Easter is the biggest day on the church-going calendar and for many, a pastel-colored morning which serves as their annual check-in to make sure nothing in the Bible has changed since they heard it a year ago. Those people usually sit somewhere near the back of the room so they aren’t close enough to catch the anointing and feel guilted into returning next week.
More than any other Sunday, Easter Sunday is supposed to be a ticker tape resurrection parade—a celebration of victory over death like the Ewok’s dance party when the Death Star explodes. Not only did Jesus take the bullet for mankind, but he told death to go to hell, kicked the door of the tomb down and did a month-long victory lap around Judea. That’s worth celebrating. However, the whole “Easter” thing has become much more involved than that. The reason for being there is still the same but all that pomp and circumstance can make it more of a processional event; a pageant drenched in formality, new outfits, and obligatory attendance. It’s the show-and-tell day of the Christian calendar.
I kinda lost the love of that aspect of Easter when I was in high school, (I didn’t think God cared if my clothes were white or pastel or new or expensive) but I never lost the love of the day itself. The story of Easter still fills me with enough wonder to be thankful and enough doubt to warrant the necessity of faith. Not having seen anyone come back from the dead before, it’s a concept my little peanut mind can’t wrap itself around but it’s the selling point of the gospel—the salvation of mankind through resurrection. It’s also the most difficult concept to buy into. For me, this is the originating point of faith, the dense epicenter where we have to say, I don’t understand how this happened, but I’m gonna believe it for the sake of Heaven and for the sake of today on this Earth.
The resurrection may be the selling point, but heaven and hell are the entrance points for many people’s conversation with Christianity. In the days of holding revival meetings in tents outside of town, the promise of a life full of hope was shelved in favor of scare-tactic evangelism. Fire and brimstone became buzzwords which signified eternal death—hot pokers used to get the heathen from the back row to the altar—and in many churches, nothing has changed. At a marketing level, this makes sense because the concept of damnation is far louder than a message of a life of wholeness, but I’ve always believed scare-tactic evangelism was shoddy and wrong.
I came to this belief in high school when a traveling production called “Heaven’s Gates & Hell’s Flames” would set up camp in our church’s sanctuary for a week or two. Gathering volunteer actors from the congregation, the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection would be acted out, followed by tales of “normal, everyday people” dying through various means. After each person’s death, they would wake up in the judgement room of eternity to await their fate. It was basically a stage production of the Final Destination movies except rather than the seeing the credits roll, we saw if they went to heaven or hell.
For the purpose of the play, the judgement room was an empty stage, nothing to really write home about. In the choir loft stood maybe twenty people wearing angel uniforms: white robes, gold trimming, gold hippie headbands. I kinda like that God’s fashion sense aligned so much with the cast of Hair. The stoic angels looked straight forward, never making eye contact or offering clues to the newfound whereabouts of the deceased saints and sinners. I imagine this was a really boring part to play and that in real Heaven, the angels at least get a latte break from time to time. One of our angels passed out from heat exhaustion on stage during a performance one night. Either that or it was an extremely committed method-acting choice to illustrate the plight of a fallen angel. It’s up for debate.
The premise of the show was simple. After they kicked it, each of these newly-dead people would loudly question where they were, overacting while trying to communicate with the troop of hippie angels who never budged (except for the one who fell). In the elevated baptismal above the stage that served as Heaven, an angel would check to see if the person’s name was in the “Lamb’s Book of Life”—it would be there if they were a Christian in good standing with the Almighty—and if it was, the “Hallelujah Chorus” would ring out. The angels would lift their hands and the newly dead would walk up a literal Stairway to heaven. Bright white lights illuminated the gold lamé covered baptismal walls and the dude playing Jesus would emerge to hug the person and lead them through the pearly gates. The audience applauded and every heart felt the warmth of fabricated eternal life.
The flip side was that if the newly dead person’s name was not in “The Book,” from behind a black curtain would emerge a man dressed as Satan with two teenagers dressed as demons in tow. The demon youths in vaguely demonic Halloween masks would drag the pleading, screaming soul to hell, while red lights and smoke signified it wasn’t the place you wanted to be. Satan laughed diabolically and warned the audience they were next.
Our Satan looked more like Darth Maul than the gatekeeper to damnation. The man playing the devil had his face painted to look like a skull and an effect put on his microphone to make his voice sound deep and demonic. Groundbreaking, it was not. He also wore a long cape, as all Satans do, and slithered onto the stage to thrust people into an eternity of pain and darkness.
The reasons for the hell-bound’s eternal demise weren’t because they incited genocide or massacred teens with a chainsaw. In one sketch, two teenaged girls tried drugs for the first time at a club while colored disco lights from Gadzooks spun around them. They overdosed and were then drug to hell. In another, a woman hadn’t been to church since she was a little girl and despite the fact she was a good person—a popular pleading point with the faux-damned—she was also drug to hell. I’ll admit the reasons were flimsy and graceless, but when you’re raised Pentecostal, you’re raised to believe your salvation is in a constant state of limbo; a teeter totter only held stable by non-stop prayer, fasting and militant church attendance.
