A recent drama in Christian Twitter (several news cycles ago) involved the circulation of a ghastly-looking tweet put out by Calvinist pastor John Piper’s Desiring God website. It seems to expose the hideousness of the Calvinist God whose mandatory “joy” that he’s “serious about” is like the forced applause of a North Korean standing ovation for dear leader Kim Jong Un.
And yet… having some sense of the intent of the theological point, I can shockingly almost get behind it with a single word edit. I don’t think God “threatens” us with hell; I do think God warns us of the hell that will result if we are unable to connect with God (remembering that all language about God is metaphorical and that God is not a narcissistic boyfriend or domineering father but simply the love at the core of reality that is the source of being which we can either be tuned into or alienated from).
I don’t disbelieve in the hell of alienation from God that some/much of humanity is stuck in. I just don’t think it’s a thing we are released from by proving ourselves in some kind of way to God. In fact, I believe that one of the ways we trap ourselves in hell is through trying to prove ourselves to God, which is why many Christians right now are living through a hell of their own creation just like the Galatian “circumcision” faction the apostle Paul rebuked so forcefully and told to castrate themselves (Galatians 5:12).
I believe that God rescues us from our alienation entirely through his grace rather than flipping the switch on our eternal destiny as a reward for a pious performance of “faith” (Ephesians 2:8-10). I believe that his rescue is his own mysterious prerogative, which means it isn’t always (or even usually) required to satisfy our doctrinal standards. To me, the sovereignty of God’s grace doesn’t mean God animates an elect few of us like puppets to perform some specific lawfulness he demands. It means that he accepts us entirely in our lawlessness and that his gracious acceptance becomes the basis for the grace with which we come to treat others as we are perfected in love (which we then discover to be the actual “lawfulness” God cares about). God simply wants us to accept his mercy and become his mercy for others; that’s how I would summarize his plan for saving humanity through Jesus.
To get back to hell, I think it’s essential to acknowledge that whenever we talk about hell, we’re talking metaphorically, though I suspect some Calvinists would grumble with even bringing the word metaphorical into the conversation. The main debate I have with the Calvinists is that I think hell is more usefully described as a consequence than a punishment.
I don’t think many Calvinists can stomach a hell that isn’t punishment because they are invested in what John Piper rightly confesses to be the “masculine feel” of his version of Christianity. My hunch is that Calvinists don’t feel like their God is sovereign and all-powerful (masculine) enough if hell is simply the radical isolation that results from failing to connect with God rather than his willful rejection of and zealously administered violence against people who don’t believe the right things about him.
Of course, they would say they’re just reading scripture, and I would say they’re overwriting the apostles’ stupefied metaphorical scriptural meditations on the eternal mystical sacrificial purification Jesus accomplished on the cross with a 16th century sense of jurisprudence (Calvin) which was built on top of an 11th century sense of feudal honor (Anselm). And we would talk in circles from there.
But rather than debate the Calvinists which I got bored doing sometime in 2016, I’m more interested in wrestling with what it actually means to connect with God in a way that avoids the self-alienation of hell. What is the range of validity for doing that? Does it require accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and savior? Am I outside of Christian orthodoxy if I’m unwilling to say that absolutely?
Yesterday, I received a long and incredibly beautiful Facebook message from a secular Jewish Tulane alum who was marginally connected with our ministry. She was responding to one of the many angsty struggles with ministry that I articulate online. What touched me so deeply was that she actually used language similar to how I talk about God’s love as a means of ministering to me even though I’m almost sure it wasn’t the way she would normally talk.
I’ve received similar encouragement from other non-Christians before who use my tradition’s language to minister to me though it isn’t their language. Each time God has made it very clear that he was speaking through them. For much of my life, I’ve received these beautiful prophets from outside of Christianity, which has always made me question their supposed place on God’s “I’m truly sorry but I have to torture you forever in hell” list.
