For my freshman and sophomore years, I attended a junior college close to home. I was coming off a two-month summer stay in the hospital, and I wasn’t convinced of a future direction, so it was the most convenient option. As with most kids, college was an entirely new experience for me and introduced me to many unforgettable experiences—from weekly war protests to a teacher who frequently stood atop his desk.
I remember one class where this big kid, sitting in the front row, fell asleep one day. Just as he started snoring, someone reached across and jostled him awake. Fewer than five minutes later, his head was back on his desk, deep in sleep, and snoring even louder. This time, instead of waking him, the professor suggested we should let him sleep since he probably had a rough night.
I made two glaring mistakes that first year of college. First, I took a class on Art Appreciation. Second, the class met right after lunch. Every afternoon after eating, the professor turned off the lights in the room and projected slides of great works of art on the wall as he discussed them in detail. I confess I was the one sleeping more than once.
Normally, I’m not a sleeper. I never take naps. Once up in the morning, I’m awake until bedtime. I stay busy, and even if there’s nothing pressing to do, I find something and entertain myself. You can accuse me of a lot of things, but I’m not one of those people who sleeps a lot, but I’ve known many people who have essentially slept through life.
When I speak of sleeping through life, I’m not referring to an occasional nap or dozing off during a boring movie. It’s a reference to the person who spends an entire lifetime without learning anything new about God. Perhaps the best way to understand it is to think of the person who believes the same thing they believed at age 20 when they are 70, or 60, or even 50. Their grasp of theology has been unchanged by experience—they have basically slept through life when it comes to faith.
I see it all the time in Facebook discussions. People who grew up in the church and lived their entire adult life as faithful church members but they still cling to elemental theological opinions that they learned in kid’s Sunday School.
Perhaps I can make sense of what I’m saying by describing my own experience. I remember sitting in the church basement during Sunday School as a kid and discussing what happens when people die without knowing Jesus. I suspect I was always the skeptic that untrained teachers hated. I was the one who asked about the poor people in Africa who never even heard about Jesus, would they spend eternity in hell? It didn’t seem fair for God to do that to them.
The smarter, more experienced teachers would say something like, “That’s not for us to decide, God will do that right thing,” and then continue teaching that everyone who died without being saved spent eternity in hell. If you have gone through life without wondering about that, then you have been sleeping; you are brain dead. The entire evangelical doctrine of hell rests on answering that question.
But we move beyond the questions of childhood. Important theological questions are not answered in the church basement. Life happens, and we have other pressing matters. Then one day, a friend dies, or perhaps a family member. He was a good person, kind, considerate, generous, liked by everyone, a bastion of honesty and integrity. However, not a follower of Jesus in any sense of the word. Now the question is more important. Is my friend destined to spend all of eternity, without any ending, suffering from fiery flames, covered with skin that won’t burn up?
I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like the same God I learned about from those same Sunday School teachers in the church basement. I mean the ones who taught me to sing, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world,” and “God is good, God is good, God is good to me.”
Life goes on, and now you’re 60 years old. Your granddaughter, your oldest grandchild, is out partying with friends from college and has a fatal car crash on the way home. You were never invited to her baptism because she never had one. No church Christmas programs because her parents never took her to church, and as far as you know, she was not a friend of Jesus. She was a beautiful girl, loved by her many friends, on her way to being someone special, and you loved her dearly. She was your first, and to be honest, your favorite grandchild.
Can you live with the idea that she will spend eternity in excruciating torment? I’m talking about the kind of punishment no human would even inflict on another human. After all, isn’t that what you were taught about hell.
The person who has slept through life still believes what he was taught in the church basement—everyone who dies without knowing Jesus spends eternity in hell. If they are ever asked what happens to people when non-Christians die, their answer is simple; they go to hell. These people have slept through life. None of their experiences register with them. The fact that life doesn’t seem consistent with their belief is a non-factor.
This person is the parent with a gay son or daughter who they have disowned because they have always believed God wants us to condemn homosexuality. They know this because that’s what they were taught at VBS held in the church basement. Life is much easier if we don’t question the things we were told are true. After all, if it was good enough for Jesus, then it has to be good enough for me.
It’s time to graduate from Sunday School and move your theology out of the church basement. Don’t be afraid to reflect on how your experience is inconsistent with your theology. Be willing to examine what you learned as a kid and start considering what life has taught you and how it impacts what you believe (or think you believe).
Now that your wonderful granddaughter has died, do you still believe God will oversee her eternal existence in a fiery hell? After all the things God has done for you, do you think He would do that to her? For eternity?
The only way to get out of the theological church basement is to be willing to ask questions. Just because your favorite Sunday School teacher taught something doesn’t mean they were correct. Even if they attached Bible verses to what they taught, have you studied to determine if that’s what it really means?
In every area of life, we continue to learn new things. I’ve tried to think of any other area of life where we stop learning, but I have failed to come up with even one. I’m open to your suggestions. Why do we do that in what might be the most important area of life? Many do. Listen to people. Those with a church basement faith are easily recognizable.