“I need to ask you something,” I said, my eyes fixed on the graveled path beneath our feet.

“Do you think I’m going to Hell?”

Kate paused, leaving only the sound of buzzing cicadas. She inhaled sharply and said, “Yes.”

Kate and I had met years earlier while volunteering for Teens Encounter Christ (TEC)—a program that sponsored weekend church retreats for high school-aged youth—at a planning meeting for an upcoming retreat.

After brief introductions, I was called to the front of the room to do a practice run of a reflection I’d agreed to share during the next retreat. Practice talks were done in front of all of the volunteers, and since mine was a reflection on my struggles with being queer, it meant I was coming out to the entire TEC community—many of whom I’d never met before that day.

I was terrified about how this group of Christians would respond. But to my delight, I received a lot of support after the talk. Among the first to approach me was Kate.

Though we were strangers before that day, we became friends in the way some people fall in love; our connection was immediate and intense.

We shared secrets, developed intricate inside jokes, and overindulged in peanut butter-covered Oreo cookies. She supported me as I came out to friends and family; when my first boyfriend and I broke up after his deeply religious parents discovered our relationship, she sat with me and prayed for his safety. To thank her, I made a mix CD featuring the Ben Folds Five song “Kate,” which sings the praises of a woman named Kate. The song’s joyous refrain: “I wanna be Kate!”

And I did. I wanted to be as kind and courageous as she was.

After high school, we went to the same college—but once there, things began to change. When my religion professors challenged me to critically reflect on what I believed and why I believed it, I started asking difficult questions and eventually realized I was actually an atheist.

As I drifted away from Christianity, Kate and I drifted apart. I began to feel that we were too different; that some of her beliefs ran counter to my ideas about the world.

I started to shut her out, dismissing her sincere questions and convictions because, on some level, I felt I had outgrown the beliefs she still held dear. The beliefs we once shared—the faith that brought us together—was replaced by contrast and contradiction.

Eventually, we decided to talk about this shift. We went to a park and started walking, giving one another permission to ask or say anything. We spent hours circling that lake; I kept pushing at her and challenging her. She responded patiently and thoughtfully.

After our third lap around the lake, I asked if she thought I was going to Hell. At first she said yes. But after a minute of silence, she admitted that she didn’t know whether or not I would go to Hell because only God knows that—but if she had to guess, the Bible says that no one comes to the Father except through the Son.

I told her that I don’t believe in Hell so it didn’t really matter, and I meant it. But it still stung. My best friend thought I might spend all of eternity in Hell. I was hurt.

“It hurts me, too,” she said. “I don’t want us to spend the afterlife apart, and I certainly don’t want you to suffer.”

The conversation stretched past the park into the parking lot, and we sat in her car for another hour until we couldn’t talk about it anymore. Though stationary, we were still going in circles.

“I need time to think about this,” I said. Can I really be friends with someone who thinks I might be going to Hell for all of eternity? I thought.

Over the next few years, we revisited the conversation. We decided to trust one another and to treat one another with respect. And as time went by, we got better at talking about it. We developed a kind of understanding, and learned to accept the discomfort of disagreement. This ongoing discussion challenged us to be honest, listen, and learn from one another.

A couple of years ago, Kate got engaged. We discussed it excitedly, and then she asked, “Will you be in our wedding?”

It would of course be a religious ceremony, she explained. Her father, a Lutheran pastor, would officiate.

“But, if you’re comfortable with being in a Christian wedding, we’d like you to give the one reading we’ve selected that isn’t from the Bible,” she said. “It’s important to us to have you in our ceremony, and that you can participate in a way that’s true to what you believe.”

I was moved by her sensitivity and said yes. It was a beautiful wedding.

Earlier this year, Kate reached out to me on my birthday to share some exciting news: She and her husband are expecting a child. I couldn’t be happier, because I can confidently say that no matter who that child is or what she or he believes, Kate will love and accept that person wholeheartedly.

We still don’t see eye to eye about the afterlife, and that can feel uncomfortable at times. But our love for one another in the here and now trumps that disagreement. Her continued presence in my life is a reminder that it sometimes pays to be patient in the pursuit of understanding.

55 Comments

  1. Chris – I greatly appreciate this article for its honesty and vulnerability. It also reflects the best in people who differ on deep, heart felt issues. Understanding, friendship, respect…all good things. I would differ with you also along the same lines as Kate, but this kind of interaction shows what is possible. Thanks for the article.

