I had the privilege of guest speaking in an international Bible class at a Christian school this week in Florida. Students from several countries, including Germany, Vietnam, China, Brazil, and Italy, to name a few, attend this Christian school every year as guests. Some stay long enough to graduate, while others just visit for a single semester.
In years past, my experience traveling and studying/teaching world cultures provided me an excellent opportunity to make connections with these visiting students as their history teacher. I was in a place to introduce them to the Bible and fundamental Christian beliefs in a "culturally aware" method.
But most importantly, I let them ask questions.
Any question about Christianity was free game and on the table as long as they asked respectfully. No one could have prepared for that first wave of questions.
"What is the difference between a nun and a Muslim?" "How did light exist before the sun and stars?" "What does the Bible say happened to the dinosaurs?" "Who did Cain and Abel marry?" "Which is worse, murder or rape?" "Where does the Bible talk about abortion?" "How can the Earth be only thousands of years old and not billions?"
The range of questions kept me on my toes. However, speaking as a guest today might have been the hardest question to answer. Creation is a challenging topic to introduce to people from an atheist background without answering the fundamental science questions. I am ready for those. Even with years of experience answering teenagers' questions, I didn't see this one coming. So when a girl raised her hand immediately following the explanation of the days of creation and the creation of man in God's image with, "Excuse me, Miss Hatt. Do Christians believe the Bible says, 'Dogs go to heaven?" I was surprised.
Now before you get all wound up, there are 3 things you need to know about me.
1. I LOVE dogs. I almost missed and failed a college midterm rescuing a random muddy Golden Retriever off the interstate on my way to class. 2. My sister's Husky German Shepherd mix, who was basically a family dog, died recently.
3. I have NO poker face.
Ok, we can now continue. This girl looked up at me as though she just had found out her dog died back home yesterday. I saw her staring back at me, holding on desperately to a fragment of hope that she didn't just hear what she thought she heard look. There was no sliding into that one. She just learned that God breathed life into Adam, not any animals. Man alone was made in God's image - body, soul, spirit. Bodies/flesh is not the eternal part that goes to heaven. She immediately connected everything quite nicely...but she moved in a direction I couldn't have seen coming.
Want to know what diplomatic answer I came up with quickly to try and move slowly? Wincing, I said, "The only animals I know the Bible says definitively that are up in heaven are horses. God is coming back on one." The air rushed out of the room. Several students visibly cringed. It was the same pain I've seen rush over faces the moment they realized they forgot to do a project. DEFEAT.
So for you reading online, there I've said it...
I see no excellent support in the Bible to say that animals here on Earth go to heaven or hell. I see nothing in the Bible that tells us they have an eternal aspect. So give them all the love in the world while you can. As painful as that conclusion is for me to state, I will tell you it was equally hard to know I was going to be presenting a tough thing to hear to a group of students who knew very little of the Bible. Somehow talking about God's loving nature and personal care in creation ended up with them hearing, "The Christian God doesn't let dogs into heaven."
The moral of the story is? Truth is a double-edged sword.
I didn't want to give that answer, but to present the gospel, Christians must be confident in sharing hard truths in love. "For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God." "For the wages of sin is death..." These are not easy truths to hear or accept for many cultures.
Real trust can only be built if there is a certainty of truth and honesty.
For me, this is one of the dangers of teaching small children that Santa, the Tooth Fairy, or the Easter Bunny is real. Many children that start believing in those characters because their parents told them they were real growing up with a jaded view of religion. I can't tell you how many AMERICAN students called Jesus the "adult Santa" when I asked why they didn't believe in God.
Sometimes you build more rapport by speaking the hard truths in love than by sharing or focusing on all of the positives in the world.
(Yes, I did grow up getting gifts from Santa, the Tooth Fairey, and the Easter Bunny. My parents always did it with a tongue-in-cheek style. The gifts said, "Santa." Literally, with the quote marks. I watched my mom pick out the eggs and candy for the Easter Bunny. I even got to help stuff them so the "Easter Bunny" my dad could go hide them. There was never any doubt about the intentional make-believe of these fun characters. Never an illusion of reality or a time when they told me it was real. Parents, I still had fun.)
In case you are wondering if the class bounced back, yes- they did. We left that day during a robust discussion on cannibalism and the difference between murder and killing. You would be surprised how small of a jump that really is from discussing the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil with students from all across the globe.
Culturally Responsive Teaching Tip #15 - Give them the grace to ask slightly offensive questions and give yourself the grace not to be able to answer all of them at the moment. It is okay to say, "I've never thought about that before, so I don't know, but I can look it up for you."
PS. Prepare enough grace also to cover their "hot take" responses to your hard truth answers.
Speak the TRUTH in LOVE
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