calvinism, Christianity, and the weight of the gospel

I’m studying 14th-17th century literature right now at Keble– I can hear you all groaning.  I was wary, but it’s actually been incredibly interesting.  I’ve learned a whole lot (I hope).  Of course, you can’t talk about this time period without breaching the subject of the different Christian sects of each time.  I, honestly, have loved this: I have been able to write my essays on God’s grace and mercy.  I have been able to commune with John Donne (my love) and attend lectures on religion in the Elizabethan era.  I was assigned Augustine for reading.  But a few weeks ago, our class on Calvinism hit me like a load of bricks.

Let me first clarify.  The class was on 17th century Calvinism, and it brought up a lot of uncomfortable things.  Calvin believed that man’s free will would cheapen God’s sovereignty, and so God controls everyone; he also chooses his elect and rejects the reprobate on seemingly arbitrary whim.  Because of this, you can never really know if you’ve been saved or not, and you can never know if you’re going to heaven or to hell.  According to Calvin, God even causes the rejected to feel like they have experienced God’s grace and Spirit.

This mentality wreaked havoc on the people of the time period.  They assumed God was punishing them for sins or for their own reprobate status; people even convinced themselves that, although they believed in Christ, they were still going to hell.  I’m not saying this was Calvin’s intention; I’m just saying that regardless, this is how it was taken by people of the 17th century.

Can God fairly and justly punish someone who He controls completely? This is when I realized that my greatest fear is not a nonexistent God; my greatest fear is that the universe is ruled by a cruel and arbitrary tyrant.

Do I believe this? I don’t think so.  If God were not good then our idea of order and justice and morality would be a sham, and the fabric of the universe would unravel.  Do I wrestle with questions I will never be able to answer on this earth? Yes, constantly.

The reactions of my classmates were telling.  They responded to the cruelty of Calvinism in a way that triggered their moral outrage, their sense of right and wrong.  And perhaps we can cite this same sense as evidence of a loving and justice-seeking God.  God, of course, does not have to follow the rules we make up for him.  But my heart sank as they spoke of these concepts as nonsense and rubbish, as they conflated this with Christianity and with Christ himself.

I cannot believe they are the same thing.

The constant fear of hell that Calvin expresses is not Biblical. Romans 10:13 tells us that “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”; 1 John 3:19-20 that “This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” We have assurance in Christ – John has even written: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.”  We are confident and assured – we know.

But I still came out of that class with a realization: regardless of Calvin, and regardless of what others believe, people will still go to hell.

It haunted me for days. It still is, honestly.  That day I sent frustrated messages to my parents as I tried to reconcile these concepts of agency and sovereignty.  I sat on my bed at the thought that my classmates, the strangers I pass on the street, the homeless man on the corner, the musicians behind each song I listen to, the friends I share my life with – that they could all be barred from heaven.  And I wept.

I think this is the proper response.  A friend told me that when we draw close to the heart of God, we become grieved for the same things He grieves for.

I don’t know how all of this works.  I hate that people have to go to hell.  I don’t understand how, if God can harden people’s hearts to keep the Israelites in slavery or soften them to accept the Holy Spirit, he can’t just do this for every human being on earth.  I have heard of dream-vision conversions, and I can’t understand why God will not send them to every living person on this earth.

But I trust him, and I think that this deep, heaving grief is also God’s response when we refuse him.  I think that free will has to exist, because without it, love cannot.  Without it, we have no choice to accept or reject.  But I trust God because I believe these things about him: that He is sovereign, and that He is good.

I trust that I cannot fathom the idea of hell as he can. I trust that he, as the ruler of the universe, knows better than I do.

I’m sorry if this feels like a cop-out.  I know it must.  But the simple truth is that I do not understand, I will not understand, and I will mourn.  And as we follow these truths out to their logical conclusions – as we struggle with these things – we act on where they take us.

We cannot simply weep over the non-Christians in our life and in our world.  We cannot mourn them as though they have already been damned.  There is hope for every human being in Christ, and we are mandated to share it: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.” (Romans 1:16)

This is the scariest part.  There is a piece of me that does not want to post this, because if I do, I become a hypocrite if I don’t tell others of the grace and glory and beauty of Jesus Christ.  So that’s probably a good reason to put it up here.

I will confess that I feel uncomfortable telling other people about Jesus.  I’m scared they will avoid me, and I’m scared they will shy away from preaching and proselytizing.  I’m terrified.  But I can’t hold my own discomfort as more valuable than the lives of my brothers and sisters.  If you love someone – really love someone – you are compelled to show them the cure for eternal death.  Penn Jillette, an atheist, says this:

“If you believe that there’s a heaven and a hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward—and atheists who think people shouldn’t proselytize and who say just leave me along and keep your religion to yourself—how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”

I know this is really heavy.  It’s been weighing me down.  But to forget would be folly.

My fellow Christians: hold me accountable.

My non-Christian friends:  I love you so dearly.  I do not want you to die.  I love you deeply, and that is why I tell you this:

We’re sinful.  When God gave us everything, including our very lives, we rebelled against him.  We chose death.  But God does not want us dead.  God is love itself, and God enacted this plan – he saw us in our suffering and sent us a remedy.  Jesus came to earth as God in human-skin so that he could take the penalty that we deserved.  He died – God took on the pain and death of humanity – for love of us.  We’re humans, we’re nothing compared to an eternal God – and yet he loved us.