  2. Chaplain Norman Martin

    Chris I agree that Kate is special. She never left your friendship even though she was and stayed with her belief in Christ. Something is to be said for her Lutheran pastor father. He must have known you are gay. It was great to read that neither of you gave up your friendship because of differences of belief or not believing.
    Many will disagree with me, but this is my own personal belief, God believes in you. He, in my opinion, sees your loving heart as is evident in your writing. Kate and her husband will love that baby and I know you will too.

  3. The Great God Pan

    “Can I really be friends with someone who thinks I’m going to Hell for all of eternity?”

    Why not? You can be friends with someone who physically abuses you, or who lies to you and steals from you, or who thinks it’s funny to humiliate you in front of others.

    So of course you can be friends with someone who thinks you DESERVE to burn in fire and be tortured for eternity (*). Perhaps a more pertinent question you could have asked yourself would have been, “What is it that drives me to want to be friends with someone who thinks of me in this horrible way?” You can still try to find the answer.

    (*) And she must necessarily think you deserve it, unless of course she thinks her God is an unjust God. What a conundrum her beliefs place her in, eh?

    • I agree. Forget about the nature of faith and consider the nature of friendship. Loving, intimate relationships should be built on mutual respect and admiration. Chris clearly has both for Kate, but can we same that Kate is a good friend to Chris? I don’t think so. If she really genuinely believes that Chris is so flawed and sinful that he deserves to be tortured for all time, I think she’s dehumanizing and disrespecting his dignity as a human being.

  4. Chris, you have waaaaaaaay more tolerance for this kind of stuff than I do. I’ve maintained an occasional friendship with a conservative religious person or two over the decades but inevitably, I find that the relationship becomes strained, distant, and slowly fades into irrelevance.

    “I need time to think about this,” I said. Can I really be friends with someone who thinks I might be going to Hell for all of eternity? I thought.

    The questions that pop into my mind are somewhat different: “Can I really be friends with someone who loves a violent entity who punishes non-believers and queer people with eternal torture? Can I really be friends with someone who supports a religion which dehumanizes queer people and non-believers as being worthy of never ending violence and suffering?”

    Earlier this year, Kate reached out to me on my birthday to share some exciting news: She and her husband are expecting a child. I couldn’t be happier, because I can confidently say that no matter who that child is or what she or he believes, Kate will love and accept that person wholeheartedly.

    Hmmm. Yes, but she’ll be bringing that child up in a faith that teaches bigotry against others. What if her child turns out to be queer, for example? You and I both know the horrific levels of self-hatred and pain that growing up in a homophobic religious environment inflicts upon queer kids. When you actively and willingly expose your child to bigotry on a regular basis, love only goes so far. Love starts to ring hollow. It becomes a travesty: it degrades into a love which binds, enslaves, and destroys from within.

    I think I understand your mission to reach out to even the hardest cases in the wide spectrum of religious beliefs out there. On some level, I admire that steadfastness and openness. Nevertheless, I worry that you sometimes look past the impact of some of these beliefs because these relationships and this mission are so important to you. I’m hoping you aren’t. It’s important to maintain a sense of realism regarding the levels of emotional pain and violence that religious bigotry inflicts upon so many of us.

    • Please don’t lump all Christians as people who hate gays. Our belief says we should love all people and treat them with respect. All we should do is point out that we believe it is a sinful activity and pray that the holly spirit goes to work.

      No different than someone who lives with a woman out of wedlock.

      I know you have probably been treated poorly by Christians and I was probably guilty of it in the past as well but that wasn’t the Christian part of me, that was the human part of me that feels uncomfortable with things than are different from what I believe or know.

      • Does your version of Christianity teach gay/bi kids that they deserve everlasting torture if they choose to actively love others of the same sex? Does it teach trans kids that their identification as a sex other than the one they were assigned at birth is grounds for violence and butchery at your god’s bidding?

        Because if you do, I most certainly will lump you in with the part of Christianity that abuses their kids with this horrific belief system. If this is where you are coming from then both you and your religion are engaging in the spiritual and emotional abuse of children. I’ll be blunt here, in my book, that makes someone a rotten parent. Abusing a child is inexcusable. You are damaging your child in a way they will likely carry for the rest of their lives. You should be ashamed of yourself.

        And, if that upsets you and makes you angry, I make no apologies. Challenge the violence embedded in so much of Christian theology, reform the bigotry that is enforced by religious institutions, and call out the clergy on it’s promulgation of spiritual violence and abuse. Until then, you can cry about being unfairly judged for all to hear and yet, your words will continue to be empty lies… to yourself and all who surround you.

