Giving Up On Hell Isn't Enough

My mom, a Presbyterian minister now working as an administrator at a Presbyterian seminary in Cairo, Egypt, just posted a link to this article proposing that Christians, in an effort to reach out to those of us who do not share the faith, should try giving up the idea of Hell for a year. The article is interesting. It posits the rationale that Christians shouldn’t be so fearful that their non-Christian acquaintances will go to Hell. In giving up that fear, these Christians will actually invest their energy in those nonbelievers out of genuine, individual concern for our day-to-day lives rather than our eternal souls, and thus form real relationships that are more likely to lead to the conversion of us “None-of-the-above”s (or “Nones”). Mom headlined her post: “I would enjoy reading comments on this post from BOTH my Christian and ‘nonChristian’ friends in BOTH of ‘my countries."”

First of all, props to my mom for putting out an all-call to believers and nonbelievers to weigh in. I have deep admiration for believers who listen (and an especially deep admiration for my mom, of course). So here’s the opinion of a “None”:

This is a great idea.

It will never work.

Here’s the problem. My guess is that the individual who wrote this (Kurt Willems), who is announcing that he’s already given up believing in a dimension of horrifying torture for non-believers, has also given up a short list of other dogmas that have been held by Christians for a couple of millenia and which are directly supported by scripture. He’s given these up because they would make it very difficult to connect with people like me.

He doesn't believe that black people are inferior.

He doesn't believe in slavery.

He doesn't believe that women should stay silent in church, or that they should live outside the home when they are on their periods, or that they should be stoned if they are raped.

My guess is that he doesn't even believe that homosexuality is a sin.

And that’s cool. I could probably hang with this guy.

But if he’s looking to improve his relationships with non-believers, he could use that justification to give up some other beliefs, too.

He may already have given up on the notion that the world is a few thousand years old, and that the creation story (one or both of them) in Genesis isn't literal.

He may have decided that a bunch of other miracles in the Bible, like the sun standing still over Jericho for three days, or Jonah living for a while in the belly of a leviathan, probably don’t make a lot of sense given what we know of biology, chemistry, astronomy, and physics.

Given that those are unlikely, and that there’s some serious debate about the translation when it comes to the word “virgin” anyway, he may have given up on the whole virgin birth thing, too.

Also, since Satan clearly evolves from a kind of nay-sayer adviser of God’s to an all out rival, he might not believe in Satan, either.

And if that’s the case, he might recognize that God also evolves from a god among other gods who exist (and even perform their own miracles, though lesser ones) to the only God over the course of the Bible. That might keep him up at night.

He may also notice that Jesus’ idea of universal and unconditional forgiveness also evolves into a kind of political and social weapon for Paul, one that can help the early Church keep in the good graces of authorities while heaping burning coals on the heads of oppressors. Jesus doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who liked the idea of heaping burning coals on anybody’s heads.

If Kurt is like me, he might find himself in a place where Jesus, and especially Jesus’ teachings about how we should get along with one another, ends up being the only thing left to hold onto within a larger body of beautiful literature, powerful poetry, instructive allegories, and heavily slanted history.

And then this poor guy, a guy who didn’t want to turn off “Nones” who were repulsed by frightful, desperate Christians worried about the torment our souls would face in hell, has the bad luck to run into a guy like me who is equally turned off by the inescapable lack of humility that’s inherent to any belief system which says, “Despite the fact that I lack evidence either way, I have made a choice to believe this religion is correct and all others are wrong.”

Confronted by a jerk like me, will this writer acknowledge that the very same universalism that compelled him to give up on Hell could also justify giving up on the idea that there is one true faith, and that God has revealed that faith to some and not others? Just as his connection with non-believers would be strengthened if he doesn't believe in Hell, wouldn't it be easier to reach out if he wasn't advertising a my-way-or-the-highway religion?

I don’t blame him for having that kind of faith. It’s not his fault. All major world religions either say that the others are wrong or that the others are a part of them and just don’t know it yet. That’s inescapable; religions that hold that it’s fine to not believe in their teachings disappear about as quickly as the ones that teach that no one should have children (I'm looking at you, Shakers!).

