How would you answer questions directed at you about understanding God’s will, human responsibility in light of God’s sovereignty, or the validity of other religions? Recently I attended the weekly discussion of one of the Graduate Christian Fellowship groups I oversee here in Washington, DC. This is a group of Christian graduate students that meets weekly for discussion, prayer and encouragement. In the spring semester, they decided to use a Christian book rather than the Bible for their weekly discussions. In this book every chapter deals with a different “tough question” that Christians face. The question put before us on the night I visited the group was about hell: can we really believe that people who reject Christ are eternally lost, forever separated from God?
What I liked about the book discussion is how it showed that there are often no easy answers to the tough questions Christians face. Simply reciting platitudes when wrestling with a thorny issue can weaken a Christian’s commitment to the Lord when deep down inside he or she is harboring doubts about the traditional position that Christians have held. The book encouraged Christians to face directly their doubts and questions, and not to fear coming away without neat and clear answers. I am convinced that Christianity can “take” all the hard questions we throw its way, and that Christians need have no fear about facing and raising their concerns.
But what concerned me as I listened to these students’ comments was the way in which they sought to move towards resolution of their questions. As they talked about heaven and hell, paramount in their opening words were phrases like this: “The way I like to think about it is…”, “This is just my own personal perspective, but for me…”,”This may not be accurate, but I like to think of hell in this way…”
Though I appreciated the students’ humility about not having strongly set viewpoints, I was surprised with how few of them turned to the Bible when formulating their comments. The focus tended to be much more on how they personally felt and thought, rather than on any thus-says-the-Lord of Holy Scripture.
I can totally appreciate how Christians can sometimes differ from one another in their interpretations of Scripture. But it’s one thing to say, “This is what God tells us about hell in His Word, and in my opinion, I think He means this by it…” and quite another to say, “I like to think of it in this way…” In the first case, one is wrestling with the inspired, revelatory data that God has given us in the Bible, and then trying to make sense of it; in the second case, the focus is away from the Bible and on to one’s own personal feelings and thoughts on the subject.
In InterVarsity, one of the doctrinal Basis of Faith that we hold is this: ”The unique divine inspiration, entire trustworthiness and authority of the Bible.”
We see the Bible as our unique, authoritative touchstone to which we turn for understanding truth. The Bible can be trusted as God’s revelation, his telling us things that are true. In no way does this mean that understanding the Bible is quick, easy or simplistic, but it does mean the ultimate source of the answers to our theological questions is not oneself but God’s Word. Our goal must be not to look deeply within ourselves—our personal feelings, inclinations and experiences—but to look outward to God, by humbly listening and submitting to his Word.
While it may be accurate to say that “I like to think and feel” many things about many topics, I want my understanding to be shaped by what God thinks and feels—and ultimately what He has revealed to me to be true, in His Holy Word, the Bible. It’s possible simultaneously to be humble and to hold strong, biblically-informed convictions. Is this something you want as well? How well do you think you could Biblically answer these tough questions?
Kevin Offner has been on staff with InterVarsity for 31 years, serving students in New England and now the metro Washington DC area. He currently oversees faculty and graduate student ministry on five campuses in Washington, DC. Kevin is married to Amy, and they have an eleven year old son, David. Kevin is very interested in ecumenical theology: how to not water down one’s tradition’s theological commitments while at the same time looking for genuine areas of agreement between the traditions.
The blog is an avenue for staff and student leaders to hear from the visionary leaders of Collegiate Ministries about theological formation, discipleship, chapter planting, chapter growth, and other key ministry themes for campus work.