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Last updated: Monday, December 07, 1998
A Letter to an Agnostic Friend
See my comments about this letter on my writing index page.
My Good Friend,
You ask some serious questions. I have answered all of them, but I want you to keep in mind that they are of a spiritual nature and as such, you need a spiritual authority in order for the answers to have any validity. I am not such an authority. I submit to the Bible's authority on all spiritual matters, and so that is the reference for my answers. That is worth repeating. I can cite my references for all that I say here, and I encourage you to study the Bible to learn for yourself if what I say is true. I will clearly indicate my opinions to distinguish them from that which is my understanding of the facts as documented by the Bible.
>What difference does it make if I do not change my faith?
There are no guarantees that your life on earth will be worse without a belief in God, although there are many indications that you will encounter difficulties when you put worldly things above God, just as you encounter "difficulties" like broken bones or indigestion when you do not take into account the consequences of natural laws like Gravity or Biology. The difference is what happens to you when you die if you have not accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior.
What happens at the moment of death is, in my opinion, that you leave the time continuum at the moment of real, irreversible death. You enter life in eternity. It defines our existence outside of time. One insight is a statement I heard that we are not physical beings having spiritual experiences here on earth; rather, we are spiritual beings having physical experiences. I don't know who said that, but it puts things in vivid perspective--for me, anyway.
When you die, the Bible says you will appear before God and will be held accountable for your life on earth. Every action and every thought you have ever committed that is against God's laws will be reckoned with. Since God created mankind to enter into a loving relationship with Himself, your most heinous transgression (because you insult him in the worst way by refusing to believe that He exists) will be not having loved God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Any other transgressions will fall into the category of not loving your neighbor as yourself--violations of the "Golden Rule." That includes any lie, theft, or selfish act you have ever committed. Because God is perfect, just one transgression is enough to condemn you, and everyone falls short of the perfection of God.
Everyone goes through this process after death, but it may be that believers are spared the immense shame of falling short of God's perfection because they know God has completely forgiven and forgotten their transgressions. For instance, I cannot claim more than fleeting moments when I love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength. The difference for those who do not accept the fact that Jesus Christ has atoned for all of their transgressions against God is that He--your Creator--will not forgive you for your transgressions against Him.
>If I do not, do I go to hell?
That is a loaded question. The short answer is, yes, and the fear of Hell should be a motivator for you to respond to the Gospel--the "Good News"--that believing in Jesus will save you from such a fate. The loaded question is in what the nature of Hell is. It is described as a fiery lake, among other things, but the best concept I have grasped was suggested to me by a high school senior I once spoke with. She told me she taught Sunday school, and we got to talking about the things that she taught. She said she taught that Hell was being separated from God. How succinct! It is enough of a torment to live in eternal banishment from the One who created you. Or perhaps it is eternal life completely alone. That would be Hell enough for me. Forever is a long time to spend with no one with whom to interact, and, worst of all, no chance to ask God for answers to all those questions about His Creation that science didn't get around to answering for me. There is not agreement among theologians, though. Some think that annihaliation awaits you. Either way, it's not a very appetizing fate when compared with the glorious alternative of eternal life in the presence of the Creator of the Universe, is it?
>Is that a kind and generous act to do to a basically good person?
Another loaded question. There you go again, judging the Perfect Judge. Is it kind and generous that we find it so difficult to explain physical interactions without a Unified Field Theory? Is it kind and generous that lions today eat lambs? In other words, who are we to question God about how he chose to design the universe? We should be grateful that He reveals all that we can be sure of. Another thing to keep in mind is that God is perfect and perfectly good. So it seems altogether too kind and generous to me that he puts up with us naughty sinners for the time we do have here on earth. If you were God, would you have waited for Hitler or Stalin to die before carrying out your wrath? When compared with infinite perfection, even "basically good" men are no closer to God than either of those monsters. So it does seem kind and generous to me that we humans live at all, given our chronic, open defiance of our Father in Heaven.
But the ultimate and ultimately ironic answer to your question is that the Bible says you will be satisfied with God's judgement of you. Apparently, after death, we'll understand some things about how God put the Universe together that we don't understand right now. Think about that. If the Bible is telling the truth about the reality of life after death, then you will not only be condemned, but you are guaranteed to agree with God that that is the just and right fate for you. How utterly and profoundly tragic!
If Hell troubles you, though, then you can begin your walk with God holding to the alternate position (set forth recently by the Church of England, for instance) that you will be annihalated when you die rather than suffering eternal torment. Then it is not an issue until you and I find out with certainty what the truth is. Because we both certainly will. That is Pascal's proposition. If I am wrong, it costs me nothing because nothingness awaits us both after death. If you are wrong, it costs you everything when you take into account that your time-limited life here on earth is irrelevant when compared with infinite--eternal--life.
Salvation is so important that I am not above laying doubts in your mind about what you want for your children, either. The imminent birth of my first child was the beginning of my own return to God. Christianity is caught, not taught, and I thank God that both of my kids are already beginning to understand the way He has put together reality. I put my trust in God that I will be with them for all eternity. I assume you and your spouse are spiritually compatible, and I assume you will raise your children as agnostics. Imagine if those children grow up, leave your home, hear the Gospel and accept it, and then we all learn for certain after our deaths that, as my denomination puts it in their Articles of Religion of 1549, "Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation." Well, then, you've thrown away the gift from God of spending eternity with your children. Worse, what grief will you feel (assumming you're not annihalated out of existence) if your children die with your same unbelief? They will then share the same sad fate as you.
My friend, I must say that I am disappointed that you have asked such negative questions. I would love to share with you all the wonderful changes that belief in Jesus as your spiritual Savior brings, because such a belief always makes the believer's life better--even when compared with what already seems like a good life. But you haven't asked in such terms.
Nevertheless, I thank you for the challenge to my faith. You have made it stronger by asking questions that have forced me defend it. Although I was diagnosed with about the "best" cancer one could hope to get, it's still the strongest signal of my life so far that I am, indeed, dying day by day. Yet with the comfort of my faith, I am torn between the hope of not having to live one more day away from the presence of the Almighty Creator of the Universe and the gratitude for every day that I do get to spend in this temporary piece of eternal life building relationships with all whom I love. It is a wonderful paradox of Christianity that I can so cherish life while genuinely looking forward to death.
My friend, I hope to see you again face to face sometime before I die, but I most earnestly hope to see you again after I die.