He rose again from death, he defeated death itself.  For you.  And here’s the deal, now – we are offered grace.  We are offered redemption and future perfection and life with a wonderful and life-giving God.  If we take him up on the offer, we have to give up some of our idols and sins.  We have to serve God instead of our friends or careers or desire for money or fame or pleasure.

But it’s worth it.  I can’t express how much it is worth it, how content you can be when your worth is derived from the love God has for you instead of from your own accomplishments.

Ask me about this.  Tell me how weird this sounds, how improbable it is, tell me honestly what you think and why you cannot consider it.  I’ll tell you how much it’s worth it.

Peace, my friends.  Thanks for sticking this one out.

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death

About a month ago, my father gave me a copy of my own will to read over before we left for my great-aunt’s funeral.  Suffice it to say, I did a lot of thinking about death that weekend.

It was a lovely service, but then came the moment that I always dreaded.  I hate looking into the casket and seeing the waxy, lifeless body of the person I had once known.  Their features are fixed in place, caked with a garish sort of makeup, and you can tell that there is no spark there.  “It doesn’t look like her,” I whispered to my father.  “That’s because it isn’t,” he returned.

That’s why I hate looking in there.  I understand why it happens, as a final farewell and to give closure to the grieved.  But you can tell when you look that something has left.  Everything that made up their personality, their tiny quirks, opinions, and Great Loves has gone.  Their soul has left that flimsy, mortal shell and entered into eternity.

A storm was brewing on our way to the funeral, ominous in the distance.  It split the sky into dark and light geometrics on our right, fading from black to white on the left.  We were in Oklahoma, and it looked very honestly as though some of the clouds would touch down.

My family was worried.  My brother hates tornadoes.  I turned to him and asked him what the worst thing that could happen was.  “Uh, we all die a horrible death?” he replied.  I met his eyes.  “Is that all?”

Because for the believer, death does not hold the same dreadful power that it once did.  It’s a crossing over from one dimension to the next – the vehicle that takes us (in a Narnian vocabulary) to Aslan’s Country.  “Death opens a door,” says C.S. Lewis, “out of a little, dark room (that’s all the life we have known before it) into a great, real place where the true sun shines and we shall meet.”

We no longer fear death, because all it can threaten is a better life than the one we have known here.  Eternity with God lies on the other side, and it is magnificent.  As someone once pointed out to me, life on earth is as close to hell as the Christian will ever be.  And if life here is so beautiful even despite the decay and depravity of this world, can you imagine what heaven will be like?  This world is but a dim reflection of the next, and eternity is being in God’s presence forever.

Just as we need not fear the consequence of death, we can also have faith in its timing.  And that’s scary, too, because there’s so much we want to do here, so many people we’re connected to, and so much life we want to live.  But I have realized this: if God takes me, then He will be even more glorified in my death.  If I die tomorrow, it simply means that my time here is finished and that my work here is done.  As long as there is still breath in my lungs and blood running in my veins, I have a mission.  The only reason I am still alive right now is because God has not finished with me here.

This summer I was driving my friend back to her house, moaning as we hit our third red light in a row.  She answered, “Maybe God just wants us to spend more time together.”  I laughed.  “No, seriously,” she said.

I think I forget how much of my life God has planned out.  He is a God of big pictures, but He is also a God of precise details.  There are so many reasons why we could have hit those lights.  What if we would have gotten in an accident if I’d gone through – and died?

I wondered then with shock – how many times has God saved my life without me even knowing?  How many details, breaths, or decisions could have resulted in my death had they been even slightly different?

My mortality stares me in the face at times like these – at funerals, during car rides, at night when I stare up at the shelves above my bed.  But I can stare back, unafraid and unangered.  I do not despair at death because I know that there is life beyond its threshold.  And it hurts, and the grief is almost too much to handle, and we don’t understand why God has Death take our loved ones when He does.  All I can say is that He knows better than we do.

One of the reasons that I love The Book Thief so much is that its narrator, Death, is not depicted as evil, but as tired, sad, and haunted by humans.  Death is only the messenger, and he is an old friend.  He tips his hat in my direction and I nod in his, knowing that he does his job without spite.  He takes each soul and carries it gently at its perfectly ordained time. I watch him pass, and he acknowledges me, and I know that when the day arrives when he comes for me, my work here will be finished, and I will have nothing to fear from him.

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Read this: 

“Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.”

“Crossing the Bar”, Alfred Lord Tennyson

hell (and why the sermon was fantastic).

It’s not something that churches talk about much anymore, really.  Either they’re afraid to scare people off with fire and brimstone, or they don’t think that hell is something that important in today’s day and age.  Maybe they just don’t think about it much.  Or maybe they don’t believe in it at all.

This sermon, however, was fantastic.

I heard it at my church last Saturday, and I was rapt for the entire half hour to forty-five minutes.  Firstly, the pastor did in fact reference Brian Regan, worldviews, Aldous Huxley (post!), C.S. Lewis, Tim Keller, and Jonathan Edwards.  There were so many of my favorite things that the people surrounding me chuckled every time I freaked out (which was often).

Secondly, it was presented with Biblical evidence and in a philosophical and intellectual way, showing us what hell really is: the trajectory of a self-centered soul into infinity until it loses all individuality and humanity.

I believe that there is a God, and he did send his Son to die for our law-breaking, and there is a heaven, and there is also a hell.  Talk to me about it sometime.  So without further ado:

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Read this: Reason for God, Tim Keller: http://timothykeller.com/books/the_reason_for_god/