What do you “really” believe?
I live quite near the white cliffs of Dover in England. With its rich green grass, gleaming white cliffs and deep blue, or battleship grey sea, depending on the highly changeable weather, it’s a beautiful place to walk, and I love to walk my dog, Bailey.
But frankly, it’s really not a great place to take Bailey.
The problem is that the cliffs are high, this thing called gravity exists, and Bailey really, REALLY loves his ball. There are no fences on these cliffs so you can walk to the very edge of the beautiful but surprisingly unstable precipice.
Now I believe in gravity. Someone at school must have told me about it once. I can’t see it or prove it theoretically. In fact, I don’t think I could even find a book in the library that can tell me what it is, though one helpful bumper sticker I saw, stated, “Gravity is a myth, the earth sucks!”
Whatever, I just know it exists.
That means that getting near the crumbly windswept edge, or worse, throwing Baileys ball in that direction, is at best unwise and at worst, downright stupid.
So I don’t do it.
I have a good degree of confidence that should I lose my footing or get swept off the edge by a gargantuan gust of wind, I would plummet dramatically and at high speed to my sure demise on the wave worn rocks below. I can’t prove to you that would happen, I just kind of know.
Unlike me, Bailey doesn’t really believe in gravity… or at least he doesn’t much care. Bailey cares only for the ball.
And that’s why we spend our walks in the woods.
Do You Really Believe It?
Cool story, Geoff. Why are you telling us about walking your dog?
Well, I’m trying to illustrate something. Because I believe in gravity, I change where I walk Bailey. In fact I change a number of my life decisions and opinions based on my “gravitationist” belief system.
For example, I typically refrain from popping outside for a breath of fresh air while on a commercial flight. I also tend to avoid spitting directly upwards into the air above my head.
Because I believe in gravity, I make certain decisions when it comes to my actions.
After 25 years of being a Christian, my world was rocked when I was finally confronted with something that happens all across the world every day.
My Dad died. I loved my Dad, but my Dad didn’t love God, or if he did, he didn’t let on to anyone that this was the case. His death hit me hard, and so I turned to my evangelical faith, which was supposed to be my source of comfort.
I had so many well-meaning friends say they don’t know how unbelievers can deal with death without their faith. The problem is that my faith told me that dying without acknowledging, loving and believing in God sent you to Hell to be tortured without relief, forever. I was bereft, and my faith wasn’t helping me much at all. As I looked at my Dad’s now lifeless face in the hospice, I came to a very real and very painful question: if my faith system mandated that my dad was currently experiencing fiery torment, did I really believe it?
I had friends come up to me and say, “Well we can’t know his relationship with God.” Others clutched at theological straws, saying stuff like, “His faith expressed many years ago would surely save him,” but ultimately, none of these platitudes seemed to get to the heart of the issue.
The question that gnawed at my soul was what did I truly believe? More specifically did I believe that God was punishing him right now with eternal torture?
I realized with immediate and shocking certainty that I did not. I had a moment of truth, where I looked square in the face of eternal conscious torment and said, “I don’t believe you.”
That set off a long chain of events as I plunged into deconstructing my faith and all that went with it, but what it has left me with is a litany of questions about what we say we believe and what we really believe.
If we truly believe something, it can’t help but influence how we act.
So when the majority of evangelical churches say in their statements of faith that they believe in eternal conscious torment for the unbelievers, how are they demonstrating that faith?
Where do they walk Bailey, metaphorically speaking?
If we’re honest, we tend to treat Hell like a sort of guilty secret which we know about but don’t like to bring out in public. It’s not so much a case of being ashamed of Christ. I get the feeling that the modern evangelical church is subconsciously ashamed of the story, which is why it’s so rarely discussed outside of extremely fundamentalist settings. I completely understand their reticence to preach everlasting torment and why grace and love are quite rightly given the spotlight.
And that’s the problem. That’s where we see the disconnect between stated belief and true belief.
The Emperor’s New Clothes
As I have discussed my problems with the doctrine of hell, I have been astounded by how many people will confide in hushed tones from the side of their mouth that they are not sure about Hell. In fact I would guess that if I sat down, one by one, with a typical church congregation, that the majority do not in fact believe that God holds individuals who don’t know him in torture forever.
Their problem is that to admit this goes against what they think everyone else believes. This is a classic example of Anderson’s The Emperor’s New Clothes being played out in our churches every day. We leave the nakedness of the emperor unchallenged because it would require us being brave enough to stand up and say, “Hold on a minute…” 
It’s perhaps no mistake that a child calls out the emperor’s nakedness in the famous story.
Of course this is just one doctrine among many and we can discuss the various opinions and theories that are out there, but the point is, if people really believe that hell is real, why don’t they act like it? If we really thought that every man, woman and child were destined for an eternity of agony, would we not be out on the streets screaming in the face of everyone to “please, please, listen!”
But we don’t. Why? Because, I suspect we don’t really believe it. The preachers I hear deliver the harshest sermons usually come from a long line of Christians and maintain an exclusively Christian community. It’s very easy to dissociate themselves from anyone who might be in danger of experiencing this tortuous afterlife.
Hell was my turning point, but it’s far from the only one. Our faith is replete with examples:
- We say we believe that God speaks through the Bible, but it’s a well-documented fact that very few Christians spend any substantial time reading it.
- We say that God heals but largely leave it until the end of the service, between the last song and after-service coffee, to pray for anyone… if we do at all.
- We say we believe that we should love our enemies, yet our nations wage nationalistic wars and we justify killing in our societies.
- We say we believe that we should care for the poor and the outcast, yet we fear and reject refugees and vote for those who pass laws in the opposite spirit of Christ.
The point here isn’t that we need to “pull our socks up” and get on with what we say we believe. That is mere compliance, and our churches are already quite proficient in guilt trips. The real challenge is to find out what we really believe, and then do it.
That takes honesty, perhaps honestly that can only be found in the heartache and pain of loss and death and sickness, when our empty pseudo beliefs get revealed as the sham they are.
Richard Rohr call this “necessary suffering” – suffering that brings with it a maturity and realism which church dogma so often lacks – an authenticity that results in action .
I Don’t Believe You
When we really believe something, we act on it. It influences our behavior.
God can be trusted with our questions and he will not reject us for asking them. He wants not our intellectual assent but our genuine selves. That’s where belief becomes transformational.
So let’s live by what we believe. Let’s care for the poor and feed the hungry and love our enemies, even when it’s so very difficult to do.
And when we find ourselves living in opposition with our supposed beliefs, let’s have the courage to ask ourselves, “Is this really what I believe?” and when we realize we don’t, let’s have the boldness to look at those ideas and say…
I don’t believe you.