Every few weeks or so, I get an email that begins something like this:
“I’m concerned that your journey through Project Conversion has led you down the path to Hell. Jesus said he was the only way to the Father. Repent and save your soul from eternal damnation.”
I don’t argue with these folks, in fact I invariably thank them for their concern and wish peace upon them. Usually when we kindly dismiss a door-to-door salesperson, they move on and everyone is left unscathed, however the folks that approach me persist. When offering the love of Christ or the mercy of God fails, their presentation immediately devolves into threats of Hell and eternal damnation, as if fear will convince me over love.
It’s difficult reading these emails because I was once this way with others. In my days of bitter anti-theism, I would have quickly joined the argument and blasted their very concept of Hell with information regarding its gradual, trans-religious development along with other fallacies, but that’s not something I abide any longer. If Hell gives you peace, go for it.
But not every Christian who approaches me with Heaven acts in this way.
Buddy is an 80+ year old Jehovah’s Witness who visits my home about every two weeks. He’s dropped by since summer of 2011 and I look forward to our chats. We talk about what he believes, his family, grand kids, and the history of our county. He isn’t preaching to me, he is simply living out his Christianity with kindness. He’s sharing, not shoving.
I attend daily Mass at the local Catholic church every week simply because I find the quiet space a peaceful, meditative environment where I might contemplate the life of Christ and his teachings. No one there tries to convert me.
My close Protestant friends here also share their faith through love and action.
In other words, they are being the light Christ spoke of instead of a probing and intrusive flashlight. That said, I believe we can go farther.
Many of today’s preachers speak of Heaven as something distant, something we hope for following our deaths (if we’ve accepted Christ), and although that may be the case, Jesus spoke often of its imminence as well.
“From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.“–Matthew 4: 17
“The time has come,” Jesus said, “The kingdom is near. Repent and believe the good news!“–Mark 1:15
That was about 2,000 years ago. How “near” was this kingdom then and how much nearer is it now?
Jesus and his disciples following his death frantically preached about the kingdom as if it were something that would manifest any moment, often terrifying converts into submission. It’s a tactic that worked then, and I suppose if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
But what if this “kingdom” wasn’t simply a place, but a state of being? What if Hell is the same thing? Many of our world faiths/philosophies speak of a similar transformation. For the traditions of India, we might loosely see this as a transition from the world of Maya (illusion and the realm of separation) to nirvana or enlightenment. Could this be what Christ was hinting at? Seeing the world in a whole new way, in the way that he spoke about in the Beatitudes?
What if Heaven and Hell weren’t places of eternal bliss or damnation only, but constructs here and now? In the Zarathushti faith, humanity is a partner with Ahura Mazda in conquering evil and bringing about frashokereti, the world as it should be. What if this “kingdom” was something we entered into once we awakened to the teachings of Christ? When we build this kingdom, we are doing it brick-by-brick with selfless love, compassion, and giving.
How does preaching fire and condemnation fit into that mix?
If we continue to mistreat our fellow creatures, Hell will not be a place that awaits the wicked dead, but a dungeon we build for ourselves while we yet live.
The new evangelism is therefore what St. Francis of Assisi said it was: actions more than words. Indeed, more people will rally to your message if you bear your religion like a self-spoken garment instead of some virulent pathogen.
What if we truly lived out the tenants of our faiths for one day without saying a word? What if we allowed God to speak for him/her/itself in the hearts of those we meet? Are you humble enough to excuse yourself from the conversation when the time comes or will you insist upon remaining the third wheel?