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Theology can't keep you warm at night

Recently, my 10-year-old daughter has been struggling with what happens to people after they die if they don’t believe in Jesus. Hell isn’t one of her favorite things to think about. One night, tears on her face, she sits in her bed and expresses to me her heart-breaking anxiety about those she loves who don’t know Jesus.

Frankly, this is a hard conversation for me. I feel her pain; I’ve struggled a lot with the same issue. I’m not quite sure how to begin, so I tell her how I understand hell—not as a place God sends people he doesn’t like (he loves us all, I remind her) but more a choice people make, that (as Dallas Willard puts it) there seems to be “some people who just can’t stand God. . . . Scripture tells us that ‘it is not his will that any should perish.’ But he does permit it. That is a testimony to the great value that God places on human personality. He values it enough that he is prepared for people to be eternally lost if that is what they want.” He doesn’t want anyone to chose that, and I tell her, his heart breaks just like hers.

But that was never enough for me—and it’s not enough for her, either. So, I tell her that her anguish and questions aren’t unique, how others have struggled with the same. How C.S. Lewis (one of her favorite authors) wondered: “Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in Him? But the truth is God has not told us what his arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him” (Mere Christianity). I tell her of Emeth, the Calorman in The Last Battle, whom Aslan welcomed because he knew the man’s heart and knew he’d actually been seeking him all along: “Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.” And I tell her how I hope that perhaps there might be a point in death in which we meet Jesus—and how could anyone stand in that exploding Love and not be healed and run into his arms?

But, ultimately, I tell her, we don’t know if that's how things work, so we act on what we do know: that believing in Jesus—believing he is who he says and can do what he says (John 1:9-13)—brings Life. So we simply do what we are called to do: love God and love others. I remind her that we can’t change people’s hearts, only God can do that. It is God who is working always and ever to bring us nearer to him and the people we were called and created to be. And so we love and join ourselves to others who love, too—or, as Lewis continues his earlier musings: “in the meantime, if you are worried about the people outside, the most unreasonable thing you can do is to remain outside yourself. Christians are Christ’s body, the organism through which He works. Every addition to the body enables Him to do more. If you want to help those outside you must add your own little cell to the body of Christ who alone can help them. Cutting off a man’s fingers would be an odd way of getting him to do more work.”

But in the end, all of this doesn’t comfort her; and, truth be told, it doesn’t comfort me, either. So, I tell her, ultimately it is trusting God that brings the peace and quiet to my heart. And I remind her of who God is—that he is Love itself, that he loves her beyond her imagination, that he was so desperate that we all know him fully once more that Jesus took flesh and blood and walked and loved and died and exploded through death among us. And if God is all that, I tell her, then we can trust that what he does and will do is and will be right, loving, good and the best of all things—even if we don’t understand how that can be. In the end, I tell her, it is in his arms I find comfort.

My daughter grows quieter, lays down, and when I check on her soon afterwards, she’s fallen asleep. I’m thinking of all the things I didn’t say that I could have, that I didn’t think of at the time. I'm wondering if I should have said everything I did. We'll be working this one through for awhile, I know. But what I’m really hoping is that in the end, it is in his arms she finds comfort, too.


I think the most important lesson in this is that it shows what a "childlike faith" is - not one that believes without asking questions, but one that never tires of asking, and has the childlike honesty to say "the emperor has no clothes" when adults play along.
Deep thoughts for such a young mind. But I seem to recall having a few of those questions myself.

For what it's worth, my own answer to this question is heavily influenced by Romans 2, and Paul's remark there that God does not show favoritism, and that those outside the faith can still be recipients of God's glory, honour and peace if, by their actions, they show that "the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them."

I have also heard some Orthodox theologians say that hell and heaven are basically the same thing -- we will all be surrounded by God's love -- but there will be those for whom God's love is a reward, and those for whom it is torture. I don't know how widespread that idea is, though; obviously, the scriptures do talk about God's "wrath and anger" in addition to his love, so it may not be just a case of people reacting the wrong way to his love.
Ken Brown said…
Great thoughts, and questions. I also like the possibility Peter raised. Perhaps God's "wrath" really is just another part of God's love-the proper response to anything that would harm the beloved. I can only pray that no one, ultimately, ends up on the wrong side of that duality...
Carmen Andres said…
My daughter asks brilliant questions and we work hard to encourage her to keep asking. She’s got a sharp and keen mind, an inquisitive spirit and a compassionate heart, and more than once she’s challenged me to rethink how I think about things. I love her for that (and much more).

I suppose there are more than a few who think I’m one of those adults who “play along” in James’ metaphor. Maybe I am. I hope not. I find some courage in that folks like Dallas Willard and C.S. Lewis struggle with it too. I’d love to toss out the whole idea, but seems to be enough in Scripture to make it a concept with which, at the very least, we must grapple. Personally, I lean towards the concepts in Lewis’ Last Battle and the whole Romans 2 thing (thanks, Peter, for articulating that). And there are aspects of this conversation over at Out of Ur that resonate with me. But I must admit, it is one of those things I’ve not yet come to peace with and one about which I’ve had more than one argument with God. In the meantime, the only rest I find when it comes to wrestling with the concept is in trusting God is who he says.

However, while there is enough in Scripture to make the concept worthy of grappling with, Jesus, Paul and the New Testament writers spent remarkably little time on the subject—-and that has long made me question why it plays such a huge role in modern evangelical theological history. I’m not sure that the theology that’s developed around it is as biblical as folks like to think. And, regardless, I think that emphasis, while it might have seemed effective, has hurt us in the long run. I think Willard’s got it right in 'Renovation of the Heart', when he says we’ve made a mistake by aiming “to get people into heaven rather than to get heaven into people” (p. 239). And Wayne Jacobsen is more than worth reading on this.

For what it’s worth, my daughter is a strong and passionate young girl. She’s more than capable of wrestling with the questions and still walk closely with God. I admire her ability to do so at such a young age. It took me much longer to get to that point.