I understand why it has to be this way. I’m a parent, and I can understand. I imagine that I step outside of my house and see my five-year-old son playing happily in the middle of the street. I call to him but he doesn’t answer. Or: he does answer, but only to say, “I’m fine, daddy!”
Then I see something else: one of the lumbering semi-trailers that drive down our street a few times a day. It’s just a block away from him and it is not slowing down. I start running down the steps and over the front yard, screaming all the while, “Son——J——get out of the street! There’s a truck coming! Come here NOW!!!! He looks at me. He hears me. He even looks directly at the truck, then looks back at me and smiles. “I’m okay, daddy!” he calls. “That truck doesn’t scare me.” He laughs, “Don’t worry so much daddy!”
There would be no way I could possibly reconcile myself to that situation. I could not stand there, content in his calm confidence. I could not trust that things would work out on their own. No: I would run harder, run faster, scream louder: scream to him, scream to anyone who might be nearby, scream hoping the truck driver might somehow hear my desperation and slow down. I would be desperate to save my son, whether he wanted me to save him or not.
And here it is. From my parents’ perspective, that anecdote describes precisely my situation. My devout Christian parents see their son playing in the middle of the road, death and an eternity in hell barreling down on him while he blithely assures them that he’s just fine. He doesn’t believe what they believe; he’s not worried about God or Satan, heaven or hell.
I’m standing in the middle of the road and what’s more, I’m not alone in the road: my own children are all around me, holding my hands, and I’m whispering in their ears that the truck shouldn’t scare them, either.
Their son is in the road; their grandchildren are all in the road. The people they love most in the world are all in grave, immortal danger and refuse to see it.
For all of us death is real, but for my parents hell is also very real. It is actual place full of actual torments, and divine justice requires unrepentant souls be sent there. There is no space in their cosmology for leniency, and they know I cannot plead ignorance. It would be impossible for them to reconcile themselves to their children or grandchildren facing such eternal suffering, to being deprived of God forever. Given their beliefs, they would have to be monstrous to accept such a fate for anyone they loved. They have no option but to warn, to urge, to cajole, to plead.
It’s true, they don’t want to push too hard. They worry pushing too hard when I was younger is precisely what got us into this mess. Maybe it was because I had that panic attack when they were late home from work and I convinced myself they’d been raptured and I’d been left behind for the tribulation. Maybe I’m still rebelling from all that and if they just relent a bit, then maybe I’ll relent a bit and allow myself to see the truths so plain to them. This eternal, cosmic conflict must be tripped around lightly, mentioned in passing, communicated obliquely through emailed articles, blessings before dinner, stories about other people’s lives changed and souls secured.
But it still stains and warps every conversation, every interaction. We cannot simply be together, content. Their worry is real, palpable, inescapable. It’s the waver in their voice when they talk about church, or mention a news story about someone who died tragically young. That same worry leads them to read only Bible stories at bedtime when our kids sleep at their place, to ensure Veggie Tales are the primary cartoons available for summer-morning viewing, to take them to church or sign them up for Vacation Bible School. Maybe they can reach one of them. Maybe they can save some of us—maybe just one of us. They have to try. There’s a truck in the road, barreling down.
The truck is a specter hanging over every aspect of our relationship: weighing every statement, loading every question.
The truck is persistent evidence of their love.
But I can’t see the truck. I’ve tried. I couldn’t be Baptist again but I tried to be Catholic. I did miss something, a habit of mind, or maybe a need for community. But no amount of trying could make the truck real for me again. I just don’t believe. I’m sorry. It would be so much easier to just believe, but I don’t. And I won’t lie about whether I believe to them, or to my kids, or to myself. I’m sorry, but I don’t believe.
They see a truck, and they’re terrified. They have no choice but to keep warning me, keep urging me—no choice but to worry all the time. And I wish I could make it okay, calm their worries, help them see that I am okay, truly. That my kids are going to be okay. But in this, we can’t just agree to disagree. The stakes are too high. As time goes on, as we all get older, I know that it will only get harder to be together without eternity intruding. I understand why it has to be this way. I hate that it has to be this way. I don’t have an answer.