garden of earthly delights, hell side
Reading Time: 10 minutes Hieronymus Bosch, Wikipedia.)
Reading Time: 10 minutes

Hi and welcome back! Recently, we began exploring Ronald J. Sider’s 2005 burr-in-the-saddle, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience. With this book, he hoped to persuade his fellow evangelicals so they’d start pretending to care about Jesus’ direct orders. However, one of Sider’s own cherished beliefs stymies that goal. As long as evangelical leaders like Ronald J. Sider push Hell-belief, there’s no way believers will ever care about pursuing that Jesus lifestyle. In fact, it’s why their entire flavor of Christianity is marked more by hypocrisy than by adherence to their rules. Today, I’ll show you how Hell-belief leads to hypocrisy, and more importantly, why it always will.

garden of earthly delights, hell side
Hieronymus Bosch, Wikipedia.)

(In these posts, I abbreviate the book’s title to “Scandal.” Quotes come from the 2005 hardback edition of the book or from other cited sources; I don’t use scare quotes without announcing them. Previous “Scandal” posts: Overview of the BookMeasuring Evangelical HypocrisyThe Myth of Original Christianity Underlying the Book. For the most part, the stuff I’m describing here applies to Christians who hold hell-beliefs.)

(A selection of previous posts about Hell: Be Not Afraid; Hell Is Totally For Real (Are You Sure)?; Questions About Hell I Never Thought To Ask While Christian; Hell as Outdated Marketing; The Christians Who Gloat About People Burning in Hell; A Plot Twist About Faith-For-No-Good-Reason; Disproportional Threats Are So Very Christian.)

A Quick Note About Hell-Belief.

Whenever we talk about Hell, I can’t help thinking about this fact:

About half of Christians don’t believe in Hell, according to the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Study.

Obviously, most evangelicals believe in Hell — that same study tells us that 82% of evangelicals hold this belief, while 12% reject it.

From that link, we can build a general sense of who holds Hell-belief past that obvious gimme.

Christians who fall into these categories, for the most part, are the likeliest to hold Hell-belief:

  • religion is “very important” to their lives
  • claim to attend church “at least once a week”
  • they’re “absolutely certain” their god is real
  • claim to pray at least every day and read the Bible at least once a week
  • claim to participate in various prayer groups/Bible study groups at least once a week

However, even most Christians who hold Hell-belief don’t think that morality is an absolute standard in every situation; most think that the right thing to do varies with the situation. Hell-believers also aren’t die-hard literalists most of the time.

And yes, Hell-believers do tend to be Republican conservatives who hate the idea of government aid to the poor, embrace Creationism, and throw in with the culture wars — but their numbers split pleasingly and surprisingly on all counts there.

So when we talk about the use of Hell as a marketing tactic, we’re hardly talking about every Christian everywhere. The Christians who don’t even believe in Hell are unlikely to go there in their sales pitches.

Indeed, Christian salespeople almost always use pitches that would work on themselves, and that rule applies doubly to the amateur to semi-pro ranks.

Just remember, as we move forward, that Hell-belief is hardly universal.

(LifeWay did a similar survey in 2015 that was probably way shoddier in methodology. That said, they got roughly the same results in this area.)

Reframing Hell.

Reframing is a popular tactic for Christian leaders of all ranks. They do it with all of the atrocities and cruelties in their ideology.

Thus, like almost all Hell-believing Christian salespeople do, our esteemed author tries hard to reframe Hell. Hell needs to sound like something a good, moral, justice-oriented, loving, forgiving, merciful, benevolent, compassionate god would be okay with, when the very concept is very obviously mind-bendingly evil and wicked in every way.

Usually, Christians reframing Hell emphasize how wonderful their god is for giving them a free pass to Heaven. They try their best to ignore and downplay what that pass really represents: a reprieve from Hell.

When Sider emphasizes going-to-Heaven, all a Hell-believer hears is avoiding-Hell — and that’s how Christian marketers like it. Because really, y’all, who even cares where they go after death (if anywhere), as long as it’s not to the Land of Eternal Pain and Torture For No Good Reason? Heckies, even somewhere as boring as Christians make Heaven sound would be better than that, I’d reckon.

That’s the route Sider takes in his book.

Reframing in Action.

Here’s one example of Sider’s reframing game (p. 61):

In parable after parable about God’s astonishing love for sinners, Jesus clearly taught that the only way to enter this dawning kingdom was by sheer grace. [. . .] Forgiveness of sins is at the center of Jesus’ proclamation of the gospel of the kingdom.

