Last week we had the chance to chat with Dr. Colin Toffelmire, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Ambrose University about Christianity. Here are some of Dr. Toffelmire’s thoughts on the question:
Is Christianity Too Narrow?
(Interview Conducted and Transcribed by Amy Lemke)
CT: Any well-articulated worldview is narrow. And anyone who pretends that their sort of detailed and well-articulated worldview is not narrow is lying to themselves or to others. So the complaint about narrowness has always sort of struck me as odd. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing … to think that one thing is true and another thing is not true. Any time that I say ‘A’ is true it necessarily implies that anything that is opposed to ‘A’ or is logically the opposite of ‘A’ is not true. Alright, so if I say, “This desk is brown,” I logically imply that it can be no other colour. And that’s easy to understand when it comes to simple observations of the world, especially at a naïve, basic level. But then you get into complicated philosophical and theological questions and the stakes go up and our ability to know things goes down pretty dramatically. And I think that’s what really causes the problem.
I don’t think it’s that people are upset that somebody says, “This is true, and this is not true.” I think people are upset when somebody says, “This is true and this is not true” when it doesn’t seem obvious that they have good reasons for thinking that way, or when the two options both seem like it’s very difficult to determine which is true and which is not true. So, for example, do people in any sense at all live on after death? We just can’t run a scientific experiment about that, because I guess, well, people die and we can’t observe what happens after that. There’s a real possibility that nothing happens after that and there’s a real possibility that something happens after that, but because there’s no way of observing, when somebody makes a really abrupt claim …
The Falling Ball
So, I’m thinking of my non-Christian or my agnostic or my only semi-, sort-of-Theistic friends. Their complaint is always like it’s not that I’m making a claim about what will happen after we die; it’s the intensity of my claim relative to how I can demonstrate that it’s true. That’s what they usually complain about. So as long as I’m willing to say – I’m just thinking of a friend of mine I have this conversation with pretty regularly, and he will not complain at me if I say, “I believe after I die that this and this may happen, but I accept that this may be incorrect. But, I’ve decided, based on my belief, to live my life in a certain way.” And he doesn’t usually have any objection to that at all even though he thinks it’s all nonsense. It’s if I were to say, “I know absolutely beyond the shadow of any doubt that this is going to happen when I die,” he’d be like, “Well, you don’t know that, actually. You don’t know that in the same way that I know that if I drop a ball it’s going to fall on the floor.” I think Christians are upset by that distinction sometimes. We don’t want to admit that we actually do know the outcome of the ball falling more certainly than we know the outcome of what happens after we die. We want to have the same degree of certainty about those two things, but I guess I kind of wish we could get past that and be okay with the fact that this is a faith. I am a member of the Christian faith. And the things that I can know in the way that I can know the ball will hit the floor – it’s a very small number of things. And very few of them are things that I care about a lot. Most of the things that I care about the most in my life are the other kind of thing where there’s a significant aspect of trust involved. Does my wife authentically love me? I really believe she does and there’s lots of evidence in my life that she does, but the truth of the matter is, because I have no capacity to read her mind, it’s possible that she’s lying and just sort of messing with me [laughs], but I choose to trust. That’s an act of faith that is very important to me.
So when we talk about Christianity and make claims about it, those are the kinds of claims I think we’re making. I don’t have a problem making them in a relatively exclusive way, if that’s how I’m making them. And the truth is, I don’t actually get very much push back from other people when I talk about it that way. My experience is, when you talk to other people who also want to make truth claims, they’re actually a little bit relieved when you just say, “I think I’m right, and I think you’re wrong and we can’t both be right about this.” Most people are like, “Oh, thank you for saying that out loud. I still think you’re wrong, but I’m glad we’re on the same page!” [laughs]
An example of this would be a little while ago when we took the Ambrose University School of Ministry students to the Islamic Education Centre for an afternoon to learn from an Imam about Islam and to understand, from an Islamic perspective, what their world is like. And one of the things that he said (and, again, as a Christian, what I was really happy to hear him say) was, “I don’t think the world is the same way you think the world is. And just so you know, we can have a conversation, but I think that you don’t understand God correctly, and you don’t think I understand God correctly. And there are very serious consequences to that.” I think most people in the room were really happy to hear him say that. “Thank you for saying that. Now we can really talk about what we want to talk about.” I can respect that you have beliefs about this, and I have beliefs about this and we don’t have to pretend that we can’t have this conversation. We can disagree. And maybe, just maybe, I can change your mind if we start from the place of accepting that we don’t agree. And if we start from the place of understanding that the question you’re asking is not obvious and is difficult.
