I love people-watching at the grocery store. Yesterday, an elderly couple—riding two abreast on a pair of motorized scooters—were coming straight for me. I found myself tap dancing back and forth… Not sure which way to go. The lady seemed annoyed by my indecision. She looked at me and sighed, and just before putting me into a position where I needed to leap to safety, the woman said, “Alright… I’m fixin’ to head over to the cheese department,” and then she broke formation, made a hard left, and sped off in search of cheese. That’s the kind of entertainment that you can’t get by ordering stuff on Amazon.
The other day I had an interesting experience in a checkout line. Most of the time I chat with whomever is working the checkout line—usually about the odd assortment of things I’m purchasing. Whenever I go to the grocery store, I never seem to walk out of there with “normal” groceries. It’s never just milk, bread, cheese, apples, eggs, orange juice, and oatmeal.” It’s always some desperately random combination of things—random to the point of being embarrassing—that make me look like I’m some sort of deviant… Or planning some sort terrorist attack… Or both. It’s always like, “Hi, I’d like to purchase these tampons, this tube of goat cheese, these size D batteries, this family sized bag of gummy bears, this can of WD-40, and $38 worth of Boar’s Head oven gold turkey breast.
So, the other day—after just paying for a needle-nosed pliers, an industrial sized vat of Listerine, and a slim Jim—the person behind me in line asked the woman working the checkout, “How you doing today?” And she gave the answer that frustrates me more than any other answer to that question: “Better than I deserve.” You may have heard this answer before… I have heard it hundreds of times since moving to the South years ago. A lot of people associate “Better than I deserve” with Christian financial guru, Dave Ramsey, but that phrase (as well as the theology behind it) have a long history. Other people connect that phrase to a pastor named C.J. Mahaney… But really it goes back all the way to John Calvin and beyond. Many people who use that answer to the question “How are you doing?” will tell you that they are doing it to remind themselves to be thankful… But really–at the heart of it—is a daily reminder of what so many Christians believe we all REALLY deserve… HELL.
Maybe this is the version of Christianity that you grew up with… The version that reminds us every chance it gets that each of us is so depraved—even from our birth—that the just and right consequence for our depravity is an eternity of conscious torment. For many people using the moniker “Christian,” this belief in Hell as an actual place where unbelievers receive “eternal conscious torment with no hope of redemption” is such an integral part of their faith, that for someone to even suggest the possibility of another interpretation is to be branded a heretic (see Rob Bell, and a host of others). But really—at this point in my life—it makes a lot more sense that people like myself WOULD be seen as heretical… We believe very different things. I mean, imagine walking around each day, and with every greeting, reminding yourself (as well as the one saying hello) that we are all such total and complete piles of garbage that we deserve to be tortured–not just for 100 years, or 1000 years, or even a million years—but for ETERNITY. Our understandings of the nature of God are so starkly different, it seems difficult to imagine we could both be under the same umbrella called “Christianity.”
And here’s my problem with the concept of a conscious, eternal, tortuous Hell: It’s completely incompatible with the idea of a loving God. If we can know anything about the concept of “loving,” then we can know that sending a sentient being to get tortured (or creating a system where torture is a natural consequence—ANY torture… let alone ETERNAL torture) could not possibly be defined as “loving” that being. And when you point this fact out to people who hold tightly to the doctrine of Hell, many times they will counter with talk of God’s “justice.” But again, if we can know anything at all of the concept of “justice,” we can know that an eternity of torment could NEVER be considered a just consequence for a temporal offense… Whether that offense was a wrong conclusion made in good faith, or even if that offense is 30 years of outright rebellion. Most of humanity has concluded that torture is beneath us as a species… And yet so many still cling to a picture and a theology that has the “higher” power—God—creating and utilizing a system whereby the vast majority of the human race receives a consequence of eternal torture.
This is the absolute and complete logical impossibility of an eternal, conscious torment that has come to be known as “Hell.”
