For years, two of my kids have attended the same church that my mother- and father-in-law attend, in Tucson, Arizona. After a few initial forays through the doors of said church, I decided a few years ago that it wasn’t for me. At the time, my decision was, specifically, that Christianity wasn’t for me. Now, if you’re reading this blog, it should be pretty obvious to you that I’ve changed my mind about that last bit.
That said, I don’t think I would attend my in-laws’ church if I were to go back toTucson. I never did feel like they were giving me a relevant message, and it was very clear to me that the congregation disagreed with my wife and myself on a great number of social issues. That didn’t stop them from trying to convert me. On the few occasions where I spent a Sunday morning there, or perhaps attended an event that involved my kids, I would always be approached sometime around altar call by a fellow who wanted to ask me questions about Jesus, my soul, etc. Now, don’t get me wrong – on an individual level, the guys who came up to talk to me were always very nice. I have nothing against them, and I greatly appreciate them taking the time to go talk to a stranger in their church. Really, I’m 100% down with that, and I would like to think I would do the same thing.
Ultimately, what made the message of my in-laws’ church (and the nice guys who came to talk to me about said message) was that I was an agnostic-leaning-toward-atheist, and I didn’t believe in Hell. I cannot stress enough how much that disarmed the people trying to convert me. Even at my most theistic, I didn’t see a logical need for the existence of Hell. So when nice gentlemen implied that maybe I should be concerned about the possibility of my soul going there, all I could do in response was tell them in my kindest tones that I greatly appreciated their concern for me, but that I wasn’t all that worried about it.
On one occasion, my wife and I attended a church play that my daughter was participating in. While we knew we wouldn’t enjoy the church experience, we wanted to support our girl, so we went. The play was . . . interesting. It consisted of a series of scenes played out on stage, almost always showing two different groups of people going through the same situation – but one group would consist of people who were “saved”, and one would consist of people who “didn’t have time for church”. Then, the two groups of characters would suddenly die – there would be a car accident, or a shooting in a school. Then the audience would see the “saved” people being invited by Jesus into heaven, while the “damned” characters would be dragged away by the devil – played by a guy in KISS makeup. The goal of the play (I’m sure) was to scare the audience members into salvation. As an agnostic, I was far from scared – mildly offended, a little ironically amused, but not scared.
My lack of belief in a place of eternal punishment single-handedly ruined any attempt that most Christians made to convert me. I think the issue may be generational. I think that in prior generations, most Americans grew up in the context of some sort of Christian church life. They went to church as kids, attended Sunday School, and got a basic framework of reality that was explained to them in this way:
A) People are Sinners
B) Jesus Died for Your Sins
C) You Can Still Go to Hell!
D) Do What God Says, or Else!
My thinking is that people in those generations might spend some time wavering back and forth between believing in God or not believing in God, but that if they did believe in God, it would most likely be within the context of Christianity. If someone claimed to doubt the existence of God, the people in their church community would tell them that they only doubted for some nefarious reason – at the behest of the devil, perhaps, or simply because, in their hearts, they wanted some time to try out some good, old-fashioned sinnin’! The church would put some energy into convincing them to come back to Jesus, repent of the things they did in their “time off”, and being a life of engaging God anew.
Almost every attempt made to convert me over the years has been made under this premise. And if I had believed in Hell, the premise would have been solid. After all, who would want to spend an eternity in torment? That’s just ridiculous! I would pay just about any price possible to avoid that fate! The issue at hand, for me, was that I had been exposed to a plethora of religions in my formative years. I’d met practitioners of a dozen faiths who all believed whatever they believed with as much fervor, dedication, and conviction as the most Bible-thumping Christian. Why should I believe in Heaven or Hell, for instance, when half of the people I know believe in reincarnation? If I accepted Heaven, why did that necessarily mean that Hell had to exist?
Now, as a newly-convinced Christian, I am engaging Jesus. I’m reading the Bible. There seems to be some place for Hell in the whole scheme of things, but even Christians don’t all agree on what it is. What I know for certain is this – I will never, ever scare an agnostic or an atheist into the arms of God. Even if I tried, it wouldn’t work. The fact is, Heaven and Hell are concepts that require faith to have any relevance.
Incidentally, I should point out that there isn’t an argument that ever “converted” me. As I’ve said before (and will likely say again) the logic behind the idea of God isn’t flawless. If it weren’t for the fact that God directly intervened in my life in ways that are harder to disprove than prove, I would still be there in the audience, snickering at a portrayal of the devil more appropriate to 1979 than 2009, and I wouldn’t find out if I was right or wrong about Hell until it was a little too late.
And anyway, is avoidance of Hell really the best reason to come to God? Here’s what I think – talk about the benefits of going to God. Feeling alone? There’s an app for that. Unhappy with your relationships? There’s an app for that. Feel like you’re wasting your life? There’s an app for that. Need to be part of a story that’s much bigger, much more exciting, much more meaningful than the one you create for yourself? Well, there’s an app for that, too.
Sure, none of this will absolutely convince an atheist to believe in God. But what it might do is give the atheist a convincing reason to attempt to talk to God. In my experience, that’s all that God needs.
How does this address Hell? I don’t know. Maybe it doesn’t, at least not directly. This is the kind of stuff that brought me to Jesus, and I don’t think about Hell all that often. I think about God quite a bit, though, and how to live in accordance with whatever plan he has for me. I think about how to be good to my wife and my family, how to live with integrity, how to make good decisions, and yes, sometimes, how to do what Jesus would do.
I hope that works. Because if it doesn’t, I don’t know if there’s hope for any of us.