As I languidly fanned myself with the Last Supper stapled on a popsicle stick—provided “for your comfort” by the Acme Funeral Home—I paid little attention to the itinerant revivalist who droned on about the day we will stand accountable before God. I had heard it all before, many times. So my mind wandered. I worried about the unfinished homework left sitting on my desk. I studied the charming slope of that girl’s neck in the third pew up ahead.
My mind faded deeper into idleness. Soon it caught the notice of the Devil standing on my shoulder. He whispered in my ear: “Forget about the girl! Think about this: suppose we, the saved, are the jury at this trial the evangelist is harping about.”
We are in a vast coliseum. The Evildoers are brought before God for the Final Reckoning. First in line we see a familiar figure. The crowd stirs.It’s Hitler. He stands before the heavenly bar, shifting from one foot to the other. We hold our breath. God speaks. . . .
Something miraculous happens! At the sound of God’s voice, we hear only Jesus and our hearts are flooded with an infinite and uncompromising Love. We plead God’s mercy to pardon Hitler. We give a thumbs up.
But God, it turns out, is the god of the Old Testament. He gives a thumbs down.
Shocked, we realize our salvation is to spend eternity in sackcloth and ashes, weeping and wailing for all those who are cast down to Hell—even Hitler. That’s our reward, our salvation. At last, we know what they meant when they said God works in strange and mysterious ways.
What did we expect? Streets paved with gold?
Of course, I realized this musing was all in fun—mere whimsy—the idle reverie of a bored adolescent flirting with the Devil on a sweltering night deep in the Bible Belt. But I was just a kid. Surely a day would come when I would feel a little less flippant about damnation.
Okay, I confess: I have embellished that recollection somewhat. But, the boredom I remember precisely.
I grew up back in the 1940s. I was raised to be a fundamentalist Christian. I put that in the passive voice because I can’t remember a time when I considered myself a true believer. Religion happened to me by accident of birth, like the birthmark on my shoulder. Unlike the birthmark, however, the religion never took hold.
I never felt pious, though I had been thoroughly churchified. In Sunday school I sang, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so . . .,” and I squirmed in the pew during Sunday sermons, both morning and evening. I got down on my knees during Wednesday night prayer meetings. I joined in the foot-washing ceremony, though that seemed a little creepy.
In Vacation Bible School, I seared “JESUS SAVES” into pine planks with a wood-burning needle. Years later, at Youth Camp, I allowed myself to be baptized, probably with the callow expectation that as I rose Born Again, the adoration of the camp girls would wash over me like the waters of the river.
I did enjoy most Bible stories, particularly the one about David slaying Goliath. But the special effects in other stories worried me: Moses parting the Red Sea, Jonah regurgitated by a whale and living to tell about it. “The things that you’re liable to read in the Bible—it ain’t necessarily so” (though I kind of hoped that the David story really did happen: that one only asked me to believe the improbable).
I was assured the Jesus stories were all true, never mind that the four gospels differed in crucial details. Still, there was something about the opening poem of the fourth Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word.”
The Resurrection story was just a puzzle. Why such a brutal sacrifice? My Sunday school teacher tried her best to explain: The disobedience of Adam (historical fact, of course) was a sin so egregious only an extreme sacrifice could atone for it.
Sometime later, I read St. Paul and St. Augustine on the theology of Eden. There, I read that the sin of Adam is visited upon all his progeny down through the ages. Just for being born! Is this divine justice? As far as I could tell, the only charges that could be laid against me were my mother’s labor pains.
Surely, God could have found a less bloody way to save us from those sins he implanted along with our soul at conception. He spared young Isaac. So why not spare Christ? Why a scapegoat? Why couldn’t God simply grant salvation to anyone who confesses? We’re told he knows how to read hearts and minds.
I would have warmed to the resurrection story a little more if it had been told as a resonant myth or metaphor. God coming down in the guise of his son to take on the sins of humanity has some poetic value (“For God so loved the world”). Preached as credible, it comes off as fable.
I’m reminded of a joke told about the liberal theologian Paul Tillich: Archeologists digging in Jerusalem came across an ancient burial site containing bones they could identify beyond scientific doubt as those of Jesus. Thus, there could have been no bodily resurrection!
The archeologists knew their Paul: “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile.”
They realized their discovery would create a firestorm, so they called Tillich for advice. Without missing a beat, he exclaimed, “Oh! Then Jesus really did exist!”
I told this joke in a casual conversation with some folks of Methodist creed. I first asked them a question: “Does your faith depend upon the literal truth of some story such as the Resurrection? If so, you must agree a fact could one day come to light that proves the story false.” Then I told the Tillich joke.
Next, I offered a challenge: I asked them to consider that someday the bones of Jesus might be found, and—stay with me—they could be confirmed as such. “Would you then think your faith futile? Paul would. If Paul is wrong about this, where is he right? Does the fact such a discovery is not impossible cast a shadow on your faith? Once the Resurrection is declared as fact, isn’t it more of a scientific issue than a religious one?”
Jesus brushed off the Devil’s temptation to prove himself. Perhaps Luke knew, as Aristotle did, that poetry or parable was truer than history. So why the dogmatic insistence on the claim of historical verity? Why not let religion be a repository where the mysteries of the universe and the solemn questions of the human predicament can find a place not compromised by claims of a faux certainty? As I recall, my Methodist friends brushed me off with a promise to keep me in their prayers.
If kept, their promise has been in vain. Age has only radicalized my thoughts about the afterlife: Streets paved with gold remain laid out somewhere over the rainbow. I believe we should expect—nothing. If that nothing should instead turn out to be something, it will be something so beyond what we can possibly imagine it is the same as nothing to us now, so there is no point in fretting over it.
I did not deconvert. I fled—off to college.
Not long ago, a friend and I were discussing the myth of Eden over drinks. After we had had a few, we recast Adam and Eve’s expulsion as an escape. They escaped from the naked, sterile world of perfection to an erotic world freshened by a well-placed fig leaf, one where childbirth and death are part of one process, one where mortality is at once the enemy of every human being and the friend of humanity. In short, they escaped to a world dappled with the asymmetric beauty of ambiguity.
I never think of myself an apostate. I think of an apostate as someone who, having invested much personal capital in a religion, gives it all up after a great struggle. That’s not me. I never felt I had anything to give up. I felt no betrayal. I cannot say that Jesus was ever my best friend, a Hob
bes to my Calvin.
Still, I listen with admiration, and a touch of envy, to the stories of those who came face to face with a life-changing personal crisis—who resisted devils and wrestled with angels or endured their forty days in the wilderness. I just turned my back and ran. I am a refugee.
One day, years later, my mother wrote asking if I had ever believed God exists. I considered: I may knock for him sometimes. But it’s always at the back door—at those times when I take his name in vain or when I mindlessly offer up my thanks. I never pray.
Experience is my text. All I can tell her is that God does not exist for me. But then, I have never been in a foxhole; so I can only say what I know for sure. I can only say that the God of the Bible has no relevance to the coming in and going out of my daily life.
I answered my mother something like this: “The big question for me is not whether God exists; it is whether he factors into my everyday life. If he did, I could then work out how he does. But I never take him into account as I go about my business. So I don’t worry if in the end that irrelevancy should turn out to be irreverent.”
Now—on the other hand—about that devil. . . .