The truth isn’t liberal or conservative

This is a continuation of yesterday’s From Hell to Crazy Town.

Before jumping in, though, I thought I’d take a moment to discuss something that invariably arises whenever I initiate the kind of conversation with which we’re now engaged; namely, that I believe whatever I do because I’m a liberal, or “progressive,” Christian.

When I first started thinking about problematic Christian issues—whether or not hell is real, whether God considers homosexual love in and of itself sinful, whether or not non-Christians can make it into heaven—I had no agenda whatsoever. I couldn’t have. I was too new to Christianity.

At the moment I suddenly and out of nowhere became a Christian, all I “knew” (the quotes by way of acknowledging the eradicable difference between subjective and objective knowledge) was that the core Christian story was true: that God, wanting to alleviate people’s suffering, incarnated himself as Jesus, took into his body what amounts to all the world’s negative karma, and in the most dramatic fashion possible (which ensured it was never forgotten) obliterated that body, and thereby established a means by which any person, at any time, could fully reconcile themselves to God.

That’s all I knew. That was the totality of what got rather intrusively imprinted upon me at the moment of my conversion. Beyond that I had zero thoughts about Christ, or God, or anything related to them. I didn’t know homosexuality was an issue for Christians. I didn’t know anyone thought women should or shouldn’t be pastors. I knew it was pretty insufferably obnoxious for Christians to act like only they could get into heaven, but I didn’t know there was an actual doctrine behind that. Beyond their actual European history, I barely knew the difference between Catholics and Protestants.

I just never cared much about Christianity. Because it always seemed too stupid to care much about. Sexually repressed, passive-aggressive non-geniuses wanting Big Daddy in the sky to like them most of all, so that they can live happily ever after.

I mean, you know: not exactly alluring, this side of a lobotomy.

Anyway, once God broadsided me in a way even I couldn’t ignore, I thought, “Oh. Well, that’s a game changer.” And then I entered the game of Christianity. Then I learned about all the controversies percolating away within this group into which I’d been so summarily recruited.

Well, upon my conversion it did not occur to me that I was supposed to stop thinking. God didn’t come to me, and say, “Believe in Jesus Christ! Now go home and throw away all your books! And dumb up your talking a little! And ignore the fact that Christian music is the sonic equivalent of baby food! Enjoy it! Sing along!”

Nothing like that happened. (Interestingly enough, though, what did happen is that just about the third thing I thought following my knocked-to-my-knees moment—the Big Thought that came to me just as I was reaching for the doorknob leading from the little room I was in back to the outside world—was: “It is not now my mission to turn non-Christians into Christians. That is not part of being Christian.” Weird thing to have come over you just then, right? But it’s that moment which later led me to write I’m OK – You’re Not: The Message We’re Sending Nonbelievers, and Why We Should Stop.)

When I think and write about these things, I’m more than prepared to be wrong. I welcome the chance to learn that I am wrong. It’s for that very reason that I take the time to so carefully mark each step of my way along these paths. If I misstep, I want someone to tell me where and how I’ve done so. I want to hear of an error in my reasoning, an inconsistency to my logic. That way I’ll learn. That way we all will. How can that be a bad thing?

I’m just like anyone else. I like belonging to a loving and supportive group. I like knowing that I’m aligned with what’s best and good. But those kinds of desires cannot stop me from noticing that, say, “God is loving and all-powerful,” and “God punishes everyone who doesn’t worship him by burning them alive throughout all of eternity” are statements so blatantly incongruous that they positively scream for reconciliation. And shrugging and claiming inviolate ignorance of God’s ways and will is a shamefully inadequate response to that incongruity. It’s like me repeatedly punching someone, while all along saying, “Gosh, that’s weird. I wonder why this person here keeps getting punched? Oh, well. What can we do? It’s hard to figure out these kinds of mysteries.” Punch, punch, punch.

We must never fail to go where sound reasoning take us. Doing so means failing to live up to our potential. If we believe in God, then we must believe that God desires us to use the agile, capable minds with which he blessed us. And we must furthermore believe that God is not in the slightest way threatened by our doing so.

Jesus promised that the truth would set us free. It then follows that we should always endeavor to discover the truth. And I see no reason not to do so fully confident that the nearer we draw to the truth, the nearer we draw to God.

I don’t care if it’s liberal or conservative. I just want the truth.

Follow-up: Is hell necessary?

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  • On FB Jessica Amanda Salmonson recently commented on a George Barna report that the Evangelical Christians have the highest divorced rate of any group — including atheists and non-Christians. I’m beginning to wonder if our missions (i.e., Unfundamentalist Christians, et al) isn’t to reach out not to the unchurched, but to the churched …

  • Serita Turner via Facebook

    Just what you said. Yes.

  • Thanks, I can really relate to your story about your own early conversion knowledge of Christianity. Though I think I knew more (comparing your words with my history), and was probably a lot angrier towards Christians (again, comparing your words to my history), I definitely can understand what it might have been like to be broadsided by God. Well, I was probably bitch-slapped by God, but close enough.

  • love it. i had this thought a few days ago on another thread, but it’s this: “Faith means you can handle the truth. If you have to dismiss reason to accommodate your faith, the latter is not strong enough.”

  • Allie

    Hey, has anyone posted this yet?

    Totally awesome, the trend of real Christians speaking up with their own signs continues!

  • Natalie Jones

    True, though i sometimes find the churched to a bit hard to talk to (not judging I’m that way too) lol.

