If you haven’t listened to this week’s “This American Life”, it’s so worth the time. It’s one of those where they dedicate the entire hour to one story, and it’s worth it, because it’s a fascinating story. Reverend Carlton Pearson is a protege of Oral Roberts, a lifelong Pentacostal who basically thought about religion and theology until he thought himself out of believing some of the most critical and illogical aspects of his brand of Christianity. Specifically, he decided that he couldn’t believe in hell. He was watching some TV footage of the genocide in Rwanda, and staring at all the people who are experiencing hell right now—all while knowing that your average suffering person he saw on the TV was not an evangelical Christian, and most likely, in all honesty, never would be. (Rwanda is majority Catholic.) And these thoughts sent him on a tumble of logical thinking that most people who reject this belief or that are familiar with. It’s clear that the world through the eyes of evangelical, fundamentalist Christians is one where god is an absolute monster, toying with people for reasons that don’t make a lot of sense. He makes billions of people, swears he’ll save a handful who figure out exactly what he wants of them, and will condemn the rest to hell where they’ll be tortured for eternity. As Pearson put it, that means god is worse than Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Hitler put together, just in terms of the amount of suffering and death he inflicts. But he’s supposed to be a loving god that you’re supposed to worship with love. It doesn’t compute. Pearson realized to keep his belief in a loving god, hell had to go.
Apologists for religion—including some atheists who condescendingly believe religion is for other, simpler people—often say that people need religion for morality. But that doesn’t really make sense when you look at examples like this. Here’s a man who is still a devout evangelical Christian who believes in the blood of the lamb and all that other jazz, but who rejected a religious teaching because it offended his sense of morality. As it should. What made the whole thing even more fascinating was that Pearson got all these letters from people who conceded outright that the existence of a hell where the majority of people go was a moral outrage, but who nonetheless suggested that he best comply with god’s wishes. God, in other words, is a terrorist holding a gun to people’s heads. And, more importantly, if you’re moral you do everything in your power to save other people from the wrath of this evil, torturous being by spreading the, um, Good News. Their entire system relies on the belief that people are more, not less, moral than god. Jesus’ role in this is that he became a man, and thus basically adopted some of man’s morality, and he pleads with the vicious, nasty, vindictive god to show a little mercy to his creation.
I’ll concede that an evil god makes more sense that a good god, but the thing is that hell-believing Christians still believe that god is all-good and that morality comes from god. How they reconcile that with their belief that god exploits human morality for his own amoral aims, I have no idea. Well, they don’t. As Pearson’s story demonstrates, they most shut down and run fleeing from even considering the contradictions. It doesn’t take long after his revelation before the entire church board quits him and takes most of his congregation with them, reducing the regular Sunday attendance from 5,000 to 200. They ran out of money and closed the doors to the church, having to borrow space from other churches for services. (And because Pearson was so completely shut out of the evangelical community, and denounced from every angle possible, they had to borrow first from Episcopalians and then from Unitarians.) Pearson’s youth pastor candidly admits that without the fear of hell, people have no motivation to show up. Their faith, it seems, is basically about meeting a terrorist god’s demands so he doesn’t follow through on his threats. Without fear, he suggests, the whole system will collapse, and all the people who rely on it for money or power would see that disappear.
He would know better than me how his own people (evangelical Christians) think, but I can’t help but think they’re motivated by more than the fear of god, or this need to use that fear to keep the churches running. But I can’t help but thinking that fundamentalists are drawn to this evil, vindictive god myth because they like feeling superior, being able to dismiss the majority of the world as inferior to them. They may resent that god’s a bully at times, especially when he sets up people they like for eternal torture, but they side with the bully because they are in love with his power. It’s only about love in the sense that you feel affection for the others in your club of bullies, but of course there’s no love for the objects of bullying. Certainly, Pearson saw his world open up to be a lot more tolerant after he gave up the idea of hell. He’s even made alliances with GLBT Christians.