We’ve been praying earnestly now for 8 hours straight.
To stay awake, we’re now prayer-walking our frosty, deserted city. This isn’t usual, even for us – fifteen figures huddled under a street lamp. I’m standing inside a sleeping bag, opened just enough for my feet to move. Some have blankets around their shoulders.
It feels purposeful and significant. “God, every piece of ground that we walk on belongs to you,” we claim, “Bless the people that live here. May they come to know your love. Teach them your ways. Thank you God.”
“Turn or burn”
The certainty with which beliefs are held in evangelical churches, when coupled with the doctrine of Hell, leads logically to a high level of fear. This can be seen into two distinct areas:
1) Fear for ‘non-Christians’
2) Fear for those within the church
In this post, I will discuss the way some believers attempt to use control to mitigate against fear concerning the eternal futures of those outside of the church, leaving part two until next week (subscribe below for the post to be sent to your inbox).
Fear for ‘non-Christians’
The sign held up on a wooden post in Oxford Circus seemed deliberately provocative. However in reality, many people in evangelical churches carry around a feeling of helpless desperation regarding people who are not Christian. This is especially horrific when that includes their own family. They may believe that after death ‘non-Christians’ will simply be annihilated, but more commonly they will imagine them being judged and then tortured either by fire or by emptiness or simply by their own desire, for literally all of eternity.
Many Christians, despite what they are taught, try to get around this problem by choosing the ‘I don’t know’ option regarding the doctrine of Hell – both in the sense of ‘what is it like?’ and ‘who goes there?’ However, the main theological challenge of the doctrine of Hell concerns the nature of God i.e. “If God is good, how can God send people to Hell?” Choosing not to know does little to get around this. Uncertainty as to whether or not God will torture your family for all eternity will create an imagined picture of God that is both unpredictable and unreliable. This will do little to allay the fear, which in some people is so extreme that it can contribute to significant mental health issues.
The believers are obliged, then, make every effort to ‘evangelise’ – literally to ‘tell the good news’ – to ‘save’ that person from their fate. When I was five, I forced every member of my class to say they believed in Jesus and swear to be a Christian for the rest of their life. In the circumstances, it seemed the only reasonable thing to do.
Believers are obliged, then, make every effort to ‘evangelise’ – literally to ‘tell the good news’ – to ‘save’ that person from their fate.
Unfortunately, the message that “God loves you but if you don’t respond, God will punish you forever/ annihilate you”, includes a flaw in logic which is all too plain to see, meaning that evangelism is often unsuccessful. As Rob Bell says in his book ‘Love Wins’,
“… if something is wrong with your God,
if your God is loving one second and cruel the next,
if your God will punish people for all of eternity for sins committed in a few short years,
no amount of clever marketing or compelling language or good music or great coffee
will be able to disguise that one, true, glaring, untenable, unacceptable, awful reality” (Bell 2011:175)
Few will be persuaded to join belief systems that are motivated by fear, however carefully that fear is masked. Once the believer realises that they have little or no control over their family’s beliefs, the pain of foreseeing their eternal future can become unbearable. Frequently divisions and rifts start to grow between the family members who believe and those who don’t.
Once the believer realises that they have little or no control over their family’s beliefs, the pain of foreseeing their eternal future can become unbearable.
Deep fear about the possibility of Hell is mitigated by trying to influence the beliefs of others through evangelism of various kinds. However, the alternative to fear not control, but trust, both in God and in other people.
The alternative to fear not control, but trust, both in God and in people.
I believe that each person can be – and must be – trusted with their own journey; that each person needs to be allowed to manage the joys and emptinesses of life in a way that is feasible for them, if they are to flourish.
This is far from a wishy-washy relativism (your truth is your truth, everyone is right), rather it is an expression of faith that acknowledges that there is something of God in all people. Instead of trying to change or control people, we can listen to them, hear them, and get know them, just as we also desire to be known. It would be better to more often position ourselves in the place of learning, rather than that of arrogantly assuming we have all the answers. Then maybe we will also discover something for our own journey.
I have come to believe that if God exists, God is not an unpredictable and potentially angry judge; God is not a petulant and all-seeing Big Brother on high.
I imagine that God is more like a shepherdess
Rather, I imagine that God is more like a shepherdess, watching over the beauty of her flock with pride and joy; noticing how different each one is; ensuring each has food, water and shelter; leading them towards paths that are good both for them and for the whole flock. And when there is danger or darkness, I imagine that she joins them in the stable, staying with them through the long winter nights, just as those who tend sheep today still do when the need arises.
I have come to believe that God is actually good; actually loving; actually just.
I truly don’t need to be afraid.
Photo credit: https://www.urban75.net/forums/threads/god-botherer-at-oxford-circus.332292/