Here's an intro and a foundation-laying before I start. Some important points:
1. This is my story. I'm not trying to proselytize or convince you I'm right. I fully expect I may not even identify with this story myself in ten years. But it's where I am now.
2. My goal is simply to share it. If you see yourself in here somewhere, let me know and we can share our stories together. If you can't see yourself in it, let me know and I can learn from your own story.
3. My last post was very clinical and dry, and purposefully so. I was trying to show that many different eschatological arguments have merit on logical and biblical terms. But those four views don't agree, so eventually we have to make our own choice and live accordingly.
4. The "living accordingly" part is to me the most exciting part of my story. My view on eternity has fundamentally changed the way I live. And when others share their views on heaven/hell, my first inquiry is how that view has shaped their life. Philosophy is fun but at the end of the day I'm a pragmatist. Show me how your philosophy has made you a better human being, however you define that.
Part 1 -- The Stakes
A couple of years ago I went through a kinda tough time emotionally. Sorta down and depressed -- we called it my "melancholy phase" at home. I'd had experience with depression before and knew a little about the weirdness of brain chemistry and such, but this was different. It didn't feel like something to medicate or squash; it felt more like a natural consequence for something off in my life. It's like the great quote in the movie Spanglish, "Dear, sometimes low self-confidence is just good common sense." I wasn't feeling good because something was off. I didn't want to fix the feeling, I wanted to fix the problem!
Over time I realized my faith was inconsistent with my life, and it was eating me up inside. I'd hidden it well for years, but now even I couldn't deny it any longer. I was a major hypocrite. And it sucked. At the root of it all was my doctrine on hell.
All the churches I'd attended believed and taught that hell was a real place of eternal torment, and that the majority of people were going to end up there. Nobody talked about it much, though, as the "fire and brimstone" days of preaching were past and churches were more grace-oriented now. Here's the thing, though -- the fire and brimstone sermons marked the phase that my denomination was actually growing! Once the preacing turned grace-focused, membership has been on a worldwide decline ever since. So at a practical level the teaching of grace wasn't really working to fulfill what I was taught as the great commission -- "go out and make disciples", or in another word, "grow". We weren't getting it done. Still aren't. Muslims and Mormons make far more disciples every year than my church does.
Forget the church-wide results for a moment, though -- my issue was a personal burden that I wasn't getting it done when it came to evangelism. I would walk into a store and see dozens of people around me, and try to imagine 90% of them, or even one of them, literally burning in a pit of fire. Yes, I know most Christians don't believe the "burning" is literal, but this was my thought experiment. Find a person, and imagine them in front of me, burning and boiling but not dying, always aware of their pain. It was terrifying. There was not a soul I'd ever met who I would wish that on for five minutes, let alone forever!
As I expanded that and thought more about all the hellbound people, billions and billions of them, it was crushing to the point of total despair. This universe was a total disaster. Me and my fellow church members would leave our comfortable homes on Sunday morning and drive past thousands of doomed souls while we looked forward to sitting in comfortable pews to hear a sermon we'd heard a hundred times before. Then we'd leave, eat lunch, and wait to do it again next week.
I saw two choices of how to look at the situation:
#1 -- My church members (including me) were the most selfish, uncompassionate people in the history of the world. We knew how to keep people from eternal torment yet slacked on evangelism because it was uncomfortable, inconvenient or hard. We were the ones who deserved to perish.
#2 -- None of us really believed, deep down, that the eternal picture was that bleak and that the stakes were so massive. Or else as sane human beings we'd be doing more about it.
I was leaning to #2. But it was time to dig deeper.
Down the Rabbit Hole
I read and I read and I read. For months I consumed church histories to see what kind of eschatology was common in the centuries after Jesus' death, and then how that played out over two more millenia. I consumed bible commentaries and dove into the Greek/Hebrew roots of the bible, looking for more concrete and consistent teachings about the afterlife in scripture.
Every time I found two things that matched, something else would gum it up. I began to understand how there could be more than 8,000 denominations (some estimates are up to 30,000) in Protestant Christianity alone -- there were so many ways to interpret what the bible says! The more I learned, the more I realized that I could never really know the answers I was looking for. I couldn't go back and personally ask Constantine, the Nicene council or the thousands of biblical scholars how we ended up with the book we now call the bible. I couldn't challenge historians who claimed that some books of the bible were written generations after Jesus died. Biblical authorship, dating, translation, cultural connotations, authenticity and accuracy... these things just weren't knowable, at least not in the concrete, empirical way I defined it.
At one point I had a meeting with our church's preacher, because I had come forward in confession that Sunday morning. My research and doubts were tearing Jamie apart, and she was scared about where I was headed spiritually. I knew there was no way back to my former "I assume it's all true" approach to doctrine, and was scared myself of where it was headed. I wanted the church, and my family, to know I was just as confused and tender as my wife was.
