Nathan (my four-year-old son) is obsessed with snakes at the moment, so whenever we go to the library, at least two of his six books for the week are field guides to snakes. Bedtime routine lately consists of a story, followed by paging through a snake book and discussing one or two at some length. The other night, one of the pages showed a cross-section (from the top) of a snake, to illustrate its anatomy. “That’s the heart”, I pointed out. Nathan was silent for a few seconds, then asked: “Where is Jesus?”
I sometimes worry about having Nathan in a Christian school. I don’t always like the theology they teach. I am certainly not a proponent of the type of Christianity that advocates that God requires you to “accept Jesus into your heart” or risk an unpleasantly warm eternity. I don’t believe in Hell. Not in the eternal punishment sense anyway. Certainly the entire line of thinking is incompatible with 1st Century Jewish understandings of ‘eternal life’, the ones which Jesus and those he taught would almost certainly have held. Also, the belief that God gives you a choice between loving Him and everlasting suffering is completely at odds with any sort of loving or just God. In other words, the doctrine of Heaven for the righteous and Hell for the unrepentant directly contradicts core Christian assumptions about the nature of God.
First, the concept of Heaven as a reward for the righteous is not a belief that existed at all among Jewish communities of the 1st Century. If they believed in any afterlife at all, the Jews of Jesus’ time (those who followed the theology of the Pharisees) would have held (crudely speaking) that after God’s Messiah had cleansed the temple and vanquished those who oppressed the Jewish people, God would initiate the Resurrection, where everyone would be raised from the dead, and God would restore Israel and make his dwelling among His people in a renewed Earth. There is, in the beliefs of Jesus’ time, no notion that God’s eternal dwelling would be in some alternative dimension. When Jesus talks about “the Kingdom of God”, it is safe to assume, he is not referring to an extended party in the sky. His vision is very much more down-to-earth, so to speak. The Law of God’s Kingdom that Jesus preaches paints a picture of how society will function in a Kingdom ruled by God, right here on Earth. And that Law is perfectly encapsulated in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 through 7). More about that later.
Second, the doctrine of Heaven and Hell preached in most churches actively precludes a just and loving God. Christians try to reconcile the brutality of this doctrine of Hell with the notion of a loving God by insisting that it needs to exist in order to satisfy God’s perfect sense of justice. It is a flimsy argument. It bases itself on the notion that perfect justice must be retributive, against which I have argued on many occasions. I have heard many a preacher defend the concept of Hell by arguing: wouldn’t you want to know that people would get what was coming to them? Wrong must be repaid, they insist. Only, how is burning for eternity (just think about what that would be like, for a moment) in any way fair compensation for any wrongdoing committed in the minute span of one human life? That simply cannot be construed as just. The alternative is that the ‘sinner’ “accepts Jesus into her heart” and even if she is the most vile human being in her lifetime, she walks away scot-free. Instead, a completely innocent Jesus suffers in her place. That cannot be considered just either. Culpability cannot be transferred. An innocent third party taking the punishment for an offender is by no stretch of the imagination justice. Simply put, the concept of Hell is not compatible with Christian theology.
All “Hell” is useful for is terrifying people into compliance. “Perfect love”, claims John in 1 John 4:18, “drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment”. If God’s intention is for us to practice love, and I need to point out that Jesus teaches that all of the Law and the Prophets can be summed up in the command to love God and to love one another, then fear and punishment have no place in the equation. If the only reason we serve God is because His house seems more appealing than the alternative, then we have no love in us at all. Similarly, if we serve the church or our community or our family because we fear them in some way, then love is diminished. Hell, as the very embodiment of fear and punishment, then, is directly in opposition to love, and therefore to God.
So when Jesus taught, “repent, because the Kingdom of God is near”, I am sure that he did not mean that we were destined to fry unless we said the sinner’s prayer, gave intellectual assent to a human creed that encapsulates some ancient church father’s flawed theology, or ‘invited Jesus into our hearts’. In all likelihood, he meant that if we wanted to function properly in a post-Resurrection world which has God reigning as king here on Earth, among Her people, then we would need to adopt a Kingdom ethic. It is not a threat. I believe that Jesus is simply pointing out that you will not be happy in an egalitarian community if your ego dictates your actions and determines your contentment. When Jesus talks about being “born again”, I do not think he means putting your hand up in church in a moment of environmentally-induced euphoria, to be “saved”. I think he simply means passing through the Jewish Resurrection into a new kind of Eden here on Earth. Notice how he talks about this in the “born again” passage (John 3). Speaking to Nicodemus, he says:
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.
