At the age of 17, I was a Christian, but my understanding of the belief system was nothing short of shoddy. Would I have gone to heaven?
Assuming that the incredibly incoherent notions of heaven and hell, a digital outcome for all humans, works and is the state of affairs, I was wondering recently about my own fate as a youngster.
I don’t want to get into the long weeds of whether heaven or hell makes sense—neither of them do as I have set out in my latest book, 30 Arguments Against the Existence of “God”, Heaven, Hell, Satan, and Divine Design. But I do want to consider my own Christianity and whether I would have qualified for access through the pearly gates.
Let me rewind a little to talk about my childhood and Christian belief.
In my first school, where I was until the age of 13, we had Scripture lessons. The school was nominally religious in the way that schools at the time were. I didn’t take “Scripture” lessons too seriously, preferring to graffiti on the images in my Good News Bible in fairly sacrilegious ways. I found that Bible pretty recently and I have to say, I think I was pretty funny, if a little risqué!
But the school didn’t inculcate into me a strong religiosity. We had assemblies that had a loose religious backdrop and sang some lovely classic hymns.
My next school, until aged 18, was a more rigidly Christian school. Or, more accurately, a school with a broadly Christian framework, with a lot of Christian bells and whistles. Choristers in cassocks and neck ruffs, singing hymns at Christingle as they walked the cloisters with candles stuffed in oranges. That sort of thing.
Like many private boarding schools, there was a school chapel that we had to attend twice in the week and once at the weekend.
That said, almost all the children were not religious in any meaningful way, which, considering the amount of time we had to spend in the chapel over our academic careers, was pretty impressive. This had a lot to do with forced attendance where pupils resented the time spent listening to someone droning on about what was to them excruciatingly dull and irrelevant stuff. That chapel time was more about boredom and learning repeated rituals than any kind of spiritual or theological development. I can still recant certain prayers and sing a repertoire of English hymns.
It’s never got me a job and certainly hasn’t got me closer to God, though.
What I can say from the religious context of my school is that, even though I was confirmed and called myself a Christian, I was one of the worst Christians you can think of. No, not in the sense of being a morally bad kid. I didn’t bully others, nick the Eucharist wine, and pull the legs off daddy long legs (if that’s what makes you a bad Christian). Actually, I think I was morally pretty decent. No, instead, I mean that my understanding of Christianity was shocking. Had that private school been in the US, you can guarantee we would have had Bible study or religious education lessons aplenty, and theological development would have been top of the agenda..
This is the religiously apathetic Church of England, after all. Instead, we sort of had to learn Christianity by chapel attendance alone, picking up the pieces and building a picture like a blind man piecing together a second-hand jigsaw puzzle.
What this meant is that—and I realize this now as a philosopher of religion who has researched and written about Christianity a great deal—I didn’t have the faintest clue about how Christianity worked. Not a Scooby-Do, as we say. Even though the bishop laid his hand on my nervous head during my confirmation, and I was in the club, I was theologically clueless. “Jesus died for our sins?” Nope, I had no idea. I don’t think I even knew what atonement meant, let alone how it worked.
(For the record, I still don’t know how it works. Actually, I’ll go one further—it doesn’t work because it can’t work because it is incoherent.)
The Holy Trinity? Nope, no idea.
(Okay, what I just said about the incoherence of the atonement applies equally to the philosophical mess that is the Holy Trinity!)
I think I thought, like a lot of other people I have come to realize, that Jesus was God’s actual son, and that Son of God was a literal rather than a Jewish symbolic phrase. I didn’t even know what the word “incarnate” meant.
When I look back on my adolescent dabbling with Christianity, I now recognize that it was really just a form of loose theism that was developed out of the Christian context of my schooling and, to a wider extent, nominal Church of England British society. I knew little of the Bible, of the narratives past the big stories. I should add that I probably knew some of the Old Testament stories better than the Jesus ones.
No, for me, Christianity was about sometimes praying to God at night and asking for stuff. Or pleading just before a test, and thanking God in my head just after I found the questions to be easy. And forgetting to berate God when they were hard. But I never really mentioned religion outside of the conversations I had with God in my head. And, really, general adolescent life was my religion. Music, girls, drink, fun, and all the predictable variables dictated my teenage life.
Religion was a quaint backdrop to my life but never drove it, or any of the decisions in it.
No True Scotsman
We often hear, in skeptical circles, the term “the No True Scotsman Fallacy” and I often think about this concerning my own Christianity at this time. This is the issue of who gets to define the qualifying criteria of any given label?
Craig might say, “No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”
Fergus replies, “But my uncle Angus is a Scotsman and he puts sugar on his porridge.”
Craig retorts, “But no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”
Is Craig the arbiter of what defines a Scotsman? Is there an objective standard?
The same goes for the term “Christian”. What right did I have to call myself a Christian? Did I qualify…since I really understood next to nothing and made up an awful lot of my own belief system out of not even half-comprehended theology? The same for anyone professing to be Christian. Are they? Have they got it right? What are the core tenets that qualify a Christian? Who decides? Does anything disqualify you? Just by thinking you are yourself a Christian (as I did), does this make you one?
Heaven or hell?
Was this faith enough to qualify me as a Christian to the point of successfully negotiating entrance into heaven? This question evokes the obvious discussion as to what gets you into heaven. Within Christian theological circles, there is the ubiquitous debate as to whether we qualify by works or deeds, or both.
If we qualify by works—by the goodness of ourselves as humans doing good moral deeds—then our faith is irrelevant. In other words, you can believe in whatever god you want, or even be an atheist, and if God judges you to be a decent person, you qualify for heaven. But theists or Christians generally don’t like this outside of forms of universalism because being good invalidates any need to believe, and any need to follow religious rituals and get salvation through Jesus.
But if you only need faith, this also produces huge problems. What if you were born in a time or place where you were unable to access God’s love? Say, if you were an Amazonian tribesperson from 5000 BCE? And what qualifies as “faith”? Would you need an alter call? Or would my bastardized understanding and belief do the trick?
Further problems with this position arise. Take this sermon from Pastor Michael Cesar:
“Not that I would ever do this, but if you gave me an AK-47 right now with enough ammo to take you all out and, before I did it, I started blaspheming the Holy Ghost’s name and then took you out and then put the gun in my mouth…I still end up in heaven. Sorry. That probably wouldn’t happen as before I got to do it, the Lord would stop me. He might take me out before I got my finger on the trigger! But that’s the power of the salvation…it’s all the work of the Lord.”
You can be the most awful of people committing the most heinous of acts, but if you have faith, if you have been saved once, then you get the goodies upon your death.
If I died at 17
If I died at the age of 17, and with this understanding of heaven and hell, what would have happened to my soul (yes, I am aware of the problems with this most slippery of concepts!)? Would my shaky, downright incorrect (even more than most believers) conceptual understanding of Christianity have been enough? Do all children get a free pass? When would this free pass end? At the age of 16, 18, 14, or perhaps 17.62?
Or would have gone to hell for eternal conscious torment for my shoddy belief?
And Christian belief right across this world will exist on a continuum of “correct” understanding, from someone who professes to be a Christian but who really only gets 0.01% of the theology, to someone who is 99.99% on the money (but who might also be morally egregious).
Whatever the situation, these scenarios certainly further condemn the notions of both heaven and hell, in their traditional forms, as completely incoherent ideas.