Uncertain faith, a comment on “Love Wins”

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I recently read “Love Wins”, the hugely controversial book, which seems to claim that everybody goes to heaven. But it doesn’t, not really. The book is really just a huge maybe. And this is actually awesome. Allow me to explain.

Bell states quite clearly that he is not certain whether people go to heaven or hell or how this happens. But he states several views, and gives some compelling arguments why the traditional position could be challenged. The important point: Bell is uncertain. A pastor, a leader of thousands, a person influencing millions, is admitting that he does not know.

This almost never happens. Just as politicians must always know exactly what the right policy is, so pastors must know exactly the right answer to every theological question. And so they spend thousands of pages on theses and books and sermons convincing themselves there is only one inevitable conclusion. Because to do otherwise, would mean that you are unsure, that you are doubting, and is that not the opposite of faith? Doesn’t faith demand certainty?

The Bible is a pretty big book and it certainly contains a lot of answers – it makes some things very clear: there is one God who created heaven and earth. But the Bible also contains a lot of ambiguities. Resolving these ambiguities has been the task of theologians for two millennia. When two groups decide an ambiguity should be resolved one way and not the other (for instance the very silly issue of whether young children can be baptised), then churches split. Furthermore, the Bible is finite. By definition there must be questions for which it cannot give clear answers.

Not all ambiguities have to be resolved. Not all questions have to be answered. It is hard. It means you have to live with some uncertainty, which is uncomfortable, but to try to create certainty where there is none, is (borrowing from Voltaire), simply absurd. When you recognise the uncertainty, even if you have a preferred interpretation, you have little choice but to defer judgement. You cannot bash others with your particular version of the Bible and your dogmatic beliefs. It means you actually have to listen to other viewpoints.

Wouldn’t that make us better Christians?

As a general principle, even about things you are certain about (such as whether God exists), try putting yourself in the mental position of someone who has not reached your conclusion. Seriously consider the questions they ask, and how hard it is to answer them. Consider the experiences they may have had that led them to that conclusion. Here is a particular one: consider how an atheist may have come to reject God because of a horrible experience at Church? Now, how sure are you yours is not such a Church?

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