AUTHOR’S NOTE: This post reflects an “atonement theory” of Christianity that I now reject. I’ve kept it to show where I come from.
As I see it, there are many more reasons than otherwise to believe both that a god created the universe and that the man, Jesus, was that god. One of my very first writings on this website was a short discussion of a few of them. I wrote that post with no shortage of conviction. Yet, in just a few months after writing with such earnestness, a thought would enter my head. This was no ordinary thought. By the beginning of this most recent summer, I had decided that I no longer believed.
I really didn’t.
Today, I believe. I really, really believe. I believe to an extent that would never have been possible before. The thought that occurred to me was the gap between the way I understood parts of the Bible and what I knew could be true — a gap too wide to put any reliance on my understanding when times of true sacrifice consistent with those beliefs had to be made.
So, I hope in this writing to take you along the journey I traveled. I want you to understand where I began, my doubt. I suspect many of you also are unsatisfied with the standard answers to the questions I had. I want you to know the conclusion I have reached and how I reached it. Let’s begin.
You have no control over your birth. Where you’re born, when you’re born, and to whom you’re born are chosen before you choose anything. Even though you and I certainly have complete control over nothing, our birth is the only thing over which we have complete un-control. This is an important point that I’ll come back to later.
In the New Testament of the Bible, a doctor named Luke recorded the missionary journeys of Paul. This was a special time. Since the time of Moses, 1,500 years before Paul’s time, Jehovah God had been exclusively for the Hebrew nation. But Luke wrote during a time when, for the first time, God became accessible to everyone. The Jewish law that governed humankind’s relationship with God, the Old Testament, had been replaced by the New Testament. Needless to say, Paul’s message was unpopular among the Jewish establishment who stood to lose their exclusive positions of power and their aspirations for a united and sovereign Jewish nation. Paul thus was forced him into a life of constant movement and exile.
As part of his missionary journey, Paul found himself in Athens, Greece, having been driven out of Berea by the Jews there. It is here that Paul made the statement that pretty much rocked my faith. Luke records Paul’s distress at the sight of the many idol gods worshiped by the Athenians. Reacting to the sight, Paul made a public speech in the middle of a marketplace.
[S]ince we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.
Any honest reader of this passage must ask themself: Are people who never hear about Jesus going to Hell? The New Testament reiterates over and over and over that salvation comes through belief in Jesus. If, under the new law, people who never hear about Jesus are going to Hell, and if belief in Jesus is the exclusive way to not go to Hell for eternity, I must say the old law seems a lot more fair — eternally more so.
While I am fully aware of Jesus’s teaching that many who claim to be Christian are not so, there are truths about the world that we can’t ignore: 80% of Americans identify themselves with Christianity; the number in the Middle East is 5%; the number in North Korea is effectively 0%. As I first pondered these things, I had to ask myself whether I’m a Christian merely because I was born an American to parents who are believers. In other words, are all these people born elsewhere going to Hell for the sole reason that they were born in a particular place?—the one thing in life over which you and I, as stated above, have no control?
When we talk about the unchangeable consequences of one’s birth, it’s one thing that suffering, hunger, abandonment, torture and other terrible things happen on the earth. They are no less terrible, but the notion that an eternity of perfection potentially awaits provides an undeniable solace to this terrible present reality. Earthly suffering is one thing. It’s another thing altogether when we begin to examine the never-ending consequences on one’s birth.
And this gets me to the thought that could not escape my brain for almost a year. When I was being honest with myself, I understood the Bible to indeed say that people are going to go to Hell for no other reason than the fact that they were born in circumstances unaccomodating to the cultivation of a belief in God. But more importantly, God was choosing to let those people remain ignorant. It was at this thought that I decided I could no longer believe.
No person should believe in a god who purports to exercise complete control over everything that happens on the Earth, yet allows people to go to their grave without hearing the single thing they need to avoid damnation for all eternity — damnation to a degree of isolation, pain, and suffering that our finite brains cannot comprehend. I refuse to believe in that god and so should you. To the nonbelievers who read this, you need to challenge the Christian believers you know on this point. A god who allows people to remain ignorant of salvation, yet who absolutely could make people aware of salvation, not only is a sick and sadistic god, but is utterly at odds with the god described everywhere else in the Bible, even in the Old Testament.
Christians who even bother to acknowledge this dilemma typically respond that this should drive us to evermore zealous evangelism. But whatever our shortcomings may be for not blazing across the North Korean border with a private military in order to reach the lost there, our failures do not make it any more fair for those lost North Koreans.
