Dear Maggie Rowe,
I love you. I also love Susan Isaacs for recommending your book, “Sin Bravely,” on Twitter. Before I ordered your book, I watched you read an excerpt from it at a Sit N’ Spin. You were so cool and so funny I figured your book had to be too. I’m happy to say I was right.
When I started reading “Sin Bravely” I realized that I wouldn’t be able to identify with you as much as I would like. You grew up in a loving home and went to church as a kid. You had an enviable head start on things like salvation, Bible reading, and baptism. But somehow it all seemed to work against you. Like Martin Luther, you became deathly afraid of eternal punishment for yourself and everyone else.
My story is very different. I came to faith at thirteen after moving in with a Christian lady. I left behind a Jerry Springer-style dysfunctional family and found hope in Christ. Unlike you, I never questioned my salvation. I never worried about eternal damnation, at least not for me. That might sound wonderful, but the truth is, I didn’t worry about hell for other people either. Sure, I felt a little guilty for not witnessing to people very much (or ever), but I figured that we all deserve to go to hell and if some of us are saved . . . great! My life was simple. My mind was unencumbered. And then I went to Bible College.
I picked a mid-western Bible College that my own pastor had attended. He was an amazing pastor, so I figured he must have gone to an amazing Bible college. It wasn’t until after I arrived on campus, several states away from home, that I realized my mistake. This school was all about following rules. Many, many rules. Some of them were stupid, useless rules; governing everything from where you can wear pajamas to hand-holding (can’t do that. That’s how babies are made). At first, I tried to make the best of it, but I grew to despise that Bible College.
I started hanging out with other people who hated the college. One of those people asked me to be his girlfriend. His name was Richard. He was a tall, good-looking skater with glasses, which made him look smart. We dated for nine intoxicating months.
After the Bible College experience Richard’s faith was shaken. I broke up with him when I knew he didn’t care about his relationship with God anymore. It broke my heart. Two months later he renounced Christianity completely. A year after that, he took his own life.
Suddenly, my concept of hell became hugely important. I tried to tell myself that Richard wasn’t in hell. “Once saved, always saved.” But I couldn’t convince myself of the thought. I learned to live with uncertainty. Over time I moved on. I got married and had three beautiful kids. Along the way, five other people that I knew and loved committed suicide, including my pastor. I became mad at God. Enraged at God. I screamed at Him. A lot.
Eventually I got around to thinking about the rich man that Jesus mentions in one of his stories. This rich guy went to hell while a formerly poor man named Lazarus was in paradise. By this time, I was so used to arguing with God, that I argued about this, too. I had heard people justify God’s decision to send the rich man to hell by saying that the rich man never repented. Therefore, he obviously deserves eternal punishment. Simple as that. I was satisfied with that explanation until I realized that this rich man did something for his brothers that Christ did for us. After he was told, “a great chasm has been fixed,” and all hope for his own redemption was lost, he asked, “send him [Lazarus] to my father’s house . . . that he may warn them [my brothers]. (Luke 16:27-28)” This rich, so-called “unrepentant jerk” became an advocate for his brothers just as Christ became an advocate for us.
This thought fueled my rage against God’s judgment of the rich man for three weeks. Finally, God spoke to me. He said, “Heidi, stop paying attention to what I said. What did I do?”
My answer came easily, “You raised Lazarus from the dead.”
“And?” He insisted.
“You raised Christ from the dead.”
“And what happened to that great chasm when Christ died?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. Nobody does. The “chasm” is never mentioned again in Scripture.
I understood for the first time that God answered the rich man’s second request by raising Lazarus from the dead. And he may have provided the rich man’s escape from torment by sending Jesus to die on his behalf. In the gospels, Jesus has a habit of using harsh words for judgment and then relenting.
That brings me to the reason that I love you. You take hell seriously. You are concerned about people who reject Christ; people who have never heard about him. Even the spoiled rich man. You mention that you’ve had these concerns since you were just nine years old. I wasn’t concerned about the rich man until I was thirty-four. That is both appalling and totally normal. Your obsessive concern for people is refreshing.
Some will go through their whole lives saying, “the rich man’s in hell and that’s ok because God is just.” But I am convinced that the story of the rich man and Lazarus exists so that we will get upset about it. We should all wrestle with God’s judgment like you have. The fact that people like you exist gives me hope. Thank you for wrestling with God.
Your devoted advocate,