I recently completed a free online course entitled Introduction to the New Testament History and Literature taught by Dale B. Martin. (If you’re interested in taking it, go here.) One thing that surprised me to some degree (although it probably shouldn’t have) was the diversity of early Christianity. Christians have apparently been fighting over what it means to be a Christian since Christ was crucified. The more I learned throughout the course, the less I could take the idea of the Bible representing a single, unified view of God seriously. According to the view taken by the instructor and the writer of the textbook (Bart Ehrman) the gospels do not harmonize with one another and each represents the theological position of its author (and probably the theological group associated with that author). This is not to say the Bible can’t be harmonious or that it’s not inspired by God; I simply have a hard time believing the entire thing represents a solid, unified view of the Creator of the universe.
I also recently attended Kingdom Bound, a four-day Christian music festival held at an amusement park in Western New York. I’ve attended every year (except one) since I was eleven or twelve years old. Despite the fact that my religious beliefs have changed greatly over the past few years, I keep attending because I like a lot of the music and the message delivered by the bands is sometimes positive, in my opinion (the Christian speakers are a whole other story). One band in particular, however, had their guitarist speak for about ten minutes about how if you don’t accept Jesus into your life, you could get in a car accident tonight and spend eternity in Hell. I was offended and annoyed by way of impulse, but soon began to recall that bands used to do that much more often at Kingdom Bound but seem to have backed off of that approach in recent years. I also considered the fact that if that is really what they believe, then they’re doing the right thing by letting as many people know about it as they can through their music and their opportunities on stage.
Despite the preachiness of the speakers (and some of the bands), I had an all-around good time at the festival, seeing some bands that I really enjoyed. I found myself envying the simple faith I perceived in the crowds who would worship their God to the tune of the music. Obviously, my (relatively) newfound freedom from a “gospel” that meant most people would be damned forever and I would too if I wasn’t truly “saved” is something that I cherish. I would never want to return to such a state of fear. In spite of this, I looked on the people at the festival and wished I could experience the kind of certainty of belief that they seem to have.
When I still believed in the doctrine of Hell, I often wished there was some way that it could be untrue. I wished that God would change His mind and make it so that my loved ones and I (along with the rest of the world) wouldn’t have to face the threat of spending eternity in a lake of fire. Almost every night, while praying with my family, I would say, “Please help everyone to come to know You” so that no one would have to suffer forever.
Shortly before learning about Christian Universalism, when I was nearing the peak of my fear of Hell (which I’ve written about before), I considered the idea that there was literally nothing I could do to determine whether I was going to Hell or Heaven. I considered the idea that God was the only One who could choose my destiny and that I had no say in the matter. If that was the case, I decided, then I was better off living my life the way I wanted to with no consideration as to what God or anyone else thought. Before I ran with this idea, however, I came across the belief of Christian Universal salvation and accepted it joyfully as I found it to be much more convincing and positive than the Christianity I previously believed.
A band named Gods (fronted by former Zao drummer Jesse Smith) released a song called “Ephedra” on their CD “I See You Through Glass” several years ago. The song contains the following lyric towards the end of the song: “There is nothing I envy but disbelief.” As a Christian who constantly worried about whether I was believing the correct way or whether God would send me to Hell, I could identify with this feeling. Of course, I didn’t want to die and go to Hell, but if I had no say in whether or not I went there, I would have rather lived a life of disbelief.
I recently read a book called “1Q84″ by Haruki Murakami (translated by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel). In it, a character called Leader (who happens to be somewhat of a cult leader, unironically), says the following to one of the main characters in the novel:
“If a certain belief–call it ‘Belief A’–makes the life of that man or this woman appear to be something of deep meaning, then for them Belief A is the truth. If Belief B makes their lives appear to be powerless and puny, then Belief B turns out to be a falsehood. The distinction is quite clear. If someone insists that Belief B is the truth, people will probably hate him, ignore him, or, in some cases, attack him. It means nothing to them that Belief B might be logical or provable. Most people barely manage to preserve their sanity by denying and rejecting images of themselves as powerless and puny.” (441)
This quotation made a lot of sense to me as I read it, and it can be quite unsettling if one fully accepts it. I think it’s true in a lot of cases, not just religious. I still consider myself a Christian (to a degree), albeit one with heavy agnostic leanings. Much of Christianity places human beings at the center of the universe, proverbially speaking, something I’m not so convinced is actually true anymore. Despite all this, I have no problem with people who believe in (modern, popular) Christianity. In fact, recently I’ve found myself envying the ability of Christians to be so self-assured of the correctness of their beliefs (I mean this in a non-pejorative way). I have, in many ways, lost my ability not to question what I believe or what other people tell me is the truth. As I stated before, I in no way miss my days of walking around on the verge of a panic attack because of my fear of Hell, but I do sometimes miss the assurance of “knowing” what is the truth and having people around me who could help me understand it better. Don’t get me wrong, either– being unsure about the answers to the big questions in the universe isn’t something I find limiting; in fact, it can be quite invigorating to consider all the possibilities ahead. However, it can also be quite frightening to admit that I no longer have a definitive answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” Sure, I could answer it with the Christian’s go-to response, “We are put here on Earth to glorify God,” but then I would have to ask, “What does that mean? How do I know He’s glorified? Why does He need to be glorified in the first place if He’s all-powerful?” Unfortunately, even if I believed that the Bible is the ultimate, final word on the meaning of life and is flawless, I wouldn’t have faith in my ability to understand what it’s saying. I want to be clear that I’m not bashing Christians, here. It’s entirely possible that their beliefs are true (although I hope with all my heart that one in particular isn’t) and I’m not here to argue about that. I’m merely recounting my personal experience and my views as they’ve changed and molded over the years.
I used to say to myself, “There is nothing I envy but disbelief.” I no longer think this. Now that I’m more or less free from the fear of Hell (I sometimes have momentary relapses), I don’t have to envy disbelief anymore. I can believe and hope that God exists and has a purpose for creation that will be realized in God’s own time. I don’t have to know the details. Ultimately, I hope for an objective, true, beautiful meaning for all creation. Until I discover that meaning in all it’s glory, however, I’m going to have to forge ahead and find my own meaning in this life. Wish me luck.