Tell Me If You Think I’m Going To Hell….

This is not going to end well....

This is not going to end well….

Not too long ago, I got shot in the chest. I was sitting in the driver’s seat of a parked car, and a woman stuck a gun through the passenger window and demanded that I give her all my money. She seemed extremely nervous, so I tried to calm her down and assured her I had no problem with giving her my money. She kept looking behind her, as if she was expecting someone to sneak up on her. I handed her my money, she looked over her shoulder one more time, and then pulled the trigger. It felt like someone threw a hot bowling ball at my chest. I looked down and saw blood start to expand around a little hole in my T-shirt, and I thought, “Oh my God. I’m going to die.” I started to feel very cold, I heard myself stop breathing, and then everything went black. And I died. And in that dark silence, the last thing I thought before I woke up was, “I wonder what’s going to happen next….”

Ahh Dreamscape.... Providing years worth of snakeman-filled nightmares to kids my age who had HBO.

Ahh Dreamscape…. Providing years worth of snakeman-filled nightmares to kids of my generation who had HBO.

That dream really shook me (and it wasn’t just because I watched the movie Dreamscape too many times as a kid and sort of suspected that if you died in a dream you would die in real life). It shook me because of how certain I was during the dream that what was happening to me was real. There was no “I wonder if I’m dreaming” moment when things started getting crazy. I was SURE that this dream was reality. And faced with the real situation of my life ending, my final thoughts were, “I wonder what’s going to happen next….” It made me question my salvation. It didn’t seem like the sort of question a person would be asking if that person really BELIEVED that Heaven was coming next. “Welp, that’s the end of that life! Bring on the pearly gates and the streets of gold, Lord!!!” <–THAT’S the sort of thing someone says who is filled with FAITH.

"Cry" was BY Angie Aparo, THROUGH Faith

“Cry” was BY Angie Aparo, THROUGH Faith

So I started thinking…. What is “FAITH” anyway? And if faith is what gets you into Heaven, how much faith are we talking about? Or if we’re “saved BY grace, THROUGH faith, we should probably have a REALLY good understanding of the difference in meaning between those two prepositions, right? And I hope, for our sake, that those prepositions translated PERFECTLY from Greek to English, because a subtle difference might mean the difference between salvation and damnation. And what about that whole “salvation/damnation” thing–What if someone believes something different than me about Heaven and Hell? Does a person have to have a right understanding of what happens when we die in order to get into Heaven? A lot of questions….

"Streets of gold, pearly gates, in the clouds.... I KNEW IT!"

“Streets of gold, pearly gates in the clouds–I KNEW IT!”

Here’s one way to think about this: Rate between 1 and 10 how certain you are that the things you currently believe about God are absolutely true and that, when you die, you are going straight to Heaven (1 being you are completely unsure that what you believe is actually true, and 10 being complete certainty that you’re right). Now…. Consider this: How high of a number does someone need to have in order for God to let that person into Heaven? Four? Six or higher? Does it have to be a ten? How much doubt are we allowed before we are sent to hell? Or, as you’re considering this, did you feel a deep sense of “How could I ever presume to know such a thing?” Because I did….

Doubt.

Faith.

The opposite of faith is not doubt…. It’s certainty. But something messed up has happened in the psyche of the Church, and a lot of people have started believing that to have faith in something means to have no doubts about it. I think some of this way of thinking has come as an attempt to take poetic language in the Bible and make it literal. For example, the writer of Hebrews speaks about faith, and depending on the version of the Bible that you are reading, it comes out different ways: In the King James Version, it says, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” In the NIV, it says, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” The English Standard Version says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” And then The Message says that faith is “our handle on what we can’t see.”

"Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real?"

“Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real?”

This language is clearly poetic. Hope, by its very definition, requires a lack of certainty…. But we end up with faith being described in terms of a certainty of something uncertain, a touchable part of something we can’t touch, or a handle on something invisible. And people try to turn those poetic phrases into dogma. And literalism. And it kills the power of the poetry, like a person who walks around with her hands above her head because she heard that we should always “reach for the stars.” It’s what happens when we start confusing knowledge with belief. It has to do with what we believe knowledge really is, or “epistemology.” But there are different kinds of knowing…. There’s knowing the answer to a math problem, and then there’s Knowing that I love my Grandpa, even though he is buried in the ground.

