In the churches of Christ, our religion was never really about heaven. Oh, we talked about it all the time, but really, it was unattainable. Instead, we lived under the self imposed threat of hell and condemnation.
We had a long list of things that snatched heaven away from our grasp:
First, if you weren’t a true member of the Church of Christ, you couldn’t go to heaven. Baptists were condemned. So were the Methodists, Catholics, Pentecostals, and then all those other heathen religions on the other side of the world.
The Bible was the Word of God to be taken literally and if you didn’t believe in it the way we believed in it, you were going to hell.
The only valid baptism was to be dunked completely in water and only then were you saved–until you had an impure thought, which is a sin as bad as murder, and made you condemned again.
Instrumental music in worship would send you to hell.
You couldn’t drink, dance, or let boys and girls swim together.
And no looking at women with lust in our hearts. That one pretty much sunk me.
I knew I wasn’t going to make it to heaven although I kept trying year after year, along with my fellow church members, but it was pretty hopeless. However, we each kept our doubts to ourselves because we were supposed to be positive that we were going to heaven, which added another layer of craziness to the mix.
We went out into the world sharing this message of “Good News.” I’m astounded that anyone could be persuaded to accept a way of life that guarantees their condemnation. But I’m sorry to say we made converts. It makes me think of Jesus words:
You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to…. You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.
–Matthew 23:13-15 NIV
When I got to college, I stumbled into teachings that said although we were all sinners, Jesus’ sacrifice made it possible to be forgiven and allowed into heaven. I remember the relief flooding through me when I realized I’d been let off the hook and was delivered from the fear of spending eternity in a place seven times hotter than the sun.
That was the message I preached to my churches. I vowed to be a minister that made heaven available to everyone. I told the stories of Jesus touching lepers and saving prostitutes. I chose scriptures that emphasized the concepts of grace, forgiveness, and redemption. Sometimes I was criticized for talking too much about grace and not enough about condemnation, which made me proud because I was proclaiming truth in the face of persecution–if people being snotty to me could be called persecution.
It took an incredibly long time for me to see the flaw of a god circumventing his own wrath through a human sacrifice in order to offer his kindness to humanity. Eventually, I decided hell just didn’t fit in a context of God loving everyone unconditionally. Finally, I rejected the whole idea of deity and religion.
I guess I’ve come full circle. I’m still not going to heaven but I’m no longer afraid.