Repost from 2015. Edited, rewritten, and corrected.
I often write about the extreme right of Evangelicalism, the end of the Evangelical spectrum inhabited by churches and sects that nice, friendly Evangelicals like to call Fundamentalist nut jobs. However, as I clearly show in my post titled Are Evangelicals Fundamentalists?, ALL Evangelicals are Fundamentalists. Evangelical belief requires theological fundamentalism, a core set of beliefs that one must adhere to be a Christian and considered an Evangelical in good standing. Some who deny this fact are really liberal/progressive Christians living in denial. Raised in the Evangelical church and familiar with its worship and practice, these liberal/progressive Christians don’t want to abandon the only church they have ever known. Their theology puts them squarely outside of Evangelicalism, yet they refuse to accept this, digging their heels in when attempts are made to drag them into the liberal/progressive church. There’s not much anyone can do for these folks. In time, the keepers of Evangelical truth will expose and embarrass them and they will be forced to leave. For now, they play pretend Evangelical.
There’s another subset within Evangelicalism that thinks they are what I call a nicer, friendlier version of Evangelicalism. They are convinced that legalism, rules, moralizing, and the like are the problem, so they attempt to advertise their churches as places that are judgment free; places where sinners can come to find healing and deliverance. However, these nicer, friendlier Evangelicals hang onto theological fundamentalism. While their lifestyle or what they consider a sin might be different from their legalistic brethren, theologically there is very little difference between the two.
Here’s how you force nicer, friendlier Evangelicals to show their true colors. Forget this or that doctrine. Forget everything except what I share next:
Evangelical: The church I go to, First Church of the Most Awesome People in Town, is the nicest, friendliest church in town. We love everyone, and I am sure that if you come to our church you will feel right at home!!
Bruce: Let me ask you several questions. First, do you believe in a literal Hell?
Evangelical: Yes, that’s what the Bible teaches.
Bruce: Who ends up in Hell?
Evangelical: Well, um, uh, I am not the judge, only God is. But the Bible does say that a person must know Jesus as their Lord and Savior to go to Heaven when they die.
Bruce: So, since I am not a Christian and I refuse to acknowledge Jesus as my Lord and Savior, I will go to Hell when I die, right?
Evangelical: (looks down to ground) Uh, well, um, yeah, if you don’t repent of your sins and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ you will go to Hell when you die.
Bruce: How long will I be in Hell? Is it like Catholic purgatory where I’ll suffer for a time and then be taken to Heaven?
Evangelical: Well, uh . . . (long, long, long pause) if you die without knowing Jesus as your Lord and Savior you will spend eternity in the torments of Hell.
Bruce: Fire and brimstone and where the worm dieth not?
Bruce: Since this body I currently have would burn up if I was thrown into a pit of fire and brimstone, does this mean God gives me a new body that will withstand the torments of Hell?
Evangelical: (silently praying the Rapture would happen)
Bruce: And doesn’t this mean that your God created me, killed me, and sent me to Hell with a new body fashioned by him to withstand day and night torture for eternity?
Evangelical: (God, won’t this atheist go away)
Bruce: Is this the God you worship? Why would anyone want to worship such a horrible deity?
Forget all the other doctrines, this is the only one that matters. I don’t care how nice or friendly Evangelical churches thinks they are, if they believe in Hell, then they are party to their God’s savage, endless torture of billions of people. They might smile more or practice friendship evangelism, but the result is still the same: those who don’t repent of their sins and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ go to Hell when they die. (Please see We Love People and Are the Friendliest Church in Town.)
The next time you run into a nicer, friendlier Evangelical, go for their jugular. Ask them point-blank if they believe in Hell. Their answer(s) to this question will tell you all you need to know. Personally, I have no interest in being a part of a group or being friends with anyone who thinks that I will burn in Hell for eternity because I am not like them. This kind of thinking is no different from the thinking of the demented killers portrayed on Criminal Minds. Our God is an awesome God, the Evangelical says, and He loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. And if you refuse to accept his gracious, wonderful offer of salvation, our God will someday torture you for all eternity.
Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
Recently, an Evangelical man named Gary sent me the following message:
im sorry but you are a fool…”the bible say a fool says in his heart there is no God…wait til you meet your maker one day and answer your “Maker for what you said!
First, Gary is not sorry at all. He’s angry over the fact that I said something that supposedly impugned or slandered his version of the Christian God. I have no idea what it was I said, but it sure got under Gary’s skin; so much so that he had to send a Facebook message to a stranger. What is it about Evangelicals that they think it is okay to send strangers messages or emails? I can say that I have NEVER even contemplated such a thing. It seems, at least to me, to be rude, boorish behavior.
Gary wants me to know that he considers me a FOOL! I wonder if Gary has ever read Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:22; you know, where Jesus warns people that calling someone a fool put them in danger of hell fire? I’m sure Gary will say, the Bible says in Psalm14:1:
The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good.
See, God said it, so it is okay for Gary to call me a fool. Wait a minute, God (Jesus) also said not to call people fools. Which is it? Do we have a contradiction? Tell me it ain’t so, conflicting verses in God’s inspired, inerrant, infallible Word? Why, I have never seen such a thing!
Gary goes on to threaten me with God. Let me translate: Bruce, someday God is going to get you for the bad things you said about him! Then, you will be so sorry. My God is going to judge your sorry ass, fit you with a special torture-tolerant body, and then afflict pain, agony, and suffering on you for all eternity. And I am going to be standing over the pit of Hell laughing at you, Bruce, as you get everything you so richly deserve. No one says bad things about my God and gets away with it!
I wonder if Gary thought that his threat would have any meaningful effect on me? Or is this more about him finding an outlet for his “righteous” anger; his outrage over the words of the Evangelical preacher-turned-atheist Bruce Gerencser? Surely, Gary knows that I think his peculiar God — and all deities — is a mythical being; that I am no more scared of Jesus than I am of Bugs Bunny. Now, Elmer Fudd? I am scared of that crazy wabbit killer. But Bugs? He and Jesus are in the same category: characters created by human imagination. I don’t have the slightest worry about God “getting” me or opening a can of whoop-ass on me after I die.
About Bruce Gerencser
Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.
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Great White Throne Pictures presents: “This Is Your Life, ObstacleChick”
Presented in Technicolor
ObstacleChick’s Extended Family
ObstacleChick’s Schoolteachers and Administrators
ObstacleChick’s Sunday School Teachers
ObstacleChick’s Pastor, Youth Pastor, and Music Minister
The Pious Girls from Church & School
Limited Engagement Showing ONLY at Great White Throne Cinema
When I was an adolescent and teen attending a Southern Baptist Church and Evangelical Christian school, my friends and I were taught as much fundamentalist evangelical doctrine as possible. Those who grew up in evangelical fundamentalist Christianity know that the number one priority of Christian parents is to make sure their children are saved; the sooner the better. Every teaching is geared toward indoctrinating children and making sure they know that they are sinners in need of salvation through Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. There is no more important message that Christian parents, pastors, Sunday school teachers, Christian schoolteachers, and Christian staff can spread than this one. All children need to know that if they do not repent of their sins and accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, they will spend eternity tormented in hell in the afterlife. And because you could be hit by a bus in the next few minutes, you’d better do it NOW. After death, there will be no do-overs. There will be no further opportunities. There will be no appeals granted. Nada. Zilch. End of the road.
