What to Say?

I increasingly wonder why I bother with Facebook.  While it’s nominally enjoyable lurking on the lives of colleagues, friends, and acquaintances, it is arguably as frustrating as it is enjoyable.  Actually, it’s probably not even much of an argument.  It’s far more annoying than enjoyable, as I don’t much care about the eating habits of people.  But what I do care about is the proclamations they make.  Picking up the Facebook Megaphone is an inherently dangerous and offensive thing, unless the only people you happen to know on Facebook are people who think exactly the same as you do.

So what to say when a someone shouts out something that you patently disagree with?  That demonstrates an ignorance of the topic that is actually offensive?  How do you engage with someone who feels comfortable enough picking up the Facebook Megaphone to broadcast their views, given that any disagreement is likely to be shallow at best, and at worst, simply results in un-friending.  More and more these options aren’t limited just to virtual life but happen in the real world as well.

Which is why I rarely post on Facebook.

So when a former work-acquaintance posted this essay, my immediate reaction was to want to engage.   Dialogue.  Talk.  Discuss. Clarify.  There are multiple errors in the essay, all defended with the vague assurance that the author knows the Scriptures “back and forth”.  Yet for someone who claims to be so familiar with the Scriptures, he displays a stunning ignorance as to what all those words actually say.

But this is a common complaint against Christianity, and one that many Christians themselves struggle for a peace with.  Who doesn’t know nice, loving, caring people who profess no religious belief whatsoever, or profess a belief that directly contradicts Biblical Christianity (as every other religion [not necessarily denomination] does)?  Who doesn’t struggle with the heartache of someone in their lives that seems headed towards hell in a cloud of niceness and worldly morality (in the best sense of that term)?

So let’s unpack this a little bit.  It would be easiest to say that the author has posited an untrue claim, and that granny really isn’t going to hell despite her avoidance of the faith.  Many Christian denominations have actually gone down this path, until they posit an effectual if not explicit universalism that denies any actual consequences to both our actions and our beliefs.

I won’t say that though.  Let’s grant the author’s premise – that granny dies outside of the Christian faith.  We’ll come back to caveats later.  Let’s assume that she encountered the Gospel at some point in her life and rejected it.  She rejected Jesus as the Son of God, despite historical eye-witness testimony of his life, suffering, death, and most importantly, resurrection.  If this is what the author envisions, then Scripture supports the premise that Granny is in hell.

Is she in hell because she didn’t verbalize or internalize a particular set of words, in this case, the sinner’s prayer?  No.  The sinner’s prayer might be a helpful summary state of saving faith, but it is not the key to salvation.  If you don’t pray those specific words, you are still a Christian.  The content of those words might be helpful to some, but it is not the means to salvation.  Jesus is the means to salvation.

The author seems to want to qualify things.  Nana believed in god in a big-picture sort of way.  What does this mean?  It seems to imply that generic theism or belief in a deity of some sort is adequate or somehow beneficial or accurate.  It is not.  Believing in a god is not the issue.  Believing in the God is.  Further, the author’s description of Nana’s religious views seems to imply that nothing more than a big-picture belief in a god is possible.  Nana can’t be faulted for not having more specific religious beliefs because there is no valid basis for any specific theistic belief.  Nana did the best that she could with all that is available to any of us, which is not much.

That’s a false assertion.  It’s a common one, to be sure, but it’s false.  First off, any actual belief in a god will have repercussion that immediately begin limiting your theistic options, narrowing the playing field, shrinking the big-picture mindset to something smaller.  Is God personal or impersonal?  That’s the first huge one, which roughly divides Easter and Western religions from one another.  Is God the source of our hope and salvation or are we?  That divides Christianity from Judaism and Islam.  The picture gets smaller pretty quickly if you have any actual belief in a god.  Belief in a god is not the same thing as acknowledging that there is likely some sort of higher being out there somewhere.

The author emphasizes Nana’s behaviors and actions.  These, to the author, are what matters – not her particular belief in a particular god.  Not her participation in that life of belief in any meaningful or identifiable fashion.  Live and let live sounds nice, so long as you don’t believe there are any consequences for your choices in life.  If you believe they are, then immediately you begin shrinking the playing field of live and let live.  Are we to let murderers and pedophiles and thieves live out their lives actively without trying to dissuade them from their choices – or preventing them from acting on their desires?  Live and let live sounds nice but it isn’t practical for anyone.  Nobody really believes this mantra.

Is Nana suffering in hell?  I believe so.  But not because God is punishing her for disbelief.  Rather, what Scripture describes is a schism, a rebellion against the power of God.  The one who rebels against God embodies all of the qualities that are anti-thetical to God.  Dishonesty.  Malevolence.  An active desire to cause suffering and pain to others.  Now, if Hell is where people go because Hell is the designated no-God area of existence/creation, then people who reject God (continuing in rebellion) are going to go there because they’ve decided that this is what they want.  Apathy is not an excuse.  I might be apathetic in learning all of the rules of taxation in the US and comporting myself appropriately.  If I were eventually brought to account for thumbing my nose at my duties as a citizen and my response was I really didn’t think it was that important, it isn’t going to save me from the ramifications of my actions.  Choosing not to believe is still a choice, just as choosing not to bother about filing my taxes is a choice, and a choice I would be held legally liable for.

And for the record, I do pay my taxes!

Apathy or ignorance, in other words, do not pardon us.  A judge doesn’t say to us that we are free of the consequences of violating the law because we never knew about it.  First off, it’s a defense that often isn’t true.  Secondly, genuine ignorance or apathy is just as dangerous to oneself and others around you as deliberate and willful violation of the law.  If I speed through a school zone at 95 MPH, unaware that it is a school zone, I am every bit as dangerous as someone who intentionally speeds through the same school zone.