I have begun to consider myself a Missionary of Uncertainty. So many people have developed such an unwavering certainty in their beliefs–Their truth is the one and only truth, God is on (only) their side, and anyone who doesn’t share their same beliefs is going to hell. When a person believes he or she possesses an unclouded knowledge of God’s truth, it’s hard next to impossible to have an actual conversation with them. It’s this same sort of unwarranted confidence that allows members of congress to prevent any sort of progress, because they believe that compromising THEIR principles would be compromising GOD’S principles (and that is just not okay). It’s this same sort of unwavering certainty that hates a person that you’ve never talked to…. The same one that casts a gay son or daughter out of a home and into the streets…. And really, it’s the same sense of certainty that straps a bomb to its chest.

"Honey, look at this human bomb on the news."

“Honey, look at this human bomb on the news.”

Certainty is not only annoying, but it can be really dangerous. It allows people to feel justified in their hate, but as Anne Lamott said, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” Now, you might be thinking “If you’re so unsure about everything, why would we listen to you?” That’s a good question. I used to be sure about almost everything, but like many people have said before–“The more I learn, the less I know.” All I can tell you is that I have not come to this place frivolously. I know enough to understand that you shouldn’t be nearly as certain as you are. Also, consider that when describing the Kingdom of Heaven (or the Age to Come, or the Banquet, or Paradise or Heaven or whatever), if there is one point that Jesus makes over and over again, it’s that people are going to be really surprised by “who’s getting in.

Following Jesus does not mean having all the answers, and having faith does not mean being certain. For some, this illusion of certainty is the only they have to cling to, and any threat to that feeling of certainty (such as the idea that the Earth might be a whole lot older than 6000 years, or the thought that being in a whale for three days might not be what the story of Jonah is actually about, or the suggestion that the Bible might not be as clear-cut about homosexuality as people once believed) is a threat to their feeling of safety. And uncertainty can feel scary…. Especially at first. But a faith that is honest enough to admit that it has doubts is probably also humble enough to admit it doesn’t have all the answers. And a beautiful thing happens when you admit that you don’t have all the answers–It frees you from having to ACT like you have all the answers, and it allows you to take yourself out of a position of judgment, and simply love people…. People who are doing their best to figure it all out, just like you are.

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32 Responses to Tell Me If You Think I’m Going To Hell….

  1. I agree with what you say about uncertainty. It’s a very good and humbling thing to have (and it isn’t often found in the young). But faith – I’m not sure! Still, well put!

  2. Spring Thompson says:

    Amen! I was raised in the Pentecostal religion & some Methodist because of moving. I have some family members who are catholic & ended up marrying into a Lutheran family. And one thing religion taught me is I’m not a fan of religion, I’m a fan of God! The Bible has been translated so many times that how can you take it word for word. I’m certain of a couple things because of my faith in God: He is real & He is love! My faith is unwavering in that alone & the rest doesn’t matter! I prefer to one day maybe sit with Jonah & get his real story from his own mouth. 🙂 Until then, I will continue to love people no matter race, religious beliefs or sexual orientation, and keep asking God to help me love Republicans too! I have such a hard time with that one. 🙂

    • theboeskool says:

      I’m not sure how prayer works, but I’m pretty sure that the small act of “asking God to help you love” just about always works.

      It’s a lot easier for me to love hypothetical enemies than the people who actually annoy the crap out of me and make me really angry. A generic prayer of “Help me love my enemies” is not nearly as dangerous as one that asks God to show you who you’re not doing a very good job of loving….

      Keep up the good work, Spring Thompson!

  3. My Muted Voice says:

    “The opposite of faith is not doubt”. Exactly! That in itself is such a valid point.

  4. Susan S. says:

    I love the quotes from Anne Lamott, and I appreciate your embracing uncertainty. I wish I could find a pastor/church where this is encouraged, where we can talk about our doubts and work out our faith. I’m so turned off by preachers who have an answer for everything because I know life (and God, in my opinion) doesn’t work that way. Why are we so afraid to admit it?

    • theboeskool says:

      Anne Lamott is amazing. Keep looking. My family and I were just about ready to give up when we finally found a Church here in Tennessee that we felt connected to on this issue.

