Saturday, May 02, 2015

My Daughter Says I’m Going to Hell

Cary Tennis at Salon fields a question from an atheist dad whose 13-year old girl is concerned for his soul. It’s an old post but a familiar problem for any Christian who has worked with teens. Tennis’s answer is intriguing, to say the least, coming from an advice columnist, former rock journalist, recovering alcoholic and avowed progressive. 

The letter writer is a single father with shared custody. His daughter is a professing Christian who has attended an evangelical church with her mother for most of her life. When dad broaches the subject of religion, evolution, homosexuality or other hot-button issues from his own worldview, he finds he is distressing his daughter, which is something he’d prefer to avoid.

Hence the request for advice.

Tennis replies as follows:
“Does football exist?

Some would argue no.”
Now this is kind of a silly way to start because the proposition is ridiculous. There are surely people who have never heard of football but few, if any, would argue that just because they have never heard of it, it doesn’t exist.

But Mr. Tennis is just warming up, so let’s let him say his piece:
“Surely they have heard people speak of football and argue forcibly about its rules and the conduct of its games. But they have never been to a game and would never go to a game because to them football is a mass illusion with a peculiar, inexplicable allure for millions of clueless fools, on whose hard-earned dollars certain unscrupulous people get very rich.

If your daughter is not a football fan she might argue thus.”
And she might not, but leaving that aside …
“Moreover, she might argue, football is harmful to the development of a peaceful, nonviolent culture.

To which you might respond, well, if football does not exist then how can it be harmful?

And she would say, well, people gather to watch games, but what they are watching is not really football. It is just a bunch of people believing in football. There is no actual football. It is an illusion, a group hallucination. But it warps people’s minds and diverts them from more important things.

To which you might reply, Have you ever been to a game? How can you say that? What can this thing that we are doing possibly be if it is not football?

Well, she might say, that’s your problem. All I know is that football does not exist, and if it did exist, I’d know.

How can you know unless you go to a game? you’d ask her in exasperation.

Moreover, how can you know what goes on there after just one game? You would need to attend games regularly for maybe several years, or at least a couple of seasons, before you could really feel you know what’s going on there!

The proposition is ridiculous, and the parallel just a bit forced, but you can see where Mr. Tennis is leading Atheist Dad, and it ain’t where I was expecting.
“What I am trying to say is, the way to help your daughter grow is not to debate the existence of God. It is to go to church with your daughter and experience what she is experiencing.

You can argue about who is winning and who is losing. But at least watch the game.”
Whoa Nellie! He’s actually sending dad to church …
“Her problem is not that she believes in God. It’s that she believes you are going to burn in hell when you die. It’s her concern for you, and her fear for you, that are the problem.”
Well, if all we’re thinking about is the daughter’s state of mind this would be true, but some of us might argue that if dad actually IS going to burn in hell when he dies, that constitutes a problem of some magnitude as well. Some of us, like his daughter, would prefer a different outcome, as might dad once he finds out his faith in the non-existence of God was regrettably misplaced
“… in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes ...”
Sorry. Back to Mr. Tennis’s answer:
“She wants to believe otherwise but has no solid grounds on which to place any hope. If you go to church with her, you will make it possible for her to believe that there is at least a chance that you will not burn in hell. From this she will derive great benefit. It will give her some peace of mind. The peace of mind she derives from it will help her in her schoolwork and in her relationships with others. It will help her sleep at night and it will improve her attitude toward you. It will be one less complaint she has against you. It will be one less wedge her mother can use between you. And it will be the only way you will ever be able to argue with her about religion with any credibility, should you choose to do so when she gets older.”
This is all very practical and more than a little patronizing toward the daughter and what she believes, but really, wouldn’t we all love it if some fellow agnostic or atheist would give this sort of advice to the unbelieving parents of kids in our church’s Sunday School or youth group?
“Now is not the time to argue with her about religion. Now is the time to strengthen your bond with your daughter by participating in things that matter to her, by showing her that you respect the way she lives her life and by showing her that you have an open mind.”
Now if dad doesn’t actually HAVE an open mind, this would be a tad disingenuous, but Mr. Tennis is probably not counting on the work of the Holy Spirit here. Atheist Dad may find his mind is more open than he thinks. Paul tells us that when the Spirit is at work in each individual in a local church, it can be a powerful testimony to unbelievers
“… if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.”
We are regrettably short a few prophets in the churches these days, but there are plenty of other spiritual gifts, the godly and loving exercise of which might make the truth of Christ just as compelling to a person who has never heard it.

Mr. Tennis continues:
“But don’t just go to church with her. Meet with one of the officials. That’s right, wander right down on to the field and speak with one of the guys in the striped shirts. Or whatever they wear. Arrange a private conference. In this private conference, you can say whatever you like. It doesn’t matter really. It might be a good conversation or it might be utterly ridiculous. But show your daughter that you are willing to engage with one of the people she respects. Show her that you have enough humility and independence of spirit to engage, that you are not fearful or dogmatic or close-minded.

In your own mind, you might approach the matter as a consumer. Don’t be glib with the official or you may be ejected. But in your own mind, think of salvation, or ‘eternal life,’ as a product.

How is this product obtained? Are there instances in which people are granted “eternal life” at random, or must every grant be preceded by an act of faith, or surrender? Are there exact words one must use to close the deal, or will any words to the effect of ‘I’m in!’ suffice? Would a silent act of surrender suffice? If a silent act of surrender would suffice, then is it possible that you have already been saved?”
Here Mr. Tennis lapses into a bit of soteriological goofiness; we know that a “silent act of surrender” falls more than a little short:
“… because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
That sounds like both heart and mouth are involved, no?

But leaving aside all that, as a Bible teacher, elder, pastor or whatever, wouldn’t you love to have this father quizzing you even if his motives are entirely bogus? I certainly would.
“And, once granted, can this product be recalled? For instance, what if a child were to be a fervent believer and then later lost his belief? Would that initial belief still grant him eternal life? Go over the terms and conditions, as it were.

Once you have done this, and conversed with an official, you might be able to confidently tell your daughter, without going into specifics, that you think everything is going to be OK, eternal-life-wise. She would probably appreciate that.”
Mr. Tennis entirely fails to stick the landing here, but he’s not a believer so I’m happy to let it slide. He’s all caught up in improving the relationship between dad and daughter and in allaying her fears, which is considerate of him. But if the daughter is really saved and her father is just playing church for her sake, the truth will come out eventually.

All told, to me it seems a pretty interesting reply: a little patronizing, a little beside the point here and there, but overall maybe the best advice one might give an unsaved dad in these circumstances. And I find it an interesting window into the mindset of a group of people (unbelieving parents of Christian children) that we don’t always get to interact with at great length.

How many kids do you have in your church with unsaved parents? How do we react when they show up with their children to see what we’re all about? If they walked into our meetings, would what they hear be compellingly, lovingly and intelligently presented, or would they hear cliches, anachronisms and incomprehensible jargon? To me, it is entirely insignificant that such a visitor be the recipient of a targeted gospel message. In fact, it may be much better if he or she is not. What we believe may seem completely bizarre to them at first, but that’s quite unimportant.

What’s important is that they meet rational, caring people who treat them like human beings rather than potential trophies; who simply and unaffectedly show them the love of Christ.

Worth thinking about.

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