Phillip's Story : J. M.'s Story : Deborah's Story

 

Here are a few of our stories. We invite you to share yours with us!

Phillip's Story:

I was raised in an evangelical home where going to church every Sunday was a natural part of our weekly rhythm. I was spiritually precocious. I remember taking the teachings of the church very seriously. Early on I caught the part about how you needed to pray a particular prayer in order to avoid going to a really bad place called "hell" when you die. I knew clearly that I was "bad" and that God had reason to be angry with me. I learned the Bible verses that taught "God is love" and sang "Jesus Loves Me" but the underlying angst about an eternal hell "with the devil" continued to override any assurances about a loving God coming through for me. I remember praying the sinners' prayer weekly and then nightly, worried that I may not have recited the correct words or that my motive may not have been "pure". Most kids seemed to be oblivious to the implications of the church's teaching and didn't appear to give it a second thought. This seemed so confusing to me. Why weren't they taking the things the grown-ups were teaching us seriously? Then again, why weren't the grown-ups taking the things they taught seriously? They didn't really live as though they were called to warn the mass of humanity about an eternal hell. I suppose I would have been labeled just fearful and unstable if people knew how I felt but I believe I was simply taking the teaching as presented and processing it logically.

This cycle of fear, trying harder, failure, and then guilt, etc., went on until I was well into my teen years. By this time I was ripe for a new perspective. To this point I believed my free-will kept me in Christ so the fear was of my own ability to fall interminably away. Then I was introduced to the Calvinist view they call the "Doctrines of Grace". They are so-called because this teaching eliminates your free-will as a part of your salvation. This way it is ALL of God from start to finish, even the faith to believe is given to you. Therefore it cleanses the salvation process of any self-effort. You are simply saved because you are elected or chosen by God before the foundation of the world to "go to heaven" (He ensures that you will actively place your faith in Christ and repent). This is supposed to relieve the burden of wondering if one has done enough or has adequate faith to be saved. And on some level it does, for awhile, and for short seasons. But an even bigger fear can take its place: that of wondering how it is that one can really know for sure if you are one of "the elect" given the percentage is extremely low as far as your chances of being "in" (which is about 5%). Question: what would your psychological outlook be on life if you were told you had a 5% chance of surviving your "disease"? So the relatively small fear morphed overnight into a full-blown black cloud that followed my path relentlessly. Sure, there were days I felt saved, good, like a Christian... and it was great. I loved God and His true nature of love at times snuck into the cracks of my fearful heart. But then the "symptoms" of an unredeemed heart would return (sin, doubt, lack of joy) and I would conclude that I must not truly be one of the "elect" and the cycle of guilt, fear and dread would begin again.

I tried to take my cues from my fellow Christians noticing how they didn't seem to be living in fear. (But then again I never let on to anyone what I was feeling.) Also I could usually pump myself full of the love and grace verses and give myself some temporary relief. But usually the judgment verses would pop up somewhere. After all, most of the church was "lukewarm" and needed the regular "wake up call" these verses provided. I would then face these verses again and so began the downward spiral into doubt.

The next 25 years of my life was one of struggle; there were highs and lows, but I was wearing out, literally. It definitely took its toll on my career and my family life. Everything seemed so pointless in light the majority of the world headed for a hopeless eternity in hell. If I thought too much about it I became morbid while on the other hand if I ignored its reality I felt guilty for not caring enough about others. How can you justify anything short of being on a mission to warn others from an eternal hell? And yet, with the exception of the Westboro Baptist Church, I really didn't see Christians making this any kind of a priority.

One confession though: There was gradually growing within me a hunch, an inking, a suspicion that maybe the Story was more like the epic stories we love, more in line with the way we sing about the victory of the cross, and the way creation displays the resurrection. I clung to any verses that sounded like God was going to restore all creation and win every heart. Then it happened. Evangelical leaders began to speak of the cosmic affects of the cross and the redemptive Story that God's intention is "to restore all His creation". These statements came without qualifiers and at times I let my heart run with them:

“God moves toward His world in care and love. He is committed to every part of His creation, loving it and upholding it. And though sin and evil have marred the world, so it is just a shadow of its true self, at the end of time, nature will be restored to its full glory and we with it.” (Tim Keller)

"The goal of redemption is nothing less the restoration of the entire cosmos...Why must God regenerate, give new life and direction to, all things? Because the entire creation has been drawn into the mutiny of the human race (Rom. 8:19–24). Because man’s fall affected not only himself but also the rest of creation, redemption must involve God’s entire creation." (Michael D. Williams)

"To speak of sin by itself, to speak of it apart from the realities of creation and grace, is to forget the resolve of God. God wants shalom and will pay any price to get it back. Human sin is stubborn, but not as stubborn as the grace of God and not half so persistent, not half so ready to suffer to win its way." (Cornelius Plantinga)

One night while doing some research for an online seminary class I stumbled on a site that mentioned "Christian Universalism". I didn't know that there was such a thing. I was only familiar with the unitarian universalists who were clearly pluralists. I almost left the page but I was curious how anyone could call themselves universalist and Christian. And of course I had been hoping. I began to read. One of the first things I read was a list of progressive questions regarding the Scriptures that lay out God's plan for the restoration of all. They cornered me. There was no way out. Three hours later I was convinced on a foundational level.

