I was having a conversation with a friend earlier today. We don’t talk that often, at least not about politics or religion, because our opinions are entirely different. I’ve recently been going through a transition away from fundamentalism and into a more progressive belief and relationship with Christ. This has unfortunately created a rift in some of my friendships with those who are still quintessentially evangelical.
I don’t recall how this conversation started, but we ended up talking about hell. Hell was one of the major catalysts that caused me to reevaluate my beliefs about God. I grew up in a church that taught what might be called a traditional view on hell: that it’s a place of eternal conscious torment.
After a period of doubt, I found myself no longer able to reconcile this belief with the idea of a loving God. The two things just didn’t seem compatible. I’m not sure yet if I consider myself an Annihilationist or a Universalist, but that’s a decision I’ll come to in time after more study, thought, and prayer. The point is, I no longer subscribe to the concept of eternal conscious torment, and that alone has had an enormous effect on the way I see God and the way I view my relationship with God.
So my friend and I were talking about hell; he was aware of my change in thought and that, of course, did not sit well with him, though he was at least willing to have a conversation about it. Most of the conversation was the typical back and forth, but there was a moment where he used an analogy about God that struck a nerve.
My friend made a comparison between our relationship with God and a spousal relationship. He explained that if you love your spouse, then you will want to please him or her, and it’s the same with God. As long as you love God enough to please him (i.e. not sin), then you should never have to worry about hell.
As I said, this struck a nerve. The Bible does teach that there is a heaven to gain and a hell to shun. But if you serve and worship God simply as a means of getting into heaven or avoiding hell, then you’ve completely missed the point.
This line of reasoning eerily reminded me of my training as a battered women’s counselor. Any person who has had the horrid experience of enduring domestic violence will understand the manipulation an abuser uses to justify their violence.
The cycle of domestic violence develops over time and uses basic operative conditioning. As a means of justifying their violence, the abuser will always blame the victim for the abuse. If you had only done the dishes when I had asked I wouldn’t have gotten frustrated. If you had just made dinner like you were supposed to I wouldn’t have yelled. I wouldn’t have hit you if you hadn’t talked back to me.
It’s a punishment/reward system, where as long as you do what is expected you avoid abuse and when you displease your abuser you’re punished. But, as anyone aware of the patterns of abusive behavior can tell you, eventually the abuser runs out of justifications and will abuse at will for no reason at all.
My friend’s point about our relationship with God wasn’t intended to be harsh, but for me it’s a comparison that the Christian community desperately needs to stop making. Yes, we should want to please God. Yes, we should try to avoid sin. But fundamentalism winds up painting God as a domestic abuser. Heaven and hell are exalted as a spiritualistic punishment/reward system and sin becomes justification for abuse. If you only hadn’t committed this sin, then you could have avoided eternal conscious torment. If only you had loved God enough to avoid this sin then maybe you could have made it to heaven.
Loving God is a lot like being in a loving relationship, but the operative word is love. I do want to please God just as I want to please my wife. But if my actions toward my wife are done in fear of punishment, instead of the love I have for her, then something in the relationship is terribly wrong. Likewise, if your walk with God is based on fear of punishment, then it’s time to reevaluate that relationship as well. Sin is merely a thing that separates us from the love of God, not something that requires punishment.
God is not a punitive, manipulative abuser, but is a loving savior. God is love, and love transcends all hate and fear.
Photo by Dan Wilkinson.
About Alex Camire
Alex Camire is a life-long Christian who currently works in behavioral health and case management and is pursuing a Masters in Social work. He enjoys reading and writing on topics related to religion, science, law, and social justice.