Personal

The young man who approached the booth on campus was clean shaven and polite.  He wondered what the booth was and why the elderly gentleman behind it was here on a regular basis.  They chatted a bit about this and that but it was clear that the young man presumed there was a spiritual reason and wanted to talk about it.

I like listening to other people share their faith and engage with people who have questions about that faith.  I do this as part of my work while recognizing that a great deal of style and personality comes through not just how things are said but what is said.  Theology is evidenced in the choice of words and approaches.  Listening to others gives me insight into their understandings of faith and God and themselves, and that is immensely valuable as I try to make Scripture relevant and meaningful to people week after week.

At some point the question came up.  It often does in discussions with those who hold the Biblical Christian faith at arm-length.  What about all those people before Jesus?  Or what about people yet today who have never met a Christian?  Never heard about Jesus?  Never had the chance to know God?  Are they going to hell because they don’t have faith in Jesus?  The expression of the question can vary but the basic idea is the same.  Behind it is usually the firm determination that they can’t put their faith in a God who would be so cruel as to consign so many people – many of them doing the best they can and good by the standards of the world – to eternal punishment for a quirk of geography or timing.

The answer is pretty straightforward in my opinion.  That is God’s business, not mine.  It draws people back to some of the fundamental precepts of Biblical Christianity, chiefly that God is God and I am not God.  God is creator and I am the creature.  Therefore, as Job discovered, there are limits to the demands I can place on God for explaining himself or detailing to me his plans.  There might be gentler ways to answer, but the question is a good one, and it deserves the best answer.  Best answers aren’t always satisfying, but at least they’re honest.

The question also reveals a rather lopsided familiarity with Scripture.  It has heard about the love of God in Jesus Christ, but has it heard about the rest of Scripture and how God reveals himself and his intentions towards creation?  It seems to presume a God ready to pounce, eager to punish, actually looking for reasons to catch us in our sin so that He can consign us to eternal damnation in glee.

This isn’t a Biblical description of God in the least.  What about God’s declaration in Ezekiel 33:10-11?  God does not desire our deaths!  He desires that we should live.  Why won’t we live?  Was God lying to Abraham when He promised him that through him all the earth would be blessed? (Genesis 12:3)  To picture God as eager to damn people on a technicality that He created is to not know how God reveals himself to us in Scripture.

Finally, this sort of question is an attempt (conscious or unconscious) to change the topic.  The topic is what do you make of the Biblical assertion that Jesus of Nazareth was in fact the Son of God incarnate, and that his resurrection is the evidence of his divinity and therefore the truth of everything He taught?  We can ask questions all day.  We can demand that God tell us this or that or the other.  But God first of all wants us to pay attention to what He has already told us.  Standing right there in history and geography.  A man.  An execution and burial.  An empty tomb.  Reports of encountering him alive again.  Physically.  Tangibly.

This is the Gospel.  This is the question the Gospel places to each person it comes to – what are you going to do about the report of Jesus of Nazareth resurrected from the dead and, further still, ascended into heaven?  Are you going to trust it, and in trusting it trust what He preached and taught?  Are you going to deny it?  On what basis?  This is the question that needs to be answered, and it is a question that each individual must answer for themselves.

I gave the young man my card.  I’ve given out a lot of cards over the past few years.  Hundreds of them, in fact.  I don’t hear from many of the people that ask for them or that I offer them to.  But whether I hear from them or not, I pray that the Gospel continues to confront them until they answer the question of what of Jesus of Nazareth? for themselves.  And I pray that they do the homework necessary to convince them that – as unlikely as it may seem – He was and is who He claimed and claims to be, and that in that conclusion they would find life and peace with all the other questions that God does not see fit to answer.

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