Several centuries ago, when Christianity was initially introduced in Japan by the early Jesuit missionaries–and started to spread rapidly–the shoguns were worried about the potential political influence of the increasing number of converted Japanese Christians (and their European leaders). It didn’t take long before the power of the Japanese government turned against the Christians within the country, with foreigners asked to leave, and native Christians ‘persuaded’ to abandon Christianity by a variety of means.
(Read my original post on the subject here)
The method of apostatizing predominantly used in this period involved a fumie–a wood or bronze icon representing Mary and the baby Jesus. Christians were ‘encouraged’ to step on the fumie to mark their abandonment of their beliefs. Those who refused were killed.
Now, here’s my question: who ‘decided’ that stepping on a picture of Mary and/or Christ meant you’ve abandoned your Christian beliefs? It’s obvious from reading the historical accounts of the period that both the rulers and those early Christians interpreted it in this way. (The fumie was also effectively used to find Christians, by asking the general population to step on it and see who refused…) Interestingly, no one on either side seems to have ever pondered the question of whether your eternal fate in God’s eyes can be directly determined by such a simple action.
It’s also obvious from the historical record that those Japanese Christians who were compelled to ‘apostatize’ in this way took it seriously, and did in fact abandon their previous Christian beliefs and lifestyle…afterwards. Yet, it wasn’t because they wanted to not be Christian anymore–they felt they had no choice…that after having stepped on the fumie, they couldn’t be Christian any more, that simply by doing so *poof* their salvation had disappeared and God had condemned them to hell for committing an unpardonable sin. Likewise, the fear of losing their eternal reward was the key toward the fumie being an effective means of finding Christians in the first place–‘true’ Christians would rather die than step on it, whereas non-Christians could care less.
If, for example, I took down the picture of Christ on the wall…and then maliciously burned it–I’d probably get some raised eyebrows from other people. I doubt, though, that anyone would consider me to be an ‘apostate’ Church member because of it–a prime candidate for excommunication and forever unworthy of celestial glory. It’s just a picture, of course… Have I even really broken a commandment by doing so?
There’s another factor in this equation that needs discussion: the Japanese government (and others throughout history who persecuted Christians) did not have any qualms about using threats and torture to obtain their ‘apostasies’. Many of those early Christians were defiant unto their deaths, but others broke down under the stress and committed whatever signs or actions the government wanted them to show their apostasy. Shusaku Endo, the modern-day Japanese author I profiled in my original post, found the stories of those ‘fallen’ Christians to be compelling, and wrote about them frequently in novels such as “Silence” and “The Samurai”. He thought their status before God deserved more discussion than the Christian literature at the time (which focused exclusively on the martyrs who died without apostatizing) gave them. So do I.
Question #1: Does stepping on/mistreating a representation of Christ represent ‘apostasy’? If so, why?
Question #2: Does stepping on/mistreating a representation of Christ under direct threat of death and/or torture represent ‘apostasy’? Does this deserve to be treated differently than #1?
Going back to me burning the picture of Christ–suppose it wasn’t my choice…someone told me at gunpoint that I had to take the picture off the wall and burn it. Now what’s my status in God’s eyes? Should I refuse–standing up for the seeming disrespect of the Savior from others? Or could/should I go along with it–taking the path of least resistence and realizing burning an inanimate object is fairly meaningless in the eternal scheme of things, not worth getting shot over. It’s one thing if my actions are a reflection of some personal apostasy (Think Salieri burning the cross on his wall in “Amadeus”), but when I’m forced to by threats or torture? Wouldn’t you suppose God would take the context into account when passing judgement?
There are good reasons to be strong and faithful, even under threat of death. The scriptures are full of stories, such as Abinadi, and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abendego where faithful saints were threatened with death unless they backed down from their beliefs, and they refused. (Note that in the former case, Abinadi was not ‘rewarded’ for his faithfulness by being saved from death…another lesson entirely) In modern times, there’s the story of Joseph F. Smith who when accosted by an armed band of ruffians who said they’d shoot any Mormon they found, and then asked him if he was Mormon–to which he replied: “Yes, sir–true blue, through and through!”.
Let’s suppose I was in Joseph F. Smith’s shoes, and was faced with a dangerous situation where admitting to being a Church member might be hazardous to my health. What if I said “No” when asked if I was Mormon? Have I committed a sin? Well, yes…I’ve lied. I said I wasn’t a Church member even though I was. And I failed to stand up for my beliefs when given a chance. An unpardonable sin, though? Are we justified in interpreting the phrase “he that saves his life shall lose it” to the extent that salvation can be casually abandoned through a few words, even under a threat of death?
The most obvious parallel would be Peter, immediately after the arrest of Jesus. When asked if he knew Christ–and, note, not under torture, or imminent threat of bodily harm–Peter denied it three times. This wasn’t good, of course, but obviously Peter didn’t immediately throw away his salvation by doing so. He was still an apostle, and later had the chance to repent and proclaim his faith in Christ more boldly…even when direct threats of bodily harm arose. I don’t know any Christian church that says Peter threw away his salvation forever the day of Christ’s arrest, and nothing he did afterwards changed that.
The problem with this interpretation of scripture is that it has a severely flawed opinion of God’s character. It makes it seem like God is just itching to condemn people to hell, and will take advantage of any excuse–big or small–that allows Him to do so. Instead, He’s the exact opposite: he’s anxious to give us all of His blessings and only does not do so when he can’t because we genuinely haven’t fulfilled the necessary requirements. A merciful God would surely recognize that those who denied the faith under duress–while not as deserving as those who were faithful even unto the sacrificing of their lives–fall under the ‘spirit is willing but the flesh is weak’ category, and not deserving of complete condemnation. (Imagine the reaction when those ‘fallen’ Christians learn they’re not shut out of salvation completely. Imagine, also, the reaction of the martyrs when they hear, ‘That’s great you were faithful unto death…but, you know, you could have stepped on that inanimate object without it affecting anything. I actually don’t care about it!’)
Questions For Discussion: In modern times, we don’t seem to attach quite that much importance to physical representations of the Savior, but that doesn’t stop us from using other arbitrary measurements for celestial/telestial/outer darkness worthiness. Through the years, I’ve heard a number of informal statements made in and around Church meetings such as “If you commit suicide, you’re automatically telestial bound”. (Um…no)
We have the scriptural statement that the only unforgivable sin is “denying the Holy Ghost”–but that’s not full of details as to how exactly you do that… Receiving a witness while praying and then not following through? Going to a party/bar/R-rated movie after the Holy Ghost warns you that you shouldn’t? I’ve heard some say that it is impossible for any of us here on Earth right now to “deny the Holy Ghost” and become a son of perdition–because we don’t have the surety of knowledge necessary to do it. And…I’ve heard others say that writing an anti-Mormon book or selling your temple garments on Ebay is all you need. *Poof*–outer darkness for you! Am I right in thinking that there are no absolute statements that can be made about any of the recipients of the four glories? That, God really is anxious to give us blessings, not anxious to take them away, and there are very few things you could do that would prevent you absolutely from obtaining a higher glory?