Is Christianity Unduly Harsh?
To the secular mind, Christianity can appear to be a giant schoolyard bully, threatening eternal harm for anyone who breaks his rule. A comment to a recent post reflected this position, and helps to bring into focus the difficulty that believers can encounter in trying make their case:
How do threats of eternal torment help support your case? OK, I know you hold out the alternative ‘Heaven thing’ and I appreciate that. Sounds wonderful!
But American Evangelicalism is so unforgiving that a full 95% of all humanity will, or has been, relegated to Hell for all eternity. And this judgement is based on a worldview, not even on the merits of your behavior. No time off for good behavior? That’s unbelievably harsh!
So I can be a Hindu with a lifetime devotion to the sick, the poor and the downtrodden, and your message is, “Sorry friend, you’re headed for an eternity of pure HELL! You should’ve gotten your worldview story straight Oh well- you’re screwed forever – tough luck!”
Your message may be ultimately true, or false. But is there any question that it’s brutal beyond any level attained by the worse human examples?
Let’s set aside for a moment the dripping sarcasm, which doesn’t really assist the argument. What’s being advanced in this common challenge rests on some unspoken, and unexamined, assumptions. The first is that the threat of “eternal torment” is part of a strategy aimed at convincing people to join “our” group. Since this message is such a turn-off, especially since its directed at “worldview” – as the writer puts it -rather than behavior issues, wouldn’t we be better off just dispensing with the “fire and brimstone” message?
This challenge has met with considerable success in recent decades. One need look no further than Rob Bell’s recent book which concludes that, in the end, “love wins out” and no one remains in hell. The message that actual and unpleasant consequences may attach to our beliefs, and our actions, is wildly unpopular in a pluralistic culture that values individuality as the highest virtue.
The doctrine of hell can’t be explained in a few sentences; it can’t be reduced to a simple sound bite. To make sense of it, one must examine his own hidden presuppositions about the true nature and purpose of this life and about what the “well lived life” really looks like. It takes reflection, and it takes seeing – or at least trying to see – from a perspective different than the narrow one that focuses on “me;” on how I can get what I want.
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