I passed a church today whose sign informed me that I’m going to hell. The message wasn’t quite that direct, of course. It was couched in the semi-sweet chocolate of religious metaphor mixed with a generous dose of homey satire but its underlying message was clear: I shouldn’t expect to be standing in the line that enters the pearly gates after my demise. It’s not that I might make it to the line and get stuck there, like someone waiting outside the new, hip nightclub trying to persuade the doorman to let him across the rope. Nope. According to the sign, I’ll be at a different address, searching for some sunscreen with an SPF factor of a zillion.
To be fair, the church sign didn’t specifically mention my name in its message of condemnation. It wasn’t directed at me personally. It was for everyone that passed by – everyone that failed to do or act or think in the way that the church sign announced must be done to avoid a fiery future. It isn’t just me that is going to hell. Lots of us are.
This isn’t the first church sign that I’ve read which announces death and destruction to those who read it. They’re very common. There’s one particular church in our community whose pronouncements are so boldly acidic that I can only imagine how miserable and depressing a community of believers must be that would post such bitter messages.
The thing that strikes me odd about these church signs is that everyone already knows they’re imperfect. Everyone is fully aware of their faults, their shortcomings, their failures to do the right thing at the appropriate times, the struggle to have integrity and honor and commitment to a goal higher than oneself. And for some people, their life situation is so difficult , they probably think they’re in hell right now. None of us really needs a church sign to reinforce our insecurities, self-doubt and anxiety. That’s what existentialist philosophers are for.
What many people could benefit from is a word of encouragement, an acknowledgement that their life has meaning and a hopeful optimism that values kindness above condemnation. That, after all, is the message that Jesus told his followers to spread – the good news. “I have not come to condemn the world,” Jesus is quoted as saying in John’s gospel.
Imagine that. A church sign that says we are your neighbors not your judge. If they could just get that part right, there is hope that they could act on another of Jesus’ sayings: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”