Wednesday, January 11, 2012
"...for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists
and that he rewards those who seek him." Hebrews 11:6
The concept of "suspending disbelief" is most commonly associated with the observation of artistic works of fiction. Consider the following illustrations. John excitedly loans a copy of his favorite book, "The Hobbit", to his friend Ben. After merely reading the jacket cover description, Ben tells John that he is not interested in reading the book. Ben explains, "I don't believe that things like hobbits, dragons, wizards and magic exist and I can't enjoy reading about something I know could never happen." Flabbergasted by the naivety of his friend, John responds, "No one is asking you to actually believe those things are real. You just have to suspend disbelief." In a similar scenario, Larry and Bill have just finished watching a new action movie. Larry did not enjoy the movie because, in his words, "in real life, no one could ever kill one thousand of the world's top assassins while navigating down a mountain on only one ski, in the dark, and manage to avoid getting hit by even a single bullet." Bill laughs and says, “it’s just a movie." The concept remains the same; Bill was able to enjoy the movie because he exercised suspension of disbelief while his friend Larry wished that he had not wasted twelve dollars.
It seems to me that Christian evangelism has largely settled on the "suspending disbelief" model over the past 200 years and especially over the last 50-60 years. It is not uncommon to hear preachers use phrases like, "Is there any reason that you couldn't give your life to Jesus right now?" and "Just give Jesus a try." While I am not questioning the genuine motivation behind these phrases, they may be more dangerous than they seem on the surface. Anyone familiar with doing surveys or polls will tell you that carefully worded questions tend to generate predictable answers. That is to say that you can ask the same question several different ways and get a different set of answers each time.
Atheists accuse religious people of being weak willed, ignorant, uneducated and easily lead. If we are speaking of religious people in the broadest sense, they are probably more correct than we would like to admit. People that exhibit the aforementioned characteristics are much more likely to suspend disbelief in God, miracles, Heaven, Hell, and other spiritual idea. When coupled with traumatic circumstances such as illness, family tragedy, impending death and the like, people of this sort become willing to suspend disbelief in practically anything.*
You will notice that I have intentionally used the phrase "suspend disbelief" instead of "believe". I think that the distinction between the two is of utmost importance. Remember when John explained to Ben that he did not actually need to believe that hobbits and dragons were real, but only to suspend his disbelief in them? John was not asking Ben to believe in these things; rather he was merely asking him to pretend as if they were real for the purposes of experiencing the novel. This demonstrates that, contrary to what one might assume, that the opposite of suspending disbelief is not "suspending belief." I would like to suggest that suspending disbelief necessarily presupposes that the person does not believe in the concept to which he is suspending disbelief. If Ben already believed in magic, then he would not have to suspend his disbelief of it in order to enjoy the book. Therefore, suspension of disbelief and suspension of belief (or simply: unbelief) are synonymous rather than opposites. So, the real opposite of suspening disblief is real belief.
The problem is that many Christians have become content to ignore the difference between suspending disbelief and belief. Thousands of people will warm the pews of their local churches without ever moving from the place where mere suspension of disbelief for the sake of convenience, social acceptance, and emotional security, becomes actual, meaningful, concrete and unswerving belief. We must be willing to examine ourselves and honestly deal with the question "Is what I really believe true?" That question may be intimidating, but it could not be more important.
Anyone who has worked in a church or spent any considerable amount of time around evangelism has undoubtedly experienced the following scenario. A stranger walks through the doors of a church after circumstances of his life have driven him to depression and hopelessness. After a fiery sermon asking questions like, "do you know where you will spend eternity if you died today?” the stranger walks down the aisle and prays the "sinner's prayer." He begins attending church and his motives seem sincere. However, after a few weeks he mysteriously disappears. Everyone wonders what happened to him, until one day when one of the deacons bumps into him at the local gas station. When pressed for a reason why he has not been in church, the stranger replies, "I don't believe that stuff any more."
At this point the Christian thinker finds himself in an age old quandary. How is this possible? Is it possible to believe and then stop believing? Can a person who confessed belief in Christ just walk away from Him? These are loaded questions. Generally, the underlying question is, "Can a person lose his/her salvation?" I think the answer is obvious, no. If a person has truly been washed in the blood of Christ, there is nothing that can undo that. What sort of thing do people typically suppose could undo it? Sin. If that is your view, I would simply ask you to seriously consider the consequences of saying that sin is powerful enough to overcome the blood of Christ. Anyway, going back to the original questions, I think understanding the difference between suspending disbelief and actual belief gives you have a better vantage point from which to address the problem. Just re-word the questions accordingly. Is it possible to suspend disbelief and then stop suspending belief? Of course. Can a person who confessed a willingness to suspend disbelief in Christ just walk away from him? Again, the answer is obviously, yes.
Whether in our own lives, in sharing Gospel with others, or in training up new believers to be disciples, we ought not to settle for suspension of disbelief over real belief. It is not uncommon to hear Christians say things like, "God is real to me but it is up to everyone to find what is real to them", and "I believe in Jesus, but everyone is free to believe what they want." These phrases are not evidence of deep seated, persuaded beyond reasonable doubt, belief that something is true in reality. Rather, they are more likely signs of someone who, for one reason or another, has chosen to suspend disbelief.
To be frank, it is a lot simpler than most people want to admit. God either exists or he does not. If he does in fact exist, merely suspending disbelief would be the greatest injustice. However, if he does not exist, then at some point a continued willingness to suspend disbelief becomes something more like delusion or even madness. Likewise, Jesus was either the Son of God or he was not. If he was, he deserves nothing less than complete, robust, unshakable belief. If he was not, he does not deserve even our suspension of disbelief, but rather only our highest contempt. For a multitude of reasons -- ignorance, emotion, confusion, trauma, social convention, family tradition etc -- a person may be willing to suspend disbelief, but suspension of belief does not equal belief.
*I am not trying to belittle the way God uses difficult experiences to draw people to Himself. In fact, it is probably the most common way that He causes people to recognize their desperate need for a Savior.