Jerry Newcombe Doesn't Just Get Hell Wrong; He Gets It All Wrong

What a surprise: An evangelical leader takes advantage of a tragic situation to utter foolish and insensitive remarks designed not to comfort the afflicted but rather to remind us why he and his people are right, and the rest of the world is wrong. Not just wrong though. Dead wrong. And not just dead wrong. "On their way to hell if they disagree" wrong.

In this case, the evangelical leader of which I speak is Jerry Newcombe, spokesperson for Truth In Action ministries. In an opinion piece published on OneNewsNow and an interview broadcast by the American Family Association, Jerry made essentially two points:
  1. Tragedies like the Aurora theater mass murder happen because people no longer believe in hell, and
  2. unless the victims of such tragedies "know Christ" or if they "knowingly rejected Jesus Christ," they're on their way to hell.
It would be easy to dismiss such remarks as yet another senseless act of random verbal violence perpetuated by right wing evangelical Christianity. But that would simply be to return fire. It's also a subtle effort at dehumanization. If we reduce Jerry to nothing more than a mouthpiece for a faceless, monolithic organization, we can say and do pretty much anything we want to him. In fact, we veer dangerously close to the same sort of thinking that motivated alleged shooter James Eagan Holmes. There's no way Holmes could have brought himself to pull the trigger if he had conceived of his victims as human beings with hopes, dreams, histories and families. He must have seen them as something less than that.

Fortunately, I don't have the luxury of dismissing Jerry as something less than human. That's because two summers ago I had the opportunity to spend a lovely afternoon with him on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., as part of a documentary on which I was working. My experience of Jerry that day led me to believe he is far smarter and far more compassionate than his remarks imply. In Frank Schaeffer's wonderful book "Sex, Mom and God," Schaeffer says, "Mom was a far nicer person than her God." I can honestly say the same thing about Jerry.

So why would a nice guy like Jerry say such hurtful things? Because he actually believes them. Otherwise, to Jerry's first point above, it would be painfully clear to him that belief in hell (not lack thereof) has motivated an appalling amount of bloodshed throughout history -- in the name of God, no less. As John Stuart Mill observed, there's a logical contradiction between a loving God who also "could make a Hell: and who could create countless generations of human beings with the certain foreknowledge that he was creating them for this fate ... Is there any moral enormity which might not be justified by imitation of such a Deity?"

To Jerry's second point, once again, his devotion to his worldview has blinded him to the glaring similarity between the god he worships and James Eagan Holmes. At some point a few months ago, Holmes determined that certain people were simply beyond redemption. And then, tragically, he took what he regarded as appropriate action. If you think about it, Jerry is arguing that one day his god will essentially do the same thing.

If you share Jerry's beliefs, such a comparison probably sounds offensive. But that doesn't make it any less true. And if you're offended by it, perhaps you should go back to your Bible and read passages like 1 Corinthians 13, which says that love is not easily angered, that it keeps no record of wrongs and that it always trusts, always hopes and always perseveres. And then explain to me how, in the light of such teachings, you can justify your belief in an angry, wrathful God who will one day dispatch all of his enemies to a fiery eternity in hell.

Better yet, why don't we all agree to stop using such shocking events to advance our theology? I understand the temptation. But right now what the victims of this tragedy need most is love, not arguments or condemnation. So unless we are suggesting ways to better love them, our neighbors or our enemies, perhaps it's best if we all maintain a respectful silence.