He’s pretty good at this game. Just remember, always, what the alternative is to entering the kingdom, in his ideology.

Another example (p. 62):

Yes, one enters this kingdom by sheer grace because God gladly forgives prodigal sons and daughters who repent. This is the vertical part.

Vertical, because these Christians believe Heaven is upstairs while Hell is downstairs, so to speak. You don’t wanna go downstairs, now do you? Then you’d better obey!

crowley heads downstairs to hell while aziraphale goes upstairs to heaven
Good Omens, of course. I love that both staircases appear to go in both directions. It really makes a powerful point in the series about how similar both sides are to each other.

And one last quote, just to show you just how hard Sider avoids stating the obvious (p. 64):

We all deserve divine punishment. Thank God that our holy, awesomely righteous Judge gladly forgives our sins as we trust in Christ’s death for us.

I actually snerked when I saw that.

Oh yeah, Sider’s god is one heckuva guy.

Fer shur.

Sider’s Coy Skittishness About Hell.

Man alive, this dude just does not want to say exactly what that “divine punishment” really is, does he? This is literally as close as he seems to get to bringing up Hell. Instead, the concept dances always at the far edges of his reframing.

In fact, even when he discusses concepts like sin and invokes literal demons as the agents causing abuse and scandals in evangelical groups, I don’t think he even once uses the H-word. Jesus himself talked about Hell and threatened people with it, though his version didn’t look much like the one Hell-believers fear today, so this omission comes off as very strange as well as intellectually dishonest and disingenuous.

Instead, Sider talks a lot about salvation.

And see, the only way “salvation” becomes relevant at all is if there’s some dire threat looming that people need saving from.

Hell-believers can dress the idea up as the bonus plan as much as they want, but the threat’s always there. If no threat existed, then there’d be nothing we’d need saving from and Christians would call the situation something else entirely, like maybe cosmic Jesus improvement.

Instead, Hell-believers think there is a threat and that people do need rescuing from it.

The Full Salvation Formula.

But don’t worry!

Ronald J. Sider is right here to tell us all what it takes to escape the dire fate he can’t even bring himself to name.

In fact, this exact method of escape constitutes one of the major themes of his entire book.

Here it is:

People can only achieve salvation through psychic apologies to Jesus and living the lifestyle King Sider thinks Jesus commanded.


kronk I can feel it gif
SOMEONE feels it.

To bolster his assertion, Sider reprints part of a popular 1999 evangelical declaration of faith. This declaration outlined exactly how to avoid Hell (p. 63; here’s a link reprinting the full declaration):

We affirm that saving faith results in sanctification, the transformation of life in conformity to Christ. . . . We deny that saving faith includes only mental acceptance of the Gospel.

Ah, okay. Well, if they said so, then fine.

Now, obviously Sider never actually explicitly says “if you don’t psychically-apologize and then live the Jesus-commanded lifestyle, then you will 100% for suresies go to Hell.” That’s way too overt and straightforward for him.

But the hints of Hell-fer-Sartin run all through his book, subtly undermining his equally constant reassurances that Jesus always insta-forgives people who believe in him and psychically apologize for offending him.

Pissing On His Own Shoes.

If Jesus is willing to insta-forgive people under those terms, I don’t see why he couldn’t also insta-forgive Christians who psychically apologize for not living his lifestyle.

But I guess that simple truth would totally negate any need for this book. It’d also destroy Sider’s attempt to persuade his tribe that they super-really-muchly need to start living the Jesus lifestyle he envisions.

But don’t worry. Sider doesn’t destroy his own premise by acknowledging the contradictions in his own ideology.

Instead, Sider destroys his own premise by invoking terror.

I can’t help but feel amazed at how few Christians really understand this one simple, overriding fact about the human condition:

It’s not really perfect love that casts out fear. Rather, it’s fear that casts out perfect love. The moment threats bust their way into a heart, love flees it by the back door.

Unfortunately, once hucksters bring terror into their game, they can’t really pull back on that throttle ever again. You see, fear has entered the game. Once it enters, it destroys everything on the gameboard (including the players).

Love cannot exist in such a game, and neither can any finer, subtler, better emotions or impulses.

Self-preservation now governs the players and determines their moves, and that’s how it’ll be forever more. Instead of love, the players now pursue capitulation.

The Problem With Using Terror as a Sales Tactic.

So a big part of Sider’s error involves his use of fear-of-Hell as a sales tactic in the first place.

