I took a distance theology class a few months ago with all the discussions online. The professor asked controversial questions and let the class go at it. Sadly, he expected mainline/mainstream answers, and the class largely complied. He asked “what about those who never hear?” Meaning, where do people “go” who never hear about Jesus? Almost all the class believed these people go to hell—and hey, who are we to question God? If he believes that’s justice, then his ways are not ours, and he’s right. This made me very uncomfortable. The questions were so designed, that if I answered honestly, I could no longer hide the changes in my faith and beliefs. Plus, they revealed the underbelly of common beliefs, but no one seemed bothered to see it. And this question, or the perspective it stems from, contained flaws, just like the majority of the answers.
1. Is Christianity only about who escapes hell and wins the heaven lottery?
2. We are allowed to question God.
3. We say we get our sense of justice from God, then assign to him what would be considered the worst behavior among ourselves.
On the first point, I work constantly to overcome a fundamentalist background, the majority of whose theology revolves around heaven and hell. This life is most important for picking where we’ll spend eternity, and then wracking up extra mansions as we wait for the “real life” beyond. I no longer consider this life a long tunnel on the path to the true life. And maybe I’ll write further about that later. Too much to put in now.
Job questioned God. So did Moses. And the Psalmist. And Luther. And St. Augustine. And me. Not that I’m classing myself with those guys. My point is that questions are fundamental to how humans learn and grow, from childhood. I don’t trust a religion that nixes questions. I’ve been in a religious environment long enough to see what that squelching accomplishes. It encourages personality cults. It allows abuses, of all types, to continue. At a seminary level, it raises people for “ministry” who are untrained in empathy (basic to understanding why an individual might question your faith), and ill-equipped to handle real challenges.
But let’s talk about this “God’s justice is just, even if the same behavior on our part would not be” idea. My 3 youngest siblings were abused. All three prenatally, and two post. Their parents created, then rejected, neglected, and out-right harmed them. This behavior raises a scalding anger in most of us. When I think back on the earliest, and most important messages my little brother got (You aren’t worthy. You aren’t loved. You are unwanted.) I understand better why he can’t love himself. Essentially, the belief that God “saves” only a tiny handful of his creation, sounds like the same type of abuse. We have to acknowledge this because this is exactly how people outside the faith, and increasingly inside, hear it.
I cannot know how God will actually handle this. Just as I can’t know if heaven and hell are literal. And I do believe the question misses the bigger point of what God may be trying to do for his creation in this life. Ultimately, what I believe makes no difference in what will be found true. But what I believe makes all the difference in how I perceive and interact with God. Is it out of fear? Attraction? Anger? I choose to believe the best and accept that my beliefs have no control over his behavior, only mine.
I know this is something of a hot topic (warning: understatement) right now, with Rob Bell’s book just out. Haven’t read it yet, but I’m going too. With others, I found the furor over the book, before it even reached bookstores, amusing. A blog I follow, thebiblicalworld.blogspot.com has just finished a substantial interaction with the book, if you’re interested. Also, Matthew Paul Turner, at jesusneedsnewpr.net has interacted with the subject quite a bit. I enjoyed his response to Mark Driscoll’s insistence on hell in a post titled, remarkably enough, “My thoughts on Mark Driscoll’s hell…” (it's from March 29).