Recently, Clara and I enjoyed a long-overdue vacation. Part of our trip included some classic tourist trappings, and we found ourselves milling about in large crosswalk crowds. And the inevitable happened.
We started hearing the familiar tinny ring of an overdriven microphone blaring through a budget loudspeaker. She and I grimaced at each other, wondering which flavor of “You’re going to hell” was being broadcast on behalf of my Jesus. Turns out it was the utter depravity flavor with a light sprinkling of sulfur. You know, just to motivate people.
Scaring Small Children
Some thirty years ago, I stood with an adult in front of my parents’ small town church, terrorized tears streaming down my face as I repeated the preacher’s weekly injunction: “If you died tonight, do you know that you know where you’d end up? Do you really know? Because heaven is hot, and eternity is a long time.”
“I don’t know,” I explained. The man, likely a deacon seeking purpose in his retirement years, listened dutifully before replying, “You only need to say this prayer, and then you’ll know.”
I said the prayer. I practically had it memorized. I had prayed that prayer at the altar at least a dozen times in the past few months. I didn’t really believe it was working. I’m not sure I was developmentally capable of processing it in a meaningful way anyway.
You know what I could process? Burns.
Stoves, irons, and the ever-present hot southern sidewalk in summer. I knew a burn, in a very localized manner. When my young mind tried to project this sensation all over my body, I had no difficulty imagining how horrible it would be. I was horrified. And I jumped up any time the preacher said someone could help me know that I know I wouldn’t go to hell.
Residual Fear within Agnosticism
Week after week, I prayed a prayer of avoiding hellfire. For a few years of my childhood, I called that being a Christian. Being scared of a perpetual fire was a very Christian thing, apparently.
When I was old enough to think (at least as well as a teenager can think), though, I abandoned that mindset like I abandoned the church. I learned this really cool word that described how I felt about religion: agnosticism. I failed to see hard evidence for or against the existence of God.
Yet that childhood fear still kindled in the back of my mind. “Hell is hot, and eternity is a long time.” So I’d say nonsense like:
In my mind, I’m an agnostic.
In my heart, I’m Christian.
I lacked any resemblance of faith in my heart, as a statement like that surely conveys to any honest Christian. Yet I feared, “What if I’m wrong?” After all, “Hell is hot, and eternity is a long time.”
This was essentially hoping, though not at all believing, that I had fire insurance. And that was all the consideration I gave to Christianity beyond an annoyance at all the hypocrisy and judgment I experienced firsthand as an outspoken, small town Bible Belt agnostic.
A Faith of Affirmation
As I grew older, I felt the tug of Jesus in my heart. When I was at my lowest, most desperate point, I reached out, and He was there. I quickly realized He’d been there all along, with love and freedom one step away. Surrendering to His Lordship would be a challenge in practice, but my fire insurance was settled with zero consideration of the fire.
The infancy of my faith centered on love. It was an infantile love, but it was as thorough a love as I could process. It was acceptance. It was a concern for me as a person. It was an affirmation.
My faith was birthed in affirmation.
It was not until I started going to church and hearing that same old altar call that I realized that my fire insurance policy was now current. Cool, if irrelevant, I thought.
A Faith of Negation
As a child, I’d heard brimstone messages (even occasionally rewatched a VHS of an evangelist describing 30 minutes in hell). I prayed a prayer, seeking to negate my hellward-bound momentum. I was trying to build a faith on negation. I didn’t work.
My conversion experience was one of positivity. One of affirmation.
As I began to embrace church culture alongside Jesus Himself, I began to develop a judgmentalism. However, given my background, I found myself aiming my plank-filled eyes at my fellow Christians. Particularly, the hellfire preachers that seemed to never actually get anywhere.
I grew irritated. I loathed such teachers and preachers. I judged them. “You’re driving more away from the faith than you’re bringing to it,” I’d say. Under my breath, of course. Because even I didn’t want to be yelled at in a voice that still rang of hellfire-and-brimstone. It wasn’t until my late twenties before I realized the hypocrisy I’d embraced.
Eventually, I came to settle into a strategic criticism rather than an outright condemnation. Part of that was helped by the fact that I met a number of individuals whose fear of hell served as a catalyst for a genuine faith. Yes, the initial faith was as infantile as mine was, but they continued to develop it.
Years later, Clara and I stood on a street corner, anxiously awaiting the green “WALK” light while a man valiantly attempted to shock himself with a spittle-shorted headset microphone. His loudspeaker some 18 inches from my head, it wasn’t until the crowd had mulled across the street before I could hear myself think, much less anything else. But then I heard a resounding yet quiet response move through the packed crowd.
- “What a prick.”
- “If we’re all pieces of trash, why should we listen to you?”
- “You don’t know me, asshole.”
And this was just a sampling of a seemingly unanimous response.
Now I’ll admit that I cannot know men’s hearts. Maybe a seed was sown, and someday that street corner will contribute to someone coming to Christ. So let’s assume that’s true. Of the fifty or so people in that crowd, one came to Christ in part because of that moment. The price? Pushing away the rest enough that a dozen immediately felt the need to comment on it aloud.
Was it worth it? Certainly, one potential soul is valuable. But so long as we’re calculating on potentials, is it more valuable than the others potentially lost? Certainly, seed was sown, but was it more bad than good?
We can’t say for sure. On the surface, all potential things being equal, I’d lean toward no. Others might disagree. And some even say it’s efficacy is irrelevant because the teaching of hell is a central, mandatory component of the Gospel, and conversion without the recognition of hell is fraudulent. I’m just not so sure about that. I can’t be sure because I’m not God.
But you know who is? Jesus.
And next week, I’ll begin taking a look at how the New Testament’s focal point actually refers to these ideas. So forgive my indulgence here. You’ll be joining me for a little in-depth study as I try to find something to challenge my assumptions. I honestly don’t know how this will end up, but I always welcome the Word of God to change me.