Everyone believes in something.
Perhaps you believe that the Conservative government is to blame for our current national crisis, or that it’s morally wrong to bring children into a world that could be uninhabitable in their lifetimes, or that biscoff is the ultimate flavour for any dessert. It may be that you believe the opposite of all these things, or just differently. Some beliefs are commonly held and universally agreed upon (that Jaffa Cakes exist), others are niche and divisive (whether a Jaffa Cake is a biscuit or a cake).
Beliefs inevitably flow into actions and determine who we vote for, what we spend our money on, who we associate with, what we write on Twitter (I’ll be deep in the cold, cold ground before I call it ‘X’), where we shop, which news platforms and figures we pay attention to. However, in no other setting do beliefs have higher stakes than in Christianity.
You may have heard the famous Bible verse John 3:16: ‘For God so loved the world that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.’ Life or death, that’s a belief that you want to get right.
Admittedly there’s a little more to it than that; while the Bible doesn’t have a clear step-by-step guide for salvation, the general gist is that you must believe in Jesus, entrust your life to him, and act in such a way that his life is evidenced through yours. The letter of James, which emphasizes the important role of actions within a person’s faith, puts it this way: ‘Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.’
Even if salvation doesn’t end with belief, it certainly has to start there; how can you entrust your life to a person if you don’t think they’re real?
So what you believe may not be enough in itself to win you a ticket to the good place, there’s a bunch of small print to explore after that. But even if salvation doesn’t end with belief, it certainly has to start there; how can you entrust your life to a person if you don’t think they’re real? It’s a necessary threshold you have to step over.
But how do you arrive at this belief? And why do you believe what you believe?
The phrase above is the name of a book by one of my former theology lecturers, Graham McFarlane. It was also the underpinning aim of his lectures: encouraging students to examine the reasons behind their beliefs and scrutinize their validity. It may have slightly backfired in my case, as while I recognized the flimsy foundations of what I adhered to, I didn’t find the attempts at reconstructing these beliefs within an evangelical worldview to be on much firmer ground.
In my understanding, there are three – broad and overlapping – ways in which someone arrives at any given belief: socialisation, education, and experience.
Socialisation refers to the impact of both our immediate and wider communities on how we understand the world. Our minds are especially malleable in our childhood and teenage years so that what we pick up in this time may shape our brains without passing through much scrutiny. It’s not by chance that a person’s religious or political beliefs often match up with those of their parents, even if they later develop or diverge. However, it’s not only during this period in our lives that socialisation has an effect; any community we live within will have a measure of influence.
Education is a more deliberate approach to forming our worldview; whether through formal instruction or just a lot of reading and research, it refers to the way in which we seek reasonable, coherent and demonstrable answers to the questions we encounter from infancy to adulthood. Where does rain come from? Why is the climate changing? How do I stop my washing machine flooding?
Experience refers to those events which lay beyond community influence or intentional research, things that happen to us or around us: discovering that an oven tray is hot by catching your hand on it, encountering a new culture first-hand when travelling, being impacted by poor mental health. These will all play their part in informing our beliefs about the world, society and how we should live.
Using Christian belief as the subject for each of the above, someone may come to faith through: A) belonging to a Christian community; b) being persuaded by evidence for the resurrection of Jesus; or C) having an otherworldly encounter with what they understand to be the Holy Spirit.
Importantly, in none of these categories can a person choose what they believe. You may exert limited control through, for example, choosing to join a religious community or reading into certain apologetic arguments which would increase your exposure to ideas and affect your chance of arriving at certain conclusions, but the end results of these decisions are nevertheless beyond your choosing. If you find yourself compelled by an argument, trying to denying it will only bury that newfound belief, not change it.
The mountain of belief is just as unscalable for some as the task of perfectly keeping all 613 laws of the Hebrew Bible.
The core Christian doctrine of salvation based on belief is supposed to level the playing field; everyone has a chance to be saved without having to strive through performance, ‘For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.’ (Ephesians 2.8-9) In practice, however, the mountain of belief is just as unscalable for some as the task of perfectly keeping all 613 laws of the Hebrew Bible.