Through illustrations of car wrecks, heart attacks, and overdoses, the audience saw person after person enter eternity. Half of the night was spent by Satan showboating his evil and the other half was a golden, High-Church tribute to the faithful. The goal was for the unchurched audience to want to avoid damnation so much they’d dedicate their lives blindly to the God who could keep them safe. That fear-based blindness was then to be followed up by discipleship where church people would explain to these scared non-church people what the whole “being a Christian” thing was all about. This was important since that information was nowhere to be found within the production.
Here’s the thing: I can’t get on board with the premise that a faith system should be rooted in fear. I’ve told this story to my friends who weren’t raised in a Pentecostal church—people who were raised Lutheran or Methodist or Baptist—and universally their minds are blown. None of them had to contend with scare tactics or the “turn or burn” style of conveying God loved them. In fact, they never feared for their salvation and to the way this production painted a rigid minute-by-minute picture of our eternal fates, their response was: Where’s the grace in that?
Well, there is none.
I don’t mean to imply our actions on this Earth don’t have consequences, I’ll admit the likelihood of Hitler hanging out with Peter, Paul and Mary behind the Pearly Gates doesn’t sound probable, but scaring people into salvation in this way omits God’s grace from the equation of our daily lives. These people are accepting the fact they don’t want to end up in hell, that’s fine, but I don’t think that’s the point of the story. The reason for all of those books in the Bible (and for Easter Sunday) isn’t to be an escape hatch so you don’t burn your feet on the fire. The point of all of it is that the relationship with God we have today—the daily community between us—is why we make the choice to believe.
And it is a choice to believe. The adage “I was raised this way and therefore it’s what I believe” is the worst form of self-assurance you’re doing the right thing. At some point in our lives, we have to make a choice for ourselves on basis of our experiences, our hearts, and what we feel in the pit of our stomachs or shoulders. This is true not just in terms of faith but also in politics, on social issues and the things in which we choose to place value.
Watching the production that first year, I felt nervous in my shoulder most of the time. Even the ascension into Heaven felt aggressively medieval. The “Hallelujah Chorus” has become the interpretation of what an angelic chorus must sound like, but I happen to think it may sound more like something from the choir lofts of the New Saint Paul Missionary Baptist Church and less like something from Saint John the Divine. (We all hear God differently. I happen to hear God at full-belt.)
At the end of the evening, our pastor stood on the stage and shared closing remarks about our eternal futures and gave people the opportunity to turn away from hell. Again, the whole damnation thing lingers longer with people than the message of a life of wholeness. I imagine a salvation marketing meeting where a committee chaired by Jerry Falwell, Franklin Graham and Mr. Burns from The Simpsons decided fear mongering would be the tactic of choice. Pentecostal sheep nodded their head, afraid to offer a dissenting opinion lest they be told they weren’t honoring the leaders God put over them, while Joel Osteen and Roma Downey circa Touched By An Angel rung their hope-filled hands in the back corner.
Pastors like Osteen have received millions of followers and equally as many critics because rather than delivering hard-hitting fire and brimstone messages, theirs is more of a soft shoe routine while doling out a feel good gospel and, what many have deemed to be, surface-level faith. But I think pastors like Osteen stepped in as the antidote to decades of doom and gloom preachers—a hopeful Heavenly message as bright as his pearly white teeth.
I actually understand the appeal of his way of delivering his message. As a kid, I said the sinner’s prayer at least twice a week because I was so deeply fearful that one screw-up would kick me off the reservation list. Some Sundays, I’d say it twice in the span of a single service because our pastor would shout at the congregation about sins we were sinning when we weren’t even aware we were sinning! How ridiculous. I was so tangled up in the fear of hell that I forgot to focus on the crux of the message which is the hope of a full life that ends with something more. So when I hear a pastor like good ol’ Joel talking about the hope God brings us right where we’re at today—flaws and all—that resonates with me. He’s not a perfect pastor (is anyone?), but I, for one, could use a little hope and grace for today instead of a debilitating fear of tomorrow.
Fear isn’t something I’m fond of; I won’t watch scary movies and didn’t even go trick or treating as a kid. We had a “Halloween alternative event” at church and I gleefully looked forward to that every year. There were games and baked goods and mazes and costume contests—all of which doled out handfuls of candy. We had all the fun and all the sugar with none of the scares or stranger danger. But when I see churches use scare tactic evangelism like this production or the similarly eternal-fear mongering Hell Houses which loudly depict abortions and murders in an attempt to evoke Jesus (something that makes no rational sense), it grieves my heart. There’s so much more to offer than that, not to mention a much less tacky and damaging way of telling people God loves them.
Rather than promoting these bat shit crazy concepts that make people think Christians are nuts, it would do us some good to promote the hope, joy and life that Easter represents. That’s Easter for me. Yes, it’s about hope for eternity but it’s also about hope for this month, this week, and this minute. Putting aside the designer duds and brunch reservations, the reason I show up on Easter Sunday is to bask in the fact God is alive in and around me today. It’s not just at the end of our lives when we benefit but it’s every single day. The painted eggs and pastel foil-covered chocolates may represent the rebirth of spring, but Easter itself represents a rebirth of the joy a life of hope brings. That life is today, it’s a life of wholeness, and if we allow that hope to be rebirthed in us on a daily basis, we don’t have to be fearful and lose sleep over hell, demon youths, or Satans with long capes.
Ryan’s book of essays, I Really Like My Hands Today, is available now on Amazon.