As we teens grew older, our youth pastor made sure to impart to us as much information as possible about salvation, eschatology, and the afterlife to us so we would understand the urgency of making the right decision regarding salvation. He also made sure we understood that certain behaviors were unacceptable for young Christians growing in Christ and presenting a witness to the “world.” As the majority of students in the youth group attended public school, we heard less harping on “sins” of rock music, movies, magazines, etc., than those of us who attended Christian school heard, but it was clear that participating in many of these activities could hurt our “witness” to our peers, and they did harp on premarital sex and alcohol as mega-evils. At the Christian school, they didn’t hold back any punches preaching against the evils of rock music, the evils of dancing, the evils of alcohol, the evils of premarital sex, the evils of attending the roller-skating rink, the evils of movies, etc. There wasn’t really much left that wasn’t evil except for Classical music, the Beach Boys, Christian movies and books, church, and Christian school activities. (Yet two girls at my high school were still expelled for getting pregnant, and three boys were expelled for attending a party where alcohol was served.)
The eschatology is fuzzy to me now, with concepts of the rapture, pre-millennialism, post-millennialism, the mark of the beast, the anti-Christ, and so forth, but I did understand that at some point after death everyone would have to go to the Great White Throne Judgment where our fate would be determined. Would it be eternity in heaven, or would it be eternity in hell? (Cue music: DA DA DAAAAA!)
My teenage understanding of the Great White Throne Judgment was that that there would be God on a throne, Jesus on a throne, and somehow the Holy Spirit would be there too, though I wasn’t sure if we’d be able to see him as he was a spirit and whether a spirit could sit on a throne. Maybe we would get special afterlife vision that would allow us to see spirits. There would be angels and seraphim and cherubim and all people who had ever lived would be there, waiting to be judged, waiting to hear their fate.
At the Great White Throne Judgment, the way it was explained to us, each person’s life would be shown for all to see, and then the judgment would be handed out. As an avid reader, I was well-versed in visualizing scenes, and for the Great White Throne Judgment I envisioned a scene in which everything was white, the Trinity (were? was?) located on thrones on a raised platform, and masses of people stretched out before them. There was a very large movie screen near the Trinity, and when each person’s name was called that person would step forward so their life movie could be played on the movie screen. The Trinity would then render (their? his?) verdict, and the person would be escorted by seraphim, cherubim, or maybe St. Peter (I wasn’t clear on who the escorts were) to the proper exit to their eternal designation.
As we teens envisioned this Great White Throne Judgment, we were exhorted by youth ministry staff to make sure our movie was G-rated so we wouldn’t stand up there embarrassed before the masses of humanity. Who wants their sweet Grandma to see them participating in evils such as (gasp) dancing, or drinking alcohol, or — dare we even mention it — premarital sex? Surely not! Not only did we need to keep our actions G-rated, we must also keep our thoughts G-rated as somehow those would be shown on the Great White Throne Movie Screen.
As the whole sequence of events was still confusing to me, I believed somehow that when people died, they could see what was happening on earth. When my great-grandmother Granny died when I was twelve years old, I was upset for several reasons. First, I really liked hanging out with Granny. She lived down the street, and she was my nice great-grandmother, not mean like Grandma F who lived with us. Granny would make biscuits and ham for me, and we enjoyed cleaning and rearranging her numerous knick-knacks while she told stories. Second, the only time I ever saw my grandfather cry was when he came home to tell us his mother died. That tore me up, and I cried too. Third, because I thought Granny could then see me that she would be able to see me taking a shower and doing other embarrassing things. In addition to grieving for the loss of Granny, I was upset for a long time just knowing that Granny was watching me all the time.
Not understanding the whole timeline of when the Great White Throne Judgment was, I thought maybe there was some sort of neutral after-death holding place where Granny and everyone else could see what people on earth were doing. My mom said when you died you went to sleep and woke up in heaven, but I knew there was a Great White Throne Judgment in there somewhere. And there had to be some sort of holding place because thousands of years might pass before the END TIMES. Another issue was how long would this whole Great White Judgment Movie Festival take? I mean, I knew eternity had no limits, and that a day is as a thousand years and a thousand years are as a day, but what were the logistics of this Great White Throne Judgment Movie Festival? It must take thousands of years, or days in deity terms. My mom said God wasn’t bound by time, so it didn’t matter, but I still couldn’t comprehend.
