News has broken today that Israel Folau, the Australian full back, has been sacked by Rugby Australia. His offence was to post on Instagram that hell awaits “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, idolators”. Let’s leave aside the fact that professional sport includes many more drunks, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolators than it does gay players or officials. The allegation of homophobia is what caused offence and media uproar.
Let me state straight off that I get thoroughly depressed when Christians use Twitter, Facebook or Instagram in this way. Do we really think that people are going to rush to a church and get saved because they read on social media that someone thinks they’re going to hell? Of course not! This kind of doctrinal chest-beating is designed to get a cheap cheer from our own community. I hate it when preachers go off on a rant to get cheap applause rather than presenting the Gospel in a thoughtful or compelling way – and it comes over even worse in social media than it does in sermons.
In tweeting as he did, Folau displayed an apparent ignorance of why the doctrine of hell is included in Christian theology. Hell is not a reactionary stick to be waved at those outside our faith who choose not to live by Christian standards of morality. It is rather a reminder to those within the faith, that we should live lives that are demonstrably different from how we lived before we came to Christ. It is also a motivation for us to share our faith in an attractive way with others, because our love for others means we don’t want anyone to go to hell. If I was Israel Folau’s pastor (which I’m not), I would advise him to use his fame and influence to draw other people towards Christianity, rather than turning them away with rants on Instagram. He acted like a jerk – and that rarely ends well irrespective of our religious affiliations or convictions.
However, it is disturbing that Folau should lose his employment because he expressed his sincerely held religious beliefs – even if others find his beliefs offensive. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees each person (including Israel Folau) not only the freedom to hold whatever religious beliefs he chooses, but also “to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” So, apparently, Folau has been sacked for exercising a human right, one guaranteed to him under international law by a treaty that most countries, including Australia, have signed up to.
Believing that someone will go to hell, or stating that belief, is not hate speech. Genuine hate speech, such as advocating that people should be killed, or inciting hatred against them, is dangerous and can cost lives. For that reason, I recently supported the decision by the Irish government to deny entry to antiSemitic ‘pastor’ Steven Anderson because of his support for terrorist violence.
But, for most Bible believing Christians, our belief that people are going to hell is a sorrowful recognition of a biblical doctrine – one that motivates us to reach out in love to others. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture and, specially, of Our Lord’s own words.”
While the original Instagram post was by Israel Folau, it was liked by Billy Vunipola of Saracens, which made him a target of abuse for Munster fans at a European match the following weekend. Irish sports journalists moved into hysterical overdrive, defending the constant booing of Vunipola by Munster fans, accusing him of ‘bringing hate to rugby’, and even demanding that he be banned from the Champions Cup Final. (Given his match-winning against Leinster, a lot of their fans probably wish he had been banned!)
I have been told by some Catholics that I, as an Evangelical Christian, am going to hell because salvation is only to be found in the Church of Rome. I’ve received a similar message from Muslims who see me as an infidel. Obviously I disagree with them, but I would be appalled if they were to lose their jobs for holding such views. I would also be appalled if they were targeted for abuse or bullied by crowds at a sporting event.
How would we feel if a Catholic sportsman or woman was continually booed by a crowd in Northern Ireland who felt offended by their religious beliefs? There are a number of Muslim players in the English Premier League. Would it be permissible for them to be booed every time they touched the ball because of their faith? Or are we going to split hairs by supporting their human right to hold a religious belief, but deny them the equal human right to speak about their faith?
Ireland recently voted to remove the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution. I think that was, on balance, a good move. Gospel truth is strong enough to stand on its own two feet without needing the law to stop our feelings getting hurt, and totalitarian regimes use blasphemy laws as an excuse to persecute minorities, including Christians. But there is a glaring hypocrisy from those who want the freedom to make statements that religious people might find offensive, but want to deny a similar freedom to Israel Folau.
Yes, we’ve taken blasphemy off the statute books – but woe betide those who dare to commit blasphemy against our new secular sensitivities.