        And last, but not least, there are plenty of churches that now work for justice in LGBT issues. The LGBT abusing variant of Christianity isn’t the only show in town anymore. Other churches have retired their bigoted theology and have made it known that they support the LGBT members of their community and honor the lives they live. I actually respect those Christians.

        • They support members but not how they live. Another example, at my church there are people that live together out of wedlock, I love them and they are members but I don’t support the lifestyle either.

          FYI, we ALL deserve everlasting torture. We all live against God’s plan for us, Christians who single out gays need to take a hard look at their own lives before they start throwing stones.

          • The fact that you believe all of humanity and yourself deserve everlasting cruelty and pain doesn’t make your god or your variant of Christianity any more humane. Read my response to Larry Meza. It applies equally as well here.

            Several things come to mind:
            1) Your variation of Christianity assigns a social/spiritual/religious stigma to homosexuality/bisexuality that designates those orientations as inferior to heterosexuality. Prejudice in its most fundamental form is a belief that assigns inferior status to a group of people. When this prejudice is widely held by a more powerful group (i.e. heterosexuals), this forms the foundation of social oppression. These beliefs and attendant behaviors are unacceptable as they serve to reenforce a larger social hierarchy that is deeply injurious to LGBT people. In other words, your religion serves as a source of institutional violence against LGBT people. No amount of professed love and understanding can change the impact of your religion’s dehumanization of LGBT people as an inferior class.

            2) Your portrayal of your god renders him/her as a brutal, abusive figure who uses a false notion of divine love to justify hurting all who exist under their authority. Universal violence makes this no more appealing. Rather, it begins to take on the scope of divinely ordained oppression and genocide.

            3) The fact that you accept universal abuse as normal and acceptable renders your sense of ethics as deeply questionable.

            4) I know the standard response here: free will, denial of your god’s love and guidance, etc. By your own body of religious literature and legends, your god created all that exists and is all knowing. Hence he/she created humanity knowing that they would be subject to everlasting torture. Your god is responsible for all existence and all of its inhabitant. Hence, s/he is responsible for the everlasting torture of humanity. This makes your god an individual who knowingly and willingly inflicts suffering upon those in a subordinate position.

            5) Don’t even attempt to assert that Christianity has formed the source of the ethics I’m judging it by. If your variant of religion calls out for the humane, loving treatment of others and yet endorses widespread violence and suffering by authoritarian decree, your system of ethics is clearly self-contradictory and either needs to be reformed or discarded as harmfully irrelevant. Empathy is something that generally comes naturally to human beings. Collectively endorsing universal suffering requires a long history of institutional dogma and oppression. Quite frankly, it is insulting to suggest that my sense of ethics has anything to do with such a twisted notion of right and wrong.

          • @Steve,

            “we ALL deserve everlasting torture.”

            What the hell is wrong with you?

          • “we ALL deserve everlasting torture”? That’s just insane! No one “deserves” torture, for 10 minutes, or eternity. Comments like this make it hard to offer any religious person a modicum of respect.

      • @Steve,

        YOU have decided, as many Christians do, to look only at the love in the message of Jesus.

        But this is the message of Jesus, “Believe in me or die.”

        “Love your enemies”
        “But hate and execute mine” – Jesus (Luke 19:27)

        If love were the message of Jesus
        there would not have been any need
        for Chris Stedman’s wonderful article above.

          • Jesus IS the Nobleman of the story – and it is Jesus telling the Parable.

            In the future, read your Sunday School companion literature. Jesus is explaining how he will return in final judgement AS the nobleman.
            Jesus is saying exactly what he say he is saying:

            “bring to me those enemies of mine who would not have me as their King and execute them in front of me.”
            – Jesus (Luke 19:27)
            Parable of the 10 Minas

  5. Based on the article, Christ has indeed maintained a friendship with Kate. I wonder how he feels now that you have thoroughly maligned and demeaned a friend and characterized her in such nasty terms?

    • I can just as easily make the same statements about a number of friends and loved ones from across the decades in my life. I say this as someone who eventually had to leave my own family behind after decades of nastiness. Recognizing the potential for abuse is not a maligning of character. It’s a matter of protecting oneself and others from harm. Those you love can hurt you the most because that love opens up a deeper vulnerability.

      I’ve know this abuse personally. I hope you’d understand that this comment isn’t made with malicious intent. This is the experience of so many LGBT people in this world. It’s a sad reality but until things truly change for the better, terrible sacrifices sometimes need to be made.

