Heckfire and Darnation!

For years, two of my kids have attended the same church that my mother- and father-in-law attend, in Tucson, Arizona. After a few initial forays through the doors of said church, I decided a few years ago that it wasn’t for me. At the time, my decision was, specifically, that Christianity wasn’t for me. Now, if you’re reading this blog, it should be pretty obvious to you that I’ve changed my mind about that last bit.

He can be very persuasive when he wants to be...

That said, I don’t think I would attend my in-laws’ church if I were to go back toTucson. I never did feel like they were giving me a relevant message, and it was very clear to me that the congregation disagreed with my wife and myself on a great number of social issues. That didn’t stop them from trying to convert me. On the few occasions where I spent a Sunday morning there, or perhaps attended an event that involved my kids, I would always be approached sometime around altar call by a fellow who wanted to ask me questions about Jesus, my soul, etc. Now, don’t get me wrong – on an individual level, the guys who came up to talk to me were always very nice. I have nothing against them, and I greatly appreciate them taking the time to go talk to a stranger in their church. Really, I’m 100% down with that, and I would like to think I would do the same thing.

Ultimately, what made the message of my in-laws’ church (and the nice guys who came to talk to me about said message) was that I was an agnostic-leaning-toward-atheist, and I didn’t believe in Hell. I cannot stress enough how much that disarmed the people trying to convert me. Even at my most theistic, I didn’t see a logical need for the existence of Hell. So when nice gentlemen implied that maybe I should be concerned about the possibility of my soul going there, all I could do in response was tell them in my kindest tones that I greatly appreciated their concern for me, but that I wasn’t all that worried about it.

I just can’t bring myself to be mean to these cute little guys!

On one occasion, my wife and I attended a church play that my daughter was participating in. While we knew we wouldn’t enjoy the church experience, we wanted to support our girl, so we went. The play was . . . interesting. It consisted of a series of scenes played out on stage, almost always showing two different groups of people going through the same situation – but one group would consist of people who were “saved”, and one would consist of people who “didn’t have time for church”. Then, the two groups of characters would suddenly die – there would be a car accident, or a shooting in a school. Then the audience would see the “saved” people being invited by Jesus into heaven, while the “damned” characters would be dragged away by the devil – played by a guy in KISS makeup. The goal of the play (I’m sure) was to scare the audience members into salvation. As an agnostic, I was far from scared – mildly offended, a little ironically amused, but not scared.

Everyone knows that KISS is scarier WITHOUT the make-up.

My lack of belief in a place of eternal punishment single-handedly ruined any attempt that most Christians made to convert me. I think the issue may be generational. I think that in prior generations, most Americans grew up in the context of some sort of Christian church life. They went to church as kids, attended Sunday School, and got a basic framework of reality that was explained to them in this way:

A)    People are Sinners

B)     Jesus Died for Your Sins

C)    You Can Still Go to Hell!

D)    Do What God Says, or Else!

“And THAT, kids, is why hippy dope-fiends hate Jesus! See you next week, tell your folks to vote Nixon!”

My thinking is that people in those generations might spend some time wavering back and forth between believing in God or not believing in God, but that if they did believe in God, it would most likely be within the context of Christianity. If someone claimed to doubt the existence of God, the people in their church community would tell them that they only doubted for some nefarious reason – at the behest of the devil, perhaps, or simply because, in their hearts, they wanted some time to try out some good, old-fashioned sinnin’! The church would put some energy into convincing them to come back to Jesus, repent of the things they did in their “time off”, and being a life of engaging God anew.

"Vinny, PLEASE come back to church. Jesus can't abide a douche bag"

Almost every attempt made to convert me over the years has been made under this premise. And if I had believed in Hell, the premise would have been solid. After all, who would want to spend an eternity in torment? That’s just ridiculous! I would pay just about any price possible to avoid that fate! The issue at hand, for me, was that I had been exposed to a plethora of religions in my formative years. I’d met practitioners of a dozen faiths who all believed whatever they believed with as much fervor, dedication, and conviction as the most Bible-thumping Christian. Why should I believe in Heaven or Hell, for instance, when half of the people I know believe in reincarnation? If I accepted Heaven, why did that necessarily mean that Hell had to exist?

Now, as a newly-convinced Christian, I am engaging Jesus. I’m reading the Bible. There seems to be some place for Hell in the whole scheme of things, but even Christians don’t all agree on what it is. What I know for certain is this – I will never, ever scare an agnostic or an atheist into the arms of God. Even if I tried, it wouldn’t work. The fact is, Heaven and Hell are concepts that require faith to have any relevance.

Incidentally, I should point out that there isn’t an argument that ever “converted” me. As I’ve said before (and will likely say again) the logic behind the idea of God isn’t flawless. If it weren’t for the fact that God directly intervened in my life in ways that are harder to disprove than prove, I would still be there in the audience, snickering at a portrayal of the devil more appropriate to 1979 than 2009, and I wouldn’t find out if I was right or wrong about Hell until it was a little too late.

“OHHH! Well. . . crap in a hat.”