The Problem of Obviousness
I think that’s the place, more than any other, where the conversation breaks down in the culture around us. It’s the problem that I sometimes call “the problem of obviousness” – that people in our culture seem to think that certain things are obviously true. I almost never agree with them that those things are obviously true. Actually, I don’t know if I believe that anything is obviously true. Most things are very, very complicated and hard to understand. The problem is if – so, Amy, if you and I get into an argument and you think that what you think is obviously the case and any thinking person must agree with you. Well, now we have a real problem because the only implication would be that I’m an idiot. And that’s really where our national dialogue is at with most important questions. It’s not “I’m right, and you’re wrong.” It’s “I’m right and you’re stupid.” Or “I’m right and you’re evil.” Or “I’m right and I hate you.” And that’s the thing – where Christians will say that they believe certain truth claims … that’s where they’ll say that whoever doesn’t believe those things is obviously stupid.
The thing that worries me much more than that – I completely understand a non-Christian thinking that I am obviously stupid. Because I don’t necessarily have the expectation that they’re going to be charitable towards me. This is actually something I was just talking to a friend, a sociologist, about and he gave me some stats – and I don’t remember the exact numbers, but he basically said that Evangelicals are not trusted by other significant groups in North America, but much more frightening to me is that Evangelicals do not trust or listen to other people in the culture. They have a very high level of distrust in other people in the culture. That’s a problem to me.
And so, even the question as you’re framing it to me – you know, why is it a problem that we’re making narrow truth claims, or truth claims that offend other people? Why are we offended that other people are offended by us? Why are we offended that other people don’t agree with us? Why would we expect them to? I mean, this is one of those places where I get a little frustrated because I feel that Jesus was relatively straightforward about this part of the whole thing. The whole notion that “if you follow Me, people are not going to agree with you, people are not going to be on board with what you do, people are going to persecute you.” I’m not really entirely sure why we expect a different kind of treatment. I think we should let go of this one.
I think we should let go of being offended by our culture. I don’t think we have any right to it. I do think that some of the things we believe are authentically difficult to swallow.
I mean that a person rose from the dead, well, I mean, given the fact that no one has ever done that before – that’s a pretty big claim to make. I shouldn’t be that astonished when my friend doesn’t believe that that’s true. I don’t really get to be angry with him for not believing that’s true.
And beyond that, the simple call of Christ is towards charity and love to everybody around us and charity means I think the best of you. No matter if you think I’m stupid, or horrible, or whatever. I think the best of you. And I don’t expect you to necessarily reciprocate. And that’s the part that Christians have a hard time swallowing – it just seems unfair. That’s where I just kind of shrug my shoulders. I’m sorry, I’m not in charge. I didn’t design the system, but this seems to be the way that God made it to work. So … tough nuts. That’s what I say to my kids … I mean, I’m sorry it seems unfair, but it’s still the way things are going to happen [laughs]. I sort of feel like asking, “What’s fair got to do with it?” I mean, the incarnation isn’t particularly fair, and neither is the cross for that matter. If our King, the one we follow, “made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a slave,” I’m not quite sure I see why we should expect anything different for ourselves.
Amy Lemke: Some of the questions that have come up in our “Explore God” Q&A panel discussions after the services have had to do with, “Well, what about the child in India who’s never heard about Christ? How can God be kind and yet have this system that is so narrow, where the person who’s never had a chance to hear is now sent to hell? How can that be?”
CT: Well, this is where I’m going to do the most obnoxious academic thing that we always do which is I’m just going to question the premise of your question. [laughs] The thing at hand is that Christ is the only means of salvation. That’s the Christian frame. Beyond that, the mechanics of how that works is not my job. It’s not your job and it’s not anybody else’s job in the world. In Exodus, and then quoted by Paul in Romans 9:15, God says:
“‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”
And what that is, that’s a sovereignty claim. It’s a way for God to say, “This is all mine and I get to decide.”
Now, having said that, Christians – and, well, not just Christians, most people who read those passages – don’t read them very carefully. They hear God saying, “Well, if I want to send somebody to hell, I’ll send somebody to hell. “ That’s not actually what’s going on, especially in Romans. What God’s saying is that, “If I want to save somebody, I’ll save somebody. And, don’t tell me what to do.” Again, what Paul’s getting at in Romans is that God is sovereign and can be trusted.
