Reviewing and renewing Biblical faith through story and study

Friday, June 30, 2006

Scaring the Hell out of people

Earlier this week I listened to a church service from a congregational church in London on my ipod. This Sunday's service was about "loving people to Jesus." As an example the pastor had a few people give testimonies.
There were two "good" stories that showed the love and compassion present in their local church. The other two were "bad" stories about people's experience in other churches. One testimony was given by a lady that was raised a Catholic but went to a Seventh-day Adventist School.
She spoke very highly of the education at the school and the Christian teaching. She was very affirming of everything the Adventist system, teachers and staff did at the school. But, then she spoke of the other primary students and the severe emotional and spiritual damage they inflicted upon her with their words. She was told on a daily basis that she was "going to hell" because she was a Catholic. She cried as she told of how much she liked the other kids and wanted to be their friend but always feared the onslaught of damnation that would inevitably be hurled at her. As an Adventist, I was devastated by her story.
As she told her story one thing she said puzzled me. She said that the kids would say, "You are going to Hell because you are a Catholic and you are going to burn forever and ever!" For the Adventists reading this you will see the conundrum. But, those readers who are not familiar with Adventist theology will not.
Seventh-day Adventists use the entire Bible to understand Death, Hell and Judgment. The results of this careful study demonstrate that Hell is not a present reality but a future time-limited event that starts and finishes after the final phase of Judgment. Adventists believe that those who die sleep in the grave - body and soul - and will return to life and judgment at the return of Jesus. There is no current burning hell. We also believe that Hell is an event in time not an eternal event. Judgment happens. Hell fire happens. And the death received is permanent and eternal unlike the first death that is rectified by the 2nd coming.
OK, sorry for going so much into that, but I just wanted you to understand the struggle I was having while listening to this tearful testimony. My heart ached for her. She was distraught decades after the event. The first question I thought was, "Would Adventist kids say that to a Catholic kid?" I have been an Adventist kid in Adventist schools with other Adventists... The pack mentality is certainly present as it is at any school...

So, yes, Adventist kids would say, "Catholics are going to hell" because, unfortunately that's what the Adventist Pharisees where parroting in front of us when we were kids. It's different now, but it certainly was said (and is still said by some of the ungracious).
But what about the second part? Would an Adventist kid say, "You will burn forever!" I have to say that it just wouldn't happen. In the modern era, it was modeled by some church leaders that "knowing the truth" would lead to Jesus (rather than the other way around). So most Adventist churches focused on teaching doctrine to everyone - through evangelism programs, church services, Sabbath school classes, school Bible classes and family worship. Kids were, and still are, involved in all of these programs in healthy churches (as they should be!) So, most Adventist kids know what Adventists believe.
Then I realised something. This little girl, being told she would go to hell, was (of course) applying her Catholic understanding of Hell to the statements being said by the Adventist kids. So, while they were saying (from their position) "You will go to hell and that's the end of you!" She was hearing (from her position) "You will go to hell and be tortured in eternal hell fire, blistering for eternity!"
This realisation really made me think. People interpret our words and actions through their filters of reality - physical, emotional and spiritual. How often are we misunderstood? Perhaps a better question is: "How often are we understood correctly?"

A number of lessons emerged from my pondering:
1. Don't use loaded language when talking to anyone. Keep it simple.
2. Don't expect people to understand you or where you are coming from. Listen to them. Answer their questions. If they don't ask any questions, ask them to!
3. Don't ever say, "You are over reacting!" They may be hearing something very different than you are saying. Seek to understand then to be understood.
4. Lead people to Jesus first. Let Jesus teach them the truth in time and experience.
5. Oh be careful little mouth what you say!

How do we teach this to our kids?
1. Example first. Treat people as precious to Jesus.
2. Teaching second. Teach you children to love through the stories of the Bible, especially stories about Jesus.
3. Reality check. Explain, over and over, to your kids that other people are different and every single one of them is extremely loved by Jesus. Every time you see someone that is clearly different explain how precious that person is to Jesus and give some good reasons. Doing so will help you with your example and teaching!

I am really overwhelmed by this. That lovely woman's testimony helped me remember that the truth is divisive. Jesus taught that. Therefore the truth must be handled with great care. And people must be treated with even greater care! Jesus came to save people, not truth. True, he explained the truth more fully through his example and teaching. But that was the natural outgrowth of his loving life-saving nature. He loved people deeply and taught people thoughtfully. Oh, to be like Jesus!