  • Natalie Jones

    *to be*

  • N

    My argument against an eternal hell goes roughly like this:

    What is the point of hell?

    Clearly, to punish.

    Ok, so then what is the point of punishment?

    To teach.

    But if the person being taught can’t better himself (or herself) by say, getting out of hell when they come to a realization (they can’t, or they would be in purgatory and not hell) then they can’t be truly said to be taught, can they?


    So teaching can’t be the purpose. Well then, what’s another purpose of punishment?

    It’s also used as a deterrent.

    Right, ok, so punishment isn’t for hte people punished, it’s for hte people watching the people being punished, so they know not to make that mistake.

    Wait, hold up. So hell an example for the living?


    Ok, then why isn’t hell on prime time TV?

    So hell, as a punishment, neither teaches the sinners nor deters sinning in others. There are other reasons that God could want to make a hell of course. Like maybe he’s vindictive and likes watching people hurt, but that would be inconsistent with a loving God. I only know of 2 reasons a reasonable and loving parent punishes, and neither of them make sense when it comes to hell.

  • Interesting John Gragson that you had that thought becasue I have had some people tell me “Faith means you can’t handle the truth” because believers are unable to think independently. Which we both know is totally the opposite of reality.l

  • Amy

    I just find the church leadership hard to reach, especially as a woman. I’ve been blogging my journey into unfundamentalism, and I have a “meeting” tomorrow that is the church equivalent of being sent to the principal’s office. The church seems to be on the verge of going all Mark Driscoll on my butt for using the brain God gave me to disagree with their doctrine. I haven’t gossiped or accused anyone of anything, merely questioned the “rules.” I think the real issue is that many of the other church members–including one staff member!– like what I write, and some of the pastors feel threatened by that. They tried to use my best friend as a pawn in their campaign against me (but she & I both called them on it).

    Sorry to dump all that on you guys. I guess moment to moment, I forget how much it hurts.

  • Thomasina Stikeleather Lackey via Facebook

    What perfect timing…just read this today – “Reasoning does not create truth but discovers it….and when it is discovered it renews us.”….Augustine, 354-430

  • Matthew Tweedell

    It seems to me the concept of hell does somewhat deter sinning. I’ve heard of people citing works questioning our understanding of the concept (for instance, Love Wins) as an excuse to basically live however they want while saying and presumably believing that their going to get into heaven. I also know of cases (similar to the fictional case of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but real) of people’s hesitation in the commission of suicide upon the thought of what might become of them in their death.

  • N

    True, the concept helps (and hurts) people sometimes. So maybe God created the concept of hell.

    But the concept is so much less convincing than the real deal. And the real deal isn’t any more convincing than a concept unless we can really see it. You know us humans, especially us humans who need to be “scared straight,” we aren’t gonna believe it if we don’t see it. So I maintain that if God created a hell (s)he would have made it into a terrifying reality show, or a place you could visit, like a scary zoo. But (s)he didn’t. So I’m going with, God didn’t create an actual place called hell.

  • Tony John via Facebook

    If your PBS station isn’t running this series, it should. Pretty heady stuff but its interesting –

  • Lymis

    Hang in there. I had a similar meeting (with what I assume was a far less judgemental pastor – good guy stuck in the wrong job) after the diocese made the mistake of sending me the annual donation pledge form the same week the same diocese royally screwed over one of my close friends who was actually a church employee. I don’t remember everything I put in the response letter, but I do recall “I intend to contribute my time and resources to organizations that do the work of Christ on earth. If the Catholic Church becomes one, I will reconsider donating.”

    That got me called in.

  • Lymis

    John, believe me, I can relate to the conversion experience. I was already Christian, a lifelong Catholic, and had a deep and abiding love of intellectual theology, church trivia, ritual, and worship. I really believed, and really experienced most of what everyone around me told me I was supposed to be experiencing.

    Shocked the heck out of me when I had a conversion experience that knocked every single foundation out from under all that and replaced it with an invitation to an entirely different kind of relationship to God.

    So much of what had seemed important became more or less meaningless overnight, or had it’s meaning irrevocably changed. So many things that hadn’t mattered, or hadn’t made sense, suddenly shifted in to sharp focus. The biggest change is that it all made sense, even the parts that remain mysteries or unknowable. I’m not saying I know or understand everything, but there’s a deep certainty about what it’s okay to be okay with not knowing.

  • Christelle

    I simply had letter mass emailed telling my entire support group not to talk to me… That was o.k. though, because by the time those were sent, I had already walked away.

  • Christelle

    (oops, misposted this comment to Lymis and Amy too far above)

    I simply had letter mass emailed telling my entire support group not to talk to me… That was o.k. though, because by the time those were sent, I had already walked away.

    Amy- stay strong!

  • Christelle

    (supposed to be a reply to lymis and amy below)

  • Allie

    Why does anyone attend such a meeting? I don’t understand the mentality. These people have no power to compel you to come in and be insulted and harassed, so why does anyone go?

  • Christelle

    It’s hard to walk away from one’s support group -(so many circumstances can be involved) especially when we’ve believed certain fundamental truths for so long. Once we walk away and deprogram our brains – everything is so much more clear!

  • Some of us don’t get an advance warning and just get ambushed…

  • Diana A.

    Yes indeed!