No one knows what happens to us after we die. There are a lot of possibilities. It’s possible that there is some sort of refining process where we are relieved of all the things that make us broken—And maybe this process eventually happens to everyone (Universalism). It’s possible that when someone dies who isn’t invited into Heaven, that person simply ceases to exist… like a swatted fly or a trampled ant—Our souls and our consciousness are not necessarily eternal… And even if you read scripture that way, Matthew 10:28 speaks of God’s power to “destroy both soul and body” (Annihilationism). And it’s also possible that God made it so that only a relative few would make it to heaven… Through a process that has as many differing ideas as there are Christian denominations—just under 40,000—All while billions and billions of others would spend all eternity suffering in a fiery punishment (Traditional Doctrine of Hell). For a really clear picture of these different understandings of what happens to us when we die, the movie “Hellbound” does a really good job (It’s on Netflix). Also Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” is very accessible and well done. In any event, there is a plausible Biblical case that can be made for each one of these positions.
But only one of these positions is incompatible with the idea of a loving God. Either God loves us, or Hell is an eternity of conscious torment… But both cannot possibly be true at the same time. The traditional doctrine of Hell turns God into a monster… Like an abusive boyfriend who tells a woman, cowering and bruised, “You brought this on yourself.” And we, like that battered woman, say things like, “I had this coming to me… It’s my own fault… I deserve this.” NO!!! That isn’t love. “Love me, or I’ll beat the hell out of you” is NOT love. Just like “Love me, or I’ll have you tortured for all eternity” is not love. Or free will. Or justice. Or anything close to “Good News.” It is abuse. If the concept of “Goodness” means anything, we cannot possibly call this twisted version of an abusive God “Good.” Powerful? Certainly. Terrifying? For sure. But good? Never.
So here’s what I think: If a Biblical case can be made for each of these theological positions (Universalism, Annihilationism, and The Doctrine of Hell), why in the world would we choose the one that turns God into a monster? Tradition? A traditional understanding is what was used to justify slavery for 1900 years. A traditional understanding is what was used to justify beating your wife when she got out of line. Even if you give precedence to the times when Jesus describes God as the great Judger, you still don’t have to end up at a place of people being tortured forever. There is no good reason to hang onto this picture of God. It not only offends our conscience, but it offends our intellect and our reason as well (and for those of you who would warn of “leaning on our own understanding,” I would ask you to consider how your own sense of “understanding” brought you to that conclusion). But what’s more than that, this picture of God stands in stark contrast to the majority of Jesus’ characterizations of God as a “Good Father” who loves us way better than we could ever love our own kids… And I could never send my kids to get tortured—no matter how badly they messed up. Jesus speaks of a God who is merciful. And loving. And just. And who runs to meet us. And who doesn’t repay evil for evil.
“God does not love you because you are good; God loves you because God is good. And then you can be good because you draw upon such an Infinite Source… God is always and forever the initiator in my life, and I am, on occasion, the half-hearted respondent.” ~ Richard Rohr, from the meditation “Implanted Desire”
So I don’t know what happens to us when we die, but I can tell you what DOESN’T happen to us—Not if God is anything close to the “Good Father” Jesus describes. If God is the God of eternal damnation, we are all so very screwed. And if that’s what God is like, then how could we ever love that God? We could FEAR that God… But love? It sounds like the Old Testament understanding of Yahweh and an Old Testament understanding of humanity… An understanding that I believe Jesus came to correct, so that we could finally see God as the Great Lover… and finally see ourselves as the Beloved.
Anyway, I guess I had heard that phrase one time too many—The one that sounds like so much blasphemy to me now—“Better than I deserve.” I told my kids to stay with the shopping cart. And I walked back over to the checkout. And I looked that woman in the eyes, and I said, “I’m sorry to interrupt… Please don’t ever say that. You do NOT deserve terrible things. We are all broken in some ways, but your brokenness does not define you, just like my brokenness does not define me. And even though it sometimes feels like it, your brokenness is not too much for God. You are not worthless! You are worthy of being loved, and you are worthy of every good thing that happens to you. Okay?” And the same goes for you… Whoever the “you” is reading this right now. There are plenty of people going through hell all around us, and where we can, we should alleviate that hell… but Hell certainly isn’t an eternity of torture. And if it was, you certainly don’t deserve to go there.
A few questions… 1) Why aren’t you following me on Twitter? 2) Are you on Facebook and do you also like things that are funny and/or interesting? Well alright then. 3) Do you think this blog is so freaking cool that you want to help support it by becoming a Patron or donating on PayPal? Someone named Tonia did. I know very little about Tonia… other than the fact that Tonia doesn’t deserve Hell either… And also, she helps support something that she believes in. And I think that is really cool.