One of my favorite moments from Seinfeld is in an episode where Elaine discovers that her boyfriend David Puddy is listening to Christian music in the car. She’s intrigued by this, so she begins a conversation with him:
ELAINE: Do you believe in God?
ELAINE: Oh! So you’re pretty religious.
DAVID: That’s right.
ELAINE: So is it a problem that I’m not really religious?
DAVID: Not for me.
ELAINE: Why not?
DAVID: I’m not the one going to hell.
Later in the episode, Elaine decides she can’t deal with this attitude.
ELAINE: David! I’m going to hell! The worst place in the world! With devils, and those—those caves! And the ragged clothing! And the heat, my God, the heat! I mean, what do you think about all that?!
DAVID: [nonchalantly] It’s gonna be rough.
ELAINE: You should be trying to save me!
DAVID: Don’t boss me! This is why you’re going to hell.
ELAINE: I am NOT going to hell. And if you think I’m going to hell, you should care that I’m going to hell—even though I am not.
I still remember the first time, growing up in a Southern Baptist church, I became aware of the doctrine of hell. My church taught that hell was a place of eternal torment—of “weeping and gnashing of teeth”—that was the final destiny of all who sinned against God (in other words, all of humanity). The only way to avoid hell was by accepting God’s grace through Christ’s sacrifice in our place.
Different Christians have different beliefs about hell. Some believe that hell is just “nothingness” or “separation from God,” not eternal torment. Some believe that hell doesn’t exist, or is only for demons, not people. Some believe that Jesus’ sacrifice applies to everyone, not just to those who believed in him on earth, so that everyone will ultimately be saved from hell and no one will suffer eternally. C.S. Lewis famously wrote, “We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him.” Even so, Lewis also believed in hell in a more traditional sense and defended it in his writings.
My church taught that hell was real, painful, and eternal—and that people who didn’t accept Christ during their lives were condemned to end up there, even if they seemed to be “good people” overall, because everyone has sinned.
I know that my readers will be very divided on this. Some of you will strongly agree with what my church taught, saying it’s proper biblical doctrine, while others will passionately disagree, calling that a wrongheaded and harmful belief. But the point of this post isn’t to make an argument about hell. (Maybe another day.) The point is about how we respond to the idea of hell.
As a kid, when I first heard this doctrine of hell, it really bothered me. I didn’t think anyone should have to go to hell, and I could think of lots of reasons why someone might not accept Christ in their lifetime, none of which seemed to me worthy of eternal torment. Wasn’t that punishment way too extreme, even for a long life of wrongdoing? What’s 100 years in the context of eternity? And what about all my non-Christian friends and their families and friends? How could any of us be content if those we loved so much were suffering?
The more I thought about this, the more it upset me.
At the same time, I trusted my church, and there seemed to be plenty of Bible passages and theological arguments to support their position. As far as I could tell, they were right, but I didn’t want them to be right. I could explain why my church taught what it did—the consequences of sin separating us from God and all that—but I still didn’t like it. I didn’t want my non-Christian friends to go to hell, and I spent a lot of time agonizing over this in prayer with God, asking God to reconsider this whole hell business.
When it comes to theology, sometimes there’s a difference between what we believe to be true about the world and what we want to be true about the world. I didn’t want my friends to go to hell, but I believed that they would, and that upset me greatly.
Sometimes people ask me if I think that people who believe I’m going to hell for being gay are bigots. No, I don’t think that. Maybe they, too, believe it but don’t like it. Maybe they’re really worried about me and they’re doing whatever they can to try to warn me, to help me. I think they’re wrong, but that doesn’t make them bigots.
But there’s one caveat.
Like Elaine says, “If you think that I’m going to hell, you should care that I’m going to hell.” If you believe that I’m going to be tortured for eternity along with every other gay person you know, that should upset you. It should keep you up at night. You shouldn’t be able to get it out of your mind, if you care about me at all.
If you can say that “unrepentant gays are going to hell” and then shrug it off like David Puddy, I’d say that you’re either seriously lacking in human compassion or deeply prejudiced against gay people—perhaps both. If you think I’m going to hell, you should care that I’m going to hell. You should be trying to save me.
“But wait!” you may say. “That’s exactly what we are trying to do. We’re trying to save you, and you don’t want to listen. The gay community just gets upset whenever Christians try to preach the truth to them. You call it hate speech and don’t want to hear it! That’s not my fault; that’s your fault.”
Well, not quite. First of all, the “gay community” isn’t monolithic. You can’t assume how I’m going to respond to something based on how some other gay person responds to that same thing. We’re all individuals.
But secondly, preaching at people is rarely an effective way to change minds on anything. If you care about trying to save me from a terrible fate—if you really care—you’ve got to be willing to dig deeper.
Years ago, I used to work in the computer department of a large electronics chain. This chain offered an extended warranty on computers. That extended warranty was highly profitable for the chain, so all of us salespeople were trained to strongly encourage customers to buy the extended warranty.
Unfortunately, the management of my store didn’t understand how to treat people. Instead of listening to the customers’ needs, they would just try to force every customer to buy the extended warranty, in the same way, using the same language. When the customer didn’t want it, they’d keep pushing harder and harder and harder. If the customer told one salesperson no, another salesperson or manager would be called in to keep trying. On more than one occasion, I saw customers leave the store literally in tears from how hard the staff pushed them to buy an extended warranty they didn’t want.
If you were the customer in that situation, would you want the extended warranty? Would you even continue to shop there?
Honestly, that’s how it feels sometimes to be a gay person being preached at by people who think I’m going to hell. Instead of taking the time to get to know me as an individual, listening to my story and trying to understand why I disagree with them, they often just try to forge ahead with slogans and Bible passages and pressure pressure pressure—and when I don’t respond to that, they think, “Well, I tried. His heart must be hard. He just doesn’t want to hear the truth.”
If you think I’m going to hell, you should care that I’m going to hell. You should want to save me. But here’s the kicker: You can’t force anyone to believe something they don’t believe. Applying more pressure doesn’t make it happen.
If you really care about me and you want to save me from a terrible fate, you’re going to have to do it the hard way. Get to know me. Listen to me. Treat me with kindness and compassion. Don’t try to pressure me. Do the difficult work of seeking to understand where I’m coming from and why, and respect my own personal boundaries. In the end, you cannot force me to change my beliefs on anything. But at least I’ll know you care, and if you’re really that convinced that you’re right and I’m wrong, you can trust that the truth will come out much more readily in an environment where I feel nurtured and cared for than in an environment where I feel pressured and misunderstood.
Of course, all of that takes time. It’s not easy. It requires a lot more investment than holding up a sign or posting a comment on a news article.
But if all that sounds like too much effort, what does that mean—that my eternal soul isn’t worth it?