Mattie Jo Cowsert
Hell No Part 1
Updated: Nov 1, 2020
Alright, so I have recently come out as a “Non-Christian/Not a Believer.” See: Hell Yes. Oh, Fuck for a refresher.
To be clear, this was not a step-by-step process. I wasn’t just like “Okay, May of 2015 will be committed to figuring out if I believe in Hell. And then by October I’ll move onto what I believe would send a person to Hell, should it be real.” No, no. It was all fluid and happening while I was sleeping with the hot Irish nephew of my boss, getting wine wasted on Tuesdays alone, but still going to church sometimes. My early twenties were hard.
Anyway, realizing I was probably going to Hell since I no longer considered myself a definition Christian caused me to really dissect the whole concept of Hell. Before this time in my life, I just sort of accepted that Heaven and Hell were real places. It makes basic sense, right? Bad people go to Hell and good people go to Heaven. Fair game, God man.
Our God is so good.
Except, this isn't how the God of the Evangelicals works. As mentioned previously (repeatedly), by Christian definition, it’s not enough to just “be a good person” to get into Heaven. There is no Heaven admission unless you are a Christian. So it doesn't matter if you’re an amazing human who works for a non-profit, spent time in the Peace Corps, and actually recycles the right plastic (PSA: According to my weekly NYC RECYCLES newsletter, candy wrappers ARE NOT recyclable. They jam the machines so don’t try it!). If you don’t believe Jesus is the literal son of God, you go to the bad place with Hitler and the 9/11 terrorists.
When I really thought about the concept of Christian Hell, it seemed to directly contradict the most highlighted and, as I was taught, most attractive qualities of the Christian God. According to my upbringing, the New Testament God is a God of incredible love. That's what makes Him so exceptional and accessible.
This God loves us deeply, simply because He created us. He offers us the beautiful gift of grace, defined to be love regardless of how shitty we are. This God speaks directly to our souls because there is absolutely nothing we can do to earn His love or take it away. What a relief. Divine unconditional love. That’s what makes our God so good.
Love love love love love love. GOD IS LOVE DO YOU HEAR ME?!?!
This, I was taught, is why we worship the New Testament God. He is not like other gods, requiring us to follow a bunch of rules, eat a certain diet, and/or dress a certain way (lol except #modestishottest) in order to gain His love. His love is not transactional. He simply is love.
It’s hard for us humans to comprehend these ideas of unconditional love, enoughness, and grace freely given. Probably because, since the beginning of time we have operated on the understanding that work = reward. But that’s why He is God and we are human. Why we must follow and trust Him with our lives. He is beyond and above our understanding. He does not operate like us. God’s ways are not our ways. Our God is so good.
Heaven and Hell are just another human created system to place restrictions on the God party.
You’re right church, I do not understand non-transactional love. I don’t understand loving someone if they’re a total asshat. By these standards, Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell are worthy of God’s love. That is FOR SURE beyond my understanding.
But you know what isn’t beyond my understanding? Creating conditions around who gets to be in my inner circle. “All are welcome” sounds nice, but it just actually is not true. I don’t want to spend time with/show sincere love to anyone who works for ICE, men in Murray Hill, or my racist uncle (we all have a racist uncle). I have preferences around who I spend my time with and who is invited should I ever have a party again. #2020
I also fully understand a system of behavior and reward. That’s basically my entire existence as a human being. Act this way, get something out of it. A raise, a “like,” a date. By the time we are in preschool, we learn certain behavior gets us stickers and certain behavior gets us time out. Act accordingly.
What is actually harder for me to understand is total grace. A gift freely given. Unconditional, non-transactional love. No do this, get that. Just...here ya go. You are enough because you exist.
There was a time when I was steeped in my Evangelism that I did actually challenge the idea of Hell against an all-loving God. After trips to Muslim countries where I think I was supposed to want to convert them but didn't actually, I asked "We really think God is sending these people to Hell because they happened to be born in a Muslim and not Christian country? That doesn't sound loving at all."
The answers I received from all my Christian leaders were essentially:
It may not make sense to us. But He is beyond us. His ways are not our ways. And even if we don't fully comprehend it, we know His plan is ultimately loving and so good.
But...buuuuuuuut I contend that the idea of only Christians go to Heaven and errbody else goes to Hell is not the part of God that is "Godly beyond our comprehension." Heaven and Hell are just another human created system to place restrictions on the God party. They are among the many efforts made by humans to try and fit this undefinable, vast life force that exceeds human understanding, into a preschool tally chart system. Another very successful tool for social control.
Once I decided Hell wasn’t real, that didn’t immediately cure my fear of it.
And look, this isn’t specific to Evangelicals. Every religion ever (Except Buddhism. Which one could argue isn’t a religion) slaps human qualities onto God. We are human, so we are familiar with human tendencies. It makes us more comfortable if we can define and wrap our minds around certain concepts, especially if we are going to trust it to lead our lives and all that.
If you read the stories of the Old Testament and New, they’re all just humans trying to make sense of this force that doesn’t really make sense. In the Old Testament, the use of sacrifice, prophets, and war brought one closer to God. By the New Testament it was service, healing, community, and commitment to following Jesus that brought one closer to God.
At the end of the day, humans want security and certainty. We want to know we are living our lives right. We want to know what to do and what we will get out of it. But, thanks to 2016 and this global pandemic, I think we all now know that any sense of certainty and security is false. Nothing is promised, not even a trip to the grocery store without a face mask. Or having a president who is allowed to support and encourage white supremacists during a presidential debate.
So anyway, next time you’re afraid of going to Hell because you don’t believe exactly the way you used to or whatever, just remember, Hell isn’t real (Probably. I could be wrong. In which case, sorry). It’s a human projection tool for understanding God and, ultimately, social control.
What’s frustrating about the Recovering Evangelical process is that even once I intellectually shifted certain beliefs, the emotional resonance of those beliefs didn’t cease. Once I decided Hell wasn’t real, that didn’t immediately cure my fear of it. Additionally, I was slapped in the face with yet another layer of Evangelical trauma malarkey. I don’t think I know how to make decisions in my current life that don’t (essentially) boil down to my fear of experiencing damnation instead of celebration in my afterlife.
So there I was, 20 something years old, probably drunk on my twin size bed in a Manhattan apartment, realizing my entire faith life was not actually founded on the ultimate love. It was founded on crippling fear.
(see what I did there)