Growing up in church I knew the Christian message back to front. It was my reality, my Truth, my reason for living.
It went like this:
God created me in my mother’s womb, and loved me so much that he wanted me to have eternal life with Him in Heaven. Tragically, all of humanity had fallen and was deeply sinful and bad, and God hated sin so much He couldn’t stand to look at me. In His amazing love He sent His only Son to take my punishment by dying on a cross, so that I wouldn’t have to be punished and could spend eternity in paradise. I was saved by grace – there was nothing I could do to earn my salvation, it was a gift from an awesome God who loved me. All I had to do was believe this Good News and accept the free gift of salvation.
This was the way it had to be – God was perfectly good, and nothing evil could enter His presence. Therefore I in my fallen nature needed to be washed clean, forgiven of my sins, and covered by the atoning blood of Jesus. It all made perfect logical sense, and it really was a beautiful story – one of love, hope and sacrifice. I was so humbled and grateful that God had chosen to save me; I was secure in the knowledge that I was going to Heaven, and my mission in life was to see others saved in the same way.
We didn’t talk about Hell much, it wasn’t a nice thing to think about. But it was definitely a real threat and a future reality for anyone who wasn’t a Christian. I understood Hell to be a place without God, where there was no hope, no love, no light, nothing good at all. Some described it as a literal lake of fire, I thought that was a bit farfetched. But I had no doubt that it was a place of suffering and torment, that would last forever, and that was the ultimate eternal destiny for all of humanity – or at least that’s what we all deserved.
That was the Bad News that came before the Good News.
As much as we dressed it up with nice words, friendly smiles and good music, the message of our Christian faith was ultimately based on fear. Unless we got it right, we had good reason to be very, very afraid.
I was completely convinced. It was only when I encountered some Christians who challenged this understanding of the Gospel that it all started to unravel. When encouraged to step outside of my Christian bubble and dig deeper into my beliefs, I began to see my faith from other angles and some troubling and unsettling thoughts started to emerge.
The way to escape Hell was to believe that Jesus, a man from Nazareth who lived 2000 years ago, was the Son of God, and died to save us from being punished for our sins. Logically speaking, therefore, anyone who died without believing this message would be tortured beyond their worst nightmares for all of eternity. If people had heard the message and chose to reject it, well, then that’s clearly what they deserved for failing to believe the Truth. But what about those who had never heard of Jesus? What about babies who died before they were old enough to understand? What about my mentally handicapped brother? What about people who grew up in cultures where Christianity was not the main religion, or was not known about at all?
As I understand it, this is why traditionally children were baptised as infants – it was a way for the poor, concerned parents to appease God in the hope that He would let their beloved children into Heaven if they died in infancy. Christian missionaries have travelled all over the world preaching the Gospel in the hope of converting people to Christianity and saving souls from Hell. Some truly remarkable people have sacrificed their whole lives to this mission, out of genuine love and compassion for those who were destined for Hell. It is not them I started to have a problem with, it was the God who was responsible for it all in the first place.
If God was Creator of all things, all-knowing and all-powerful, then He knew full well when He created people that they would fall short of His standards. God was just and fair, so needed to punish sin – fair enough. But how just and fair was it that some people like me were born into evangelical Christian families where becoming “saved” was easy, while others never even heard Jesus’ name? Does God prefer white Western people? (Not too long ago the answer to this would have been a resounding “yes”, despite the fact that Jesus was of Middle-Eastern origin). And how just and fair was it that Christians could spend their entire lives abusing people with their greed and selfishness and still go to Heaven, whilst a Hindu man named Ghandi who spent his life working for peace, freedom and justice for oppressed people was right now being tortured in Hell?
If this God was good, I wondered, what was the definition of good exactly?
The Bible says that we are made in God’s image, and that we are like children and God is like our Father. It is therefore reasonable to imagine that the way we love our children is comparable to the way God loves us; and as God is God and we are sinful humans, we would expect God to display the perfect example of parental love. If we heard of a parent who threatened to horrifically torture their child forever if they failed to solve a riddle or recite a poem they might never actually hear, we would lock that parent up and despise them as pure evil. Yet that was effectively the picture of God painted by Christianity as I understood it. God’s love was not free and available for all, it came with very, very specific terms and conditions.
I now believe with my whole heart that the message of Christianity that I was taught is not what Jesus meant.
I think we got it really, really wrong.
Jesus talked about an afterlife, and he warned clearly that there would be serious consequences for our actions. But He didn’t say that only a select group of Chosen Ones would avoid punishment. His message was about love for all, salvation for all, hope for all.
I think the bit about having to “believe” in Jesus, as children “believe” in the Tooth Fairy, and having to say the “Sinner’s Prayer” in order to gain your ticket to Heaven is a man-made idea based on a serious misinterpretation.
I think the idea of innocent people being tortured for all eternity was man’s invention, not God’s.
No time here for a detailed analysis of Biblical references to Hell. But here are a couple of examples of interesting things I didn’t used to know:
Gehenna (Greek word often translated as ‘Hell’) was a valley outside Jerusalem used as a dump, where bodies and rubbish were burnt. Not a place where unbelievers suffer eternal conscious torment after they die.
Sheol and Hades (Greek words usually understood to mean ‘Hell’) are best translated as ‘the grave’. Also not a place where unbelievers suffer eternal conscious torment after they die.
I think that in focusing on Hell-avoidance strategies, we have missed the point.
I think the message of Jesus, spoken through his words and his actions, was that God loves the whole world and wants to restore it, heal it, renew it, fill it with His presence and His love.
Jesus called this idea the Kingdom of God, and he said it was “at hand” – not for believers after they die, but available for all, here, now. It was a new way of being human; a revolutionary, counter-cultural, radically inclusive new way of living. Jesus spent his life making friends with the outcasts of society, healing the sick, feeding the poor and demonstrating radical ways of fighting political, economic and social injustice. He was killed for being a political revolutionary. The second line of the prayer he taught his followers was “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven”. What sense does all this make if Jesus’ mission was to give us a ticket out of Hell? In that case, this life doesn’t matter much anyway once we’re “saved” so why bother with all the other stuff?
I think we constructed the belief system of ‘original sin’ and Hell-avoidance by taking particular verses out of context and failing to see the bigger picture, the overarching story. Jesus brought a revolutionary message of love, freedom, radical inclusion and hope. He was most fiercely opposed not to unbelievers, but to the religious leaders of the time who used fear to control people, enforcing petty laws and creating hierarchies based on “purity” (which Jesus routinely turned upside-down).
How tragically ironic that in His name we created a religion based on fear and control, which allows for people to be dehumanised and the planet to be destroyed as long as people believe the right doctrines about the afterlife. Instead of fighting injustice as Jesus did we have contributed to it. Instead of radically loving and including people, we have judged and excluded them.
All this because we wanted to see things as black and white, Heaven or Hell, in or out, Christian or non-Christian, saved or damned.
I don’t think the Good News is that we can escape Hell by believing in Jesus. I think it’s much, much better than that.
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