The Christianity through which I was born and raised – White Anglo Saxon Protestant, Mom a Southern Baptist, Dad Pentecostal-turned-Presbyterian – never missed a chance to frighten and threaten little kids like me. If we did not shape up RIGHT THIS INSTANT, there was every chance we’d go straight to Hell, where absolute and constant misery would accompany an eternity of separation from Father God in Heaven.
It’s not like I was constantly under the shaking finger – I didn’t need to be, so thorough was the programming. Through weekly Sunday School and church services, through school teachers, coaches, family elders and mass media imagery, I joined millions of others who grew up believing that, if one does not “accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior,” one will “die in his sins” and end up in a place of “everlasting punishment” that is never quite described in the Bible, but implied through every theological interpretation that came down the pike.
Questioning the “obvious” truth that “Jesus Saves” is not only dangerous to one’s salvation, it is tantamount to doubting the very existence of God – and this is not permitted.
This indoctrinated way of thinking has led to countless wars, the prison industry, racial suppression, ghettos and every other “divide and conquer” policy that has ever been forced upon the human family.
On a personal level, this indoctrinated way of thinking has created a guilt complex that assumes we are all evil at the core, that, unless we are watched like a hawk and herded in the “right” direction, we will always make the wrong choices and end up in Hell.
That is, unless we say the magic words and are welcomed into the Christian Club as dues-paying members. “I accept Jesus Christ, who died on the cross to save me from my sins, as my personal Lord and Savior.” Say those words, have some old guy sprinkle a little water on your head… and you’re in the clear! Aside from “blaspheming the Holy Spirit” (huh?), there’s nothing you can do to screw up your salvation, once you’ve said the magic words and gotten a little wet in the process.
Someone who grows up in the Church seeking genuine, firsthand “spiritual experience” is bound to run up against a brick wall, over and over and over again. Someone asking what it must’ve been like to follow Jesus when he walked the Earth – to witness the miracles, to be filled with the Spirit, to transcend “normal” human experience – won’t find answers in biblical interpretations developed by theologians down through the centuries. There is no Department of Direct Spiritual Experience down at the local Presbyterian Church. There is no enlightened Elder or Master who will help us navigate the inner Mystery realms of prayer, contemplation and communion. There is just a Bible and its official interpreters, and if we can’t get by with that… tough luck.
The Bible itself, of course, is a collection of writings that was allowed cannonical status through a series of contentious gatherings of “early fathers” who, ultimately, decided what was “inspired” and what was “heretical.” The original languages went through official translations into Latin – and as the Roman Empire transformed into the Catholic Church, only priests could read the Bible – who were themselves indoctrinated to use the threat of eternal Hell to keep the masses in line. When the Bible was translated into common European languages in the 1500’s and 1600’s, the doctrine of “everlasting Hell” persisted and deepened, such that it is nearly unheard of to challenge the notion that “belief in Jesus Christ” is all that separates a human being from an eternity in Hell.
With all this emphasis on going to Hell if we haven’t purchased “heaven insurance” through saying the magic words, an even more elemental question goes unasked: from what does salvation save us?
The “consequences of sin,” you answer?
This is what the guardians of orthodoxy always say, of course… but what does it mean, really?
What does it mean in terms of the experience of “being delivered” by Jesus Christ?
Is it just a vast sense of relief that, when I die, I won’t go to the Hot Place?
Or is there some quality that salvation imparts to the seeker?
It seems to me that what I’m being delivered from is an eternity of blind belief that I am in any way separate from the totality of existence.
The Gospel books of the Bible show how Jesus railed against the religious hierarchy of his time, knowing that the priesthood was filled with pretenders who did not have a direct connection with God, but who hid behind “holy books” that were used to bludgeon the people with threats and intimidation. When Jesus said, “I am the way,” he wasn’t saying that his eventual death on the Cross would open a path that would allow The Elect into heaven, while the rest of us would roast in eternal fire. When he said, “I am the way,” he was showing that we don’t need a book or a priest to deliver us from “sin.” He was showing that the Father is available to each and every one of us, right here in our hearts, never separate, always One.
His message of salvation, in other words, amounted to directing his followers to go within, to pray, commune and contemplate, to open themselves to the Source of all. When we make this connection, we are saved from our separate state. When we remain in our delusion of separation, we are cut off from the Source, and we are doomed to flounder under the thumb of priests and books that enforce our delusion, smothered under threats and intimidation that may literally last lifetimes here on Earth.
There really is a perennial teaching when it comes to spiritual salvation/enlightenment. This teaching, whether it comes from Krishna, Buddha, Christ Jesus, Rumi or Nisargadatta Maharaj, not only encourages “blasphemous” questions about the nature of existence and ultimate meaning of life, but insists that the answers will always be found within. We are encouraged to turn away from the world “out there” to a place inside our hearts that is far more “real,” more alive, more connected with the Infinite than anything offered by this room full of mirrors… and there will always be a religious authority that condemns such teachings, seeking to relegate the rest of us to an eternity of separation from the one and only Source.
It’s not easy to wake up from our indoctrination, but if nothing else, Jesus showed us that it can be done.
He didn’t come to threaten; he came to enlighten.