When Hellfire & Damnation Preachers Meet A Loving & Forgiving God
Excerpted from “Revealing Heaven: The Christian Case for Near-Death Experiences”
By Reverend John W. Price
Although they are somewhat simplified labels, “dark” and “happy” may be seen as representing the two ways religious congregations and their leaders go about the process of inserting their perception of God’s will into religious practice. The former do so by frightening the faithful with hellfire and eternal damnation, with long lists of dos and don’ts to control unruly human wills. Many people are drawn to this approach, and some churches that proceed in this manner prosper and grow very strong.
I have heard that in some of her lectures Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross related the story of a “hellfire and damnation” preacher who had a heart attack and died, but was resuscitated. As soon as he could, he got back into his pulpit and said, “Everything I’ve told you was wrong. God loves us and wants to forgive us. He loves, forgives, redeems.” Kübler-Ross did not say what happened next. But, based on several instances I have heard of in which preachers changed their basic message from fear of God to God as love, I might hazard a guess that either the preacher was asked to leave or the congregation dwindled away.
Some preachers build a congregation based on fear of a wrathful, vindictive God who hates sinners. Within American Protestantism this tradition traces its lineage back to Jonathan Edwards during a period of American church history called the “Great Awakening,” which occurred between 1730 and 1745. Edwards’s 1741 sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” epitomizes the Puritan theology of this particular tradition down to this day.
“That was me,” wrote Robert, the former fundamentalist pastor I mentioned earlier who had his own near-death experience and was annoyed that he had to return. “In fact, I used to tell people to read ‘In the Hands of an Angry God’! I preached mean, angry. I made God out to be a being to be feared. All that foolishness.” During Robert’s near-death experience, he left his body and floated away:
“I went into what looked like a womb that was dark, except you could see in the dark. There was a yellow ball that lit up the womb, but even in the dark I could see. P. M. H. Atwater describes this exact scenario in one of her books. The dark place looks like a sonogram of a baby. Yet it’s lit by the yellow light, but still was dark. Weird, I know. I believe I went into a womb of some nature to be healed. It was like my hard drive just got completely erased, and I came back to have to relearn.”
He rested in this peaceful state for some time — “it seemed like five minutes” — and returned:
“The moment I woke up from the coma, I knew that I’d believed a lie that had hurt thousands of people. People would fill the churches up to hear this [lie]. I had a very charismatic personality. It seemed the less I preached in love, the more busy I stayed.”
When he returned to his pulpit, he shared his new insight about a loving and forgiving God. The congregation melted away; his income went down to nothing. His family even turned away, except for his loving wife, who liked what he had become. I know of three preachers with similar backgrounds who lost their congregations when they switched to talk about a loving God.
Robert lost his career. He told me, “I can’t tell those lies anymore. I can’t preach that crap. I hurt thousands of people.” He taught a religion of fear and now knows God offers a religion of love. I’ve had a great and challenging time sharing a loving version of Christianity with him. He is excited about learning to use God’s love as a lens to see new insights in scripture. He now says, “Now that I do know the love of God and life, I have no place to share it. In my hospice work, I share my story with all my patients I think are open to it. Never yet had one get offended when I tell them about going into the God of love.”
Robert now knows God loves and forgives in every instance when one cries out to him. God gave another chance to the ones with whom I’ve spoken who were receiving hellish punishment when they cried out, “Lord, help me” or “Jesus, help me.” God is not dogmatic or particular to a specific religion or sect. He is universal and, as John tells us, simply love. This revelation led Robert to quit his pastorate.
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— Reverend John W. Price, “Revealing Heaven: The Christian Case for Near-Death Experiences”, Pages 141-142