As a teenager I heard a line from one of Jack Kerouac’s poems that really impacted me. In his book Mexico City Blues he writes, “I wish I was free of that slaving meat wheel and safe in heaven dead.”
“Safe in heaven dead.” That line always stuck with me. To my mind, Kerouac and Dylan and the beatniks were compelling because they were in despair. They seemed to understand some deep truth about life. That’s how I saw myself. I thought my despair over all the God-caused pain and suffering in life (“that slaving meat wheel”) was something deep and true. I still wanted to go to heaven—but not to see God. Instead, I wanted to go to heaven just to be “safe.” Just like Kerouac.
Questions about tragedies and the afterlife plagued me through my college years. I think many Christians have the same experience. We don’t understand why a God of love allows so much pain. Nor do we understand why (or if) He chooses people to go to hell or to heaven. Nor are we satisfied with convenient or poetic answers to these problems.
Despair over these problems has led many believers, including myself and some of my friends, to adopt what I call Christian fatalism. Christian fatalism is exactly what Kerouac implies in his poem: Life is a horrible cycle of pain orchestrated by God, and in the end there might be heaven but being with God will be the least pleasant aspect of it.
The Christian fatalist mindset is a difficult thing to suffer from because other believers often think you’re just depressed or morbid. Another problem is that we fatalists often struggle with suicidal thoughts. I mean, who wants to live in a world where God has already planned all the horrible things that will inevitably happen?
We fatalists don’t want to discuss our fatalism with anyone because we don’t want people to think we’re insane. Plus, when we’re struggling with all these dark thoughts, people don’t find it pleasant to be around us, so we become even more isolated.
What makes our situation even more complicated is that theology can be used to justify our fatalism. If God knows the future and knows who will go to heaven or hell, who will get a disease and who will be in an accident, then really we don’t have any motive to get close to God or pray. He’ll simply do with us as He has already planned, regardless of whether we love Him or hate Him.
I think many Christian fatalists, when we come to this point, just abandon our faith. Many of us then become agnostics. If someone presses us to articulate exactly what we believe, we’ll that we’re evolutionists, but it’s possible there’s a God who started everything. Some of us may add a veneer of Eastern philosophy to our Western-style materialism to give it a dose of spirituality. (For instance, I once bought a book written by the Dalai Lama.) And often we believe in an afterlife, which is strange, because we don’t really believe in God. But we definitely don’t believe in hell.
So we Christian fatalists often end up as agnostics. This agnosticism gives us some relief because we feel like we’re in charge. We feel that with ourselves in control we will be able to detach ourselves from the “slaving meat wheel” of pain and suffering. God is no longer hanging over us, waiting to inflict pain on us around the next corner.
But here’s the interesting thing: When the next terrible thing happens, we agnostics end up blaming the God of the Bible!
It’s as if tragedy cuts through all our pretense and lays bare this deep-seated, anemic, catastrophically wounded—yet still clinging to life—faith in Christ.
Indeed, many of us who have been through this process are almost relieved to have the truth finally out in the open: We do indeed believe in God! But we feel betrayed by Him! We are angry and hurt!
In my own life, there were a lot of little things that helped me to make the return trip from Christian fatalism. One thing was Hebrews 2:14-15. Those verses meant so much to me, as they showed that God really understood my existential situation. Another thing was a friendship I struck up with an elderly artist who was a Christian. He corresponded with me through letters. His gracious willingness to listen to me spout off about my despair meant so much, especially while I was away at college.
I also began reading the Bible regularly. Based on my understanding of the Bible, I came to the conclusion that God knows the future, but we also have free will. There’s some mechanism that allows for both God’s sovereignty and our free will, although we don’t have enough information to know how this works.
I think that, as believers, we don’t have to descend into the fatalistic idea that God is the cruel operator of a “slaving meat wheel” who has planned out all the horrible things we will inevitably suffer. God does allow us to suffer, but He Himself also suffered on the cross. And He can always give mercy and healing in response to prayers we freely choose to give.
If we harden our hearts toward God and say we’ll always hate Him for causing so much pain, we’ll only end up hurting and torturing ourselves. We should instead love God and look forward to His blessing and guidance in this life and His setting everything right in the world to come. And rather than only wanting heaven as a place where we can be “safe” when we’re dead, heaven should be our bright hope and the object of our longing.
Jesus affirmed that God has commanded us to love Him. Why a command? Because Jesus knew that loving Him would at times go against our every inclination.
Mark Zimmerman is the editor at Center for Advanced Life Cycle Engineering (CALCE) at the University of Maryland.