On Brother Jed, Hell, and getting left behind.

I rarely comment on UA issues, but Brother Jed Smock’s bi-annual visit to campus and fellow UA blogger Laura Donovan’s in-depth interview with Jed and company demand a word or two. For the unacquainted, Brother Jed is an evangelical preacher who tours college campuses urging college students, well known for their listening skills, to give up sex, drugs, dating, swearing and “pre-marital kissing” in favor of the kind of old-fashioned, innocent, Bible-centered lifestyle enjoyed by fictional teens in the 1940s. This exchange is pretty representative:

“Why are you girls wearing shirts that say YOU DESERVE HELL?” asked the UA female.

“Because you do. So do we,” said Priscilla.

“But God is loving. He sends a forgiving message.”

“That’s part of it, but not all of it,” Martha answered. “There’s more to it than you say. We deserve Hell, but we’re lucky to have Jesus, who died on the cross for our sins.”

“I’ll pray for you girls,” the student said as she walked away.

Cindy Smock re-iterated what her daughters mentioned to the curious, visibly offended girl.

“This is not the ‘God loves you’ show. This is the ‘God hates your sins’ show. If you want to hear about God’s love, go to bible study. You also have to smoke less marijuana, drop your beer, skip your parties, and read the bible.”

You’ve got to love the part about smoking “less” marijuana. The Jed clan might hold themselves to high standards, but they know a hopeless cause when they see one.

Laura’s point about Jed’s audience being more frightening than the old boy himself is well taken, but I go back and forth. I can’t help but feel that telling someone they’re going to Hell is nastier and more abusive than calling someone a foul name or even stealing their chair. I mean, assuming you take it seriously — which at least some of Jed’s audience certainly does — going to Hell is a serious business. Students who regard Hell as a rather sadistic fantasy with tenuous Biblical justification (and even less moral justification) can laugh about Jed’s antics, but the old boy has a hook implanted deep in the heart of anyone who was raised to believe in this stuff, and he’s out there on the Mall all week tugging at it like a maniacal fisherman. A guy who tells his audience he’d like to spank them with the Bible clearly has a sense of humor, but there’s nothing funny about his underlying message, and that’s why he gets the kind of response he does.

From Jed’s perspective, of course, Hell is a real place and he’s doing everyone a favor by encouraging them to behave in a way that will keep them out of it. If you even slightly share his perspective, there’s a way in which he’s a selfless hero, accepting daily abuse and ridicule for the sake of the one or two people who email him every month telling him he’s saved them. After all, if Hell is a real place — hey, a caller-in to the Art Bell show once played a tape of what it sounds like there — then don’t we all have a strong interest in staying out of it?

The problem, of course, is that a faith based primarily on fear doesn’t sound like a particularly healthy one. Obviously, people are free to believe in whatever they choose, but if you spend a single second of your day worrying that you’re going to burn in that place with “devils, and those caves, and the heat, my God, the heat!” (as Elaine Benes once put it) after you die, you chose the wrong religion. To say that the world is a bad place because we are bad — or worse, that the world is a good place that we’re ruining because we’re bad — is fallacious. Every person is flawed, some of us horrifically so, and our world is in many ways a hellish one. Yet little of that hellishness has to do with our flaws. The vainglorious leaders who start wars are far outnumbered by the weary grunts in the trenches who’d rather be sitting at home enjoying hot chocolate. A person who dies of a disease fifty years before a cure for that disease is discovered is a victim of cruel circumstances, not human sin. Someone who turns a gun on his family before killing himself may well be evil, in the sense of being fully sensible of his crime’s consequences and not caring — or he may be the helpless victim of a mental illness. Who can say?

The sermons of a Brother Jed don’t help us much with the vast majority of pain and suffering in the world, because it is not unleashed by human action but by the apparent indifference of the world itself. It is the fact that we don’t live in a Manichaean universe of good guys and bad guys that makes the existence of evil in our lives so harrowing. In a way, such a universe would be much preferable to this one. Jed’s sermons are an attempt to impose such a structure on it, and of course the answer he comes up with is the one we all suspect in our darkest moments — that there are no good guys, only bad guys.

But there’s a catch: You can escape the hellishness of this world by hitching a ride with a chosen few, like Jed. There’s a price to be paid, though:

On a lighter note, another pastor entertained the crowd after Jed’s oldest girl sat back down.

“My grandmother was the sweetest woman in the world, but she’s in Hell right now because she didn’t accept Jesus Christ,” he said.

The price, apparently, is our humanity, because this sentiment is inhuman. How could anyone want to go to Heaven if it meant leaving a loved one behind — not merely behind, but suffering eternal punishment? Surely any sane person would rather go to Hell himself than accept the sickening “rules” of this system. Could Heaven really be such a great place if its rulers were so vindictive and heartless? Such a thought does not enter the mind of this hapless man because his faith is based on blind terror of death and an unthinkable punishment beyond, not on wisdom or reason. Such terror is understandable — death is a frightening thing — but it does not require us to hold even the slightest degree of respect for a person who could express such an abominable, human sentiment. Personally, I think we’re entirely justified in turning our backs on it.

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3 Responses to “On Brother Jed, Hell, and getting left behind.”

  1. Laura Donovan Says:

    Thank you, Justyn. Your last paragraph sums it up pretty well. I wouldn’t enjoy Heaven if my grandmother was buring in Hell. It’s nasty of Jed to tell people they’re doomed for Hell, and you can say that his message is worse than any bad behavior in the audience, but he does it to get attention. As shown in my latest blog entry, the positive religious preachers don’t see the same results as Jed does.

    Jed draws a large crowd of people and has the power to make them rabid and furious. He may seem counter productive, but he makes sure everyone knows who he is. He lays out all the negativity and considers himself successful when people start reading the bible. I don’t think he expects everyone to be “saints like [him] and Cindy,” but he wants to get religion into our lives somehow, and he figured out that people respond more to negativity. More often than not, it doesn’t work, but it does on occasion, and Jed is willing to preach for the few people he changes. In his newsletter, one girl said Jed saved her from suicide. That alone shows he’s accomplished something. I don’t agree with much of his statements, but after a week of observations, I can see that he isn’t an entirely futile evangelist.

  2. amillionthingstosmileabout Says:

    futile or not, I do t belive God is the kid inthe ant heal. So emmay believe that after such a religious transformation the only thing left after messing p again is hell. That’s where this stuff becomes damaging.
    God loves the worst, so mAybe there in is the true sermon this Jed is trying to get across. I think preachers most of the time preach it the way they have it revealed to them.
    Nice words though. This article makes me smile.

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