Obviously I had a lot to unpack and think through but I was released at least to "legally" research this doctrine. First because it actually was represented in the Scriptures and second, the early Church predominately held this mindset. I had three reactions: First relief. Second, the thought that perhaps I don't have to be crazy anymore. And third, if it was good enough for Origen and Clemet it is good enough for me. And if these Godly men believed this then that's the kind of Christian I will choose to be so as to not loose my mind. After all, if many of the early Church fathers believed this and they were deemed true believers then why can't I believe it since it is where I am most at peace and most fruitful in my life. The change has been astounding.

To realize that salvation by grace is exactly and irreducibly that: unearned love and favor, is life-changing. On the other hand to add that you have to say a certain prayer or believe a specific set of doctrines in order for the good news to apply cancels out true grace. And each denomination has its specific formula. The Good News of the gospel is that Jesus Christ forever secured our salvation and brought the needed reconciliation through His death on the cross. It is news and it is good. (Isa. 61) To hear that the news is only true if you believe and/or do certain things (defined differently by each group) is a sure recipe for inner turmoil and psychological stress. While God has always worked throughout history in spite of our error the world in general has intuitively responded, "who needs it?"

I realize that not everyone has the personality that is as introspective as mine but truly good news will supersede personality types and affect everyone positively. However, many folks can compartmentalize bad news or even trauma in order to cope. I was not one of them. I took to heart exactly what was taught because I was trying to be intellectually and spiritually honest with the information given me.

I cannot tell you how freeing it is to hear and absorb the truth that God has had one and one plan only for me from the foundation of the world: to rescue me from my sin, conquer death, and to work out all things for my good. To finally see that all fiery trials and discipline are redemptive and that He will someday reconcile "all things to Himself" is beyond words for me to express. I do not have to be terrorized by the fear of my own eternal damnation nor that of my loved ones and friends. They are God's and He is love and love never fails. But I pray for them and look to share with them this same good news along with the warnings of our Creator, the very "grain of the universe." Colliding with Him is "not safe, ...but it's good". Going against love Himself is a fearful thing for "love is an unquenchable fire". So "on account of the fear of the Lord we persuade men." The good news is that "God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself...therefore [you] be reconciled to God." (2 Cor. 5:19)

I believe this understanding is the only way to unify the Church's Calvinist/Arminian divide. It is the only way to understand the warnings in the Scriptures to believers that are about the Kingdom of God that is now as well as not yet and not about the way to procure your place in heaven when you die. I have come to believe that it is the only way to remove the unnecessary stumbling block to reveal the true stumbling block of Jesus Christ and Him crucified. It is the gateway to the Christ-centered love this world needs to bring it to the knowledge of the Lord that will cover the earth "as the waters cover the sea".

All I want to do is worship and bring others into this joy and beauty I am experiencing. My heart is breaking for what breaks His and I want to grow more and more in alignment with the dream of God: to restore His creation not only back to its original design but to a place as was said of Job, "And Jehovah hath blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning." (Job 42:12) I believe it will be even better than Eden.

"Behold, I am making all things new". Revelation 21:5

J. M.'s Story...

I was raised Catholic and although "an eternal hell" was a cardinal doctrine in the church I didn't really think too much about it. As a young adult I was invited to join a Bible study by some evangelicals. This was a new experience for me since at that time Catholics were not encouraged to read the Bible. I gradually became convinced that it was by grace I was saved and not through my affiliation with any particular brand of church. For the next 30 years I kind of uneventfully lived out my Christian life pretty satisfied with everything. I had a good life and was blessed with a family. I guess what I am trying to say is that there was no crisis in my life to prompt me to look to change something major in my theology. Just to grow in my love for Christ and in my faith in him.

When my sister first gently challenged my doctrine of eternal hell a few years ago it surprised me how I didn't react defensively. Nevertheless I was very cautious ...but I just kept thinking, "this just makes sense of everything". I was in an independent church at the time but I was fully aware of the differences between the free-will Christians and the ones that believed in predestination. (I had spent a significant amount of time in a calvinistic church in the early days of my faith). I knew the differences between the arminians and the calvinists were severe as I witnessed my sister go through a very bitter church split over this. And I knew this wasn't a rare occurrence. So to have it explained to me how these contradicting views are actually just parts of one understanding of God definitely made me think and want to study more.

