Like many of us who have had a significant crisis of faith in the last few years - and are trying to find a way forward into a non-toxic version of belief rather than the reality-challenged, white nationalist, LGBTQ hating, Trump-worshipping cesspit that Evangelicalism has become, I am still reeling from and processing Rachel Held Evans’ sudden death. To those who haven’t shared the experience, it is hard to explain, and my attempts to do so have been rather fumbling. I may try to write about it later. I guess the best way to put it as a quick take is this: she was one of the very few who combined an Everyman (non-professionally-trained) background, a lifetime in the church, and a clarity and eloquence in pushing back at the self-appointed authorities and guardians of “Orthodoxy.” As someone who left the church over two years ago and hasn’t been back, her passing was a bit of a blow to the dream that someday, when the Baby Boomers no longer have a stranglehold on power, we might someday see a church that is a force for good and not evil. One which isn’t obsessed with the Culture Wars™, which are at the core about keeping minorities in their place (and promoting white patriarchal culture as “godliness”), policing what people do with their genitals and reproductive organs, and keeping women firmly in a subordinate place. Oh, and persecuting anyone outside the tribe.
While it is certainly possible that others will rise up to replace RHE, I am not sure she truly can be replaced. And the result of that isn’t going to be some sort of a return to the cruelty of “orthodox” theology - it is going to be that many more are going to give up on religion entirely. My atheist friends will probably not mourn that - but most would likely agree that if we are going to have religion, everyone is better off if it is a force for good and not vicious cruelty.
A case in point here is that to the degree we have discussed their thoughts, my older kids largely associate Christianity with hate - particularly against minorities and LGBTQ people - and with Trump. And why wouldn’t they? And that is why they don’t consider religion an important part of their lives at this point. And I can’t blame them one iota - because their experience has been and continues to be very negative.
So yes, the loss of one of the truly decent remaining prominent Christians is a big loss.
I want to discuss something related to this, though. Something RHE’s death has clarified fully. And that is this:
Evangelicals don’t really believe in salvation by faith in Jesus Christ.
They believe in salvation by faith in The Rules™.
Here is how I know this:
In the aftermath of RHE’s death, a bunch of people who had argued with RHE - she challenged the misogynistic patriarchists who hoard the power in Evangelicalism - came out with statement which were, shall we say, less than gracious. These ran from “pretending to be gracious” to truly vicious and nasty, but I think they share a common thread - and that common thread is that they believe - or at least suspect, that RHE is burning in hell. Let me use a “do not link” to just a few of these.
Pulpit and Pen (#1)
Pulpit and Pen (#2)
The worst (or best perhaps) are the Pulpit and Pen ones - best because they are more honest about what the authors think. But the others are pretty bad too. Doug Wilson is incapable of being gracious rather than smarmy anyway, but his is only marginally better than Pulpit and Pen. For CT, they seem determined to get a final dig in at RHE - they don’t go so far as to be explicit that they think she is in hell, but they don’t want anyone to mistakenly believe that she was a “true” Christian, apparently. (The original has been removed - but the “explanation” is still problematic. Zack Hunt explains why (quoted from his facebook page):
“When we learned of her illness, we began seeking an essay that could balance two concerns—to properly honor her without pretending she didn’t have significant disagreements with important CT distinctives.”
Except here’s the thing....
You didn’t actually have to do that.
Jesus didn’t call us to be legalistic assholes so myopically obsessed with defending our version of orthodoxy that we think it’s even remotely ok to use a tragic death to score a few final points with our theological opponents.
If you didn’t agree with everything Rachel believed, fine.
But we all knew that already.
Thinking you need to use her death to reiterate your disagreement isn’t an oversight
It’s a pathological condition & one of many reasons so many want nothing to do with evangelicalism.
And just so we’re all on the same page, let’s be crystal clear about what those “distinctives” are that Christianity Today feels the need to use Rachel’s death to reiterate.
They think LGBT folks are going to hell.
And by “think” I mean they’re so obsessed with the marginalization and damnation of the LGBT community they’ll use a tragedy as an opportunity to cause more pain.
It’s not just sick.
It’s not just sinful.
It’s anti-Christ in the truest sense of the word.
As for the others, let me summarize: for Pulpit and Pen, it is clear that RHE is in hell. And is now discovering that God is in fact male (and definitely NOT in any way female) and that he will torture her for eternity because she didn’t believe every point of Patriarchal doctrine. For Doug Wilson, trying to dance around his instinct to be an asshole to her in death as he was to her in life, essentially punts with “I hope Jesus found her in that coma and converted her.” It is pretty clear that he thinks she cannot have been a genuine believer - because she disagreed with his theology.
As Hunt notes above, there are specific doctrinal differences which are the problem here, and for (as I have experienced) most Evangelicals, these specific doctrines - not faith in Jesus Christ - is what determines your eternal destiny.
These are specifically:
LGBTQ people are going to hell (corollary: we should persecute them!)
Women shouldn’t preach or contradict a man. (know your place!)
Everyone who doesn’t believe exactly as we do will burn in hell! (particularly on points 1 and 2)
What are we to make of that?
Let me start my analysis with this thought: looked at closely, the bible doesn’t even speak with a uniform voice about the afterlife (or lack thereof) itself - let alone how one gets to heaven or hell. From the Old Testament and “sheol” - often translated as “the grave” - hardly an afterlife at all, to the different New Testament perspectives which aren’t a clear statement that “salvation” means merely fire insurance. And that’s before you get to the significant differences between Saint Paul and Jesus Christ on teachings.
