Category Archives: Hell

Born Agains Be Gone

When I’m flipping through the cable TV channels, sometimes I catch a few anecdotes from Wayne Dyer with his latest book pitch, “Excuses Begone.”  When I hear him trying to make it sound so easy, I picture Samantha on “Bewitched” just wiggling her nose to make anything appear or disappear.  Well, that’s what I’d like to do with those Born Agains.  To be clear, I’m not wishing them dead, I’m just wishing their behavior (and attitude) would be gone.  And I know I’m not the only one.

Here’s how one person described it (p.24):  “Most people I meet assume that Christian means very conservative, entrenched in their thinking, antigay, antichoice, angry, violent, illogical, empire builders; they want to convert everyone, and they generally cannot live peacefully with anyone who doesn’t believe what they believe.”  When I heard that quote I had to buy the book.  Well, that was an unfortunate impulse, but I’ll share the few things of interest here so you don’t make the same mistake.  (Don’t even check it out from the library.)

unChristian: What a new generation really thinks about Christianity, is written by David Kinnaman aunChristiannd Gabe Lyons.  They researched what 16-29 year-olds think about Christianity with a few statistics about all adults throughout.  Though this research was clearly biased, I found their conclusions interesting because they were so unflattering to the authors’ own orientation – as the book flap says, “Christianity has an image problem.”

In 16-29 year-olds, 57 percent know “Evangelical Christians” and 49 percent have a bad impression (p.23).  The three most common perceptions of Christians by this age-group are anti-gay/91%, judgmental/87%, and hypocritical/85% (p.25).  These “perceptions” are based on interaction with Christians, as the authors describe, 85 percent of young “outsiders” say they have had significant exposure to Christians.  In other words, these are not just random perceptions, but a result of personal experiences.  That makes it much more than an image problem.

The authors start on page one by characterizing folks of other religions/no religion as “those outside of Christianity” and then shorten future references to “outsiders.”  I was repeatedly disturbed that they didn’t see this distinction as demeaning.  Throughout the book the consistent assumption is that not only are other religions wrong, but so are other kinds of Christians.  The Born Agains see themselves as the sole moral authority for the world and the only acceptable interpretation of Christianity.

In case you dozed-off, here’s how I would summarize this book: the Born Again authors are shocked and dismayed that there are so many people who think that their exclusive club is hypocritical and judgmental.  They want to learn from their “data” so they can do a better job of converting more of us “outsiders.”  Even as they write about arrogance, their underlying assumptions have tremendous hubris.  Here are examples of the authors’ rationalizations: “Keep in mind that part of the reason Christians possess a bad reputation is because our faith perspectives grate against a morally relativistic culture…Christians are known as judgmental because we address sin and its consequences…Christians should identify homosexual behavior as morally unacceptable because that is what Scripture teaches,” (p.34).  In that last sentence the authors leaped from interpreting data as the Barna Group (which Kinnaman runs) to interpreting the Bible, and without attribution, neither on Biblical scholarship nor Bible passages.  (I remind you that on the gay issue, Jesus did not say one thing in the Christian Gospels.)

Born Agains are so sure they are right and the rest of us “outsiders” are wrong that some of them turn their arrogance into full-time jobs, fund-raising from each other to proselytize the rest of us.  One couple, now middle-aged, has done this with relatives for over 30 years without ever having to work for a living.  They still make regular visits to an elderly retired couple, a school teacher and a tradesperson, who donate more money every year than they spent on the education of their own children.  One of the donors is now exhibiting signs of dementia – but that doesn’t stop the tireless fund-raisers from asking for additional support, above and beyond the regular amount.  They have even sent one of their children to fund-raise for a “mission” trip to Paris.  Nice work if you can get it.  I will take a Secular Humanist’s ethics over these Born Again exploiters any day of the week.

I have written before (link below) about a more compassionate Evangelical, Rob Bell. who reminds us that whatever happens after death is “speculation.”  Two amazingly intelligent and compassionate Evangelicals are Bill Moyers  (public television) and  Jim Wallis (Sojourner magazine), so those folks do exist.  It seems that there are fewer of them and their voices are not as loud and intrusive.  They are willing to express their faith, but respect the faith of others, regardless of what shape that takes.  Faith is a part of life that can’t be proven, by definition, and so there are no absolutes.  The only ultimate truth is the one we choose for our own life.

