[The email below is from a conversation between me and my friend Jenny. If you’re just joining in, it might make more sense if you go back to the beginning and read them in order. Click HERE to read Jenny’s first email.]
Subject: Re: I have a few questions
Date: Fri, Mar 7, 2008 at 12:22 AM
Here goes round 2…
2. There is no hell.–However, I have found several passages in the bible that mention hell. They told me that many people think we are going to heaven or hell, but God never said we would go to hell.
There are some people (Christians included) who don’t believe in an actual hell. I’m not completely sure how it’s possible to believe in God, Jesus and the Bible, yet still come to the conclusion that hell doesn’t exist. In my opinion, I think it’s actually less that people don’t believe in hell and more that they don’t want to believe that hell exists. Again, I’m not sure I completely understand all this, but I think it would go something like this…if hell exists then not everyone goes to heaven, and if not everyone goes to heaven then there’s a chance that I might not go to heaven, and the thought that it’s possible for me to not go to heaven doesn’t make me feel good, and my not feeling good about that reflects poorly on God (who started this whole process in the first place), since God created everything (presumably including hell, or at least the devil).
Another related issue with all of this is whether or not the devil exists. Some people only believe in the existence of evil, but don’t think it’s necessary that an actual source of that evil exists in the world, since we do enough evil on our own, and the existence of the devil might only give us an excuse for doing things we shouldn’t do in the first place…”the devil made me do it!” Hell (and the devil/satan) are mentioned in the Bible several times, but they are not always given clear descriptions or names. You could do a google search for “where is hell mentioned in the bible” and find all sorts of websites devoted to setting people straight, but it’s probably worth noting that anyone who takes the time to create a website making a claim about the realness of hell is probably also a more fundamental/legalistic Christian…not that this is the worst thing you can be, but it’s far from where I’m at in my understanding of faith, God and the Bible. I just don’t see the point in beating someone over the head by using fear tactics to scare them about the possibility of going to hell. (Fear and manipulation are certainly not part of what I would consider helpful ministry, and using them to convince anyone into faith doesn’t actually result in authentic faith anyway).
In the end, it’s my strong belief that if God created all things (including me, you and your neighbor) and God loves all things (including not just me, you and your neighbor, but even the people and things we don’t think are very lovable), then God wants nothing more than to restore all things to Godself and have them enjoy eternity in paradise (with God). Although metaphors always fail in the end, it would be like the way your parents probably get excited when you and your sisters come home to visit (especially since you’ve had kids); and how, at least in some ways, they wish you never had to leave.
3. This is from a podcast I listened to with Chuck Swindoll–not from the JWs. In his closing prayer he prayed ~nothing occurs in our lives that has not been wonderfully planned by you, our father. Really?
How you think about this sort of prayer depends on how you understand the term or idea “God’s plan.” It depends on your understanding or image of God. Is God a puppet master in the sky who controls our every move? Is God a script writer who already wrote out what we’ll do and say and is watching from a tall chair to make sure we play our roles correctly (otherwise he’ll yell out “cut”). Or is God a clock maker who set everything up (created the heavens and the earth and all of us) and is now on a smoke break…so if things go wrong, it’s just touch luck, we have to figure out how to fix it ourselves (so I guess it would be like a clock without a warranty). There are other understandings of God that people can have, but they are mostly variations of these. It’d be interesting to spend some time thinking about what your understanding of God is, and then try to figure out why/how you developed this understanding. I’d be happy to help you sort through that if it’s something you wanted to explore further.
In trying to figure out why bad things happen to good people, I have tried to reason that although God has a plan for our lives, he has also given us all free will.
Rethink this statement and the questions involved with the new understanding of your image of God. I think you’ll find that the idea of God having a firm and set plan for your life goes against the idea of having free will (you can’t have both, at least not simultaneously). I hope that makes sense.
That free will is what is to blame for the awful things that happen in people’s lives but God will help us through it. He will help make lemonade out of lemons. Does he really throw bad things at us to test us? See what we will do? I think of Amanda and Mike who I do not know, except through what Sarah shares, but did God really make Grace sick to make them stronger or for some other purpose? I really struggle with this one. I also feel like I am going to have kids asking me this soon, and I don’t think I can answer it.