If you’re required to believe certain things in order to enter the faith, what happens when you find yourself simply unable to believe?
I never chose to disbelieve in Christianity, in the same way that I couldn’t choose to believe in it again, even if I really wanted to. It was instead a process of self-examination and being honest with myself about what was going on in my head as a result of a number of influencing factors. Even if I had kept attending church and singing all the right words, it wouldn’t have made me any more of a believer.
There are many other non-Christians who simply cannot choose to believe, no matter how much they want to. If we consider again the three ways that someone arrives at a belief: you may have: A) been brought up as a Christian, been an active member of your church and yet always found yourself on the outside of belief; or B) read all of the apologetic literature in the hope that the cosmological argument or The Case for Christ would convince you, only to be underwhelmed by the arguments and more convinced by the alternatives. That leaves us with C) personal experience, which someone cannot conjure up for themselves, or else it would not be from an agency beyond their own psychology.
Within a Christian worldview, those who are unable to believe have been left outside in the cold by the inactivity of God.
This is the situation in which I find myself. I became a Christian as a result of my upbringing and attending youth groups, only to later lose my faith on account of several issues to do with the Christian worldview and a lack of the experiential closeness with God which others seemed to have. As socialisation and education have failed to keep me in the fold, the only thing I can reasonably imagine would bring me back in is a divine encounter. Essentially, I’ve played my part, and if God wants me to believe then he would need to step in. The passage from Ephesians I quoted earlier makes it explicit: ‘This is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.’
The conclusion from which it’s hard to escape is that within a Christian worldview, those who are unable to believe have been left outside in the cold by the inactivity of God. There’s a famous painting, ‘The Light of the World’ by artist William Holman Hunt, which features Jesus stood outside knocking on a door with no handle, implying that the person on the inside must be the one to let him in. It’s not hard to imagine the characters switched, so that instead of Jesus, it is the hopeful non-believer stood outside the door; with no power to open it themselves, they’re left calling out to the silent God who lurks inside.
Now there are three kinds of Christians for whom this is not a problem. Firstly, Calvinists, as this is essentially what they subscribe to: God has chosen the elect to believe and damned the rest. Secondly, Universalists, as belief does not determine your salvation; all will ultimately be saved and reconciled to God. Finally, Inclusivists who believe that God will judge non-believers on whether they would have believed in him under different circumstances, which frankly sounds like shaky hypothetical grounds to bet your eternal salvation on.
But the person who contends that you must believe in your heart and confess with your mouth that Jesus is God in order to be saved is left with the very uncomfortable question of why God has not granted that belief to those who truly desire it. They’re damned and there’s not a damned thing they can do about it.
Instead of Jesus, it is the hopeful non-believer stood outside the door; with no power to open it themselves, they’re left calling out to the silent God who lurks inside.
Some also argue that in order for a person to freely choose to worship God - and for their love of him to be genuine - God cannot impose his existence upon them. On more than a few seconds’ inspection, this reasoning falls flat. Many people are probably convinced beyond reasonable doubt that I exist, and yet they aren’t compelled to love me, no matter how much I ask them to. The biblical passage in James which I quoted earlier also speaks to this point, making clear that even the demons believe in God and yet do not love or worship him, and so evidently belief does not necessitate love. However, lack of belief makes love impossible.
So what is a reluctant sceptic to do? In the Old Testament book of 1 Kings is a fun little passage in which the prophet Elijah sets up an altar for Yahweh and tells the prophets of Ba’al (the bad god) to do the same; they will each call on their respective deity to set the altar alight, demonstrating who is truly God. Noticing that Ba’al has not responded to his prophets’ increasingly desperate pleas, Elijah mocks them, saying, ‘Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or travelling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.’ (1 Kings 18:27). Similar thoughts surely go through the mind of the hopeful non-believer who is left knocking at a door with no response; the promise, ‘Knock, and it will be opened to you,’ (Luke 11:9) rings hollow.
At some point it seems the best course of action is to leave a note on the door and walk away, so that the God ‘who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth’ (1 Timothy 2:4) will know where to find you.
If he wakes up.