It All Started with One Simple Question.
For months I’ve tried to silence the question while it continued to reverberate in my mind. I’ve been scared of what the implications of my answer to this question meant. Admittedly, I often toe the line of acceptable dissent in how I live (and speak) out my faith. Yet I’ve never been more fearful of my feelings than I am of this one. After all, I’m old enough to remember how the church treated Carlton Pearson.
Like many people I know, I came into relationship with God out of a healthy dose of conviction coupled with a fear of eternal damnation. Much of my life as a Christian has been anchored by this fear. Yet as we honor Christ in the lenten season, I no longer think it is a weight I wish to carry.
Though I certainly believe in the existence of evil as well as the presence of God, I’m not certain I can reconcile God’s love with His crafting of an eternal torture chamber for unbelievers. While the idea of eternal punishment satiates my personal need for vengeance, belief in hell has done more to harm my Christian walk than it has helped.
Though far from perfect, I’ve developed a fairly progressive theology over the years. I believe that there are many paths to God. I believe there is no contradiction of Christian and LGBTQIA identities. I don’t attach sin to the expression of sexuality. I certainly don’t believe that the “hellfire and brimstone” teachings are convincing and convicting spirits to turn to Christ. I understand that sin can be forgiven by the act of contrition and repentance. I believe that my faith is meant to liberate from all things that harm and impede our ability to have an abundant life. So if I believe these things to be true, then for whom is hell an eternal home?
I Know Hell Better than I Know the “Why”
Still, hell has remained a very real part of my ideas around faith. I live with the nagging fear that I’m one decision away from an inescapable eternity in a place of punishment. It is why I’ve been scared to explore the answer to my own question. I’m scared that each step I take into questioning more, I’m leaning further into the track for hell. That is how pervasive the theology of hell has been, is, and can be for the believer—no matter how far removed from other harmful beliefs.
I believe we’re supposed to seek God. We’re supposed to spend our relationship with God getting better understanding of the past and present moves of God. This involves questioning, learning, and eventually relearning of things we think we know of the nature of God. If sin is anything that drives us out of the presence of God, is not a sin to hold steadfast to a fear that keeps me from full intimacy with God?
As a believer, I feel that I’ve been taught more of God’s condemnation than of God’s loving grace. I’ve been preached to and told that God is love while simultaneously being a vengeful God. It has created within me a fear and reverence of God that is present out of a desire to avoid punishment rather than from love. To me, it is an incredible disservice to what my relationship with God could be.
Why I Have to Let Hell Go
My grievances with the theology of hell are growing. I am resentful of the fact that it roots our faith in God in a fear of punishment. It paints God as a jealous lover of sorts. It is my [growing] experience that God is anything but. As a good friend of mine pointed out, “If God is love then the theology of hellfire and brimstone that most of us probably grew up in isn’t exactly accurate.” The bible says that “there is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18).
As a woman of color, I’m even more alarmed about the use of fear to manipulate. I firmly believe that the fear of hell manipulates not only our participation in the faith, but also our participation in our own oppression via abuse. For those who are already in marginalized groups, it’s doubly alarming.
Just take abuse scandal that’s coming out of Word of Faith in North Carolina. For years, congregants were subjected to physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. They were violently assaulted in the name of “purification” and deliverance from demons. I can’t help but think that these victims, these believers, allowed the abuse to go forward out of a fear of going to hell if they didn’t obey. While it is an extreme example, there’s still much to be said about what the fear of hell will drive a believer to do in order to avoid it.
I Choose to be Perfected by Love
I no longer wish to bear the burden of hell. I cannot work towards liberation when I’m bound by fear. I also have no desire to divorce myself from the identity of Christianity.
I just want to know and emulate the life of Christ AND be thankful for his death and resurrection. I want to get to know and understand God beyond the fear of punishment. I don’t want to chase after God because I’m running from hell. I don’t want my faith to be focused on an avoidance that binds me to a set of rules, rituals, and performative Christianity. How can I ever live the abundant life promised to me by Jesus if I’m too afraid to live?
I want to be made perfect in love, so I’m choosing to remove my fear.