Meet me at the St. Louis Zoo, by the bears.
Updated: Aug 26
Christian, hell, John Calvin, predestination, salvation, exclusivism, inclusivism
My angst with a big part of the Evangelical Christian belief system peaked when I was 19. As a church-raised child of life-long missionaries to Thailand, this was a problem for me. Namely, if someone doesn't confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, God will banish them to hell, where they will suffer for all eternity. Wrapped up in the question of who gets saved and who gets burned in the end is what John Calvin himself called "a dreadful decree." Calvin must have had a good reason for calling it dreadful.
Beyond the magnitude of theological discourse was a simple, personal problem: I couldn't make the idea square with my heart or experience. What about the billions and billions of people historically who would fall into this unfortunate group? Anyone who hasn't confessed a first-century Palestinian carpenter is God will be punished forever? And hell will be full of people who didn't say the right prayer? This is hard news.
One of the most extraordinary men I've ever known was Steve St. Clair, a missionary and teacher who served most of his life in Manila, Philippines, where he was my soccer and wrestling coach, chess rival, advisor for student government, and mentor. In my first year of college, he was on furlough in the States. I had been thinking a lot about a loved one, who was terminally sick, and who may or may not have been categorized into the better eternal group. So I called Saint.
"Saint, it's Micah. I have a faith issue I can't resolve. Can you help me?"
"Probably not, but we can talk about it. What are you doing this weekend? Come up and meet me at the St. Louis Zoo,” St. Clair responded. "By the bears. Noon tomorrow." "Done." I drove through the morning, parked, bought a $10 ticket to the St. Louis zoo, sauntered over to the bears, and there stood Saint. Ironically, he looked like a bear. Steve St. Clair loomed 6'5" tall and was a broad, barrel-sized man with thick coke-bottle glasses and a gnarly beard.
We hugged, caught up, and I posed my question. I will never forget Saint's response. He said something like this.
"Micah, we all draw circles of exclusion and inclusion. Some people are in our circles. Some people are out of our circles—whatever the circles may be—politics, beliefs, opinions, persuasions, etc. The people who are in are those who believe what we do. The people who are out are those who don't. The circle you're talking about is a circle regarding the eternal destinies of humans. You and I have some commonality regarding believing Jesus was/is God.”
Then the best part. "Micah, this is my advice. (1) Draw your circle as big as possible, (2) spend your life getting as many people into the circle as you can, and (3) then chill out and trust God's circle is probably bigger than yours." After the bears, we hit some meatballs at a hole-in-the-wall mafioso dive. Then I drove back to school with a sigh.