Note that the primary thing keeping people away from the “Light” of God’s kingdom is not God. It is themselves. There is no punishment alluded to here at all. If there is a Hell at all, it is not because God’s wrath demands satisfaction; it is because we are afraid of what we look like in a community that lives in love. Our fear, our ego, our religion, keep us in a state of self-loathing, a kind of hell from which Jesus aims to rescue us. Jesus is saving us from ourselves, not from God’s anger. And for those who believe verse 18 contradicts what I am saying, note that the passage does not speak to who is doing the condemning. Also, when Jesus talks about “believing in him”, as is evident in the Sermon on the Mount, he is referring to an action, not an intellectual activity. From Matthew 7, the conclusion of the sermon on the mount (my emphasis):
24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”
Please note that again there is no punishment implied: it is a choice between wisdom or foolishness, and the resultant consequences of that choice. This issue of putting Jesus’ words into practice is not a question of moral worthiness, but of practicality. Believing Jesus’ words means following his teachings, not because we will be punished if we do not, but because his way is wise and therefore conducive to good living.
So what does ‘putting his words into practice’ mean? It is not adherence to a holiness code to earn God’s favour. It is living wisely. And he defines that in the Sermon on the Mount. In fact, I believe if we want a proper insight into Jesus’ theology, we need to pay serious attention to this sermon. And what does this sermon do? It breaks our egos. It empties us of all our religious pretentions. It reminds us that we are not the centre of the universe. It makes the Kingdom about everyone- about proper relationship –not about our individual merits. Love our enemies?! Bless them?! Righteousness that surpasses the hypocrisy and holiness codes of the Pharisees and demands that we love everyone? It offends us. It exposes us. And then it points us to a better way. The first line of the sermon sums it up beautifully: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’. To paraphrase, if you want to possess the God-life, recognise that you are not very good at being spiritual. It is only then that we can begin to relate in a healthy way to others and to God. Religion makes people proud and arrogant. It divides people by making them feel superior or inferior to others, by blinding them to their common humanity. The Sermon on the Mount dismantles religion, with all of its holiness codes, with all of its egocentricity, with all of its “thou shalt nots”, with all of its divisiveness, and poses alternatives: what does God’s intended vision of life look like? Why not try that instead? See the difference it will make.
So as Nathan asked where Jesus was, and even as I laughed, I worried for him. I thought about all the horrible theology I would have to undo; about how he is being taught to believe that he needs to be good to earn God’s favour; about how he will feel pressurised to “accept Jesus into his heart”, along with all of the rubbish that goes with that – a warped perspective of justice, feelings of inadequacy, terror because a very thin and nebulous line stands between eternal bliss and unimaginable agony. I felt anxious that in all of the religion, he might miss the real beauty of Jesus’ life, his teachings, his death and his resurrection.
And then I had my own revelation. Maybe I don’t need to worry. After all, we all go through this stage on our spiritual journeys. We all start by associating spirituality with our own personal holiness. We associate our worth with our moral choices. We make it about ourselves. Many – perhaps most – of us never move beyond that, which is sad. But like everyone else, Nathan will walk that path. Nothing I can do will protect him from that. Whether he is in a Christian school or not, horrible theology is part of growing up. But maybe, with the right role-modelling, he will come to see that love for God and fear of Her wrath cannot easily cohabit the same theology. And I pray that the Sermon on the Mount will break him too, that it will empty him of religion and ego, and empower him to pick up the cross of Jesus – the way of love that the world cannot understand, and which it despises – and show him how to live a Kingdom life that surpasses obsessions with holiness codes, that rejects fear, and which fosters a genuine desire to lose oneself in the community of the Kingdom. I pray that as he genuinely engages with Jesus’ teachings, and not simply with the twisted version of them presented by the church, that Nathan will allow love to deliver him from a hell of his own making.