WOULD YOU BE AFRAID TO MEET GOD?
“Yes, terribly terrified!”
The Scottish gravedigger stood in the rain among the thousands of
tombstones surrounding the ancient kirk1 where he also served as Sunday school superintendent.
“Because of all those terrifying stories in the Bible.”
I had asked the same question of all kinds of people around the British Isles. It was part of a 13,000 mile trip back and forth across beautiful Britain to discover why so few in that once so Christian land still attend church regularly or profess belief in God.
I asked a saintly lady who had devoted her long life to teaching
Bible to the children. “Would you be afraid to meet God?”
“Not at all.”
“Because of all those wonderful stories about God’s love.”
“What about all the terrifying stories in the Bible?”
“We don’t concentrate on the more ferocious aspects of the Scriptures. We prefer to emphasize the loving ones.”
“But what about the lake of fire in the book of Revelation?”
“Oh, with the children we don’t do that last book in the Bible.”
“What about the Genesis story of the flood, when God drowned all but eight?”
“Oh, the children have no difficulty with that. They have a keen sense of justice, and they especially like how God saved those eight in the ark.”
The gravedigger and the Bible teacher are obviously not among those in Britain who have abandoned Christianity, as they understand it. But for many others, the “more ferocious aspects of the Scriptures,” as the teacher put it, have turned them away from both God and the church.
I heard frequent references to the horrors of hell and the impossibility of trusting a god who would demand obedience under threat of eternal torment. As one Shakespearian actress somewhat heatedly complained, “The gods of other religions are less cruel than the god of the Old Testament!” She remembered only with terror the god she had known as a child, and no trustworthy god had yet taken his place.
But the people of Britain are as friendly as I have always known them to be. Home and family are still the center of society. And the warmth and friendship families may have once found in the church, many now look for somewhere else. A favorite place is the neighborhood pub.
“Why are the churches so empty and the pubs so full?”
“Better service, I expect!” was the immediate reply of a retired London ice cream vendor, as he jauntily leaned on his cane outside the boarded-up stone parish church he hoped soon to purchase and convert to a home.
“Would you be afraid to meet God?”
“Why should I? I’m not afraid of anyone. Besides, I’ve always been a fairly decent person, never kicked a neighbor when he’s down.”
“Did you attend this church before it was boarded up?”
“I haven’t gone to church for years. Oh, I used to attend Sunday school when I was little. But I was pressured into going.”
“Who did the pressing?”
Like the retired ice cream vendor, many others spoke of their mums
and grannies2 having seen to it that they attended Sunday school. But as they grew older, unanswered questions led to disillusionment—a frequent term I heard—disillusionment with Bible, church, and God. In the land that has done so much for worldwide circulation of the Scriptures, one bookshop proprietor reported, “I’m doing well if I sell two Bibles in a year!”
Many Wish They Could Still Believe
But even as individuals and families described their unbelief, I sensed a wistful longing that there still might be Someone they could trust, a God whose actions made good sense.
“Do you sometimes wish you could still believe?”
“Yes, I do,” was the unhesitating answer of an eloquent Irish commentator, who as a boy had attended no less than three churches every Sunday and could still quote Scripture from memory. “But there simply is no evidence.”
On a tiny humpbacked bridge over the canal in Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s town, I talked with a muscular motorbiker who said he never had believed in God.
“Have you ever read the Bible?”
“When we come to the end of our lives, we’ll find out if there is Someone on the other side.”
“If it turns out that there really is a God, do you expect to be afraid?”
“No. If there is a God, I’m sure he’ll be ‘one of the lads’” (a friendly English phrase meaning someone you would enjoy being with, someone you could trust). He didn’t say this flippantly, for in earnest he added that until we know about God for sure, we ought at least to be good to each other. “There’s no real ’ell,” he went on. “Hell is people. People not being decent to each other.”
The tough-looking but gentle motorbiker seemed as if he would welcome as good news that there really is such a God as he described. One thing for certain, though: there are widely-held pictures of God he would find impossible to entertain.
With or without earlier religious instruction, so many who professed no belief in God still spoke, vaguely to be sure, of a distant but kindly power. “A benevolent gaseous presence,” was one young mother’s description, with an airy wave of the hand, as she recalled childhood years of Sunday school attendance.