And anyway, is avoidance of Hell really the best reason to come to God? Here’s what I think – talk about the benefits of going to God. Feeling alone? There’s an app for that. Unhappy with your relationships? There’s an app for that. Feel like you’re wasting your life? There’s an app for that. Need to be part of a story that’s much bigger, much more exciting, much more meaningful than the one you create for yourself? Well, there’s an app for that, too.

HINT - The app is God.

Sure, none of this will absolutely convince an atheist to believe in God. But what it might do is give the atheist a convincing reason to attempt to talk to God. In my experience, that’s all that God needs.

How does this address Hell? I don’t know. Maybe it doesn’t, at least not directly. This is the kind of stuff that brought me to Jesus, and I don’t think about Hell all that often. I think about God quite a bit, though, and how to live in accordance with whatever plan he has for me. I think about how to be good to my wife and my family, how to live with integrity, how to make good decisions, and yes, sometimes, how to do what Jesus would do.

I hope that works. Because if it doesn’t, I don’t know if there’s hope for any of us.

“Dude. . . is that the Pope? Is that ALL THE POPES?”

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About Daniel Mitchell

50% of "What the Faith?!?!", a blog about two skeptics who turned to God for no apparent reason. View all posts by Daniel Mitchell

11 responses to “Heckfire and Darnation!

  • christophercate

    I like your comical, and very ironic, post. I was one of the Christians who grew up that way, and I think it’s very screwed up–sadly many people believe that to be a legitimate approach to the Gospel. So many people of our generation despise Christianity and any notions of it because our parents and theirs screwed up what could have been a dynamic faith in Christ. Instead, we got angry hypocrisy, atheists, and vehemently anti-Christian proponents. It’s time that we redo the Church into a Kingdom that actually looks like Jesus!

    http://unapologeticapologist.wordpress.com

  • J. Holley

    Nice post Mr. Mitchell. I see you used a picture of LDS missionaries and coincidentally the LDS faith doesn’t believe in hell either.

    • Daniel Mitchell

      Listen, if you can find me more “missionary-looking” missionaries than LDS missionaries, I’ll be happy to use their picture! Also, I greatly appreciate the Mormon stance on hell – it’s their stances on caffeine and beer that I can’t agree with! 😀

  • DB Beem

    The story of your daughter’s church play made me chuckle. It sounded like a Christian version of Final Destination.

    I also like your comment that belief in hell requires faith. I’m reminded that in the gospels, when Jesus talked about hell, he was usually always speaking to the religious people.

    More and more I’ve come to realize that my gaze must be fixed on Jesus.
    Blessings

    • Daniel Mitchell

      I absolutely agree. I’m going on the theory that focusing on Jesus and living in accordance with God’s will is going to make the destination of your soul take care of itself. Thus, it’s more of a distraction for me, than anything else.

      P.S. – Maybe they should have called the play “Final Destination(s)” 😉

  • Shawn Michael Shoup (@ShawnMichael)

    Good thoughts, as always. I always enjoy.

    Not sure how this fits into your discussion on hell, but last night at Hillside I shared a clip from a series I think you’d dig. We’re doing a student message series on the characteristics of God and for my week, I wanted to talk about Jesus as a rebel.

    Remember Jim and Tammy Fay Bakker and that whole mess? Sundance Channel did a mini-documentary of their son, Jay Bakker, who went through a bunch of churchy-religious mud-slinging and came out all the stronger on the other side of things. He had a time where he escaped through drugs and alcohol and sunk into a deep depression but has had a major turnaround of sorts and now is a “rebel preacher”, preaching the love of Jesus in bars and now a candy shop in New York City.

    It’s a pretty fascinating and challenging story. Anyhow, I thought you might dig it. You can view the whole season for $10 off of iTunes: http://itunes.apple.com/us/tv-season/one-punk-under-god-season-1/id207114932

    • Daniel Mitchell

      Awesome! I’ll have to check that out. I’m a huge fan of the idea of “rebel” Christianity, because I think that kind of spirit is rooted deep in the practice of following Jesus, and has been since the very beginning.

      • Shawn Michael Shoup (@ShawnMichael)

        Me too. That’s what I most closely identified with in my faith all through my teen years and probably still to this day. I dig the whole counter-cultural aspect of living out my faith. Yes, Jesus is love and brings peace through the Holy Spirit, but as family-friendly as that sounds, it many times flies defiantly in the face of the society today. And sometimes that means flipping over money tables in the tabernacle, seeking justice where there are deep wrongs, and calling pharisees “white washed tombs”. Ha! Love it!

  • Karen Reyburn

    I never like the scare tactics, either. If it ‘works’, you end up spending your Christian life terrified of God.

    • Daniel Mitchell

      Hi Karen!

      I also think there is some legitimate concern to be had regarding people who only come to Christ to stay out of Hell. To me, that kind of sounds like a faith based in works – you avoid doing the bad things that get you into Hell, and you do the good things that get you into Heaven, and you do neither more good nor less bad than is required to maintain that balance. To me, that’s shady, and it’s definitely not coming from the heart.

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