In 1999, comedian George Carlin wrote, “Religion has actually convinced people that there’s an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever ’til the end of time! But He loves you.”
I thought about Carlin’s statement as I watched a clip of Pat Robertson blaming this week’s earthquake in Haiti on a mythical pact that the people of Haiti supposedly made with the Devil in order to become independent of France over two centuries ago. ““[E]ver since they have been cursed by one thing after the other, desperately poor,” Robertson said.
Unfortunately, this was not the first time that Pat Robertson or other preachers acting under the guise of Christianity twisted history and theology in order to explain various tragic events. Soon after the 9/11 attacks, Jerry Falwell had this to say, “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way — all of them who have tried to secularize America — I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.’”
After the December 26, 2004 Indonesian tsunami, John MacLeod, a minister in the First Presbyterian Church of Scotland, wrote, “Some of the places most affected by this tsunami attracted pleasure-seekers from all over the world. It has to be noted that the wave arrived on the Lord’s Day, the day that God has set apart to be observed the world over by a holy resting from all employments and recreations that are lawful on other days.”
After a massive tragedy, it is human nature to try to find out why it happened. The victims must have done something wrong, after all, isn’t everything pre-ordained by God?
This finger pointing was an approach that Christ Himself repeatedly rejected, whether it had to do with blaming a man’s parents for blindness, the experience of violent oppression, or even a natural disaster. In Luke 13:1-5 (NIV), we read the following exchange:
“Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
There is no magic formula for avoiding tragedy. Instead, we need to focus on our own lives before we start placing blame on others. “”Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3). It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t eventually point out your brother’s eye goober, but be sure that you don’t hit him in the face with the big stick in your eye when you turn to look at him.
It is so easy to fall into the trap of perverting the good news of Jesus Christ by making Him look like an arbitrary tyrant intent on destroying people who have offended Him. Many people struggle through their faith or leave altogether when they can’t explain why bad things happen to good people or why a “loving” God would willingly torture people throughout eternity.
Jonathan Edwards terrified a generation of New Englanders when he preached in 1741, “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire. . . . You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder” (Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God).
Theology along these lines, not found in the Bible, would explain why so many American Christians actively support torture or a preliminary attack on Iran. It explains the push for the death penalty against homosexuals in Uganda. It provided the framework for the Inquisition and cleansing of “heresy” throughout the middle ages. If God is just, and is our example, then why shouldn’t Christians seek to do His dirty work on earth? If forces of evil are going to be tortured in hell, why not send them there early and prevent them from leading the innocent astray?
This doctrine of eternal torture in hell violates principles that most decent human beings hold themselves to – it involves disproportionate punishment and invokes the cognitive dissonance of eternal bliss with the knowledge that another is undergoing eternal torment.
If God was like this, George Carlin’s sense of dark irony would be well-placed. The universe would have two sides, a bright living room where angels float on clouds, and a basement so evil that it would exceed the worst that Satan himself could conceive.
But is that really the character of God? No.
One of the biggest contributions that Seventh-day Adventism has made to Christianity is the rediscovery of the Biblical doctrine that hell is not eternal torment. There are many complete explanations of the Biblical research behind this position online (click here for a good place to start). Essentially Adventists believe that “the wicked . . . shall be destroyed forever” (Psalm 92:7), and that those who accept Christ can, “according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness” (2 Peter 3:13).
So what does this have to do with religious liberty? Many of the strongest challenges to freedom of conscience and religious liberty on a global basis come from those who do not understand the reality of the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and instead make Him out to be a tyrant. They consider themselves His deputies.
Only when Christians begin to understand the truth of the gospel can they begin to see how important it is to tell the truth the consistency of His character and the all sufficient power of His love. “If you abide in my word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free,’” (John 8:31,32).