To the secular mind, Christianity can appear to be a giant schoolyard bully, threatening eternal harm for anyone who breaks his rule. A comment to a recent post reflected this position, and helps to bring into focus the difficulty that believers can encounter in trying make their case:
“How do threats of eternal torment help support your case? OK, I know you hold out the alternative ‘Heaven thing’ and I appreciate that. Sounds wonderful!
But American Evangelicalism is so unforgiving that a full 95% of all humanity will, or has been, relegated to Hell for all eternity. And this judgement is based on a worldview, not even on the merits of your behavior. No time off for good behavior? That’s unbelievably harsh!
So I can be a Hindu with a lifetime devotion to the sick, the poor and the downtrodden, and your message is, “Sorry friend, you’re headed for an eternity of pure HELL! You should’ve gotten your worldview story straight Oh well- you’re screwed forever – tough luck!
Your message may be ultimately true, or false. But is there any question that it’s brutal beyond any level attained by the worse human examples?”
Let’s set aside for a moment the dripping sarcasm, which doesn’t really assist the argument. What’s being advanced in this common challenge rests on some unspoken, and unexamined, assumptions. The first is that the threat of “eternal torment” is part of a strategy aimed at convincing people to join “our” group. Since this message is such a turn-off, especially since its directed at “worldview” – as the writer puts it -rather than behavior issues, wouldn’t we be better off just dispensing with the “fire and brimstone” message?
This challenge has met with considerable success in recent decades. One need look no further than Rob Bell’s recent book which concludes that, in the end, “love wins out” and no one remains in hell. The message that actual and unpleasant consequences may attach to our beliefs, and our actions, is wildly unpopular in a pluralistic culture that values individuality as the highest virtue.
The doctrine of hell can’t be explained in a few sentences; it can’t be reduced to a simple soundbite. To make sense of it, one must examine his own hidden presuppositions about the true nature and purpose of this life and about what the “well-lived life” really looks like. It takes reflection, and it takes seeing – or at least trying to see – from a perspective different than the narrow one that focuses on “me;” on how I can get what I want.
So the challenger doesn’t realize that believers didn’t invent hell – the locus if you will of separation from God – as a marketing ploy. Jesus himself spoke of it – often, it seems, and with a distinct note of warning in his words. Modern Christians have no more right – or ability – to modify or change these beliefs than would a modern vegetarian who claims that offering a meat dish each day spices up a vegan menu. Either one holds to the core beliefs of Christianity or one should question why he uses the label at all.
Which leads to the next aspect of the challenge. Isn’t this unbelievably harsh? That, I submit, would depend on the degree to which we can claim ignorance. The example of the Hindu doing good works is meant to drive home the point. Shouldn’t he be rewarded by a loving God?
Not necessarily. A perfect God may actually expect us to do good, so that doing what is expected gets us no reward. Perhaps instead the question is what we do wrong. Has this hypothetical Hindu done anything wrong in his life? How much wrong should a perfectly God good ignore? These questions help point out the rather obvious point that God may not be grading us on a curve. He may instead have put the knowledge of his law on our hearts, and provided us a means to respond, and then actually be committed to holding us to this standard.
Which leads to a final observation: what part of the natural order makes one think God could not possibly be “harsh?” After all, we live on a sliver of habitable space in a universe beyond comprehension, and most of this planet is deadly for us. “Innocent” people suffer all the time when they, even inadvertently, violate a law of nature. Three people walking on the edge of a steep cliff are all subject to the same result if they slip off the edge – the harshness of gravity going one-on-one with the weakness of the flesh. It doesn’t seem to matter to nature if one was a Hindu doing good works, another a child molester and the third blind and unable to see the edge.
Yes, there is an aspect to Christianity that can appear harsh. Anytime a consequence is imposed, the recipient no doubt feels the same way. But if the warning is sufficiently clear, and the consequence fair and appropriate, then the problem is with the one who continued in rebellion, not with the law-giver. But more to the point: wishing that things were different isn’t much of a basis to stake one’s eternal future on.
Posted by Al Serrato