Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Suffer for All of Eternity?

 The Rev. Gini Gerbasi 
I'm the most judgmental about people who are judgmental. And when I hear religious leaders declare that God intends to send millions upon millions of people to a place where they will suffer for all of eternity, my righteous indignation rises almost to the level of superpower. On Monday, I read an article about a religious leader who tweeted this bit of Good News on Friday: "If you are not a Christian, you are going to hell. It's not unloving to say that. It's unloving to not say that." This guy is a really famous megachurch guy. LOTS of people listen to him – millions, even. My brain responded quickly: Initiate Righteous Indignation Superpower sequence in five, four, three…. I'll spare you the details of my spiritual temper tantrum. I think I'm off my high horse today, but I cannot let this go. Episcopalians tend not to talk about issues like this, but maybe we should. People are rejecting church – and increasingly God – because they think this kind of thinking is just what Christianity IS, and they don't buy it. Well, I'm a Christian and I don't buy it either.

I've read the Bible, including the passages that mention things like a lake of fire and weeping and gnashing of teeth. These passages are scary, but they do not comprise the primary message of the Bible. There are three things about this kind of thinking that I think are especially dangerous, both spiritually and culturally. First, the "certain people going to hell for all of eternity" kind of thinking breaks people into competing (or even warring) groups of insiders and outsiders. Jesus rejected that kind of thing over and over, and it has brought untold suffering in the world, something a Gospel of love would never do. Second, this kind of thinking builds everything around what happens when we die. I'm far more interested in knowing how to live and how to love and how to alleviate suffering here in this life. And third, I think it undermines the message and doesn't work. Telling people they will suffer for all eternity unless they follow Jesus – the very embodiment of love – undermines that love and coerces people into a shallow faith out of fear. We don't even parent this way. Threats and physical punishment erode trust between the child and the parent, and while they may temporarily modify a child's behavior, they don't help a child control his impulses, develop compassion and empathy, or learn to really love his brothers and sisters. You know, the sorts of things we Christians aspire to.

I don't believe that I have to believe this kind of theology in order to be a Christian. Moreover, I reject it outright in the very name of compassion and mercy and inclusiveness and healing and reconciliation and love. That kind of writing may get me into trouble – but I trust not with God.

Ever the lawyer, I must issue a disclaimer: I could be wrong. But I don't think I am.

Rev. Gini Gerbasi is the assistant rector at St. John's, Lafayette Square.