Jared Witt l May 24, 2018
My freshman year at Colorado State University, I lived in the dorms with my best friend from high school. There are some pros and cons to living with a lifelong friend your first year of college. One pro is that it puts you in a rare position of personal security versus the other new younglings, who are frantically (and sometimes literally) grasping at each other for a place to fit in these new unchartered waters. One con is that lifelong friends tend to develop a shared sense of humor with a frequency and wavelength, which, they forget, diverges more and more from the norm over time.
Back then, we were into a form of practical joking which frequently took the shape of informal social experiments. One day, we thought it might be a lark to take out a piece of paper and write the names of about half of our dorm floor-mates on a list, leave the other half off, and then post it to the outside of our door (about 25 of 50 people in total). No labels. No contextual clues as to the what the list meant (and, in fact, it meant nothing).
It wasn’t a random list. We realized at once that, given the small sample size, we’d need to take special pains to keep the data as ambiguous or conflicting as possible. On the one hand, we left off my girlfriend at the time, which would seem to indicate that being on the list was a bad thing. On the other hand, we included the RA and the dorm floor clown, whom everyone liked and who spent more of his Freshman year on our futon playing Halo 2 than we did. On the one hand, we included the guy who flagrantly caught my eyebrow with his elbow in a rec basketball game sending me to the emergency room for stitches but, on the other hand, not the girl who once spilled vodka all over our suite-mate’s bed.
We were certain that there was virtually no consistent way to interpret the data one way or the other.
Hey, incidentally, quick suggestion to any readers who are at all concerned with their popularity: don’t publicly post people’s names on an unlabeled list for no reason at all.
But anyway, that happened.
The first revelation of this poorly thought out and inevitably fruitless experiment was that it doesn’t take very long for an entire dorm floor of people to figure out whether their names are on a given list.
The second revelation was that it takes about the same amount of time for a dorm floor of people to interpret for themselves whether that’s a good list to be on, even sometimes developing rather sophisticated explanations of why.
And thirdly, we learned that, on the list or off of it, 100% of their interpretations will assume the worst. Faster than you can say “experimental error,” we overheard a rather significant clamor outside our room. “They made a list of people they don’t like” said those left on the list. “They made a list of people they like” said those left off.
Not totally hating the idea of retaining some friends once the dust had settled, we eventually told everyone it was a project we had needed to design for a psych class. Otherwise maniacal experiments on unwitting subjects don’t raise an eyebrow on a college campus, so long as they can be linked to the psych department. So eventually everyone was more or less satisfied with that explanation, and we went back to our comfortable sweet spot of middling level likability: not so prestigious as to be pressured to rush anyone’s dumb fraternity but prestigious enough to be invited to the Crisco slip ‘n’ slide party (can’t remember who took the fall for that one, but I think he got put on academic probation and transferred to Braiden Hall).
Was this a normal thing to do? In retrospect, no.
If I were to come across someone else doing the same thing, would I be tempted to report them to the authorities for antisocial behavior? In retrospect, yes.
It’s weird, right? Borderline sociopathic, when you really think about it.
You want to know something even more sociopathic? Christians have been running this social experiment for a long time. And unlike my buddy and I, they’ve taken no pains to confuse whether it’s good or bad to be on the list. In fact they’ve even blamed God for devising the experiment in the first place and then projected the implications out into eternity.
In a recent interfaith dialogue that Castle Church hosts with a Jewish Rabbi friend of mine, I was asked if there was a particular verse in the New Testament that summarizes the Good News of Jesus, as I understand it.
I admit that I hemmed and hawed at first. I’m not sure I can get that reductive with my Gospel. But forced into an elevator speech, I suppose I can’t do better than John 3:16 (not to be confused with Steve Austin 3:16 of Stone Cold fame): “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
What could be better news than that?
Well, of course, to our Jewish brothers and sisters, that didn’t sound like very good news at all. It turned out that our Jewish friends were very aware, perhaps more aware than most of the Christians in the room, of what comes just a couple verses later, 3:18, “Whoever believes in him is not judged, but whoever does not believe is judged already.”
