Trusting the Good News


Recently, “Grapevine” reprinted a notice originally on a billboard outside Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver, Canada.


If you’ve been told that God is some kind of punishing, capricious, angry bastard with a killer surveillance system, who is basically always disappointed with you for being a human being, then you have been lied to. The church has failed you.

We are so sorry…

This didn’t connect with my experience of God in the Catholic church. I was a convert in 1982, when the church was teaching a God of Unconditional Love.  It was all celebration.

Yet I know a few people my age, cradle Catholics, who can’t accept a God who loves without conditions.

They want to believe in a punishing God who will cast evil-doers into hell. For them “the fear of God” is not about awe and wonder, but grim anxiety.

Where does this come from?

I’m told it was old church stuff, but I can’t find it in the writings of the early Catholic mystics. As far back as the 3rd century Origen was describing a spirituality that fits well with Vatican II.

According to Origen there are three stages of spiritual growth: ethics, physics and enoptics. The first stage is about the seeking the virtues in active life. The second stage, physics, was about seeing God in all things and all things in God. Enoptics, the third stage was direct experience of God.

Similar teachings flowed through church history. Read St Augustine of Hippo, St Francis, Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckhart, St Benedict, Teresa of Avila, Ignatius of Loyola,  Frank Herbert.

Read modern mystics Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Ronald Rohlheiser, Richard Rohr.

For all of these people of prayer, the shifting sands of human existence have been overwhelmed by divine love that is far beyond our images. We are made for this love.

So why are there people who want to believe in a small punishing God?

I don’t know.

And I don’t know how to connect with those who try to convince me that a small punishing God is the greater reality.

Given a chance to respond, here are some thoughts I’d like to share:

  1. Of the three Abrahamic religions, Christianity is the only one that believes in “The Fall” and “Original Sin.”
  2. In Judaism the garden of Eden story is parable. Jewish teachers say that expulsion from the garden is our birth, the pure soul leaving God to come into incarnation.
  3. The Jewish tradition is that all souls come from God and return to God.
  4. There is no mention of hell in the Jewish Bible.
  5. Jesus’ parables mentioned Gehenna which was translated as Hell. Gehenna was actual, the rubbish dump in a valley outside Jerusalem, burning day and night. Bodies were thrown on it, and sometimes the living. It became the metaphor for the misery caused by selfish living.
  6. The gospels remind us several times that Jesus spoke all things in parables. That is how we should read them.
  7. Negative thinking may have a personal source. It could be difficult to believe in a God of unconditional love if we’ve known little of human love.
  8. When we talk about the evil in the world we are usually talking about other people.
  9. The people who cause suffering to others, are convinced they are absolutely right,
  10. A divided faith is part of Origen’s first stage of faith when we learn how to choose right from wrong in all decision making. This is a ‘head’ journey.
  11. When we grow into the experience of God in everything, and everything in God, we
  12. let go of divided thoughts and images. We have a “heart” experience of God.
  13. For me, human belief in hell, judgement and a small punishing God is, in effect, blasphemy.
  14. I believe there is nothing outside the immensity of God’s love for us.
  • Joy Cowley is a wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and retreat facilitator.
  • Image: Stuff
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