I met with a church board member at his house to discuss the article for the purpose of connection and understanding—so we could move forward together. At least, that’s what I thought we were doing. Karen and I had no desire to leave the church; it was our extended family.
“If we can be saved after we die, why evangelize?” He asked.
“We evangelize because life is infinitely richer and more beautiful when lived in an ever-transforming revelation of God’s measureless love in the here and now—right?” I asked.
“Of course, yes!” he agreed wholeheartedly.
Then he continued with the same line of questioning. “But, if we can be saved after we die, what stops someone from living a life of unbounded riot and debauchery,” he asked with a pastoral tone. Except his example was more specific, “What stops me from cheating on my wife and doing drugs?”
I realized he had personalized specific sins in order to connect. But I took him up on his premise.
“Are you saying that your fear of eternal punishment is the only thing that restrains you from cheating on your wife and doing drugs?” I asked, matching his pastoral tone.
“Of course not!” he said, upset.
“Exactly,” I responded, matter of fact.
Then I told him about a question I’d received earlier in the week similar to the one he’d just posed.
“What if a belief in hell is what stops a man from raping a woman?” I’d been asked.
“Then, dear God, that fella needs to believe in punishment for her sake, his sake, and ours,” I’d responded.
The board member looked at me, confused.
“If a punishing view of God is the only thing keeping a person from hurting himself or others, that person may need to keep believing in punishment for a time. But let’s not pretend that person is whole or free. And whatever we do, let’s not give that kind of thinking a pulpit in our lives.”
He nodded enthusiastically, and I continued.
“If we need punishment to motivate us in any way—either to avoid evil or to do good, then we haven’t fully experienced, nor understand the gospel of Jesus, and we still have much to learn about freedom.”
He nodded again, enthusiastically.
But before I left, he made it clear there was likely no room for my non-punishing thoughts about God within our church…
This article is excerpted from my book, Leaving and Finding Jesus