I was a troubled youth. Troubled mainly by the things I heard in Sunday school.
I took the 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 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. If I didn’t really, truly believe, my sinner’s prayer had fallen on deaf ears.
I also made the mistake of actually reading the Bible, beyond the verses we memorized, verses pulled out of context from John, Psalms and Romans. I literally read the cover off my Bible, and what I found was not what they told me in church.
It was worse. It confirmed my fears that whatever was supposed to happen when I became born again hadn’t happened to me.
“Be ye perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” This was Jesus himself talking, not some 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 the godless Lutherans and Catholics persist in their ignorance. If you really believe the lost are going to hell for eternity, then you’re a heartless worm if you don’t spend every waking moment trying to convert them.
Despite the bad news I was hearing, I kept on reading, and after ridding my mind of the Sunday school interpretation of the Good Book, I found it was more complex than my teachers had 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. I read about being “born again,” and it 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 everyone was 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: “God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.”
From Jesus, 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 often spoke in parables and metaphors. Pearls, lamps, salt, yeast, mustard seeds, bread and wine are 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.