      If you feel comfortable, where do you live? There might be some other readers who can point you in the right direction….

  5. Faith is just that–faith. As you said, it is not certainty. Yet people judge others based on their own uncertain faith.

  6. There are tenants of the faith that are very important to be certain on. Perhaps not for your personal salvation purposes, but more to help others to find the truth. For example, that Jesus was fully man and fully God. This sort of truth gives us hope, and when people are down to the felt, or hanging by a string, they really need hope. Christianity offers a whole lot of hope because it says that Jesus may not solve your problems, but he will be there with you in your pain. At the end of the day, you are not alone. That’s the hope we have and I trust you are certain on that.

    • theboeskool says:

      Some parts of our faith are definitely more important than others, but do you really think that “Fully God/Fully man” is something a person must be certain of? This part of Christian doctrine and way of describing the divinity/humanity of Jesus came as a reaction to people believing Jesus was 1/2 God & 1/2 man.

      Imagine if I told you that you had to be CERTAIN that the fruit in front of you was 100% apple AND 100% orange. Now imagine that I told you that you had to be certain of the same thing, but about a fruit that you couldn’t see or touch. I think that the “Fully God/Fully human doctrine is a wonderful way to try to describe Jesus, but I wouldn’t ever require someone else’s CERTAINTY on the issue. “This is what I believe” is way different than “I am certain about this.”

  7. I hear where you’re your coming from but this puts me in a terrible position. I am CERTAIN that I am going to heaven. I’m CERTAIN that Jesus is who he said he is and I’m certain that someone is listening to my prayers. Yes, certain. But it would be silly of me to believe that along with all that certainty that I’m not going to heaven because I’m not approaching God in faith. Sweet. A paradox. If I’m certain than I don’t have faith, therefore I’m not saved by faith so I’m not saved! Pffft. I’m one of those irritating people who will be thinking of the pearly gates when the rifle is shoved in the window. Not because that’s what I should believe but because I really do believe.

    I think what you mean is that there is a “certainty” that is a lie. There are far too many puffed up people who say they are certain because they think it gives them credibility, as you mentioned, and therefore, puts them in the quandary of having to be certain about everything spiritual that comes spewing out of their mouths. Icky.
    While I’m certain about the few things I mentioned above, I’m not certain about much of anything else. Can I say how God feels about homosexuals, illegal immigrants, and those who have faiths outside of Christianity? Nope. My hope to love others better drives me to search for answers to those questions and a boatload of other questions. I don’t doubt God, I do doubt what I think I believe about him. That’s where doubt is my ally. I love its fire under my butt.

    What I think Paul is saying is that faith itself is evidence of God. A gift from him meant to spark a relationship with him. If that’s the case then it looks like he’s a pretty generous guy. But I could be wrong about that.

  8. I agree pretty much with everything you say in your blog. There is much scholarly work concerning Jesus and Christianity and the Bible. As I am not a scholar, I am loathe to offer any profound opinions on the subject. However, if you have an inclination to pursue the “truth,” I would recommend What You Don’t Have to Believe to be a Christian by George Ricker and The Meaning of Jesus by Marcus J. Borg and N.T. Wright. Neither of these books may affect your level of faith or your core beliefs, but they will give you lots of things to consider and may increase your understanding of Faith and Christianity.

    • theboeskool says:

      Thanks. I have read quite a bit on the subject. I like a lot of what NT Wright has to say about things. I spoke to him once about the issue of whether we had any responsibility try to convince people of the complexities and uncertainties of our faith, or if it is better to leave people in a sort of happy ignorance. He told me a story about how a person can simply turn a key and trust that a car is going to start up and run–unaware of how things actually work–and that might work just fine for them…. Until something happens and their car breaks down. Then it’s better to know how things work.

      We can go along without believing that certainty is what is required, but sooner or later our car is going to break down, and it would be a shame to get stranded in the middle of nowhere.

      Thanks for reading.

  9. Donna L says:

    Great quote from Anne Lamott. I think there’s a very subtle shift where faith in Jesus can become faith in faith, and then faith itself becomes an idol. I once had to quit a Bible study by Beth Moore because it felt to me like she was advocating having faith in faith (and I know she’s a really popular Christian writer). I have a hard enough time staying on course in my faith, without being drawn off by a subtle form of idolatry. Or maybe I just overthink things?

