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Conversation with a Sidewalk Preacher

By RaLeah ~

After attending a small wedding this past Saturday, I found myself in Columbus Circle in New York City. Before I caught my train, I had a cigarette, and I was listening as a sidewalk preacher held up his hand-written signs on cardboard, calling out Bible verses to the indifferent people walking by.

As I was finishing my smoke, I heard him say, "And Jesus said to Nicodemus, you must be born again!"

And I looked over and said, "And Nicodemus replied, 'How can a man be born again when he is old?'"

The man looked over at me, startled.

And here's where I thought, I should really learn to keep my mouth shut.

But then I thought, I've been an ex-Christian for a decade now, and I'll bet I know the Bible more than this guy. And anyway, at least if I distract him for a bit, I'm sparing the pedestrians his tirade. So... bring it on.

I smiled at him, and I said, "I know you're doing this because you fervently believe in God... and hell, and you don't want people to go there. But what if there is no hell?"

He started to quote from John, and I finished the verse with him. "I know," I said. "But John was written after the other gospels, you know, and even those were written a generation or more after Jesus was said to have lived. In the early churches, some believed in hell, some didn't. Christians believe in hell as a lake of fire for unbelievers now, because it's tradition. But what if there IS no hell?"

He looked at me funny and asked, "Are you a Satanist? Because even the devil can quote scripture."

And I laughed. I couldn't help it. And despite my 38 years, I have a pretty girlish giggle. And I said, "No, no, no. First of all, I don't believe in Satan. But if you mean Satanist, as in hedonist, I'm not that either. Listen, I was once as devout as you are. I grew up in a Christian home, I never swore or drank or had sex or rebelled against my parents. I just started to study the scripture--and by the way, I've read it three times through--and then I looked into the history of Christianity, and then science--because what's going on with dinosaur bones and caves and genetics?--and then I had to realize, the Bible was written by humans trying to understand the best they could at the time when they lived: imagine the wonders of the world around them and them trying to comprehend how it got there! They thought it must be from a creator God, because what else can explain earthquakes and volcanos, and... you get the idea."

"Do you ever lie?" he asked me with a stern frown, still trying to figure me out.

"No," I said truthfully. "Not that I can think of. I mean, why would I? I am who I am, I'm not ashamed of that, and if people don't like me, that's on them."

"Didn't you ever do anything that you're ashamed of though?" he pressed. "Because we've all sinned and come short of the glory of God. I once lived a life I'm not proud of," he admitted. "And I did all the wrong things, but when I found God, I became a new creature, and I turned my life around, and dedicated myself to him. And that's why I'm here."

"Because God isn't willing that any should perish?" I guessed.

"Right," he agreed. "But that all should come to repentance."

"You know," I said. "I completely see why you feel that way. You feel that you had the power to change your lifestyle because of God. But what if that was just you? What if YOU found an inner strength you didn't believe you had? Also... back to hell... what about the ten year old child who was born in another country, and maybe her religion is Hindu, and she dies early of cancer. Should she go to hell because she never believed in Jesus... never even HEARD of Jesus?"

This gave him pause, but he fell back on his ready answer. "We have to have faith that God is Just..."

"Ah, that's what every Christian says when they don't want to think," I sighed. "I get it. I've heard that same answer a thousand times, but it's bothered me since I was about thirteen, and no one could ever give me a satisfactory answer. So seriously, what about that child? Hell? You think? For ten years of a life lived without knowing Jesus, an eternity of torture in a lake of fire?"

"People are judged with the information they have," he replied. Then he switched tactics to focus back on me. "That's why I'm worried about YOU. You grew up with Christ, yet you have rejected Him."

"Do I deserve hell then?" I asked, looking straight into his eyes. "Just because I can't believe in a God that clearly states anyone who doesn't believe the exact right thing deserves everlasting torture in a lake of fire? That means my aunts, my cousins, some of my friends. All good people. Just for not believing the right thing? And there's so many different religions out there--how could they know to pick the right one anyway? Think about that. I would never send anyone to everlasting torment if I were God, and supposedly, I'm just a human, so I'm not as loving and all-knowing as God is. Yet I wouldn't do that. How is it that I could be more loving and merciful than God? Shouldn't that be impossible?"

Perplexed and puzzled now, he mulled this over. "But God is holy and can't have sin in his presence."

"Right, but he's GOD... he makes the rules... so couldn't he just let people be dead?" I shrugged, figuring this is pretty much what happens to people once they stop living anyway. "Or send them to a banished planet?" I added this, just in case he thinks souls are immortal and can't be destroyed or ended. "Why a lake of fire though? Isn't that pretty sadistic? And didn't God change his mind at the last minute before? With Jonah and Nineva, with Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac? What if hell isn't really going to happen either?"

He took a little while to process this. "You know," he said at last. "I don't claim to know the mind of God. I just know what the Bible says."

"Written by men," I pointed out, as gently as possible. "And they are fallible human beings. If you idolize the Bible, which is, after all, just a book compiled by men... Isn't that just as bad as idolizing a god made of stone? How about this? Why don't you pray tonight, and ask God about hell? Ask why it's a fair punishment? Or just think about it."

"I hope I see you in heaven," he conceded finally, shaking off the conversation. "I've enjoyed talking to you, and I really do hope I see you there."

I smiled and clasped his hand, and he kindly gripped mine back, smiling at me too. "I hope for you with all my heart that you have the courage to ask the tough questions," I told him, and I really do hope that for him. "I was once in your shoes, and I feel so much for you. Keep working on this. Will you do that? Just keep thinking about it."

"It's getting dark," he noted, and that was true. "I really should pack it in and get home now."

"Be safe," I said to him, and then I added. "I'm glad I met you."

"I'm glad I met you too," he said.

And despite the fact I'd distracted him from preaching to the passersby for a long time now, I think he meant it.