Hell is a pretty terrible thing to build a faith on.
Living each difficult day here in a fire and brimstone spirituality rooted in your own moral filth is a fairly tragic way to spend your few short decades on the planet, yet that’s what far too many Christians do and have been doing for hundreds of years.
And if they haven’t necessarily intentionally constructed such a religion based in fear and punishment avoidance, they’ve certainly inherited one; growing up from birth firmly planted in the belief that God is out to squash them—because He loves them.
This is the paradoxical heart of the bulk of our traditional* Christian orthodoxy:
God so loves us, that he sent Christ to die in our place, saving us from the correct penalty of death for our sin (a penalty by the way, that He alone demands). Yet this gracious reprieve from eternal punishment only comes with us acknowledging both our depravity in utero and our need to be exonerated from a guilt we acquired simply by being born.
(*There are certainly other ways of understanding the Christian story, but this is by and large what you will hear preached from thousands of pulpits and in countless Twitter feeds and strewn across billboards all over America: “God is royally pissed off at you and you need Jesus to appease Him”).
And the whole thing runs primarily not on love, but on damnation—at least in the hands of the preachers and the Pharisees and those who peddle the heavy fear that millions of people of the faith become hopelessly saddled with:
fear of believing the wrong thing,
fear of not praying enough,
fear of joining the wrong denomination,
fear of not exegeting Scripture correctly,
fear of not evangelizing our neighbors enough,
fear of Muslims and gays and Atheists,
fear of beer and Harry Potter and cuss words and yoga and mandalas and voting Democrat,
fear of a God who is holding Hell over our heads—
fear as our default setting.
I lived this story for years. I preached it. I fully bought into this narrative of an angry God needing to be placated. I understand the reason it works and the crushing effect it has on us when be embrace it and I know how disorienting it is to be compelled to cling to a loving Creator while simultaneously being taught to be terrified of what that Creator wants to do to you if you don’t cling correctly.
It hasn’t happened in an instant and I can’t quite say how I got here, but I am simply living in a different story now.
I still have God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit—but I don’t have fear anymore the way I used to.
That isn’t to say that I don’t have “the fear of the Lord” that the Bible speaks of; that awe and wonder that recognizes my smallness and God’s indescribable scale and beauty. In fact my view of God is as expansive and reverent and breathtaking as its ever been. It just isn’t defined by the rigid Christian narrative of my childhood that says I am an enemy of God at birth.
This new understanding isn’t about the Bible, as much as it’s about parenthood.
Let’s say that just before the birth of my first child Noah, I had told you three things:
– One, that we discovered Noah had some inherent genetic flaw while still in the womb.
– Two, that I find this flaw so offensive and distasteful that it causes me to see him not
as my child, but as simply a “product”, and furthermore as an enemy.
– And three, that I have created a puzzle for him, and that unless he solves this puzzle
in the exact and specific ways I desire, I will refuse to adopt him as my own and send
him away to be tortured forever.
It’s safe to say that using this criteria, any rational person would deem me at best to be a cruel, negligent parent—and at worst an unparalleled sadist.
Yet this has been the primary narrative of Evangelical and Mainline Christianity, with Scripture and Church History and orthodoxy all fueling the hellfire. Yes it’s one of Grace, but Grace necessitated by our filth, our sinfulness, our inborn immoral defect, and God’s wrath about it all.
I’m just not sure I can ever claim that view of God again and really embrace it. I’m not saying that Hell isn’t real, but I am saying that its existence doesn’t quite ring true if God is as loving as I’ve been led to believe.
Because the truth about my son, is that before he was born I waited expectantly, preparing for his arrival with breathless joy.
When he was born I cried and rejoiced and gave thanks and danced.
And since the moment he took his first breath outside of his mother’s body, my greatest desire has been to lift and encourage and carry and support and teach and care for him. He has certainly failed and will fail again. He has rejected my advice and missed the mark and made incredible messes, but despite it all my son doesn’t have to crack some code to earn my love for him. It is fixed and set and unwavering and not dependent on his conduct. He never has to fear for a second that I desire to squash him or that my anger is a ticking time bomb that he needs to somehow diffuse. Yes, I want him to respect me and listen to me and love me, but ultimately more than anything else, I want him to know that I adore him and that I am for him.
I want my son’s understanding of me to give his heart wings. I want it to yield hope, not fear.
And if I as a flawed, falling, petty mess of a man feels this way towards his child, I cannot conceive of a God whose love for me is anything but hope-giving; not if and when I get everything right or believe everything right or do anything or realize anything—but just because I am.
That kind of faith frees me to fly and to fall without fear. It is changing me for the better.
I pray that kind of faith for others too.
I pray it for you.
God is not out to squash you.