The Method and The Message


“When the God of love returns, there’ll be hell to pay.” —Father John Misty

When I tell people my story, I usually include that I once was a street preacher. But I have to confess that this wasn’t, strictly speaking, true.
No, friends. I was a street evangelist.
This is a nuance far too subtle for most people to care about, but I cared about the difference.

In fact, I was proud that I was not some angry guy with a megaphone standing outside the nightclubs, condemning everyone to Hell. I wasn’t yelling or shouting at anyone. I didn’t have signs or placards or even tracts. I considered those dudes (and they were almost always dudes) as a sort of mobster for God. “Real nice soul you got there. Sure would hate for an eternity in Hell to happen to it.”
I was way better than that. I wasn’t that guy.

No, man. I was the guy—literally—on the other side of the street stopping people to tell them that those angry guys didn’t represent Christianity. That Jesus loved you so much that he chose to die than to be without you.

Of course, to all the revelers, tourists, and dinner goers in that part of the city, there was little to no difference between us.
But I saw a difference. To me, it was huge. Those people were all about the law and all the guilt and shame that comes with it. They were Pharisees, set out to condemn the adulterers and fornicators and drunkards. But I—and I really mean this—felt overwhelmed by the tender and deep love that God had for those people. And I was heartbroken that people were turning away from that love because they had only heard of it through an angry voice.

It’s not the message that’s wrong, I’d say, it’s the method of how we say it that’s the problem.

I have been thinking about all of that a lot lately. I have been thinking about it because I have been having a lot of conversations about it. Conversations about the method and the message.

Whenever I tell Christians what it is that I am doing, they will ask me what churches I’ve been to. Whenever I mention certain ones, a lot of them will give a sort of eye-rolling sigh and apologetic smile. They make the face you make when you discover your friend was left alone with your racist aunt.

And this isn’t just because I have been groovin’ my way through California and have been talking to all the “California Christians”(land of the fruits and nuts! Har har). No ma’am, I’ve been texting and phoning with dear friends from all over the country, all of whom reflecting their core belief that God is a being comprised of pure love. A love beyond all possible love.

And they all hate the hate they see in the church. They hear stories like mine, and the countless stories so much worse than mine, and truly weep in anguish and repentance for the damage that the institutional church has caused people over the years. It’s sincere. It’s authentic. It’s beautiful. It has been impactful in my own healing process.

These are people who believe that the loving message of the gospel has been twisted and tainted by judgement, anger, and a lack of compassion.

A good example of this comes from a passage of a book that a good friend sent me. It’s from a book called He Loves Me! by Wayne Jacobsen.The passage comes from a chapter titled “Threatened with Hell.” In it, the author argues that focusing on a fear-based, “Hellfire and Brimstone” message “can stir instant commitments, [but] it does not breed long-term disciples.”
He says this is because the only way a true spiritual transformation can happen is when people become aware of the immense love of Christ.

He used an analogy that I like. One that got me thinking. One that I am about to squeeze a little more juice out of.

He asks us to imagine inviting a new acquaintance over for dinner, but then adding that if they refuse the invitation, you will hunt them down and torture them for the rest of their life. “Hasn’t the invitation just taken an ominous turn?” He asks, “Even if he wanted to explore the potential of a friendship with me, it has now been twisted by the threat.”

On this we agree. An invitation for dinner always sounds a lot more fun and pleasurable when I am not being forced to go on the threat of murder (though that is usually the only way to get me to go). A loving invite is my preferred method for receiving the message that you are making tacos.

But wait, here’s the thing:
Back when I was a street preacher—excuse me, street evangelist—if I were pressed, I would have to admit that I actually believed in everything that those angry street preachers were yelling  about.
I believed in a literal Hell and was confident that most every person I talked to out there was presently headed for it. I believed homosexuality was a sin and abortion was murder and if you so much looked at a woman with lust in your heart than that was the same as committing adultery.

The method I used was one of love and compassion, but the message—the actual gospel that I believed—was still full of judgement.

And of course, I was not some outlier. Most of the Christians I knew then, and a lot of the ones that I know now, believe these things.Wayne Jacobsen, whom I quoted above, is certainly one of them. Though the passage I paraphrased would indicate it, he was most definitely not saying Hell didn’t exist.
I know this because on page 23, he said, “all this is not to say that hell does not exist, or that dire consequences [do not] await those who refuse God’s freedom.” He believes Hell is real. He likely believes that me, a lot of my friends and a two thirds of the entire planet are presently destined to spend eternity there.

And he’s fine with that part.
The bit he doesn’t like is the threat of Hell.
Talking about Hell is what's wrong with Hell.

Let’s revisit that dinner invitation for a second.

“Hey, my friend is really into you. I mean he loves you. And he is an amazing cook and wants to have you over for dinner. There will be candlelight and great music and seriously, the food is the best food you will ever have in your life. You should go.”

“Someone else told me that he’ll torture and murder me if I say no, is that true?”

“Sorry that someone told you that. Some people really focus on the wrong things. He’s not like that. He is really loving and joyous and great and, seriously, he’s such a good cook. You should come over for dinner.”

“So he won’t torture and kill me?”

“Oh no, he definitely will torture and kill you. And like torture you for way longer than you could ever imagine. It is the most painful experience a human could possibly have. But don’t think about it that way. Think about how gracious and merciful he is for not killing you if you do show up! Because you actually do deserve to be tortured and die. My friend said so. But he still loves you in spite of that. Isn’t that wonderful?”

I am being snide. I know.

