Evangelical Christianity promises to deliver a lot of great things for its adherents. Chief among those is salvation: entrance into heaven. But how does one gain entrance? It turns out that within evangelicalism, one merely has to believe all of the correct sets of beliefs. The problem with that notion is, of course, that the answer to the question “What must I believe in order to get into heaven?” changes depending upon which person, or denomination, you ask.
So, is my entrance into heaven contingent on a set of theological propositions to which I must give intellectual assent?
But what if I get it wrong? What if I end up believing a set of incorrect propositions, or am given faulty information about what I should believe by a well-meaning (but misinformed) evangelical? I could be standing at the Pearly Gates after I die, only to discover then that I believed the wrong things. In the end, I’ll be banished to Hell because I got it wrong. Surely the stakes are too high for us frail and feeble humans, because if we make a mistake on this issue, the implications are terrible. Why didn’t God make it simpler and easier to get that golden ticket to heaven, and know for certain that you’re definitely in? Why doesn’t the Bible simply boil it down into one nice, neat, little section somewhere and give us a list of bullet-point propositions?
Strangely enough, the Bible doesn’t go in much for bullet-point propositions. What we encounter instead of these are large sections of narratives that simply recount stories, without ever really providing a “moral to the story.” There’s also poetry, which (although good at stirring up emotions), is very difficult to appropriate and apply in any real, concrete sense. There are, however, sections of what is known as discourse — literature that makes its case via logical argumentation. But even there we encounter a problem: those sections of discourse (like Deuteronomy and Romans) are clearly written for people living in a totally different historical and cultural context than our own today. So, how do we apply all of this stuff, much less boil it down to a set of propositions (to which we must give intellectual assent) in order to get into heaven?
Another area that evangelicalism promises its followers is freedom — freedom from all of life’s worries, cares, concerns, etc. Now that you’ve got your golden ticket to heaven (because you believe all the correct things, of course), you haven’t a care in the world. You’re redeemed, sanctified, saved, washed in the blood of the Lamb and on your way to heaven! Great, right? Except that…it’s not true at all.
It turns out that the “good news” of the gospel message is anything but good news. Why isn’t it good news? Because once a person becomes a Christian, they quickly discover that the church lays a tremendous amount of burdens on them. To begin, that new Christian realizes that he or she is too raw — they learn that the others around them seem to have it all together. Being “real” and transparent about your problems is actually the opposite of what they end up acting like; in fact, that new believer learns that in order to be accepted in church, he or she must put on a mask, act like they’ve got it all together, and fake it. Their ears are filled with pious-sounding platitudes and bumper-sticker theology; they are told that “Christians don’t get depressed or have anxiety, because we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us!”
Therapists and counsellors who treat people within religion report that chief amongst the symptoms are things like anxiety, depression, hell-induced PTSD, sexual hangups, and more. And why wouldn’t many evangelicals display these symptoms? When a person suppresses their cognitive dissonance — that state of holding two or more contradictory ideas or concepts — it will oftentimes manifest itself in unhealthy ways. It has to come out somehow; one’s mental health will inevitably be negatively affected.
For example, many women report that they disagree with biblical teaching on the subservient role of women in the church, parenting and marital roles — yet they continue to submit to such an unjust and unhealthy situation, because apparently, it’s God’s will. The same goes for the church’s treatment of LGBTQ people, the evangelical purity culture teaching, the strong anti-intellectualism present in many churches and denominations, the support of right-wing political candidates that advance their conservative agendas, and so on. Much of evangelicalism is out of step with the trajectory of modern, increasingly secularized Western society. However, many evangelicals would view that as a positive: “We’re bucking the trend, and beating secularism in society! We’re fighting (and winning) the culture war by taking a stand for biblical values. America needs to return to being a ‘Christian nation’ once again.”
Not only did I walk away from this entire system over 10 years ago, it’s remarkable to me now — looking back on my time spent in evangelicalism — just how much damage it did to me in terms of my own mental health, psychological and sexual development, how I defined relationships with others, and more. Is it any wonder? Evangelicalism and fundamentalism alike serve and worship a God who, according to their theology, surveils humanity 24/7. Is it any wonder Christians might become paranoid and anxious in such a system? God is watching you; he knows every deed you’ve ever done, or will do; he knows your thoughts. Even the hairs on your head are numbered, according to Jesus — yet in reality, this is far from a comforting thought. While God is busily numbering hairs, people are dying due to horrible things like cancer, mass shootings, tsunamis, hurricanes and tornadoes, indiscriminate warfare around the world, starvation and extreme poverty. Perhaps his priorities are a little out of order, wouldn’t you say?
Speaking personally for myself, not only do I no longer want to be a part of a system such as this, I’ve deconstructed my former beliefs and am starting to reconstruct a new identity apart from religion. Furthermore, I now am actively involved in warning people about the dangers of religion and religionism alike. I know first-hand what religion can do to a person’s mental health and psychological development; history also demonstrates that far more people have been murdered and tortured because of religious disagreements that have spilled into open bloodshed all over the world.
I’ve walked away from all of it; where are you in this journey?