Friday, October 05, 2007

The Hellfire and Damnation Church: fact or fiction?

There’s a prevalent sense among Christians right now that one of the Church’s big problems is its judgmental tendencies, the preaching of ‘hellfire and damnation’ instead of ‘grace,’ so to speak.

But I think this is a boogeyman and a straw man. I haven’t seen this or experienced this. Of course there are outliers, people on the fringe like Fred Phelps ( or the guy who drives around town with a bull horn yelling ‘Repent!’

But is this really representative of most Evangelical or Christian churches? I don’t think so; in fact, I believe we’re in a great phase of bending over backwards to not be this way (and, frankly, I’m somewhat suspicious of our motives).

But, maybe I’m wrong, and I’m inviting you to prove to me that the Church is currently so judgmental and hung up on others sins. Send me URLS and links to sources that prove that mainstream Evangelical or Christian groups are like this.



-Dave said...

There may be two valid reasons to set oneself up as not hellfire-and-judgement. One would be if other churches are proclaiming that message. The other would be if that is how churches are perceived. In both cases, I'm assuming that you want to be seen as "not-that-thing."

After all, it's a different sort of boogeyman if it's something the people you need to convince actually believe. After all, a parent doesn't check a child's closet for monsters because he actually believes there are monsters in there, but because the person he needs to convince does believe it.

Given that the author of the cited article, presumably not a Christian, sees "God Squad" members as closed-minded, presumably self-righteous people... I think that option B may be very true.

Kenny said...

Yeah, I think that's a good point, Dave. In other words, it's good to show non-believers that we're NOT this judgmental and hypocritcal stereotype.

So, to some extent, I think I'm trying to address the same issue but by a different way, which is to say "I don't think the stereotype exists as much as is generally believed." So, to use your metaphor, one tactic is to go into the closet to show the child that there's no monster; another is to say 'there's really no such thing as monsters.' (Of course, the tactics can be combined.)

There's a passage in 'Mere Christianity' where Lewis addresses the argument of people who say that they don't even want to go to Heaven because it's silly to believe in angels sitting on clouds playing harps. Lewis' recommendation is to tell this person to come back when they're ready to have an adult conversation.

I perceive people who are hung up on the hypocrisy of the Church to be generally expressing an adolescent attitude, 'rebellious toward the parents.' Mostly they're angry because the parents are telling them they can't do what they want, but in their arguments they focus on picking at the lives of the parents. But the real reason they're angry is the underlying call to live their lives in a certain way. Do their parents legitmately have issues and hypocrisy in their lives? Sure, absolutely. But I don't think it's the primary issue.

(now, I see a real difference between someone who's been molested by a priest, and someone who's never had a real encounter with a priest, but loves to point out that priests molest children)

So, when we allow this issue of hypocrisy to become the scope of the conversation, I think we often indulge a certain type of conversation that is ultimately harmful to the non-believer. By allowing them to fixate on the hypocrisy of the Church, we grant some legitimacy to their fig leafs.
This isn't an absolute; discernment is always required.

ALSO, I really hear a note of self-rigtheousness in Christians who distance themselves from the hypocrisy of other Christians. Is QB Kitna really fit to be judging who isn't a Christian? Is it true, what he says, that everyone who speaks damnation is "not a Christian"? To me, ironically, there's a real specter of self-righteousness and hypocrisy in those who like to call out the other alleged hypocrites and self-righteous: "We're so glad we're not like all you other churches who haven't figured out how not to be such hypocrites and fake Christians..."

So, maybe a person is fit to call out people on their hypocrisy and judgment--but that person better better walk an awfully narrow road either by 1) being actually very righteous themselves, or 2) being very transparent about their own failings. And in the event that one is in the latter category, I see that person having a lot of humility, and it therefore being difficult to get too much gusto in their voice when calling out other Christians and Churches.

Jeff said...

When the public message given by so many evangelical leaders consists of "gays and abortion are evil," it's no wonder evangelical Christianity gets a hellfire-and-brimstone reputation. And the evangelicals who loudly bellow about how Christianity is under attack make y'all look like a bunch of paranoid loonies. This public bluster obscures the fact that grace and forgiveness are more central to most evangelicals' worldview - and, in fact, grace and forgiveness and love can come out of the same mouths as the fire, brimstone, and paranoia. I think anyone whose experience with evangelicals goes beyond reading about James Dobson in the news and having the odd encounter with the fire-and-brimstone street preacher recognizes that compassion is more salient than judgment. It's just that the judgment is what the rest of the world hears.