When a threat looms over someone that’s as disproportional and overwhelming, as monstrous and evil, as unavoidable and vicious as Hell, it stomps out of existence all lesser considerations.

It’d be like realizing you left your car keys in a building engulfed in fire. You might be sad that you’ve lost your car keys, but you’re absolutely not plunging into that building to try to find them. Or imagine realizing you left your best friend’s camera in a tent now being torn apart by an enraged grizzly bear. No way are you risking the bear’s wrath to get it back! Or, not to put too fine a point on it, maybe it’s like how a head-cage full of angry rats in 1984 easily induced a man offer up his one true love to be tortured instead of himself.

Similarly, once someone invokes Hell as a sales tactic, they’ve just lost all other tactics foreverNobody will be thinking of lovey-dovey Boyfriend!Jesus after the salespeople reveal his bloodlust, rage, wrath, and cruelty.

If Jesus’ salespeople even try to invoke the image of their impotent, incompetent godling weeping at their marks’ doors and begging them to pleeeeeeeeeeze open up, then I guarantee those marks will only be thinking of what he’ll do to them if they don’t.

Why Hell-Terror Works Against Sider’s Vision.

There is nothing loving, merciful, just, forgiving, benevolent, good, kind, or compassionate about Hell. Its sheer brutality overwhelms everything else. That’s why it works so well as a marketing tactic.

This kind of fear can tear children from parents, parents from children, lovers from each other. It rends and tears and rips, instead of building and repairing and nurturing. It is the ultimate expression of evil: harm done for no good reason, to achieve no end except itself, for unthinkably minor offenses, and with no redemption or learning or mercy or escape to end it, ever.

And through it all, through everything we know about the evil of Hell, we just have to laugh, don’t we, when we consider this sadly-hilarious fact:

Ronald J. Sider thinks he’s discovered some magical way to sell Hell-avoidance to marks. He thinks he can sell his vision by only obliquely invoking the terror that always accompanies the idea of Hell itself, so his marks will then concentrate on this other thing he thinks is important.

And y’all.

That ain’t how terror works.

Hell-terror creates a reflexive response of self-preservation. Nothing else matters to someone laboring under this fear. If Sider approves of Hell as any kind of marketing tactic, then he’s complicit in exactly the problem he thinks he’s identified.

The Roots of Hypocrisy.

If fear-of-Hell marketing succeeds, the mark gets flooded with instinctual urges toward self-preservation.

However, self-preservation does not allow room for any other courses of action.

Someone panicking about self-preservation isn’t thinking anymore about self-reflection, introspection, communal living in harmony, or most especially living a life marked by humility, charity, and compassion. Those are finer sentiments than a terrified person can muster.

The only goal for such a person is getting safe.

Once that person’s gotten safe, the goal becomes staying safe.

And if that person feels they’ve achieved that goal, then everything is fine again — until the next terrifying crisis sparks their fear of maybe-not-being-safe after all.

This is why amateur soulwinners insist that the important thing is for their marks to do what they say, not what they do. They know they’re hypocrites, but they’re safe hypocrites. Their marks are not safe right now, and this is how they can become safe even if they convert and become hypocrites themselves.

(And yes, this is pretty much what my then-husband Biff told people when they brought up his own incredible hypocrisy. He was a Heaven-bound hypocrite, and to him that’s all that mattered.)

The Goal of Safety.

Thankfully, evangelicals can stay safe through apologizing psychically to Jesus. Luckily, he’s not allowed to refuse to forgive them!

But that does mean that their Dear Leaders are always dealing with hypocrites in their ranks. To outsiders, it looks like evangelicals aren’t even pretending to care about what Jesus told them to do. To evangelical sheep themselves, they’re doing exactly what’s required to ensure their own safety from their shepherd.

Making matters worse, the stress of living with such a ginormous, utterly-out-of-scope threat all but pushes evangelicals toward self-soothing mechanisms that are, to say the least, hypocritical to some greater or lesser extent. But thankfully, they can instantly achieve safety again with their magic spell.

Anything else they can manage beyond safety from Hell is just frosting on their golden mansion cupcake, but it’s a frosting they never feel like mixing up.

And why should they? What more will it give them that matters?

NEXT UP: Speaking of which, tomorrow we’ll look at how my then-husband Biff totally stymied some poor Mormon missionaries trying to sell him on a Heaven upgrade. This is one of the funniest Biff stories I have, I think, and I’ll share it with you next time. See you then!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...