So, about the little boy or little girl on the other side of the world – and not even on the other side of the world – the little boy or little girl in Calgary who never in their entire life hears about Christ. Or here, let’s make this a more horrifying scenario, because it doesn’t take a lot of effort. The child who is born into an abusive and cruel family. The child is abused for the first four or five years of life and is eventually killed in the process of that abuse, and throughout that never has an opportunity to know Christ. That’s a horrifying scenario and the idea of a God who would create a person simply to suffer and then to die so they can suffer eternally? Yeah, atheists have every right to object to that. That is by every definition unjust. I trust that my God is not unjust so I trust Him to take care of the scenario in the way it needs to be cared for. Now, if you want to call me a dirty name like “universalist” I suppose you can, but that’s not quite what I’m saying. God says, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I’ll have compassion on whom I‘ll have compassion.” I’m willing to allow that to be His job, and not my job.
In fact, I’m profoundly relieved that it’s His job and not my job. I don’t think I can do that job particularly well. What the New Testament writers do say about this, and they say it quite clearly, is that God accomplishes this justice, this compassion, by means of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Again, I don’t really know the mechanics of how that works – we use lots of metaphors to try to describe this, and all of them get to different parts of what’s going on – but I trust that Jesus’ death and resurrection is effective, or applies in the appropriate way. Now, what both “sides” of this debate want me to say is that I know for sure that such a child goes to heaven or goes to hell, but I’m not really willing to say that. What I’m willing to say is that God is perfectly just, and perfectly compassionate, and that God exercises that compassion through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and then leave things at that.
So part of life – and this is true of every Christian – is to trust that God is in fact taking care of what needs taking care of. Every act of life is an act of trust, and all of it leads up to the final act of trust which is death, and none of us can even get away from. We’re all going to come to that final moment of death, and that’s going to be the non-negotiable moment of trust, where it’s going to happen to you whether you want it or not. You’re going to discover what you’re going to discover. Or not. Right? All of this sort of hangs on that to a certain degree, so you just kind of have to shrug your shoulders, partly because even if you’re not okay with it, it’s going to happen anyways. So you might as well [trust God] … I mean you’re going over that tipping point in the roller coaster whether you want to or not. That’s how I’d feel about that question of sovereignty.
AL: Some would say that perhaps, when a person dies, if they’ve never heard – like the child in your scenario – that God would give them another chance or point of choice after death, where now, they see the fullness of the reality of Christ and are asked: “What is your choice?” Some people, even in that reality, would still reject. And then, God’s just repercussions would follow through.
CL: I mean, C.S. Lewis sort of famously paints a scenario like that. And, like he often does, he does it allegorically, like in the Narnia books. At the end of the last Narnia book, in The Last Battle, the world kind of ends and there’s this group of dwarves who thought this was kind of nonsense the whole time. They’re sitting in what they believe to be this dirty nasty stable and in reality, they are, for all intents and purposes, in heaven. But because they have chosen in their hearts to not accept the reality around them, they remain in the squalor that they believe themselves to be in. Never underestimate the human capacity for selfishness and for self-rule. I mean, yeah, all of that is certainly possible. But let’s be honest with ourselves – we’re really just guessing at that stuff.
I mean, for one thing, the scriptures say just about nothing at all about heaven, or hell for that matter. And when they do, they talk about heaven or hell in highly figurative terms, in some of the more complicated and figurative documents in the Bible. But yeah, I’ve always been a fan of Lewis’ way with all this. The other way that Lewis puts this is that hell is a place where the door is locked from the inside. So if you want out, just come out. But if you don’t, well, then I can’t do much for you. Again, I suppose some people would call that universalism – I don’t think it is – but, it’s a way of thinking about some of these things that make a little bit more sense to me. But the truth is that people don’t want to come out, and that’s the real problem, more than anything else. We want to be in charge, we want to have control, we want things on our terms. So, for Lewis, that desire for self-rule is the true problem, because submission to Christ is the essence of the Gospel. People define “the Gospel” in lots of ways, but I rather like N.T. Wright’s way of summarizing Paul … the Gospel is “Jesus is Lord.” That’s the thing we’re really being asked to accept. That’s the narrowness that you can’t really get away from with Christianity, and I don’t really think you want to get away from it.
All of this is very, very complicated. To loop all the way back around to the beginning: the assumption of “obvious” is such a problem. Don’t think that your atheist neighbour is obviously foolish. She or he is probably not obviously foolish. Don’t think that the person in the church who disagrees with you on the issue of human sexuality is obviously a fundamentalist or a conservative or some other label you’re using when you really mean “stupid.” They probably have reasons for thinking what they’re thinking and they probably are very much trying to honour Christ. If the rule of love is the rule that we’re supposed to follow, then we want to try to think the best of these people we disagree with. So, yes, Christianity is narrow, but not impossibly so and that doesn’t mean we can’t negotiate, debate, or talk about that narrowness.
For more on the question, “Is Christianity Too Narrow?”, watch this Explore God video.