I’d like to say that, generally, I like you guys. I invite you guys into my house because I like to talk to you, I like to talk about theology and I even like talking about the Bible. And honestly, every time you stop me on the street or corner me at a meeting, I’m secretly hoping you succeed. I really would like to join a religious community. I think it would be lovely to earnestly ponder the infinite among others. Unfortunately, the earnest part of that desire, my missionary friends, is why you continue to disappoint me. I’m just not impressed by the way you believe.
Let me explain the nature of my disappointment. I have spoken with enough of your missionary brethren that I can more or less precisely predict the path of our discussion. You begin with the soft sell. First, you will explain that I would surely convert at once to some particular brand of Christianity if only I had read the Bible. I will explain that I have read that Bible from cover to cover. I will further explained that my reading the Bible was one of the biggest reasons I stopped being a Christian. You will be shocked for about three seconds and then ask me why.
Depending on my mood, I suppose, the sequence of the following topics can change, but regardless of order, we will inevitably speak of hell, revenge fantasies and a paradox called the “Problem of Evil.” For the hell topic, I usually wait for you to say “God loves you” or something similar. I will then ask you how love is compatible with eternally torturing someone. You will counter by saying that unbelievers turn from God by choice and that, by doing so, earn his anger. You will likely ask me how my parents would feel if I denied them. I will nod, since this is a good point. However, I will inevitably point out that regardless of how disappointed my parents felt, they would not sentence me to torture, much less eternal torture. This, to me, is simply incompatible with the notion of love as I understand it.
An awkward pause will follow on this. I will smile to indicate my willingness to continue the discussion and, as has happened the last three times I’ve spoken with a missionary, offer an alternative explanation of hell to relieve the awkwardness. You will look at me with hope, thinking perhaps I’ve solved the problem for you. At this point I will begin to suspect I’ve thought about theology considerably harder than you have.
“I think hell makes a lot more sense if you think of it as a revenge fantasy,” I’ll say. “The meek and timid, the people who are failures gleefully imagining a future in which they can watch their masters burn.” I’ll mention how hell doesn’t appear in the first parts of the Old Testament because the Old Testament was written for people with power. I’ll mention early Church Fathers like Tertullian, whom you will not have heard of, and quote these lines.
“At that greatest of all spectacles, that last and eternal judgment how shall I admire, how laugh, how rejoice, how exult, when I behold so many proud monarchs groaning in the lowest abyss of darkness; so many magistrates liquefying in fiercer flames than they ever kindled against the Christians; so many sages philosophers blushing in red-hot fires with their deluded pupils; so many tragedians more tuneful in the expression of their own sufferings; so many dancers tripping more nimbly from anguish then ever before from applause.”
I’ll point to Thomas Aquinas when he explains the following:
“In order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned. . .So that they may be urged the more to praise God. . .The saints in heaven know distinctly all that happens. . .to the damned.”
I might even toss some Jonathan Edwards your way if you strike me as particularly Protestant.
“The sight of hell torments will exalt the happiness of the saints forever. . .Can the believing father in Heaven be happy with his unbelieving children in Hell. . . I tell you, yea! Such will be his sense of justice that it will increase rather than diminish his bliss.”
I am, I fear, not in the market for this kind of bliss. Perhaps you have difficulty understanding, but as someone who once pursued vengeance, I have lost my taste. Perhaps you disagree, but I don’t think revenge has any value at all.
If you haven’t lost patience with the soft sell yet, we’ll talk about the Problem of Evil. You’ll offer a free will defense or, more commonly, just get frustrated and transition to the hard sell. Regardless, I again offer an alternative. We can dismiss the concept of evil as nonsense, we can dismiss the need for god’s goodness, we can dismiss the need for god’s omnipotence and omniscience. Doing any of these things solves the paradox but you will resist.
When the hard sell starts, you’ll make a show of concern about my spirit. Perhaps you are being sincere. I hope you are and, since I can’t tell for sure, I’ll assume you truly care. But the more I think of Tertullian’s orgy of resentment, the more I imagine Tomas Aquinas deepening his enjoyment of heaven by observing the damned, the more I wonder if you aren’t, perhaps, looking forward just a little bit to the vengeance part of divine judgment.
You then darkly imply I might be headed for the pit and, shaking your head at the waste of it all, say you want to join me in heaven. At this point, my missionary friends, I transition from being disappointed to being insulted. Perhaps I look like a coward. Perhaps my mannerisms betray a person easily swayed by threats, but the assumption rankles. Maybe it’s just my pride.
I usually turn to leave when the hard sell starts. This will alarm you because, well, I’ve been nice to you. You aren’t used to people being nice to you and you’ll really, really want to get me in the church. You’ll reach a hand out and say “just try reading X.”
This, my missionary friends, is the point when you make me sad. You see, this is always the part of the discussion where I say “I’ll read your X, if you promise to read my X.” It doesn’t matter what my X is. Sometimes I point you to Aristotle. Sometimes I point you to The Genealogy of Morals. Sometimes I even ask you to consider theological works. You always refuse. Always.
Why, my friends, if you are so sure of your faith, are you unwilling to test those beliefs? This seems cowardly to me. It seems hypocritical. The very idea of conversion means that I, the potential convert, must be willing to put my beliefs at hazard. I am willing to do this. Why aren’t you? But even your failures here do not sadden me the most. What saddens me the most is the fact that I will go to your church on the exact same day I think you’re being honest. I will attend your church as soon as you say “I don’t know, but I believe. I don’t know, but I continue to search. I don’t know, but I believe nonetheless.”
My fear, missionary friends, is that such honesty is incompatible not just with your church, but with churches generally.
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