"You're not a real Christian. You're going to hell."

The man shouted at me in reply. Above his head stood a banner with the familiar, uncomfortable words many of us have seen: "Judgment is coming. Hell awaits." No mention of Scripture, no mention of Jesus, no mention of the gospel, the cross, the resurrection, or the love and mercy of God. Just a long list of his preferred sins.

"Don't throw your pearls to swine," the ancient proverb reads. The words warned me, but I transgressed the boundary of their warning. I couldn't help myself. Why, after all these years, do these hucksters get under my skin? Why is there such a confrontation in my spirit? I grieve for the people who are walking by, for those standing and listening, for those attempting dialogue. I lament the injustice and harm of his methods. 

"Jesus loves you. Another way is possible. You don't have to do it this way," I told him. "You're not a real Christian. You're going to hell," he replied.

The fear of hell haunted me as a child. Or, what I thought hell was. Or, the idea of hell that was presented in the church of my youth: eternal conscious torment in the flames of a pit separating you forever from the presence of God. Terrifying for a child. While our church and the Christian subculture within which I existed didn't peddle fiery, Bible-beating preachers, the message of hell still came through clearly. Through Sunday School lessons, visiting missionary speakers, the altar calls at the end of a Sunday morning service, the youth rallies, the Halloween weekend 'Heaven or Hell' dramas. 

I was prone to fear and anxiety as a child, so I found myself particularly susceptible to the fear-based tactics of "Avoid hell. Choose heaven. Believe in Jesus." I lost sleep over this. I had sweaty palms at the end of a Sunday morning service while the congregation sang "Just As I Am." Was the song ever going to end? 

And yet, there was also truth, and love, and tenderness. It wasn't just the fear of hell that drew me to Jesus. The old rugged cross. The forgiveness of sins. The awesome holiness of God. The beauty of Jesus laying down his life. The victory of the resurrection. The promise of eternal life. The gentle invitation of "Brother Richard" at the end of the Sunday sermon. Parents and siblings who were on board with Jesus and the story of the Bible.

I didn't want to be left out. I didn't want to be left behind. I didn't want to miss out on something good that might be coming. Heaven sounded better than hell. Everyone else here in this congregation seems to believe. 

Looking back, I do believe the Spirit of God was reaching me through imperfect methods. I often doubt the veracity of my experience as a child. Was I manipulated? Is my faith just religion based in fear? Am I really a Christian? Is God good? Is heaven real? Is hell real? 

I'm still on a journey of unwinding the antagonisms and discarding the impurities. I'm still very much "working out my salvation/healing with fear and trembling," as the apostle Paul writes. I'm searching for the real God and the real Story. I'm searching for what it really means to be a human on this planet. 

I do believe the Hebrew and Christian scriptures tell the truth about existence, and God. The challenge is to really pay attention and hear what is true and real, and what are the cultural add-ons and hermeneutic lenses that need jettisoned. What does the voice of the Spirit of God sound like? What does the voice of accusation, condemnation, and falsehood sound like? 

Someone once said that if you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. I believe that's a good place to start.

I invite you on the journey with me. 


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