The meeting with our preacher was actually very good. He's a well-real, well-rounded man and we've had a good connection since the first time we met. I started off by quoting Soren Kierkegaard with the line, "scholarship tends to complicate faith". He respectfully disagreed, but at least got the reference. Eventually, we got to the topic of heaven and hell. I stated my basic beliefs and confusion, and he confirmed that it's far from settled, even in our small denomination, how that will all play out. I responded:
"I know that. And you know that. But why do we never present that in church?" He didn't really answer but he didn't have to. The answer is that it would make members feel uncomfortable. People want to believe that the men and women who've dedicated their lives to studying the bible do have it figured out. And when doctrine is preached on Sundays, it's 100% rock-solid fact. That's what people want to hear -- it's comforting. But the preachers and church leaders know better. Not only are things like eschatology not settled, they are unsettleable (is that a word?). The church gets ever more fractured, with more denominations. Far more church splits than church mergers. Is there really only one group that has it right?
Further down the rabbit hole I went.
Riddle me This
More thought experiments. Sometimes I would pick an escatological view and play it out against scenarios. For instance, in the traditional view of heaven and hell:
1. God created me with flaws and is prepared to send me to eternal torment if I don't "get right" with him... is this love? And even if I responded in obedience, wouldn't it always be primarily motivated by fear? What if I told Samantha, "sugar, you have to obey me. If you don't, I'll shoot you and kill you. But don't worry about that -- obey me in love and it'll all turn out fine." I'd be jailed.
2. Fear didn't seem, in general, to be a good motivator for consistently ethical behavior. Reciprocal love is much more powerful in the long-term, but how can that rule while I'm on the precipice of hell? Fear would always rule for me in the traditional view of heaven and hell.
3. Let's assume babies go to heaven if they die (a common doctrine based on a "sorta-in-the-bible-but-kinda-flimsy" doctrine of the age of accountability). But adults only have a low-percentage chance of going to heaven. Abortion doctors would have sent far more souls to heaven that any evangelist I'd ever met. Does that make any sense? It didn't to me.
4. The odds of going to heaven would be almost purely based on the family you're born into. Most of us take on the faith of our parents/families/culture. Born in the Middle East? Sorry, you didn't win the Christian lottery. By the way, less than 1/4 of babies born today are born into Christian homes.
5. Why didn't God include more mentions of the stakes at hand in the Old Testament? If millions of souls were on the line between heaven and hell, didn't they deserve to know? Why wait until 2,000 years ago to teach about it?
6. Recall the story of Jesus and the woman who was about to be stoned -- the "let he who is without sin cast the first stone" story in John chapter 8. She had commited adultery, and the teachers of the law (religious leaders) were going to kill her. Jesus just sat there and drew in the dirt, until they pressed him enough that he said his famous line and everybody left in shame. He then told the woman he didn't condemn her. Before she repented. Did she win the lottery by having Jesus there to forgive her, or were all the other criminals facing execution saved too?
And on I went.
This eventually led me to accept the universalist view of eternity -- that all souls go to heaven. It has tons of biblical support, but I won't pretend that there aren't problem passages for this view as well. Like I said in the last blog post, every eschatological view has its problem passages -- in the end we pick a view and live accordingly. Once we've picked one, then those problem passages won't seem so bad, and the support will seem overwhelming. The classic human gift of justification is still alive and well, and I was using it with universalism.
The "living accordingly" was fantastic. For the first time in my life I didn't feel like a failure for not baptizing the world. For the first time in my life I felt connected to everyone I met, because we were truly in the same boat. I wasn't in some exclusive club -- we were all redeemed by God and finding our way through life. For the first time in my life I really stopped and smelled the roses, because I had time to enjoy creation without despairing over the bleak picture of eternity. Because I didn't have to love God in order to be saved, I found myself responding in love because I was saved from the very beginning, with no chance of falling away.
I was more patient at home because I wasn't guilt-ridden. I was more empathetic at work because I didn't feel like one of the few saved souls in a fallen world. Jamie saw the change in me and started understanding some of my beliefs, and had the grace to stay with me. For a while my changing faith was literally a potential deal-breaker on the whole "marriage and parenting" thing, but that crisis had passed. She knew deep in her heart, without a doubt, that I was loved and accepted by God. Even where I was, which didn't fit into any church-defined doctrine or lifestyle we'd ever encountered. She made a choice to have an open mind and accept me, and we've been building on it ever since.
I can't say that I'm 100% universalist today because while it has great merit, it is no more knowable than any other doctrine. We all do our best and make assumptions to fill in the gaps.
My view of the afterlife is more agnostic than anything, because I just don't know. And I am at great peace with the mystery, although I still enjoy studying the topic. I've also been studying world religions, both past and present, and am finding it fascinating how so many have a few common threads. There is something about human beings that leads us to look beyond the physical, search for answers, and often worship what we find. I believe that all of us seek the same thing, and that deep down we are more alike that we ever care to admit.
I still go to the same church and feel at home there. I get great encouragement from the community that exists there, and hope to offer the same to some of the other members. I've taught a few bible classes now and then but tried to stay away from topics where my views may cause tension. I don't know if this is right or not, but it's worked so far. I have no interest in leaving the church.
The Michael from two years ago would have read this article and spat in anger at the apostasy, arrogance and craziness written above. I hope you do not do the same. But even if you do, I still love you. And I still feel connected to you. And in the midst of it all, I don't worry about eternity, either with happy hopes or dreadful fears. I'm simply focused on today, trying to find my way, and loving every minute of it.
There's so much more to write. I hope you stay to read it. Feel free to share your own stories with me.