As I’ve watched the news this week, once again full of beheadings, burnings, and religiously inspired torture; I’ve wondered if Christianity, Islam, and Judaism might ever co-exist with each other. I can’t speak for Islam or Judaism. When it comes to Christianity, I speak for myself. The questions I have are my own. However, they arise out of my work in Christian communities on three continents. How can we live in a multi-faith/interfaith world that doesn’t presume the moral superiority of our own religious tradition? How do we interact with persons of other traditions without the unspoken assumption, “My faith is right and you’re faith is wrong.”?
Underlying the idea of “rightness” and “wrongness” is the concept of eternity. The “right” people will spend eternity in some kind of cosmic paradise. The “wrong”, whether they are those who have fallen away from a true expression of the faith or those of an entirely different tradition who refuse to acknowledge the “truth” of another faith, will be condemned to so form of eternal punishment. This is why I believe discussions of heaven and hell in the Christian tradition have a far greater impact beyond our own insular Christian circles. How we talk about the idea of “Hell” has a direct relationship on how we relate to other faith traditions.
There are three basic ways to talk about Hell. It’s easy to see and understand the idea of Hell on earth. Regardless of one’s religious tradition, people easily agree that there are some places devoid of goodness, light, and compassion. These could be in war zones like Syria or central Africa. One might also think of the death camps of central Europe during World War II or Bosnia during the mid-1990s. Natural disaster and disease can ravage impoverished countries to create immeasurable suffering. I was in the former Yugoslavia in the mid 90’s. I saw firsthand what Charles Taylor did to Liberia. I saw acts of genocide in the Caucasus. There is no doubt in my mind that these places were all Hell on earth.
The second way many Christians understand hell is a place of eternal conscious torment. This is a view held by many Christians. Hell becomes a place where you’re forced to consciously come to terms with your sins and transgressions. The easiest way to escape Hell, for Christians, is to tell as many people about Jesus Christ. If Christians don’t tell others about the gospel both of us (Christians and the non-Christian) could spend eternity in Hell. The pressure to keep ourselves out of Hell, in this instance, is immense.
A third way to view is through the lens of annihilation. Those who’ve failed to make the moral grade will find themselves, body and soul, annihilated into nothingness. If we fail to recognize Jesus as Lord, we will no longer exist as beings with bodies or souls. Hell is a perpetual separation from the loving presence of God. This is eternal death, the polar opposite of the Eternal Life Jesus has offered to humanity.
Arguments and counter-arguments can be made about each concept of Hell. Somehow, we’ve decided that committed believers of other faiths (any faith) will be condemned to one of these realities because our understandings of grace, salvation, and forgiveness imply as much. Whether we use terms such as, “winning lost people groups for Christ” or “relational evangelism”, we’re using this same paradigm potential damnation.
How do Christians create better relationships with those around them? Whether these relationships are with persons of other faiths or friends and neighbors who don’t define themselves in terms of organized religion, how might we not feel compelled to save (and thereby judge) everyone who doesn’t subscribe to our brand of Christianity?
Perhaps, a realization that:
*People who are different from us aren’t spiritual targets we hunt in order to advance our own understanding of salvation.
*Application of the term “winning” to souls and salvation debases the life and ministry of Jesus.
*There is value in other world religious traditions. We can learn from other religions.
*Other religious traditions share common moral, social, and ethical principles.
*Christians have more in common (both good and bad) with other faiths than we may like to admit.
If Christians become overly pre-occupied with the afterlife, our myopic focus on eternity seriously inhabits our ability to accept any of these realizations. Truth be told, if everything we do is put in terms of winning and losing souls, we become pretty lousy people to be around. Who wants to be friends with the people who are constantly trying to frighten people into a better way to live?
Maybe it’s time to give up hell. Perhaps that’s where Christians could start on a new journey towards healthier relationships other faiths and the un-churched. If we don’t have hell, the only thing we can offer people is heaven. I like the way that sounds. Imagine Christians offering the world the radical, upside down, unconditional love of the kingdom of God as the life giving reality it is. With God’s love, standing for itself, a love which embraces gay and straight, enemy and friend, Christian and Muslim, why would we want to talk about anything else?
Lent is only twelve days away. I am going to give up the idea of Hell for Lent. Unlike most years, this is one Lenten discipline I plan not to forget.