A few days ago I was in town shopping, and the usual group of Hell-fire preachers were in full force, writes our honorary assistant priest Jonathan Clatworthy.
One was wearing a red ‘Make America Great Again’ cap. I asked him whether he was a Trump supporter. Yes, he said. Trump was doing God’s will by supporting Israel. God had appointed Trump. I noticed that another member of the team wore a cap saying ‘Israel’.
I was told about the Romans 13 passage declaring that governments were appointed by God. I asked whether that applied only to the USA or to all governments. After a moment’s hesitation, he challenged me on whether I believed the Bible was the Word of God.
The subject quickly turned to Hell. It became apparent that this was the motor driving his preaching. If you give your life to Jesus, and let Jesus into your life, you will live a Christian life and receive salvation when you die. Otherwise, bad news.
So I asked both the obvious questions. First, what difference does it make to a person’s life when they let Jesus into their lives? He knew of two things. Christians don’t swear. And don’t blaspheme. What, I asked, about the homeless people sitting on the pavement, visible from where we were speaking? Did the Christian life involve doing anything about them? He didn’t relate to that question. Presumably the answer was no.
Second question: why would God send so many people to Hell? What about the texts saying God is love? God is holy, he explained, and cannot tolerate sin. Why not? Who is obliging God to be so intolerant? What is it about holiness that makes him so cruel?
And so on. Eventually I thanked him for the discussion and walked on - only to be accosted again.
This time the speakers were smartly dressed young men. ‘Which supplier do you use for your gas and electricity?’ Lacking the energy for another discussion, I replied ‘A gas and electricity supplier’ and moved on.
Their next victim caught up with me. ‘What a shame’, I said, ‘that those healthy young men are spending their time on this pointless activity’. ‘Yes’, he replied, ‘while the country is crying out for bricklayers’.
The first team expressed Christianity at its worst. Fear of punishment after death provokes them to pass the fear on, like a virus.
The second team expressed the logical outcome of atheism. Life has no purpose or meaning. Nothing is valuable except to the extent that we invent the idea of value for ourselves. We are driven by our hormones to stay alive however we can, so we earn money in whatever way ‘the market’ makes available.