Beyond control … towards trust: Part 1
Updated: Jul 9, 2020
It’s 4am. We’ve been praying earnestly for 8 hours straight. To stay awake, we’re now prayer-walking our frosty, deserted city. This isn’t usual, even for us – fifteen figures huddled under a street lamp. I’m standing inside a sleeping bag, opened just enough for my feet to move. Some have blankets around their shoulders. It feels purposeful and significant. “God, every piece of ground that we walk on belongs to you,” we claim, “Bless the people that live here. May they come to know your love. Teach them your ways. Thank you God.”
The certainty with which beliefs are held in evangelical churches, when coupled with the doctrine of Hell, leads logically to a high level of fear. This can be seen into two distinct areas:
1) Fear for ‘non-Christians’
2) Fear for Christians
In this post, I will discuss the way some believers attempt to use control to mitigate against fear concerning the eternal futures of those outside of the church.
Fear for ‘non-Christians’: “Turn or burn”
The sign held up on a wooden post in Oxford Circus seemed deliberately provocative. However many people in evangelical churches really do carry around a feeling of helpless desperation regarding people who are not Christian, which is especially horrific when it includes their own family. They may believe that after death ‘non-Christians’ will simply be annihilated or they may fear them being tortured by fire or emptiness or simply by their own desire for literally all of eternity.
Many Christians try to get around this problem by resigning themselves to not knowing what Hell is like and who goes there. However, the main theological challenge of the doctrine of Hell concerns the nature of God: “If God is good, how can God let people go to Hell?” Choosing not to know does little to get around this. Uncertainty as to whether or not God will approve the torture your family for all eternity will create an imagined picture of God that is both unpredictable and unreliable. It will do little to allay the fear, which in some people is so extreme that it can contribute to significant mental health issues.
The believers are obliged, then, make every effort to ‘evangelise’ – literally to ‘tell the good news’ – to ‘save’ others from their fate. When I was five, I forced every member of my class to say they believed in Jesus and swear to be a Christian for the rest of their life. In the circumstances, it seemed the only reasonable thing to do.
Unfortunately, the message that 'God loves you but is going to punish you forever/ annihilate you if you don't respond' includes a flaw in logic which means that evangelism is often unsuccessful.
As Rob Bell says in his book ‘Love Wins’,
“… if something is wrong with your God,
if your God is loving one second and cruel the next,
if your God will punish people for all of eternity for sins committed in a few short years,
no amount of clever marketing or compelling language or good music or great coffee
will be able to disguise that one, true, glaring, untenable, unacceptable, awful reality” (Bell 2011:175)
Few will be persuaded to join belief systems that are motivated by fear, however carefully that fear is masked. Once the believer realises that they have little or no control over the beliefs of other people, the pain of foreseeing their eternal future can become unbearable. Frequently divisions and rifts start to grow between the family members who believe and those who don’t.
It makes sense that deep fear about the possibility of Hell is mitigated by trying to influence the beliefs of others through evangelism. However, the alternative to fear not control, but trust, both in God and in other people.
I believe that each person can be, and must be, trusted with their own journey; that each person needs to be allowed to manage the joys and emptinesses of life in a way that is possible for them, if they are to flourish. This is far from a wishy-washy relativism (your truth is your truth, everyone is right). Rather it is an expression of faith that acknowledges that there is something of God in all people. Instead of trying to change or control other people, we can listen to them, hear them, and get know them, just as we also desire to be known. It would be better to more often position ourselves in the place of learning, than to arrogant assume we have all the answers. Then maybe we will also discover something for our own journey.
I have come to believe that if God exists, God is not an unpredictable and potentially angry judge; God is not a petulant and all-seeing Big Brother on high. Rather, I imagine that God is more like a shepherdess, watching over the beauty of her flock with pride and joy;
noticing how different each one is; ensuring each has food, water and shelter; leading them towards paths that are good both for them and for the whole flock. And when there is danger or darkness, I imagine that she joins them in the stable, staying with them through the long winter nights, just as those who tend sheep today still do when the need arises.
I have come to believe that God is actually good; actually loving; actually just.
I truly don’t need to be afraid.