So if Nana couldn’t be bothered, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t reap the consequences.  We can feel bad for her, but that’s of little use after the fact.  This is why Christians ought to take evangelism seriously!

Nana ends up in hell through her apathy or outright rejection of God’s tangible, empirical proofs and offers in human history.  She ends up in the same place as Satan, who threw God’s grace away.  Satan hates God, but he can’t hurt God because Satan is not God’s equal and opposite.  He’s merely a creation.  He can’t hurt God, so he seeks to hurt and destroy what God loves – you and I.  Now Nana and Satan are in the same place.  And Satan sees Nana as a daughter of God who God dearly loves and sent his Son to die for.  How do you think Satan is going to treat Nana?  How would you expect a serial killer to act when they discover someone alone out in the middle of nowhere?  It isn’t pretty.  But that is because of Satan’s evil, not God’s active desire to inflict pain and suffering.

The author may view pastors and priests as people who get some perverse delight out of sharing this message with people.  Perhaps he hasn’t had to sit and pray with people who suffer anguish every single day because their spouse or child or grandchild has walked away from God.  Perhaps the author views Biblical teachings on eternity as a convenient way for some people to make a quick buck.  It’s a rather pathetic ad hominem attack.

I understand with the author’s struggle with the Biblical teaching regarding eternity – heaven and hell.  But the issue is not whether I like it or not, but whether or not that is what the Bible says.  Which will lead to a discussion of what is the Bible and where did it come from and why should we take it seriously on issues like this?  For 2000 years Christians have followed the words of Jesus, who viewed all of the Old Testament as inspired by God and fully accurate.  And if the Old Testament emphasizes not our actions but our faith in God’s promises (Genesis 15:6), then what do we focus on – how nice somebody is?  What a sweet disposition they have?  Or do we focus on the promises of God as the source of our hope and justification, as the source of our righteousness in the eyes of God?

Yes, Jesus calls people to a lifetime of following.  Following him.  Asking and knocking in his name.  In other words, living lives very different from the life of Nana the author just described.  Jesus called people to discipleship and to following and belief in him, predicated on the historical reality of his predicted death and resurrection.  Things we can examine historically, just as we make claims about this historic general or that historic emperor based on eye-witness testimony.  How is it that Nana – who apparently heard the Gospel – never felt compelled to investigate it, to determine if it indeed could focus her big-picture idea of God into something that provided real hope and joy and peace for her and those around her?

The author’s description of God as a “grudge-holding Nana burner” is pretty infantile.  God expresses his anger and righteous wrath throughout Scripture at evil.  But it is the nature of that evil, whether actively at work as in Satan or at work in the passivity and disinterest of Nana that is the source of eternal torment and suffering.  If the issue becomes one of niceness rather than trust in God’s gift of amnesty in Jesus Christ, where do we draw the line?  How do we define what is nice enough?  The author seems to think Nana was nice enough, but what if Nana, despite her outward actions and words, was filled with hate for those around her?  What if she acted as she did only through a sense of compulsion and societal expectations?  What if she dreamed of throttling her husband regularly, but instead made him dinner?

The author seeks to give hope to his hearers.  Hope that Christ is unnecessary.  But then what do we place our hope in?  Is it just the idea that everybody gets to heaven?  That people who spend their entire earthly life resisting and fighting against and denigrating God are forced to go to heaven when they die?  Might they not consider that a form of hell?

If we want to give people hope, we give them Jesus.  We give him not just as the warm fuzzy feeling in our hearts but in the historical man who lived and suffered and died, but who also rose again from the dead just as He predicted.  Who appeared to hundreds of people over the course of about 6 weeks, and then publicly ascended into heaven.  Here is hope – hope and certainty in who He was and what He did, not whether or not I’m nice enough.  Because at the end of the day, regardless of what others think, I know I’m never nice enough.

Now, all that being said, here’s another point the author doesn’t deal with.  He doesn’t know that Nana is in hell.  What he knows is that he is not aware that she ever went to church.  He never heard her talk about Jesus.  He never witnessed her respond to an altar call and never heard her pray.  That doesn’t mean she didn’t believe in Jesus as the Son of God who saved her.  What it means is that we never have enough evidence to guarantee that someone is bound for heaven or hell.  At best we can speculate based on our observations of that person’s words and deeds.

My duty as a Christian and a pastor is not to tell somebody that they are going to hell or heaven.  My duty is to proclaim the good news of Jesus, to provide them an encounter with the record of his words and deeds, his life and death and resurrection, so that the Holy Spirit might create faith in that person which will bring them into the presence of God for eternity.  The author cannot be certain the Holy Spirit didn’t do that with Nana.  Perhaps at an earlier point in her life.  Perhaps in her last few moments of life.  If the Bible correctly describes a struggle between Satan and God over each individual person, it should not be surprising that, as the Medieval writers and artists envisioned so vividly, that battle continues right up until the last breath.

So his final question must remain unanswered – at least for now.  I can’t say where Nana is, and neither can he.  I can, however, pray that her exposure to Jesus at whatever point in her life took root, and that, whether she ever went to church or not or talked about her faith or not, Nana believed in Jesus Christ as the Son of God whose death paid the penalty for her sins, and whose resurrection is the evidence of new life promised to her through that faith.

I agree that God is a loving and merciful God.  But I also take seriously the Scriptural description that we can reject his mercy and love.  There are consequences to each path – faith or apathy/disinterest/refusal.  Focus on telling people about Jesus, rather than trying to invent ways in which Jesus is not necessary.  I think there’s a lot more hope and confidence in Jesus than in my musings or alternatives.

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