Dear Christian Evangelicals: Please Stop Telling My Agnostic and Atheist BFFs that They’re Going to Hell.
by Nicole Plyler Fisk
Seriously. I try to be patient, but it’s really starting to make me crazy.
I have a very diverse Facebook audience, including: (1) politically and theologically conservative Christians, most of whom are from the rural SC town in which I grew up; (2) politically and theologically liberal Christians, most of whom I’ve met during my graduate school career/time in academia; and (3) politically liberal people who are of other religions (e.g. Jewish, Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist) or no religion (agnostic and atheist), some of whom I count as my best friends in the world.
For the most part, I like such a diverse audience, because I think that people are good, mostly, and that we should try to recognize and appreciate the good — even in those with whom we vehemently disagree. Comparative religion scholar, Karen Armstrong, argues that we should practice compassion — making our impulse toward compassion stronger in the same way that any athlete trains to improve muscle tone and strength.
So, I *try* to practice compassion, but every few months or so, the evangelical Christians with access to my page feel the need to respond to this-or-that article I post by telling my friends of other or no faith that they’re going to hell, that they’ll burn eternally because they don’t have a “personal relationship” with Jesus.
Consequently, every few months, I attempt to undo the damage from this virulent strain of “Christianity” by sharing more progressive Christian voices, like Bishop John Shelby Spong, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “Jesus seminar” scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, etc. I quote most frequently from an Oklahoma City philosophy professor, Robin Meyers, whose books are incredibly readable and conveniently annotated. It’s probably the best job I’ve ever done annotating texts while reading them, putting anything I need in the form of progressive Christian ideology literally at my fingertips.
FYI: Super cute Andrew Rannells also helps, because I watch his “I Believe” from The Book of Mormon whenever I get Facebook bombed with Bible verses. It reminds me that people can still do good and affect positive change despite beliefs that others see as batshit insane. So kudos to Trey Parker and Matt Stone. I’ve been watching a lot of Andrew Rannells lately:
But I’m writing this blog post, because I’ve repeated myself *so* many times at this point that it’s become useful to have something I can just link . . .
So, dear Christian evangelicals, please stop telling my agnostic and atheist bffs (and friends of other faiths) that they’re going to hell.
Point 1. It’s both unnecessary and rude. You may *think* that you’re the Christians following the “narrow” way, but: you’re status quo, mega church, etc. You’re on a wide, wide road with lots of others who have been saying the same thing for a really long time now. So, we all know that you favor the gospel of John over Mark, and that you think anyone who doesn’t “ask Jesus” into his/her “heart” will then be doomed by Jesus/God to hell for eternity. We all know that you think it’s your commission to tell anyone who doesn’t agree that they’re doomed, but we’ve already been told. You’ve been there/done that; we’re glad to have obliged; and at this point, to keep telling us is rude.
Point 2. I know you just took issue with the fact that I said “you favor the gospel of John over Mark,” because you’ve been told and therefore think the Bible is inerrant and that John and Mark are not contradictory. The gospels are, in fact, different when you put them in conversation with one another. The gospel of Mark was written first, so the other gospel writers both drew from and added to the original, offering different portraits of Jesus and interpretations of his life and significance. Robin Meyers explains this, neatly and concisely, in the following paragraph from The Underground Church:
“[Jesus’s] voice changes with each representation. Do we follow Mark’s Jesus (the first portrait), who is reported to have said with self-effacing humility, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone’ (10:18)? Or do we follow the self-proclaimed exclusive messiah of John’s Jesus (the last portrait), where Jesus seems to be a kind of self-illuminated figure in a world where nobody seemed to notice that he glows in the dark. Now instead of a man who is humble and nervous about too much adoration, he has become a self-identifying messiah: ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’ (14:6). How could the same man have said both these things?” (19-20).
Meyers argues that liberals prefer “the more human Jesus” presented in Mark, whereas conservatives “choose a text from John far more often than from the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke)” (20).
I don’t care that others build their theology around John whereas I build mine around Mark, that they value salvation theology whereas I value wisdom theology, that they’re fans of eternal torment whereas I’m a fan of universal salvation, etc. Because, according to my system, everyone is “in,” so I’m stuck with you, regardless of what I think about your personal philosophy. Heck: I can even like you, when I think of you as Andrew Rannells.
Point 3. But here’s the thing: I can be tolerant of everything but intolerance. After a brief discussion of the historical Jesus, temple history and church doctrine, one of my Facebook critics accused me of making things “too complicated.” But following Jesus’s example rather than worshipping him is quite simple, since he prioritizes the Golden Rule (which involves loving your neighbor and refraining from judgement) above everything else. Fun fact: versions of the Golden Rule appear in many (if not all) world religions; click here for the slideshow.
In my experience, salvation theology grooms its adherents to practice not compassion but judgement. Because salvation theology is concerned with who is “in” and who is “out” of the circle of God’s grace, its adherents seem to carry that type of mentality with them . . . well, everywhere.
My husband, Scott, has little time for Facebook and rarely comments, but even he feels compelled to comment when the judgement starts raining down. His theory is that most comments should be answered one of two ways. Here’s a couple of actual comments (paraphrased) we’ve seen, from adherents of salvation theology, and Scott’s response.
Comment 1: “Ugh. In line at the grocery store and the woman behind me is complaining that she can’t buy organic milk with her food stamps. I don’t buy organic milk because IT’S MORE EXPENSIVE AND I WOULD BE PAYING FOR IT!”
Wouldn’t it be preferable to practice compassion rather than judgement? Maybe — just maybe — the woman is navigating the difficulty between being both poor and wanting the best for herself and her family. Maybe she needs better milk, because she has a kid with food allergies and intolerances. And I’m pretty sure this guy, who is an accountant, could buy organic milk if he wanted it, and that he would be pretty damn irritated if anyone presumed to judge his shopping cart the same way.
DON’T BE A DICK.
Comment 2: “Caster Semenya has both male and female body parts, so she should be celibate to avoid offending God.”
That one was difficult to type, but yeah: rather than practicing compassion and coming to a more nuanced understanding of gender (which should translate to a more nuanced understanding of sexuality), this guy manages both to hold onto his homophobia and to condemn Semenya, a teenager at the time, to celibacy.
WHO THE HELL ARE YOU?
In The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness, Karen Armstrong gives us a litmus test, through which we can determine “good” vs. “bad” religion:
“If your understanding of the divine made you kinder, more empathetic, and impelled you to express sympathy in concrete acts of loving-kindness, this was good theology. But if your notion of God made you unkind, belligerent, cruel, or self-righteous, or if it led you to kill in God’s name, it was bad theology.”
You can’t get much simpler than that.