Christianity V. Empathy
“I don’t know, what do you think,” was my mother’s standard reply for all of my metaphysical inquiries as a young child. Santa Claus? The Easter Bunny? God? “I don’t know, what do you think?” She is agnostic, and her answer expressed her connection to the unknowable. She believed it was important and encouraged me to engage the great mysteries of existence and to decide for myself what may or may not hold true.
I decided early on that I didn’t believe in the existence of God. I didn’t see the need for a celestial personality in my pantheon of love, family and the wonders of the physical world. Furthermore, the idea frightened me. I didn’t want to believe in God. It was much more comforting to live in a world where I understood there to be a natural, earthly order.
But the idea of God became an interest of mine. Mostly, I wondered why and how so many people believed in God. From my perspective, Christianity was like any of the other ancient myths, which I thought were not meant to be taken literally. If our ancestors had ever taken myth literally, as in religion, we should have long outgrown it in our human history given all that we know about reality through science – what we gain by closely examining the physical world. And yet, many of the people I interact with on a daily basis are Christian, and hold varying degrees of faith in its supernatural explanation of existence.
It didn’t take long for me to discover that I didn’t care much for Christianity. I saw the Jesus fish bumpersticker next to an NRA bumpersticker one too many times not to wonder why Christians were so ideologically out of tune with what I’d read about Jesus as a loving figure. Christians I met most often thought sex was vulgar and celibacy wasn’t; that humans are born with sin and prone toward evil; that we are either going to heaven or hell. Hell always stood out to me as being the most poisonous idea in Christianity. I would never want to have the experience of believing that someone I know and love might be headed for an eternity of suffering. That for me would be hell.
Back then I used to think the reason Christians could stomach the idea of hell was because they were xenophobic. Now I’m convinced it’s because the doctrine of Eternal Punishment weakens the empathic drive.
A belief in hell puts an unbearable load of dissonance between what the mind believes, what the heart feels and the connection between the two. It’s much easier to have your compassion and sense of universal kinship reach to those who hold different beliefs, when you don’t believe they are headed for the lake of fire. To do so would be to take an impossibly burdensome load. The sight of an unsaved soul would be misery-inducing and the urge to save the hell-bound would be irrepressible. But instead, something else happens -- to borrow a biblical phrase, “God hardens their hearts.” There isn’t enough room in a human heart for the damned, and so the Christians do not often have much compassion for those who hold different beliefs.
When I asked Christians how they lived with the idea of hell, I would get answers like this: “God has made the truth of salvation by faith in his son, Jesus Christ, available to everyone, and instilled in every person free will to choose heaven or hell.” Or, “Jesus comes to everyone, but it’s up to each of us to let him into our hearts and be saved.” In other words, if you don’t get saved it’s your own fault. Some people are just damned. Only the righteous few will be saved. This is God’s grand design.
All of these rationalizations are inescapably callous.
To the degree that this is a Christian nation, it is also one that lacks compassion. Beginning with the abhorrent institution of slavery through today with our aggressive corporate, greed-based culture, and two terrible decade-long wars in the Middle East, this country has not displayed empathic tendencies at home or abroad. Our United States, with its 247 million Christians, is impacting the world and the direction of history more than any other country today. American culture has been so steeped in this toxic doctrine that we have developed into a nation that tolerates the intolerable. It’s a doctrine that instills a “save yourself” mentality. It says, “Christ is compassionate, so we don’t have to be -- if you want mercy, ask Him for it. Don’t look at us.”
But if we are to survive as a human race, for which compassion is so fundamental to our collective strength, growth and enlightenment, then we must leave the concept of hell behind. If we cannot openly recognize that we owe our salvation only to our ability to love and care for each other and the planet that sustains us, then we are doomed to create hell on earth.