15 April 2012

Religious Conversation II – The Agnostic in the Coffee Shop

I was talking with my friend Frank at the coffee shop just off Exit 173 in Bellevue. A sea breeze was blowing in from the east, the sun had just risen over Mercer Island, and the members of a geography club at the next table were thoroughly horrified at my description of the location.

Frank generally calls himself an agnostic, though sometimes he will stretch to deist. He is not the type to protest Ten Commandments displays or end zone prayers, and he does not shriek and back away if he sees someone wearing a crucifix. He is quite the skeptic, however, when it comes to dogma or claims of supernatural revelation.

We had been talking about my mysterious journey to England the previous year, when I had found myself in a pub with three Christian men of different communions. Frank was, naturally, interested in the travel bit. He had once found himself in a dumpster in Calgary, after falling asleep during a particularly dull History lecture at Colorado State University. What he found of the greatest interest, however, was the theological element.

“Did you ever consider,” Frank asked, “that you could all have been starting from a faulty premise? You were all going on and on about who was the right kind of Christian, when you hadn't established if one should be a Christian at all.”

“True enough,” I said. “It didn't seem necessary to cover that ground, when we were all in agreement about the basic Christian framework.”

“Okay, I get that,” he said. “Still, in that conversation or at other points in your life, did you ever pause and ask yourself, 'Is this all a bunch of rubbish?'”

“Sure, doubts pop in now and then,” I said, “but never to the point of abandoning the faith.”

“Because the Christian faith is your default,” he said. “It would probably take something very serious to pull you away from that. For me, I was raised with no religion, so it would take something rather remarkable to pull me into it.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“Well, nothing likely comes to mind,” he said. “I mean, if God appeared to me said, 'I love you, and I want you to spend eternity in paradise, and this is how you get there,' you can bet I would do what he said. But, you can't hand me a collection of two-thousand-year-old documents, full of ambiguous and hotly disputed passages, and tell me that counts. It's not remotely the same thing.”

“But Christianity is not just what some people came up with because they found a Bible centuries after it was written,” I said. “People who knew Jesus, who had walked with him and seen him, passed this news to others. They established the Church, appointing bishops and teachers and the like. The teaching about Christ and the way to salvation was spread throughout the Roman Empire. These people knew their faith, they were absolutely committed to the preservation of orthodoxy, and many of them went to their deaths, rather than deny the faith.

“And,” I continued, “they wrote and they discussed and they held councils. The Christian religion was not developed in secret; it was proclaimed to the world. We still have the writings of the early Christians, not just what was written in the Bible. Christian tradition, teaching, and practice has continued, without interruption, to the present day. So, it's not as if someone handed you a Bible and said, 'God told me to write this; do what it says.'”

“The history stuff is all well and good,” Frank said, “but it doesn't really prove anything to me, personally. Those early Christians, even those who were martyred for the faith, could have been deceived. Religious people being led astray, deliberately or otherwise, by their leaders, is not exactly a rare occasion.”

“Okay, but we're talking about someone who died and then rose from the dead,” I said. “You can't make that stuff up and get away with it. Jesus didn't just claim to be God and then die like everyone else. As Paul said, Jesus appeared to move than five hundred people, after he rose from the dead. That's the kind of claim that would be seriously challenged, if it was false.”

“Maybe so,” Frank said. “Someday I'll finish the Josh McDowell and Lee Strobel books my aunt sent to me. She is quite convinced I'm on my way to Hell. Good of her to try to stop me, I suppose.”

“Indeed,” I said.

“Still,” Frank continued, “it's not like I wish Christianity was true, and I just can't overcome my skepticism. I strongly hope it is not true.”

“Why is that?” I asked.

“Well, think about it,” Frank said. “Christianity basically states that most people who have ever lived will spend eternity in indescribably torment. I mean, it would be bad enough if it was just the serial killers and people who create spam e-mails, as even their crimes are finite. But we're talking about the guy who practiced the wrong religion, or even belonged to the wrong version of the right one. We're talking about the teenager who was thinking exquisite, yet forbidden, thoughts about the girl in Algebra class, and then was hit by a bus, before he could repent or go to confession or whatever.