So let me stress again that I find (most of) my Christian friends to be loving and gracious and beautiful people. I believe your love is sincere and whole-hearted and is deeply rooted in compassion and a desire for human dignity.
I love your love and am grateful for it.
But as of right now, I believe that your love does not flow from some divine source, but rather just comes out of your own compassion and empathy.

Because your God seems pretty pissed off most of the time. I mean, he may love me, but it doesn’t seem like he really likes me. At least not in my natural state.

I hear that explicitly through folks like the Westboro Baptists, but it is hinted at all the time in most every church I have ever been to.
It’s in the songs you sing, the prayers you make, in the way you present your faith to outsiders. I think Christians don’t always recognize that because it is so implicit in their understanding that it’s just assumed. Human beings just are bad and corrupt and deserving of the worst possible punishment.
God, the perfect and loving creator, made beings that he knew would fail and still created a standard of holiness that no human could ever achieve.
Not only that, but through the system of original sin, we are born with the cards stacked against us. Like AC/DC all of us were born on the highway to Hell, and God, lovingly, only provided us with one exit.
An exit a large portion of the world will never even know about.
Look, the jury is still out on me. I could very well still have a “Ryan on the road to Seattle” type  of conversion story next week.
But right now, my problem isn’t the way Christians give the narrative of God to the rest of us. My problem is with God himself. Or at least this version of God.

And again, I am willing to allow that there could be some “outweighing good,” some holy and moral and noble and divine reason why God set things up this way.
Maybe this is not a contradiction in God’s character, but rather just one of those paradoxes that the spiritual all love.
Maybe someday it will make enough sense for me to reconcile how a being made of pure love can torture anyone, let alone most everyone. Forever.

But I am not there yet.   

I know this is one of those essays that will break some of your hearts. I know some of you will assure me that God really does love me and is really worthy of my worship. Some of you will be angry and say that I am misunderstanding or misquoting or just missing the point. I love you all. I am sorry. I don’t mean to hurt you.

But I am also not sorry. These are questions that need to be asked. It is a question I am asking sincerely.

I would like to hear an explanation. I would love to know an answer. I fear I already have one.

Comments

  1. My friend Charles says, "Of course I believe in hell. I believe it's empty."

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  2. This is a great post. I especially like the dialog on coming to dinner.

    I don't think I can provide an answer but I'd like to propose a slightly different starting point. Generally, people start with "God is love" and than try to reconcile salvation against that. The problem, as you point out that with salvation one must be "saved" from something and, since God holds all the cards, the One who "saves" is also the One who "damns". (Whether or not He feels anguish over lost souls is a side light I won't go into).

    But maybe we should start with "God is the creator of heaven and earth, of all that is visible and invisible." Now, the question of salvation/condemnation is changed to creation/destruction. and I would extend that to creation with re-creation/destruction being the end points. Out of His creative love comes everything and, as Picasso said, 'every act of creation is also an act of destruction". Now we have One who creates and One who destroys. One who kills and One who raises to new life. And, viewed from the point of view of the clay, being fired into a pot does not seem like a good experience. But the life on the other side of the kiln is unimaginable (for the clay). Clay that is not perfected in the kiln is destroyed and discarded.

    In this context, we can have a different view of Hell and, if one allows the apocryphal language of Revelation to remain in the metaphorical realm, we present the 'lost" not with an exit from torture but rather a exit from a less-than-full life. And when one does not participate in that life, there is nothingness.

    So what do we do with the inspired words of the Bible that speak unequivocally of a place of torture/punishment? I don't know. But what about the words that describe paradise? (which, by the way, are vastly outnumbered by the 'hell words'.) So, and here is where I dip into heresy, what if the inspired writers were also human and did not accurately articulate the unspeakable wonders revealed to them in words that clearly describe the indescribable? They focused on things that were clearer to them (suffering) and less on things that were not (elation). The images were easier for a place of torture.

    C.S. Lewis' Great Divorce jumps off of this thinking in describing heaven as a place of fullness and substance and hell as an endless nothingness--unsupported by a creator.

    It isn't mainstream but it is an alternative story for an evangelist to tell.

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  4. Would one believe in Hell if they believed they were going there?

    Is it all illuminating that those going to Hell are often those who do not share one's national identity? Or even one's particular economic or social stratum? One's politics?

    Is it even MORE telling that, typically, those who so readily condemn others to Hell are those steering the wheels of power through the centuries?

    Does it at all give one pause that it is so often the "other" that is going the Hell. That is, the one--the stranger--who poses a threat to my understanding, my perception of the world, of reality, of the order of things.

    If there is one thing a good, bible believing, Hell hawking Christian does not know, it's that establishments of religious power have always tried to control their followers, their base, supporters, to rally together their people-power, with threats by marginalizing and demonizing those who threaten their power, and ultimately, by condemning and killing them.

    This, to me, looks like a neat inversion: Hell is used to control, and those who buck the control, have historically been introduced to hell on earth. Too often, Hell has been in the hands of the Hell believers.

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  5. I asked this a few times myself and have not received satisfying answers. Even if you eliminate the fire and brimstone hell, which is only mentioned in Revelations, God is still redemptive, and says we must love him, or else. If, like above, the answer is that it’s not God threatening hell, it’s the people claiming to follow him, it’s the established religion, well, that’s not really an answer. Because we all have to determine for ourselves what answer God would give. The question is to the believers, the people who are inviting us to dinner.

    The common answers are those where I’m told I’m focusing on the wrong thing. Trouble is, if I ask the obvious follow up question, I get vague answers about what to focus on. Either I get one of the very few positive messages, like, love your neighbor, or I’m told I need to read some particular person’s sermons or just prayer more or in the worst case, I need to open my heart.

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