On many occasions in my life I have listened to the archetypal Christian sermon. I call it archetypal because it is the sermon/testimony that I have heard in a variety of settings and contexts up and down the country in a variety of conservative churches. The sermon will begin with a description of the way society and morality has gone to the dogs. Human beings have surrendered their morals and politics to the ‘spirit of the age’, which is sometimes revealed to be no less than Satan himself. The particular sin that today causes the most outrage is the practice and tolerance of homosexuality. This particular sin is so heinous that I have never heard any preacher admit to practising it himself, even if the rest of his unredeemed pre-Christian life was fairly murky. From his past, the preacher may admit to other gross sins, drink, bad language and different forms of lust. In making these experiences part of his testimony, the sermon will have this ‘before and after’ narrative. Before his moment of conversion, life was, for the preacher, a time of depravity and wanton behaviour. That was a pathway which leads straight to Hell. Even though the preacher has now moved beyond any thraldom to depravity, he will describe it with great relish, giving the hearers the impression that sin was, in fact, rather fun. The narrative will be punctuated with dramatic pauses to emphasise the horrors of hell that had been awaiting him if he had not left his unredeemed state. The middle part of the sermon/testimony moves on to the moment of conversion and how the depraved life was turned around by a statement of trust in Jesus and the uttering of the ‘sinner’s prayer’. Now that this moment of new life had arrived, he could look forward to the joys of eternal life in heaven. The whole purpose of Jesus’ life, birth and death was, seemingly, to provide a way out of the terrors of hell for those who make this particular commitment to him. This will include openly expressing their faith in his substitutionary death on the cross. Through this sermon/testimony, a message of hope is being offered, but the offer has the implication that a refusal to accept it is to invite a future eternity of pain and despair in the never-ending punishment of hell.
My account of the ‘archetypal’ evangelical sermon may have some elements of caricature but it is still close enough to the reality for my readers to recognise it from their own experience. It is in fact based on the mediaeval/Reformation model that understands that the point of Christianity is to provide the means for an individual to escape the horrors of hell. It is not an exaggeration to draw attention to the way that medieval Catholic piety was obsessively focused on presenting the sacraments and observance as being about avoiding hell and the uncertainties of purgatory. The Reformation itself was initially brought about by the protest of Martin Luther over the way that indulgences were openly sold to lessen the time to be spent in purgatory. In many English parish churches are chantry chapels, built for the purpose of offering masses for the souls of the benefactors. Priests were employed to do little else but offer these masses. Much, if not all, pastoral work was centred on preparing people for death, so their souls were fit to be received by God.
The mediaeval obsession with the eternal state of a man’s soul passed straight through to the Reformers but the proffered answers to this quest for eternal safety were to be entirely different. No longer was the believer to focus on sacraments and indulgences but on the pure word of God and the possibility that faith in Christ and his atoning death would release the soul from the horrors of hell. This binary world of heaven and hell still filled the imaginations of Christian men and women right up to the present. To be saved was to be able to be free from these terrors. Ordinary Christians, captivated by their own terror of this fate, were prepared to do anything, say anything, to receive some reassurance that they would not enter hell at the moment of death.
I am surely not the only person who has noticed that much traditional Christian teaching, especially when it has been presented to ordinary people, has been concerned with teaching how a individual can avoid hell. In practice this has meant that much preaching, whether Catholic or Protestant, has been openly using the weapons of fear and terrorisation. What has been heard by many has been this: ‘Unless you do and say these things, you cannot expect any place of safety (salvation) when you die.’ Such a stark message is still heard in many churches today. It goes without saying that such a threatening message, when internalised, creates enormous fear. I need at this point to remind my readers that this is not the message of Jesus as recorded in Scripture. Most of this mediaeval/Calvinist version of the Christian faith is lifted straight out of legalist passages ascribed to Paul, while we find little support for any heaven/hell obsession in the words of Jesus himself. If we take the heart of the teaching of Jesus as being about the ‘Kingdom’, we see that his concerns were about transformation of human beings and society. His followers are called to live in a different way, not in order to escape hell, but in order to change themselves from within. The way of preaching at people using power and terror tactics was one of the temptations clearly rejected by Jesus in the desert. He was offered the possibility of using political power to enforce obedience through terror tactics, but he chose not to. Instead the method of Jesus was to make an invitation, open listeners up to a new vision of what God was like and see what the way of love might lead to. In the Beatitudes Jesus speaks of a way of living which turns conventional values upside down. His is a way of humility, surrender of power and finding God in each other, but especially the weakest, the children and the people who are despised by the world. The proclamation of the Resurrection, for me, is the statement that, at a very simple level, if you live like Jesus, following his path of love and in a refusal to manipulate and control people, God himself will be with you for ever.
It is ironic that two great systems of presenting the Christian faith, the Catholic and Protestant, seem to have had so little regard for the words and message of Jesus himself. Obviously I have had to drastically summarise what he seems to have been about, but it is clear that he very little to say about people going to hell if they did not conform to a particular series of actions and beliefs. He also had absolutely nothing to say about homosexuality that preoccupies so many Christians today and for some has become the touchstone of orthodoxy. It is as if large numbers of Christians read a different Bible, one that records only the obsessions of the mediaeval and Reformation period. That is not the Bible I read, or indeed the one that reflects what I understand Jesus came to present to us. If I read the Bible to discover what Jesus was really about, then I read a Bible that teaches nothing about control, has no interest in terror and uses nothing in the way of threatening language. Scripture, as taught by Jesus, invites us to a new experience of life, life in all its fullness.