Madeleine Davies

Taking on a psychologically crushing God

In Faith on May 23, 2011 at 6:22 pm

On Friday I heard a lecture entitled “Terrors of body and soul: crises of conscience 1550-1650”, delivered by a brilliant Oxford scholar Elizabeth Hunter. Quiet at the back.

Her paper explored the impact of the doctrine of predestination. Predestination in this context is the theory that, before the beginning of time, God chose a select few for eternal life in heaven, with the remainder of humanity destined for hell. As Hunter’s paper showed, it was a teaching that, while intended to provide reassurance of salvation, left many people tormented by the conviction that they were reprobates headed for hell.

To Christians today this sort of anguish might sound alien. Much Christian teaching today centres on the certainty of eternal life promised to Christians. Yet anxiety and uncertainty surrounding the afterlife remains hugely present both within and without the church. In recent months it has also been the subject of intense debate. The publication of a new book by Rob Bell, an American pastor, who suggests that contemporary teachings about heaven and hell may be wrong, has caused great controversy.

Early on in Love Wins Bell talks about a woman whose teenage son was killed in a car accident. A Christian asks her if he had died a Christian and after explaining that he was an atheist this woman is told: “So, there’s no hope then”.

It’s a belief that, while not always shared in such a harmful way, is common in some Christian circles – the conviction that when it comes to heaven, you are either in or you’re out.

This story – that only a select few Christians will spend eternity in heaven while everybody else is condemned to endless torment in hell – is one that Rob Bell believes is “misguided and toxic”, a hijacking of the real story, which is about God’s “stunning, beautiful, expansive love” that is “for everybody, everywhere”. Essentially, heaven’s doors are closed to no-one.

For this, Bell has been subject to intense criticism, from those who argue that people must act here and now in order to be assured of their place in heaven. Exactly what this action is varies and Bell spends some time in the book questioning both the Biblical basis and the logical endpoint of such requirements. Do you have to be baptised? Do you have to say a prayer of repentance? Do you have to “believe in Jesus”? What if you have very good reasons to distrust the Jesus you’ve been told about? What if the only Christians you have met committed terrible crimes against you? What if the missionary gets a flat tire?

Bell’s book played on my mind throughout Hunter’s talk and during many of the other talks that made up King’s College London’s excellent conference on Religious Melancholy.

Bell says that Love Wins was written for everyone who has ever heard a version of Christianity that “caused their pulse to rise, their stomach to churn and their heart to utter those resolute words, ‘I would never be a part of that’” and the conference provided no shortage of these versions.

Dr Peter Damrau of Birkbeck College London told how in Germany in the 17th century, the pietism movement taught a rigorous emphasis on self-examination. People were anxious to experience an intensely emotional conversion, with the authenticity of this apparently measured in the quantity of tears shed in penitence. Failure to do so led to terrible doubts about salvation. There were reports of children committing suicide after reading certain texts (interestingly, Rob Bell speculates that, if certain contemporary teachings on heaven and hell are correct, “prematurely terminating a child’s life anytime from conception to twelve years of age would actually be the loving thing to do”).

In Puritan New England, Vassar College’s Professor Robert DeMaria explained, settlers compensated Native American people for the destruction of their way of life with reformed Protestantism. After seeing their communities decimated, some Native Americans embraced this religion, finding in the teaching of divine providence, sin and God’s wrath a way of understanding the tragedy that had beset them. Yet while they experienced catharsis in the process of confession and penitence, most never attained the moment of rapture supposed to follow this process, remaining trapped in melancholy, spending the rest of their lives trying to propitiate an angry God.

Rob Bell’s contention that “Some Jesuses should be rejected” might have pleased Goethe. In the 1800s this German writer was highly critical of a Christianity that portrayed God as a tyrant. King’s College London’s Professor Matthew Bell quoted Goethe’s suggestion that there are thousands of enemies of religion who “would have loved Christ as a friend, if only he had been portrayed to them as a friend and not as an ill-tempered tyrant who is always ready to let fly with thunder where there is not utter perfection”. In his novel The Ghost-Seer, another German writer, Schiller tells the story of a Prince whose “servile and excessively devout education” bequeaths him a God who is an “an object of terror,” a “being whose occupation it is to punish”.

This kind of God remains familiar to many today, including Rob Bell, who rejects the idea of a deity willing to condemn to Hell all those who fail to meet the requirements of salvation on Earth. This is a God who is “loving one moment, vicious the next”, “kind and compassionate, only to become cruel and relentless in the blink of an eye”.

“That kind of God is simply devastating,” warns Bell. “Psychologically crushing. We can’t bear it. No one can.”

The forms of religious melancholy discussed at the conference at King’s varied enormously. It has not always been associated with anxieties about eternity. Over the centuries it has been variously pathologised as a disease, dismissed as a form of madness, and venerated as evidence of salvation. Nevertheless, I came away with a deeper conviction of the importance of questioning the stories we are told about God.

In The Ghost Seer, Schiller writes of the Prince:

“Religious subjects…always appeared to him like an enchanted castle, into which one does not set one’s foot without horror, and that they act therefore much the wise part who pass it in respectful silence, without exposing themselves to the danger of being bewildered in its labyrinths.”

Without subjecting what we are taught to scrutiny, we run the risk of carrying with us a God we cannot bear. The church’s teaching of truth will continue to change over the centuries, but a review of the anguish that this teaching has caused in the past lends weight to Rob Bell’s belief that “It’s important that we be honest about the fact that some stories are better than others.”

Love Wins concludes that:

“Everybody enjoying God’s good world together with no disgrace or shame, justice being served, and all the wrong things being made right is a better story. It is bigger, more loving, more expansive, more extraordinary, beautiful, and inspiring than any other story about the ultimate course history takes.”

This story, like all other stories, requires scrutiny. But considering the Bible’s teaching that “God is love”,  it doesn’t seem to have been told as as often as it should.


  1. The article about heaven and hell was really interesting, especially for me because I am in Brazil working for an international organisation, and meeting a lot of people who tend to have very syncretic religious beliefs and it’s all very confusing! I find it encouraging to believe that heaven is not closed to a chosen few but I also believe that Jesus is the only way…it is hard to combine these two beliefs. People I have met here who do believe in Jesus also believe in reincarnation and Buddha and spiritual guides and past lives etc etc – they basically believe in everything on offer! I can’t help but think that they are missing the point but I don’t want to come across as arrogant. These are people who are trying their best and who really want to make the world a better place. The reverse of this are the evangelical Brazilians I have met who believe that Jesus is your only hope and that basically, if you don’t commit your life to Jesus and go to church every Sunday, you don’t have a chance. Now, I think this has to do with education and socio-economic conditions. In the UK and other parts of the West we are taught to think for ourselves, to analyse, and to a certain extent create our own reality. In Brazil education is poor and people are often taught by rote, the teacher lectures and the students absorb the information without question. Furthermore, it is pretty much impossible to create your own reality; opportunities are scarce and it is far less frustrating to accept your lot. This produces on the one hand people who are literally creating their own religions and on the other hand people who follow every detail of the Bible to the very last dot. You then wonder how to strike the balance…

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