      Another problem—one that is central to this matter—is that religion so often abuses people: socially, politically, emotionally, spiritually, and sometimes physically. People have to leave their spiritual/religious communities behind because of this abuse. That’s an incredibly painful experience but it’s a necessary one for survival and well being. That too is a sad reality.

      So, again. I’m not being malicious. I’m not maligning people. I’m pointing out this stuff because of the pain that widespread prejudice and certain variants of religion inflict upon people on a daily basis… across the world… in almost every culture.

      • There is no middle ground on this one Timberwraith, and there’s no use of any of us sugarcoating the situation. Ultimately, one either believes Jesus (who offered the most information about the reality of Hell) and the rest of the Bible, or one simply doesn’t believe it. You accept it, or you reject it.

        That’s going to affect any relationship. It cannot be helped. There’s a lot of pressure being put on Bible-believing Christians to water down or even abandon what they believe. Some have succumbed to the gay pressure tactics. That only makes things worse. A lot worse.

        But, even with all the love and caring and empathy and communication that only a family or close friend can offer, the Bible still says what the Bible still says.

        Jesus’ words in John 3:16 are still followed by Jesus’ words in John 3:17-18, and there’s just no sugarcoating any of His words. 1 Cor. 6:9-11 still exists for homosexuals and heterosexuals alike. Period.

        Jesus loves everybody and never hates on anybody. But Jesus is not a universalist. Jesus is not an atheist. Jesus is not a supporter of gay marriage. Jesus says Hell and Hell-fire actually exists, and never stops.

        So people have to make a choice about Jesus, and then that choice impacts their relationships. And their final destiny as well.

        • Jesus loves you. Jesus doesn’t hate you. But be sure to toe the line or Jesus’ dad is going to incinerate you in a lake of fire for ever after.

          You teach this horror story to little children to frighten them into conforming to your religion. Shame on you.

          You’re correct. There is no middle ground. Your version of Christianity is barbaric.

          • Then Jesus’s version of Christianity is simply “barbaric”, to use your term.

            Because it’s Jesus who is talking about the description of Hell in Luke 16. It’s Jesus who is commenting about what happens if the offer of John 3:16 is rejected, in verses 17-18.

            It’s Jesus who says He’ll judge all the nations someday (in Matt. 25) and assign some people to a place of everlasting fire.

            If Barbaric Jesus is wrong about all that, or if the Bible is simply fictional and inaccurate like all the skeptics say it is, then you need not follow Him at all. You can pat yourself on the back for getting rid of Barbaric Jesus and his falsehoods.

            But if Barbaric Jesus is right about it, if He is telling the truth about it, if he is even HALF correct about the matter of people’s final destinies….then many people have some serious choices to make, and Christians better NOT be joining the skeptics in calling the Bible or Jesus a liar. Period.

            Meanwhile, I can apologize sincerely for the evil deeds and pain caused by Christians in the past. I’m sure other Christians have had to apologize for my past wrongdoings as well. It’s all too easy for all of us — no exceptions — to do things that hurt others.

            But that doesn’t change the salvation and healing that Jesus is offering to everybody. Nor does it change the spiritual situation Jesus is trying to warn us about.

          • But if Barbaric Jesus is right about it, if He is telling the truth about it, if he is even HALF correct about the matter of people’s final destinies….then many people have some serious choices to make, and Christians better NOT be joining the skeptics in calling the Bible or Jesus a liar. Period.

            And here we have the usual threats of divine violence which far too many Christians rely upon to frighten people into conformity with their religion. Do you have any notion of how awful this sounds? You make your religion sound like a divine pit of blood vengeance. You make yourself sound like a person who would follow institutional authorities to the most bloody of ends, no matter how horrific nor how inhumane the command. That’s not a sign of moral righteousness. That’s a sign of moral weakness.

            Here’s the bottom line: if your Jesus says that unending agony is a just outcome for the majority of the Earth’s populace—far exceeding 5 billion souls when all of human history is taken into account—then your Jesus is, by definition, a violent and terrible man.

            But, in all fairness, I should try to come from a place of compassion and say this in Jesus’ defense. Jesus lived in a land that was being crushed by the imperial might of the Roman Empire. It’s unrealistic to treat an entire nation of people as living refuse and not expect the people to respond with collective rage. Violence begets violence. People do what they can to protect their families and their communities. That such collective rage is reflected in some of Jesus’ words is hardly surprising. He was, after all, not the only messiah to rise up in Judea. Messiahs were remarkably common in Judea and essentially assumed the role of divinely ordained revolutionaries who rose up to oppose the Roman occupation. They were the living, breathing opposition to imperial oppression and they used theology as a weapon in opposing the injustice of Roman butchery.

