Monday, August 08, 2011

Are You Afraid of God?

Are you afraid of God? Millions of Americans seem to be. Their fear is tied to their belief in eternal damnation in Hell. The Hebrew Bible, the Christian Old Testament, knows nothing about this. For the early Hebrews everyone suffered the same fate: we all went to Sheol, a lifeless place similar to a Motel Six where they forgot to leave the light on for you.

Hell comes to us via the rabbis who probably borrowed the idea from Zoroastrianism. The rabbis made little use of the idea, while their their Christian rivals seem to obsess over it.

Oliver Thomas writes about this in USA TODAY (Monday 9/8/11). According to Thomas, when Jesus speaks of "eternal" punishment the Greek New Testament uses the word aionos which is better understood as "final" rather "eternal". And almost every reference to Hell is a reference to Gehenna, the valley on the south side of Jerusalem where garbage was dumped in Jesus’ day. Jesus’ message was this: change your life (teshuvah in the Hebrew, repent in English) or your final destination will be the garbage dump. Or, as Rev. Thomas puts is, repent or you wind up wasting your life.

If Jesus did not teach eternal damnation, why insist he did?

The answer, I think, is simple: fear brings power; the only way we can get people to follow stupid ideas is to scare them out of thinking any other ideas. This is what fundamentalism does to people. It robs them of the ability to think by scaring them away from questioning their beliefs at all.

If the motivations of the masters of this madness are clear—fear brings them power—it still leaves us with the question as to why people adhere to these ideas? To be blunt: Why volunteer to follow a preacher who preaches a sadistic god and a religion of hate? I can only think of one reason: the people who follow sadists are themselves sadistic.

When I suggest this to fundamentalists they are horrified, and claim they do not believe in eternal hellfire for their own benefit but because this is what the Bible teaches. This is, of course, nonsense. The Bible can be read many different ways. There are as many love-based versions of Christianity, for example, as there are fear-based ones. So why choose fear over love, torture over forgiveness; anger over compassion? There can only be one answer: they like the fate that befalls those who disagree with them. They are sadist.

I find this answer inescapable and very troubling. Please show me where I am wrong.


Tricia Datené said...

For some people, certainty is so important that they will accept the negative in order to have the ensured outcome.

JudyOlson said...

I knew it! Rabbi, is there anything published that goes into more depth about this topic? I have thought for a long time that we were getting the original words translated wrongly, sometimes on purpose (to keep the people in the churches to financially support the powers-that-be)

Rabbi Rami said...

I bet there are books and essays on this, Judy, but if I spent my time researching my opinions I would probably be forced to change them

Mike Smoot said...

Once again you make some troubling points, Rabbi, in that I have to ask myself some hard questions about why I believe what I believe.

Rob Bell has caught hell for suggesting that "Love Wins", the title of his recent book in which he says there is no hell and that all go to be with God after death. My Southern Baptist minister, though suggesting there is insufficient evidence for this in the Bible, nonetheless says it would be Un-Christian to hope otherwise. I like that.

JudyOlson said...

Well, we're all going to find out what happens someday, maybe nothing.

Mike Smoot said...

... maybe everything.

Julie said...

I often think that fundamentalism retards personal development, and I use my own background as a basis for that opinion. When we no longer allow someone else to provide all the answers, we are responsible for ourselves. I'll never forget when I first read "we all know that the story of Adam and Eve is a myth" and I was shocked that I did not know that. The possibility was never on my radar :) Now that I've diligently removed fear from my life I am astonished by how much grace, hope and sacredness exists. We all choose on some level to be bound or to be free, and once being free from fear, for me there is no going back.
And Rami, I bet you are appreciated more than you know :) Blessings to you :)

Gerry Owen said...

Rabbi Rami, I understand your conclusion yet, since labeling them sadists is just labeling and doesn't open us to understand them and hence be effective with them, I'd like to suggest several alternatives based on how our emotional brain seems to work.
First, fear is a powerful brain function and is much older - a default response - than is connection. (Based on Stephen Porges, The Polyvagal Theory). And when our brain is in fear mode (fight, flight, freeze) we cannot connect. To connect, we must assess the other person as safe so a later brain system can inhibit fear and allow connection.
Second possibility, the difference in preferences of our two hemispheres suggests that those people who live in simple right/wrong worlds are following left hemisphere preferences - lists, logic, and language. Conclusions made within this limited world view seem to be true, partly because they function within a small box. It is the right hemisphere preference to be contextual, relational and situational. The benefit of left hemisphere logic is a closed system that seems safe (even when safety includes the liability of a limited view). The benefit of the right hemisphere is an openness that may be experienced as unsafe to those left brain folks. (Based on Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary)
Hence, labeling them sadists prevents us from understanding the legitimacy of their fears and from engaging them in a way that allows them to transition to a more open position. (Not an easy task, however much I wish it were!)

Yahnatan said...

"And almost every reference to Hell is a reference to Gehenna, the valley on the south side of Jerusalem where garbage was dumped in Jesus’ day."

This "fact" gets cited regularly, but there is no archaelogical or textual support for it until a commentary written by medieval Rabbi David Kimchi in the 1200's. (See Erasing Hell by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle, pp, 57-60)

Ri said...

I've been quite a fan of Christopher Pike's books (he's a pre/teen genre author) since I was of the appropriate age for them, and it was in one of his books I encountered a phrase that would change me forever:

Fear, Love and Anger originate in the heart, and only one of them can dominate it at any time. That means if you are very fearful of something, you cannot also love that thing. Up until then, I had been battling between the fear instilled in me during my Christian upbringing and the intuition within me that constantly pulled me towards other ideas and realities. When I read that phrase, I understood that if God wanted us to love him, he would not cause us to fear him, and if he wanted us to fear him, he couldn't expect our love as well. That's when I first began to understand the Bible was talking about more than one entity, and not just one bi-polar God.

"So why choose fear over love, torture over forgiveness; anger over compassion? There can only be one answer: they like the fate that befalls those who disagree with them. They are sadist."

Thank you for putting into words something I've felt but wasn't able to fully form into a coherent thought.

Wanting others to suffer, threatening that others will suffer, and seeking revenge are the three things I have seen commonly within religion, and it has always put a cloud over my heart.

206Deb said...

I was raised Christian, then converted to Judaism as an adult. The early Christians were poor and lived what we would refer to as wretched lives. But, if you believe in Jesus, you would die and go to the kingdom of heaven and dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Now, that sounds like a good deal, when you don't have enough food and you can end up being food for the lions, tigers and bears in the Coliseum. So, if there is a kingdom of heaven after death if you're a follower, then what happens to those you aren't followers? Instead of the Hebrew idea of Sheol, the Christians created Hell. Now, if that isn't sadistic, I don't know what is. Or, as the Germans call it, schadenfreude, delighting in the misfortunes of others, and you know what they ended up doing...