“The best theological system would be some kind of universalism, where everyone goes to Heaven, and maybe Hitler and Stalin and the spam e-mail guy get a stern talking to before they go in the door. I hope for that, to be honest. But, even a system with no afterlife at all is better than Christianity. Sure, the blessed few don't get their eternity on clouds with harps, but at least their fellows aren't getting eternally burned in the fires of God's wrath.”

“I've thought about this,” I said. “For the sake of the many damned, wouldn't it be better to scrap the whole thing and wipe us all out? But, we Christians believe in free will...”

“Aside from the Calvinists,” Frank interrupted.

“Yes, aside from the Calvinists,” I said, “and due to that belief in free will, we believe that everyone in Hell is there because, ultimately, that is where he decided he wanted to be. Should the happiness and joy of those who chose Heaven be taken away from them, just because the damned freely made the wrong choice?”

“There is something there,” Frank said, “but I think the argument is a grasping at straws for those who, rightly, find the idea of Hell horrifying, and need to find a way to justify it in their minds. If the people getting torched chose to be torched, and wouldn't stop being torched if they could, and this makes God sad, but he respects the choices of the damned, we can nod agreement that it is just and right for this state of affairs to exist.

“But, I don't think the idea of self-chosen damnation lines up with what Christian teaching says. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, the goats are surprised that damnation awaits them. It wasn't something they sought out. The non-Christian or the wrong kind of Christian wasn't seeking damnation; He was trying to serve God the best way he knew how. The kid who was hit by the bus didn't want to go to Hell; he just wanted to think about a pretty girl.”

“Our salvation or our damnation isn't just about one choice,” I said. “We choose Heaven or Hell every day through our choices. The goats in the parable had been choosing Hell by the way they lived their lives, in the things they had done and the things they had failed to do. Their eternal state was the full realization of what they had decided to be. The sheep in the parable may not have known they were choosing Heaven, but that was how they had oriented their lives. Their love and service was giving them a foretaste of Heaven, even as the selfishness and sin of the goats was giving them a foretaste of Hell.

“For the non-Christian or the heretical Christian, or the one who stumbles into sin right before the moment of death, we must trust in God's mercy. The sheep were surprised to learn they had been serving Christ all along. That may be the case for these people in your example. And who knows what grace God grants to us at the moment of our death? Do his mercy and forgiveness have limits?”

“Are you saying even a non-Christian might go to Heaven?” Frank asked.

“All who go to Heaven go because of Christ, through his sacrifice on the cross, his defeat of death, and his triumphant resurrection. Perhaps Christ, in his mercy, has a way to bring these souls to him, even if they did not fully know him in life. I say that Christ may save them, not that he will, just as I say that he may save me. I do not know the mind of God, nor do I know if even I will persevere to the end.”

“No 'once saved, always saved' for you, eh?” Frank asked.

“No,” I said. “As much as I would like to hold to that, I'll have to stick with the ancient Church on this one. If 'once saved, always saved' or 'eternal security' is true, it does no harm to persevere in righteousness, anyway. If it is false, one could find oneself walking down a very dangerous road. Presumption can be spiritually fatal.”

“Your hope for the non-Christian is admirable,” said Frank, “though I'm still not convinced it is considered orthodox. I once visited a friend's church when I was a kid. The Sunday School teacher told us that if we did not tell our non-Christian friends about Jesus, they would burn in Hell, and it would be all our fault. Many tears were shed that day, but I never went back to that church. At least my friend can tell God he tried.”

“We do have a command from Christ to preach the gospel,” I said. “And hope is not the same as certainty. Perhaps God has a way of saving the non-Christian, but we still need to spread the word.”

“Yeah,” said Frank, “but what a load to throw at those kids. My friend had nightmares for weeks, that he saw his non-Christian friends in Hell, and then God turned to him with sad eyes and said, 'This was your doing.'”