            However, once all of this was distorted by Christian legend and mythology, we see only shards of the original revolutionary fervor in the story of Jesus’ ministry and thus, the original historical context is largely obscured.

            If I had grown up under the horrific violence of the Roman Empire in ancient Judea, I too might have become a person who called for eternal vengeance. There but for the grace of fate, time, and circumstance go I.

            Meanwhile, I can apologize sincerely for the evil deeds and pain caused by Christians in the past. I’m sure other Christians have had to apologize for my past wrongdoings as well. It’s all too easy for all of us — no exceptions — to do things that hurt others.

            No exceptions? If there are truly no exceptions, then you will stop the emotional abuse inherent in threatening your children with stories of having their flesh burned off in the afterlife. Until then, your apology is meaningless because you are still promulgating the emotional abuse which I suffered as a child. Save your regret for a time when you accept that your behaviors hurt others and you are willing to change for the better.

            Until then, you are hurting children. And if you are one of those Christians who professes heterosexual supremacy, you are also leading young LGBT people to depression, suicide, and self-hatred.

            You are destroying lives because you can’t see through the violence of a 2000 year old religious text which distorts history. Instead, you are valuing the pages of a book and your own philosophies of the intangible over a child’s life. You are allowing generations of religiously instituted fear to control you and manipulate you into hurting others.

            This is not love, Doc Anthony. This is fear and violence wearing a theological mask.

        • Where does Jesus say that hell”fire” exists? Maybe you are referring to the parable (which is a short story to teach a moral or truth) which Jesus used referring to the rich man and Lazarus? It was NOT literal but represented 2 different groups of people, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day (Scribes & Pharisees), who did not spiritually feed the people of his day (the Lazarus group), but burdened them with their own traditions. Jesus provided the Lazarus group with the spiritual food they needed; and the rich man ended up with no spiritual food or riches. Jesus himself, the son of God, was asleep in death in hell (the common grave of mankind, where there is no fire or torment), before God resurrected him from death 3 days after his death. There is NO hell”fire”.

          However, those who are wicked or refuse to believe in Jesus or his Kingdom, of which he is King, will face death with no hope of resurrection (referred to as Gehenna and the lake of fire in the Bible), symbolic of eternal “destruction”(what happened to all wicked ones in the days of Noah).

    • One more thing. I remember spending much of my time in grade school living in mortal fear of burning in hell at the hands of an angry, vengeful god… because I was transgender… because I felt an attraction to both sexes. I know personally and deeply the kind of damage this abuse inflicts upon a child. I endured years of depression, anger, and self hatred and that flowed directly out of my experience with Christianity and the prejudices it instilled in the culture I grew up in. I dread the prospect of other children going through this madness.

      So again, the threat is real. The emotional and spiritual abuse is real. I live with the scars. It’s a small miracle I survived the meat grinder of 70s and 80s mainstream Christianity without eventually killing myself. Now the threat is more limited to conservative Christianity but nevertheless, the problem remains.

      So, are these maligning and demeaning words? No. Absolutely not. These are words born of pain and a recognition of where that pain came from.

  6. Sorry that your path was so difficult and hard Timberwraith. I thought the article showed that despite the very real abuses out there, here is a case of something better. Even within religion there are often only a few who truly live out the ideals they propose to believe. It seemed to me that the girl in the article, Kate, was in fact one of those rare birds (Chris too) who reflects something more than the typical. I find that inspiring and worth emulating.

    • If the friend in question didn’t embrace religious beliefs which include hell for queer people and/or non-believers, I wouldn’t have much of a problem and I might agree with you, but teaching your kids that some people should be subject to violence and agony for all eternity is a really, really, BIG problem. That’s not loving or caring, regardless of what religious rationalization you might pile on top of it.

      • Chris Stedman

        I’m traveling this week, but I’d like to quickly offer two important things that I think should be taken into consideration: 1) She said she doesn’t know for sure whether or not I will go to Hell, and it’s a conversation we’ve revisited a number of times since. There’s a lot of nuance to her position, which is hard to capture in such a short piece. 2) She never had an issue with my being queer, was always hugely supportive, and does not consider homosexuality a sin. I thought that was clear in the piece; I apologize that it wasn’t. (I wanted to be sure to clarify this, especially because you asked in another comment about whether or not she’d accept her child if she or he is queer.)

