This is a serious question, though my concern is that it will be seriously misunderstood. Stick with me, please.
It has been a basic assumption of western Christianity that evangelization begins with informing “unsaved” people of their imperiled status within a certain cosmology; there is heaven, there is hell, you are headed in one direction and need a boost in the other. After all, people have to understand the problem before they can accept the solution, right? But today, few people hold to the ancient worldview that simply took for granted certain segmentations of earth and sky, heavens and underworld, and the hosts of spiritual beings which inhabit them. As a result, there is a major disconnect between those who would package the gospel of Jesus along with the ancient cosmology of the biblical world and those marked for evangelization who passively assume a modern understanding of the universe. If people struggle to believe in (for example) heaven, hell, angels, or young-earth creationism, does this disqualify them from understanding and responding to the message and challenge of Jesus? Is Christianity primarily a willful acceptance of a particular ancient cosmology, or is it first and foremost an ethical or moral worldview?
Here’s where I don’t want to be misunderstood. I’m not raising the question of whether or not hell and angels, etc. are “real,” nor am I questioning whether or not they are significant to Christianity. These things are inescapable, indelible, and how we come to understand and engage with them is very important. My question is about the heart and essence of Christianity, not about faith vs. science. I’m not asking if we, as Christians, really need to bother with all of that supernatural stuff anymore, I’m asking whether or not this ought to be a barrier or a checkpoint that prevents newcomers and outsiders from understanding and knowing Jesus as prophet, teacher, and lord.
Consider: Jesus was a prophet of peace and grace in the religious world of first century Second Temple Judaism. From within that matrix, using its assumptions and language, he announced a gospel of repentance, empathy, and forgiveness. He wasn’t on a mission to convince anyone that God or angels or hades existed – granted, he didn’t need to! Indeed, everyone he encountered already assumed the cosmology of their day. This is part of my point, that Jesus didn’t propose a new set of religious beliefs to his listeners, but he DID subvert and challenge the implicit meanings and presumptions of their common beliefs. He didn’t have to convince anyone that there was a God in heaven. But he did go against the grain and insist that God was a loving and endlessly forgiving Father, not a space tyrant who inflicts sickness and calamity to punish sinners. He didn’t build an apologetic case for the reality of hell and judgment. But he did step on many toes by teaching that judgment is universal and based on charity and personal integrity rather than class or religion. Rather than teaching people that they must assent to certain religious propositions or supernatural claims in order to be saved, Jesus was, in a sense, “unteaching” certain bad and pervasive religious ideas, and inviting his listeners on a path of open hearted trust and faith – faith in himself and in a way of life.
Back to our question: Is it conceivable that this heart and ethos of Jesus – this trust in grace and “the things that make for peace” – might transcend issues of cosmology and religion and find an expression that resonates with our twenty-first century worldview, even as it surely subverts and challenges it? It is possible that this gospel might ignite imaginations and win hearts whether or not they have also embraced a first century understanding of the universe? Do not violence and sin and exploitation and self-interest and retribution pose the same threat today that they did then? By trying so obtusely to change what someone else believes about the sky or the planet or the future or the afterlife, do we not risk obscuring or stifling the voice of the prophet calling us all to love God by loving each other?
Again, I am not advocating that we dismiss or forsake the unique religious, supernatural, or apocalyptic trappings of the Christian tradition. I have not rejected them, even as I often struggle to understand and engage them in fruitful ways.* Anyone who is drawn to Jesus will be invited into this strange and sacred world. But to make these things intellectual prerequisites to faith and inclusion seems absurd and counterproductive. Instead of simply speaking the truth about love and peace, we are obsessed and pedantic about the precise language in which it must be communicated. And while we are so busy rehearsing and reconstructing an ancient mindset, our neighbors are outside starving and homeless. If the only hope for humankind is that everyone might intentionally adapt an ancient understanding of the material universe, then our future looks pretty bleak.
But consider these observations about the earliest Christians:
Ancient Christians were known for being nonviolent, not for arguing about creationism.
Ancient Christians were known for their brotherly and sisterly love, not for believing in hell more intensely than everyone else.
Ancient Christians were known for charity and service to the poor and outcast, not for being the most religious people around.
In fact, ancient Christians’ apparent emphasis of charity and fellowship over ritual and sacrifice, along with their regard for only a single deity, resulted in them being labeled “atheists” by some of their pagan observers.
And I suppose this gets to the heart of what I’m clumsily suggesting here: Throughout history, Christians at their best have been identified as people who believe in transcendent things like repentance, peace, compassion, and forgiveness, not religious or cosmological ideas like creation, hell, or angels. There are elegant and productive ways of talking about those things, but they should not be in the forefront of our mission and message if they will distract from the gospel. Our world needs “the things that make for peace” more than ever.
For my part, from now on, when someone asks me if I “believe in hell,” my stock answer will be “no, I believe in Jesus!”
* I should note for the sake of disclosure that I do reject doctrines of “young earth creation” and “rapture,” both of which I understand to be aberrations built on the misapplication of Bible texts. For more about my views on hell and angels and such, see posts like these.