  • Mindy

    I am, once again, stunned at the mean-spirited cruelty that masquerades as Christianity. That is NOT Christianity, no matter what they think! That is not the work of Christ, that is not the will of Christ. That is bullying, borne out of the fear that if y’all think for yourselves, they and their “power” will become irrelevant. Which, if that is the way they behave, it should.

  • Mindy

    And this was supposed to be down below under comments from Christelle and Christine – sorry – not sure how that happened.

  • Mindy

    I am, once again, stunned at the mean-spirited cruelty that masquerades as Christianity. That is NOT Christianity, no matter what they think! That is not the work of Christ, that is not the will of Christ. That is bullying, borne out of the fear that if y’all think for yourselves, they and their “power” will become irrelevant. Which, if that is the way they behave, it should.

  • Diana A.

    That seems to be happening a lot lately. Maybe there’s a glitch.

  • lemme go see if I can see anything.

  • everything looks okay. and I seem to be properly nesting here. I wonder what’s going on?

  • Matt

    As a lifelong Christian, the cultural aspect has always been there for me. I’ve been immersed in it and loved it.

    But now as an adult, the meat-and-bones “how do I do this Christian thing in real life?” has opened up, and man, it just adds a whole new level of fun to the game. I love, love, love, to learn. The “hard questions” aren’t so hard because I know my mind can answer some of them, I know I can handle the uncertainty, and anyway I have a bedrock to stand on that no on can take away. Also, I’m just having criminal levels of fun over here, so what’s a few unanswered questions?

    One of the most sincere compliments I ever got was from a friend of mine who’s not Christian, and who said to me, “It’s so awesome, Matt, how devout you are, how seriously you take Christianity, but how much you love people.”

  • Don Rappe

    I can sometimes make a mistake by not noticing that I have inadvertently hit the cancel reply button prior to the submit button.

  • Amy

    Oh my goodness! What an outpouring of support. Thank you all so much for your kind words.

    This whole thing started because I dared to question (on my blog) a pastor who said–in these words– that “women are not equal to men.” And yes, in context, he meant exactly what it sounds like. Even though we knew that our church doesn’t allow women to be pastors & had other teachings we didn’t agree with, we stayed because of the people. We figured it was ok that we disagreed, we could still be part of the community. Until this. It only came up because someone told the only woman on staff that what I teach the teens & what I blog about seem not to be aligned. It’s not exactly true, but after I wrote that post, I’m now a blip on their screen.

    Why go to the meeting? I guess in my case, it’s to find out if we should stay (because the people are like family) or get the heck outta Dodge.

  • charles m

    Politics hates Christians.

    both Democrats and Republicans. They have an agenda which really isnt ours. However, in process- we usually adapt the arabic way of seeing “Our Enemies enemy is our friend”… though Ben Franklin might have had a better parallel-

    A country man (read Religious person) between two lawyers (read political party) , is like a fish between two cats.

    – Ben Franklin

  • Don Rappe

    “We must never fail to go where sound reasoning take us. Doing so means failing to live up to our potential. If we believe in God, then we must believe that God desires us to use the agile, capable minds with which he blessed us. And we must furthermore believe that God is not in the slightest way threatened by our doing so.”

    I think we all will have somewhat different starting points for our faith, but, the statement above can apply to us all. I’ll admit I’m a little amused by the idea of God being “threatened”, but, I’m pretty sure I know what you mean. There’s nothing about God more sure to me than that he does not need my, or anyone’s, defense. If there’s anything my agile capable mind uses as a warning alert, it’s when it begins taking me into Crazytown. However, I do think this acceptance of this statement does distinguish a little between the Christian denominations and also between the interpreters of other Faiths.

  • Don Rappe

    It is difficult to find meaning in your statement. Do you mean Christians should be unconcerned with the actions of their government? If this is what you mean, then I absolutely disagree.

  • Eirin

    While I agree with your statement, I believe he’s saying something similar but worthy of distinction, that politics should stay our of religion/Christianity, which I 100% agree with.

  • No, I think he is saying that both Democrats and Republicans hate Christians and are out to get us…

  • The “but” is his comment to you is really telling… (not about you, just in general).

  • Matt

    Yes, it is, especially since I’m his friend and know much more of how he’s been wounded by mainstream Christianity.

  • Christelle

    My story would blow your minds. Literally cause you to fall off your rockers, or couches, or chairs… whatever… but I will take my story with me to the grave. I will never defend myself… BUT, what my story DID – was awaken the warrior in me… I AM NOT a victim. I AM victorious. My story made me victorious and awoken (awaked?) the WARRIOR in me… and what my story did was completely piss me off to the core – I will fight for every single victim of bullying to my death. I am a pissed off warrior that will fight for those who have been bullied by the ultra right Christian point of view… I will fight to my death for every single victim of bullying. I might not fight on FB or blogs or twitter because there are people who are much more talented verbally and in writing than me but come against me face to face and YOU are going down… NOONE will be bullied in my presence. Period. End of Story.

  • Christelle

    oops, once again, this was meant as a reply to a conversation below… my fault, not Johns…

  • Christelle

    My story would blow your minds. Literally cause you to fall off your rockers, or couches, or chairs… whatever… but I will take my story with me to the grave. I will never defend myself… BUT, what my story DID – was awaken the warrior in me… I AM NOT a victim. I AM victorious. My story made me victorious and awoken (awaked?) the WARRIOR in me… and what my story did was completely piss me off to the core – I will fight for every single victim of bullying to my death. I am a pissed off warrior that will fight for those who have been bullied by the ultra right Christian point of view… I will fight to my death for every single victim of bullying. I might not fight on FB or blogs or twitter because there are people who are much more talented verbally and in writing than me but come against me face to face and YOU are going down… NOONE will be bullied in my presence. Period. End of Story.

