At my Thursday men’s group last week, somebody brought up a song from the punk band Dead Milkmen called “Methodist Coloring Book.” I haven’t been able to get the song out of my head. The chorus reveals an ugly caricature of the Christian gospel that is ubiquitous in American culture after 40 years of evangelical culture war: “You’ve got a Methodist coloring book and you color really well; just don’t color outside the lines or God will send you to hell.”
Coloring outside the lines. When your doctrine of sin is authoritarian legalism, that’s what sin is. Any trivial transgression, every stray crayon mark that disobeys a commandment of God, is worthy of infinite torture in hell because God’s authority is infinite. Only someone like the notorious Calvinist megachurch pastor John Piper can make an absurdly nihilistic statement like this without flinching, but the mainstream evangelical understanding of Jesus’ atonement on the cross is built on this view of morality.
No evangelical will ever admit to being a legalist because it contradicts our theology of justification by faith, but if your only understanding of Christian morality is “The Bible says…” then you have a morality of coloring inside the lines. Even if you think that our faith in Jesus’ sacrifice saves us from God’s legalistic authoritarian expectations, you still think that God’s expectations are fundamentally legalistic and authoritarian (as opposed to being based in something like a benevolent concern for our wholeness, in which case Jesus’ atonement would have a different function).
One basic and very tragic problem with authoritarian morality keeps coming up in the news. When morality is defined as obeying your superior, it means that authority figures cannot sin and are systemically insulated from accountability for their sin. Predators and abusers like Bill Hybels, Paige Patterson, CJ Mahoney, and Andy Savage are the fruit of authoritarian morality as are the thousands of rapist Catholic priests who were shielded by their church hierarchy which shares the authoritarian ethos of conservative evangelicalism.
I just got a book by Mihee Kim-Hort called Outside the Lines: How Embracing Queerness Will Transform Your Faith. Queerness is precisely that: having an identity whose full expression involves coloring outside the normative lines. For many conservative evangelicals, taking a stand against queerness is the litmus test of biblical holiness. I do think the Christian response to queerness can serve as a litmus test, but of a different kind. To me, it distinguishes between the Christians who have a morality based on coloring inside the lines and the Christians who have a morality that is rooted in a sense of justice and inclusivity (i.e. a commitment to the kingdom of God Jesus described in which “the last shall the first and the first shall be last”).
Now I should say that even though I don’t think God damns people to hell for coloring outside of the lines, I do believe that there is a hell where people go who cannot be in communion with God and those under God’s protection. I understand it in two overlapping ways based on what I read in the Bible.
1) God promises repeatedly throughout the Bible to deliver people who live under his mercy from their oppressors. Indeed this is the lens through which the entire book of Revelation should be read. It’s a promise of deliverance and justice to the martyrs who are crying out: “How long O Lord?” I do not know how God’s grace will arrange it, but I trust that people who have been victims of horrific abuse will not have to spend eternity in communion with their unrepentant abusers. If abusers cannot be fundamentally altered to the point that they are utterly unrecognizable to their victims and completely safe, they must be kept out of communion with the people they harmed. This is why Jesus’ cross is so important, because only a crucified God who has been abused horrifically by humanity can both save abusers from their monstrosity and heal victims with such miraculous perfection that reconciliation becomes possible.
2) My second understanding of hell is that it has to do with how we experience intimacy with God. No matter how passionately God burns with unconditional love, as long as we are determined to prove ourselves right and maintain our self-justification, God’s mercy will be hell to us. For people who want meritocracy, mercy is torture. Hell is what people experience who face God without having embraced and acclimated to their need of God’s mercy. This overlaps with the first understanding of hell because people who see themselves as always right are usually also unrepentant abusers (especially when they’re religious authority figures like rapist priests and megachurch preachers).
Both of these understandings of the purpose and reality of hell are very different than the mechanistic, punitive version of hell taught in the Four Spiritual Laws gospel of mainstream evangelicalism. It’s time for evangelicals to recognize that the culture war gospel of the past four decades is a product of reading the Bible with the assumptions of late capitalist middle-class consumerism rather than timeless theological wisdom. When you come from a culture that fundamentally believes in buying insurance more than anything else, it makes sense that your understanding of salvation would be afterlife insurance. And it’s in order to accommodate this afterlife insurance gospel that the horrible thing we have to be saved from becomes eternal punishment for coloring outside the lines.
Jesus doesn’t save us from a monstrous God who damns people to hell for coloring outside the lines. Jesus saves us from being monsters who draw normative lines that make life hell for others. The lines that matter are the boundaries required by human dignity. Those who truly know God’s mercy have no reason to prove their “biblical holiness” by damning people for coloring outside the lines.
Check out my book How Jesus Saves the World From Us!