When I was going through high school, I was infatuated with a young woman. Because we were both on the swim team, I got to know her fairly well, though not nearly so well as I would have liked. I thought she was beautiful in a way that is only possible for a teenage boy experiencing love for the first time. She did not appreciate my obvious attraction to her and by the end of high school it seemed like she was actively avoiding me. And who could possibly blame her for that? I was an awkward teenager and high school was an extremely difficult and lonely period for me.
Being a very attractive young woman, she dated a number of guys throughout high school. When she would start up a new relationship, I would become depressed. When that relationship would end, I would secretly celebrate. A while after one such breakup, I worked up my courage to try and ask her out. Her reaction to that attempt along with the fact that she had recently started dating a new guy was extremely embarrassing and humiliating. Deeply hurt, I met the gibbering demon within me face to face for the first time.
If the seething emotions within me had had the voice of Gollum, they would have said. “She hurt us! She HURT us! She hurt US! Who does she think she is? She is stupid! She is mean! She is a horrible person, my precious! We must hurt her back!” The voice of reason within me struggled against this hateful reaction, “You want to hurt her because she hurt you? Is this the loving thing to do?” Not to be so easily silenced, the demons within me continued to spew forth hate. “We don’t care if it is loving or not! We want to hurt her! We want to hurt him! Hurt them both, yes my precious!” After a long and arduous battle, the voice of reason finally won out and I decided to let her go and try to be happy for them. They stayed together until the end of high school and I have not seen either of them since. I pray that they are both well.
Some eight years after that incident, I met the gibbering demon within me again. This time, the hurt, anger and level of violence were far greater. If the seething emotions within me had had the voice of Gollum, they would have screamed, “kill! Kill! KILL THEM ALL! They deserve it! They injured us with lies and deceit and wickedness! kill! Kill! KILL THEM ALL!” This time, the voice of reason within me could not restrain me and I was gradually losing the battle. I was full of anger and hatred and bitterness and I could no longer deny the sad reality. I was a sinner who deserved death and I needed a savior. After reading a book that made Christianity plausible to me, I decided to surrender my life to the Lord Jesus Christ.
I have said in a previous essay that I have an unalterable loyalty to Jesus Christ and it is for precisely this reason. When I was on the verge of becoming a monster, his noble teachings and self-sacrificing example were the anchor in the tempest that got me through. I owe him my life and I will serve him as long as I live. I want to be more like him and not at all like the gibbering demon that seeks to emerge from the depths of my soul whenever I am hurt. This pursuit of righteousness and goodness is the heart of what Christianity means to me.
An Unpleasant Surprise
A few years after my conversion, I began to really read the Old Testament. I had gone over it briefly when I first became a Christian, but I had never sat down to actually read and understand what was going on. When I finally read it with attention, I was shocked and horrified at what I found. In the pages of the Old Testament, I found the demons that had convinced me that I needed the cross of Jesus Christ seemingly enshrined as God almighty. Genocides and plagues and horrible judgments. I could never reject the Lord who had saved me, but the God of the Old Testament? He seemed to be exactly what I became a Christian to avoid becoming. How does one resolve this horrible dilemma?
To make matters worse, my problems with the Old Testament began to contaminate my interpretation of the New Testament. The Book of Revelation, the doctrine of hell and other portions of the New Testament take on an entirely more sinister tone when interpreted in the light of the Old Testament. I was confused and I did not know what to do. I couldn’t reject the Lord who had saved me, but neither could I believe that God was like the gibbering demon within me. I decided that I would hope that God was good and be as obedient as I could be, but that I would not teach or witness the gospel until I felt comfortable that I understood it myself. I wrote my book, A Rational Faith when I thought I had finally come to grips with this issue.
A Divide in the Church
I am not the only one who has faced this dilemma. The other day, I came across a YouTube video by one Christian denouncing another Christian for what he called, “The Red Letter Heresy”. As I watched the video, it became clear to me that the controversy between these two men derives from the same dilemma that I faced and divides the entire church. As I have been writing this essay over the last 5 days, I have searched high and low for how best to illustrate the errors both these men are making. After rereading what I have written above, however, I realized that I myself am the best illustration of both of these types of errors.
