(Evangelical trigger warning: heresy, blasphemy.)
I remember the precise moment I stopped believing in hell.
Over a decade ago I was at a Christmas dinner party in the home of a gay couple. From the outside it looked like any holiday gathering: a warm, beautifully decorated room filled with people laughing and telling stories in the glow of the tree, while the silky voice of Johnny Mathis wafted through the air along with the heavenly smells from a well-used kitchen.
Most of the guests that night happened to identify as LGBTQ, which hadn’t really occurred to me, until as I smiled and surveyed the room a sickening thought rudely interrupted: “Many Christians believe that these beautiful people are all going to hell. For no other reason than their sexual orientation, every one of them are doomed to spend eternity beyond this life in perpetual torment at the hands of a God who apparently made and loves them.” And as a Christian and a pastor, I was supposed to believe and preach this too. It simply no longer rang true for me. I couldn’t reconcile this with the character of a loving Creator.
And after that moment I began taking note of the vast multitudes I’d also been taught were similarly condemned:
My Jewish friends from the gym.
The Muslim couple down the street from our home.
The gay couple I’d once worked for in college.
My atheist friends from high school.
My non-Born Again classmates from childhood.
Every non-Christian who ever lived.
Thousands of authors, musicians, philosophers, and thinkers who’d inspired me.
Gandhi and Buddha and everyone from their faith traditions.
An estimated 67 percent of the people on the planet right now.
Lots of good people are in hell—
This is the mindset of millions of Christians I know, who contend that you can be loving, decent, generous, compassionate, and forgiving—and God will still punish you with eternal damnation if you don’t pray the right prayer to Jesus. In other words, they truly believe and teach that God doesn’t care as much about whether or not you are a good person, as about the prayer you pray. They will tell you without hesitation and with complete conviction—that what you believe means more than what you do.
Moreover (the line of thinking continues), you can give God a little lip service and answer an altar call and get out of jail free, regardless of how much of a monster you are in this life moving forward. All the time Jesus spent telling people to love their neighbors as themselves, to care for the poor, to forgive their enemies, to stop hoarding wealth and power, to live serving others—these moments were all ultimately inconsequential. Accept Jesus into your heart or else. That whole love people thing is merely a suggestion, it isn’t a deal breaker.
Put bluntly and simply, there are Christians (even some well-known evangelists) walking the planet today, who actually believe that Donald Trump will be in Heaven one day but that Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein, and Ellen Degeneres won’t. I simply can’t abide such thinking any longer, and if that makes me a heretic then so be it. I’m hoping God will forgive me.
I recently stumbled upon a cable TV preacher in the middle of trying to close the deal with unconvinced members of his audience before the next commercial break, and without flinching he pitched a familiar proposal: “God wants to bless you with unconditional Grace. All you need to do is repent and to ask for it.”
If God’s love is truly unconditional, why should it require anything—even someone asking for it? if it necessitates a guilt induced prayer to kick in, it certainly all feels fairly conditional. If God loves us unconditionally, shouldn’t belovedness be our default setting?
Over the course of my life I’ve met or known of so many brilliant, funny, giving, caring people, who for thousands of different reasons can’t or won’t declare themselves Christians, and the idea that God condemns them simply for that fact, feels far more human than divine to me now. It seems more like the mind of people who are determined to exclude and judge and shame. Hell doesn’t feel like the logical construction of a God who is Love—but a guy who is angry.
There are few things that get Christian leaders as excited as forecasting damnation for other people. It rallies their bases, gives them a common enemy to rail against (gays, Muslims, Atheists, etc.), and leverages the fear that we all have that God may be out to squash us. It’s also big religious business, which doesn’t hurt. And there’s a trickle-down judgmentalism that reaches the pews too, allowing ordinary people to believe themselves safe from prosecution because they’ve said the magic words, and to simultaneously feel superior to those they can condemn from a distance based on any number of perceived things that disqualify them from Heaven: their sexual activity, their faith perspective, their political affiliations.
A couple of weeks ago when I shared this earlier blog post about being resigned to my own eternal punishment, I received replies from people all over the world; those from every walk of life, every life stage, of every religious tradition and color and orientation, who all expressed a similar sentiment: I’ll see you there!
And that’s the recurring thought I often have now, as I cross paths with people who I once believed were condemned, as well as those who confidently almost joyfully condemn them: If Heaven is supposedly filled with such petty, self-righteous, hypocrites, it doesn’t sound all that much like Heaven to me—and if so many beautiful, life-giving souls are surely bound for Hell, it seems like it’ll be a great time.
I received a gift at that Christmas party nearly fifteen years ago that was beneath the tree. I found myself freed up to see people as they were; for their inherent worth and equally flawed beauty; none deserving of eternal torment and each one like me—doing the very best that could to be decent and loving and kind, and to treat people well. We’re all trying to do life well. I believe God sees that; that our hearts do matter, that our body of work is consequential, that God’s love is unconditional, that we are already beloved.
I’m well aware that many professed Christians believe that my doubts about the existence of hell all but guarantee that I’ll spend eternity there, and I’m sure that with great pride or pity many will comment below as such. But from the looks of it I’ll be in good company in my hot-and-humid afterlife, and I won’t have to look far to find loving humanity when I get there.
To quote one of my favorite songwriters, the great Frank Turner:
And we’re definitely going to hell—but we’ll have all the best stories to tell.
Other posts you may want to check out:
No Christian, We Don’t Deserve Hell (And We Probably Needn’t Worry About it)