When I was a kid, the faith system that I was brought up in had a simple and straightforward view of what sin was. Guided by these assumptions, my behaviors were tied to eternal consequences in predictable, if not frightening, ways. Essentially, God’s rules were laid out in the Bible and it was a given that people would break these rules. This made us sinners, destined to end up in hell. The key to getting into heaven was to ask Jesus for forgiveness. If you did that, you were in. To simplify it even more, my tradition taught that any time you sin, you need to ask for forgiveness – church people would say that you could lose your salvation.
This is where the frightening part came in. As I kid, I deeply believed this stuff as much as a kid could. The fear of dying with some unforgiven sin still on the table was a scary proposition. I had this constant vigilance about being sure of my status. Was I in? Did I do something that jeopardize my salvation? There was this sense of urgency that was constant and all-encompassing. If I had lied to my mother or made a joke at my friend’s expense and then got hit by a car while riding my bike before I had a chance to confess to Jesus, where would I go? I believed the answer to that question was probably hell. No one knew for certain, of course, but hell seemed to be where my church’s theology was pointing me.
This has to be one of the most anxiety provoking ways for anyone to live. Some heavenly creature is charged with keeping tabs on anything that everything that I do that could be misconstrued as sin and make reports back to God. I felt like I was living in a big-brother state, my sin-status being monitored in real time. I felt what I imagine olympic gymnasts or figure skaters feel while they’re waiting for their scores to come back. Was I good enough?
It was the same motivation that is behind a lot of classic “fire and brimstone” preaching. Turn to Jesus today because no one knows what tomorrow will bring. If you die today, do you know where you will spend eternity?
Let’s be honest here: no one does. None of us have seen the other side – none of us even know for certain if there is another side. Heaven exists – uniquely – in people’s hearts and minds. When people say that they believe in heaven, at least in the tradition that I came up in, there is an underlying assumption that few people actually discuss. If our version of heaven is true, they we are saying that we also believe in the real-time status monitoring God that can remove you from the approved list in seconds. We’re saying that metaphor paints a picture of a loving, caring God. And that’s just not where I am anymore.
When my ideas about faith began to expand, the notion of eternal punishment in a place called hell was among the first to get disrupted. Like heaven, I will be the first to admit that I have no idea whether or not a literal hell exists – it’s impossible to know. But what we believe about hell says a lot about what we believe about God. Or, to say it another way, how we think about God dramatically informs our ideas about hell and how people get there.
Ideas about eternal life were no where near as prominent in Jesus’ day as they are in today’s world. Instead, seeing the kingdom of God come to earth was a much bigger concern. How could we live lives here in the present that really mattered? This wasn’t a fear of hell-fire, this was a concern for doing the best with what they had been given. This was about living and loving in community and being a good neighbor and increasing the overall sense of shalom in the world.
Without a constant fear of hell, it freed the characters in these stories to be present with people rather than live in constant anxiety. When I began to step away from my belief that hell was a real destination that people go to, it freed me from having to constantly self monitor my sin quotient. It turned my attention from a primarily selfish sense of survival and towards an ability to see and appreciate the beauty of creation all around me. The preoccupation with my own eternal safety gave way to a freedom to love people and experiences for what they were.
If God is what we say God is, then God knows that questions about eternity are complicated and the discussion around them is messy. It’s been muddied up at hundreds of years of bad teaching and culture and, honestly, fear. We also believe God is compassionate and concerned and teeming with grace. God knows that these are not decisions that we make as a children and then file away as being worked out for the rest of our lives. No – there are those of us who explore and wonder and will wander far off the beaten path. It may not look like traditional faith but it is motivated by a genuine curiosity. We are seeking. And Knocking. And Asking. Sometimes we get tired and frustrated when we see communities of faith minimize our curiosity about the biggest questions that mankind has ever known. But we are genuinely interested and concerned about the people we meet. Whatever God is, it’s more than just a set of criteria about who God loves the most and who needs to change their ways to make it into heaven.
The urgency, for me, is gone. I’m no more certain about heaven and hell; I’m probably less certain, if I’m honest. But the one assumption that I’ve taken on as I’ve begun to rebuild my faith is that, whatever God is, it is good. Rushing me into the biggest decision of my life – on the threat of eternal damnation – is not something I would expect from a good God. I feel like the universe has a long and eternal patience for me to wonder and explore and journey and doubt and believe.
So relax. Take your time. No one is rushing you.
When you feel rushed – to do anything – what sort of feelings do you notice in your body? And when you’re not rushed? How are the feelings different then?
What would you give as a counter message to those that preach fire and brimstone? What sort of positive messages would you tell people about a God that’s good and grounded in the idea of grace?
This post is part of a series of reflections that I wanted to create to help people who are deconstructing their views about faith make sense of what they’re experiencing. It can be lonely and scary. But this series is meant to be a safe place to experiment with what it means to go a little deeper. Find the whole series here.