This is a personal account of my attempt at being Christian, an attempt that, despite many years of dedication and determination, totally failed. Basically, it seems that if God decides that you're not going to be saved, then there's nothing you can do about it.
According to the widely held theology of Calvinism, most people cannot be saved from hell however much they want to be and however hard they try.
I was brought up in a Christian culture, particularly at school. I believed what I was told about God and Jesus without question.
As I grew older, though, I met people who didn’t believe the story. It occurred to me that not everything about the story fitted with what I saw or made total sense, so the possibility entered my mind that it wasn’t true.
But I realised that, if I didn’t believe it, then I wasn’t a Christian and, if the story was right, I would be going to hell. This worried me. I thought about being tortured day and night with never a moment to relax or sleep – and about that going on not for a few hours, or a few weeks, or for a lifetime, but for ever – and I was worried. If I ended up in hell, I would certainly wish I’d done something about it in this life. So I decided I would do something about it.
I looked into Christianity more deeply, read the bible, went to church and mixed with and learnt from Christians. In particular I tried to find out what I needed to do in order not to go to hell.
I found that I needed to be saved. And I found that salvation was by faith. (Eph 2:8, Ro 10:9, Jo 3:15-18, Jo 5:24, Acts 10:43, 1 Pet 1:9, Jo 8:24, etc.)
There seemed to be lots of verses saying that salvation was by faith, but only one saying what was meant by faith. That was Hebrews 11:1. In the NIV it is ‘Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.’ The trouble was that I wasn’t certain and therefore didn’t have faith and so wasn’t saved.
I spent many years trying to live a Christian life, hoping that things would happen that would make me certain. I prayed repeatedly for faith, looked at as much evidence as I could for the truth of the Christian story and I carefully avoided exposing myself to evidence to the contrary. I was told that, if I did this, God would make himself known to me. But things God promises in the bible just didn’t seem to happen and after a few years, it seemed that what happened in this life fitted much better with the hypothesis that there was no god, than with the hypothesis that there was a god as described.
After a while, it became clear to me that I was never going to have the certainty required for faith. Indeed, it was seeming progressively less likely that the message in the bible was true.
Apart from that, I was conscious of the fact, that, however much evidence I did get for the truth of the story, I could never be totally certain that I was right. Any intelligent, thinking person will realise that, however obvious something seems, there is always a chance that they are wrong. After all, many people of other faiths are totally certain of the truth of their religion, just as many Christians are totally certain of the truth of theirs. But they can’t all be right. So, being certain doesn’t necessarily mean being right. And anyone who realises this can’t then be certain.
So it seemed that, however hard I tried, I would never have faith and thus would never be saved.
My attention then turned more to the bible verses which say that faith is a gift from God which we cannot appropriate ourselves and that God gives the gift (and therefore salvation) to whomever he wants and keeps it from whomever he wants: we have no say in it. Click here for a list of such verses.
This is in fact the theology of a major portion of Christendom (e.g. Calvinists and the reformed churches). I fellowshipped with Baptists who mostly don’t believe this, though I always had trouble with the bible verses that said that we are predestined to be saved or not to be saved. Baptists tend to just ignore these verses because they don’t fit with their theology. ‘They are difficult verses’ they say; ‘Focus on the easy verses.’
Basically the bible says that God decided, before the world was made, who would be saved and who wouldn’t, and nothing we can do will change that (Eph 1:5). The conclusion is that there’s no point making any effort. What will happen will happen. If you’re assigned to hell, then to hell you will go. That’s the perfect will of God. It would seem that the vast majority of people are predestined for hell.
Of course the bible tells us that God is love. A four-year old girl who dies of cancer will, after four short and difficult years, spend the rest of eternity screaming in terror and agony without her mum or dad or anyone else to comfort her.
That doesn’t seem like the work of a god who is love. Does a god who does this exist? We don’t know. We just have to hope not.
Once I had decided that trying to be Christian was pointless, I started to open my mind to evidence the other way. It didn’t take long to become more convinced that the story was wrong than I had ever been that it was right. This made me more confident that I wasn’t headed for hell and so made me feel better. Though of course I will never be certain that I won’t end up there, not even after I’m dead.
Pearly Gates: Eric Shin, flickr.com