Sigh No More

One of the first pieces of literature I ever memorized was a Bible verse familiar even to those who have never set foot in a fundamentalist Christian home: “God is love.” It’s a nice sentiment, and it probably sounded adorable in my toddler lisp, but I was already on my way to a very unhappy understanding of the verse’s meaning.

“God is love” meant that he was willing to defile himself by sifting through the filth of humanity and saving a worm like me.

“God is love” meant that he would inflict (or sanction) whatever pain necessary to insure my soul against hell.

“God is love” meant that he would play the gentleman and let people make “unbiased” decisions between Christianity and eternal suffering.

(Alternately, it meant that he had predestined me over less lucky humans for salvation. I experienced my fair share of Calvinism.)

“God is love” meant that he had paid my debt, so I was forever in his.

In practical terms, “God is love” translated into fear. God’s love was conditional, you see, and it wasn’t particularly affectionate to start with. When I was Baptist, any little mistake would put my salvation into question. (You couldn’t lose your salvation per se, but if you messed up… well, Jesus clearly wasn’t alive and well in your heart.) When I was Presbyterian, my soul was secure, but God didn’t love all of my friends and family enough to choose them. From my earliest memories, the unthinkable torment of hell—burning alive forever and ever and ever—dangled over my head  and that of everyone I knew. And this was God’s love.

Which brings me here:

Maybe you’ve heard about this. Maybe you don’t care. Maybe you care so much that you’re brandishing every weapon in your arsenal against heresy. Or maybe you’re like me, wanting to weep for the hope of it all.

Even though “Love Wins” is not yet released, prominent theologians have already consigned the author to hell… simply for suggesting that perhaps God is not torturing the majority of his creation for eternity. A dear friend writes about the divide between real, aching hearts and those “who are more concerned with winning than with loving,” and I want to ask those people, those self-assured theologians and heretic-slayers, Why? Why would you rather follow a God who allows babies to be born knowing that nine out of ten will burn forever… who handpicks some for his utopian afterlife but not all, or who makes our fates dependent on accurate guesswork… who expects us to rejoice while billions die… whose love only concerns itself with right vs. wrong… Why would you rather follow that God than explore the hope that true love doesn’t require us to shut down our hearts?

I was terrified the first time I posted about hell; I expected anger, hatred, and Molotov cocktails (approximately the treatment Rob Bell’s been getting), but it was worth the risk. I couldn’t not share the spacious peace I had found outside of religious tradition. The idea that God actually could be love—kind, unconditional, crazy-about-us love—is worth spreading no matter the cost or the dissenters. In fact, it might be the first piece of truly good news some Christians have ever heard.

Play us out, Marcus:

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  1. What if we’ve had it wrong all these years? 🙂

  2. You are one of the first people I have “known” who put the idea out there that maybe, just maybe, there is hope beyond hell. I’ve also read “If Grace is True”. Obviously, I will line up to buy Rob Bell’s book (yes, probably in hardcover). I find this whole conversation that is opening up fascinating and hopeful. My brain spins when people try to explain how they got their scripturally, though I appreciate it. I still remember when I felt the first flicker of hope about this: a roommate had a dad who was an Episcopal minister, and she and I got on this subject. Something she quoted from him gave me so much peace and hope. Still, I’ve never really struggled with this – only feared that what if I really DIDN’T accept Jesus in the right way – maybe I didn’t mean it all the way – and would find myself in hell just the same.

    The idea that all will be reconciled to God is truly good news.

  3. Very well-written and VERY thought-provoking. As someone who has pretty much completely rejected the “religious tradition”, I find the thought that anyone can REALLY believe in hell, eternal damnation or a superior being that actually has that much interest in our menial doings on this planet completely bizarre. The idea that God(god)(s) is LOVE, however…that I can wrap my head around.

  4. Sam, there is actually a book and website titled “Hope Beyond Hell”…

    I’ve pre-ordered Bell’s book and really look forward to reading it. Challies just posted his review yesterday and maintains that Bell is a heretic.

    I’m still sifting through everything I believe right now and it’s quite a unique experience. It’s not just like a rug being pulled out from under you…it’s very much like a tree being uprooted and trying to travel to the end of every root …for every question there are others that run deep and tangle …One argument against “modern” Christians questioning these types of things is that…what? Why are you going to throw out centuries of orthodox teaching? But I have to do this for me. I have the Holy Spirit….for me. It doesn’t mean that I know more or better than renowned leaders before me, but at the same time, God is well known for using humble handmaidens to bring forth Truth….

    and I hope that I at least resemble that a bit.

