I met 20 year old me in a coffee shop this afternoon. He doesn’t look like I did, or talk like I did. But he has the same certainty about God, the Bible, and the afterlife that I did. He wanted to counsel me on something that I said at his InterVarsity group at Bradley University a couple of weeks ago. In his email, his first one, he told me that he wanted to get together because he was concerned about my eternal resting place. I didn’t really want to meet with him for two reasons: I have little time left in Peoria, and I am not concerned, nor did I want to stand before the council of Trent (his name).
But he wouldn’t relent. So I obliged, seeing as I know that 20-year-old me would have appreciated a conversation later like the one we were about to have. Here is what concerned Trent in the first place:
- While speaking to his Christian student organization, I said that I don’t believe that hell has anything to do with evangelism.
- I also said that the point of a conversation or a friendship with someone who believes differently than you do is not conversion of the other, but for both people to be mutually enriched and challenged to become better versions of themselves.
I know Trent. Not in the sense that I have an understanding of what makes him unique. What I mean is, I was Trent. I was concerned with orthodoxy (correct belief (meaning my correct beliefs)) more than orthopraxy (correct practice). Way more, actually. I was taught, at my church and my Bible College, that God is just like the Greeks envisioned the Unmoved Mover. God is impeccable, omnipotent, and unchangeable. I believed that one needs to believe the right things in order to be saved, and I believed that salvation was all about eternal destination. When I read words like ‘destruction’ and ‘fire’, I knew that these words meant hell after death. When I read that Jesus is going to come down from the clouds to take people up into the air with him, I knew that was talking about heaven after death for believers.
It was cut and dried.
Like tobacco, or apricots.
The problem with asking questions about these things, is that the answers one finds lead to more questions – not answers. As the saying goes, the more you know, the more you know that you don’t know. I saw my meeting with Trent as an opportunity to invite him, at least a little bit, into unknowing.
I failed in that I spoke too much and listened too little. I failed in that I believed that somehow I could help Trent think or see differently. It wouldn’t have worked for me at his age. I am pretty sure that for the most part it didn’t work for him either. But that’s also why I met with Trent. If anything good comes of our conversation, it will be that he will be sure to make sure what he thinks he sees in Scripture is actually what is written on the page. He will know that there are many ways of seeing things.
However, if all I accomplished was to start a process we call ‘deconstruction’ in Trent, I would have failed. Thankfully, I didn’t do this either. Here are a few of the beliefs, a piece of my reconstruction, that I left Trent with:
- God, from the very beginning to the very ending of the Scriptural witness, has been setting about to repair, remake, redeem, and reconcile all things to himself. The good news is that he has invited us into participation in that sort of life. God asks all of us to choose life.
- If we want to understand God’s heart, we also have to understand that the Bible was written by humans for humans in a particular context and historical situation. Some of what we don’t understand (and sometimes choose to ignore) is a human person’s interpretation of what God is doing in the world. If there are things in Scripture that don’t resonate with what we know to be true of God as revealed in Jesus, we don’t have to wrestle them into making sense with silly arguments and analogies. Jesus is our metric for truth, not Scripture.
- The Bible isn’t straightforward. There are many ways to read a particular text. Often, our way of reading is informed by the voices that we choose to listen to, and the truths we wish to see. As unsettling that may be to a 20 year old Calvinist, he saw it in our conversation today.
- Everyone knows that Christians believe in a heaven and a hell. Often, that’s the hang up for people who don’t believe in a God who would allow people to be tortured forever in a lake of burning fire. The good news isn’t about what happens when we die; the good news is about what God is calling us into while we are alive. We need to leave the afterlife until after life.
- What we believe about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and its implications for us now, inform what we believe about people who are not Christians. Either they have infinite possibility (to choose life) or they have been judged until they consent to (or give assent to) certain, inalienable, truths.
I was certainly challenged as well. I was challenged to articulate what I believe in a consistent and clear manner. I was challenged with the fact that I don’t have answers to every question. I know even more than ever that I don’t have everything figured out and that I have a long way to go. I pray that Trent will join me in diving into the depths of what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus in relation to everyone around us.
May you also wrestle in order to really know what it is that you think you know.