  • mptw

    Jesus wasn’t political. His solutions to our problems are on a deeper level. Christianity runs counter to culltural norms.

  • Christelle

    Amy, I am behind you 100%. Sometimes we stay to fight for those who can’t fight for themselves. Sometimes THAT makes it worth while. Sometimes, it is too toxic for us to stay. THAT decisions, in the end, is up to you. Regardless, you are not alone.

  • Christelle

    Ambushed. STAND up and FIGHT. YOU are a WARRIOR. and whether you stay or walk away, YOU, my friend, are a WARRIOR. FIGHT!

  • Hell is what we do to ourselves when we’re too selfish to love others the way God loves us

  • Soulmentor

    I’ve wondered all my life what a “conversion” experience was. I don’t think I’ve had one….so I guess that means I haven’t cause if I had, I’d know. Right?! Does that mean I’m not ok? Some would say yes to that. I know they can’t be so certain.

    I’m gay, was married, divorced, father of two sons, now retired, gay activist newspaper writer past, I now comment a lot on Huff Post and this blog. One of my sons thinks the world needs my intellect and is very frustrated that I am not writing more, even a book or two.

    I think. My mother once told me I think too much. But she died fearing I’m going to hell. So whatever. I believe the same as John, that we must use our intellects and reason in sorting out the questions of life, but with the understanding that, if we have REAL faith, we will trust that God works thru that in Spirit.

    We will never have all the answers. Then we would be gods, wouldn’t we. We won’t get there in this life, but that’s not the “sin” of our lives. The sin is to not strive toward that end, to not care. Or to quit, to give up, which amounts to the same thing. Well, we’re human and some of us do get overwhelmed. That can be forgiven.

    When I was young, early 20’s I think, I had a brief period where I was all caught up in religious enthusiasm and did the call to the alter thing where I “gave my life to Christ”. I can’t even remember where or when now, which may be an indication of how false it was and that I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. Makes me think of those young “christians” who walked out of Dan Savages speech at that christian high school. At one time I, and my gay partner of that time, were council members of a United Church of Christ congregation. Imagine a gay couple in such a respected position. But he couldn’t hold on, succumbed to his Catholic guilt, left me and fell back into orthodox Catholicism and the “glories and grace of suffering and denial”. I was devastated. That’s all been gone for many years now.

    Today, I question, question, question, believing almost nothing about the religion I once was so enthused about. I tend to believe in Jesus but not “Christianity”, not as we know it anyway. I have no idea who or what God is and firmly believe no one else does either, no matter how much they protest that they do UNLESS, as is my choice, to believe that “God is Love”…..and a Loving God, and that Jesus represented that to us and that he was not the only one among humanity to show us that, tho perhaps, given how his existence changed the course of human history, he was the most profoundly influential.

    This has all been a gradual evolution. (Evolving is in vogue now, isn’t it!!) No sudden conversion, just a lot of reasoning, introspection, reading, studying (I have a personal library on gay/religious/religious history/etc longer than twice my arm span) caring, trying to be a loving person, various genuinely loving but lost “relationships”, now alone with my “wisdom” that I deign to spill out on blog comments.

    No “conversion”. Have I missed something? Am I ok? How does anyone really know?

    My only answer I can come up with is to TRUST that “God is Love, and anyone who lives in love is living with God and God is living in him.” (1 John5:16)

  • Lymis

    I think this stands alone quite beautifully. I’m kinda glad it ended up posted where it did.

  • Nathan

    John, I have a lot of concerns/disagreements with your article, but I’ll start with three:

    1) Your case against Hell is really quite weak. You build up a “strawman” idea of how you THINK evangelicals view Hell, and then you tear it down. The problem is that you tore down an image of Hell that really is only espoused by a minority of Christians today. Most Christians *do* believe in Hell. Most Christians that I’ve spoken with DO NOT believe in the Hell that you describe. Take some time to read some CS. Lewis, Peter Kreeft, or perhaps even Romans to get a much more nuanced and sophisticated view of Hell. I believe in Hell. But you “tore down” something that doesn’t even remotely describe my view of it.

    2) You write “We must never fail to go where sound reasoning take us.” I *completely* agree with you. My sound reasoning has led me to believe something totally different than you. I’m not calling you stupid for believing it. I would prefer that you give me the same benefit.

    3) You and I seem to fundamentally disagree about how much weight we should put on Biblical teaching. How is it logical of you to believe the message of salvation (Christ’s death / resurrection) but then ignore the fact that Jesus speaks of Hell in all 4 gospels? The majority of the writers of the New Testament, including Jesus’s own disciples, also write about Hell (Paul, Peter, John). Why should I disbelieve them and believe you instead?

    I don’t know the exact nature of Hell. I don’t know who’s going to end up there. But if I take my Bible seriously all, I can’t deny its existence.

    I also have grave concerns with you views on evangelism. Is the Christian faith worthwhile? Is it true? If so, then it is worth spreading. In spite of what you SAY, I think that deep down you must believe it too. Because otherwise there would be no point in your writing this blog.

  • Lymis

    I think this is a dangerous way to look at things.

