The story of how I went from Protestant to Catholic begins with hell.
At the beginning of 2011, for a variety of reasons, I was overwhelmed by the problem of hell. To be honest, I spent most of my Christian life not dealing with hell. I pushed down the thoughts; I severed the words I spoke (“Yes, of course, I believe in Hell, the Bible clearly states…”) from what they actually meant.
But this doublespeak eventually caught up with me. Oh, it could up with me good.
I couldn’t pray. I couldn’t read the Bible. I couldn’t even sit in church without crying. I felt abandoned by God and angry at anyone who tried to help. There were times I would lie on the floor, curled up in a ball, sobbing and crying, thinking of all those I loved and feeling only fear and anger and despair and hatred and guilt. They were all bundled up together as I blamed them for not believing, me for not being able to convince them and God for not saving them.
But in the midst of all the emotional, teary craziness was actually a problem of logic: a failed equation. I couldn’t understand how an all-loving, almighty God could let anyone go – let alone send anyone – to Hell.
To put it logically,
- God is loving and wants to save everyone.
- God is almighty and can save everyone.
- Not everyone will be saved.
It’s just doesn’t follow. If God has the desire to save all and the power to save all, why aren’t all saved?
Christians have tended to emphasise either one of the first two statements.
Arminians, Catholics, Orthodox tend to emphasise the former. They believe that God wants to save everyone but He cannot overrule human free will and so some will end up in Hell. God wants to save us all but He can’t.
Calvinists tend to emphasise the latter. They believe that God controls everything and that if He wanted to save everyone, He would. Clearly He doesn’t and so He doesn’t really want to save everyone. God can save us all but He won’t.
I was unhappy with both these alternatives. Our God is not a God of “Can’t” and “Won’t.” He is “with God all things are possible;” (Mt 19:26) He is “not wanting anyone to perish but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Pe 3:9) He is “no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ” (2 Co 1:20)
Both His everlasting love and almighty power fill the pages of Scripture and I wasn’t ready to abandon either. I would not say Yes to one and No to the other.
“One thing God has spoken, two things I have heard: that you, O God, are strong, and that you, O Lord, are loving.” (Ps 62:11-12)
So I decided, if I have to say No to one, I’d say No to Hell. I would be an Universalist. I would believe that, somehow, everyone would be saved. I would believe that “word that will not be revoked: Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear.” (Isa 45:23). I would believe that Christ would “reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Col 1:20) I would believe that ultimately, God will be “all in all.” (1 Co 15:28)
There was only one small snag, one reason I couldn’t embrace full-on, thorough-going, almost evangelical Universalism. It wasn’t a lack of scriptural evidence or sound reasoning or anything a Protestant should worry about; it was the universal testimony of the Church.
Throughout its two millenia, the Christians have consistently affirmed that Hell is real – terrifying, awfully, unavoidably real. And yet, here I was, about to toss it aside.
Could I do that?
On the one hand, I knew that Truth is real and that the Faith wasn’t mine to shape according to my whim. It is the good deposit, entrusted once and for all to the saints; it was mine to guard, not to tamper with. (2 Tim 1:14)
On the other hand, hadn’t the whole Reformation drastically reshaped and removed key Christian doctrines? Of course, I didn’t believe that believing good works were essential to salvation, transubstantiating bread and wine into the Real Presence of Christ, venerating relics and icons, praying to the Virgin Mary or saints, or submitting to one universal Shepherd as one visible Church, were key Christians doctrines. But at some point, some Christians did.
But if those Christians had been spectacularly wrong for 1500 years, was it such a stretch to imagine we could have been wrong for 2000 years?
And that was just the problem. I couldn’t find a principled reason why me rejecting Hell was any different to Luther, Calvin or any other reformer/heretic rejecting any other belief.
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason…
– Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms, 1521
I was judging from the Scriptures, I was using my reason, I was refusing to be bound by what others before – or around me – believed. And I was about to reject something most other Christians thought was obviously true.
That gave me pause.
And in that pause, I began asking more questions. Like, why should I trust my interpretation and not someone else’s?
And what about all the different issues Christians disagree about? How could I know what the truth is when sincere, intelligent, Spirit-filled Christians can read the same Bible and come to opposing opinions about nearly every issue?
Just in Evangelicalism alone, these disagreements include:
- Providence (Calvinist vs. Arminian)
- Creation (the young earth, day-age, restoration, and literal views)
- Atonement & Justification (penal substitution, Christus Victor, and moral government views)
- Salvation (TULIP vs. Arminian)
- Sanctification (Lutheran, Reformed, Keswick, and Wesleyan)
- The destiny of the unevangelized (the restrictive, universal opportunity, postmortem evangelism, and inclusive views)
- Church organisation (congregational, Presbyterian and Episcopal systems)
- Baptism (believer’s vs. infant baptism)
- The Lord’s Supper (spiritual presence vs. memorial)
- Keeping the Sabbath (necessary vs. not)
- Styles of worship (liturgy vs. free)
- Charismatic gifts (continuationism vs. cessationism)
- Women in ministry (complementarian vs. egalitarian)
- Nonviolence (pacificist, just war and nationalistic views)
- Wealth (prosperity gospel vs. moderation vs. complete rennunciation)
- The millennium (premillennialism, postmillennialism, amillennialism)
- Hell (the classical view vs. annihilationism)
Sure, you might not be concerned about these but someone, somewhere is. And these are just some disagreements in one sector of Christianity at one period in time. (Universalism doesn’t even make the list!)
Add in Catholics, Orthodox and Eastern Christians, liberal and “heretical” Christians and you have one hell of mess. D. A. Carson notes,
“It is very distressing to contemplate how many differences there are among us as to what Scripture actually says… The fact remains that among those who believe the canonical sixty-six books are nothing less than the Word of God written there is a disturbing array of mutually incompatible theological opinions.”
– D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1996), p. 18.
My crisis of eschatology was turning into a crisis of epistemology.
But was this disagreement what the Holy Spirit intended? That Christians everywhere, trusting in the Bible as their only authority, would come to radically divergent beliefs on practically every significant issue?
I couldn’t believe it.
“Let God be true and every man a liar” (Rom 3:4)
Isn’t Jesus the Truth? Isn’t the Holy Spirit the Spirit of Truth? And didn’t He promise to lead His disciples into all truth?
If the Bible is given by a truthful and omnipotent God as an internally consistent and perspicuous text precisely for the purpose of revealing to humans correct beliefs, practices, and morals, then why is it that the presumably sincere Christians to whom it has been given cannot read it and come to common agreement about what it teaches?
I didn’t know.
But I realised that maybe I was coming at this all wrong…
Maybe I was expecting the Bible to do something it was never meant to do. Maybe the Bible was never meant to be the clear, sufficient and only authority for all Christian beliefs. Maybe the Holy Spirit was speaking through some other way, not just the Bible.
A way for the Spirit of Truth to say “this means Yes” or “that means No”. A way for the Spirit of Truth to lead us into all truth. The Bible can’t do it. It never has been able too. What we need is an authoritative interpreter of this authoritative text to make sure we get the right meaning.
Of course, I didn’t believe that such an authoritative interpreter existed. But looking back, I can see that the first big pillar of Protestantism, Sola Scriptura, had just fallen.
For me, it fell not because it was obviously wrong or illogical (that came later) but because when I needed it most, it simply didn’t work.