Bad Theology Harms Kids

If you’re not here for the Christian stuff, please bypass this. As a reminder, I’m a clergy wife and seminarian in my own right. I talk about all things Christian every day of my life.

Last month, I came across a post on Facebook that deeply impacted me. It came from humanist chaplain, Jim Palmer. At one time in his life, he was a pastor at the largest church in North America, but he gave it up because his conscience grated against the contradictions he found in his evangelical church. I would say many of us Christians, especially those of us with ties to the clergy, have similar points of crisis. There’s that famous quote (that’s falsely attributed to Mahatma Ghandi), “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” As an aside, it is probably a play on a quote from Bara Dada that says, “Jesus is ideal and wonderful, but you Christians, you are not like him.” I’m sure you get my point. Churches, which are supposed to be where people come to draw closer to God and find healing, end up perpetuating the same harm that drives people to them in the first place.

I fully admit that I have had many, MANY points of crisis and moments where I turned my back on churches altogether. It’s been a long and difficult journey to find balance between what I know in my heart to be true of God and how much perversity I can accept from Christians. Here is what Jim Palmer had to say about it:

If you think I have responses to these points, you’re absolutely right! His post fired me right up. And, this read goes out to those who delivered cruel messages to me as a child.

  1. Children are not born evil. They are born precious and beloved of God with a predilection to go their own way and use their free will to choose their own path outside of the will of God. But God is gracious and impossibly patient.
  2. Jesus didn’t come here to be brutalized and murdered. The method of his execution was purely the work of free will. Boiled down, the Bible is the story of how death entered the world and was conquered in the resurrection of Christ. Death is the legacy of Adam and Eve. Not sin. Sin is a corruption of the system that was broken when death became a reality.
  3. This is disgusting. We are made in the image of God. God is in each of us. So unless there is nothing good in God, this cannot be true. It’s an unfortunate inheritance of Augustine’s self-loathing. I do agree that we must be wise about our thoughts and feelings. Suicidal ideation is obviously not of God. We grow in wisdom through spiritual disciplines.
  4. The enemy is the author of chaos, fear, and shame yelling half-truths to blot out the light of God in each of us. God is the God of love. God brings us to understanding through inborn conviction that lets us know something is wrong. God is not an accuser. That’s someone else altogether, the Σατανᾶς (​Satanâs).
  5. Hell as a place created for punishment is an innovation. It would have been foreign to early Christians. Hell is a state of being. It’s the experience of God at different points on the journey to salvation. Those who spend this life ignoring spiritual disciplines and/or hating God would necessarily end up rather uncomfortable in God’s presence.
  6. Every person who has walked the earth is beloved of God. It’s utterly disrespectful to section off entire groups of people as untouchables.
  7. God gave us minds to explore our faith. The reason we have a Bible is because of theologians who got together in lengthy council meetings to observe, test, and debate. If we aren’t asking questions, something is wrong. The opposite of faith isn’t doubt. It’s a brittle certainty.

Now, the reason this topic bubbled back up to the surface was because I was horrified to read a post online where a child was terrorized by other children and their warnings of hell as a place for people who are bad. So, let’s talk about hell as a place. Jesus talked about Gehenna in several spots in the New Testament. Gehenna is an actual place on earth where children were sacrificed. Jesus was brought up in a culture that believed that place to be cursed. The area became a garbage-burning dump and sewer. It smelled horrible between the burning garbage (i.e. lake of fire), hot sulfur (i.e. brimstone) from the rich mineral deposits in the area, and sewage, making it the perfect metaphor for a horrible way to spend eternity. We know from Revelation 21-22 that the garbage dump version of Gehenna doesn’t exist in the restored world. It couldn’t because it will be refreshed along with everything else. Which means… we’re all going to be in the same place together. I use this quote from Bishop Irenei Steenberg: “hell is heaven experienced differ­ently.” What we do in this life shapes our eternal experience in ways we don’t yet understand. In other words, stop telling children they’re going to be tortured for eternity if they steal a roll of Lifesavers.

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