Tuesday, November 17, 2009

My friend Mike is going to hell

Belief in God rendered me a sort of Christian nihilist by high school. I reckoned that, since God is all-powerful, he doesn't need me for any big projects, he just seems to like having me around. Also, I thought that evangelism was the most important thing a Christian could do; maybe I thought it's the only important thing anyone could do. What could be more heroic than saving someone from an eternity of suffering and offering them an afterlife of happiness and union with God? Compared to that, building bridges or baking bread seemed void. Firemen and soldiers and bone marrow donors can save lives, but they can't give infinite life and happiness. Well, neither can we, it's the Holy Spirit that does the converting, I believed, but Christians are somehow involved in the process.

At various points in my childhood, I was a member of Pioneer Clubs, which is sort of like Boy and Girl Scouts, except, in addition to earning patches for knot tying, there are patches for various Christian things like Bible memorization and service and so on. One time, the homework involved sharing the gospel with two people that week. I was homeschooled from age six to thirteen, so my only non-Christian friend was Katie, my neighbor six doors down. She said she was a Christian, however she believed in evolution.

I started going to public school in eighth grade. On the first day, I challenged my social studies teacher when she talked about something in human history happening ten thousand years ago. That night, I voluntarily wrote a paper disproving radiometric dating. She told me that it was well-written but, "I question your sources." (My main source was The Collapse of Evolution.)

Because I wore my socks half-way up my shins and I tucked in my shirt, I was excluded by most of the other students, so I didn't have much of a chance to share the gospel with them except for that one time that we had to write compare-and-contrast essays. I wrote about Ehud and Samson, because they killed people with swords. I was thirteen. All the other boys in my class wanted to hear more about these stories.

In high school, my closest classmate was Mike. We rode the bus together, and were in most of the same classes. For most of the year, I thought he was a fellow conservative Christian, because he was a young earth creationist. Eventually, I found out that he's a Jehovah's Witness. I told Mom right as I came home, and she immediately pulled out a map-folded chart comparing different religions and cults; it had categories for things like how old they were, what their holy books are, how many gods are involved. She pointed to the category about the divinity of Christ in the Jehovah's Witness column; it said that they think that Jesus is divine, but he's not God God, he's not the Big Kahuna.

I already knew Jehovah's Witnesses were part of a cult, but they just came off to me as annoying people who knock on peoples' doors. I was afraid, now, though, because I knew and trusted Mike; maybe there's something to the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. Mom showed me a chapter about JW's in a book on cults; I read it, taking notes on a napkin, so I'd be ready to debate Mike. (Mom always referred to Jehovah's Witnesses as JW's.)

We rented a couple of videos, too, from the local Christian bookstore. I learned how Jehovah's Witnesses refuse blood transfusions because the Bible prohibits the eating of blood; on the video, this fact was paired with an image of a corpse on a stretcher. I also learned that the translators of the New World Translation claimed the aid of "spirit messengers". The Jehovah's Witnesses shun people who leave the cult; what would happen if Mike were to become a Christian? Would his family divorce him?

I remember lying in bed, singing Christian praise songs quietly, so I could fall asleep. I recited Bible verses as I walked up the big hill to the bus stop in the cold the next morning.

Mike and I talked some the next day, and the day after that, and more, throughout the school year, and neither one of us converted the other. I'm thinking now about how I felt when I first found out that Mike is a Jehovah's Witness, and why. I was overwhelmingly afraid.

I wasn't afraid for Mike, that he would go to hell. I wasn't afraid of what would happen to my relationships with people that mattered to me, I wasn't afraid that I would lose Mike's friendship by staying a theologically orthodox Christian, or that I would lose my family by becoming a Jehovah's Witness. I was afraid that I would become a Jehovah's Witness and that God would damn me, or that I'd stay a Christian and the JW's were right and their Jehovah would damn me.

