By: Anika Larson
Art by: Yawen Xue
Content warning: brief mentions of suicide
Growing up Evangelical, I often considered the question of death. If I was destined for Heaven, why not just skip my time on earth? Golden roads, pearly gates, and a life free from injury and filled with nothing but family and love and happiness? After one session of a kids’ Bible program I attended weekly, I approached one of the leaders to ask her why Christians didn’t all just kill each other to go to Heaven sooner. Not surprisingly, the question didn’t go over well. I don’t remember much of what she said, only her flustered demeanor and disturbed, almost angry tone. I eventually answered the question for myself when I left my Christian bubble of church and home to discover that not everyone had already accepted-Jesus-to-be-their-personal-Lord-and-Savior (shocker!). It became my duty to be constantly evangelizing — at school, in the community, to whomever would lend their ear for just a minute. Images of hellfire and eternal suffering plagued my mind — not for me, but for every loved one who didn’t come to Jesus. My heart ached for my friends who didn’t routinely attend church; during sleepovers with my cousin, I stayed up late whispering to her about the salvation I had found in Christ and the kingdom of Heaven that awaited her, if only she would accept Jesus into her heart.
At 19, I stand at the end of what has been a five year long process of reckoning with my faith and unlearning much of what I internalized as a kid. I no longer consider myself to be a Christian, and yet I can’t seem to fully buy into agnosticism (or atheism). Maybe I haven’t fully unlearned everything yet, or maybe it’s just the way I am. For so long, being a Christian was fundamental to my personhood. It constituted who I was, how I acted, the friends I made, the goals I had, the values I held. Now, I feel as if I exist in some sort of limbo between Christianity and agnosticism. Maybe I’m not Christian in my beliefs, but I’m Christian in an almost cultural way. Christian in the way that I know every word to every hymn and gospel song, Christian in the way I listen to them when I can’t sleep or I’m homesick, Christian in the way that I can still rattle off entire Bible chapters, Christian in the way that I still engage in critical discussion of passages with my reverend grandfather. There’s part of me that thinks I could never arrive at a conclusion of agnosticism or atheism. That my brain is wired to believe in a higher power, and maybe that’s okay, because being a Christian is not equivalent to being an Evangelical, right? But maybe it’s not okay. The idea of a higher power, of some grand, benevolent overseer, both comforts and disturbs me. It feels familiar and yet nothing in my mind can justify the coexistence of the pain and suffering in this world and some omnipotent, supposedly “just” figure. And when I think thoughts like that, I almost want to call myself an atheist. You can see my dilemma.
And so I ask myself, what’s next? Will I remain in this limbo forever? (I’d call it purgatory but the Evangelicals don’t believe in that.) And so I’ve made it my mission to understand other modes of thought surrounding Christianity. The first was universalism — the belief that everyone will eventually go to Heaven, regardless of faith on earth. Rob Bell (proclaimed a universalist not by himself, but by leaders within the Evangelical church) questions the teachings of traditional Christianity in his book Love Wins: At the Heart of Life’s Big Questions, asking “Does God punish people for an infinite amount of years with eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life?” and “Why does God tell us we have to forgive everyone, including our enemies, and then He doesn’t do the same with sinners going to hell?”
These spurred questions of my own. Why would God’s mercy be limited? How is hell a just concept? In any sense? Isn’t God supposed to be just? It doesn’t make any sense for hell and a just God to coexist, but what is the answer? Is the answer that God doesn’t exist at all? Or is the answer that He does exist, but not as an all-powerful being? Because if he was all-powerful, why is there so much horror in the globe? Because of sin? But if God’s all-powerful, why can’t he just stop sin? (An Evangelical would tell you it’s because God gives us free will — while simultaneously upholding that God knows everything that will happen.) And then again, I arrive at atheism. Maybe it would be comforting to be an atheist. To think that this life is what I’m truly living for.
And yet, what I find potentially comforting about atheism can be found in Liberation Theology. Coming to Dartmouth, I figured I was pretty comfortable labeling myself an agnostic for the time being — until I learned about Liberation Theology. A kind of hybrid Catholic-Marxism, Liberation Theology envisioned the kingdom of God not only as “the beyond,” but as something “among us already… in a country where there’s justice, where there’s respect for human rights and there’s food and schools for everybody… in a little community where we love each other.” The radical possibility of attaining this “kingdom” on earth prompted collective action from believers to destroy hierarchy and pursue social justice. Drawing on the class consciousness inherent to most rural Latin Americans, Liberation Theology emerged through comunidades de base, or “base communities” — mutual aid groups modeled after early-church living (living in small groups where everything is shared among all members. Similar to commune-style living). The ideals and followers of liberation theology profoundly impacted the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Its adherents took up arms to join the FSLN (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional, or Sandinista National Liberation Front), a coalition of leftist groups who fought to overthrow the Somoza Regime and establish a socialist Nicaragua free from exploitation (not that this was entirely what happened, but this was the goal). Borrowing heavily from the practices of liberation theology, “Sandinista praxis [was] a form of Christian praxis,” notably “appropriating” the values of destruction of hierarchy and education for all. Never before had I considered Christianity to be a radical, people-centered ideology, and yet here was this Biblical interpretation that challenged everything I understood Christianity to be. I felt almost liberated learning about it. Could I subscribe to Liberation Theology? Is that something I want to do? How would I reconcile my doubts about Christianity? How does one even practice Liberation Theology?
Whether or not I subscribe to the Theology half of Liberation Theology, I want to live in that world “where there’s justice, where there’s respect for human rights and there’s food and schools for everybody… in a little community where we love each other.” I’m still not sure what I believe, but for now I think I have to be okay with that. None of my questions can be answered overnight, or even be answered by Marxist-Catholicism, so for now, I guess I’ll sit with my questions and challenge my conceptions of Heaven and hell. Although the not-knowing is certainly uncomfortable. Maybe pearly gates await me at the end of life, but maybe nothing does. Maybe this is all we have. But maybe it’s not.
Rob Bell, “What about the flat tire?” in Love Wins: a book about Heaven, Hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2012).
Ernesto Cardenal, The Gospel in Solentiname, ed. Donald D, Walsh (Orbis, 2010).
Roger N. Lancaster, “Marxism and Religion: A Critique” in Thanks to God and the Revolution: Popular Religion and Class Consciousness in the New Nicaragua (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988).
Cardenal, The Gospel in Solentiname.