by Mark Gutman | 31 May 2023 |
Some years back, I drove 90 miles to a church to preach on Sabbath morning, only to learn that I was a week early.
I checked my Day-Timer and discovered that I had misread it: I had squeezed my writing of the correct date under a different date and been thrown off by the positioning. Ouch! I missed the Sabbath School class I so much enjoy, and I drove 175 extra miles to get to church that day. All because I made a mistake.
I was wrong. But did I jeopardize my chances of getting to heaven?
Mistaken, or wicked?
Does my eternal salvation have anything to do with being wrong?
A whole lot, going by what I’ve read in some online comments, as well as books and magazine articles. If I choose the wrong side of the women’s ordination debate, or the Sabbath-Sunday debate, or the evolution-creation debate, I have chosen hell instead of heaven.
There may still be hope for me, though, if I repent and start believing the way the other side does. Am I wicked because I believe something incorrect?
In school, I was disappointed when I got answers wrong or just couldn’t come up with the answer at all. But I learned from my mistakes. I learned that I needed to study better. Or that I needed to read the question more carefully. Or that I had confused Magellan with Drake. Or that 9 x 9 did not equal 78. Sometimes I only made a certain mistake once, but I also repeated some mistakes many times.
My teachers might have been disappointed in me when I didn’t learn the material well, or they might have thought I was lazy or just not interested in that particular subject. But I never got the idea that a teacher thought I was bad because I put the wrong answer on a homework or test paper. Wrong answers showed that I still had something to learn. But do mistakes mean I’m wicked?
When I make a math mistake, my mistake is not over a matter of opinion. No matter how much I want 2 + 2 to make 6, it makes 4, and everybody would wonder how I came up with 6. If I think that Las Vegas is the capital of Nevada, the evidence is simply indisputable that I am wrong. And while people might tell me to check my facts, nobody is likely to tell me that I need to spend more time on my knees because I can’t remember the actual capital of Nevada.
But if I make a mistake over something that is hard to prove, such as how Jesus’ death affects humanity, or whether or not women should be ordained, some people believe that I should end up in hell. In effect, some people believe that it’s all right for me to be mistaken about undisputed facts, but they do not grant me that same freedom to be mistaken in matters that a minority of people worldwide believes. Devout people of all faiths will agree that Carson City is the capital of Nevada (although most may need to look it up); devout people of all faiths do not agree on the Trinity, eschatology, or the use of alcohol as a beverage. Must we conclude that the reason those people don’t agree with our view is that they are wicked?
Most people will view my preferences for sports teams, vacations, art, and colors kindly, or even humorously, even though their preferences are different. They may sometimes be less charitable in overlooking political differences, especially if they equate their party’s (or candidate’s) view with the voice of God.
But religious differences, or preferences, are in a new camp altogether, the one place that can allow me to threaten you with God’s wrath. I can tell you that your views are mixed up, wrong, or hurtful. But in the religious world, I guess the best way to get across the fact that I don’t like what you believe is to tell you that God is going to get you because you don’t believe the way I want you to.
The law doesn’t allow me to beat you up, and it might not look too good if I tried—but I can look perfectly righteous if I threaten you with the wrath of God. Take for example the 2013 conviction by a UMC denominational jury of Frank Schaefer for performing his son’s same-sex wedding. The judge told jurors they were duty-bound to convict Schaefer. “You’ll give an account for that at the last day, as we all will,” he told the jury.
People gasped—and no wonder: he was saying that God is going to get you if you don’t see this I do. Schaefer was “defrocked”.
Retribution or consequences?
But that brings up a question: what is the wrath of God? I grew up with the idea that it was God’s “retributive justice,” which sounded like a fancy term for payback. Eventually I ran across the explanation that it was God’s letting people reap the natural consequences of their rebellious choices, which makes more sense to me. If God treats the good and the bad alike, per Matthew 5:43-48 and Luke 6:32-36, it seems out of character for him to have a time when he will set up his friends in luxury while he tortures his enemies.
We know that we have to let our children learn some things the hard way. But we don’t kill our disobedient children.
I take insulin for diabetes, but I have nothing to fear from my doctor if I decide to quit taking insulin; my fear is of natural consequences. My doctor describes the consequences of my not taking insulin, but he doesn’t inflict any punishment on me if I ignore his explanations.
If I believe that God “gets” those who believe or act the wrong way, I probably will feel justified in treating those who disagree with me the wrong way. Call my feelings “righteous indignation”—that doesn’t sound as bad as “intolerant” or “dogmatic” or even “hateful.” But it still seems to have the flavor of revenge.
The book Seventh-day Adventist Believe (page 372) describes the final death of the wicked in language that could be termed “natural consequences.” The book says that lost sinners
reap what they sown not only during this life but in the final destruction. In God’s presence, the guilt they feel because of the sins they have committed will cause them to suffer an indescribable agony. And the greater the guilt, the greater the agony.
When I make a mistake in math, it may cost me now. My bank account may get overdrawn, or I may discover that I don’t have enough to pay for all the items in my shopping cart. A mistake in nutrition may cause me to be less healthy or less able to deal with everyday challenges. A mistake in theology can also result in affecting how I regard the future or how I treat others. Life is full of adjusting our beliefs and actions because of the natural consequences we experience.
Since I’m still learning—and I believe differently than I did years ago—I will grant you the freedom to keep learning at the pace that your heredity and your circumstances have led you to. If you drive 175 miles because you wrote something down the wrong way, you’ll learn from your mistake (I hope.)
Don’t be judgmental
Sometimes it takes longer for us to recognize the negative results of our choices. That’s especially true for religious beliefs. So let’s not be judgmental toward others who aren’t as informed as we are or have chosen to believe differently. Work to keep others from picking up those same erroneous (in our opinion) and damaging beliefs. But do it kindly, as kindly as you want others to treat you when they think you are just as wrong. Or when you have just realized that you are wrong.
It might be well to finish here with Ellen White’s quote in Selected Messages, book 1, page 37.
We have many lessons to learn, and many, many to unlearn. God and heaven alone are infallible. Those who think that they will never have to give up a cherished view, never have occasion to change an opinion, will be disappointed.
She doesn’t say at what age this stops being true. I suspect it will always be true.
Mark Gutman has worked as a pastor, a teacher, and an auditor for the church. He is now retired and living in Battle Ground, Washington, with his wife, Heather. This piece was originally published in December of 2013.