I met a friendly family of four walking near the beach in northwest England. The mother talked sadly about their gradual abandonment of Christian worship and belief. “God and the church are far too distant,” she explained. “They don’t have meaning anymore.” In spite of years in church and Sunday school, no one in the family could remember a single Bible story.
“For there to be a god you could worship once again, what would he have to be like?”
Eleven-year-old Lorraine quietly answered, “He’d have to be someone I could trust, someone who’d never let me down.”
Is There Someone We Can Trust?
It would do no good to try to settle this by quoting the claims of Scripture. The Bible’s picture of God, as they saw it, was what had led them to doubt these claims. And recitation of the loving stories would not be enough to outweigh the “more ferocious aspects of the Scriptures.” Which passages really tell the truth? To many thoughtful people the Bible has lost authority because it doesn’t always seem to make good sense.
The wife of a successful businessman searched for words to describe her picture of God. “Inconsistent, arbitrary,” she began, then settled finally on “cruel.” “But,” she continued, “why can’t we keep the values of Christianity, like loving your neighbor as yourself, yet without the Christian’s God?” Like so many others, she had grown up in Sunday school, but now—it seemed somewhat regretfully—declared herself “an atheist.”
Not long ago Queen Elizabeth publicly observed that the people of Britain value nothing higher than their freedom and individuality. For centuries they have defended—sometimes even at risk of life—their freedom to worship in the church of their choice. Now many are exercising that same freedom by staying away.
God, the Bible, and the church are perceived not so much as a threat to this treasured freedom, but rather as simply irrelevant, belonging to a bygone age of serfs and aristocracy, when freedom was only for the privileged few, and the powerful preyed on the superstitions of the poor.
All over Britain are reminders of the years when Christianity enjoyed far greater authority. But so often they are monuments not only to individual courage and faith, but also to the long, dark history of the attempts of religion—including Christianity—to suppress freedom and individuality, often by barbarous means.
In Chester, near the northern boundary of England and Wales, is a simple stone monument beside the road that helps us to remember that more than one branch of Christianity has practiced such cruel suppression. The inscription records that George Marsh, a Protestant clergyman, was “burnt to death near this spot for the truth’s sake” under Bloody Mary in 1555. It is also a monument to John Pleasington, a Roman Catholic priest, “martyred here” by Protestants in 1679, and “canonized a saint in 1970.” Both heretics were put to death in the name of the same Christian God, and the crowds who enjoyed gathering to witness such proceedings could hardly be blamed for regarding God with considerable confusion and fear.
Even in recent, more enlightened times, in the minds of many people, God, the Bible, and the church are not seen as enhancing the dignity of freedom and individuality. Failing to make good sense out of Christianity, many have apparently found it easiest just to consider God and religion, along with Stonehenge and the Tower of London, as all part of Britain’s colorful cultural heritage, to be preserved—even treasured, to be sure—but not as part of modern living.
Is This the End of the Christian Age?
As another motorbiker said in Stratford, “I used to believe in a friendly God, when I was a lad in Sunday school. But now I just don’t need him anymore.” So many seem to share this view that it has become common of late to speak of the end of the Christian age in Great Britain, as also in much of Europe.
“We don’t have to go to church to be decent people,”3 observed Barry, a gentleman butcher, as he leaned on his bright red van. When I asked him to name the imposing church just across the street from his shop, he laughed as he shook his head. “You’re talking to the wrong person. I don’t believe in God, and I never go to church.” But Barry clearly showed the marks of a truly decent man.
When Christianity was more dominant, one might have expected that people of varying views would be correspondingly more decent and respectful to each other. But as a distinguished Oxford librarian—himself a devout Christian—has observed, “One good thing that can be said about the decline of religion in Britain is that people are now more tolerant toward each other.”
It must be a great disappointment to God that so many of the decent people of Britain and all around the world identify him with a less free and less civilized time. How he must wish that they could hear the incredible offer of his Son, made almost two thousand years ago: “I call you no longer my servants. I call you rather my friends!”
What government could be more civilized, what society more free, than one presided over by the God of John 15:15?