Does God condemn us for wrong belief?
A part of me wishes I could end this article right here. God’s everlasting, unconditional love does not and never will penalize us for falling short in our faith or understanding. Amen.
And yet, my conviction in God’s unfailing mercy has been cultivated through years of struggle and doubt. I’ve wrestled with questions and felt crushed by anxiety. And I know that when you’re caught up in the throes of this struggle, wondering what or whether to believe, hearing a boisterous declaration of God’s love can seem like a callous boast when such confidence still eludes you. I’ve asked this question in earnest and needed more than a one-word answer. So, here’s more:
God does not condemn us for wrong belief. Rather, God gently guides us into right relationship – with God’s self and with one-another.
Bound up in the questions of whether God condemns us for wrong belief are two more specific questions: “Is God violent?” and “What is belief?” The answer to both of these questions is found in love, and love is found not in isolation of the mind, but in relational living.
As I reflect on the formation of my faith, what stands out to me, more than my ponderings and prayers, are the people who have walked alongside me on my path. And so, as I open a window to show glimpses of my journey and my companions along the way, I invite you to consider the people who have inspired or shared your questions, doubts, or epiphanies. Because more than any doctrine or creed, it’s our loved ones who best reveal to us that God is Love, and that we are made not for judgment but relationship.
Trust is relationship. Trust is the vulnerability of placing your life in the hands of others…
Is God Violent?
My meandering faith journey – through doubts and fears, through Christianity and Islam and back again – began in anxiety. I wondered if my faith would ever be sufficient for God – if God existed at all – and agonized over what might happen to those who couldn’t believe.
Actually, that’s not quite true. While I was haunted by fears that came from literal interpretations of the scary parts of scripture mixed with popular cultural depictions of hell just about as far back as I can remember… still, the true origin of my faith journey was Love.
It was love from and for my mother that made me yearn so strongly for a steadfast faith in the God she knew as Love. It was my mother who took me to the church that became a second home, where best friends and wonderful memories were made. I delighted in singing hymns and memorizing prayers and being part of the community. And I found a model of perfect love in Jesus as I learned about his life and ministry of healing the sick and embracing the outcast.
But it was love from and for my father that made me question the character and existence of the God that he denied. Like my mother, he had grown up in the church as the child of a minister, but unlike her, he had left the religion of his upbringing when he couldn’t wrap his mind around the logical inconsistencies or his heart around the moral atrocities of scripture.
I credited – or blamed – his rejection of scripture for my own skeptical eye upon it. I tried not to worry too much about the scientific inconsistencies because almost all of the adults I knew believed in both science and the Bible and taught me not to interpret scripture literally. I told myself I would understand with time.
But where I had the most trouble suspending disbelief was when it came to reconciling all the violence attributed to God with Love. The most loving, compassionate man I knew, the man who lived to make me happy, who modeled to me civil resistance to injustice and conscientious objection to war, didn’t believe in God. And it didn’t take long for me to find reasons to admire him for his lack of faith even as I was frightened of what might happen to him or to me if our faith were insufficient for a God who, if the Bible were true, apparently
- doomed all humanity for one couple’s single, minor act of disobedience
- drowned the whole world except one family of humans and a pair of every animal
- ordered conquest and genocide,
- poured his anger for humanity out on his Son who died an agonizing death so that no one would have to go to hell, but…
- sent all the people who couldn’t believe in that “salvation” to hell anyway.
My faith journey eventually led me to the realization of God’s complete nonviolence and universal love, and we at Raven will be exploring how to interpret even the most violent passages of scripture through an understanding of human, rather than divine, violence (and why humans have attributed that violence to God) over the next few months.
But before I came to that understanding, love for my Christian family and friends pushed me to seek out the loving God that they professed, while love for my father did not allow me to ignore my doubts or suppress my horror at the violence in scripture.
And when I was 16, love for my best friend, a Muslim, led me to explore Islam, to which I eventually converted for several years.
I’ve expressed my reasons for converting before, but I want to emphasize that, while I was still uncomfortable with ideas of hell and punishment in Islam, it was easier for me to see God’s mercy and grace through the lens of Islam than through the clouded lens of my fears as a Christian. Every chapter (except one) of the Qur’an begins with a recognition of God as most compassionate, most merciful, and I was taught that God would judge us based on our deeds as well as our faith. For someone who struggled to believe and had family that believed differently, this was very good news to me, allowing me to believe in the potential salvation of my whole family, even if we believed differently or not at all.
Still, when I converted, I did so in an effort to affirm the “right” beliefs. I thought it was possible for there to be one right religion among many wrong ones (or possible that all could be wrong, but I didn’t know). Since Islam made more logical and emotional sense to me, I tried to follow it, as if religion were a multiple-choice test.
What I didn’t realize at the time, but know now as well as I can possibly know anything, is that my conversion to Islam blessed me not only because it helped me to think about God in new ways, but even more so because it brought me closer to people who remain my dearest friends even years after my reaffirmation of Christianity.
My journey taught me that belief has more to do with the people in our lives than the thoughts in our minds.
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What Is Belief?
We think of belief as affirming in our hearts and minds what cannot be proven by objective facts. Beliefs and doubts feel intensely personal and private. Struggling to believe is especially isolating. It’s so easy to feel alone in the midst of questions and anxieties, to feel out of place both among those who seem to believe easily and those who just as easily reject belief.
But belief is about recognizing that we are not alone.
For belief is not merely an intellectual or even spiritual assertion. Belief, in the context of faith, means trust. Faiths call for belief in, not belief about. Yes, God wants our belief, but not for any reason of ego and not to test us. God wants our trust so that we can live in the relaxation of love, and so we can offer the fullness of our own love to others.
That’s a far cry from the violent God to which so much of scripture seems to testify. But the call to believe in God is actually a call to unlearn all of the violence we have attributed to God and instead trust that God loves us. To trust in God is not to believe that any of the violence was ever okay, but to recognize that One in whom we can put our trust is One who would not kill or condemn us.
It’s not a call to believe in God despite violence, but to take a journey to understand the nonviolent God that humanity has misunderstood, the God who desires mercy, not sacrifice.
Trust is relationship. Trust is the vulnerability of placing your life in the hands of others, and the care you take with the lives that are in your hands.
All the time I was struggling with what to believe, I found myself growing in trust and love as I opened up and shared my questions with friends – Christians and Muslims, agnostics and atheists, those who seemed to have it all figured out and those who opened me to questions I had never considered.
And all that time, journeying in love and finding love through the people who shared my journey, God was opening my heart and mind. God was bringing me to faith in God’s self through the love of others. And that is how God has created us to learn and grow in the first place — through one another — because that is how Love operates: not in isolation, but in connection.
God never punishes us for wrong belief.
There are plenty of wrong beliefs about God, many of which are enshrined in the Bible. The Bible tells the truth about human misunderstanding; it doesn’t sugarcoat over the things we humans got horribly wrong.
But we get God wrong because we get each other wrong (and vice-versa in an endless cycle). Relating to each other in rivalry and competition … that’s the path that leads to violence and death, and to seeing divinity in the ways of violence.
God draws us out of that violence and into Love. And God calls us to love one another, and guides our hearts, whether we know it or not, whenever we relate to each other in love.
For we are made not for rivalry but for relationship; not for condemnation, but for communion.