“What the Hell?” and Rob Bell

By way of contrast, and to leave you with something more positive, I want to ask you to think about the Pueblos.  These Native Americans lived an apparently peaceful, agrarian life for over 2,000 years.  They didn’t have a word for religion because the lives and religion of the people were inseparable (“Treasures of the Past: Mesa Verde,” Mesa Verde Museum Association, Inc., 1993 video).  They minded their own business.  They lived their lives.  They didn’t need to convert anyone to anything.

Here is how I would pray to an inclusive, loving God.  Perhaps it will remind you of another famous prayer, after which I modeled it. – J.B.

Mother and Father, in heaven and earth
Making all things sacred
Your riches fulfilled, your preference for us
On earth, the same as heaven

Your providence meeting
Our earthly needs
Teaching forgiveness by forgiving

Guide us from fear
Protect us from harm
That we not forget all is connected

Your Spirit
Our Spirit

© 1999 J. Good

What the hell?

How about an earthquake followed by a tsunami followed by the destruction of a nuclear power plant? That sounds like hell to me, but it is nature and the result of natural consequences. It may feel random, yet the earth’s geology and meteorology are not as random as it may feel to those who are living through disasters. That doesn’t mean it was god’s will either, even though Japan’s governor blamed the recent disasters on god’s retribution for “national egoism” (“6 other calamities blamed on divine retribution,” by Dan Gilgoff, CNN’s, 3/16/2011).

In the recent movie “The Kids are All Right,” Julianne Moore’s character said, “Your mom and I are in hell right now,” as the two leads tried to salvage their marriage from the damage caused by infidelity. Anyone who’s lived through divorce knows that feeling. But what or where is hell? Well, we have a Protestant (Christian) minister offering us a new definition. Rob Bell went to the same seminary as anti-gay mega-church Evangelical minister, Rick Warren, yet he is unafraid to say that Jesus did not teach that hell was a place of post-death damnation for those who haven’t been born again.

Bell’s new book Love Wins, was released on March 15.  Apparently in Evangelical circles being labeled a “Universalist” is like heresy for Roman Catholics, and such is their scandalous accusation of Bell. It turns out that his new book takes away the threat of hell as a conversion motivation. His explanation is neither clear nor concise, but it is nonetheless refreshing. I won’t go so far as to recommend his book because it is so poorly written as to be annoying – but what Bell tries to say is inspired.

“Jesus did not use hell to try and compel ‘heathens’ and ‘pagans’ to believe in God, so they would believe in God, so they wouldn’t burn when they die. He talked about hell to very religious people to warn them about the consequences of straying from their God-given calling and identity to show the world God’s love” (p.82).

The best I can paraphrase Bell on hell is to say that it is not a place but a word used as a literary device to communicate the (Christian) theological reality of making poor decisions. “We need a word that refers to the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God’s world God’s way” (p.93).

There’s no question about one of Bell’s assertions: “I think it’s very, very important to point out that what happens after you die is speculation.” When’s the last time you heard clergy say that?

The other issue that Bell raises in his tedious, meandering style, is the affect of traditional Evangelical Christianity on people. “So is it true that the kind of person you are doesn’t ultimately matter, as long as you’ve said or prayed or believed the right things? If you truly believed that, and you were surrounded by Christians who believed that, then you wouldn’t have much motivation to do anything about the present suffering of the word, because you would believe you were going to leave someday and go somewhere else to be with Jesus” (p.6). Well, now he’s got it. He’s describing the salvation-compassion paradox of that brand of Christianity.

Does it matter? Well it apparently does to a lot of people because on February 26th Bell’s theological argument about hell was among Twitter’s top 10 trending topics. His book was among Amazon’s top three sellers.

Bell proposes what I have long suspected: hell is on earth. If you have never seen hell on earth, then you haven’t been paying attention. Watch some CNN clips on Japan and remember there were real people getting swept away by that debris-loaded, 500 mile-per-hour black tsunami water. Maybe if you take away the after-life-eternal-hell threat, people would be left just having to help each other to have a little less hell in the here and now. Somebody get Bell a decent editor because that’s an idea worth writing about. -J.B.