A few days ago I was handed a leaflet by a couple of young men wearing ties. I thanked them and explained that they had ten seconds to get the fuck off my porch before the Cats Of Hell were unleashed. They both obeyed without question or apparent comprehension. A skill they presumably developed in church.
The leaflet, it turns out, is an insurance policy. "God wants you to be 100% certain that when you die you will go to Heaven." How kind.
In a series of numbered clauses, the leaflet goes on to explain what must be done in order for the reader to go to Heaven and avoid the less attractive option of eternal damnation in Hell.
I confess I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about God ever since I blew the cover off the whole Santa Claus scam. Having been lied to about the existence of one old geezer with a silly beard I worked by analogy and dismissed the existence of the other. Later in life this skepticism extended to Jerry Garcia, thereby saving me from The Grateful Dead. However, a quick inspection of the leaflet revealed that the "naughty or nice" test employed by Santa Claus is pretty small beer compared to the one God uses. And more interestingly, God's criteria exhibit clear signs of profound mental illness. Not only is God working in mysterious ways, it appears he may be wearing a tinfoil hat.
One of the areas that most puzzles me about the Christian God is his parenting skills. We are told repeatedly that he loves his children and has infinite mercy, yet he has a lot of funny rules and regulations about getting in to Heaven. The fundamental problem is that we have all sinned (more accurately our distant relatives did during an incident involving some fruit), and as sinners we cannot go to Heaven. But it's not just that the Pearly Gates are locked to us and we have to hang around outside looking sheepish. It's rather worse. The only way we can pay for our sins is to spend eternity in Hell.
If we step back from this, squint, and assume that the original message must have got mangled in the translation, the God it portrays might be generously regarded as an overzealous disciplinarian. Something like the Headmaster of an all-boys school who is a little too keen on using the cane on teenage backsides. But reading a bit deeper we uncover something far more sinister.
It turns out that there is nothing we can do in terms of living righteously and selflessly and devoting ourselves to helping others that will get us into Heaven. The only way to avoid eternal torment in the fires of hell whilst being poked with sharp sticks like an unfortunate cocktail sausage blah blah... the only way to avoid all that is to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
But it gets far worse. This "saving" concept implies that someone who spends their life disemboweling children for kicks can say: "Oops! Sorry Jesus! Messed up a bit there, but you're the bee's knees, let me in please," and the aforementioned Pearly Gates will swing open with a swishy-swish.
This is the nature of the Insurance Policy described in the leaflet I received from the young men. JC is the Get Out Of Hell Free Card.
Clearly the goal of the pamphlet is to frighten people into a church. And yet I cannot imagine how such a plan would work. Because if I believed even a fraction of this I would be absolutely furious. Perhaps that's what the crazies with the wild hair and plastic bags are screaming about. Maybe they suspect some of this is true.
Basically there is no "naughty or nice" test at all when it comes to determining eternal salvation versus eternal damnation. It all comes down to bending the knee to this Jesus bloke.
And that is what got me thinking. While it's true that this basic bizarre message is dotted over different parts of the New Testament, a lot of the information provided about salvation comes from Jesus himself. Pretty suspicious. I imagine that if I were trying to get a new cult off the ground and had absolutely no ethical or moral compass I might conjure up a doctrine in which a belief in Me as the Son of God was the only way people could avoid eternal torture. The advantage of this scenario is that it does not require that God is a sadistic lunatic. God is merely guilty of allowing his PR department to employ someone like Jesus.
But even here I can not simply dismiss Jesus as an unscrupulous, self-promoting flim-flam man. Perhaps it's my Anglican upbringing, but I remember being quite impressed as a kid with some of what Jesus said. The whole love thy neighbor, turn the other cheek, judge not lest you be judged stuff. Can this really be the same guy who threatened those who chose not to follow him with Hell?
It's this contrast between the hippie-flowers-and-fishes-be-excellent-to-one-another Jesus and the one who sounds considerably more pissed off than Lucifer that I find so baffling. In fact Hell is the central problem to the whole story. It is quite clear from the Bible that Jesus believed in Hell. Indeed, in one of those bits of the Bible that got cut out by an editorial committee (it has a fancy Latin name that sounds like a soft cheese), the reason Jesus was AWOL for three days between being stuck in the tomb and amazing everyone is that he had to pop down to Hell to rescue Moses and the other patriarchs. He may even have rescued some women. The problem being that Moses et al couldn't have been saved by accepting Jesus as Savior on the simple grounds that they died before Jesus was born.
One might argue that if Jesus and/or God (no doubt the Holy Ghost would have a say as well) ran strict to principle they would say "too bad ancient prophets, but these are the rules, you're going to have to stay down there with Old Nick." I suspect the reason an exception was made was to avoid awkward questions when newbies arriving in Heaven asked if they could have a quick chat with Abraham and Isaac and were informed they were permanently unavailable.
So how can all this be reconciled? If we adopt the working hypothesis that Jesus existed and that he is accurately quoted in the Bible, he expresses timeless principles of goodness. But turn a few pages and he is either preaching narcissistic intolerance or he is really letting his hair down and transferring demons from a person into a herd of pigs who then go and drown themselves in the Sea of Galilee.
I don't care who his Dad was. This is not the behavior of a sane man.