    Depending on what you mean, I can somewhat agree with the point that politics has a different agenda than any religion, Christianity included. But that’s a matter of focus and attention, not hostility. The focus of politics is on different things, for different reasons, from religion.

    But interpreting that as the idea that somehow all politicians of all parties are out to get Christians and that all politicians are the enemies of Christianity is inaccurate and misguided.

    I think some Christians see their religious beliefs as automatically trumping every other consideration, and that anything that they associate with their religion must be imposed on everyone else, or be allowed unrestricted expression even when it conflicts with the rights of others, and when that view isn’t supported by public policy, they see it as an attack.

    I also think some Christians think that because they feel they have pure motives with regards their relationship with God, it makes them immune to manipulation and exempt from being influenced by ambitious or unscrupulous people.

    Religion is about the individual’s relationship with God, and individuals forming community to support that. Politics is about the individual’s relationship to society, and about controlling and restraining the community to support that. Different goals, but not incompatible ones.

  • Nathan


    I personally think that way too much is made out of a “conversion” experience. To me, faith is a process, a relationship. It builds and ebbs over time. I went through a period of very intense doubt about my faith recently. Is it all true? Am I just making all this stuff up to help myself “feel” better? I spent several days crying (literally) out to God. I yelled at him “SPEAK TO ME if you are real! Why can’t you just show me who you are or even if you exist?”

    Well, I obviously never heard an audible voice. But God *did* speak to me. Through a Christian friend, through a verse I stumbled upon, through a couple “weird” conversations with coworkers. It was very strange. I can’t “prove” that it was God. But, if not, it was VERY coincidental… If you haven’t done it already, I would suggest “recharging” your faith-journey by asking God directly. He’s either a big lie – in which case your prayers mean nothing and it was just a minor waste of time. On the other hand, he might be real. In which case, he might just speak back to you!

    One more point: People sometimes expect faith to be “simple”. I’m not sure why that is the case. Everything true about this world is incredibly complex. (our bodies, the weather, the universe, etc) God created a very, very complicated and fascinating world. We can’t expect any less of our faith. Just because it seems “too hard to understand” doesn’t mean that it isn’t real or that there isn’t Truth out there waiting for us to find.

  • Lymis

    Well, in my case it made perfect sense, and as I said, the pastor in question was a great guy stuck in a crappy situation. I was in a number of very visible positions, including doing some teaching on doctrine when asked. It made perfect sense to me that what I wrote rang some warning bells. And, when the meeting was over, the pastor thanked me sincerely, said he completely understood my position, and, while he disagreed with the broader point, accepted why I was feeling what I was feeling. That meeting kept me in the church for quite a while longer.

    At the same time, and unsurprising to me, that priest was removed from his position and replaced with a very plastic and self-important jerk less than a year later, and subsequently left the priesthood, and is, I understand, now happily married. The new priest, among the many other things he did, tossed me out on my ass.

  • “I intend to contribute my time and resources to organizations that do the work of Christ on earth. If the Catholic Church becomes one, I will reconsider donating.”

    Ooh…burn. Nice one!

  • Nathan

    I couldn’t stop thinking about your brutally honest post on the way into work this morning. I wholeheartedly agree with your statement “The sin is to not strive toward that end, to not care. Or to quit, to give up, which amounts to the same thing.”

    Your statement reminds me of Matthew 7:8-9. Let’s keep asking and keep knocking! God (whoever he is) won’t turn his back on those that truly seek him. Both the Bible and our conscience are in 100% agreement here. The biggest danger is apathy and indifference.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve been praying for you this morning. All the best to you.

  • Nathan: Do you believe that everyone who dies not a Christian goes to hell (however you define it)?

  • Nathan

    No. But I do believe that certain people go to hell. It isn’t for me to decide who goes there and who doesn’t. But from my reading of scripture it is very clear that Hell is a real place and that some people do, in fact, go there.

  • So you think “certain people” go to a place of eternal torment (I’m guessing you at least think hell is that?)—and that those people may or may not be Christian. But you definitely believe that not everyone who is NOT a Christian goes to hell. Which can only mean that you think it’s possible for a non-Christian to go to heaven. Which means you’re a universalist. But I’m too radical?

  • Lymis

    Nathan, I don’t think it’s the strawman you think it is.

    Yes, things like lakes of fire and demons with pitchforks would be the basis of a strawman argument if that was why it was being said to be problematic. “That style of hell is silly, so there can’t be any hell.”

    I don’t see that as the point, though. Regardless of the mechanism, the point is that hell is a place of torment, and that the people in it are conscious of that torment, and aware that they are there because of something they did (or failed to do) in life. And that God is the one who sends them there.

    It doesn’t matter if it’s a red devil with a pointy pitchfork or some sort of existential angst about being “eternally cut off from God” (whatever that means.)

    It’s that condemning people for all eternity based on something they did during the short time we have to be alive is inconsistent with who we say God is.

  • Nathan

    Universalists believe everyone goes to Heaven. (that’s your belief, right?) I certainly do not believe that. But I also certainly do not believe that God condemns people to eternal torment just because they happen to be born in the slums of India with no hope of hearing about the truth of the gospel message. I don’t know how God works it out. But I trust him. His mind is a whole lot bigger than yours or mine.

    There have been a variety of views about what Hell “is”. Is it annihilation? Is it eternal torment? Some have even suggested that it is, in fact, just Heaven – but that those who refuse to submit to God’s authority come to “view” it as hell. Whatever. I don’t much care about the details. But I know that I read about the message of Christ’s love for the world in the Bible. That same book teaches some very difficult things about the afterlife. I can’t believe one and throw out the other.