The question, of course, is whether this is the fault of the evangelical movement's leaders or of the media for distorting said movement... I have a feeling that it's a little of both. The media will fixate on the more bombastic statements coming from evangelical leaders, but the leaders should know this and adjust their rhetoric accordingly if they want the message of love and grace to get out.

Kenny said...

Jeff, you always manage to offer really incisive commentary on Christians, which stands out abit since, of course, you are not a Christian. I guess this is the "dispassionate eye," but even that's unusual as most people are not able to look at another religion objectively.

Anyway - good comments, thanks.

Erin said...

Kenny's heard this story before, but I have a story about the danger of bending over backwards not to offend / come off as judgmental.

One of my friends from school is not a Christian but she's always interested in starting conversations about faith, and she's not afraid to be confrontational. She asks those who identify themselves as evangelical Christians whether we think she's going to hell.

What she wants to hear is our honest opinion, even if according to our belief system it means she's going to hell. She knows the basic beliefs of evangelical Christians (as do most Americans, i think), and she's deeply offended when someone who is supposed to be her friend won't summon the courage to tell her what they believe. She thinks it either means that they don't care enough about her as a friend to try to "save" her, or that they have such a weak faith that they don't really believe it will hurt her if they don't say anything.

I am personally terrified of getting into these conversations because of the risk that I might have to out on a limb, be "judgmental", and say something that someone doesn't want to hear. It's easy to mask my fear by saying that I want to focus on love and grace, but I think it's much more about my cowardice and weak faith than grace. Not that we have to be out on the street corner with a bull horn preaching hellfire and damnation, but it's good to remember that truth is an important part of love and grace.

-Dave said...


You make a good point about self-righteousness, and that we should always be careful in condemning other Christians too hastily. We all need to remember that we are not the arbiter of truth, or the Master to whom our brothers have to give an account. At the same time, there are wolves among the sheep that deserve to be called that. There are messages antithetical to the name of Christ that nevertheless try to use it. And New Testament authors don't mince words when it comes to them.

Jeff was kind enough to reinforce the idea that, when speaking to the public about a topic, it's the public's opinion of the subject you have to address.

So when Kitna speaks of judgement and damnation speakers as "not real Christians," I think it's not meant to say "Preacher X is a False Christian." Rather, it's meant to say "That idea you have about Christians, that's not really the case at all."

I suppose in the end, the best principle remains that we should spend more time talking about what we believe, and less time talking about what others believe and we don't.

Kenny said...

That's a fair summary, Dave.

Ρωμανός ~ Romanós said...

"…we should always be careful in condemning other Christians too hastily." I don't think Dave really meant to say this, because I'm sure he would agree that we should never condemn other Christians (or even other people) at all. The fact that we sometimes do, inadvertantly or even intentionally (goaded by fleshly instinct), still never justifies it.

"…there are wolves among the sheep that deserve to be called that." This does not mean the same thing as condemning them. This is setting up a signpost, a warning, so others will not fall into the same trap. In doing so, we still leave all judgment to God. In this category are "…messages antithetical to the name of Christ that nevertheless try to use it," such as Mormons, New Age cults and the like.

As always, Jeff's comments are wise and to the point. HaShem has really blessed His people Israel with wisdom, especially some of them.

"…we should spend more time talking about what we believe, and less time talking about what others believe and we don't." This is the primary directive in my opinion and hopefully in my practice, and has been since I entered into the life of faith. If you can make a case for the Truth by a life of witness ("preach the good news, using words only when necessary"), that does more damage control against the inroads of false religions and cults than any polemic ever could.

Then, going back to Erin's comment, I was intrigued by the story of the non-Christian student always challenging the Christians as to the outcome of their faith or her lack of it. This is just the sort of person one would expect God to raise up to teach and strengthen His people's witness. We cannot even be sure that she is not a believer. In Orthodox Christianity we sometimes find persons who act or speak in ways that challenge the faithful, sometimes by denying what the "faithful" hold to be true, as a way of testing them. Since we are not allowed to judge anyone, this type of "fool for Christ" acts as a human winnowing fan, to help separate the wheat from the chaff of outward appearances. In some respects I have played this part myself, but not of my own volition.

Good post, good comments, everyone!

-Dave said...


Well said.