But what I did comprehend was how much I DREADED the Great White Throne Judgment. I was fearful of dying. I was afraid I would die and wake up in the Great White Throne Cinema with billions of other people, waiting in agony for my movie to be played and for everyone I knew to see all the naughty, mean, jealous, lustful thoughts I harbored. The Pious Girls at school and church would learn what I REALLY thought of them. My teachers would know that I sat in the back of class and talked and passed notes and then would be on the phone at night with my friends explaining what they’d all missed in class while I was bored and entertaining us all. My grandparents and mom would know that I had listened to rock music and watched MTV at my aunt & uncle’s house. It was going to be bad.
I dreaded death. The greatest relief of my existence would be if the Trinity told me I was destined for eternity in heaven. But getting through the movie viewing . . . I dreaded it beyond everything. Maybe I would get lucky and be last and everyone would have been sent to their fate, but I knew chances were slim to none.
What a damaging thing to teach impressionable youth, to manipulate their fear of hell and judgment to impress upon them the need to believe the right thing and to stay away from certain activities.
As an agnostic atheist, I don’t believe in any of that anymore. It took a long time to get over my fear of hell though. That was the last thing to leave me when I deconverted — even though I didn’t believe in god anymore, I was still afraid of hell. I had to literally reason with myself about my unrealistic fear of hell. But now, I no longer fear death. Do I want to die today? No, because there are still things I want to do in life. But I don’t fear the Great White Throne Movie experience.
What follows is a discussion between an atheist friend of mine and an Evangelical. I no longer engage in such discussion on social media, choosing to focus on my blog, but the following discussion reminds me of the discussions I once had with Christian zealots on Facebook and Twitter. In just but a few comments, the Evangelical trots out an interesting version of Pascal’s Wager, threats of judgment and hell, with a zesty seasoning of you are angry and bitter to round out the discussion.
One thing the religious have in common with non-believers is the fact that they will someday die. Death is the great equalizer. No matter our wealth and status, or lack thereof, there will come a day when each of us will draw his or her last breath. No second chances, no do-overs. All of us, at one time or the other, have pondered our mortality. The older we get, the more we think about death.
It should come as no surprise then that most people turn to religion to find answers about death and the possibility of an afterlife. All the major religions of the world teach that there is life after death, be it in a resurrected or reincarnated form. Being the rational creatures we are, we can’t bear thoughts of no longer existing. Countless Evangelicals have asked me, surely you believe that there is SOMETHING after this life? Other Evangelicals have told me that they would have no reason to live if there weren’t life after death.
Sunday after Sunday, millions of Americans gather in church buildings to worship a God that purportedly not only forgives their sins, but gives them eternal life in heaven after they die. If religious belief was only of value in this life and paid out no after-death benefits, I suspect many of the people pledging fealty and devotion to the Christian God on Sundays would instead spend the first day of the week engaging in recreation, working in their yards, or relaxing. Remove sin, fear, judgment, and eternal life from the script and I have no doubt that most churches would find themselves not only without congregants, but without preachers too.
Generally, the orthodox Christian belief about the afterlife goes something like this: each of us dies, physically remains in the grave until judgment Day, at which time God will bodily resurrect the just and unjust from the dead, judge them, and either send them to God’s eternal kingdom (Heaven) or the Lake of Fire (Hell) for eternity. The former is a blissful place where there is no sin, pain, suffering, or death, whereas the latter is a dark place where its inhabitants face horrific pain and suffering. Both the just (saved) and unjust (lost) will be fitted with new bodies (creations) that never die, and for those cast in the Lake of Fire, their bodies will be able to withstand never-ending torture and torment.
