A bigger problem than heresy: folk religion

A bigger problem than heresy: folk religion August 4, 2011

We’ve been discussing the concept “heresy” here and it is a notoriously difficult one to pin down or find agreement about.  However, I worry that a bigger problem for the American church, especially, is folk religion.  Sure, the two concepts overlap somewhat.  But American folk religion (and I’m sure it has its analogies elsewhere) is rampant within the churches (all denominations) and outside the churches.

So what is “folk religion?”  I’ve described it and responded to in in some detail in one of my books: Answers to All Your Questions: The Journey from Folk Religion to Examined Faith (Zondervan).  I’ll define it briefly here.  Folk religion began as a sociological concept; it hasn’t found its way into theology on any large scale yet.  One of my authorities for describing it is sociologist of religion Robert Ellwood.

According to Ellwood and other sociologists of religion, folk religion is unreflective religious belief based largely, if not exclusively, on feelings (e.g., comfort), traditional folk ways (e.g., funeral practices), cliches (e.g., bumper sticker slogans) and devotional literature (including poems, songs, religion fiction, etc.).  It thrives on urban myths (“evangelegends”) and unverifiable stories passed around among the faithful.  It is unreflective and even resists reflection (especially critical reflection).

An example is beliefs about life after death and the future based primarily on what makes people feel comfortable about death, stories about “near death experiences,” and spiritualism filtered into the fabric of folk culture and from there into the churches.  (Spiritualism was a powerful force in American life throughout much of the 19th century; Mary Todd Lincoln hosted seances in the White House.  Many Protestant churches adopted spiritualism.  In one county in Ohio during the Civil War the majority of Protestant churches were practicing spiritualism.  Certain spiritualist concepts such as the “silver cord” that unites soul and body and breaks at death filtered into popular hymnody and remain there.)

Recently there has been a new flood of books, films and TV documentaries about so-called “near death experiences” (which are really alleged experiences of actual bodily death in which the disembodied soul or spirit has some conscious experiences before returning to the body).  The little book Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back  by Todd Burpo (a Wesleyan minister) and Lynn Vincent (Thomas Nelson Publishers) is selling like hot cakes and making some even secular best-seller lists.  (I see it in all the airport bookstores!)  Last evening, ABC television’s Primetime Live: Beyond Belief show featured stories of death experiences–including that of the show’s journalist host.

What concerns me is that many, perhaps most, contemporary Christians (at least in America) seem to be basing their beliefs about life after death on these shows and books.  I have even met evangelical Christians who seem to base their beliefs about life after death on movies like What Dreams May Come (starring Robin Williams).  One thing seems almost universal among these stories–that death is a friend and, especially if you’re a Christian (or for non-Christians just a good person), where you go immediately after bodily death is the fullness of “heaven” with pearly gates, streets paved with gold, God sitting on a throne, etc., etc.  (Of course the details vary.  My point is not about the details.)

The theological problem here is twofold and the two aspects are closely related.  First, very little sound biblical teaching is being carried out in many Christian churches about death and life after death.  For example, the Bible does NOT portray death as a friend but as the “last enemy.”  People are being allowed, if not encouraged, to base their personal views on stories read or seen on TV or in movies.  Funeral sermons are being adjusted to fit these folk religious visions of life after death.  (For example, “Our dearly departed loved on has flown from this shell in which he lived for seventy years and is now in heaven with all the saints surrounding God’s throne worshiping him forever and ever.”)

Second, these folk religious beliefs about life after death come into conflict with Scripture and Christian tradition (and few seem to care!).  I’ve taught theology to mostly Christian students (raised in Christian churches and homes) for almost 30 years now and I can confidently say there is one biblical and traditional doctrine that has almost disappeared among them and their families.  (I find this to be true when I teach about this subject to adult Sunday School classes as well.)  That doctrine is called “the intermediate state.”

In my next post here I will lay out the biblical bases for this doctrine.

I am finding that most American Christians think that when a person dies he or she goes immediately to “heaven” in a conscious, disembodied state to remain there forever with the Lord.  People equate “paradise” with “heaven” (as the “new heaven and new earth”) and conflate the two.  There is little or no understanding of the future resurrection, judgment, new creation, etc.  These biblical images and concepts are simply drawn forward into life after death so that all the “dead in Christ” are believed to be already experiencing the fullness of heavenly redeemed existence.

I propose the reason for this is that people do not generally like to think of their deceased loved ones as in some vague intermediate state called “paradise” awaiting the fullness of heaven.  They want immediate gratification for their deceased loved ones; they want them to be enjoying all that heaven offers and Jesus promised right away.  The result is that the New Testament blessed hope of resurrection of both the individual’s body and of creation itself (Romans 8) has dwindled away.  What has replaced it is a gnostic-like belief in the body as a prison of the spirit and of salvation as release from bodily existence.

To be continued…

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  • The obvious biblical reason for people thinking this way is Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross. I hope you will address this in your forthcoming post on the Intermediate State.

    (For what it’s worth, I think that Folk Religion has much, much worse consequences than the loss of this doctrine.)

    • Thomas Rowland

      I know some people think that, but Jesus didn’t go to heaven when he died. 1 Peter 3:19 says he went and preached to spirits in prison. He didn’t go to heaven until 40 days after his resurrection.

  • Kenny Johnson

    As a father of a 4 year old, I find it much easier to tell my son, “Great Grandpa is in Heaven” than trying to explain to him eschatology that I don’t even fully grasp. 🙂

    • rogereolson

      I hope you’re joking. What we tell 4 year olds should be far different than what we tell 14 year olds and 40 year olds.