If you read what I wrote above carefully, you will note that it is a bit of a whitewash. If I had said, “I wanted to hit the boyfriend of my first love in the face until his smile went away and she was sorry she had picked him over me.”, you would have thought, “That guy is a totally evil. rotten bastard. Who would ever listen to him?” But if I mention Gollum and put the sentiment in his words, then I shift some of the blame from myself and make myself more likable because most of you will assume I am exaggerating. Likewise, if I told you that I was dreaming of beating someone’s head in with a baseball bat, you would react with shock and horror. If I say that Gollum wanted me to kill them all, on the other hand, you again assume I am exaggerating and give me credit for being “honest” about my baser feelings when I am really whitewashing the ugliness.
But the whitewash of what I wrote previously does not stop there. I also whitewashed my transition from Christian apologist to closet Christian. Reading what I wrote above, you would get the impression (and this was intentional) that as soon as I read the Old Testament “with attention” I rejected the traditional interpretation and became a closet Christian. This is not true. At first, you understand, I had what I now consider to be a heretical response to the Old Testament and the doctrine of hell. One can understand what I believed if one imagines me having a conversation with Jesus as an immature Christian:
Lord I was having a real hard time with this whole “turn the other cheek” teaching of yours and then I finally understood. (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) You talk a good game about loving your enemy and turning the other cheek and everything, but when the chips are down you are going to do far worse to them than I would ever dream. In fact, these Old Testament teachings and this doctrine of hell are really wonderful because they tell me that you are just like me!
It took years of being obedient to the Lord and praying for those who had injured me before I got to the point where I realized how truly horrible my early Christian attitudes had been and this was when I became a closet Christian. There were many verses that aided me in this transition, but some of the primary ones were:
Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live? (Ezekiel 18:23 )
(God rebuking the wicked) “You thought I was exactly like you” (Psalm 50:21)
“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.(Isaiah 55:9)
The third deception in what I wrote above is calling the Holy Spirit, the “voice of reason within me”. Putting it this way gives the impression that I was really a good person of divided mind. For a long time I believed this and it was a great source of pride within me. “Did you see how good and loving I was there? When I wanted to injure those people, the good part of me rose up to wrestle against the evil part.” I now believe that the voice of reason that I heeded was really the voice of the Holy Spirit:
Then the LORD said, “My Spirit will not contend with humans forever (Genesis 6:3)
A Call for Repentance
So how does this whitewash help us to understand the divide in the church? Examining what I wrote above, you can very clearly see the two forces responsible for the division at work.
The first is a desire to distance myself from the ugliness that I have seen within me. You see this when you see me trying to lessen the brutality of my earlier sins. Recognizing the ugliness of retaliation and vengeance in myself, it is only natural to question the teachings of the Old Testament and the doctrine of hell. This is the motivation of those who are guilty of “The Red Letter Heresy”. They see the ugliness of human wrath against sin and deny that the divine could have any genuine anger against sin. They make the understandable mistake of not seeing how the divine wrath against sin is fundamentally different from human wrath against sin. I have written about these fundamental differences in the essays: “The Nature of the Atonement” and “Examining Death from the Divine Perspective”, “Hell: Punishment or Consequences” and “The Nature of Hell”.
The second force responsible for the division in the church was exemplified by my desire to pull God down to my level and make him just like me. All the difficult commands of the Bible (love thy neighbor, turn the other cheek, forgive, judge not) don’t really mean what they say because we see the true nature of God in his wrath in the Old Testament and in hell. I have argued against these sentiments in my essays: “Quantum Mechanics in Kindergarten“, “The Challenge Method of Teaching” and my series of posts on understanding the Old Testament.
Only by understanding and repenting of both of these heresies (of which I myself have been guilty) can we heal the divide within the church and spread the true gospel of God.