You Can Have Your Hell: John Piper and the Brokenness of a Hell-based Gospel

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[trigger warning: death of children]

I’m sure by now you’ve heard all about John Piper’s “missteps” this week. This post is not about him, not really, though we have plenty of reason to be wary of his “Gospel.”

This post is about the Church - the churches I grew up in, the places that granted me my theology degree, the conferences I attended, and the way we view other people.

When I was in college, I was involved in the evangelism ministry of Campus Crusade For Christ. For my first two years of college, over Christmas break, I attended a big conference in downtown Minneapolis called TCX. It was at TCX that I was taught how to evangelize, how to make sharing the Gospel a priority, and how to see people not as people but as receptacles for my speeches.

One year, we were all given little pieces of red or green construction paper and told to hold them against our foreheads. We were told that “green” means “saved” and therefore that person was fine and we could move on. “Red” meant “unsaved” or “unbeliever,” and therefore it was our goal to turn that red into green – like a stoplight. We were literally taught to see the people around us emblematic of a category and to prioritize “getting them saved” over any level of comfort they may have.

Another year, we were shown a video that featured a large man tackling people – painfully! – in his effort to evangelize. The “funny” of the video was that, if you didn’t evangelize, you were going to get painfully knocked to the ground and yelled at by a large black man. No one literally thought this would happen, of course, but the message was clear – evangelism and “saving souls” was the most important thing you can do, because Hell is a bad, bad place and we want to make sure Heaven is populated.

These are the sermons I grew up with – Hell is real and we need to save people from it.

In high school, I had an atheist best friend. I remember one awful night where I was “convicted” of my “lack of witness” for her soul. The next morning, I showed up to school and immediately started badgering her about Jesus and how much Jesus loves her, paying no attention to her comfort level. It was more important that she just heard the message because that would assuage my conscience.

The conversation ended when she screamed “FUCK YOU, DIANNA, I DON’T CARE,” and walked away. Even then, I was more hurt that I’d been told to fuck off than that I’d hurt my best friend by seeing her as a soul, not a person.

That’s why it didn’t surprise that John Piper put forward yet another insensitive call to repent following the Oklahoma tornado that smashed through Moore – and did so on the very night they were still searching for children in the rubble of the school. And it didn’t surprise me further when followers of Piper and other evangelicals defended his tweet with arguments about how the timing doesn’t matter as long as the Gospel gets said.

I've encountered a lot people who literally could not see a problem with delivering a “turn and repent for the brokenness of the world” message in the wake of a disaster. They literally thought it was justified to instruct parents and spectators to repent because their sin is what caused this disaster – before it was even known which children had died, before the parents knew whether they’d spend their week planning a funeral or sitting by a hospital bedside.

There’s a reason for this. We have given the specter of Hell such primacy in our Gospel that it has turned us into unsympathetic robots. We have made Hell necessary in a way that distorts, twists, and destroys the Gospel. We have made Hell greater than Heaven.

We tell people to turn and repent because we are sinners in the hands of an angry God, dangling like spiders over a pit. At the same moment, we insinuate that God is the creator of the pit because a righteous punishment is needed and necessary and he is righteous. We give Hell such centrality in our Gospel message that we can’t describe what Heaven may look like – we are so busy saving souls from Hell that we forget real people exist.

And what are we saving them to? A god who, but for a few words in a prayer, would have cast the lot of us into fiery torment? A god with such a temper than he kills children? A god who needs an evil Hell to exist in order to contrast his Heaven?

What if we gave up on Hell? What if we stopped being so concerned about what we’re saving people FROM and instead focused on what we are bringing them TO?

How do we enact the Kingdom of God, on Earth as it is in Heaven, if we are so focused on Hell and torment? How do we bring about Kingdom justice and Kingdom mercy when we are so focused on making sure people are “right with God so they don’t receive His wrath?” How do we sustain a life with Christ when we are so focused on Good Friday and not Resurrection Sunday?

The Gospel is not about saving people from Hell. The Gospel is not about turning and repenting. The Gospel is not about a God with a magnifying glass and us as the ants, hoping not to burn. The Gospel is not about Hell.

The Gospel is, instead, a community of life, a way of living that enacts justice and mercy in today’s world, regardless of whether Hell exists or not. The Gospel is, instead, a gracious, life giving story in which people are called to play their parts fully, to their full giftedness. The Gospel is one in which people are allowed to be fully human, fully who God created them to be, and fully in communion with others in peace and grace and justice and mercy.

The Gospel of the Jesus I know is one which does not blame the victims for the tragedies they suffered, but instead understands that weeping with those who weep and mourning with those who mourn is a better display of love than any message of “turn and repent.”

The Gospel of the Jesus I know proclaims that love and understanding and seeing the full humanity of our fellow human beings is part of living within the Trinitarian reality of the Image of God.

The Gospel of the Jesus I know contains a Holy Spirit, who begs us to “shut the fuck up and listen” more often than She asks us to open our mouths and speak of repentance. Indeed, when She requests that we speak, it is more often of liberty, of liberation, of justice than it is of wrath and pain.

The Gospel of the Jesus I know frees us to see people as they are, humans, created by God, worthy of justice and mercy simply because they exist as God’s creation, and our brothers and sisters in grace.

This is the only Gospel I am interested in, because this is the Gospel that requires more of me than any other. This is the Gospel that doesn’t provide me with answers, that doesn’t give me an easy out like “turn and repent” when evil happens. This is the Gospel that requires I sit with the hurting for seven days and seven nights, that I wear sackcloth with the mourning, and that I remain silent except to cry out in empathy with the suffering.

This is the Gospel I believe. You can have your Hell. I’d rather have humanity.