The spread of Christianity is the story of a religion that came into contact with other religions and offered significant advantages. Despite its sexism, it offered a lot better deal for women. The practices of early Christians (sharing food and money, offering free childcare and education, adopting orphans, caring for the sick) essentially provided a social safety net where none existed. In the context of a conflict of religions, Christianity is going to win in the long haul because Christians are genuinely taught to treat other people better. That’s how Islam spread, too. Muslims treated people better (often better than the Christians they encountered). That’s how Buddhism spread out of India. Treating people better, not just tolerating them or being civil, but treating them better, is the key to evangelism. This writer, Kurt Willems, clearly understands that.

But now Christianity wants to spread within a context that it’s never faced. Before, it could always say to folks, “Convert from your exclusive religion to ours. Both say the other can’t be true, but we obviously treat people better.”

And people said to themselves, “Well, not having any religion at all simply isn't an option. It’s culturally inconceivable. But these Christians obviously have their shit together.”

But now, Christianity is faced with an altogether new alternative. Atheism has existed for longer than Christianity, but for millennia it was always the domain of iconoclasts who could only choose between the dominant religion of their culture or “not-that.” Now we have a whole generation of human beings who are growing up in a world where all the religious options are on our screens every day. Pluralism is as ubiquitous as the internet. And, in that world of post-modernity, we can see millions upon millions of examples of people who have chosen some variation of “not-that” and still manage to treat people well, provide for the needs of their neighbors, accept difference, and generally have their shit together. Meanwhile, the people who tend to be the ones telling women what to do with their own bodies and telling gay people who they can love and protesting at soldiers’ funerals and chopping people’s heads off and generally being the worst also tend to be the most confident that their ideas about God are the right ones.

Now, to be clear, I’m not an atheist. Atheism often advertises a kind of certainty I find just as repugnant as the most dogmatic religiosity. I’m an agnostic. I’m a pretty orthodox agnostic, though. I don’t know about a lot of things. Is there a God? I don’t know. Are there lots of them? I don’t know. Do the scientific laws we observe function the same way at the quantum level? Will they continue to function in the future? Are my own senses telling me the truth? Is my memory? I don’t know. Not for sure. Consequently, I won’t evangelize. Should people decide to be agnostics like me? I don’t recommend it. It kind of sucks. I don’t know if I’ll have an afterlife, I don’t know if my day-to-day behavior satisfies some divine being, and we don’t have any good hymns or holidays. It’s not a great sales pitch and I don’t have a better one to offer.

But before Christians consider throwing away their beliefs to reach out to people like me, they should very carefully consider the quantity of babies they’ll toss out with that bathwater. No matter how humble a Christian is (and I've known a lot of unassuming, self-effacing Christians who no one would describe as proud or vain or filled with hubris), they cannot escape the inherent binary nature of Christian belief. No matter how much a Christian qualifies that she/he believes rather than knows that Christianity is true, she/he must also believe that non-Christianity is false. A Christian can’t say, “I believe in Jesus Christ, but if you don’t, I don’t care.” Besides the fact that the text of Christian scripture is very clear about there being only one path to salvation, Christians should excise “I don’t care” from their vocabularies. Christians have to care. Otherwise, they aren't Christians.

Realistically, my expectation is that over time Christianity and all other major world religions will actually get more and more dogmatic, more regressive, and more oppressive in the face of growing secularism. And more religious people on the fringes will act like jerks and keep driving more and more people away. When it comes to evangelism, Christianity’s best bet is to show non-believers that their hateful fringe elements don’t speak from them, and to stop trying to pass laws forcing nonbelievers to behave a certain way based on religious justifications, but that’s very tough to do in a world where everybody has a microphone and the most strident (and violent) get the most attention. The Christians who believe in the most tolerant, least uncomfortable kind of Christianity will fade into the growing secular middle.

So what can a Christian do to win over a guy like me who objects to the necessary and inherent hubris of a faith that says all other faiths are wrong? Giving up more and more of your Christianity so you don't seem so kooky won't work. I'll be relieved, but not more likely to convert to your non-religion. 

You could pray for me, I guess.

Will that work?

I’m an agnostic. I don’t know.

If you’re a believer, you believe it will.