My defining moment

My students had started to ask me, a few weeks ago, about what happens to people who don't believe in Jesus when they die. A lot of conversations I've had with students who are having a hard time in their faith lives revolve around, "why would God leave out of heaven all those good people who just decided not to believe the same things we do?"

One of my kids had left a question in the fishbowl that said, "Does God still love you if you do something wrong like decide to go your own way or choose a different religion?" He'd left me a nice out in the way he asked the question, because yes, God's love for people is infinite and the amount of love He has for us isn't affected by the things we do; God is able to differentiate between who we are and what we do. But I had a feeling C wouldn't appreciate me attempting to avoid the real question.

So I asked God about it, and as I was praying the Scripture that came to mind was when Jesus is first teaching about living bread, and the crowd starts to say, "This teaching is too hard. Who can understand it." When Jesus didn't go back and re-explain himself, a lot of the people there went away and didn't follow Him anymore. So Jesus went to the disciples and said, "What about you? Do you also want to leave because of what I'm teaching you?"

Peter stepped up and said, "Lord, who would we follow instead? You have the words that give eternal life. And now we see, and have come to believe that you are the holy one of God."

What the disciples realized, I heard, was that Christianity wasn't just a technique or an add-on to everything else they were doing in life. If you want to take a yoga class or learn computer programming, you might have to rearrange some of the other things you do to make time for it, but you can do those things along with everything else.

The disciples saw that following Jesus was going to be different. This was going to be a new way of life; it was going to replace everything they had done before, just as Jesus, when he invited them in the first place, had replaced their daily jobs with new ones.

I realized that while I've been teaching that Jesus is the way, I've been doing that in a very soft and unemphatic way.

I'm ready now to teach less apologetically and more urgently that when Jesus said, "I am the way to the Father," he meant it.

It was scary to me to realize for how long I've been avoiding answering that question.


Anonymous said...

It is simply astounding how often we tend to shy away from being bold with our students. There is a time and a place to be vague or general, but especially with our students who claim to be disciples, we need to be bold, firm, and sometimes maybe a little brutal. Kudos to you. And prayers as well. It is never easy to teach with such conviction and honesty.

Anonymous said...

The idea that God would have more respect for someone who believed simply out of fear of hell than he would for someone who didn't believe but was a good person without that impetus of fear is a little scary. It implies that God cares more that people are afraid than that they are good.

While there's merit to the idea that if you've done a lot of horrible things in your life, you don't have to give up and can still turn your life around (which is, I think, where the "all it takes is belief" idea originated), it's a double-edged sword in that it also seems to endorse a series of horrible actions punctuated by a last-minute turn-around acceptance of Jesus. I think God is ultimately intelligent enough to fully understand all the subtle nuances of our actions and intentions that he doesn't need such an oversimplified screening process.

When it all comes down to it, though, you have to ask yourself what all of this gets for God. That is, what NEED does God have to punish people for an eternity? That's not a need an omnipotent being would likely have, especially since he could just as easily -- being omnipotent -- fashion infinite alternatives to this "I have to torture people forever because they failed to meet certain conditions" situation.

This tips the hand of the whole "hell/infinite punishment" thing: It's not a need of God, it is a need of man. WE are the ones who want to see evildoers ultimately receive some unavoidable reward. And while God loves us and has our interests at heart, if he TRULY loves us, he wouldn't inflict unreasonable, infinite punishment on most of us in order to appease the material, worldly desires of some of us.

Yes, I know God's mind is incomprehensible. But at the same time, we can really only make judgments based on our own perceptions. So either God is truly loving and won't arbitrarily condemn large portions of humanity to eternal punishment for the rest of time because somehow his omnipotent hands are tied in the situation, or he's -- again, as we can experience him -- incredibly cruel.

Really, I don't know the end toward which I'm trying to argue, here. If people need God as a way of moderating their behavior, then belief is a positive thing. I just fear the "all it takes is belief" concept, because I think that the other edge of the sword I mentioned earlier can slice just as easily. I also think that if someone might be... let's say "better behaved"... under a different system of beliefs, the fear of eternal repercussion from THIS religion shouldn't prevent them from reaching that potential.

We should spend more time doing good things for other people than worrying about under which specific set of beliefs of the myriad available are the ones that will result in the best outcome for us, individually. I think THIS is what God wants us to do, instead of acting primarily out of fear for our own futures.