Now, seek out one hundred Evangelicals and ask them about death and the afterlife, and they will tell you something like this: after death, Christians go to Heaven, and non-Christians go to hell. Does what I have written here remotely sound like what I wrote in the previous paragraph? Nope. Most Christians believe that the moment after they close their eyes in death, they will awake in Heaven and be in the presence of God. The Bible, supposedly the final authority on all matter pertaining to life, death, and the afterlife, does not teach that Christians go to Heaven the moment they die. Neither does it teach that non-Christians go to hell after death. Every person who has ever died presently lies rotting in the grave, awaiting the resurrection of the dead.
It’s not so sexy to tell people that their reserved rooms in Heaven and Hell will remain empty until Resurrection Day. Peter? James? Judas? Moses? David? Abraham? Isaac? Jacob? Adam? Eve? John, Paul, George, and Ringo? Your parents, grandparents? None of them is or will be in Heaven or Hell until the trumpet of God sounds and Jesus returns to earth to judge the living and the dead.
Yet, every Sunday, Christian preachers remind congregants of what awaits them after death: Heaven for the saved, and Hell for the lost. Unsaved people are implored to get saved lest they die and split hell wide open. Christians are encouraged to work hard for Jesus and promised great rewards in Heaven if they do so. Preachers tell wonderful stories about Heaven and horrific stories about Hell, reminding people that the sum of life is knowing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
Attend Christian funerals and you will often hear preachers outright lie about the afterlife. I have yet to hear a preacher say that the dearly departed went to hell. In every instance, preachers found some sliver of faith/belief to hang on to, thus justifying their preaching the subject of their funeral sermon into heaven. Worse yet, preachers and family members will speak of Granny running around Heaven or Mom, Dad, and Rover too looking down from Heaven watching their loved ones. I have heard countless Christians say that some close family member of theirs was “with them” as they did this or that. None of these hopeful ideas is supported by the teachings of the Bible. Granny isn’t running in Heaven. Her bodies lies in the grave, awaiting the Resurrection. As nice as it sounds, and the warm, fuzzy feelings such thoughts give, no one is watching us from Pearly Gates.
Of course, as an atheist, I am firmly persuaded that death is the end-all. To misquote Hebrews 9:27: And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this … nothing. I have one life to live and it is quickly passing by. It seems like yesterday that my wife and I, ages nineteen and twenty-one, were standing at the front of the Newark Baptist Temple altar, reciting our wedding vows to one another. Youthful in body and ready to take on the world, we had no thoughts of growing old. Yet, here we are, soon celebrating our thirty-ninth wedding anniversary, and in less than a month I will turn sixty. Now our thoughts turn to end-of-life matters: retirement, healthcare, and what to do with the few years we have left. My older readers know exactly what I am talking about. Who among us hasn’t lain in bed listening to the beat of our heart or the ticking of the clock. We know that each beat and each tick take us one moment closer to our last day among the living.
Bruce, if you don’t think there is life after death, why then did you spend most of this post talking about what Christians believe about death and the afterlife? This post is a plea to preachers to tell people the truth about life after death. First, preachers should tell people that they cannot know for certain whether there is life after death; that all that Christians have to go on is what is written in the Bible; that the belief that people live on after death is solely a matter of faith; that there is no evidence for claims that people live on in eternity after they die. Second, preachers should stop telling people lies about what happens the moment after someone dies. Stop with the whimsical stories about what dead people are doing in Heaven. Tell the truth: Granny lies rotting in the grave until Jesus comes to get her. If preachers are going to tell mythical stories about the afterlife, the least they can do is accurately state what the Bible says on the matter. Of course, doing so might cause people to lose hope, but Christians need to know that there is NOT an immediate payoff after death.
TIME: At one point you call the common view of heaven a “distortion and serious diminution of Christian hope.”
Wright: It really is. I’ve often heard people say, “I’m going to heaven soon, and I won’t need this stupid body there, thank goodness.’ That’s a very damaging distortion, all the more so for being unintentional.
