They're some of life's toughest questions.
- How could God allow a nine-year-old girl in Philadelphia to be gang-raped?
- How can God create somebody with a predisposition for same-sex attraction, and then decree that homosexuality is a sin?
- How can God save some people, but consign others to eternity in Hell?
- What is eternity anyway? What is Heaven and Hell, and how do we know physical death isn't the end of ourselves?
These are several key questions for which Bart Campolo spent years hunting answers. He recently shared his journey with Jonathan Merritt for an article on the Religion News Service website. Bart is the son of controversial Christian personality Tony Campolo, who is on the liberal end of the evangelical spectrum - that is, when other evangelicals will even allow Tony to be considered an evangelical at all. So, perhaps it's not surprising to some that Tony's less orthodox personal theology would be eventually met by apostasy in his son.
For indeed, today, Bart considers himself a humanist, and describes himself as a "Christian who doesn't believe in God."
And his reasons for believing this way stem from the uncomfortable answers he reached by himself for some of life's toughest questions.
Unfortunately for Bart, he appears to have put more trust in his own answers than he was willing to put in the Bible's. Bart readily admits he no longer believes in God's sovereignty, or the authority of His Word - two key components of orthodox Christianity that have more than served His people for millennia.
Sure, plenty of folks have unilaterally decided that the Bible is untrustworthy, or that organized religion in general is for weaklings. But we all believe in something, even if it's ourselves. Which begs the question: Why would you want to place your belief and faith in somebody or something that isn't perfect, holy, and sovereign? Unless... you wanted to maybe keep some leeway for yourself to keep on sinning or vacillating over some particular habit, temptation, or ambition. Maybe you really like believing you're your own ultimate destiny?
So, if ego, pride, and a superiority complex are enough so Bart and his fellow humanists can survive their brief appearance on our planet, perhaps the respectful thing to do would be to let them wallow in their self-sufficiency. After all, are the atheist and humanist superior to those who claim belief in a Higher Power apart from themselves - whether that "power" is Allah or Jesus Christ? It's folks who decide that they are as capable as a conventional deity of answering life's toughest questions who inevitably become ones for whom emotions, mortality, culture, and even morality become self-serving ends.
Bart even claims that what originally attracted him to Christianity wasn't God's truth, or His power, or Christ's sacrifice, but our religion's "sense of community and the common commitment to love people, promote justice, and transform the world."
Um, yeah: did I mention Bart's parents are liberals? Unfortunately, most conservative evangelical churches dismiss things like community and justice as humanistic pablum. Which, ironically, helps to support Bart's current position.
By way of clarification, for people who do seek to understand themselves and the world around them through organized religion, Bart's parents - as liberal as they may be - are correct in at least identifying Christianity as having the true framework with which to understand life. Other organized religions do provide answers, but like on any true-false exam, there's only one correct answer.
And what are the correct answers for some of these questions that have haunted Bart?
God's People Shouldn't Let Sin Define Themselves
How could God allow a nine-year-old girl in Philadelphia to be gang-raped?
Without an appreciation of the concept of God's eternal, holy sovereignty, of course, any comprehensive answer will prove elusive. This is because everything that happens - whether it's good or bad, evil or virtuous - happens because God allows it to happen. He may not delight in it, but not one thing takes place without His control over it. None of us can fully grasp how this works, but we need to be willing to give Him the control He already has over every aspect of our life, and the lives of everybody else on this planet. If we are not willing to subject ourselves to His will, and trust in His ability to work everything out for His glory and our good, then even the beneficial things that happen to us can eventually torment our souls.
In this Philadelphia scenario, we have a sin that we perceive as particularly despicable, but in doing so, we are ascribing to sin a characteristic that helps us create hierarchies and administer our sense of justice. For God, however, the gang-rape of a child is as repulsive as alcoholism, or driving recklessly, or gossiping. Yes, different sins have different consequences, but victims of sin also have different avenues of coming to terms with both the sins they commit, and the sins inflicted upon them. God wants us to honor Him regardless of what happens to us. There is nothing that can happen to His people that will separate us from His love. If this traumatized 9-year-old victim can one day testify to God's power in helping her forgive her tormentors, both God and this victim will prove victorious. However, if this little girl lives in bitterness and hate the rest of her life, she will merely be doing what is natural for any ordinary victim.
Does that make sense to us? No, probably not, unless you're convinced that the same God who can forgive sins like rape can also heal you from being the victim of such sins, and even bring you to the point of forgiving your attackers, too.
Abusing Anything Good is Sinful
What about homosexuality? It's a huge topic in our society today, and Bart's parents each share opposite viewpoints on it. The thing about homosexuality is that, throughout history, many have seized upon it as a particularly deviant form of unBiblical sexuality, and make more out of it than what's really there.
