Tears welling in her eyes, Amy* shared her greatest fear with me: “I worry I’m not good enough to be with her in heaven.”
This was not the first time I’ve heard a woman express such a fear to me. My own mother clung to life long after she really wanted to live because the religion of her childhood instilled a bone-deep fear that she would be sent to a fiery eternity.
Amy’s fear, however, was the saddest such declaration I’ve ever heard. She wasn’t afraid of eternal damnation. She was terrified of eternal separation from her only child, who died at the age of 15 after a car hit her as she was crossing a street on her bike.
I never knew Amy’s daughter, but Amy tells me she was a loving and gentle spirit—and the greatest love of Amy’s life. Even though we’ve only recently become friends, I would say the same of Amy.
I was astonished, as I always am, when some of the best women I know express such a fear. Almost always, they tell me that they know on an intellectual level that such anxiety is irrational but that the emotion drowns all rational thought. In its place is left only the terror they absorbed from a childhood listening to men rail from the pulpit, like 18thCentury theologian Jonathan Edwards, that we’re all “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” always in danger of “sudden unexpected Destruction,” with a capital D.
When I reasoned with my mother in the years before she died that a compassionate God would never send her to hell, whatever that is, she nodded her head slowly at me and said, “I know in my head that’s true, but it’s hard to let go of something that’s been beaten into you your whole life.”
Though the Old Testament is filled with stories of divine retribution, Jesus talked far more often to the crowds of love and compassion than he did of fear and hell. Why, then, do so many churches focus on the latter?
Zora Neale Hurston, a woman of uncommon wisdom, says this of one of the characters in her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God:
It was inevitable that she should accept any inconsistency and cruelty from her deity as all good worshippers do from theirs. All gods who receive homage are cruel. All gods dispense suffering without reason. Otherwise they would not be worshipped. Through indiscriminate suffering men know fear and fear is the most divine emotion. It is the stones for altars and the beginning of wisdom. Half gods are worshipped in wine and flowers. Real gods require blood.
Unfortunately, this describes the root of all too many Christians’ faith. We tell our children stories in Sunday School of Jesus holding little children protectively in his arms and show them pictures of a kind man surrounded by lambs, but the message that many children ingest like poison as they grow older is that Jesus is the only way to avoid an eternity of indiscriminate suffering and Destruction.
Amy experienced the worst of “sudden unexpected Destruction.” She talks about the loss of her child often, though she tells me that her stories make many people uncomfortable. As I listened to her, even after over 30 years in a denomination that focuses on love and compassion, I had to stifle my own fears of sudden Destruction of the people I love to allow her the space she needed to talk about the child she loved and lost.
The pews of many megachurches are filled with believers who hope their unquestioning belief can bring them prosperity and insulate them from indiscriminate suffering. But I suspect the sofas in many homes in America on Sunday mornings are equally filled with those who’ve suffered and found the god their churches present to them inadequate.
Where is our message for them? How do we speak to those who’ve been scarred by an interpretation of the Gospels that fails to convey the depth of Love, with a capital L, that is at the center of Christ’s message?
In 1741 Jonathan Edwards mentioned the words “wrath” and “hell” a total of 104 times—52 times each—in his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” In contrast, he mentions “love” only three times and “grace” only four times.
Sadly, 278 years later the same could be said of sermons preached on Sunday mornings in many churches in America.
Why isn’t Paul’s declaration in Romans 8: 38-39 shared with equal zeal?
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
I simply don’t understand how we got to this place where we fail to focus on the Good News of the Gospel. Christ’s warnings and anger were directed at corrupt religious leaders of his time—not at the masses hungry for a message of hope.
I am comforted when I read Christ’s words as recorded in the four Gospels, though occasionally I’m troubled by something he says. I’m grateful, however, to have a faith community where questions about those troubling passages are welcomed—and where no sermon ever focuses on God’s wrath rather than on Christ’s commission to care for the poor, the hungry, the hurting.
That is the Great Commission. And if we would be Christ-like instead of simply calling ourselves Christians, that is what we are called to do.
*Not her real name