When I’m not writing my own blogs, I often read others and engage in online discussions on similar topics. Julia Sweeney has a forum that grew out of her public discussions of becoming an atheist. Someone in that forum supplied a link that sent me through a wide spectrum of doubt and belief. The link was to another blogger named Greta, defending her anger towards Christians. It made a lot of sense. Her theme was well developed and I could see how even in a non-violent movement, for example the civil rights movement, anger and violence play an important role, such as getting on the national news when your peaceful protest is broken up with night sticks and fire hoses.
She also included an extensive list of what made her angry about Christianity. This included all the killing in the name of God, suppression of birth control, oppression of gays, it was a long list. Then she linked to an earlier list she had created of all the references to hell in the New Testament.
I followed it. I was surprised at its length because I had just read The Gospel of Inclusion by Carlton Pearson, a preacher who suddenly stopped preaching about hellfire and damnation. Greta and I are very different, but we have a similar problem; finding good authors, with good historical, psychological as well as canonical information that are willing to point out the flaws of religion today, without bashing it as a whole. One excellent exception is “Jesus for the Non-Religious” by John Shelby Spong, a retired Bishop.
Having these books in my reading background kept me from being convinced that Jesus wanted me to love him or go to hell, but Greta’s list was strong evidence to the contrary. I had to figure this out for myself. I pulled out my NIV study Bible and started looking them up. I thought I might have to go back to my King James version to match up the language, but no, it was right there, have an evil thought, go to hell. My study Bible is heavily footnoted, so looking there on the first passage in her list, I found the hell in this case was a translation from Gehenna.
Gehenna was a part of Jerusalem in the time of the New Testament. It was what today we would call a bad neighborhood. There was a lot of garbage, sometimes it would catch fire, a lot of thieves hanging around, you get the idea. Just a few generations earlier, that part of Jerusalem had been used to make human sacrifices to Moloch. Moloch was a god who is featured in a story in the book of Isaiah. In other words, this is like a high school football coach today encouraging his players who live in or near the inner city, saying, “work hard, study your playbook, or your going to end up living in the projects the rest of your life.” It may not be the most appropriate motivation, but it certainly is not threatening someone with eternal damnation in a lake of fire.
Continuing on, I started to hit more parables. Some of these seem to say that actual people will be thrown in to actual fires. One of them, the Parable of the Talents, I am very familiar with and have found scholarly articles explaining it and written my own pieces on it. For example, the person who is “cast into the outer darkness” is actually an analogy for a follower of Christ, not an evil person being punished. I did run in to one parable, The Sheep and the Goats, that I could not refute or explain. But there was a time when someone had told me that the Parable of the Talents was about capitalism. It didn’t seem right, so I studied it and can now argue with logic and context and references to authorities that the interpretation is wrong. I can’t say for certain, but I would be willing to bet that I can do the same with the Sheep and the Goats.
I started skipping through the list a little quicker now and then skipped down to the comments. She graciously left commenting open and included her replies. It is an unusually respectful conversation. I was happy to see some very helpful comments. Of course there were others that were the standard, “Jesus is coming, hang in there” response too. In brief, the comments I liked said that you need to watch for “..it is as if” or “..the Kingdom of God is like” and other clues to when a story is a parable, not literal.
Finally, at the bottom of the comments was a refutation of the refutations. This started out by simply re-listing some of the same passages that Greta had and claiming those could not be explained by what the commenters had said. It seemed that the discussion had devolved into contradiction instead of debate, but he provided a link to an essay of his own, so I followed it.
The essay represented a tremendous amount of work and I really felt his pain. What is unfortunate is that he did something that Thomas Jefferson had already done when he created what is now known as the Jefferson Bible. Their conclusions however are very different. The author of this essay found some rules that he thought were pretty difficult to follow, and couldn’t let go of the parables that seem to say you will be thrown in to the fire if you don’t follow them.
I still recommend this essay. Especially if you are atheist, or undecided. One of the problems of researching the Bible is, when reading a seemingly scholarly work, every now and then the author inserts something like, “God in all his glory” or “the one and only true Christ” or similar phrases that don’t seem to fit. This essay definitely does not do that. It does break down what Jesus suggested one do with one’s life in to some very concise lists. He does use some subjective language and sometimes I think he misinterprets, but try to ignore that and decide for yourself if the advice seems reasonable. He also concludes that Jesus was an apocalyptic, and many scholars agree, that’s a little harder to work around, but try to defer that judgment until you have done further study.