    The only “definite” belief I have about Heaven and Hell is that I take God at his word when he promises salvation for those that turn to him for their ultimate security. I can’t speak about what happens to those who do otherwise because the Bible really doesn’t say. But it does warn us (quite clearly) that Hell is real and it should be avoided at all costs.

  • Nathan

    I can see your point Lymis. One thing to consider is the concept of “eternity”. We think of eternity as “endless time”. But that actually isn’t accurate, in my thinking. Eternity means OUTSIDE of time. The God of the Bible exists OUTSIDE of time and space. I expect that Heaven and Hell are also “outside” of time, as we know it.

    I’ve always been fascinated by Einstein’s theory of relativity. One of the things that is really intriguing to me about the Big Bang is that time, energy, matter, and space all came “into existence” at a point in time. Prior to this “creation” event, the dimension that we call “time” didn’t even exist. Therefore, when we speak of “eternity”, I suspect that we really don’t even have an inkling of what we are talking about. We don’t know how to imagine our existence apart from the constraints of time. But that is exactly what eternity is.

  • Just as you don’t want John to dismiss the idea that you are using sound reasoning to disagree with him, don’t assume that people aren’t using the bible when they disagree with you. Calling others negligent of scripture is no better than John calling you stupid (if he did).

  • But the fact remains that you believe that non-Christians get into heaven.

  • Nathan

    Absolutely. I believe wholeheartedly that some do. The word “Christian” is defined by people. God doesn’t care about people’s classifications. God has his own “classification” system that is not nearly so arbitrary and petty as human definitions. But to deny that he even has such a classification system is to deny the majority of Jesus’s teachings.

  • Cool. Works for me. So you believe that a Muslim who, in this life, is more often a good person than a bad, goes to heaven, right along with the Christians and all the other good people of the world.

  • I didn’t. (and thank you, christine)

  • Nathan

    Christine, my disagreement with John is really about how much weight we put on scripture. I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve been intending to read “Love Wins” by Rob Bell. From what I have heard, he makes an excellent SCRIPTURAL case for universalism (or something close to universalism). I can live with that. But I can’t agree with just ignoring the vast amount of teachings and warnings about hell. Perhaps you are right. I should give John the benefit of the doubt and assume that he has wrestled with the Biblical teachings. But there is no evidence from his post above that he has seriously done so.

  • I promise you I’m as familiar with scripture as you, Nathan. But I don’t often argue from scripture, because a child knows that you can use the Bible to argue virtually any point you care to make.

  • Nathan

    Not exactly my beliefs, but close. Jesus makes it quite clear that “good” and “bad” is not what makes us right with God. (hence his constant heckling of the Pharisees) Submitting our heart God, honesty about our sins, and sacrificing our pride and self-reliance seems to be the path to eternal life that Jesus teaches. That can be done in the context of a variety of faiths. But, that said, I believe it is taught most clearly in the context of traditional Christianity.

  • But you’re just waffling, hedging your bets. You’re using phrases like, “Not exactly,” “seems to be,” and “I believe is taught most clearly in the context of” to avoid committing to a clear thought. You either believe that a devoted, life-long Muslim can just as readily gain entrance into hell as anyone who is Christian, or you don’t. Or you’re satisfied, as you seem to be, with saying that you really have no idea what’s going on.

    What I think is that you don’t believe that Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists can get into heaven; I think what you really believe is that heaven is populated by none but Christians. But you don’t want to say that. So at that point in the discussion you start employing language designed to keep fuzzy the nature of your true convictions. Which is extremely typical: I knew the conversation wouldn’t go any other way. It always goes this way. You know that your belief about heaven and hell is morally unacceptable, so … your brain does the Fuzzy Waffle Split—and reaches for the language it needs to keep you playing on the side of right.

  • Nathan

    I don’t have a clear thought. You’re absolutely right. But you are absolutely wrong about my beliefs about the population of Heaven. I fully expect to see MANY “nonchristians” there and I fully expect that MANY “christians” end up in Hell. I just am not going to try to define who is who. I don’t know.

    The only thing that I am clear on is that Jesus teaches that both places are real. Jesus asks me to trust HIM for my salvation. (not my good works) I’m clear on those two points. The rest is fuzzy logic to me. [Nathan: see my response here.]

  • Lymis


    Believe me, I HAVE considered the point that eternity is outside of time. I think that’s pretty central to my views on the whole issue.

    I can’t see how you can possibly square that belief with anything whatsoever meaningful about the concept of hell as spoken of in the Bible.

    Or with heaven as commonly understood by most Christians who use the term. You can’t place hell in an eternity outside of time and keep heaven in it.

    And seriously, you tell John he is wrong for saying we can’t know what hell is, and then you tell me I am wrong because “we really don’t even have an inkling of what we are talking about.”

    Dude, pick one.

  • [This is a continuation of this exchange. You can only nest so many comments before you have to start a new thread.] So, Nathan, I just want to be clear: you believe that there is no reason why a dedicated, life-long Muslim, who dies confident that Allah is the one true God, couldn’t be allowed into heaven. You understand that you have said that, right? There’s no other way to read your, “I fully expect to see MANY nonchristians in heaven.”

