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.