Years ago, I was phoned early on a Sunday morning by someone identifying himself as a preacher who said he was taking an informal survey of beliefs. The only thing he wanted to know was if I believed in the existence of a physical burning lake of fire where unbelievers go. I suspect his findings were to be aired in a sermon that morning as evidence of whatever he was trying to prove. That was West Texas.
That there is judgement is an undeniable tenet of Christian belief. It is just how that is used that bothers me. When faith is used on others to hurt, shame or harm, then my faith quickly becomes a tool for hate and injury instead of healing. In a 90's poll measuring belief in Americans, around 95% of those polled said they believed in God. Of those, 65% said they believed in a literal, burning hell BUT only about 6% thought that's where they would end up. This means that most American Christians probably believe in hell for someone else, but not for themselves. That is using the faith to do harm, not good. I wouldn't be surprised if current surveys from Gallup, etc. showed very similar results among Americans.
So what would I do if I was asked that question about a real burning lake of fire in 2008? At the advice of a UMC bishop and friend of those years, I would ask in response, "Do you believe in hell on earth?" Another friend who is in my spiritual direction class said, and I quote "Religion is for those who want to be saved from hell; spirituality is for those who have already been there." That's from Bill, a Catholic Christian, who is in recovery. We can all learn from him.
My study this Lent has brought me in close connection with St. Francis of Assisi, who knew Jesus not as the judge but as the judged, the condemned. Alot of the world's suffering seems to be caused by people of faith who think that their God is out to get them- or others who don't agree with them. So much suffering in the world is caused by a false image of God, one that is shaming and condemning and very much like them. Jesus died to show us that, no matter what we do to God, to Jesus, or to love, God continues to love the world in a way that heals and does not harm.
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