    I’ll leave it to you to reconcile that with your latest statement, “I can’t take the Bible seriously and not believe in Hell.” Good luck with that.

  • Luke

    Thank you John for such a fine article, and everyone else for such interesting, substantive, and friendly discussion.

  • Nathan

    I criticized John for denying its existence. I agree we don’t know much if anything about it. That was my point about “outside of time”. We don’t know what that concept even means. But I take the Bible seriously. As far as I’m aware, it’s the only written “revelation” of God’s workings in our universe. I can’t take the Bible seriously and not believe in Hell. Maybe I’ll find out I’m wrong oneday. I hope so. But in the meantime, I have to base my beliefs around the writings of Christ and those who knew him. They apparently believed in a hell, and I’ll hedge my bets and do likewise.

  • Nathan

    Yep. I’m not saying he WILL be allowed. But he certainly COULD be allowed. Allah, by the way, is the same God who was worshiped by Abraham. The bigger question I have is some of the eastern mystical polytheistic religions. They don’t even seem to have a concept of a universal God. I don’t know if they will be in Heaven or not. But I trust God to be fair and just.

  • Allie

    John, he’s said that he believes non-Christians can get into heaven and you’re calling him a liar. I don’t know why you’re doing that and it seems rude. [Allie: this is John; I can’t nest another reply in this thread. Back down, girl: I never even almost called Nathan a liar. Read again. (But this, right here, is why I so rarely engage in comment thread discussions here on my blog. I always end up having to play this kind of whack-a-mole.) ]

  • I also trust God to be fair and just. See? We are in complete agreement about everything that actually matters about God. And here you thought you had to chastise and correct me ….

  • Lymis

    John said that since the stories about what hell is supposed to be don’t make sense, that We. Don’t. Know. what happens or how it works, only that the way it is presented as working doesn’t work.

    You said that you have to believe that it exists, but that you “really don’t even have an inkling of what we are talking about” in terms of what the experience of it or it’s mechanism might be. You are just as clearly denying the certainty of what traditional Christian teaching on the matter as John is.

    Not that that’s a bad thing. I happen to agree. But it sure feels like your view on this is “as long as we pay lip service to the words of the Bible, we are free to let reason and experience take us anywhere it takes us, even if that is flat contradiction to the words we’re paying lip service to” where John seem to be saying that if where reason and experience take us isn’t consistent with the literal words of the Bible, we aren’t obligated to pretend to believe them.

    “Believing in hell” and then pretzelling the definition until it doesn’t have to involve suffering, doesn’t have to be eternal, and doesn’t have to take place within anything we would recognize as time isn’t “believing in hell” in any meaningful sense.

  • You consistently make sense of chaos! ALL :)s

  • DR

    I wonder if the need for Christians to identify who will go to heaven and hell is more about our need to make sense out of a pretty out of control environment so we can make sense out of it? No one wants chaos and we all have our own filters that identify the true character of God – I don’t fault anyone for needing those. But as I watch Christians so *casually* put others into the hell category because they believe that’s what the Bible says….it’s chilling (I know you’re not doing this Nathan, that’s a general statement).

  • DR

    Nathan, the straw man YOU are building is that all Evangelicals think and act like you and your friends. You are so obsessed with your own feelings and identity that you can’t seem to stop making all of this *personal* and you enter into conversations offended when in fact, it’s your own inability to evaluate our Church on its own merits.

    One only has to do a quick tour of the internet to see the prolific amount of blogs, literature, message boards, websites etc sponsored by Evangelical Christians who are quite candid about their beliefs that other faiths go to hell. Even Catholics!

    But you read, see people like John “attacking” you, you go on the offensive as a result and then people have to deal with your emotions instead of addressing the *impact* of this belief and how it is used with non-believers.

    This. Is. Not. About. You. If you see yourself in these comments, manage your own defensiveness, please. Please stop asking other people to manage it for you. Thanks.

  • DR

    People don’t have to quote Scripture for it to be a foundation of their expressed belief.

  • DR

    I’d love to hear your story!

  • DR

    Liar? WTF?

    It’s comments like that that blow me away. As your friend, that’s when I just want you to shut the blog down.

    Allie, I don’t know about you but I typically don’t walk into someone’s home and call them a “liar”. John has provided this place for us to discuss and debate, putting up with TREMENDOUS amounts of toxic bullshit in order to do so. How about you show a little respect?

    There’s a point where we get too casual on the internet, we get too assumptive and forget our place. You are a visitor to someone’s internet home and I could give a sh** if you’re a regular here with good things to say. That was totally out of line. As someone who values this dialogue and has a deep appreciation for John putting up with the crap he puts up with to allow us this space, it’s offensive that you’d do that and you need to check yourself.

  • DR

    John said that “we don’t know”. But you just inserted “denying its existence”.

  • DR

    (that should read I don’t walk into their home and accuse them of calling someone else a liar).

    OK. That’s enough of that.

  • Right on! I often say, “Not who’s right or who’s wrong, but what’s right and what’s wrong!” Truth is mighty and will prevail.

  • My best response to the anti-gay fundamentalists is, “I think it’s obvious I read my Bible—THE REST OF THE BIBLE!” So many of them scream out, “WHERE DOES IT SAY THAT?!” Then I let them read the passage themselves, e.g., Romans CHAPTER 2: 18-24 (as in RIGHT AFTER YOU READ CH 1).