Through a meandering theological journey that I can’t necessarily retrace in this blog post (that you could perhaps find amidst the 1000+ other blog posts on here), I have come to the place where I think the one essential question regarding our connection to God is this: are we worshiping or are we performing? The word hypocrites (hoop-o-cree-tays) that Jesus uses to describe inauthentic religiosity in Matthew 6 literally means “performer” in Greek. Religion is full of performers who put on shows of piety for themselves, for others, and for God. Likewise, in my ministry context on a hyper-competitive Ivy League-ish campus, every aspect of life is a performance, whether we’re talking about GPA’s or the subtleties of social etiquette at binge-drinking parties or the captioning of Instagram feeds.
As far as I can see, the performance of desperately trying to prove yourself in every aspect of life is itself what hell is. As long as that anxiety is at your core, you will never be at home no matter how many career goals you achieve, how physically attractive your spouse is, and how many interesting friends you have. Jesus shed his blood on the cross not to talk his heavenly father out of torturing me forever, but to save me from the eternal conscious torment of trying to make myself matter eternally/earn my way into heaven, the paradoxical problem being that many Christians simply find subtler ways of proving their worth/earning their salvation through the performance of “faith.”
To me, worship is the state of delight that happens when we’re liberated from our acute self-obsession for long enough to glimpse even a portion of God’s beauty. This past Sunday, I led worship for our ministry because our worship leader resigned a couple of weeks back. Though I’m normally too filled with cynicism to actually worship when I’m singing contemporary Christian praise songs, this Sunday when I threw back my head and belted out “There is power in the name of Jesus… to break every chain!” I was actually worshiping because I was crying out to God in desperation for him to make those words true in my life. And in that desperation, I tasted the joy that he invited me into.
Yesterday afternoon, I went to a centering prayer gathering on Loyola’s campus where I prostrated myself on the carpet in yoga child’s pose for a few minutes and focused on my breath. That too was worship in the sense that it allowed me to experience the sweetness of God’s embrace. I’m very reluctant to say that worship has to involve saying specific words or checking particular doctrinal boxes in order to be valid because that would make it a performance.
And so rightly or wrongly, because of how I understand the relationship between worship and performance and our need to be liberated from trying to earn our salvation, I’m unsure whether a clear boundary can be drawn around what counts as valid worship, which I understand as the means by which we “participate in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), abide in Christ as he abides in us (John 15:4), and exercise our “heavenly citizenship” (Philippians 3:20). In my understanding, living in a state of perpetual authentic worship is the goal; it is the end-product of Christian salvation; it is the meaning of heaven.
While I believe that Jesus died on the cross so that I could stop performing for God and the world around me to give myself over to the joy of worshiping God instead, I’m not sure that God would say that’s not allowed if a Buddhist found herself in a similar state of being through a different set of practices and beliefs. I think the specific vocabulary and story of Christian theology matters immensely to enter into authentic worship, but it’s not because God has a clipboard on which he’s checking boxes before he decides whether to release his grace into us or not.
I’m unwilling to believe (or pretend to believe) anything that only has the purpose of proving myself to orthodoxy police of any kind whether we’re talking about evangelical Christianity, woke radical culture, or anything else. Because that’s a performance. And that’s hell.
Neither am I going to design my theology around the goal of providing apologetic arguments for defending predetermined doctrine that I’m trying to preserve. That seems like the worst kind of reverse engineering to me. I have to believe this and this because if I don’t, then these doctrines fall like a house of cards. I’ve seen famous Calvinist pastor Tim Keller speak with this kind of logic quite openly. Orthodox doctrine is simply that spiritual teaching which helps us gain the deepest possible intimacy with Christ. It is a means to the end of mystical union, and should be evaluated according to that goal.
So that’s where I’m at right now. I very much believe in heaven and hell and I understand them largely (though not exclusively) in terms of the distinction between worship and performance. When we are able to delight self-forgetfully in God’s glory, we experience heaven. When we are locked into a life of self-justifying performance, we experience hell. I think the point of Jesus dying on the cross and rising from the dead is to rescue us from all our proving and performing, though I’m unwilling to condemn to hell people who figure this out without naming Jesus as part of their story just so that I can keep my official orthodoxy badge.
I’m not sure exactly what happens after we die, but I think that I experience a taste of both heaven and hell every day. Hopefully I’m dying to my self-obsession a little more each day and one day Jesus will complete his work of saving me all the way from my self-justification so that I can be perfect in his love.