“It's harsh, I agree,” I said, “but if others are in peril, and we have the power to help them, shouldn't we know about it? Shouldn't we spur each other on?”

“Yes, but I'm not a Christian,” said Frank. “I'm not convinced we are in eternal peril. If it turns out Christianity was wrong about all that, all those kids suffered emotional trauma for no reason.”

“Yes,” I said, “but if Christianity is right about it, those kids could be partially responsible for the eternal salvation of many people. To guide another to salvation is the greatest thing we can accomplish in this life.”

At this point, we paused and sipped our coffee, as the geography club continued work on their State of Idaho puzzle. Mercer Island was now out the north window, and the sun had taken a quick spin to the south.

“So, this sacrifice of Christ bit,” Frank said. “God either caused or allowed us to come into the world as sinful, fallen beings. Then, because we acted like sinful, fallen beings, he became furious with us. Like, furious to the point of demanding our blood. Serious, 'blood for the blood god' kind of stuff, to borrow from Warhammer. And, even our blood wasn't enough, because we were too flawed to be a proper sacrifice. So, the Father sent the Son, as a man, to die in our place. Finally, God's offended honor was satisfied, and the way to Heaven was opened for us.”

“That's the satisfaction theory,” I said, “and I must admit it's pretty popular in Western Christianity. Eastern Christians, such as the Orthodox, have a different emphasis. God sent his Son to save us from sin and death, not to satisfy his easily wounded honor. Death was our enemy, not God. A debt was paid, but it would be accurate to say it was paid to the grave, not to God. I think C.S. Lewis explained it fairly well in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.”

That does sound a bit better,” said Frank.

And you will see elements of this in the West, as well, as Lewis's case illustrates,” I said. “Christ's sacrifice was a rescue mission, not a participation in an act of vengeance. God wanted to save us, and he still does. As John's gospel states, 'God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.'”

So, God wants us to go to Heaven?” Frank asked.

Most definitely,” I said.

“Okay, so let's talk about Heaven,” said Frank. “I mean, that's supposed to be Christianity's biggest selling point. But when someone comes up to me and says, 'Hey, accept Jesus and you can spend eternity bowing down worshiping God. It will be just like church! Also, you won't be having sex. That's just for marriage, which doesn't exist in Heaven.' At this point, I'm already wondering if the flames of Hell are really all that hot, and if it might be the better option, after all.”

“We don't have many details about Heaven,” I said. “And, for the eternal church people, I think it would be more accurate to say that our every act in Heaven will be an act of worship. We don't need to literally be on our faces before Almighty God for ever and ever, amen. We believe in the resurrection of the body, and presumably, we will be using our bodies for any number of things.

“To bring up C.S. Lewis again,” I continued, “he once said, 'If I discover within myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probably explanation is that I was made for another world.' Have you ever dreamed of something so beautiful, that your heart ached to see it, to know it, to experience it?”

Well, yes, I suppose I have,” Frank said.

“When I imagine Heaven,” I said, “I picture towering mountains, far higher than anything on Earth. I imagine dense forests, stretching on for untold miles. I see rolling hills of the greenest grass, as far as the eyes can see. I dream of a world unspoiled, pure and holy, full of possibility and wonder. And, somewhere in this world, the great city, its spires shining in Heaven's light, its streets filled with singing and laughter. I feel myself running and leaping, rejoicing in the glory of all that is around me. I see my family and friends, and the whole communion of the saints, those who have run the race of the past world and reached the kingdom of their God. My imagination falls far short, I know, but the eternal church crowd aren't even trying.”

“Your imagination is not really a convincing theological argument,” said Frank, “but I hope you're right.”

We both sat in silence for a moment. The geography club walked out the door and were shocked to find themselves across the street from the Seattle Aquarium. Mercer Island was currently in the basement of an art gallery on Capitol Hill, and the sun was taking a tour of Vancouver Island.

“So, do you want to come to church next week?” I asked.

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