Matthew Lee Anderson is serious about the biblical command that we must “always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks [us] for a reason for the hope that is in [us]; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). Matthew, an author who is pursuing his doctorate of philosophy in Christian Ethics at Oxford University, encourages Christians to engage with the world’s questions about faith seriously — not just memorizing Christian answers and regurgitating them — but knowing the why behind what we believe. As he says in his book The End of our Exploring, “It is the nature of cliches to avoid examination.”
Matthew agreed to an interview for our Five Questions series, so I figured it would be a good opportunity for him to demonstrate what healthy engagement with tough questions looks like. Not only did he handle the questions well, if you look closely at his answers, you’ll notice that they’re rooted in hope and delivered with gentleness and respect. It’s a good example for any of us seeking to engage hospitably with a doubting world.
1. You live in a world of intellectuals, many of whom think the Bible is just a book of fairy tales. What do you say to people who ask you questions like, “Do you seriously believe God parted the Red Sea?”
The good news is that while those types of academics exist, there are a lot fewer of them, and they’re much nicer than many people think. Many academics know Christians in their field who are serious and reasonable. The “hostile atheist” temperament exists, but it is primarily a creature of the internet and marketing campaign by the “New Atheists.”
But it is important to have something to say in such moments, and they do happen. I don’t try to duck the question, but I am always interested in knowing more. So if they seem reasonable at all, I prod them first for more background or context before taking up the answer directly. In my best moments — which are far too rare — I am more interested in how they see the world than in answering the question. So a question like, “Why does that seem unreasonable to you?” can be a helpful way of opening up a conversation that isn’t simply a trial.
2. What’s one area of Scripture that you struggle with believing, and how do you deal with that doubt?
Well, (shameless plug alert!) I wrote a book on questioning well with an entire chapter on doubt, so… But to save you the money, let me say two things about it. First, the only claim of Christianity that I have ever seriously doubted is that God loves me and will be good to me. That proposition is somewhere near the center of the faith, so it’s a serious one. But while I have wrestled with many of the questions of Christianity, that proposition is the one that has haunted me the most. “I would have died had I not believed I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living,” the Psalmist says. And so it is.
How does one deal with such a thing? The only means by which I have found consolation and solace is by the internalization of the story of the Gospel through prayer, repetitive reading of the Word (especially the Psalms), and by participation in the life of the church. “Wait for the Lord,” the Psalmist goes on — and that is, from what I can tell, some of the best advice I have received in seasons of tumult and unrest.
3. You’re a big fan of C.S. Lewis (I am, too). Is it fair to say that he endorsed a type of heretical universalism in Mere Christianity?
Well, now you’re just trying to get me in trouble! I think it’s pretty clear that Lewis was not a universalist: He grants the possibility in Mere Christianity that people (like Bhuddists) can “belong to Christ without knowing it.” But as he makes clear in The Great Divorce, not everyone belongs to Christ in that way or will be saved. In fact, Lewis ironically puts that argument in the mouth of George MacDonald, whom Lewis admired and who was himself a universalist.
But that’s not to say that Lewis’ understanding of salvation was identical to that which many evangelicals have today. The notion that someone can be a Christian and not know they are a Christian has a long, historical heritage, and I think it’s important to consider the underlying rationale for Lewis’ view. Even if we don’t ultimately agree with it, I think the mere possibility that non-Christians “belong to Christ without knowing it” should temper or qualify our claims about the nature of the afterlife.
4. What do you say when a nice, unbelieving friend asks if you think that people who never heard about Jesus are going to hell?
Well, first off no one goes to heaven because they’re “nice” — not even us Christians (maybe especially not us). My main goal in responding to such a question is to expand the conversation, to keep it open and fruitful.
I think that the Christian doctrine of hell rests upon many intuitions about the nature of punishment, of time, of desert, and so on which are largely foreign to us. For instance, forget hell for a second: How is it possible that when Christians get to heaven it will be impossible for them to sin? I suspect that the answer to that question is deeply related to why punishment is “eternal” in hell, but I also suspect few of us have ever considered it as much because we haven’t been forced to.
I think when such questions come, we often feel an impulse to answer the question straight away. Most of the time, though, I think we’re better off seeing the question as an invitation to a conversation and entering accordingly. It is better and more fun to think along with those who are questioning us, rather than try to come up with all the answers ourselves. And the work of understanding Christian teaching never ends and is constantly revitalizing to our faith.
5. What do you say when a nice, unbelieving friend asks if you think they’re going to hell?
There’s no beating around the bush here, is there? It’s interesting to me that we seem to feel this question differently than the previous one. There’s a more immediately personal dimension to it which heightens the sense of gravity about the issue. “What must I do to be saved?” is the question which the Christian life begins upon, but this isn’t quite that. It is instead an invitation to the Christian to sit in judgment, not on an abstract class of people — namely, the permanently unregenerate and unrepentant — but a particular soul.
And that strikes me as too much to ask of us. I can only hope or fear for my unbelieving friends, but I cannot know, and thank God we cannot know, for such knowledge is too high and lofty for us. To dismiss the possibility that my friend is going to hell has always seemed to me to strip the Christian faith of its basic urgency, the kind of urgency that does move someone to ask what they might do to be saved. But it also demands a willingness to suspend judgment when necessary and to recognize that the lives which we lead are not fixed or determined until we take our final breath.
We’d like to extend a big thanks to Matthew for participating in this interview. If you’re interested in exploring more tough questions with him, check out his book, The End of our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. He has also written Earthen Vessels: Why our Bodies Matter to our Faith; he blogs at Mere-Orthodoxy, and he’s on Twitter @mattleeanderson.