A Quest for God, Part 3
Recently, we became aware of an email conversation between two young persons: one a young physicist and a deeply committed Christian named Aron and the other, Josh, a person who at least at the time the conversation began was a skeptic. The exchange is so rich that we’ve asked for permission to post it here. We hope you find it as informative and intriguing as we have.
It sounds like the points you raised mostly hang on the rejection of the evangelical position that without believing in Jesus, someone will go to hell. If you are right, this leads to another question, which is why God lets his people get so confused about something so fundamental to Christianity, arguably causing directly or indirectly people to miss the opportunity to consider the gospel in a pure form and fail to believe it. Many verses taken in isolation do seem to support the evangelical position. AFAIK, there is no single place in Bible that clearly spells out the criteria for salvation the way you understand it. I wonder why God wouldn't make it clearer this way. We don't have to answer this question now, though, and instead can focus on the original question.
Regarding point (B), many people claim to have seen UFOs and ghosts. Does that mean we should believe that UFOs and ghosts are real? Also, belief in a scientific theory or principle is different from belief in a religion. The former do not require any commitment in the way you live. The later totally determines how you live. One does not believe in a scientific theory the same way as believing in Christianity. Actually, I think your non-evangelical position on hell is an effective counter-argument to the objection about God not being more explicit. However, I'm curious how you deal with believers who take the evangelical position. In theory it seems you have rather different gospels. What does it mean for you to fellowship with them?
About UFO's and ghosts vs. Christianity: if you can find me documentation of hundreds of not-obviously-crazy people who are eyewitnesses to the same alien/ghost experience, and who refused to give up this belief even when some were tortured and killed for it, and if the claimed alien/ghost experience has no other plausible explanation in terms of natural causes, then I will believe in aliens or ghosts. But you won't be able to find it. I shared office space once with a person who believed in alien abductions (as well as astrology, gnosticism, and a crackpot theory of physics); he thought that the most impressive evidence for alien abductions was "recovered memories" where people originally don't remember anything but later after they are hypnotized by a psychologist who believes in UFO's, they start thinking it happened...I'm unimpressed. He also believed that there was an enormous government conspiracy to keep us from knowing about aliens. That's another important difference: in order TO believe in alien abductions, you have to believe in a conspiracy theory amongst a large number of seemingly ethical people (the government). On the other hand, in order NOT TO believe in Christianity, you need to believe in conspiracy theory amongst a large number of seemingly ethical people (the apostles).
It is not always true that "belief in a scientific theory or principle" does "not require any commitment in the way you live". My nephew Julian was diagnosed with leukemia a year ago. There is a scientific theory that you can cure leukemia with chemotherapy. The theory also says that chemotherapy hurts the immune system, and therefore that any exposure to germs could cause Julian to be much sicker. This scientific theory makes extreme demands on the lifestyle of my sister Heidi who has to take care of Julian and take him to the hospital. If my sister had decided not to believe in this scientific theory because it was too much trouble, what kind of parent would she be?
In the same way, if you did have enough evidence to convince a rational person of Christianity, but won't believe it because it demands a total commitment, then you would not be a "sincere truth-seeking" person, but a very immoral one. That is because it is very important if it is true. I hope that does not describe you! Do not believe in Christianity unless you have enough evidence. But once you accumulate enough evidence to know that it is very likely to be true, it is unreasonable to demand more, since that would be enough evidence for someone who loves truth more than convenience. Once you reach the point of enough evidence, no one but you can make the decision to believe. A lot of people say they doubt for intellectual reasons, even though they would not believe even if all their doubts were resolved. I've heard people say that they wouldn't become Christians even if they were 99.99% sure it was true. I've heard people say that they would not become Christians even if they knew for sure it was true. I've even heard atheists say that the most important reason they don't believe in God is because they hate him.
You say that the evangelical position is that "without believing in Jesus, someone will go to hell". If by belief you mean explicit belief, i.e. the person must consciously know that they believe in Jesus, then actually no one believes that position. Ask any evangelical Christian whether Abraham was saved. Abraham did not explicitly know that Jesus was God, that he would later die for his sins on the cross, or that he would rise again on the third day. And yet, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness" (Romans 4:3) And Paul is clear that Abraham was saved through faith, just as Christians are. Abraham didn't explicitly trust in Jesus. But he did believe in something (God's promise that he would have descendents) which turned out to be about Jesus—without Abraham knowing it. Now it is true that there are evangelicals who think that no one in the present time is saved unless they have explicit belief in Jesus. But they aren't going to find any verses in the Bible which say that salvation suddenly became more difficult as a result of Jesus coming into the world. That would be strange indeed. As for how I can fellowship with believers who differ with me about this, what is the problem? We agree on the most important thing: that salvation comes only through Jesus and that we ought to tell everyone about him. But I also know lots and lots of evangelicals whose positions are more like mine.
Aron Wall is a postdoctoral researcher studying quantum gravity and black hole thermodynamics at UC Santa Barbara. Before that, he studied the Great Books program at St. John's College, Santa Fe, and earned his doctorate in physics from U Maryland. You can learn more at his blog Undivided Looking.