christianity redux

August 13, 2001

It continually surprises me the number of people I personally know who are absolutely convinced that I am doomed to eternal Hell.

I have good friends who are born-again Christians who really believe that since I have not willfully accepted Jesus as my savior, I am a goner. A goner for all eternity. Now, the thing about eternity is that it makes what we call this mortal life seem kind of insignificant.

Here’s what I don’t understand: if there are people who are convinced beyond a doubt that I am condemned for all eternity, why be nice to me here? Why not just see my puny mortal life and my big mouth as an obstacle to saving other souls, since I am apparently beyond redemption?

The President of the United States is a born-again Christian. George W. believes with all his heart that I am doomed to eternal hell. As a self-proclaimed saved Christian, George W. has to believe that. The idea that some one can be saved and the rest are doomed is fundamental to his belief system. You may think that I’m paranoid, but the idea that anyone with that much power believes this stuff is scary, because it brings up the question of whether George W. cares about those people who are “damned.”

And, so far, he is being a good exemplar of his belief system. You may have noticed that George W. is alienating most of the other countries in the world, even our friends. Of course he is, because George W. is convinced they are all going to hell, especially France.

My circle of friends is wide and includes born-again Christians. Being curious about everything, we regularly talk about theology, their beliefs and my beliefs, so over the last number of years, I have learned quite a bit about this belief system.

I don’t want to offend any of you, so before I just go off, I want to remind you that I have a number of very good friends who are born agains.

But there are things about this belief system that just don’t make sense or scare the bejeezus out of me.

My life has been dedicated to helping other human beings. It is not that I am without faults, far from it, but I feel safe in saying that I have led a life dedicated to doing good. I’ve helped alleviate the suffering of many people and am a pretty good person.

But according to my friends, none of this matters and I am condemned.

Under their system, even if I was a murderer, rapist or child molester who had spent a lifetime doing harm to others, I would only have to accept Jesus as my savior and all that bad work would be wiped away.

My question is this: is Jesus so lacking in compassion, so harsh in judgment, and (more importantly) so self-centered, that no matter how decent a human being you are, unless you accept Him and only Him as your savior, you are irredeemable?

I have read the New Testament several times. The Jesus described there doesn’t seem like the same person my born-again friends describe.

In the New Testament, it was Jesus who said one of my favorite of all sayings: “Let he among you who is without sin cast the first stone.” I like that Jesus a lot.

Throughout history, there have been billions of human beings who, because of where they lived or the time they lived in, never even heard of Jesus. They didn’t even get to make the choice — so does that mean they’re damned, too? That just doesn’t seem to be very Christian to me.

Another idea that I find very strange is original sin. The word “original” in original sin isn’t referring to some creative endeavor, by the way; it is referring to the idea that the day we are born we are already in hot water.

This goes back to the story of Adam and Eve and how they got kicked out of the Garden of Eden over the apple thing. (There is, I think, a very sexist blame of Eve for the whole affair, but that’s another story.) God says don’t eat the fruit of that tree, but if God didn’t want the fruit of that tree to be eaten, then why was the tree there? All the time, there is no mention of God asking the snake to leave.

The irony for me is that the sin was eating fruit from the tree of knowledge. If that was such a sin, why did God give us a brain?

So here’s the deal: according to this belief system, we are born in sin, always have been, always will be — and if we don’t accept Jesus, then it’s off to Hell we go.

All this just points to the fact that the belief that the bible is literally true inspires a whole host of problems. It is hard for me to believe that folks really believe that they know exactly when God created the whole universe. According to born-again Christians, they know — it was about 6,500 years ago.

I mentioned this to a born-again friend and asked him to explain the fact that we have found all these fossils of things like dinosaurs and ancient peoples that go back millions of years. We know how old these fossils are through highly reliable scientific means. My friend had the usual religious explanation for this. According to him, there is only one possible explanation: God just planted all these fossils for us to find. Kind of like God was giving us a very weird Easter egg hunt.

My friend admitted that he could not explain why God would do this and then headed to the all-purpose response of all religious people: God acts in mysterious ways.

The idea of Armageddon should strike fear in the hearts of anybody who hears about it. But for born-again Christians, this is a time they actually look forward to, because everyone who is saved, they say, will rise up to heaven — leaving the rest of us, well, in deep dodo.

Personally, I have a heck of a time trying to reconcile the fact that Jesus was a committed pacifist who always urged his people away from violence with the notion that all of life is just a vast war between good and evil. My only hope is that Jesus will show up at the end, get between these two armies and bring out the whole “Let he who is without sin” thing. At which point, no doubt, he will be mowed down by a fuselage of bullets fired by both sides.

After Armageddon, all the dead — and I mean the dead going back 2,000 years — will rise from their graves and ascend to heaven. I find this a bit hard to swallow.

Speaking of Armageddon, if it does happen, I am still going to apply for conscientious objector status.

Why am I going off on Christianity today? It was stimulated by a couple of dear friends who are born again. Not long ago, I emailed them — along with my kid and a bunch of friends — a piece that I had written that included some jokes about born-again Christians. My friends emailed me back saying that they were highly offended. I felt that I had been very insensitive in mailing this stuff to them and wrote a sincere apology, but I have not heard from them since.

This whole thing got me thinking about tolerance. Tolerance is our capacity to accept all other human beings for what they are and not be so strung out on the absolute truth of our own particular belief system that we deny others the benefit of our compassion.

This isn’t just about fundamentalist Christians. There are also fundamentalist Jews who are as intolerant as the most intolerant Christians. We all know that there are fundamentalist Muslims who have been responsible for some pretty horrible stuff in the world recently. There are fundamentalist Hindus who occasional slaughter non-Hindus. Personally, I am a Buddhist and I will just mention that there has never, ever been a Buddhist war against anybody.

Why pick on fundamentalist Christianity? I’ll tell you why — because such an irrational system of beliefs scares me. When a belief system demands such total acceptance of its adherents, to the point of denying certain realities, well, then, that really is scary.

Back to tolerance. There is so much pain in the world, and just because we get so attached to our particular beliefs doesn’t mean that we should stop accepting others and their belief systems. I just wish my born-again friends could accept mine and would stop telling me that I am condemned for eternity to the fires of hell.

So I raise this one simple question to my Christian friends: Why do so many of you seem to have such a hard time fully opening your hearts and accepting the rest of us? Given Jesus’ true legacy, how do you justify your sitting in judgment?

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