If we understand 3:18 the way so many Christians conventionally do, that there is a list of the “saved,” something of little consequence as far as your present reality is concerned—the life of the “saved” looks pretty much like everyone else's: job hunts, cracked windshields, taxes, etc.—but of infinite consequence in the afterlife.
Good news, if you’re on the list. Bad news for most of the world’s population.
But I suggested to this group that it’s impossible for me to read 3:16 or 3:18 in that way. The main reason, if I'm honest, is because I just don’t personally believe that God is the worst like that and would become a Buddhist or something if that were the case. But don't worry, you Bible thumpers. There is a Biblical reason too, and conveniently, it's John 3:17, “For God did not send his Son into the world to judge the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
How often do good Bible-believing Christians take the “plain and clear” meaning of John 3:17 for what it is? Jesus is not in the judging business. Jesus is in the saving business. "Maybe Jesus isn't here to judge, but what about God?" they'll ask. Well, God sent Jesus. They're part of a Trinity. Quit trying to make Jesus and God into good cop and bad cop.
In fact, 3:18 makes no sense and flat out contradicts 3:17, if you take it to mean that the whole point of all this was to save some and judge others. But if you take from 3:17 exactly what it says, that this has to do with saving business only, then whatever it means to “not believe” and be “judged,” it is not Jesus or the God who are doing the judging. And being judged must not refer to some horrific fate in the afterlife, because whatever it is, it’s happening to us “already.”
So who is doing the judging if not God? And what does that mean if not to be condemned to some parallel universe of torture?
Well, to that, we all know the answer already, if we can look at our own lives honestly and de-clutter our minds of so many bad sermons about heaven and hell.
We're judged from the moment we start potty training, really from the first time someone decides it would be indecent of us not to wear pants outside the house. We're judged on the playground if we're soft and in the classroom if we're hard. We’re judged by math class if what we’re good at is art and art class if what we’re good at is math. We’re judged by our daddy issues and sibling rivalries. We’re judged by bad breakup texts with no explanation, leaving us to fill the blank with our own explanation. We're judged in our first interview because we don't have any experience and in our last interview because we're no longer teachable. We’re judged by our bosses if we miss the deadline and our spouses if we work from home. We’re judged by smart people for being dumb and dumb people for being elitist. We spend most of our lives walking around with our tail between our legs for reasons we can't even explain, but then we're told we have an entitlement complex at the first burst of confidence. And of course, the biggest one of all, just as in Jesus’ time, we are judged by so much bad religion telling us that we are disgusting, hideous creatures, and it’s only by partaking in an altar call or a terrorist’s martyrdom that we can be freed of our loathsome state.
Oh, the theme of judgment is too softball for you? You think the Gospel should have to do with life and death matters? Don’t worry. Pretty soon, we start judging others for hating us, they start judging us for hating them, and things turn quite deadly, indeed.
C’mon. Think about it. We don’t need to project anything onto God to figure out where all the judgment is coming from.
The one time that the Divine finally weighed in on things, as far as I can tell, it was predictably us judging and crucifying him. All he said in response was, "Forgive them, for they know not what they do."
Being judged is not a non-Christian problem. It’s a human problem. It’s a monkey on the back of pretty much every human who has ever lived. The whole world, it seems, is one big judgment factory set up to convince us of our fundamental inadequacy. And the world’s final judgment is death.
But Jesus came “not to judge the world,” as if that’s what we were lacking, “but that the world might be saved through him.”
What if being saved didn’t mean your name was on the guest list for some eternal nightclub in the sky, because you’ve got the right religious VIP pass? Surely God can think of better than my college roommate and I in our mid-semester boredom.
What if “being saved” referred to the moment where we believe, really believe, that the origin of the universe thinks we’re swell and loves us emphatically, the moment where we discover that all the shaming and accusatory messages to the contrary were false all along. Then Jesus would no longer be thought of as the show pony that only Christians saddle up and ride to the top. Rather we would follow him downward into the depths of everyone’s personal hell and befriend them as the proof of this cosmic love.
Cheers and Peace,
How Castle Church is stirring up a new spirit in the church from a brewery in Orlando, FL.