    So sorry for the book here, dear! <3 Miss you!

  5. Here’s another thought I’ve had lately…how freeing it is, that we can work through our beliefs as individuals…privately, or writing it out, and NOT be called a heretic. Even though I admit I would probably laugh if someone called me one, because is that supposed to SCARE me? I wonder how Rob Bell feels about it all…he is certainly exhibiting some major self-control and keeping quiet about the controversy…

  6. And thanks, Rain, for that link. I think Bethany has linked to it previously, because I remember checking it out…okay, I will stop clogging up your comment box, Bethany!

  7. wow, i love how thought-provoking that book trailer is.
    …crazy considering how most of us were brought up, but indeed more in line with real love.

  8. ” Why? Why would you rather follow a God who allows babies to be born knowing that nine out of ten will burn forever… who handpicks some for his utopian afterlife but not all, or who makes our fates dependent on accurate guesswork… who expects us to rejoice while billions die… whose love only concerns itself with right vs. wrong… Why would you rather follow that God than explore the hope that true love doesn’t require us to shut down our hearts?”

    I ask this too, because if that is who God is, I don’t think I want to spend enternity with him.

    If God really is good, really is love, really promised to bless ALL people through Abraham, Died to defeat death for ALL people, and one day EVERY knee will bow and EVERY tongue confess that he is lord, where does eternal hell and punishment fit into that equation?

  9. I’m glad to see how you’re trying to reach outside of the box you were constrained to in order to find truth (not saying whether or not I agree with your conclusions- I think your desire to pursue is healthy). In order to hopefully provoke more thought, I’ve got a question (it’s not a downer and it’s not condemning, it’s just to ponder on): let’s assume that both believers and non-believers will be sent through the “all consuming fire” of judgment/love (whichever word you choose to use), that everything that hinders love would be burned away, would non-believers enjoy being under that Fire for all eternity, whether in heaven or hell? God is an “all consuming fire,” an intimate Lover who desires relationship for all eternity, and the more we get to know Him, the more we enjoy the fire of His presence. But if someone hates God and loves evil (in other words, didn’t choose God whether knowingly or “unknowingly”), wouldn’t that also be just as torturous as if they were in the lake of fire? (lake of fire and hell are two different places)
    Also, if you’re up for it, let’s assume God did predestine a path for us, but He did not predetermine whether we choose Him or something else. In other words, let’s assume God created a destiny for everyone (believers and non-believers alike), but He does not force us to choose that destiny (He does not predetermine our choice because of the freewill He gives us). Is it possible to say that the only way for someone to walk in their true destiny is to accept God?
    Hope this is helpful and doesn’t feel like an attack in any way. By the way, glad you’re trying to find love. Maybe these will help stir up some good questions: 2 Peter 3:9; 1 John 4:17-19; Romans 2:14-16

  10. Wow… Sorry for such a long comment. Hope it’s not intimidating in any form of the word. Love ya, sis.

  11. Ruth – Or what if wrong and right weren’t as important as we thought?

    Sam – Can you remember the quote from the Episcopal pastor? I’m intrigued. But yes, it’s hard to escape the fear of what will happen if we don’t stay inside the wee confines of a theology that claims to be Right. Thank goodness that we’re no longer in danger of being burned alive or decapitated for wrestling with these questions.

    Liz – Yeah, I can’t imagine what it must be like for someone who didn’t grow up under church indoctrination to see debates like this starting up… What the hell? (Pun intended, of course. 😉 )

    Rain – I have to do this for me too… but for me, it’s less of an uprooted tree and more of prison walls demolished. I keep taking timid steps out and finding more and more space where I once believed there were infinite walls. I’ll look forward to hearing your thoughts on the book!

    Beka – The trailer actually gave me goosebumps. He asked so many of the same questions I did, though somehow he was able to ask them calmly whereas I was more of a raging mess. 🙂

    YM – You know, it sometimes drives me crazy thinking about these giant, glaring discrepancies between the Bible and orthodox theology… and knowing that the pastor of whatever church I happen to attend is never going to get up to the pulpit and talk about them… and if I ask him straight-up, he is more than likely going to give a churchy answer that shows just how blindly he’s willing to accept eternal damnation for the rest of humanity. I’m so relieved to know other believers like you (and Sam and Rain) who ask these questions too.

    Josiah – I’m not sure this is really the place for that. I’ll send you an email.

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