  • Nathan

    That’s a fair criticism. I do take it at face value that Hell is a place of suffering. I love “The Great Divorce” by Lewis. (along with most of Lewis’s works) It reminds me that sometimes beliefs that we think are irreconcilable are really, in fact, quite logical if you approach them from a little different point of view. I really believe that Hell is one of those issue. We can’t understand the “logic” of it. But that’s Ok. I take a similar view of “predestination/free will” (both of which are taught in the Bible).

  • Nathan

    Again, that’s a fair criticism. I can see your point. I get annoyed with my fellow Christians who are closed-minded and view the world as entirely “black and white”. I know many of them. But I don’t look down on them, belittle them, and dismiss them. (which is what I *feel* that John is doing here)

    Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe John is being perfectly loving in his “attack” on Christians who haven’t thought out their beliefs. But it doesn’t quite feel that way to me. These are my friends, family, and neighbors that he is referring to. Those of us on this blog are rather “intellectual” people who have clearly thought through the implications and reasons for our beliefs. Not everyone has done so. Maybe they should. On the other hand, maybe I spend too much time THINKING about my beliefs and not enough time actually living them out.

  • I appreciate the tone of this, Nathan. Good job. And you’re right: to an appreciable degree I am harsh on those who (whether explicitly, or simply by believing it) promulgate the idea that some people, simply by virtue of who they are, are destined for hell. Because that belief is so toxic, and so harmful, and in so many ways so deeply destructive that it needs to combated as vigorously as possible.

    You show me a Christian who believes in anything like a literal hell—who believes that, unless a sinful person changes his or her sinful ways, that person will end up in hell—and I’ll show you a Christian who thinks unrepentant gay people go to hell. And you better believe that inevitable package deal amounts to a conviction against which I will most vigorously protest. Any Christian worth the name should. But one step at a time.

  • Ok. Substitute “calling others negligent of” to “saying others put less weigh on” and my comment stands.

    John hasn’t chosen to take a biblical interpretation perspective HERE. But you have said he isn’t taking one at all… and kind of implied that ANYONE who doesn’t believe in hell believes that way because they put “less weight on” scripture than you do.

    There’s an assumption in many of your comments that, because you’re the “conservative Christian” here (whatever that really means), that you automatically preference scripture more than the rest of us. I’m working hard to find a polite way of saying that that really starting to piss me off. Sorry… I guess I’m failing…

  • But John’s right about the biblical part. That view is not exactly consistent with how hell passages are generally interpreted. So, like Lymis said below, you’re already going way out on a limb in terms of “traditional views” on the subject. Seems a fine line from hermineutical approaches that take a scriptural view that hell doesn’t literally exist.

  • A little background as to why it might piss me off:

    I was long a fundie – believed in an inerrant, literal bible. Six days of creation and all. Before I stopped being a fundie, I was liberal (was in some ways all along). My interpretations changed, but it didn’t require scripture being any less true, inerrant, or authoritative. Really. My wife and I were married in a conservative charasmatic evangelical demonination. Really.

    My views have changed and are changing on what the bible is. But since I’ve been there, I know conservatives aren’t the only ones who can claim an inerrant, literal, authoritative bible. And I spent a LOT of time getting absolutely SICK of having my view of scripture assumed because of certain of my views. It was as annoying… well, annoying as hell. 🙂

    I guess it also means I have less tolerance of views along the lines of: I’m only conservative because respect for scripture REQUIRES it. Because I know it doesn’t.

  • DR

    You have to learn how to stop taking all of this so personally, Nathan, and start understanding the harshness of critics being something of value. People are respecting you enough to be honest with you and you just have to be in a place emotionally where you don’t read everything as a personal attack. These beliefs on hell have done a real number on people and it’s Not. About. You. It’s not an “attack”. You are *phrasing* it that way because you can’t yet deal with people on their own terms instead of yours (I am saying all of this because I went through it).

    It’s a really hard lesson to learn but I promise you, once you make the shift, the conversation gets a lot richer.

  • DR

    PS – I believe in hell! Or something along the lines of it. I don’t really believe it with any kind of certainty because I don’t need to be secure or certain in an after life anymore. I believe it but I’m not absolutely certain.

    What I totally agree with John is how this theology has been used so manipulatively and we probably haven’t gotten any of it right at all.

  • hear hear!!! down with partisanship – up with truth!!!

  • Diana A.

    I think I see your point. You believe that the two major political parties both fight over Christians but mostly to feed their own agendas. Is that what you’re saying? If so, I agree with you.

  • Diana A.

    Yes! I agree with this!

  • Amy, I hope the meeting goes well. If you need to leave, I hope you find a better church, and if you find you can stay, I hope you can make a difference there. (For what it’s worth, I really like your blog!)

  • Diana A.

    Atta boy!

  • Diana A.

    I think we create Hell. And it’s only when we recognize our own creation for what it is and ask God to rescue us from it that s/he does so.

  • Diana A.

    I echo KellyK’s sentiments, including about liking your blog!

  • Soulmentor

    Thank you. You touched my heart. Eh. God speaking to me?

  • Jill

    Lymis, if I might ask about your conversion that created deep certainty for you. My certainty, as recent as four months ago, was that I was not in any need for Christianity or scripture. That was a door closed, resolved many years ago. Apparently not so much these days, and I’m just figuring out what it all means.

    Your certainty gives me courage and hope when I read your comments. Would you be willing to share a bit about what that looks like for you?

    (Understandable if you care not to share here or if John would rather not open such a dialog here)