        • But just for clarification, if you have time. Why is she unsure of the “status of your soul” so to speak? Is it because you aren’t a believer? (I promise not to beat this into the earth. I think I’ve more than made my point clear already.)

        • Hey Chris, a well written article.

          Clarify with her but I’m thinking her concern about you going to hell is not that you are gay its that you haven’t accepted Jesus as your savior. The gospel is pretty clear, Jesus said that nobody goes to heaven but thru him. That’s where the journey starts, then everything else is goes from there.

          I believe and I think the bible is pretty clear on it, we go to heaven not based on how we live but on our relationship with Jesus. That’s where the church got WAAAY out of hand long ago. The church is flawed like all of us, only Jesus is not.

          FYI, I came to this site because of an article on Barney Frank someone posted on my facebook. Didn’t even know he was gay, I just don’t agree with his fiscal policies. Just wanted to point that out so you didn’t think I came on here looking for a fight or to save the world :)

          • The world populace exceeds 7 billion people. Christianity represents approximately 2 billion people. So, that’s roughly 5 billion people who will be subject to divinely instituted violence. Compound that number over time, across the generations. Even the worst earthbound dictators have failed to be so prolific in the scope of their violence nor have they shown such a lust for dominance.

            God is love.

  7. The Bible itself says that “the soul that is sinning–it itself will die” (Ezekiel 18:4) and that the dead “know nothing at all” (Ecclesiastes 9:5,10). If the soul dies and is unconscious, how could it suffer “eternal fire” or what some refer to as pain of everlasting separation from God?

    In the Bible, the Hebrew and Greek words (Sheol and Hades), often translated “hell”, actually refer to the common grave of man. For example, when Job suffered a painful illness, he prayed: “I wish you would hide me in my grave ["in hell," Douay-Rheims Version].” (Job 14:13). Job wanted to rest, not in a place of torment or alienation from God, but in the grave, and he was a faithful servant of God.

    Cruelty does not endear us to God; it repels us. Many have striven to be pious out of fear of hellfire, but God does not want us to serve him because we are terrified of him. Jesus said: “The most important commandment is this: Listen, oh Israel. The LORD our God is the one and only LORD. And you must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.” (Mark 12:29,30). Thus, God wants us to serve him out of our LOVE for him!! The only fear we would want to have of God is a healthy fear of displeasing him, as a human child has of his/her father. And, of course, “God is love” (1 John 4:16).

    How comforting is it to know that whenever humans die due to whatever reasons (health, war, sickness, etc.), whether good or bad persons, we are literally “resting in peace” or asleep in death (John 11:11-14), and not ever in a place of fiery torment forever!!! :-D

  8. Dear Chris, thank you so much for a very powerful article about authenticity and love.you are both great examples of love conquering all.most people that I know that believe in hellare not personally gratified by the police, and most Christians that do believe that usually believe, as was pointed out above, that everyone deserves hell. Hence, as I’m sure you know, it is not a belief that you in particular should go to hell.

    I think that there is hell, both here on earth and afterwards.I believe it is a natural consequence, not a punishment, of rejecting Love.I have known one or two people like that in my life. Therefore I must believe that hell continues for as long as one continues to reject Love.

    That was a digression however. Mainly I wanted to commend you both for being great examples of allowing love to lead the way to your understanding and not trying to understand your way into love.

    And to all of those who have been hurt by the church, in the name of Christ, many of us are heartbroken and sorry for the damage.

    • …most Christians that do believe that usually believe, as was pointed out above, that everyone deserves hell.

      Larry, that particular perspective still portrays the Abrahamic god as an abusive entity. Making the abuse universal hardly improves matters. It also makes those who believe this perspective sound like someone who has been broken to the point of loving their abuser and seeking out ways to justify their own abuse. It’s not uncommon for an abused person to engage in this kind of ideation. I believe this just as easily applies religious contexts where the abuser is an institution (the church), its traditions, texts, and its attendant culture. The entity in question doesn’t even have to exist.

      When I read words like this, I feel deeply grateful and very lucky to have escaped this cycle of abuse.

      • Hi Timberwraith…glad you responded. You made some excellent and very astute points and I agree with you in large part. in my statement that you quoted above I was not attempting to justify the belief in hell but merely to explain that for many, it is not a personal
        judgement. As far as my own personal beliefs about hell, I pray that I am wrong, but I can trust the Mercy of God to do what is best for the world and for individuals.

        and I, too, and grateful that you escaped the type of religious abuse that you characterize, but thankfully, it is not universal nor inevitable. Unfortunately, it is more common in some branches of Christianity than in others.

      • One more thing Timberwraith…yes the Abrahamic God appears to be abusive MANY times if read from our cultural perspective. Marcion, in the second century, believed that the OT God was different and greatly inferior to the NT God. I think it is easy to draw that distinction even though I believe it is incorrect.

        If one views the OT as God primarily revealing God’s self in deeds and not words then the OT becomes a record of Israel’s attempt to become a culture under God’s rule. Their growth in faith and understanding was apparently progressive like it is for all of us.

        A quick example… The prevailing view of the surrounding cultures was that the country that won the most wars also had the most powerful God, therefore Israel associated winning wars with God’s favor. this understanding began to change when Israel was taken into captivity.

        • An alternative, similar interpretation that I’ve heard is that the Hebrew and Christian texts represent a literary record of an ancient people’s developing understanding of divinity.

          I think what people often miss is that all of the shifts surrounding the Christian and Jewish communities’ understanding of divinity are not fully contained by the texts of the OT and the NT. There have been two millennia worth of cultural changes in which this understanding has evolved. This change doesn’t stop with the final page of the last book of the bible. This change is not uniform either, as is evidenced by thousands of subgroups of Christianity across the globe.

          Christian fundamentalism might be in vogue in this particular historical era in the US but that hardly encompasses the full breadth of Christendom. This particular notion of divinity and its accompanying social order is reflective of political and social currents centered in US suburbs and the Southern/Midwestern states. It’s also a direct outgrowth of the social upheavals of the civil rights era, the 60s, and the 70s which challenged social hierarchy in nearly every quarter of US culture. We are witnessing an ongoing struggle to employ religion as a tool in reestablishing and stabilizing lost social hierarchy from decades ago. People’s notions of divinity are in no way independent of the political and cultural forces of the day. Religion is inherently political. It always has been and always will be.

          This is why we have Rob Bell and John Shelby Spong on one side of the spectrum and Mark Driscoll and John Piper on the other side. Christians will never agree with each other on theological issues because people will never agree on the political and social issues of the day. There will always be those who fight to maintain hierarchy and authoritarianism and there will always be those who fight to loosen those structures and replace them with alternative relationships.

  9. Timber wraith,

    It is very unfortunate that many religions distort God and his personality through the hellfire doctrine, which is not true!!

    Yes, I am very much aware of those passages you may be referring to, such as:

    1) the Bible’s reference to Gehenna (Matthew 10:28, 23:15, 23:33; Mark 9:43; Luke 12:5; James 3:6, just to name a few. Jesus associated fire with Gehenna, or the valley of Hinnon, as did some of his disciples.

    Some try to link it with the burning of human sacrifices prior to Josiah’s reign and hold that Gehenna was used as a symbol of everlasting torment. However, God expressed repugnance for this practice and as something that had not come into his heart (Jeremiah 7:31; 32:35). Therefore, Jesus, in discussing divine judgment, would not make such an idolatrous practice the basis for the symbolic meaning of Gehenna.

    In addition, God prophetically decreed the valley of Hinnon would serve as a place for mass disposal of dead bodies instead of the torture of bodies (Jeremiah 7:32,33; 19:2,6,7, 10,11).

    Jesus used Gehenna as representing utter destruction resulting from judgment by God, with no resurrection to life as a soul possible (Matthew 10:28; Luke 12;4,5). The Scribes and Pharisees in Jesus’ day, as a wicked class, were denounced as ‘subjects for Gehenna (Matthew 23:13-15, 33).

    Jesus also alluded to Isaiah 66:24 in describing Gehenna as a place “where the maggot does not die and the fire is not put out (Mark 9:47,48). The Isaiah text dealt, not with persons who were alive, but with “carcasses of the men transgressing” against God.

    The disciple James’ use of Gehenna (James 3:6) shows that an unruly tongue is a world of unrighteousness and that fiery words can defile a person (compare Matthew 12:37; Psalm 5:9; Romans 3:13).

    2) Jesus’ PARABLE of the rich man and Lazarus (which was not literal and showed the changes that would take place between 2 certain classes of people, the religious leaders of his day (rich man) and Lazarus (the common people of his day who were not being spiritually fed by the rich man). If you would like more detail on this, let me know! Literal fiery torment is not being taught by Jesus here.

    3) Reference to the lake of fire in the book of Revelation (19:20; 20:14,15; and 21:8) which book includes references to things that are both literal and symbolic.

    The Biblical use of Gehenna as a symbol corresponds to the lake of fire in Revelation. It, also, is a SYMBOL of complete destruction of a person (and no torment) with no resurrection at all.

    To confirm this is not a literal place of torment, Revelation 20:14 brings out: “And death and Hades (translated as hell) were hurled into the lake of fire. This means the second death, the lake of fire.” How can a condition of humans, death, be thrown into a literal place? Revelation 21:4 says that death to mankind will be no more; thus, death will be put to death and mankind will live on earth forever!!! :-D

    In addition, Satan and his demons are thrown into that lake, along with wicked ones who do not repent and turn their lives around (Revelation 20:10; 21:8), all being “eternally destroyed”.

    Neither hell (Sheol, Hades, the common grave of man), nor Gehenna, nor the lake of fire are places of fiery torment forever.

  10. I find that many times this discussion is viewed from the human perspective back towards God. Meaning, we see sin and failure from our point of view and we tend to minimize it from God’s point of view. This leads us to judge God’s actions in punishing sin as worse than the sin itself. For a people who have been created by God and loved by God and pursued by God and redeemed by God, then those things we do which reject that will bring consequence, both now and eternally. No doubt there is a lot of history and theology to address here in order to get at the details of the story and better understand the heart and intentions of God. Sadly, many will choose to minimize and not see God’s love, but instead will focus on the very harsh consequences/punishments of behavior.

    As to the theology that there is no hell, a question – are you saying that there is only an eternal heaven for those who believe and just an ending with no afterlife for those who do not believe?

    • “We see sin and failure from our point of view and we tend to minimize it from God’s point of view. This leads us to judge God’s actions in punishing sin as worse than the sin itself” — absolutely spot on. Thank you.

    • The world populace exceeds 7 billion people. Christianity represents approximately 2 billion people. So, that’s roughly 5 billion people who will be subject to divinely instituted violence. Compound that number over time, across the generations. Even the worst earthbound dictators have failed to be so prolific in the scope of their violence nor have they shown such a lust for dominance.

      God is love.

    • The harshness of sin vs. divine violence: the “sin” of being a member of the wrong religion is apparently worse than inflicting suffering on most of the planet’s inhabitants across the millennia.

      God is just.

        • I appreciate that Christians from a diverse set of interpretations of theology have responded on this thread. It’s important to make known that not all of Christianity takes the oppressive path laid down by the more vocal quarters of fundamentalism.

  11. Chris,

    Thanks for sharing this friendship with Kate. It has elicited this remarkable discussion. Your willingness to be open with each other about such a difficult subject, and to remain in that openness without final resolution, must come from an unspoken feeling of trust that you both DESIRE the best for each other in this world. In your openness you both seem to share an ‘optimistic’ ironical sense that in a theoretical or actual afterlife that is ‘ruled’ by a ‘loving God’ things will not work out like so many confidently think. (See parable in Matthew 25: 31-46.)

    Best wishes, Randall Paul, Foundation for Religious Diplomacy & The World Table.org

  12. I agree with the article and agree that friendship and love are so important that they should trump Kate’s bizarre yet common belief about hell. I have done the same with my religious friends. But I’m still deeply troubled by it.

    Imagine if Kate were not friends with Chris, but rather with Chris’ evil twin, who belonged to an (almost unimaginable) atheist group that felt so strongly about religious people that they should be killed. Kate might ask the evil twin if he believed she should get that treatment, and he’d say yes, not because he wanted this for his beloved friend, but because he believed the group’s doctrine so strongly. I cannot imagine that Kate would stay friends with the evil twin. I suspect that Kate would be rightly horrified and run away.

    Kate’s beliefs are as hateful as Chris’ evil twin’s. Nobody would accept this evil twin in polite society yet the world is full of Kates. We accept beliefs such as Kate’s only because we’ve given religious hate speech a pass about hate for thousands of years. I’ve read _Faitheist_. As a gay former Christian, Chris has felt this hate directly and knows some of the consequences personally.

    Kate might say it’s not her fault; the Bible to her is true. Yet it’s her choice whether to believe it. It’s her choice whether to believe that her loving god would do this to Chris, whether because he’s gay or because he’s an atheist, just like it’s the evil twin’s choice to believe his bizarre hypothetical doctrine. Christians talk about a loving god all the time yet reserving eternal life for believers only, no matter how you frame it, is hate. It’s her choice whether to believe in hate.

    This is not just love overcoming a philosophical disagreement. Chris’ love for his friend despite all this is a powerful response to hate, and I laud him for it, but every time we do this we are normalizing hate. Yet somehow on balance it feels like the right thing to do.

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