I recently went to see Joker.
It’s a bit of a controversial film at the moment. Some are calling it “entertaining” others are calling it “violent.” I found it neither entertaining nor a celebration of violence. I found it to be an Art House film that made me think deeply about lost members of society.
An early scene struck me especially. Happy (the Joker) is told by his social worker that funding has been cut. He will no longer have a therapist, and he no longer has a direct way to get his meds.
(Things spiral from there.)
In my current neighborhood, there’s a “madman” on every corner. Someone babbles at you from a toothless mouth any time you walk to the grocery store. Within a certain radius, you can be sure of running into someone so unloved and forgotten they mumble their feelings to an empty street, then turn to you and ask for change. The reason they’re all there? A mental health facility was shut down in the 80s due to lack of funding. Almost forty years later, these people are still wandering the same blocks.
If you hadn’t seen the title of the article — if you’d merely read that opening — you’d be expecting a piece on social justice. But I’m not here to discuss Christianity and Social Justice. Not this time. The Joker, and our homeless population, and our cultural abandonment of the mentally unstable, instead has me thinking about:
Fire and Brimstone
For centuries, Christians have accepted that everyone goes to hell unless they’re committed to Jesus. That’s why the Us-Vs-Them of Being Right is so important. Catholics are going to hell; Protestants will win. Our focus, our boiling-pot of emotions, has all been geared around conversion. We will burn the skin off Native Americans, no problem. We just need to change their mind about God. They need to be correct.
I’ve accepted, like every other good little Christian, that Heaven and Hell are a complicated balance. That you need to be walking with God or you might lose your salvation. That being saved is dicey. That all the people who died in Auchwitz still ended up tortured for all eternity. That if your grandmother accepts Jesus with dementia, she might still go to hell.
Recently a friend said they started believing in universal salvation,
and my toes curled in, and my stomach went sour.
My stomach went sour, because this sounded like sacrilege of the worst degree. Good grief. People could be murderers, die, and then choose whether or not to say yes to Jesus? They didn’t have to accept Jesus FIRST? We didn’t need to reach the tribes of Africa? The second coming of Christ wasn’t dependent on the rapidity of our mission trips? People could come to Jesus after death — anyone could have him — anyone could be okay?
But my toes also curled in. I felt light. I felt full of euphoria. Because secretly, that sounded like a Jesus who made sense 100% of the time. A Jesus who died for literally everyone. It would still come to a final choice, to call on His name, but the choice was free and fair and perfect. Anyone and everyone, no matter how poorly they were loved in this life — they got paradise. Jesus no longer shrugged and said, “Oh well,” about the souls who died in South America 4 years after his resurrection. “Oh well” to your shriveling skin and eternity of screaming. “Oh well” to you, who were abused by a Pastor-Father and couldn’t stomach God anymore in this life. Sucks to be you.
In a flash, I understood why early Christians called it the GOOD NEWS. Why they wanted to run around telling everyone. I suddenly felt like a little kid — I wanted to hug somebody and cry. We’d been saved. All of us. THIS was good news! THIS was perfect love!
Before you write me epistles below this article, telling me that yes, in fact, many people are going to hell, and that, for writing this article, I am, in fact, one of them: this is all still in my brain. I am unsure. I am merely mulling over the concept with you.
Because if no one has to go to hell, then no one has to be converted. And what, then, is our purpose?
The Purpose Changes
I can only answer this question from a personal perspective.
I have no desire to convert anyone. I would be lying if I told you it was there. Because of my personality, I don’t like insisting that I’m right. I don’t like debating. I don’t like “winning” truth. Witnessing has always seemed oddly smarmy to me.
I’ve also seen some Church Personalities that made me feel green. The people hungriest for mission work tended to be the people who loved winning debates. Who loved having the ducks of their theology in a row. Who loved to bask in their correctness.
Who loved to hang their conversions on a scalp bet. Got one.
If my life purpose as a Christian is to change people’s minds on a set of rules, I am unmotivated. But if everyone around me is going to heaven because God loves them so, I suddenly want them to know that. I want to tell the homeless man on the corner, whose mother abused him since the day he was two, that God loves him. He can’t even think clearly anymore — but someday — whether he screams at me and calls me a bitch or not — he’s going to Heaven. He’s going to be perfectly, wholly loved. His suffering is going to end.
I think he deserves to know that. Just to hear it. I want to spin around with him like someone in a Dickens Christmas story.
I think of the mentally unstable, and I wonder what would have happened to them if the Church had stopped focusing on the Future (tallied souls) and instead focused on Present. It is hard to micromanage souls; it is not hard to weed gardens and write letters to prisoners. It is not hard to be a good friend. Instead, I see us focusing on a long, complex business strategy. If we stopped worrying about correctness and instead started worrying about the bleeding psyche two doors down, I wonder what would happen?
Is this why Christians are leaving the American church in droves, why no one seems satisfied with the message of Christianity?
Have we… missed the point?