  10. cjraines says:

    If you had asked me a week ago I would’ve told you are absolutely zero faith in God and that it was sure that nothing existed afterlife.

    Now that I’m in the process of grieving the death of my husband especially since it was unexpected and very traumatic for me, I keep wondering “what if”. I still don’t think it’s faith, but I can’t help but think “what if he can see me?” “What if he went to heaven? Was he totally shocked?” “What if he can see me watching espn for comfort and is making a deal with God to make me wash toilets when I die?”

    My mind is full of all sorts of irrational thoughts, including, “what if”? I think your blog had interesting timing for me.

    • Donna L says:

      So very sorry to hear of your terrible loss. Do you have a friend or family member of faith that you could talk to about your feelings?

  11. Tim Mininger says:

    “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is an absurd one.” – Voltaire

  12. This was incredibly enlightening and met me exactly where I am in my faith…and my life in general…right now. You put to words what has been ruminating inside. That idea of the more I learn the less I know resonates, and the idea was embodied by so many great thinkers throughout time. The most terrifying people in history are the ones who held unwavering certainty.

  13. Barry Hoff says:

    James, the brother of Jesus would liken this “bit of wisdom” to a ship at sea without a rudder, blown to and fro in every direction. Sure, I believe there are things that God has left a degree of uncertainty to, such as, what will heaven be like? We can only imagine yet it doesn’t hurt to contemplate. As far as life here on earth…..he did not leave us clueless. All we need to do is look after the Truth and it will be shown just as Jesus said. The enemy of our souls operates in shades of grey….he is comfortable there. Do not claim to know the Truth if you are to squishy to seek after it! What business is it of mine to tell someone who they can love? God is love! The Word tells me how to love to the tee. Love has absolutely nothing to do with a so-called sex act that was never given to us by a God that loves us….it is a perversion with consequences! Woe to all who would blurr the lines! Jesus said it would be better to have a millstone tied around your neck and thrown into the sea!

  14. Barry Hoff says:

    I would also want to mention I am uncertain if the author is going to hell (separation from God) In fact I believe he is the only mortal than can be certain about that. I am certain that is the destination for all of us if it were not for the atonement provided for us in Jesus!

  15. bleebrown73 says:

    Heaven and hell, are, to me, metaphors for states of being; so, you tell me: are you in heaven or are you in hell?

    I like what you said about certainty. Certainty leads to horrors.

    • Barry Hoff says:

      Guess you might live a hell on earth….apart from God. You could also live in the Kingdom of God right here and now! I am CERTAIN about those two metaphors! However the Biblical definition referring to eternity is not a metaphor. It is reality…..that is unless you believe the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is a myth!

  16. E. A. Christofferson says:

    I must be misunderstanding about what certainty means to people. It has produced nothing but good things for my family and community and I’ve been able to trust more because of it. It has allowed me to take risks I never would have taken. Certainty in the wrong hands . . . ?

  17. Liv says:

    thank you for your posts. I especially appreciated this section, ” But a faith that is honest enough to admit that it has doubts is probably also humble enough to admit it doesn’t have all the answers. And a beautiful thing happens when you admit that you don’t have all the answers–It frees you from having to ACT like you have all the answers, and it allows you to take yourself out of a position of judgment, and simply love people” I’ve been struggling with ‘evangelism’ because I never feel like I know enough. I believe in my God. I trust in my God and feel His transforming grace in my life, but I’m not biblical scholar & I’m afraid someone will ask a question that leaves me stumped. But ya know, that’s okay. If the tables were turned, I think I’d appreciate some humble honest responses.

  18. Barry Hoff says:

    Faith is not difficult. Too many want to say you have to be a scholar….not so. Jesus pointed out it is easier for a child to have faith than most. The problem with adults, they want to pick and choose, or better yet “rely on their own understanding” as the scripture says. We all know (or most of us) know John 3:16. It is a favorite of most Christians. Believing is essential. It doesn’t cost anything though. Jesus also said “take up your cross daily and follow me”. It’s the FOLLOWING part that leads most of the UNITARIAN and PROGRESSIVE LIBERAL types to pick and choose! Real Christians believe and follow, believe and follow….

  19. Pingback: “Bad Catholic” | Are You Finished Yet?

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