The Holidays in my family often offer opportunities for conversations about topics other families probably are wise to avoid. It has been a year since our dad passed away, and now me and my siblings are all adults, with me (the youngest) turning 52 this year. My two older brothers, my sister, and my nieces and nephews, and increasingly the grandchildren are growing up. But there is something about sitting in the house in which you were raised that makes you still feel like a child, it is unavoidable and inescapable. But sitting around the table, increasingly it feels different. It is as if we are all a lot more comfortable talking about subjects we would have likely avoided in the past. To the credit of my family, we can talk about these issues with attentive listening and civility, even when we disagree, for the most part. I’d like to see us have even deeper conversations, perhaps the day will come soon.
After the dishes were cleared, and desert was being enjoyed, my brother, nephew, along with my nephews by marriage, along with others coming and going joined the conversation that we were having about the afterlife. The existence of “heaven” or “hell” wasn’t the question, but rather, who qualified and how one qualified for either place. My brother Ron shared some of his experiences growing up, recalling instances where the church we attended tried to scare us into heaven by vividly describing hell or the end time scenarios that were often indulged by hyperbole or shock value. Then of course, individuals were scrutinized as most everyone around the table chimed in with opinions of the eternal destiny of “heroes and villains.” The conclusion of our collective wisdom, for what its worth, was that it is impossible to know. I’m sure that many families have engaged in conversations like these, wild speculation about eternity to come based upon what we have been taught by our various religious traditions, and what we feel/know or want to believe.
Of course, the dogmatist will insist that we can know based upon the Bible or upon the authority of the church or a preacher we once heard. But with age we come to understand that many people have competing agendas and even those with the best of intentions can be mistaken, allowing their eternal insecurities to impede their God given critical thinking skills.
At one point, I think my sister may have thought were being flippant about such a weighty matter and injected “Well you better believe there is a Hell and people are going if they don’t live right!” If you don’t know my sister Kim, she is a saint if there ever was one. Honestly, I’m a little afraid of her, and while my bothers and nephews laughed, I straightened up like an unruly child being corrected. I certainly don’t begrudge my sister her perspective, I’m glad she got involved in the conversation and wish she would have contributed more. What struck me about what she said wasn’t “There is a hell” a debate for another time perhaps, but what she attached to the end of the sentence, something like “People are going there if they don’t live right.” I think I know what my sister had in mind.
We both grew up in the same church, geographical and cultural context, and were basically taught the same interpretations from the King James Version of the Bible. In fact, she was the one responsible for teaching me many of those concepts. And although I’m now confident, that my sister and I would find ourselves coming to widely different conclusions, there is a certain respect that consistency demands. My mother has even commented about Kim, “As far as I know, she’s always lived it.” For the uniformed, what my sister and my mother were most probably speaking about, among other things, are certain standards of behavior, and propositional doctrinal non negotiables that they believe qualify people for Heaven or Hell, although it is doubtful they would use such words to describe their position.
Most likely they would attempt to articulate their belief in terms of “This is what I understand the Bible teaches. I’m not a judge, God is, but I am responsible for what I know to be true.” I know this because I’ve heard this articulated before, by well intentioned people who don’t want to be pigeonholed into condemning others to Hell. But many of these same people will listen to very public sermons where preachers have no problem condemning people for behaviors that aren’t even in the Bible. I don’t mean subjects that are up for interpretation, but actual issues that are never mentioned anywhere in the Bible. For example, recently one of these preachers was lamenting the growing number of “Apostolic men” who looked like the world by growing facial hair. No context was given, no Scriptures were cited, just lots of screaming about facial hair on men. Is this part of what it means to “live right?” When I had conversations with people about this, some of them defended the preacher by saying “Well, whatever you give up for God He honors with anointing.” As if power from God is something to be earned, in this case by choosing not to have a beard.
By the way, according to a 2017 survey, only 33 percent of American men reported to always have a beard. So in the context of the preacher’s admonition “not to be like the world” wouldn’t that mean that wearing a beard more accurately goes against the prevailing standards of the world?
My sincere intention here isn’t to be snarky, or belittle what others choose to do in the name of religion. My attempt is to point out that when we start down the road of assigning eternal destination based upon “living right” it is a very slippery slope indeed. My sister’s observation made me think about the old question; “How good do I have to be to go to Heaven?” If it is a comparison, should I strive to better than Hitler? Check. But still worse than Mother Teresa? Check. How do we contextualize “Living Right” in a world full of Hitlers and Mother Teresa’s?
The tradition I was raised in, if honest, would have to confess that Mother Teresa despite all of her goodness and sacrifice wasn’t good enough for Heaven. Because they would lament, as far as is known, she wasn’t privileged to have been baptized the correct way, or she didn’t speak with tongues, or she didn’t dress right and all this amounts to “not living right.”
I will add this caveat, I haven’t been associated with this Pentecostal sect since 2007, so perhaps the message has changed. I know some behavioral prohibitions have been disregarded, but my observation is that the rhetoric of many in this movement has become far more radicalized. For example, it is not uncommon to find “Apostolic preachers” on the internet in recent sermons shaming parents for “going easy” on their children and thus condemning them to Hell. The type of trauma and mental abuse that is perpetuated by such rhetoric is irresponsible and dangerous.
But if I’m misunderstanding the position of Apostolics, I stand open for correction and as always, I could be wrong. But if I am wrong then please someone show me where and how I am, because what I’m hearing is a whole lot of negativities that has damnable, if unintended consequences. I know because I’ve experienced them firsthand.
In the final analysis, there is only one who has ever “lived right” and that is Jesus. If He can’t get me to Heaven based on His behavior on my behalf, then there is certainly nothing that I could ever do that will earn my spot.
God’s grace is diminished if dependent on my ability to live right.
Too good to be true? No. It’s just that amazing. This is Amazing Grace.