TIME: How so? It seems like a typical sentiment.
Wright: There are several important respects in which it’s unsupported by the New Testament. First, the timing. In the Bible we are told that you die, and enter an intermediate state. St. Paul is very clear that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead already, but that nobody else has yet. Secondly, our physical state. The New Testament says that when Christ does return, the dead will experience a whole new life: not just our soul, but our bodies. And finally, the location. At no point do the resurrection narratives in the four Gospels say, “Jesus has been raised, therefore we are all going to heaven.” It says that Christ is coming here, to join together the heavens and the Earth in an act of new creation.
TIME: Is there anything more in the Bible about the period between death and the resurrection of the dead?
Wright: We know that we will be with God and with Christ, resting and being refreshed. Paul writes that it will be conscious, but compared with being bodily alive, it will be like being asleep. The Wisdom of Solomon, a Jewish text from about the same time as Jesus, says “the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,” and that seems like a poetic way to put the Christian understanding, as well.
TIME: But it’s not where the real action is, so to speak?
Wright: No. Our culture is very interested in life after death, but the New Testament is much more interested in what I’ve called the life after life after death — in the ultimate resurrection into the new heavens and the new Earth. Jesus’ resurrection marks the beginning of a restoration that he will complete upon his return. Part of this will be the resurrection of all the dead, who will “awake,” be embodied and participate in the renewal. John Polkinghorne, a physicist and a priest, has put it this way: “God will download our software onto his hardware until the time he gives us new hardware to run the software again for ourselves.” That gets to two things nicely: that the period after death is a period when we are in God’s presence but not active in our own bodies, and also that the more important transformation will be when we are again embodied and administering Christ’s kingdom.
Wright: Never at any point do the Gospels or Paul say Jesus has been raised, therefore we are we are all going to heaven. They all say, Jesus is raised, therefore the new creation has begun, and we have a job to do.
TIME: That sounds a lot like… work.
Wright: It’s more exciting than hanging around listening to nice music. In Revelation and Paul’s letters we are told that God’s people will actually be running the new world on God’s behalf. The idea of our participation in the new creation goes back to Genesis, when humans are supposed to be running the Garden and looking after the animals. If you transpose that all the way through, it’s a picture like the one that you get at the end of Revelation.
TIME: And it ties into what you’ve written about this all having a moral dimension.
Wright: Both that, and the idea of bodily resurrection that people deny when they talk about their “souls going to Heaven.” If people think “my physical body doesn’t matter very much,” then who cares what I do with it? And if people think that our world, our cosmos, doesn’t matter much, who cares what we do with that? Much of “traditional” Christianity gives the impression that God has these rather arbitrary rules about how you have to behave, and if you disobey them you go to hell, rather than to heaven. What the New Testament really says is God wants you to be a renewed human being helping him to renew his creation, and his resurrection was the opening bell. And when he returns to fulfil the plan, you won’t be going up there to him, he’ll be coming down here.
TIME: That’s very different from, say, the vision put out in the Left Behind books.
Wright: Yes. If there’s going to be an Armageddon, and we’ll all be in heaven already or raptured up just in time, it really doesn’t matter if you have acid rain or greenhouse gases prior to that. Or, for that matter, whether you bombed civilians in Iraq. All that really matters is saving souls for that disembodied heaven.
TIME: Has anyone you’ve talked to expressed disappointment at the loss of the old view?
Wright: Yes, you might get disappointment in the case where somebody has recently gone through the death of somebody they love and they are wanting simply to be with them. And I’d say that’s understandable. But the end of Revelation describes a marvelous human participation in God’s plan. And in almost all cases, when I’ve explained this to people, there’s a sense of excitement and a sense of, “Why haven’t we been told this before?”
What are some of the other things that Christians say about death, heaven, and hell that either aren’t in the Bible or are distorted by preachers? Please share them in the comment section.