  • Awesome. This concept of ‘folk religion’ has given me a phrase to define something I’ve been aware of for a few years now, but haven’t quite known how to put it.

    I’m amazed at how many people I cannot have a conversation with regarding the afterlife, either because I would have to educate them on the theology, or because their folk theology are so set. (Plus, it’s really hard to correct a peer on theological points within a small church meeting)

    Really looking forward to your next series of posts.

  • Tim Reisdorf


    I’m impressed by the wonderful topics that you keep bringing forward. Very good.

    If someone were to believe something that were actually true, but came to that belief (and maintenance of those beliefs) in the same way as Ellwood describes, would you have the same criticism? “I’ve always believed in Believer Baptism because that’s what my parents and preacher taught me.” While it seems unexamined and somewhat shallow, wouldn’t you, as a Baptist, be more restrained in your criticism? Wouldn’t it be tempting simply to “leave well enough alone” than for fear that after refection they would choose error instead?

    • rogereolson

      Yes, it would be tempting, but I would hope that their maturing faith would find firmer ground than that. And yes, a true belief can be folk religious insofar as it is held unreflectively by a mature person. I don’t consider that as insidious, however.

  • Mr. Olson,

    Well said. However, doesn’t 2 Cor. 5:2 give some credence to a desire to be released from “this tent” and joined to Christ?

    “For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling” (2 Cor. 5:2).

    It also seems to be that many Christians equate Heaven with being united with Christ in death, whatever that may look like. Certainly that will happen in a sense in Paradise, and in perhaps a fuller sense at the Resurrection.

    • rogereolson

      Yes, but I don’t think that one verse justifies a gnostic view of the body. “This tent” is not only a body; it is a fallen body subject to pain and death. The “heavenly dwelling” is also a body but not physical; Paul calls it a “spiritual body” (soma pneumatikos). But clearly he doesn’t mean a “spirit” as opposed to a body. He’s talking about that third something Jesus was in his resurrection.

  • Edgar

    Hi Roger,

    I’ve been following you for months, and became a fan when I read The Story of Christian Theology. I’m from Puerto Rico and can confidently say that what you say about the afterlife is true around here. The thing is that is difficult to learn otherwise because the lack of a popular treatment of the subject. My dad (who is a pastor) bought the book you describe about the child who went to heaven last week and devoured it in few hours. I’m suspicious of all this books because they often lack exegetical and historical content. They often only give the experience of the person. The thing is that people accept this ideas because because they don’t know better.

    I will be grateful if you could list us some books and resources to look at the topic.

    God bless you!

    • rogereolson

      I find N. T. Wright’s book on hope helpful: Surprised by Hope…. The only thing is, I think it’s a bit weak on the intermediate state. I believe the Bible (especially the New Testament) has a more robust view of the intermediate state even though it is, admittedly, somewhat vague about the details.

  • John Metz

    Lookout Roger! You’ve really done it now! You are taking the candy away from the child. I hope you are wearing your helmet of salvation because you may need it.

    As one who believes that the paradise described in the Bible still exists for believers who have died, I look forward to your future posts. I am interested in seeing your explanations.

    Your are right about the saturation of folk religion into today’s churches and the credence given to accounts of near-death experiences that fit people’s aspirations but not the Scripture.

  • Kevin

    very interesting article. I have often encountered the “It is unreflective and even resists reflection (especially critical reflection).” attitude among my colleagues within the ministry as well as those who I am responsible for Pastoring. Look forward to reading the rest of your thoughts. Blessings!

  • N. T. Wright has also lamented the same problems you note re: inaccurate and unscriptural beliefs in churches regarding life after death, and prefers the phrase “life after life after death” (see Surprised by Hope). I am convinced that accurate teaching on this is particularly important because of how Paul ties our future in to the bodily resurrection of Jesus. If he really is the “firstfruits,” then we have something similar to look forward to; but him being the firstfruits, in the sense Paul means it, necessitates a very real and bodily resurrection, and in my opinion this ought to be not only the cornerstone of Christian faith and practice but also the dialogue point to which believers constantly return in conversations with skeptics, nonbelievers, and adherents to other faiths.

    I would be interested to hear what you think about the intermediate state – Wright’s view is, basically, We don’t know what it is, but it’s there, and that’s important to know; and I’ve been hard-pressed to find more than that from Scripture.

    • rogereolson

      Right–about Wright. I think he’s a little weak on the intermediate state. I think we can piece more together from the scattered remnants of Scripture than he does. I agree with him, however, that it is not the blessed hope and we really know little about it. As Reinhold Niebuhr said (applying this to the intermediate state especially): “We should not want to know too much about the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell.”

  • I agree that people often have a sentimental, unBiblical picture of the afterlife, and that the emphasis of the Bible is far more on the Resurrection than on “going to heaven” (Tom Wright’s book “Surprised by Hope” is very good on this).

    But I also think that there are good Biblical reasons for believing that on death, Christians go directly to be with God in a conscious disembodied state as they await the Resurrection – Paul talks about being “absent from the body but present with the Lord” in 2 Corinthians 5, for example.

  • Bob Hager

    On target! Here in the Bible belt south much of our theology is based on sentiment rather than thoughtful reflection on the scriptures.

    • rogereolson

      And it’s not unique to the South although it might be more the norm there.

  • Ian Carmichael

    A good word, Roger. Thank you.

  • Dr. Olson,

    If you ever have the time, please take a gander at this blog by an Orthodox Priest: http://fatherstephen.wordpress.com/

    I find that I enjoy reading him in the same way that I enjoy reading you. Both of you take potentially complex theological content, and make it accessible to ordinary people.



    • rogereolson

      I’ll try to do that.