About two months ago, I came across the above billboard. I wound up tweeting it with this snarky comment attached; “So, what you are saying is…” The follow up comments were as expected (mocking, laughter, the few defenders) and there were a couple shares via face book. All that is simply to state that if I wanted to follow in a popular bloggers footsteps, I could have posted my own “Church Sign of the Day.”
But there’s more to this sign than a simple case of bad grammar and silly phrasing.
While the meaning seems at first unclear (does God save everyone? Or is it that everyone in hell believes?) this church reveals itself to be deeply entrenched in the “us vs. them, convert or else” discourse that so permeates evangelical Christianity. The language used is all about knowing some sort of secret; some secret about the final destination of the ones who don’t go to church (but should). And in doing this, the church locks itself into certain language about hell. That language is this; “there is a real physical hell, it will be horrible there and because it’s horrible there, you will know there is a God.” Scare tactic Christianity at it’s finest.
This is the kind of language of hell I was brought up in. The church culture I was apart of would have been proud of such statements, as the end goal was proving that “we” have the right answer and all the knowledge. The unfortunate things is, the Christian scriptures are unclear as to what hell actually is (do not confuse figurative language with literal language) and for all intents and purposes, the bible is clear on one thing; those who don’t believe in Jesus, don’t believe in him, won’t have “eternal life.”
The bible is just as unclear about heaven, perhaps even more so. Neither place has a location and most Christians know more about heaven and hell from Paradise Lost than they do from the Bible. So where does this language come from? Is it only the us versus them dichotomy? Well, it’s also highly consumeristic. This church is selling a product. A product called eternal life and that product is dependent on the passerby wondering what this means and stepping inside. Once inside, the true sale can take place. The sale of heaven and assurance of one’s soul not being in hell, suffering, and saying “well, I know there is a God now!”
Now, don’t think this is malicious on the church’s part. They probably very much believe in what they are doing. What they are portraying, though, is that God is here to punish the unbeliever and the wicked and is so desperate to prove His existence that He would cause unbelievers to suffer eternal conscious torment just to make it known that He is there. And He will have the final say.
When hell is spoken of in this way, heaven becomes the upsell. Another unknowing convert is made and the machine rolls on; guilt tripping, assigning final places of consciousness and making sure that everyone knows God exists. Except that to me, this seems like a very small God to believe in. If God is really the kind of God we Christians say He is, then it seems to me that God would find a far more grandiose and majestic way of proving His existence. Or not even proving it, just testifying to it.
The language we use to speak of heaven and hell says much more about our picture of God than we ever realize.
What do you think? Am I off base here? What kind of language/phrasing have you encountered about hell in your life?