To start, two autobiographical stories.
First, a story. I grew up with a fundamentalist view of things, of course shaped by my ecclesial tradition. That is, when I was younger I believed only my church was going to heaven. This belief made me very concerned with those in my extended family who were Baptist. Didn’t they know they were going to hell? Shouldn’t someone in the family warn them? So, one day, I decided to take up the subject with my Baptist cousin. I was around 13 and he was around 23. So looking back, he was being very tolerant of me.
Anyway, I start to share about how he’s going to hell. And, of course, he kindly disagrees. We debate back and forth on the nuances of biblical texts. And, eventually, I see that I’m just not going to change his mind. And the horror of that realization settles over me: He won’t listen, he’s going to go to hell. I’ve failed.
And I start to cry. Very hard. And I make one last appeal through a storm of tears.
Second story. Around this same age I was invited to give my first sermon at my small church in Pennsylvania. It was to be the Sunday evening sermon. (We had two services on Sunday. A morning service and an evening service for those who could not attend the morning service and take the Lord’s Supper.) The Sunday evening sermon was a little shorter and less formal. Attendance in the morning was around 100 but at the evening service it was down to around 20 or so. It was a causal affair for the most devoted of the church. This was, of course, the crew that came back to attend church twice in one day.
During the week I was mulling over my sermon topic. To kick around some ideas I took a few bible study tracts home from the church. One of these was entitled “What Hell is Like” by Jimmy Allen. Jimmy Allen, you should know, was notorious in my fellowship for these Sinners-in-the-Hand’s-of-an-Angry-God kind of sermons. He could really scare a person into immediate repentance. Well, my first exposure to Allen was this tract and it terrified me. Hell was horrible, terrible! I was suddenly convicted: People need to know about this!
So I decide that the first sermon of my life is going to be on "What Hell is Like." There I was, about 13, preaching at the most faithful contingent in my church, the people who came to church twice on Sundays, telling them point for point just how bad, awful, terrifying, and horrible hell was going to be.
I’m quite sure they all thought I was insane.
But they needed to know, right? Well, late in the sermon the sheer tragedy of hell, the vision of all those lost, tormented souls, just overwhelms me. And I begin to weep. I deliver the last ten minutes of the sermon through a veil of tears. Just sobbing in front of the church.
By this point in the sermon I’m sure they really did think I was insane.
Why do I share these stories? Well, if you know this blog you will know that my views on these matters have changed considerably over time. But regardless, given what I was convinced to be the truth about hell at the time, I want to point out my reactions in both stories to make a contrast.
Specifically, have you ever noticed how some Christians, particularly some of the loudest, most public voices on the Religious Right, seem pleased that people are going to hell? That is, it has always troubled me that so many Christians seem, well, happy about the damnation of most of humankind. True, they may protest against this diagnosis, stating that, deep down, they really are grieving the future torment of liberals and gays and Hollywood producers. But if you look at them, they don’t seem all that sad. Like I did when I was 13. They seem happy. Or at least smugly self-satisfied.
Why is this? Why does hell make so many Christians happy?
I think part of an answer comes from the analysis offered in my last post. Specifically, given the existential anxiety caused by death and exacerbated by the prospect of hellfire, many Christians reach for tangible markers that allow them to verify that they are, indeed, saved. As I wrote in the last post, this is often accomplished by drawing clear ecclesial lines in the sand. We crave a clear circle that encloses the Saved, the Church. Outside of that circle are the Lost, the Damned.
This circle is existentially comforting. But its comfort hinges on its concreteness and clarity. If the line becomes fuzzy or indistinct then it no longer serves its existential purpose: Concrete reassurance of salvation. Thus, the boundary markers of faith, and their razor sharp clarity, become more important (and more prone to provoke an argument) than the essentials of faith. Churches fight over trivialities because those trivialities mark boundaries. And in the face of death it isn’t the core of faith that reassures us. Rather, what is critically important is the boundary and where I stand in relation to it. If everything outside the circle is bound for hellfire what matters most is not where the center of the circle is but where the edge is. The edge, the boundary, is what I need clarified. Thus, churches fight over edges, leaving the center, the core of the gospel, overlooked and unattended. For those who fear death, the core just isn’t as important. It, in a very real way, just doesn’t provide the needed reassurance.
And if all this is so, if the clarity of the boundary is what is so reassuring, then it stands to reason that we need, for existential soothing, a group of people to be clearly on the other side of the line. A clearly defined saved group by necessity creates a clearly defined damned group. And the more clearly defined the better. In short, many Christians need a clearly defined damned group to reap existential solace.
The point? Simply this: The fact that some people are going to hell—clearly are going to hell—is comforting to many Christians. It makes them feel better. About themselves, their world, and, weirdly, about their God. They actually need the damned to feel happy.
So if it seems, sometimes, that certain Christians seem downright giddy at the prospect of millions of people going to hell, well, now you know why.
To start, two autobiographical stories.