I’ve been to hell, and I’m not going back

This is a sneak preview of a column I’ll probably publish in the Messenger in a couple weeks. It was inspired by a pastor’s column on our church page.

Here’s an excerpt from Pastor Visser’s column. (He happens to be from the Evangelical Free Church, which is the denomination in which I was raised.)

“One of my colleagues at that point became especially irritated with me. With his voice increasing by several decibels, he asked a very penetrating question. He asked, ‘Do you mean to tell me that someone who has never heard about Jesus is going to hell?’ At this point, things got very tense as I answered, ‘Yes.’ As his eyes rolled into the back of his head, I reiterated once again that if we could get to heaven through anyone or anyway other than Jesus Christ, he and I as Christian clergy were wasting our time.”

I find it a bit surprising that the only value Pastor Visser seems to find in his religion is its ability to protect one from the wrath of God, i.e. hell.

Anyway, here’s my story:

I’ve been to hell, and I’m not going back

I was a troubled youth. Troubled mainly by the things I heard in Sunday school.

Partly it was in my genes. I come from a long line of Bible people. Partly it was in my nature. I was born with a fear of death and pain and with too much empathy for the suffering of others.

I took the Sunday school and Bible camp lessons literally: Accept Jesus into your heart by saying the sinner’s prayer, or count on an eternity in the lake of fire, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth, and where you’ll meet most of your friends from Vadnais Heights Elementary: the Lutherans, since they’re not born again, the Catholics, since they pray to Mary, and the rest of the deceived masses who follow false gods or no god.

But like Linus in the Peanuts story, I always suspected that my pumpkin patch was not sincere enough for the Great Pumpkin to visit. If I didn’t really, truly believe, my sinner’s prayer had fallen on deaf ears.

Complicating matters, I made the mistake of actually reading the Bible, beyond the verses we were made to memorize, verses pulled out of context from the books of John, Psalms and Romans. I literally read the cover off my Bible, and what I found was not what they told me in Sunday school.

It was worse, and it confirmed my fears that whatever was supposed to happen when I became born again hadn’t happened to me — or anyone else I knew.

“Be ye perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” This was in the book of Matthew, spoken by Jesus himself in the Sermon on the Mount, his most famous speech. It was not some overlooked line in a book with a weird name written by an apostle who never even met the Lord. “If you deny me in front of men,” the Son of God said, “I will deny you before my father in heaven.”

I had denied him a thousand times, every time I remained silent, letting all those godless Lutherans and Catholics persist in their ignorance. If I was a real Christian, I would not rest until they had all heard the “good” news that God would save them if they believed, and if they didn’t, he’d burn their hides in everlasting flame.

But I kept reading, and after ridding my mind of the simplified Sunday school interpretation of the Good Book, I found that it was far more complex than my teachers had ever realized.

Plowing the Scriptures with an open mind, I searched high and low for the sinner’s prayer. It wasn’t in there. I cast my net for the words “accept Jesus into your heart.” They weren’t there either. The passage about being born again didn’t fit the youth pastor’s interpretation.

And just as they had pulled Bible verses out of context to construct a pathway to hell, I found that I could pull verses out of context, too, and show the opposite: that all were going to heaven, regardless of what they believed.

As I explored the Bible for the last time, I searched for those shining diamonds in the coal mine, and found that they were just as common as the verses damning the ignorant and rebellious to an eternity of suffering for a brief lifetime of inconsequential sins.

A small sample:

From Romans: “He has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.”

From Jesus himself, in the book of John: “When I am lifted up, I will draw all men unto myself.”

From Philippians: “Every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”

Sounds to me like everyone will say the sinner’s prayer and be born again someday.

As for all the hell business, it’s not unreasonable to interpret it figuratively, since Jesus was well known to speak in parables and metaphors. Pearls, lamps, salt, yeast, mustard seeds, bread and wine are all figures of speech, so why not the Lake of Fire?

When preachers choose to read the good news in the light of the bad, rather than the other way around, you have to wonder if they love the notion of hell more than they love their own dear children.

Brett Larson is the editor of the Messenger.

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