In what is often seen as the most famous sermon in American history, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741) Jonathan Edwards paints this vivid portrait of our Father in Heaven;
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.
Jesus told us to spread the Good News. He told us that people would know us by our love for one another. Jesus was a man of forgiveness, peace, compassion, non-violence – love. When asked what God the Father was like, he told his disciples that because they knew him they would know the Father, that they could see the Father by seeing him. He called our Father abba, or daddy.
Of course, God the Father is not a man in flowing robes with long curly blond hair, light complected and with blue eyes. (Neither was Jesus) But you get my point. And we should get Jesus’ point as well. The only part of the Father that Jesus could reveal to us was that of God’s nature, his ‘personality’. He did this through what he said and more importantly what he did, especially what he did for us on the cross.
So why have we had to endure the terrifying and vile language of those such as Edwards and his spawn? Of course, Edwards was not alone. Many, perhaps most, leaders in the Christian (and Muslim) church have preached of hell and damnation. The medieval Roman Catholic church was so obsessed with God the torturer and inquisitor that they nobly and piously followed his ‘example’. At the First Great Awakening (1730-1740) there was a great upsurge in Protestant fire and brimstone rhetoric which has lasted to this day, though there have been those who have long stood apart from this philosophy, such as the Quakers.
Rabbis Michael Shevack and Jack Bemporad, in a book called “Stupid Ways, Smart Ways, to Think About God”, have coined the phrase “Marquis de God”. They suggest that he’s regarded by many as the ‘proverbial God of wrath, ready to show how much he cares by punishing you, the Marquis de God, despising sinners so much he exterminates them”.
(Not very long ago there was a church convention being advertised on the radio, a convention devoted to discussing the qualities of hell. Somehow their researchers had determined that the fires of hell burned at more than 2,000,000 degrees Fahrenheit! Yet no one would die in those flames, they would merely burn like candlewicks for all eternity. What type of monster is their God?)
But where do we get these crazy ideas? Even more importantly, why do we embrace them?
I don’t believe it is because of anything that is expressly stated within the Bible. Many of these hellish concepts are not biblical in the least, having been tacked on throughout the ages. I have heard many say that this is the result of a natural tendency on our part to project ourselves onto the nature of the deity, subconsciously endowing him with all the malevolent characteristics that we naturally abhor in ourselves and others. But, I think it is more sinister than that.
Throughout history there have been leaders – pharoahs, kings, queens, presidents, dictators- who have been more than willing to stretch the truth beyond any rational breaking point merely to maintain their rule of authority. This is a natural tendency of man and we know that power will almost always corrupt the powerful. Jesus’ message always stressed the strength in our weaknesses, our brokenness above the whole and strong. Yet the Church has always had a way of forgetting that particular thread that runs through the Gospels and even the Bible as a whole. The Church becomes strong and rules the rulers of the western world. Even after splintering into 10,000 limbs that live apart from each other, each individual denomination strives for dominance over the others. Our leaders become popular, powerful, rich and famous, bending the ears of millions as well as those who rule those millions.
Like all leaders who begin to doubt their abilities to govern based upon the merits of their philosophies, they inevitably resort to fear as the primary incentive for loyalty. In the past the Church has used the threat of horrifying torture, both in this world and in the next, to keep people in line. Protestants generally have relied solely upon the threat of eternal torment in the after-life(although they have been known to burn a heretic or two themselves).
“As the souls of heretics are hereafter to be eternally burning in hell, there can be nothing more proper than for me to imitate the divine vengeance by burning them on earth.”
~ “Bloody” Mary, Queen of England, 1553-1558
Today the stick is still used more often than the carrot. Sure Joel Osteen and friends preach the Gospel of prosperity, but they are only using reverse psychology. If you don’t do things their way you will not only miss out on prosperity but you will very likely remain mired in the trap of poverty. Even some elements of the liberal wing of the Church have found success in using scare tactics to meet their agenda, using the threat of global warming to frighten people into embracing a socially active Gospel.
To what good is it to preach the Gospel if we are not at least trying to live the Gospel? And how are we living the Gospel, how are we emulating Jesus, when we bully and scare people into turning towards God? How many of us, because of this style of ‘evangelizing’ know the message with our heads but not by heart?
When it comes to spreading the Good (or the Bad) News it would appear that the messenger may actually be the message.