I know a preacher in Mississippi named Brother Bob. That's not his real name.
Brother Bob believes that God created the world, put a couple of people in it, one of these people sinned, and that made us all sinful. God then set up a system where people "atone" for their sins by sacrificing small animals to God. See the book of Leviticus for excessive details.....
Judging by the biblical prohibitions against the practice, people sometimes went overboard and even sacrificed their own children. (You don't make laws against spitting on the sidewalk if nobody has ever spat on the sidewalk.)
The sacrificial system didn't work out very well.
Brother Bob believes that God is all-knowing. Therefore God knew from the beginning that 1) the first people (Adam and Eve) would sin, and 2) the sacrificial system wouldn't work.
Brother Bob believes that God had a son. God sent the son to earth to teach and preach what God really wanted for us to do: Be decent to each other. Love God. Love your neighbor. Kick over the money-changers' tables in the temple, throw out all the sacrificial animals.
That was enough to get God's son killed. Cruelly. Horribly.
God's son rose from the dead. It turns out that God's son was intended to be the perfect sacrifice for everyone. All you have to do is believe that God's son, in his death, was the atonement for our sins.
If you fail to give your assent to this doctrine, you will eventually die in a state of sinfulness, and not be allowed to enter paradise. Instead, you will be tortured in a lake of fire for eternity. Torture beyond any length of time Hitler, Stalin, or Mao could accomplish.
That seems extreme - torture for eternity because of disagreeing for 70 years (or less) with the story outlined above. But that's the narrative that defines Brother Bob's life. If you met Bob, you would probably like him.
I know another man that I'll call Mike. He's a semi-homeless man that we sometimes help feed. He shares those same beliefs with Brother Bob. He quotes scripture without ceasing, and he's been institutionalized a few times for "religious mania". If you were to meet Mike, you would probably avoid him after the 2nd or 3rd encounter.
Brother Bob and Mike are my only acquaintances who believe Jesus died to save me from hell.
I repeat....Brother Bob and Mike are my only acquaintances who believe Jesus died to save me from hell.
I've known and met enough Christians to fill up Texas stadium.
But Brother Bob and Mike are the only people I've ever met who continually behave as if they believe it.
I'm not talking about morals or good behavior or being a good example to others. Morals, in the Jesus-died-for-my-sins atonement system, are almost irrelevant. (Please, please don't send me emails about how a changed outside reflects the change on the inside, or faith without works being dead....)
Bob and Mike live their entire lives under the assumption that those who haven't accepted Jesus as their atoning sacrifice are going to be burned for eternity. Neither of them can relax around you until they're assured you're safe. With Brother Bob, it comes across as caring. With Mike, it comes across as a ritualistic obligation.
I'm not saying that all the other fundamentalist Christians besides Bob and Mike are hypocrites. I'm saying that there's something jarring about professing a belief in an eternal punishment for refusing to believe something (while surrounded by people who don't believe it) and then sitting down to watch The Super Bowl, mow your yard, paint the house, take vacations, or even taking the risk of birthing children who could go to hell for eternity.
Somewhere, there's a disconnect that I've never understood.
If a house was on fire and you knew that there were children inside that you could safely remove from the burning house, would you not do everything in your power to get the kids out? Would inconvenience be an adequate excuse? Lack of training? Not feeling "called" to be a fireman?
How can someone then claim that the "unsaved" will be tortured forever, and not dedicate their piddling seventy years of life to "saving" them, 24 hours a day, seven days a week?
I've discussed this over the last 30 years with about a dozen individuals, all of whom could probably pass polygraph examinations affirming their belief in the story above. They claim to believe that Jesus was divine and atoned for us all, and all we have to do is accept his atoning sacrifice. A few of them continually invite people to their church, and occasionally go out of their way to share the Jesus story with others. They are serious about it. But they don't hesitate to go home and watch "60 Minutes" or play video games, while at the nursing home a few miles away people are dying and going to hell. People are sent to Hell forever and ever, while Christians play "World of Warcraft".
And please don't send me emails stating that God doesn't send people to hell because people send themselves to hell. My point remains the same either way. Some people don't see it as their job or their "calling" to convince anyone of the truth of the story. They see it as God's job to change people's minds. If that's the case, then God sends people to hell.
In my House On Fire analogy, that's a cop-out called "failure to render aid", isn't it? People get arrested for that, whether they have a "calling" to render aid or not.
So what am I missing? If I claim that aliens will dehydrate my brain if I ever take off my aluminum foil hat, my claim won't have much credibility to begin with. It will have even less credibility if I seldom wear my aluminum foil hat.
Maybe you disagree with every word I've written. You believe the John 3:16 business describes the purpose of the universe. If that's the case, why aren't you standing outside the synagogues and mosques explaining it to the "lost"? Why are you wasting a precious few minutes of your 70 years of life reading this?
Could it be that a theology has evolved that allows people to 1) condemn those who disagree with them, 2) ignore pain, suffering, and injustice because this life isn't important, and 3) give God all responsibility for who goes where in the next life?
Is there a possibility that the message of Jesus - Love each other, take care of each other - got hijacked?
I saw a video last week featuring a theologian named Culver Nelson who has crystallized a lot of this for me. Nelson hypothesized that Jesus hated the sacrificial system, and that's why he drove the buyers, sellers, money changers, and animal salesmen out of the temple. That's what got him crucified. But the early church was so conditioned by the idea of letting something/someone else atone for their mistakes, they simply projected their atonement system onto the life of Jesus after his death.
That would be one of life's great ironies, wouldn't it? Jesus lives his life trying to change the system, gets killed for sabotaging the system, and after his death everyone makes him part of the system.... We need a Kurt Vonnegut or a Tom Robbins to tell that story.
Maybe you believe the "atonement system/Jesus died for my sins" concept is necessary for anyone to call themselves a Christian. Perhaps you have to believe that people are going to hell at the rate of 50,000 a day. If that's the case, I can predict what you're going to do about it.
Not a damn thing.
I have a good idea who reads this blog. Brother Bob and Mike don't. They're too busy.