Sometimes being a Christian makes me sad.
An old friend of mine recently commented on a run-in he had with a “Christian” at a public event; this person, who did not know my friend at all, tried to give him a Christian-themed pin, and when he refused by saying “sorry, I’m not religious” told him “you know you’re going to Hell, right?” and proceeded to tell him how she was once like him, had gone her own way and committed every sin, etc. etc. until someone showed her the errors of her ways and she began to cleanse her soul of sin…or something of the like. My friend is an atheist, and if he were to base that choice off of interactions like these, I really don’t blame him.
Then there’s the by now cliche Westboro Baptist Church antics: waving signs, as if protesting, at public events such as the weddings and funerals of homosexuals, or the funerals of soldiers, or even corporate offices. These people simultaneously draw pity and disgust from me; I want to reach out to them, and teach them something true about God, and simultaneously call them all sorts of names. Apparently I’m not the only one.
So rather than simply rant about it, I thought I’d do something constructive and actually look at the theology that’s being presented by such people; maybe someone will read this and realize that what they present to others either isn’t what they actually believe or else it isn’t good news and doesn’t present a real relationship with a good God. I sincerely hope that nobody takes offense to this; if your evangelism strategy is currently to tell people all about the dangers of Hell, please reconsider your strategy.
First of all, I’d like to address what evangelism means. Dictionary.com has it as “the preaching or promulgation of the gospel.” Gospel, in turn, means “good news” in Greek, but is also associated with the entire message of the Gospels, that is, the four written works about the earthly life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who brought the good news in the first place. Let’s start with the first sense, then: good news. Jesus brought good news! It usually said “the Kingdom of Heaven (or God) is at hand”, occasionally prefaced by “repent, for…”. Interesting, that he doesn’t mention Hell there at all. It may be implied by the call to repentance, but you really have to read it into the statement. The idea is that God is the King of the Cosmos, of absolutely everything, and His Kingdom is coming to Earth, indeed, is already here! Repenting, then, is making sure that you’re on the same side as the returning King; make sure you’re not caught partying when you thought your parents were away. If the world has been in rebellion (which is the message of just about the entire Old Testament) then this is a chance for us to side with the victor. This is good news – we’re all off the hook.
Interestingly, though, Jesus doesn’t spend much time even talking about repentance. He sort of throws it out there, almost casually, and only when something pretty incredible has happened. Take the woman caught in adultery, recorded in the Gospel according to John; Jesus frees her from the religious leaders who are about to stone her, and then after he’s saved her life he says “go and sin no more.” He doesn’t lecture her, though he certainly could have. He could have said “Look at all the trouble you’ve caused! Look at the position you put me in!” (the religious leaders were trying to trap Jesus ethically). He doesn’t say anything about her guilt, doesn’t bring on any shame at all – nor does he need to. She knows what she’s done, and she knows that he got her off the hook; the only response that makes sense is to “go and sin no more.” Nope, Hell isn’t a big part of Jesus’ proclamation of the good news.
But what if evangelism is about proclaiming the entire message of the Gospels, and not just the message that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand? Surely Jesus mentioned Hell throughout the Gospels! Well, he did mention it – but only about 1/10th as much as he talks about heaven, and of the few references to Hell there really isn’t any clear picture of what or where it is, or what it takes to get there. It’s almost always mentioned in the context of parables, and most of the time uses the word gehenna, which refers to the valley of Hinnom just outside Jerusalem, where they dumped and burned their garbage. It’s a metaphor (unless you think that all of the people who reject God will be dumped in the middle of modern-day Jerusalem), and what it’s referring to isn’t crystal clear (see a previous post about Hell, Hades and Sheol). What is clear is that Jesus never, ever talked about Hell with “sinners”, except to warn them against becoming like the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious leaders who were trapped in legalism and arrogantly exploiting the common Jews. If you disagree about the context of Jesus’ warnings about Hell, reply here and we’ll examine it – but so far, it’s pretty clear that talking about Hell is not a major part of the Gospels as a whole, and certainly not a part of Jesus’ or his disciples’ evangelism.
What about the rest of the New Testament? Well, I can’t really recall much mention of Hell anywhere else except Revelation, and if you understand Revelation enough to use it in evangelism to the unchurched, then you’re much smarter than I. There’s a reference in Peter to Jesus preaching to the souls in prison, which many people think is a reference to preaching to the dead, perhaps in Hell. Maybe. But hey, I guess that’s talking about people in Hell getting saved, so it’s not really being preached much.
So we’ve established that it’s not really Biblical to preach at people about going to Hell (if you’re still not convinced, read all of the recorded sermons in Acts and count how many times they say “hell”). What is it about then? Why do people do it? Well, some people have what is sometimes called “fire insurance faith” in which they adhere outwardly to “christian” forms (they go to church, don’t cuss on Sundays, etc.) simply out of fear of Hell, lacking any real relationship with God or any meaningful lifechange (repentance). For those folks, telling someone they’re going to Hell is sharing the same “gospel” they received: a message of fear. Perhaps they really do mean well. Others really do mean well, but for them Christianity is broken down into the following metanarrative: people are evil, God is good; God destroys evil people, but saves the souls of the ones who believe in Jesus for an eternity in a city on the clouds, because Jesus died for their sins. It may not be fearful (because once you’ve said the sinner’s prayer you’re saved) but it certainly is divisive, as it breaks all people into two categories: saved and unsaved, and we can tell who’s who (because we know who’s said the sinner’s prayer and who hasn’t). In this case, telling someone “you’re going to Hell” isn’t warning them to get “fire insurance” as much as it is telling them that you’re in the ‘in-crowd’ and they’re not; i.e. “you’re not one of us.” But if your life is about going around telling other people that they need to be more like you, or scaring them into saying a prayer, who wants to be in that crowd?
Let’s look at it from a different angle. How would you feel if an insurance salesman showed up at your door, or beside you on the street, and started telling you what will happen to your family if you got hit by a car today? What if they really poured on the guilt tactics, telling you what a bad parent you’d be if you left your children without adequate support, and then started listing ways that you could die unprepared? What if he showed up at your door, day after day, with signs telling you that your poor diet is killing you, and you haven’t made proper arrangements to protect your family? I mean, it’d be one thing if your doctor kept telling you to fix your diet, and even if he recommended insurance, but you already have a close relationship (of a sort) with your doctor; this guy is some stranger off the street! Even if he’s right, you probably don’t want to hear it from him, and won’t sign up to meet with him weekly to talk about it and sing songs. Especially if he were to tell you that his boss is arranging for your death and eternal torment unless you buy a policy.
I’m not even going to touch Westboro Baptist Church; there’s absolutely nothing Biblical about their “protests”, and I think the pictures really speak for themselves (all of the pictures above are of members of this “church” and their children). Let them serve as the extreme example of what not to do. If you’re going to evangelize, at the very least ask yourself if you can even be remotely compared to them, and if so, stop it. In this, I think Penny Arcade actually has a better grasp on God than many Christians: