When 'The Good News' isn't good.
If there’s one thing I learnt from my first blog post a few weeks ago, it’s that there’s nothing like a bit of honesty to make a chasm vanish altogether; the one between those who define themselves ‘Christian’ and those who don’t.
So here’s some more: The ‘Good News’ is the most terrifying, anxiety-inducing, anger-provoking, depressing thing I’ve ever heard - or at least the ‘Good News’ as it was presented to me (albeit by faithful leaders for whom I am immensely grateful and who I know never did anything but their best for me).
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
The majority of us probably know John 3:16 word for word and we think we know exactly what it means too.
Here’s what I’ve picked up from it over the years, when I boil it down: It means that the vast majority of people to ever live and breathe will be banished to eternal torment in hell, while the people fortunate enough to be born into a Christian environment (and usually a very specific band of Christianity) live it up in Heaven because they said a particular prayer.
Good News? If you divorce that message from its religious trappings, I wonder if deep down many of us think it’s actually pretty mental.
Throughout my teenag
e years – and I haven’t told many people this – I was very anxious a lot of the time. Now it would be unfair to say that was a direct result of what I was taught about God. But I do know that it began when I was 11 years old. I still remember the day – I had just bought Ant & Dec’s 2002 World Cup single ‘We’re on the Ball’, although I’ve decided it probably wasn’t a side-effect of their singing. All of a sudden, I became obsessively terrified that I would upset the Almighty and that he would smite me and my family, so perhaps it’s not too much of a stretch to link the anxiety with my view of God; and it would make sense. I grew up with the crippling ‘knowledge’ that a lot of the people I love are heading for never-ending agony. It would be more weird if I wasn’t anxious about it. To make matters worse, while people told me all this, it was always dressed up as ‘Good News’. In some ways, that sort of seems like a form of abuse. (See previous disclaimer that I’m grateful for the spiritual guidance I have received, all of which I know came with the best of intentions.)
In truth, I’ve always thought I’d rather there was no God at all than the one I’ve been presented with, because that would be the more loving reality for the vast majority of mankind, who are seemingl
y destined for endless misery.
I didn’t often let myself think about it but any time these questions did come up around church, it was explained away by the ‘free will’ argument; that God has given us autonomous minds so it’s us that choose hell, not Him.
With respect, that now seems to me a cop out. When it comes down to it in this scenario, it’s God who pulls the trap door, mumbling something about a need for justice. If it was anybody else behaving like that, we’d have them locked away.
Thankfully, after years of heartache, pain and worry for my seemingly ill-fated loved-ones, I’m starting to wonder if it might not be true after all.
I was once at a church service which ended with a young and uber-conservative trainee minister giving a warning against a list of ‘false-prophets’. I made a mental note to check out as many of them as possible, as I suspected they’d probably be the sort of heathens I’d like. One was Rob Bell, whose (in?)famous book ‘Love Wins’ I’ve just finished reading. Then there’s the work of Steve Chalke and others like that pair, who edge closer to the ‘dodgy’ notion of universalism; that somehow and at some stage all end up ‘saved’.
As Chalke sums it up, the Gospel to him now is: ‘You’re all in, go and celebrate’. To me, that’s the first time the ‘Good News’ has ever felt in any way good.
I’m no theologian and wouldn’t want to present myself as such so I’ll let you check out those guys if you’re interested in a more thorough look at their argument. Rob’s book is available in all good book shops and the podcast I first heard Steve Chalke on can be heard here https://www.nomadpodcast.co.uk/steve-chalke-the-lost-message-of-paul-n212/.
Yet there remain questions. Am I certain about any of this? Absolutely not. Am I urging myself to believe this just because it’s more comfortable? Maybe. What about the passages where Jesus talks about the afterlife, like the separation of the sheep and the goats? *Shrug* So now I’m trying to go back to the Bible with the lens of certainty removed. What do passages like that actually mean?
I don’t know yet, although my current thoughts surround Jesus’ words in John 10:10, when he says that he came so we might have ‘life in all its fullness’ or ‘zoe’ in Hebrew. Whosoever believeth in Jesus shall have zoe. Full, animate, active, vigorous life. The eternal life that can begin by following His kind, loving, selfless path.
This Jesus is the one the Spirit draws me towards. My certainty now is in the knowledge that He did come to save us from death and bring us eternal life. Right here, right now. It’s about searching for zoe; searching to obtain it for myself and share it with other people. Because there are many living in hell on earth and those are the situations, in that parable of the sheep and the goats, that Jesus challenged us to help fix; feed the hungry, clothe the poor, visit the sick and imprisoned.
But the traditional idea of hell and the ‘Good News’ as it was presented, for me, has to go - for now at least - because all it has done to me is stolen life.
What happens after we die? I have no idea, but I don’t think I can believe in a God that enables hell and that most terrifying, anxiety-inducing, anger-provoking, depressing story. The Spirit, I feel, just might be leading me in a different direction, because “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17).
Gareth Hanna, a regular contributor to Left Side Up, is a sports reporter at the Belfast Telegraph. Having grown up in traditional conservative Christianity within Northern Ireland, he is embarking on a wider exploration of faith and spirituality.