It was sort of a strange encounter for me since I wasn't looking for anything new. I wasn't unhappy in my life or ever given to spiritual depression. My family life was stable and I had a good church. I have never been significantly bothered by the doctrine but perhaps it was because I didn't dwell on it much. But my sister here was challenging me to look more into it "to see if these things were true". So a subject I had never thought much about before became a major topic of debate in our family for awhile! My wife was skeptical although she was one who had had major problems with it. I think she didn't want to let herself get her hopes up so she avoided studying it until she saw I was becoming convinced. I began studying the Scriptures that appeared to support the eternal nature of hell and found that the only passage that is really used to drive the doctrine is from Matthew 25. All the others cannot be absolutely proven to demonstrate an eternal hell. Then I realized that Matthew 25 is a parable and that to take everything literally would add other problematic issues. (Please see the questions/articles on this website to understand the other reasons I am now an Evangelical Universalist).

Over the years as I have read through the Bible I have seen this theme of restoration and full redemption pop up over and over. The accounts of God seeking and finding the lost as described in the parables and God restoring the "destroyed" as described in Ez. 16 I believe are the major themes of the Bible and are the themes that describe the heart and character of God. Now I feel a call on my life to be a part of the restoration through God's kingdom of caring for the "least of these". I feel that the gospel message of 'you must come to Jesus before you die and go to hell' has really distracted the church from the mission of God to be His Body in the world as "ministers of reconciliation".

Deborah's Story

I became a Christian in my senior year of high school when God used an evangelist to speak about sin and redemption in Christ. My first experience of knowing God was like that of a child. I was excited and happy to live this new life and to know all about Jesus. Unfortunately, because of my previous lifestyle, soon I fell back into my sin and became pregnant the summer after my graduation. This was a period of discipline but of tremendous growth for me. During this time God moved me to a different state where I would meet my husband who attended a Reformed church. We attended together for the next 12 years. There I was steeped in the doctrines of Calvinism. We were all grateful to be "the elect" but as a young believer there were things that confused me. "Narrow is the road and few there are that find it." I would always think of my family, almost all of whom did not know Christ. I took an evangelism class at my church so that I could better communicate the gospel to unbelievers, especially to my family. I remember going "out on the field" door to door using the questions formed by Evangelism Explosion ("If you died tonight..."). I remember leaving people's homes very disturbed and unsettled that we had used fear to try and bring these people to the Lord. And what if I didn't communicate it clearly enough or wasn't able to convince them?

Some years ago, someone gave me a Christian movie where the evangelist used real fire to scare people. I remember laughing at how the pastor tricked a drunken man into thinking he had died and gone to hell to make him convert. How sad to me now. And I often hear pastors and Christians joking about hell. This again really makes me sad. How can they be joking about something they are supposed to believe is really horrible?

I was feeling the continual urgency to make my relatives see the truth. Even as a Calvinist, it was difficult for me to not feel like it would be my fault if they did not come to Christ. I would pray and send them books and tapes whenever it was especially heavy on my mind but there was never any response. I finally had to put out of my mind the thought of them going to an eternal place of torment. I couldn't cope if I let myself think about it too much. So I consciously had to put it on the back burner so to speak and just focus on caring for my growing family. I had to just let it go and remember that, "His ways are not my ways". It actually was easy to get very busy and to not think about it especially since that was pretty much what everybody else in the church was doing.

Later we moved to a new town where we joined a new church and were excited to be "on board". We were excited to be a part of a family of "like-minded" believers. Then "all hell broke loose" when our pastor was caught in serious sin and had to step down. What followed was a split and then over the next 3 years we went through 2 more, all because of scandalous sin on the part of the leadership. This all left my husband and I very leery and sad. How can we bring people, especially unbelievers, into all this? These are Christian leaders and they are so messed up. For the next few years it was a journey of brokenness. It wasn't until I found "hope beyond hell" that I began to be revived again. I began to form a bigger picture of God and His gospel and power. I hadn't realized how small I had made God. I see now that He is bigger than I had ever imagined. Songs of hope began to fill my heart...that He truly is alive and in charge! It's not about me nor is it up to me. I get to be an important instrument in the process but gone is the overwhelming burden of works and responsibility for others' eternal fate! Loving my neighbors and unbelieving friends have gone to greater heights. It's a joy to truly share with them that God is love and not the one who will punish them forever and ever if they do not do or believe a certain thing. I have gained a freedom in Christ I have never known before.
(See "Hope Beyond Hell" by Gerry Beauchemin)