If we but believe the Lord’s word, [many] are walking in the shadow of eternal death, are already committed to the grave of hell, and liable to be devoured forever by the eternal, unquenchable fire, unless from their hearts they turn unto Christ and his word, repent, and become regenerated, as the Scriptures teach. Therefore, consider seriously the heartrending misery and wretchedness of their poor souls which must live forever, either in heaven or in hell, and strive diligently and faithfully whether they may not yet, in some way, by your faithful ministry of pure love, and by the direction and instruction of the divine word, be rescued and delivered from everlasting destruction, and be made partakers of eternal salvation. – Menno Simons (founder of the Mennonite tradition)
Disclaimer: All dialogue is based on my best recollection and could not possibly be word-for-word exactly what was said. But it’s dang close. Unfortunately, I do not record every conversation I have and my memory is that of a thirty-eight year-old with poor diet and exercise habits. Keep this in mind.
I wish I’d been more like the chaplain at Eastern Mennonite University when I was a college pastor. He wasn’t afraid of disagrement in the least, no matter what it was about. Instead, he was excited about it, saw opportunity to learn together. “We value dialogue here,” he told me before the concert/dialogue in the coffee shop began.
I doubted whether the students would even participate in dialogue. I remember 19. There’s no way I would have stood up in public, in front of a crowd, to disagree with somebody. No way.
After a few more songs, I read the words of the young Buddhist written in the school paper. I wasn’t sure I understood what she was saying. (That’s why, through Facebook, I invited her to attend the discussion or talk with me privately if she preferred.) I asked the students if they could explain her point of view to me. No takers.
I was pretty sure she felt judged by me and my words in chapel, excluded, unloved. I admitted that, for someone who is not a Christian, it must sound incredibly unloving when someone says that apart from Jesus there is no other way to be accepted by God.
But then there’s love in that message too. And I’d preached love in chapel. I did it again at the coffeehouse.
I read from Ephesians 2:1-9, which says we’re separated from God, deserving of wrath – all of us – but it’s God’s great love that moves Him to send Jesus, to rescue, reunite us and forgive us.
A brave young woman stepped up to a microphone and asked if I’d read a popular book on Hell called Love Wins. She sweetly – perhaps even apologetically? – wondered how I could believe in a loving God and also that people go to Hell. She seemed, to me, brokenhearted by what the existence of Hell could mean for fellow students she loved. She said she liked the ideas in Love Wins. The God of that book seemed more loving, more lovable. “I just feel like…” she said. “I wonder what your thoughts are.”
“What if hell is real?” I asked her. “What if I could prove it? I think we’d still have a problem. Can we really really hate an idea and it still be true? Can we still love God if He does things we don’t like at all?”
In high school, I shared, during the first Gulf War, my Dad was on active duty. I was proud of him (still am). My family is full of Christian soldiers I love. I wore an American flag jacket to show my support. I didn’t question that war or any other. War was in the Old Testament. America was punishing bad guys and protecting innocent people. God approved. I was sure of it.
Then, after 9/11, lots of Christians of all stripes were talking about the right and wrong of war in the media and I was mad that there was even a debate. I wanted to prove my side right so I started studying the bible, praying, talking to wiser friends, and wound up reading Mennonite writings on non-violence.
I began to have doubts. I fought hard against them.
Mennonites like John Howard Yoder and guys they influenced, like Stanley Hauerwas, made me angry. I scribbled vitriol in the margins of their books. I felt like these men were attacking my country, my family, my God.
I didn’t understand how God could be loving and at the same time say we shouldn’t stop millions of people from being slaughtered by Hitler, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.
How is that loving?
“Most evangelical Christians in America would have the same problem with Mennonite non-violence that you have with their Hell,” I told her.
I wonder if we all have moments when God disappoints us or makes us angry and so we make Him over in our image, to better fit our feelings.
“God knows when I’m disappointed with Him. He hears about it when I’m angry,” I confessed. “He can handle it though. And He’s patiently taught me, and sometimes I don’t like what I learn.”
Today, I’m almost certain the Mennonites are right about non-violence. I don’t want them to be. And I don’t want people to be separated from God now and forever either.
“I’ve expected His ways to be my ways and His thoughts to always be in line with mine…but the bible says they aren’t.”
That may have been the sentence that generated the most discussion of the night.