A pastor friend of mine recently posted this status on Facebook: “‘Just follow my rules and behave, and nothing bad will happen to you,’ is the exact opposite of the message of Christ.”
It reminded me that the version of the Christian message I was given growing up as a child was even a bit more terrifying than that. I was told the “Good News” of Jesus could be summed up this way: “Do as I say, and nobody gets hurt.”
As a child, I didn’t question the message. I didn’t understand that the message was essentially the same that bank robbers, hostage takers and other terrorists use to keep their victims in line so they can get their way and control others.
As lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people of faith, that threat is even more menacing, since we are told from the get-go that if we even think about pursuing our God-given sexual orientation or gender identity, or give in to that “twisted gay theology,” or dare to see our differences as a “blessing,” we will get hurt. Of course, the church makes good on its threat to hurt us when we embrace how God has created us. We get criticized, yelled at, abused and finally kicked out of the church because of our failure to do as they believe God commands.
But, what they ultimately mean by getting “hurt” when we can’t keep the terroristic command to conform to compulsive heterosexuality is that we will go to hell. By daring to live into our sexual orientation or gender identity with honesty and integrity, these terroristic Christians warn us we’ll receive the worst “hurt” of all — eternal damnation in the hottest sections of a fiery and never-ending hell.
Ah, Hell …
Ah, hell … that place we like to send the people we don’t like, or the people we disagree with or those who dare to question our beliefs. We love the idea of hell because it’s a place we can consign those who don’t live up to our idea of morality. It’s a place we can put all those people who leave children or dogs in hot cars on a summer day. It’s the place we can put all those people who behead innocent journalists in the name of their bloodthirsty god, not to mention a place for anyone who professes allegiance to such a god. It’s the place we can send our political and religious foes to and feel superior about our own sense of morality.
But, if we believe in the message that Jesus actually did proclaim during his time on earth — y’know, that message that says, “Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you” — how can we justify sending anyone, even those real terrorists who use the threat of pain, economic destruction and death to get their way, to a place of eternal damnation?
For me, a belief in a literal hell where people burn and are separated from God for all eternity, flies in the face of Jesus’ real message of grace that is freely given to everyone whether they “deserve” it or not.
Recently, a couple of good articles about hell — and how many people are beginning to get the idea that it probably doesn’t really exist — have been posted on Facebook. I highly recommend reading both of them to better understand the concept of hell, how it developed, and why it’s not really found within the teachings of either the Hebrew or Christian scriptures.
In this post, author Ken Dahl, gives us a wide ranging history on hell — how the concept was created and why it’s not a biblical concept at all.
The false concept of hell violates the nature of God, which is unconditional Love. It violates the wisdom of God, the pleasure of God, the promises of God, the oath of God, the power of God. It negates the full power of the cross of Christ. It goes against the testimony of the prophets; it violates the testimony of Jesus Christ and his apostles. It violates the scriptures in their original languages. It violates the writings of the early church leaders who read the scriptures in the original languages. It goes against our conscience, and it goes against our hearts.
In this post, Benjamin Corey runs down the five reasons why the idea of hell is losing its cache with Christians who can’t bring themselves to believe that Jesus is a terrorist.
The Jesus we find in the New Testament is loving and just — but not dementedly cruel. In fact, in the New Testament we see a Jesus who notices suffering all around him and repeatedly states “I have compassion for them.” That compassion consistently moves Jesus to action, often breaking the taboos of his day to alleviate their suffering. The Jesus of scripture is hardly the type of person who’d enjoy torturing people.
What the Hell is the Point, Then?
Someone on Facebook, however, made the point that if everyone is saved, if there is no hell and grace is not a one-time-get-it-now-before-you-die kind of offer and God’s reconciling grace can even extend into eternity to save even someone like, y’know, Hitler, what’s the point of Christianity then? What’s the point of doing good, of being good, or evangelizing other people to accept your religion? Most importantly, if we all “get to heaven” when we die, what’s the entire point of salvation?
James Mulholland and Philip Gulley, in the book If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person, make a compelling argument for ditching the idea that Jesus died for our sins — that we must believe he died so that God would not hold our sins against us. In short, we’ve been taught that Jesus died to “atone” for our sins. That unless God took the life of his son as a “ransom” for our sins, God would have to hold each of us accountable for those sins. If that’s true, then Jesus had to die to protect us from God! What kind of God is that?
Instead, Mulholland and Gulley argue that the “forgiveness of sin didn’t require the death of Jesus. It only required God’s resolve to forgive. Grace isn’t about Jesus paying for our debts. It’s about God’s removing our transgressions, as far as the east is from the west.”
So, what got Jesus killed? Grace, according to these authors.
“The cross is simply one more sign of humanity’s consistent resistance to grace,” they write. “We silence any messenger who challenges our quest for a favored position.”
Moreover, we love to consign those kinds of messengers to hell, as well. But, once we understand the magnificent gift that grace really is, I think we can no longer believe in either a ransom theory of atonement or in a literal hell. This is no easy task, however, because we love to see those we hate burning in hell for all eternity because of how they treated us or those we love. A gift such as grace, that demands no repentance, no adherence to a particular religion’s set of doctrines and dogmas, and requires no confession of faith, seems deeply unfair to us. In our minds, we have to earn salvation. We have to be worthy of God’s grace.
This, Mulholland and Gulley argue, is exactly the sin we need to be saved from: our self-absorption, our belief that the world revolves around our judgments not just of ourselves, but of the world around us.
“Salvation,” Mulholland and Gulley write, “comes with believing God loves you unconditionally. It is abandoning the misconception that you are rejected because of your bad behavior or accepted because of your goodness.”
When Jesus gave us the greatest commandment, telling us to love God with all our soul, strength and mind and to love our neighbor as ourselves, he was simply saying: “Don’t be self-absorbed.” Instead, we must step outside of ourselves and learn how to live into that unconditional love that God has for us, then extend it outward to everyone around us, friend and foe alike.
This kind of love is dangerous because it asks us to give up our ideas that our way of life, our way of belief, or our particular religion is the one, true and only way to reach God. Yes, this kind of view does make evangelism worthless if your goal in telling others about the God you serve is to “convert” them to your belief. If, however, your evangelism is about telling people about a God that offers unconditional love and grace, free of charge, abundantly and wastefully to anyone and everyone who will accept it regardless of human designations of race, color, creed, religion, sexual orientation or whatever, then your evangelism becomes full of purpose — that ultimate Holy purpose to help others find salvation by repenting of their own self-absorption.
As LGBT people, we have been held hostage to the image of Jesus as a terrorist long enough. We have to stop believing in any God that says, “Do as I say and nobody gets hurt.” Instead, we must turn to the true God that says, “Do as I say — love yourself and everyone around you unconditionally — and everyone will be saved.”
Whosoever founder and Editor Emeritus Rev. Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians. She earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She serves as the spiritual director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C., and blogs at Motley Mystic.