My sister was born with brain damage. The umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck. The doctors waited 24 hours before deciding to perform an emergency C-section. This was fifty-two years ago, before the great advances in fetal monitoring and the massive upsurge in emergency C-sections. I was four years old when Jill was born. Holding her in my lap when my parents brought her home from the hospital is a vivid memory. “Be careful, Ronnie. Hold her gently.”
“They called me Bitarded!”
Jill was a happy little girl. My most vivid memory of her early years is of how she loved to sing. She didn’t start talking until she was about four, but she was singing her little heart out way before that. I remember several times hearing her singing in the bathroom. There she’d be, sitting naked in the bathroom sink with the cold water running, singing away with joy.
School changed much of that. You know what they say about how cruel children can be. For more years than I can remember I would come home from school and Jill would tell me how bad the children had been to her, tears rolling down her cheeks.
“They chased me and called me names.” “They pushed me against the fence and hit me.” “They called me bitarded!”
Every day after school for four or five years, I listened to her, weeping for a half-hour to an hour about how mean the kids had been to her that day.
These conversations continued even when I came home from Bible college for the holidays. Jill immediately corraled me for at least the first hour of my visit to talk about all her problems.
Theology, Ideology — Deady Combat
I did my undergrad work at Simpson College, the denominational school of the Christian and Missionary Alliance (A.W. Tozer country). I dove into the theological debates that are so typical of earnest young Christians: supernatural spiritual gifts, Calvinism vs. Arminianism, and eschatology. In my classes I learned about the different ways Christians interpreted the Bible, and about the theological debates we’ve had throughout our history. The church was truly a diverse community, at least intellectually!
Illiterate Peasants in Hell — Accidents of Geography
The upshot of all this? In my courses I learned that Christians had disagreed over the Bible and theology from the very beginning, argued over it, and even killed over it. Somehow I knew that illiterate peasants born in Italy, England, Russia, and Saxony weren’t going to hell because their Pope, King, Patriarch, or Prince believed some “erroneous” doctrine or another. God doesn’t send people to hell because of where they happened to be born. During the Reformation Protestants killed Catholics, Catholics killed Protestants, and they all killed Anabaptists.
And I learned from Jill that the biblical and theological debates that were so interesting to me were not of ultimate value. They weren’t that important, no matter how fascinating they seemed to me, no matter how many books I’d collected on the subject. Jill had been baptized, believed in the Lord, she’d even received the gift of tongues. She loved to sing worship songs that she’d written herself. But theology? Bible interpretation. No, not even.
So, before I was barely into my 20’s I had reached a kind of doctrinal relativism, a deprivileging of theology and biblical absolutism. There are a lot of ways to describe it, I suppose. Our faith, our relationship with God, had to be simple enough for someone like my sister.
The “If-you-died-tonight-do you know if-you’d-go-to-heaven?” Evangelistic Strategy
In high school I was brought up on the following theological evangelistic strategy: “If you died tonight, do you know if you would go to heaven? If you appeared at the judgment seat and Christ asked you, ‘Why should I let you enter my kingdom?’ what would you say?”
Later on I learned that I didn’t need a made-up, unbiblical scenario for the judgment. A biblical scenario already existed in Matthew 25, and in Jesus’ version we don’t have to give a reason why we should be let into heaven. Jesus already knows who he’s letting in, his ultimate criteria for acceptability are clear, and there is no doctrinal exam involved.
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’”
Those who are acceptable to the Judge don’t even know they’re acceptable, or why.