I've been thinking lately about two related questions: What is a Christian, and am I one?
These questions would have been too simple to even ask for most of my life. The world was divided into two kinds of people. There was a small minority who were saved, of whom I was one. Our destiny was paradise with Jesus. Then there was the much larger group of the lost, who were going to hell. They would be cast into an everlasting furnace of fire with weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13:42), tormented forever in the flames (Luke 16:24). The punishment is similar to the hell of Islam, where skins will be burned off only to be replaced with new skins (Quran 4:56), and whose inhabitants are forced to drink boiling water (Quran 14:16). The difference, of course, is that the Muslim hell is for all who did not accept Muhammad, and the Christian hell is for all who did not accept Jesus.
These descriptions of the Christian hell, by the way, were those preached 50 years ago when I was a child. Preachers shy away from them today, preferring to describe hell as "eternal separation from God." Apparently even most of them don't want to think too much about the literal hell of the Bible. Larry King never passes up an opportunity to ask his evangelical guests - whether James Dobson, Billy Graham, or Joel Osteen - about hell. Their answer is always to just say that this is a heavy question, but God will work it all out.
Interestingly enough, the way to escape hell in both Christianity and Islam is to make a statement. The statement in Islam is "I testify there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet" (this should be done in Arabic which, if not the only language God understands, is far and away his favorite). The Christian counterpart is, "I accept Jesus as my Personal Lord and Savior." Unlike Islam, this can be done in any number of ways. My favorite was the Christian camp I attended as a teen-ager, where the speaker encouraged us around the campfire to clasp the finger of one hand in the palm of the other if we wanted to make that momentous decision. We didn't even have to say a word!
Following the decision, of course, in both Islam and Christianity, are things to be done. The first thing in Christianity is to be dipped for a few seconds under water. This is considered to be of such significance that churches have divided over whether it is essential, or subsequant to, the initial born-again experience (which is another way of describing "the statement"). Then one is to tell others what happened to them, pray, read the Bible (daily is best), and go to church. The sequence in Islam also includes reading the Quran, saying prayers at the mosque, and describing your experience to others (called "witnessing" in Christianity, this is "dawah" in Islam).
Having never been a Muslim, I'll leave the parallels for now and concentrate on the Christian experience. The first thing the new Christian learns is that everyone in the entire world is bad. They are all going to hell, unless they make the statement. This poses many intellectual problems for Christians, especially for those who are strongly pro-Israel, since all those Jews are going to hell as well. I've heard Christians come up with some unique solutions to this dilemma. One was that all Jews who were killed in the holocaust got a free pass. Others think that Jews - but no-one else - will be given a second chance after death. The most common view is that things are going to get really bad for Israel over the next few years, and boatloads of them will accept Jesus. That takes care of the Jews in the future, but doesn't give much hope to those who die now.
One of the cracks in the wall came for me a few years ago. Wafa Sultan, a courageous ex-Muslim, says she refuses to believe anything that goes against her reason. I was watching the documentary "Born into Brothels", a story of children born into prostitution in India. The film maker not only made a beautiful film, but put much effort into rescuing the children from their tragic lives (just as Wafa Sultan, who is non-religious, does into liberating Muslim women). I realized as I was watching the film that I could not believe that a person (religious or not) who would devote herself to freeing children from prostitution would suffer the same eternal fate as the man who practiced child prostitution or sold his children into it.
The next thing the Christian is expected to do - at least the Christianity of my youth - is believe the Bible is all literally true. Our earth is in a solar system, including the sun and its nine planets, but God did not create it that way. He first made the earth, and four days later made the sun and the other planets (there were some good explanations of how you could have several days without a sun!). The possibility that a writer thousands of years ago might have based the story upon the assumption that the earth was the center of the universe was not to be taken into consideration. Next comes the story of the walking snake who suddenly loses his legs. Some time ago Aayan Hirsi Ali, another courageous ex-Muslim who is now an atheist, was asked why she had given up all faith. Her response was, "I refused to go from the Allah of Islam to stories of gardens and snakes." At the time I thought that by going from "Allah is not god" to "there is no god", she might have thrown out the baby with the bathwater. Now I'm not quite so judgmental.
So where am I now in all this? I'm not sure. I began by saying I've been asking myself questions. I didn't say I have answers.