Let me make an important point before moving on. The issue is really not about fairness. If God had no say in the matter, no say in who hears the gospel, then he could be excused for not reaching people on his own initiative, for not making up the difference between what Christians are supposed to do and what we end up doing. The fact that it would be unfair for people to go to Hell without hearing would not cause me to lose my faith.
The issue isn’t fairness. The issue is consistency.
God is described as not wanting anyone to be lost. Even if this wasn’t explicitly stated in the Bible — which it is — it is implicit is God sending Jesus to die. But the idea of a god who will do anything to see that we not perish is inconsistent with a god who sits idly while people die without knowing how to not perish. We should not abandon faith because we don’t like what the Bible says. Truth is neither dependent on our preferences nor our judgment of fairness. But internal consistency goes straight to the matter of truth.
We must quit ignoring contradictory tenants of our theological traditions.
My Faith Today
I am unhesitant in saying that my belief in God today is completely dependent on the notion that people who never had the chance to believe in the resurrected man, Jesus, can still go to Heaven. I know this is hyper controversial, but I’ll walk you through the verses led me to this conclusion and let you make up your own mind about them.
James 3 states that not all Christians should aspire to be teachers because teachers are going to be judged more strictly. From this, I see an unmistakable principle that we will be judged according to our knowledge and abilities.
In Luke 16, Jesus tells a story about a rich man in Hell. In his story, the man apparently can view across a chasm to Abraham who is in Heaven. The rich man calls out to Abraham to warn his five brothers who are still alive so that they will not join him in torment. The following exchange is striking:
“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
“‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
From this, I see that God can discern not only what we actually do, but, and in my opinion more importantly, what we would have done had our experiences been different. God, according to James, knows not only what we know, but, according to Jesus, what we would have done had we known more.
There’s more. In chapter 2 of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome, Paul states:
For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.) This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.
I used to believe this passage was just talking about the law of Moses. I believed it meant that non-Jews could still be saved despite not having the law. After all, today we’re not under law but grace. This passage says “law.”
But that makes no sense. Is Paul really saying that there were gentiles in his day who were doing the things required in the Mosaic law? Gentiles who, just out of human nature, were following the priestly code? The required scarifies? The dietary abstentions?
Not on your life!
The Mosaic code is long, complicated, specific, and unintuitive. Too much so for me to believe that there were non-Jews out there complying with its requirements. To comply with the Mosaic law meant to comply perfectly. Even the Jews weren’t doing that. Instead, what Paul wrote in Romans 2 is as a logical extension of the gospel of Jesus, a law of the heart, not of a written code. Paul even explicitly connects his thought to the judgment through — not the law — but through Jesus.
The notion of gentiles or nonbelievers having a law unto themselves in accordance is also consistent with Jesus’s story about a man and his bags of gold. The man left five bags with one servant, two with another, and one with the last. When he came back, the servant with five bags invested the money and produced five more bags and the servant with two bags did the same, producing two more bags. However, the servant with only one bag did nothing and the man was irate. I believe the one-bagged servant is the gentile of Romans 2 who didn’t have the same opportunity to believe as the two- and five-bagged servants. While everyone is expected to act in accordance with what they know, the one-bagged servant is not expected to do what people with superior knowledge are expected to do.
But we still have to deal with Paul’s statement to the Athenians, that, in the past, God overlooked ignorance of him. My old way of interpreting this verse was that if you are ignorant of Jesus, you cannot go to Heaven. Today, I believe the correct way of interpreting this verse is that all people everywhere are invited to the guarantee of salvation through belief in Jesus, and that you, Athenians, who now have heard, have no excuse not to believe in Jesus.
The notion that people can avoid eternal punishment in Hell for the simple reason that they were born in a place does not mean that teaching and being an ambassador for the way of truth is less important. I’m frequently asked what motivation we have to teach unbelievers if unbelievers can still go to Heaven. The answer is simple: We’re commanded to. I don’t know specifically why, but I have ideas. The world is a much better place when people put their trust in Jesus. Jesus is the source of the fullest joy. Belief is Jesus is a guarantee of salvation. And God wants a relationship with everyone; God wants to be known. If you were the source of all life, if you knew every hair on the head of the people you created, I bet you would too.
I have a stronger faith today than I once did. Frankly, the Bible just makes so much more sense today. Be willing to confront your doubts. Be confident in Jesus’s words on the mountain: “Seek and you will find.”