One thing I love about the Orthodox? When it comes to Western views of hell, their mouths drop open and they just tell it like it is:
“You believe God predestines people to an eternity in hell? That’s hideous!”
“You believe a loving God would punish anybody, at any age, for any sin, with an eternal sentence of non-stop, excruciating physical torment? What kind of God do you worship?!”
Their frankness always startled me. They didn’t hem and haw and play Bible ping pong. They didn’t use the language of theological debate. They spoke from their gut. They spoke what we all want to believe about God.
And now that they mention it, yes. I suppose a God like that does sound awful.
Isn’t it weird what horrible things we will believe until somebody outside our circular reasoning says them out loud?
So my first response, when anybody says something about how all sins are equal, is to drop my jaw and ask, “Wait, seriously? You believe yelling a curse word when you stub your toe is the same as brutally murdering someone?”
I believed this too. Sometimes, when I was thinking a bit more clearly, I’d respond, “Well, no, obviously, there are different degrees of punishment and consequences here on earth, but still, the eternal consequences of sin are the same for every sin.”
To which I want to get all Orthodox on my past self and say, “You seriously believe a one-year-old’s temper tantrum is worthy of an eternity of physical torment, as worthy as someone who might brutally rape that one-year-old? That’s sick.”
Besides misrepresenting the nature of God as something more capricious and senseless than your average human judge, this sort of thinking often immobilizes Christians against true injustice or causes them to go after lesser evils as heinous…especially when it comes to sexuality.
It amazes me how some parts of the Christian community demonize consensual extramarital sex — or, heaven forbid, cleavage in church — but are unaware of, or even dismissive of, sexual assault, abuse, and rape within our communities and leaders.
The same thing goes for gays. Christians, I think, are at a loss on how to label consensual, monogamous gay relationships as “an abomination” — but it’s so much easier to call something so seemingly innocuous an abomination if all sin is equally abominable: “Bro, you’re going to hell for being gay. But don’t worry, I’m going to hell too. We all are. So don’t feel triggered or targeted. God’s sending everybody to hell for all kinds of things. Just love Jesus.”
It’s an attempt at camaraderie.
And I think that’s part of the reason why we got so comfortable saying “all sins are equal”: it doesn’t make us look like total jerks for preaching damnation to decent human beings. If all sins are equal, we can still say that the Muslim who prays five times a day, and the agnostic who pours her life out defending sex trafficking victims, and every other non-believer who demonstrates the fruit of the Spirit without the Spirit, are still going to hell, and still needing Jesus.
“I haven’t done anything too horrible either,” we Christians essentially say, “but I’m going to hell too! So I’m not judging! I’m just doing my Christian job.”
I find that line of argumentation weak, at best, and pathetic, at worst — I mean that as nicely as possible, because I know, when we say things like that, we really, truly mean well. But it still sounds weak and pathetic — a Christianese phrase that doesn’t jive with the reality of sin, people, and the nature of a loving God.
I want to end this post with this awkwardness, unresolved. It was important for me, to truly work through why I believed what I believed, to see the stark, embarrassing, offensive things I said to others. It made a difference to stare at this doctrine of sin, hell, and God with my God-given conscience turned all the way up and that urge to reach for a prooftext turned all the way off.
(In case you’re scared of the slippery slope into heresy, I’ll say this: I do believe in an idea of hell, people’s proclivity to sin, and their need for a Savior, and I believe all of this, those ideas and this post’s criticisms, is consistent with each other and Scripture.)