Oh, and there is the fact that a significant number of the early church fathers believed in some form of universalism. Even our Protestant concept of hell owes more to Greek mythology than the actual words of the bible.
So, at best, in my opinion, we ought to tread really carefully here. I personally do not believe in the Evangelical version of hell - I am inclined to a combination of C. S. Lewis in The Great Divorce, and Neil Gaiman in “Other People.” But my faith in my belief on this point is...provisional. (Actually, I believe ALL of our beliefs should be provisional - we should be open to new information.)
But I think there is another thing to look at carefully here, since we are talking about Evangelicals, who claim to take the bible literally. Except they don’t in this case. What is the usual proof text on salvation by faith alone? Let me think back to my AWANA days...here it is, recite with me:
Romans 10:9. If you declare with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
Hmm, that seems pretty...broad. Openly declare you believe Jesus is Lord, and believe sincerely in the resurrection.
I won’t go through all the other proof texts, but that is a pretty dang good summary of the stereotypical Evangelical teaching. Believe in Jesus, say a prayer out loud (some version of the Sinner’s Prayer, preferably), and BAM! You have fire insurance!
Perhaps a bit more complicated is what Jesus himself said. There are two places, where he gives a direct teaching on some form of hell. One is in Luke, where he describes the rich man in hell, and Lazarus the beggar in paradise. And the only reason for the torment of the rich man appears to be that he was rich and didn’t help Lazarus. Well, that’s kind of scary for a lot of Evangelicals, who have made the oppression of the poor their political priority, but it still seems pretty broad.
The other, of course, is in Matthew 25:31-46 - the parable of the sheep and the goats, where Christ explicitly ties eternal destiny to how we treat the vulnerable and oppressed.
You could also add in the best known parable of all time: The Good Samaritan. Which I wrote about here.
So, good evidence of salvation by how we treat the needy.
You can also find sayings of Christ indicating that belief in Him is a threshold requirement for entry into the kingdom.
Now, Evangelicals will also try then to bring into the discussion the passages in Saint Paul’s writings where he describes those who “will not inherit the Kingdom of God.” In practice, they only care about the sexual sins, of course, not the malice or slander - those are fine if directed against people outside the tribe, like, say, immigrants.
But even for those, the warning is against the actions, not the beliefs. I can’t find anywhere it says that God will burn you for eternity if you don’t have ALL the correct beliefs about how other people should act.
Here we get to the core issue.
All evidence suggests that RHE believed in Jesus Christ. All evidence indicates she publically proclaimed him as Lord. All evidence indicates she genuinely tried to follow his example and commands. For that matter, all evidence was that she was heterosexual and faithful in marriage.
So why do these guys (and it is men, overwhelmingly), believe she is burning in hell?
Because she didn’t believe in all the “right” rules.
Zack Hunt nails it: her mortal, unforgivable sin was in refusing to believe that LGBTQ people will burn in hell.
The other one, of course, was refusing to defer to male “authority,” and just shut the fuck up already. To know her place. (And yes, that is precisely one of Doug Wilson’s beefs with her.) But it is really the first one, wasn’t it? The one thing a “true” Christian may NEVER believe. That genitals are not destiny and that God doesn’t really obsess about what we do with them all that much.
This is literally salvation by believing in the right rules.
I think Morgan Guyton wrote the most perceptive piece on why this is. American (white) Evangelicalism isn’t about following Christ. And it hasn’t been for a very, very long time.
Rather, it is about performing orthodoxy. It is about proving to one’s self and others that one belongs in the “in-crowd.” To the Demos (the mob) as Guyton puts it. And to that end, it is necessary to find bright-line distinctions between those who are “in” and those who are “out.” And this distinction needs to be one which doesn’t call for any actual sacrifice on the part of those who are in. Instead, it has to be hatred directed at those who are out - the sacrifice is that of the outsiders. As one might put it, “The gods require the sacrifice of someone other than me.” And, to prove to each other that they are “in,” the members of the Demos must become increasingly rigid, fanatical, and cruel. Because “faith” is no longer about seeking to follow Christ in good faith: it is proving over and over to the others that we “belong.”
My wife and I have way too much experience with “performing orthodoxy.” Our families spent time in fundamentalist cults which took that to the extreme. We performed orthodoxy by eliminating all music with African roots. (Demonic “Tribal” rhythms, yo!) We performed orthodoxy by insisting on ever more coverage of female bodies (because female bodies are the source of SIN!) We performed orthodoxy by insisting on rigid Victorian gender roles. Eventually, when my wife and I left, and decided we were no longer going to perform orthodoxy for the benefit of family or others of our faith, we paid the price. Many relationships have been badly damaged, and we were evicted from our longtime church. As I read somewhere, belonging is a hell of a drug, and it makes you put up with shit that otherwise you would never be around. This goes for politics as well as dysfunctional relationships. But when belonging requires you to sell your soul and conscience, you have a choice. Most of Evangelicalism has sold their souls. (To white nationalism as a start…) We decided no sense of belonging was worth that price.
So yeah, I understand all too well why those of my former tribe have consigned Rachel Held Evans to hell. Because if salvation ceases to be about performing orthodoxy for other members of the mob, they might actually have to do the hard work of self-examination, and discover that, far from being good people, they have chosen to combine the power and cruelty of Rome with the self-righteousness of the Pharisees. And a WOMAN, of all people, who had the huevos to point that out, must of course be consigned to hell.
So, RIP, Rachel Held Evans. The world is a worse place without you. All of us pushing back against the darkness will miss you.