On Being Condemned to Someone Else’s Hell

While we were on tour, a woman we know from our travels gave my Russian partner a gift, a copy of The Book of Mormon in the Russian language. He was confused by it. “I have my religion. I am Orthodox,” he said. He had not encountered evangelists before. Although Russia has large populations of different religions: Jewish, Muslim, Russian Orthodox, the religions are considered to be a part of cultural identity, not a lifestyle choice. So there are not a lot of people going around asking anyone to change.

I told him that when someone evangelizes to me, I try to take it this way: She has discovered something meaningful to her and she wants to share it with you. Accept it in that spirit.

Being a Unitarian Universalist born and bred, I fall into a category that Christians are especially prone to want to save. If you are not from one of the non-Christian biggies: Judiasm, Hinduism, Islam, you must not have a religion at all, and somehow you failed to get the memo on the whole Christianity thing.

Of course, UUs do have a religion, community and traditions of our own that we do not feel any particular need to be “saved” from. It’s an understandable mistake though. UUs often describe themselves as agnostic, a word that means “not knowing.”

I am firmly of the belief that 90% of the time when people call themselves “agnostic” it does not mean that they do not know what they believe, it means that they believe something that is not so easily summarized and they don’t want to get into a heavy conversation about it right now.

(As in, “Tell me what you mean by the word ‘God’ and I’ll tell you if I believe in that or not” or “Why are you assuming that belief or non-belief in God is the central spiritual question?”)

I grew up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood before moving to a smallish Ohio town with a mostly Evangelical population. I had many friends who felt they had a duty to save me. Surrounded by Christians, it was the only time in my life when I have felt so harshly judged. One of the stand-out moments was when a neighbor told a friend of mine that she would never have me babysit for her children because I was not Christian, as if “not Christian” were some kind of contagious disease.One evening, she must have been desperate because she called and asked if I would watch the kids. She instructed me that when I put them to bed I should say a prayer with them and sing “Jesus loves me.” I had no problem with that. When I told my friend, who also sat for them, about it later she said, “They never have me do that.”

Another stand-out moment was when I mentioned to a friend’s mother that I did not like hot dogs and she gave me a 10 minute lecture about how when the Rapture came I would have to eat whatever there was, so I had better get used to it. Then she put a plate of hot dogs down in front of me.

For many years after this experience, any time I saw a picture of Jesus, a cross or a Bible verse on someone’s wall, it seemed to scream at me: “You are an outsider. You are not one of us. You are not welcome. We know you are dangerous and immoral. We think we’re better than you.”

I was hardly devil spawn, just a shy, bookish kid.

It is a shame that I developed this aversion. For the past few years I have become fascinated with the New Testament. It took many years before I could stop feeling a bit threatened by the Christian text and fully claim that interest as my own.

It’s a strange thing being damned to someone else’s Hell.

As I recently explained to a Baptist friend of mine, Universalists (that’s the second U in UU) believe in universal salvation. That’s where the word comes from. It’s a contradiction for a Universalist to be afraid of Hell.

My friend was shocked by this because she’d been fairly certain that both of the Us in UU stood for “Believe whatever you want.”

In any case, when someone condemns you to a Hell you don’t believe in, it tells you much more about the person doing the damning than it does about the future of your immortal soul.  If a Christian friend admits that she thinks I will go to Hell after I die, it is not a big problem because that’s not a reality for me. But it does hurt my feelings that she would be fine with the idea that I would spend all of eternity enduring the most foul and painful torture she could imagine for the sin of failing to hold the same opinion she does.

(There was an odd moment in Inside Man on CNN the other night in which Morgan Spurlock quizzed a mega-church pastor on the idea that non-Christians were damned. Spurlock asked the pastor whether Gandhi was in Heaven or Hell. This is a non-sequitur when speaking about a Hindu whose cosmology is based on and endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth.)

Not being Christian, a friend once assured me, “doesn’t make you a bad person.”

Why on Earth would I think it did? If I thought what I believed made me a bad person I would believe something else.

(I was reading the first Epistle of Peter the other day and it struck me that Peter’s community was responding to just such a situation. The Gentiles mistrusted these strange Jesus worshippers. “How do we know you’re moral if you don’t worship our gods or join in our rituals?” Peter’s response was that they had to be the most moral, upstanding people around so no one could have any doubt. It is a position modern Christians rarely find themselves in any more.)

This was the confusing message I got from a lot of my Christian friends growing up, “I think you’re a good person. I love you. And you’re going to burn in Hell.”

Although I love the Bible and think it’s important for a lot of reasons, I do not take it as literal, infallible or as a divine instruction manual for life. I don’t think it works all that well when you try to read it as a rule book. What is the moral of the story of Lot and his wife supposed to be?  There are a lot of people who consider themselves to be Christians who agree with this notion.

A Christian friend who does not recently asked me “How can you know right from wrong if you don’t follow the Bible?”

I knew better than to go into the rather long history of people using the Bible itself as justification for all manner of foul deeds. I didn’t even want to get into the “how to interpret the book” discussion. Instead I asked this: “Are you saying that if it weren’t for the ten commandments, you would not know not to kill people?”

I was a bit shocked when she said, “Yes.”

I said something like, “Really? Huh.”  What I was thinking was, “I hope you never convert, then.”

I can’t agree that Christians have cornered the market on wisdom and morality and that only their book contains the true rules for life.

I do not think all religions are essentially one in different forms, but I do believe that they point to universals. Can you imagine a religion that made a virtue of non-compassion over compassion or a lack of love over love?

Here’s the thing, in my experience the big moral problem is not actually that people don’t know right from wrong. The problem is that they do know and they fail to do it anyway.

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