The Christian movement birthed yet another Protestant denomination last week. They have named themselves the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians and they are composed of a number of disaffected people and congregations of the Presbyterian Church USA who disagree with that church’s approach to a number of issues, including a recent decision to accept openly gay persons as clergy. The quote that is the title of this week’s blog is excerpted from a sermon given at the service in Florida marking the formation of this new denomination, as reported in a press article.
I don’t really have any interest here in expounding on this new denomination or the events that have led to its birth. Given that Protestants have, over the centuries, given birth to thousands of denominations doesn’t make this development terribly remarkable. What I do want to meditate on a bit, however, is the sermon quotation: “The problem is people are going to hell.”
I will admit from the get go that I have not read nor heard the whole of this sermon, and so I am not in a position to comment on the whole of the message that was contained in it. This part, this going to hell part, is all I want to focus on. So, let me just make several points:
1. The quotation probably reflects what many if not most people think that Christianity is really about. Lots of people think that to be a Christian is all about getting to heaven and avoiding hell, which is reserved for the non-Christians and for the bad, failed Christians. It is a perspective that says those who follow Jesus (properly) will be led by him into heaven while all the other poor saps will end up in hell. Which, by the way, is the vast majority of humanity.
2. The quotation does NOT represent my understanding of Christianity, nor that held by many thousands (perhaps millions!) of followers of Jesus around the world. And, while one can certainly pick and choose passages from the Bible that seem to support the “we’re going to heaven, you’re going to hell” brand of Christianity, a perceptive reading of the Bible will demonstrate rather quickly that such passages do not embody the main point of the any of the biblical books and certainly do not embody the main points of the teaching of Jesus. An honest, intelligent inquiry into the history of Christianity will also reveal that for most of Christian history, up until just a few short centuries ago, most followers of Jesus did not think that getting to heaven and avoiding hell was the main point of their faith.
3. The “heaven and hell” paradigm was imposed on the biblical texts and the Christian faith by those who wanted to find it there. And why would anyone wish to read the texts and the heart of the faith in this way? The only conclusion I can come to is out of a desire to impose control through fear or out of a desire to experience one’s self and one’s own group as the “chosen few” who get it. The use of fear to create order is common in human history, and one that churches have not avoided using themselves. Instilling in people a fear of hell so that they aspire to better behavior can work. But, it leads to a view of God that is quite distorted. Who among us would want to cast our children into any sort of hell because they could not figure out how to behave properly? The idea of God throwing people into hell fails to comprehend the radical nature of God’s love. A desire to know one’s self to be a part of the “in” group and to know others as being “lost” is a desire that is rooted in the ego and expresses one of the worst tendencies of human nature. It could hardly be considered a Christian virtue though it is a rather tribal one.
4. Theology does not fall out of heaven fully formed. The Bible and Christian history contain many threads and strands, some of which churches have made prominent and others of which have lurked in the background. Theology arises out of the human exploration of and relationship with God, and as such it is always provisional and, to a degree, subjective. The emergence and persistence of the heaven and hell paradigm in Christianity is a good example of how theology arises. There was a time when it was not the dominant theological frame. For several years now, it has been among many Christians, including the most outwardly and materially “successful brands”. Yet, there have always been Christians who did not fully accept this paradigm, and among many it is now passing away.
5. What alternative is there to the heaven and hell paradigm? There is probably more than one. For me, the alternative paradigm is one of transformation. Our journey with God is a journey into being as fully human as possible, human in the way God dreams us to be human. That journey can only happen safely in the context of love. Rather than seeking to enforce change upon us by imposing fear from outside, God seeks to nurture change within us by embracing us with the radical divine love that is incarnate in Jesus Christ. The kingdom of heaven (called the kingdom of God in most of the New Testament) is not a place for a few well-behaved, right-believing people to hang out in after they die. And Jesus never said that it was. Rather, it is a state of being, and that state is a state of abundant life in a spiritual, not a material sense. If you want to really get a sense of what this kingdom is like, read the Beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel. The parables of Jesus are really an expansion on those Beatitudes. And while some of the parables seem to be about heaven and hell, they are really about contrasting a false life with a true life.
St. Paul is often cited when it comes to the heaven and hell paradigm, though wrongly, I think. He had certain opinions about certain behaviors that seemed to disqualify a person from God’s grace. A sensitive reading of Paul shows that his thought is more complex. But whatever we might say of St. Paul, we should not forget that he also wrote these words: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39). That comes far closer to capturing the radical depth of God’s love than any talk of going to hell ever will.