“Hell has always been a psychic method to obscure the subversive import of Christ’s command that we should love everyone as we love ourselves. Without the crutch of hell, we must contend with what that revolutionary egalitarianism means. It is to believe that every human being is so divine, every spirit so precious, that neither crime nor sin can sully it forever; it is to hold that God so loved the world that he would prepare a place for even the worst of us at His table.” -Ed Simon
I had to take a moment to recover. I almost felt like I had been punched in the stomach. These words not only rang completely true to me, they also explained so much of the pathos behind the evangelism I grew up in, within the fundamentalist-evangelical world. While many believed religion or faith to be a crutch of sorts, here was, perhaps, the true crutch.
However, it was a crutch for the faithful, for believers. In a world of endless endeavors, goals, aspirations, and worlds to conquer, here was one for the ages. No, not just the ages, but eternity. If one had been merrily, thoughtlessly, bounding through life wondering what this was all about or what it meant, well, here was something. Imagine: You hold the key, you have the information, you have the story that can keep everyone else from spending an eternal, “life” in an abysmal, tormenting fire of conscious, physical, emotional, and spiritual torture.
One would have to be a stone-cold psychopath, a truly wicked and selfish person, to not then devote their entire existence, their every waking moment to telling others daily and regularly, how to avoid such an eternity. Imagine the pathos this creates. Life for this person becomes seeing humanity as those on the trains headed to Auschwitz. He or she becomes compelled to tell those people to jump off now or, at the least, to convert. They have some time, but eventually, will reach their destination.
Imagine the power, and, therefore, responsibility this must induce in us and weigh upon us. We hold their very eternity, in our hands. Yes, I know, “eternity is in their hands,” or we are told such anyway (unless, one is a Calvinist of course). Still, they have to hear it from us or read it from someone, right? In this sense, we are responsible. Let’s put aside for the moment the idea of, maybe, just maybe, striving for a world where places like Auschwitz never arise.I was told in seminary that evangelism was just, “one beggar showing another where to find bread,” or something like that. But that’s not quite the whole story, is it. If hell as an eternal torture exists, then it is more like telling someone where the bread is, but also pointing out that if they refuse the bread, they will be tortured forever. So, it’s not: eat or die (a general truth). It’s: eat or be tortured. Forever. Somehow, I don’t find that, “good news.” It’s certainly not moral news, or even rational news.
What great energies are put forth, and to what end are we told of our grave error lest we forget that the people who die every day, are perhaps being introduced to an eternal, indescribably horrible, fate? How could we not possibly see that our concern and priority must then be their eternal destination and condition, not any actual ones here and now? While it might bother us if the train these people are riding to hell has a bucket for a toilet and no heat, it is their destination that must concentrate our minds. Notice what happened there? This should give those who will respond with, “why can’t we be concerned with and address both?,” some pause, because the sheer moral power of the far graver danger they face (their destination) has to overcome any concerns regarding their actual current situation.
Our writer tells us there is a subversive truth the doctrine of hell obscures. And I’m claiming that the doctrine’s necessary corollary, evangelistic zeal, also hides the same truth. It conceals the directive to love our neighbor as ourselves. It does this in broad daylight. It tells us that a person’s eternal destination (because it might be hell) should be the priority of our love and efforts. This allows us, no matter how subtly, to push aside their current troubles, as we gaze off to an eschatological horizon. Now we can sleep well at night at least knowing we addressed the greater peril, even if they sleep tonight, not well at all.
Does this reveal a further “psychic method” behind the evangelism of fundamentalism/evangelicalism? Is it a sub-conscious and grand misdirection that keeps our souls placated? Does it comfort us, so that, without the feverish dreams of pin-pricked hearts, we can go on telling people of a future hell rather than helping them out of any current ones? Is the doctrine of hell, and its necessary handmaiden, evangelistic pathos, the salve we use to heal the wounds created by our failures to love, in the midst of far too many, very real, and very present, hells?
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