Most people find uncertainty uncomfortable. We prefer to be sure of things, if at all possible. This is very obvious in a medical setting: it is common for people to feel relieved when given a serious diagnosis (such as cancer or HIV infection) – simply because they find it easier to cope with definite bad news than to worry about the possibility of bad news. (Then, of course, they want to know how long they have to live – another very potent source of uncertainty, but one that they have to learn to endure, because accurate prediction is impossible!)
The thought that has occurred to me is this: we bring this desire for certainty into our understanding of Christianity. We want everything ‘cut and dried’, with no loose ends or irritating exceptions. Surely, if we had a perfect understanding of the Bible, we would all agree on everything? But it seems that the more we know, the less we agree! And the more certain we are of our own interpretation, the less tolerant we tend to be of those who disagree with us.
This problem affects many different areas of Christian belief. For example: is the Pope the leader of the One and Only True Church, or is he the Antichrist? Are modern-day tongues a spiritual gift – or Satanic? Can those who have never heard the Gospel be saved – or do they have no hope at all? The more extreme the viewpoint, the more tenaciously the opinion is held, and the more contempt the holder tends to have for those who think otherwise: they are ‘ignorant’, ‘immature’, or something worse.
The most notorious area of disagreement is the return of Jesus. He has specifically told us: “About that day or hour no-one knows.” (Matthew 24:36) Nobody can know; it’s a secret kept by God Himself. Yes, He has given us lots of clues, but they are deliberately ambiguous! That hasn’t stopped people not just speculating but working out detailed predictions of the last days. And once they become convinced that they are right, nothing will deflect them; some of them are determined that every other Christian must be brought to agree with their interpretation.
Why is this? All these people are sincere in their convictions, and zealous for the truth. Yet they come over, very often, as arrogant or even bullying, because of their insistence that they alone are right. Perhaps we should try harder to accept that an element of uncertainty is inevitable…
There are certain fundamentals that all Christians agree on, because the Scriptures are clear: there is one God, who loves us; Jesus died for our sins and was raised from the dead; we are justified by faith, etc. But there are other things that we disagree on – and the apostle Paul says that some disagreements are perfectly OK (Romans 14:1-12). There is, I suggest, a spectrum of uncertainty between the core beliefs of Christianity at one end (on which our certainty is 100%, or very nearly 100%), and at the other end the date of Christ’s return (which nobody knows with any certainty at all).