Not the Jesus I know: thoughts upon having the Hell scared out of me

“Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?”

The young man took my hand in a gesture of friendship as we stood next to one another in the middle school auditorium. All around us, other pairs of strangers asked one another the same question.

We had just finished watching a performance of “Heaven’s Gates and Hell’s Flames,” a travelling evangelical road show that has been touring the world for over thirty years. The play consists of a series of vignettes acted out by local volunteers. In each scene, an individual achieves or fails to achieve salvation before dying abruptly, by violence, accident, or overdose. Those who succeed ascend to a glittery silver-lame heaven, where they are greeted by Jesus. Those who fail get dragged off into the flames of hell by Satan, who in this production bears a striking resemblance to Darth Maul.

The entire production is designed to scare the hell out of you, literally.

In this particular performance, the saved include an American soldier, a battered spouse, a bullied teen, a church-going family, and a pair of construction workers. The damned include a drug abuser, a murderer, a porn fan, and a working mom too busy to attend church.  Are skipping church and murder really comparable in the eyes of God?  Maybe; for as the playwright frequently reminds us, it is not on the basis of our good or bad behavior that we are judged, but solely on whether we have accepted Jesus as our personal savior.

Hence the question.

The young man asked with such evident kindness that I smiled and replied, “Yes.” He smiled back, but I felt a twinge of pain at my well-mannered dishonesty. I had told the truth, but not the whole truth. A more honest answer would have gone something like this: “Yes, I know Jesus. But if you are asking about the figure I saw depicted here tonight: No, I do not know him. This is not the Jesus I know.”

Before I proceed, I would like to make clear that my comments here are in no way meant to be critical of my many neighbors who appeared on stage last night. I could tell that they were earnest in their desire to serve, and to save. There was both faith and talent on stage; and I appreciated the joyful exuberance of the play’s Jesus, as he sprinted on stage, newly liberated from the tomb. My issue is not with the actor’s interpretation of Jesus, but with the playwright’s interpretation of Jesus.

First of all, the Jesus of Heaven’s Gates is oddly passive; after that initial joyful sprint, he is pretty much confined to heaven, aka backstage. He appears at the top of the stairway to paradise, to embrace those prudent souls who are saved; but he is notably absent when the damned are dragged off screaming into hell. At these moments, it is the devil alone who commands center stage, as projected flames flicker on a large screen.

I find myself fighting the urge to shout at the stage: WHERE IS JESUS? I am left wondering: is he deliberately absent, or just powerless before the devil? He is always in the wings, never a witness to the torture. The stage directions preserve plausible deniability, and we are never permitted to question him directly.

Indeed, the Jesus of this play has apparently been silenced by death; he is given no dialogue. If he were allowed to speak, what might he say about these terrifying scenes? I found myself imagining the play’s Jesus suddenly shouting out, interrupting the script with his own words from the gospels: Not everyone who calls me ‘Lord’ will enter heaven, but everyone who does the will of God…Whatever you do for the least of God’s children, you do for me… Those who seek to save their own life will lose it… Do not be afraid! Instead, a silent Jesus appears only briefly before being whisked backstage again behind the silver lame curtains – like a hostage trotted in front of the cameras but not allowed to speak for himself for fear that he would denounce his captors’ beliefs.

The ultimate power in Heaven’s Gates is neither Jesus nor Satan but rather the “book of life,” a magical tome in which the names of the saved are inscribed, at the exact minute when they first pledge themselves to Jesus. The playwright evidently gets this idea from the visions of John of Patmos in the book of Revelation, because as far as we know, Jesus himself never spoke of such a book. Yet in the play, the book looms large, overshadowing the testimony of the four gospels or the letters of the apostles – including the letters of John, who wrote that whoever lives in love lives in God, and the letters of Paul, who wrote that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ. Not even a silver lame curtain.

In the world of Heaven’s Gate, prudence is the primary Christian virtue. The most important thing is to get in the book in a timely manner, so as to avoid personal catastrophe in the event of unforeseen demise. Faith is sold as a form of personal hell insurance, and the only unforgivable sin is to be caught unprepared.

But surely it is not prudence, but love, that is the key to eternal life? Extravagant, unconditional love, love for enemies as well as friends, love for sinners as well as saints, love for neighbor as well as self, love for strangers as well as siblings? Fearless, imprudent love?

In one of the play’s more harrowing scenes, a young woman dies of an accidental drug overdose. When she appears at the gates of heaven, she is denied entrance. Remembering her late father’s faith, she cries out in terror for him to help her – Dad, I’m scared! Dad, help me! – but her father never appears. He is apparently too busy enjoying heaven, to be concerned about his daughter’s fate.

As I watched the scene, one phrase repeated itself in my head: how much more. It is a phrase that Jesus used more than once, to describe the love of God. As in: if you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your father in heaven give good things to those who ask?

And so as I watched the actors, I found myself thinking, if we, who are merely human, love our children — even when they make mistakes, even when they rebel against us, even when they fall into addiction  — how much more must God love them? If a parent’s love for their child can continue, even after the child’s death, how much more must God continue to love them? If the resurrection means anything, it means that death is no obstacle to God’s love.

So, yes, I know Jesus. He’s the one who loved us all the way to hell and back again.

Photo: Petr Kratochvil