.