What I Believe
For many people, struggles with faith come after their their conversions rather than before. I have had a significant number of struggles over the past three or four years. Typically they have been different kinds of struggles than the kinds I had before becoming a Christian. I have never had serious doubts about whether God exists, but I have gone through all kinds of doubts about what I believe about Him.
A couple years ago I began to have serious doubts about whether I even believed in Christianity or the gospel anymore. I did not doubt my encounters with God, I did not doubt the miracles, and I did not doubt the answered prayers. But I had serious doubts about whether Christian theology offered the best explanation for those experiences. Thinking Charismatics have long believed that supernatural experiences do not count as evidence for the authenticity of one’s beliefs, as history demonstrates. What makes my theology any different? I was sick of being forced to write off everything God seems to be doing in the world that is happening outside of a Christian context.
Specifically I was reacting against a particular version of the Christian story. The story goes something like this:
- Each individual human is destined to spend eternity in conscious torment (Hell) because each individual human is sinful. Even if the only sin you ever committed was stealing a pencil from work, your are worthy of hell.
- God is merciful and does not want to punish us for our sins, but He must punish sins because He is also just.
- Jesus took our punishment for sins in our place when He died on the cross.
- The work Jesus accomplished is only effective for you if you become a Christian.
Most of my Christian friends have never even thought to question this story. But a lot of it doesn’t add up to me. How is spending eternity in hell for stealing a pencil considered just? Why does God’s mercy mean that He doesn’t want to punish us for our sins? I think we instinctively understand this because somehow we feel that sending us to hell really would be unjust. Consider this: on this model, God would have been totally just if He had never sent Jesus and allowed us all to be eternally damned for our sins. Do you really think God would be just if every single human that had ever lived was going to hell forever, end of story? And God’s command for Israel to slaughter the Canaanites seems particularly unjust if by doing so they were instantly condemned to the fiery abyss for all of time.
The turning point came for me last year when I began to see that this is not they only way to tell the story. The solution I have come to is to view the Bible through the concept of covenant. The Bible seems to tell a different story than the one I had been told. It tells the story of a fallen humanity and a just God. God’s plan was to restore humanity through a covenant with Abraham, and ultimately the people of Israel. However the people of Israel failed to uphold their end of the covenant they had made with God, thus bringing judgement upon themselves. God then sent Jesus as the embodiment of the true Israel, taking their convenantal punishment upon Himself, ushering in the fulfillment of many of the eschatological (end times) prophecies that Israel would become a blessing to the nations, the answer to the problem of sin. Thus gentiles are no longer cut off from the Abrahamic promises but are offered entrance into God’s covenantal people through their true King Jesus.
This has caused me to rethink my position on non-Christians. Instead of seeing an overarching dichotomy between the saved and the unsaved, the Bible seems to tell the story that God does not damn those who are outside of the covenant simply for that fact. Consider the Ninevites in the story of Jonah, who repented but clearly did not enter into a covenant with God; or Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5); or Melchizedek (Genesis 14). In general, God does not seem to have written off those who are outside the covenant. But to those who are members of the covenant, He has made promises, particularly to promise to be our God and to have us as His people.
This story has not totally taken care of all my concerns, but I feel much more confident about this story than my old evangelical story. So I can affirm that I am a Christian, in covenant with God again. As to whether I am still an evangelical, that depends on how closely you think being an evangelical is tied to the first story.