Hell You Say

When I was a young Baptist, going to high school in the late 1970s, “secular humanism” was the big thing for evangelicals to rage against and to fear. Long before Tim LaHaye struck it rich with his best-selling Left Behind novels about the Rapture, he was writing books about “the battle for the mind” and the evils of secular humanism. Secular humanists were the ones responsible for abortion, the decay of our nation’s moral fabric, prayer being taken out of schools, and evolution being taught in schools.

One of my high school teachers was a man who fit the secular humanist stereotype perfectly. He was non-Christian (he was Bahai), he was liberal, and he taught evolution, including an advanced-placement course in The Ascent of Man. He moonlighted as the host of an interview program on public television. He had a son who was a long-haired hippie artist and he didn’t make his son cut his hair.

He was always respectful, yet challenging, to those of us who were dogmatic in our beliefs, as I was at that time. He and I maintained a friendship after I graduated from high school. One Christmas I gave him Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, and he gave me Broca’s Brain by Carl Sagan. He was an outgoing, friendly man, fun to be around, deeply committed to the teaching profession.

Several years after I graduated from high school, he passed away. After his funeral, one of my fellow Baptists looked at me and said very somberly, “You know, if what we believe is true, our friend is burning in hell right now.”

It was at that point, I think, that I stopped believing in a literal hell, although for many more years I believed that I believed in a literal hell. After all, I was supposed to believe in the existence of hell, so I willed myself to believe in it. I just didn’t let myself think too deeply about it.

I think a lot of evangelical Christians are the same way. After all, if they really believed in hell (instead of believing they believe in it), they would spend every waking hour warning others of the fiery dangers to come. The maniacal street preacher who screams about hell to passers-by is at least more logically consistent with his own beliefs than the suburban Baptist who listens to “contemporary Christian music” every day but never warns his unsaved friends and co-workers about hell.

Also, if they really believed in a literal hell, they might notice some rather frightening implications.

Imagine a man who professes to love his children deeply, who has undergone great sacrifices for the welfare of his children. Imagine that some of his children are grateful but others are not and they refuse his sacrificial gifts. Imagine that this man’s loving response to his ungrateful children is to douse them with kerosene and set them on fire. As they screamed in agony and pain, as their skin bubbled and fell from their bones, this loving father shrugged his shoulders and did nothing to rescue them.

Such a man would be labeled a sociopath, a dangerous criminal who needs to be locked away for the safety of himself and others. And yet this is precisely the image of God that exists in the minds of evangelical Christians who claim they believe in hell.

“Cognitive dissonance” is a term that describes a deep psychological conflict between a person’s beliefs and actions. I submit that the vast majority of evangelical Christians suffer from a severe cognitive dissonance between their belief in hell and their lack of action about that belief. Most of them feel a great sense of shame over the small numbers of people they have “led to the Lord” and thereby rescued from the fires of hell.

Another source of shame and dissonance is the fact that they know, deep down inside, that they don’t really believe in the pyromaniacal God who lovingly sets His own children afire.

I submit that one way they deal with this cognitive dissonance, this very real internal struggle, is to latch on to certain causes and crusades against perceived evils. By fighting against such “evils” as abortion, evolution, homosexuality, Harry Potter, Tinky Winky, and whatever else Jerry Falwell or James Dobson is denouncing this week, they can still this inner conflict, at least for a while. By denouncing the evils of others, they can feel righteous and good. They have not yet learned that blowing out another person’s candle does not make their candle burn any brighter. (This is why so many supported the anti-gay “Defense of Marriage Act,” including Al Gore: they believe their own heterosexual marriage would be somehow harmed or “trivialized” if I were to marry my boyfriend.)

When you view all of life in terms of spiritual warfare, you develop a war-like mentality. Everything is viewed in terms of good vs. evil. This is why so many Christians say there can be no such thing as a gay Christian. To be a gay Christian is to blur the lines between “us” vs. “them.”

A Baptist minister once asked me why my church bothered to feed the homeless every day. “After all,” he said, “most of those people are just gonna die and go to hell anyway.” What was chilling about this statement is that he said it with no anger or hostility in his voice, but with genuine puzzlement. He couldn’t understand loving someone, reaching out to someone, apart from the ulterior motive of “leading them to the Lord.” And if they reject the Lord, he could not understand having anything else to do with them. In the war of tallying up souls saved from a burning hell, it just isn’t “cost effective” to love someone who is going to hell anyway.

To love someone for his or own sake is a revolutionary act, to some an offensive act. The religious right hates gay Christians (while claiming to love them) because of their own inner conflicts, their own sense of shame and cognitive dissonance, their own inability to love as Christ loved: for “no good reason.” I submit that our response, as offensive as it may be, is to go on loving: to love not only those in need but also those who call themselves our enemies. We may never change their minds, but maybe — just maybe — we can love the hell out of them.