I’ve been reading some amazing blog posts lately. I wonder at how different people living in different places having different life experiences manage to have strikingly similar lines of thought, movings of spirit and emotion. Here are a few of the posts that might flesh out what I am talking about:
Questions of heaven (by my great friend Sara Finesilver), and hell, (by her husband Matt), complications of questioning the faith within the church with the witty and thoughtful Jon Anderson, and recently another perspective on Jon’s thoughts presented by fellow UW alum Cory. Then there is Mary’s response to all of this discussion in the form of a prayer. It’s all so interesting, and how I wish I could have been a part of a discussion like this two years ago.
You see, I don’t struggle with basic theological questions like the existence of heaven or hell. I don’t need to know answers about how heaven works. I don’t care whether I will have my own mansion, or live in a gigantic mansion with everyone else, or whether God will be the large, bearded, white grandfatherly figure that I imagined in my youth. What I am stuck on, is the question of everyone else. I am immensely priviliged and have been lucky to grow up in a place where it would have been hard to never encounter God and where I have always had the luxury of good parents, good education, loads of extra-curricular activities to enlighten myself with, etc.
I also know that I use my time badly, I often eat poorly, I am selfish, immature, I crave attention but hate to be put on the spot. So if I am lucky but basically a sinner like everyone else, does that entitle me to something that someone with the same basic human traits (a mix of good and evil) does not deserve? Because person X (just like me, but from another time/country/race/culture) has grown up in the Chinese countryside or next to a Hindu temple in urban India or as a devout Muslim in Saudi Arabia, does that void them from the hopes of salvation?
My answer to this question (back when I was a Campus Crusader) would have been something along the lines of “God is in control, he knows everyone’s hearts and he can speak to those who don’t have the opportunity to hear, but Jesus is the only way to heavan.” I realize that many people still claim a similar (albeit more polished) argument along these lines.
Here’s my problem: I’ve seen China, I’ve traveled in India, and I’m not saying God isn’t in control, but if God was really revealing Christ to these people there would be a lot more Christians in these places. If this was the case then the students that I knew whose parents grew up in the Cultural Revolution when there was no religion to speak of allowed anywhere, would have heard God speak to them and would have passed the knowledge of God down to them. And if God speaks to a person directly about Jesus, once, how is that a fair shot, considering many in America would say it took them years to come to the church, to accept Jesus for who he is and to follow him.
I realize these questions are stemming from a place where my understanding of what it meant to be saved was extremely evangelical, but there is so much in the Bible that taken literally, can be turned into doctrine that engenders fear and hate and justifies terrible things, and on the other hand are the teachings that focus on pure love and acceptance.
When I started dealing with all these doubts, I was totally lost. I really didn’t know what to do. I had surrounded myself almost exclusively with friends who were similar to me in our ways of understanding Christianity, and my spare time was spent almost exclusively involved in church or religious organization. I didn’t know where to go with my questions. I was a member of my church, which meant I had signed a covenant saying I believed these things “til death do us part” and I didn’t feel most of my friends would understand where I was coming from and was pretty sure a few of them would just dismiss my questions or use the biblical arguments I knew so well against me. I was probably wrong about the judgement of some of my friends, but I think I was right that the only answers I would get from the church would be directly out of the Bible, picked out for their choice words that would swiftly kick me back into place.
I am not trying to mock the Bible, but I knew all of those arguments. But what I felt, it was deep in my soul. It’s a feeling that if God really is good, better than anything that exists, He doesn’t create people that will go to hell. He doesn’t create beautiful people with brilliant minds and peaceful spirits who will die and realize that even though they didn’t so much as pass by a Christian church in all their life, would now be spending eternity burning for the crime of ignorance. Maybe the way I see things is too black and white. Maybe I shouldn’t worry about what my inner voice tells me, because of course, it’s sinful, and not from God, right? But other times, when it’s telling me to give money to the church, it’s my conscience, telling me to abide by the rules of the Bible. I realize I sound cynical and bitter, but the thing is, I have had these ideas and feelings for years now, and I’m neither. I’m just thinking about it.
I read a book a while back by Phillip Gulley and James Mulholland, called If Grace is True, Why God Will Save Every Person. This book is not particularly scholarly. It doesn’t provide a Biblical basis for universalism (the idea that everyone will be saved) but it does explain how these authors made a journey toward accepting this idea. They argue from the basis of their experience with God. They write that they had never sinned and turned to God to find his wrath, or his fury. They had never experienced anything from God that didn’t embody love, empathy, forgiveness and patience. If these things are true about God, how can everything change in the afterlife, how can he forgive people anytime in their lives, up to the last minute for a killer on death row, but not accept people who went their whole lives unaware of his son?
These are my questions. I don’t think there are any answers anymore, but I’m increasingly okay with that. Like my friend Sara said, it’s about “learning not to know, to celebrate the mystery, to rejoice in the tensions of the unknown and contradictions of so many things,” can I have an amen for that?