One of the conversations I avoid but would like to be able to handle better is the one about salvation, whether or not I’ve accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. I have close relatives who claim to be saved and have made it their duty to save as many unsaved loved ones as possible so that we will spend eternity in the afterlife. I journaled about a conversation with a very close relative who asked about the state of my spiritual life as she drove me to the airport. I gave this entry the title “An Annoying Conversation.”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you have a relationship with God? Do you pray to him? Do you seek His guidance? Do you feel like you have a friend in Him?
Silence, then she breaks it by saying, “Are you ready for eternity?”
Trying to evade this question, I answer, “I guess.”
“In other words, are you ready for death?”
No response from me, but it is like a gut punch.
She continues. “Death can be random, and you have to be be prepared for eternity.” (A bit insensitive as I was soon to board an airplane and this was soon after the Ethiopian Airlines crash in 2019.)
I took the bait and attempted to explain my views. “I don’t really focus my life on where I’m going to spend eternity. I prefer to focus on my life in the here and now.”
“… Well, scripture says whoever believes in Him, shall have eternal life. That’s what I’m going by.”
Here I go. “Well, I believe, since we don’t really know what happens after death, we shouldn’t make that our focus on how to live our life.
“What do you mean, we don’t really know? Of course we know. Scripture reveals this.”
“ I just don’t think that the loving God I believe in would condemn people to hell if they died suddenly or randomly and they didn’t have this relationship that you’re talking about. Like the Ethiopian Airlines crash (which had just happened at this time.) How can a loving God condemn them to hell?
“Well, I just pray that they had peace with God when they died.”
“And if they didn’t, then they are in hell?”
“… Eternity is a very long time and I would like to spend eternity with the people I care about.”
“Don’t worry. Because I’m not worried.”
“Okay. I just wanted you to know that I care.”
“Yep.” End of conversation. We reach the airport.
As I flew away on my way to a vacation in Mexico, I remember feeling frustrated, like I had lost a debate. But now I realize I didn’t do so badly. I don’t care to proselytize my views, so winning a debate is not a concern. But I do wish I was able to articulate my views as clearly and assertively as she can articulate hers. This is my attempt to do that.
I don’t believe in the Bible as the Word of God. (Blasphemy! Hell!) I view it as a collection of writing by men — humans trying to articulate their responsibilities to God. In the New Testament, these men were trying to understand and communicate the role of Jesus the Christ — the Messiah — who they believed was the incarnation of God, the Son of God. I do look to the life of Christ as important guidance for how to love one another and that we are to advocate for those who are oppressed and who need help. I love the stories surrounding Christ’s life, starting from his birth, through his life, his death and resurrection. This is a deep and rich story and I appreciate it as a part of my spiritual foundation. But anyone interpreting this life is to be taken as — their take, just as my interpretation is my take.
I don’t believe in original sin. This seems to justify why it’s okay to judge that those not “saved” will be going to hell. Unless you are “saved,” you are a sinner, thanks to Eve. I always felt a dissonance with this idea, especially because I love babies, and when I look into their eyes, I see God, not sin. I was so relieved when I found the book Original Blessings by Matthew Fox, once a Catholic priest in the Dominican order, but censured by the Vatican for his thought-provoking and ground-breaking work. Fox writes that the focus on the Fall and Redemption has been responsible for a very negative expression of Christianity, and proposes that the counter to this is reclaiming joy, beauty, pleasure, justice, and creativity as God’s true nature.
I value humility. Even when I think I’m 100 percent correct, I say I’m 99.9 percent correct, on the off-chance that I am wrong. (I’m usually right when it comes to a having a good sense of direction.) On philosophical, political, and religious matters, I really don’t want to get into this dichotomy of absolutely knowing I am right and you’re wrong. I only need to know what I believe is right for me and why. So, when I say, we don’t really know what happens when we die, I take that as a humble acceptance of our limitations.
Where I will end up when I die does not guide the life I lead. I am not afraid of death because I know I have no control over it. It is random. We do what we can to be healthy and safe because we know our loved ones care about our well-being. Hell, I care about my well-being. I love life. I love life. I love life. What guides my behavior and my spiritual life is the extent to which I am an expression of love. Okay, so I don’t “pray” the way you do. But I am aware of my energy. I am aware of the choices I make and what guides them. Is this who I am born to be? Is this my purpose? Am I an expression of love? (The essence of God, Higher Power). Do I walk the talk? Am I doing my part in making the world — this planet — a better place?
I am not motivated by fear of death. I am motivated by love of life. I am not motivated by fear of hell. I don’t believe that a loving God wants any of his creations to suffer. Belief in a loving God and belief in a God who would condemn souls to hell for any reason are incompatible beliefs. A loving God would be more loving than a typical human. A loving God would embrace all his creations, no matter how troubled. Perhaps troubled souls, when they are finally embraced by God in the afterlife, will at that point know love, and that would be heaven. And I imagine, though I do not know, that our shortcomings and “sins” will be revealed to us, and we will be in hell as we recount them, but always in the context of knowing that we are loved.
This is the Good News. This is the message of Jesus Christ. Do not fear death. Do not fear hell. Hell is when you don’t know that God loves you. When you stop fearing death and hell, you open yourself truly to love. Believers of all religions and no religion — all deserve unconditional love, as God loves All.
Diane Aoki is a writer who explores other modes of creativity as her intuition leads her.