One of the key incidents in the reconstruction of my faith happened as I worked through my grief at my father’s death. I had been taught a hard-lined Evangelical sense of “salvation”—if you haven’t said a specific prayer “asking Jesus into your heart,” you are not a Christian and are going to hell. I was quite sure that my laconic, kind-hearted, low-keyed father had never “confessed Christ” in the all-important formula. And he was dead. My Evangelically-influenced mind was distraught. For my own mental health, I needed to find a way to make sense of this.
Thus, a month or so after my father’s death, I spent some hours alone on Refugio Beach north of Santa Barbara, California. In my heart, I held a traumatizing question: Was my father now in hell? As I walked and cried and prayed, I had the sense of a Divine but silent Voice asking me some gentle questions.
The Divine Voice: You are a good mother. Do you somehow need your children to follow a formula, telling you that they love you in a very specific way in order for you to care for them?
Me: Of course not. That would be rigid and ridiculous.
D.V.: Was your father a good and loving father to you?
Me: He was not perfect. But yes, he certainly was a good and loving father to me.
D.V.: Did your father have a good and loving father?
Me: No, he did not. In fact, he never even met or even heard from his father until he was nineteen years old. He was in the Merchant Marines in WWII and was in New York City, when he contacted his father and they finally met.
D.V.: So your father had no experience of a loving father, yet he learned to be a loving father to you?
Me: Um, yeah.
D.V.: Sit with that a minute.
D.V. Your father did a remarkable job in learning to give what had never been given to him. Do you think that I would honor that less than you do? Do you think that I am less of a father than your father was? Do you think that I would treat even one of my children in the way his father treated him? Do you think that I am more small-minded and less capable of love than you are?
D.V.: Peace. Peace. Be at peace.
Your father is at peace.
That day at the aptly named Refugio Beach, what I needed was not refuge from my grief, but refuge from the Evangelical paradigm. I had been taught to read scripture with in a very specific way, to interpret the things that Jesus and others said in the New Testament in a way that was binary: you’re-in-or-you’re-out, you’re-saved-or-you’re-damned. This hermeneutic, or way of reading, was a lens that distorted the deeply loving truths of the Bible. If the most important paradigm by which to read the words of Jesus was that of being “born again” as an Evangelical Christian, I was in trouble. On the other hand, reading scripture through the Greatest Commandment–love God and love your neighbor–offered a transformative, abundant, and grace-filled way to understand the same words. Of course God loved my father more than I could ever understand. Of course no one is kept from heaven on a legalistic technicality.
Since that day, I have never worried for even a moment about my father, or anyone else, being in hell. I have heard it said that how you choose to people your hell says more about you than it does about those you are damning. We would all be far better people if we kept this in mind.