So, what's homosexuality, really, other than another form of adultery? Some hard-line evangelicals insist that homosexuality is particularly deviant because it involves people of the same gender, but when the Bible talks about its sinfulness, homosexuality is usually categorized along with other sins, including the heterosexual forms of adultery that are far more commonplace among churched folks.
It's easy for homosexuals to get hung up on the vitriol they receive from many self-professing Christ-followers, which, again, compartmentalizes sins and makes hierarchies out of them. Yes, different sins have different consequences, but only one sin can forever banish us from God's presence, and that's the sin of denying the Holy Spirit's testimony of Christ as God's Son.
Granted, that doesn't answer the question of whether homosexuality is nature or nurture. Does God make some people sexually attracted to the same sex? We all know that many theories exist to answer such questions, but no matter the theory, the fact remains that we all are tempted to abuse good things. We abuse food, alcohol, money - and we can abuse relationships. Some men find such a kindred spirit among other men who seem so particularly similar to themselves, they're tempted to abuse that close relationship by introducing a sexual element into it.
God did not create any of us to abuse anything. But our sin nature makes abuse seem natural. And when it comes to sex, adultery in any form seems so attractive, doesn't it? How can God possibly be glorified by that?
God is glorified when we deny, on the authority of His Word and our love for His truth, the pleasures we assume await us in the abuse of good things. It sounds pious, and indeed, it is a sin to be proud of whatever "success" we experience as we refute the temptation to abuse things like chocolate, the environment, and sex. People can make a lifestyle out of food abuse, and they can make a lifestyle out of sex abuse. It's just that some forms of sex abuse are more acceptable than others.
Nevertheless, doesn't letting homosexuality rage as a particularly heinous sin - or a particular behavior pattern that deserves special civil protections - ignore the broader context of what activities benefit society and honor God's holiness? Adultery in any form doesn't benefit society, so what makes homosexuality an exception to that rule?
Maybe We Can't Grasp God's Love Because It's Perfect... And We're Not
When it comes to Heaven and Hell, and how God determines who goes where, we need to maintain a proper perspective of what life is all about. Life isn't about you and me being happy, or content, or angry, or lustful, or pure, or anything. The life you and I are experiencing on this planet, in the grand scheme of eternity, simply exists as yet another expression of God's creativity and sovereignty. And not only that, but God created humans because He's a relational God.
Think about it: God allows sin to exist so He can prove His love, because love is a key component of beneficial relationships. God's love is best seen in Christ's sacrificial death, through which God's people are redeemed from eternal damnation.
Again, if you refuse to acknowledge God's sovereignty, this is going to sound like circular logic to you. But if everybody gets saved from eternal damnation, where's the love? Damnation would be a toothless threat, right? How is that loving? God created dogs, cats, and alligators, but He doesn't want relationships with them. Dogs, cats, and alligators don't sin, either. If God created every human to go through life on this earth, and die, and then spend eternity with Him in Heaven, aren't we then pawns in some celestial game? Why go through all of what we have to go through here, if we all end up in the same place? What would that prove?
God sent His Son as a sacrifice so that He could demonstrate His love. Parents love all their children, and they should love all of their children equally, but they don't love every child on the planet, do they?
By the way, is it coincidence that homosexuality and other forms of adultery are expressions of unholy love? What about the gang-rape of the nine-year-old child? That's sexual perversion, and all sex is supposed to be reserved for the marriage covenant.
Come to think of it, in all of Bart's key questions, isn't he seeking a validation for love?
The thing that makes Christianity the best answer for all of these questions is that the God of the Bible is the only God Who ever loved His followers so much that He sacrificed His own, deeply loved Son for them. Some theologians call this the "humiliation of Christ," since becoming a mortal and dying seems so antithetical to the concept of deity. What other god actually reaches down to redeem its followers, and not demand anything more from them for salvation other than their love?
Not that God expects us to fry our brains trying to understand all of this. He doesn't welcome us at the Pearly Gates with a Scantron and a standardized test to see if we get in. We need to have faith that what He tells us in His Word is true. We need to believe that we are not created for ourselves, but for Him. We need to be convinced that the things happening to us, and the temptations we face, and the sins we commit, all point to two things: our utter depravity apart from God, and His unfailing love regardless of our faults.
Yes, everyday life presents all of us with a lot of tough questions. And many times, the answers aren't particularly easy, either.
But truth is still truth, even if you don't think you like it, or understand it.
Meanwhile, is using the way our world presents life an accurate standard by which life itself should be judged?