I took a class last semester called “God, Evil and Suffering” and we discussed questions and situations like these all the time. Not to add to your list of questions, but here are a few others that will possibly add new layers of complexity and nuance to what you’re already asking, which in a weird way might actually help you separate some of your confusion into smaller parts and eventually help you build up a clearer understanding that is beneficial to God. Rather than just asking if God “throws bad things at us to test us,” you might also ask “does God plan bad things?” or “does God allow bad things to happen?” Another series of complicated questions revolves around the idea that God is all-powerful (omnipotent) and/or all-knowing (omniscient). If God has all power, then in some way or another, God must be responsible for everything that happens (including bad things). If God knows everything, then God knows about bad things before they happen, and using God’s power, you’d think God would be able to do something to keep those bad things from happening.
I don’t want to spend much time speculating on the magnitude of God’s power and knowledge, but if we are to believe that God is the source of all things (including life, love, justice and the ability to restore things to be like new), then it can be assumed that God’s power and knowledge are perfect (whatever that means). I happen to believe that God puts a great deal of trust in humans and I get this from Genesis 1 when, after creating humans, God tells the humans to rule over all the living things on the earth (plants, animals, etc.). This shows trust. Then, in Genesis 2:19-20, God enlists the man to help name the animals. Think about that, God brought all the created animals to Adam and whatever name he said is what that animal was to be called. God shares the responsibilities and power involved in ruling over the created world with us; that’s a pretty big deal, and it implies something about who is really to blame when bad things happen (hint: it’s not all God’s fault). The most blame we might be able to put on God in most situations of bad things happening is wondering why God was dumb enough to trust us with so much control in the first place…since God must have known that we’re pretty good at messing things up (we’re not perfect), since God created us.
So why didn’t God just create us perfect? I’m not sure, but I guess I don’t see the point in God creating a whole bunch of other gods (perfect beings). Are we just part of God’s big experiment to see what will happen when a bunch of people are forced to live together and share the earth? (This sounds like we’re either an ant farm that God looks at, or in our contemporary context, God would be a bit like the casting director for The Real World).
As for a specific situation like Grace’s health and how it’s affecting great people like Mike and Amanda [her parents]…the best I can say is that we are living in a fallen world where bad things are a part of our reality. How we experience life in this world varies depending on our unique situation. We want to call the goods things “blessings” and the bad things “unfortunate realities,” but to be honest, it probably involves some luck and chance. Otherwise how could we possibly explain how Grace has to have several surgeries as a little girl while the children of “bad people” have perfect health? It just doesn’t seem fair. Some people will want to say that bad things happen to people who don’t pray enough, but then how do you explain bad things that happen to people who seem to be constantly praying? It still doesn’t seem to be fair. The older I get, and the more of the world I have seen, I am starting to come to the conclusion that things in this world really are not fair and there isn’t much rhyme or reason to why things are the way they are. I think specifically of Haiti and I can’t think of a single good reason for why the incredible people I’ve met there are living in their difficult reality while me and my friends are all living with more than we’d ever need. So I guess I struggle with this one about as much as you, and even after taking a full class on questions like these, the best I can say in response is what my professor said near the end of the semester, “God is as good as God can be given the current situation of the world.” I think this was actually a quote from a guy named St. Anselm who lived over 1000 years ago, so obviously, although the specifics have changed, the world’s imperfect situation and the confusion it creates about God is not a new thing.
I hope at least some of this has been helpful. It’s been a fun exercise for me to try relating some of the things I’ve studied into understandable responses to real questions. I don’t assume that this has cleared everything up for you, but I hope you’ll take comfort in knowing that these are questions that faithful people have been asking for thousands of years and unless some of them figured it all out and decided to keep it a secret, no one has “the” answer. Your understanding about them today is different than it will be a year from now, and throughout your life it will probably continue changing and evolving depending on your experiences. I don’t ask this just so I can feel good about how well I explained things, but if possible, would you mind writing some of your thoughts and reactions in response to all this so that I can learn what explanations were helpful and which need more clarification? Also, I think it would help you solidify your current understanding of these complex issues to try writing them out (perhaps explain them the way you would to your kids, since one of the motivations you mentioned in asking these questions was being able to respond to their questions).
Have a good weekend.
[Click HERE to read Jenny’s response to this email.]