I saw a video clip of Ellen DeGeneres sitting beside former president George Bush at a Dallas Cowboys game. She later commented on her show that they are different in their interests and values but noted that they are still able to have fun and be friends. She went on to say that is how we should all treat each other. At one point in the dialogue she said, “Be kind to one another”. Sounds a lot like a Bible quote from Ephesians: “Be kind to one another.” (4:12)
Quite a few years ago someone, speaking about Ellen’s success, suggested that she was a person who was ‘famous for being nice’. Unfortunately she has received a lot of ‘un-niceness’ through her life and career and so she is somewhat of an expert on the healing value of kindness. That has stuck with me and I’ve noticed that her show is fun, human, generous and kind.
Noted evangelical and bringer-of-joy, John Piper is currently hosting a series called ‘Foundations of Christian Hedonism’. So far there have been three parts: The Duty of Delight; God Demands Our Delight; If You Refuse To Be Happy.
It is probably self evident but the core of the series has to do with our responsibility to pursue the ‘fullest and longest pleasure, namely, pleasure in God’. By the way, I agree that Christian Hedonism it is an overlooked idea; seeking and embracing the joy and freedom of relationship with our Creator is probably a good subject.
However, those beautiful ideals immediately have the wind knocked out of them by stuffy, joyless doctrine. Piper tweeted this last week: “God cares more about your happiness than you do. He is so serious about your joy that he threatens hell if you refuse to find it in him.”
Translation? God cares about you so much that if you refuse to enjoy him he will torture you forever.
Admittedly there is theological nuance that I’m ignoring but that sentence from Piper exposes basic evangelical belief quite accurately. We’ll come back to that little gem of logic later…
Not all Christians believe the mainstream, pop-evangelical doctrines that get taught by many (most?) of our brothers and sisters. The primary reason I write is to give you a peak into how Christian roots have been squeezed, reshaped, remolded from God’s ideas into human ideas that are shallow, even dangerous.
Examined closely, many of our beliefs are actually what Jesus would call ‘traditions of men’ – beliefs that have evolved through human filters into ideas that wouldn’t even be recognizable to him.
One example is people with strict, rule-driven beliefs. Legalists are easy to spot – they use bare religious rules and lawyerly jargon to judge others and their opinions are typically tinged with absolutes and annoyance.
But I think there needs to be another angle on legalism, though. It seems to me that most of us fall into a more sanitized category; most of us are moralists. Moralism is legalism light – not as angry but still firmly entrenched in rules and ways of doing. Moralists are more polite than legalists but just as set in their beliefs.
Legalists and moralists typically believe strongly in punishment. We like movies where the hero goes on a rampage to get even for some wrong done to them. It’s likely why our prisons are bursting at the seams and states with the death penalty are still clustered around the Bible Belt. It’s also why we smirk to ourselves when the police arrest a drug-dealer, the lazy coworker is terminated, a salesperson is caught overcharging, or the municipality forces the neighbour to cut their grass. It’s also partly why Christians are okay with the idea of hell.
Christianity is notable for its grace and forgiveness; we profess to be forgiven for our intentional and unintentional sins. Occasionally, grace and forgiveness show themselves when least expected. Nevertheless we Christians have given a home to doctrine that uses words like justice, fairness, debt payment, etc. to warn that there is a wide path leading to punishment for everyone else.
That’s why I think we should talk about a subject that we grew up assuming to be true but which doesn’t seem to fit comfortably into who Jesus is. It’s a topic that is so frightening that we avoid it, yet so important that it deserves more consideration than it is usually given. I want to discuss something our minds believe but our hearts can’t imagine.
So I come back to the quote from earlier. “[God] is so serious about your joy that he threatens hell if you refuse to find it in him.” Does that sentence sound logical to you? Yes? No? Maybe?
You might be surprised to learn that hell has pretty much always been debated in Christianity and has become a bit of a hot topic lately among theology nerds.
So clear out your preconceptions, assumptions, and church-learning and let’s consider: is God nice to everyone no matter what they do, or is he a moralist like we are, punishing those who ignore him? Or is there another option?
From one moralist to another, it’s time we started talking about hell.