I had idealized evangelism into this valiant activity, and I still thought the same way about it, but, in retrospect, I didn't feel heroic. I wasn't motivated out of some sort of love or compassion for my friend. I was afraid that God was out to get me. If I were to become a Jehovah's Witness and be wrong, Yahweh would damn me for denying his union with his Son. On the other hand, in the New Testament, Christians are commanded to not eat blood. Had I eaten blood? I thought so, there was something red that came out of our steak when we cooked it. Is that blood? Gross!

Maybe my family and I were apostates, along with the rest of the church. The Trinity had always struck me as a difficult doctrine; maybe Jesus and the Holy Spirit really are subordinate to Jehovah, and it's idolatry to worship them as God.

At the same time, I had nihilistic, fatalistic thoughts: God's will would be done, regardless of what I did, because I was just a speck compared to him. I didn't feel nihilistic, though; I did the ordinary things a kid would do, I played with Legos and read books and played hide-and-go-seek-tag with my neighbors. I liked God, I didn't have bad feelings about God, I wasn't normally afraid of him or anything.

Growing up, I thought that anyone who wasn't a true Christian was going to hell forever, that's what I was taught. As a believing Christian, I mostly evangelized for my own benefit, in one way or another. I'd "evangelize" because I like arguing, I like proving people wrong, or I'd talk with people from diverse points of view out of an idle sense of interest.

I was more talking to myself, a lot of the time, trying to reassure myself that my beliefs were correct and good to hold on to. I think I care more about holding on to the beliefs that I have than about finding out what's actually true; they're my beliefs, they feel familiar. If I were to live in Portland, I'd own my own bicycle rather than sharing the communal bikes, because I'd feel attached to my bike.

I would evangelize out of a sense of obligation, it was something people told me to do, there were Bible verses telling me to do it, Jesus mandated that I go forth and make disciples. I didn't share the gospel nearly as much as I could have, though. I thought I was a bad person because I wasn't excited about evangelism. If I really thought it could have made a difference for the fate of someone's immortal soul, I should have taken it more seriously. Am I a cold, uncaring slob because I don't cry myself to sleep thinking about what would happen to my non-Christian friends when they died? Am I lazy because I wouldn't go door-to-door, like Mike would? I mostly have Christian friends because I find them easier to get along with; is it selfish of me to not do more to befriend some non-believers? I would have guilty thoughts like that.


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  2. i remember the very first time we met to discuss religion and either me or zach asked you point-blank if both of us were going to hell, and you said yes. in retrospect, your candor was very refreshing.

    btw, this works pretty well as a counter-apologetic against wishy-washy christians ('what are you so happy about? a lot of your friends and family won't be joining you in the afterlife!').

  3. On the other hand, when Julia Sweeney was evangelized by Mormons, they promised her time and eternity with her family. "Thank you, but no!"

  4. The Kingdom of God is Social Justice!!!!!!!!

    I had to tell someone; I feel like it's bursting out of me! Thankfully God didn't give up on me ten years ago when I had such limited visions of the Kingdom of God!

  5. You know I was actually thinking about evangelism last night, about how everyone quotes Francis of Assisi "preach the gospel and if necessary use words" but most people (or at least I speak for myself) eventually feel dissatisfied with it.

    It's like we want our lives to be a living testimony but don't feel like it's working.

    When we realize that just being nice Christians and buying bible verse plaques and not swearing doesn't win anyone over, we decide that maybe we do need to preach at people to get the job done. ---

    BUT MAYBE the problem is that we never actually acted out the gospel in the first place. Maybe the problem isn't the failure of the world to be impressed with our goodness, but the failure of our goodness to actually make an impact on the world.

    Maybe evangelism ought to consist of a radical pursuit of social justice.

    I think our nonverbal "preaching" is too tame. That's our evangelism problem.

  6. Ann, I agree with you that the gospel is social justice. When John the Baptist asked his disciples to ask Jesus "are you the one who was to come, or should we look for another?" Jesus responded with actions, not words.

    My friend's grandma's approach to evangelism was to "love them. Eventually they'll ask you why."

    Do I live like that? No. But I want to.