On a recent road trip to Florida, I saw a lot of billboards about religion. I’d seen a few of these billboards on other trips to the South, but this extended ride down the southern East Coast allowed me to understand that these were all part of a single campaign, all sponsored by the same individual(s), with the same phone number at the bottom. These billboards were clearly part of a single theological viewpoint. And that theological viewpoint is terrible.
I’ve grouped these more or less by thematic content but am addressing them in no particular order. Now, I am putting my readers on notice that there may be more profanity in this post than is usually encountered, but authentic, Christ-centered, compassionate Christianity is under assault by Christian Nationalists and right-wing fundamentalists—polite language will no longer suffice. And so, without further ado, here is the shitty theology of the billboards along I-95:
Threats of Hellfire and Damnation
Nothing preaches the love of God quite like veiled (and not-so-veiled) threats of hellfire and damnation. Nothing speaks about grace and mercy quite like “WARNING!”
Now, some of you may say, “John the Baptist and Jesus had their share of warnings they delivered,” and that is true. John and Jesus did issue warning—but to whom? They, like all the prophets before them, issued warnings to the powerful and to the society as a whole that it was not walking down the path of righteousness God had commanded. Those warnings were collective warnings about the consequences of not doing justice, of not protecting the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant, of “selling the needy for a pair of sandals,” and of “neglecting the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faith.” It was not about haranguing individuals about their individual salvation as they traveled along the road.
The greatest failing of this billboard approach is that apart from the completely unappealing threats of fire and brimstone (which are unlikely to convince people who don’t already believe in heaven and hell), it views salvation as an individual enterprise. It’s about me getting mine and you getting yours rather than us getting ours—as a people. There is no sense of deliverance as a people, of the “great multitude” or of “all flesh [seeing] it together.”
In this conception, faith is a get-out-of-jail card—a way to ensure that you go to the Good Place when you die, not the Bad Place. The gospel has always been about more than that.
Here I will just say a brief word about repentance. Repentance isn’t about begging God for mercy; it is about turning your life around because God has already extended forgiveness to you. I’m not going to be too hard on these folks for getting this wrong since most of us do—even those of us who should know better.
Other-side-of-the-Chasm Theology and Christology
I am going to leave aside the fact that these two billboards contain more veiled threats (the EKG flatlining is a nice touch warning you of your impending death and judgment in the hands of an angry God). Instead, I am going to focus on the implicit theology of our relationship to God and Jesus that these billboards represent.
There is a very commonly encountered theology in some Christian circles that views the relationship between God and humanity as one separated by the chasm of sin. In the words of one commentator:
“As has often been illustrated (see image at right), sin produced a vast spiritual chasm between people and their Creator. This chasm not only brought separation but also became an impassable breach. Once this special fellowship with God was broken, it could not be humanly restored – no matter how hard humanity might try to bridge the great gap. Sin brought a status of separation between God and people, and this separation rendered human beings to be just like those who had ceased to live.”
In this view, the chasm of death is eventually conquered by the cross, which allows us to get to God over the uncrossable chasm (see image at right). The sacrifice of the cross, then, becomes a bridge, which conquers death and allows us to make the journey that our human sinfulness and frailty had prevented us from doing all along.
There is a formal theological term to describe this point of view: horseshit. There’s another term that is more usable in polite company: unbiblical. See, while this view of a chasm between us and God is logical if you start from a position of God’s sovereignty and holiness, it is absolutely irreconcilable with the God presented in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.
The whole point of the gospel is not that God has given us a bridge to get to God on his tiny, lonely island across a great ravine, but that God comes to us where we are, as we are. This has been the Biblical model from the very beginning. God walks in the Garden in the cool afternoon breeze. God comes to Abraham at the Oaks of Mamre. God appears to Moses in the Wilderness and at Sinai. God appears to Isaiah in the temple and walks past Elijah. The Word of God becomes flesh and dwells among us, healing, teaching, eating, drinking, loving–walking alongside us and even dying our death. The person incarnating this Word is Jesus, who is called by the epithet Immanuel, which means “God is with us,” not “God is standing far away on the other side of a ravine.”1For your reference, that would be Merahoqomedeberhatahommeitanu-el.
In the end, God descends to Earth with the New Jerusalem living with God’s people forever.
What about any of this suggests that God is too holy to be reached? If anything, it shows that God likes getting God’s hands dirty (in some cases, e.g., Genesis 2:7, literally) in the creation and among broken, sinful humanity.
A God who is on the other side of an infinitely deep chasm might be appropriate for a Platonic philosophy in which God is the perfect, immutable, unchanging idea, but it is entirely inappropriate for the Biblical God who meets us not after we die across the chasm but in the here and now.
There’s something a little depressing about encountering someone who thinks they’ve come up with a killer argument only to be entirely oblivious to its weaknesses and shortcomings. This argument always saddens me because its proponents don’t seem to understand that what they find persuasive is utterly unpersuasive to most people.
When you follow up on this claim that there is evidence for God and that there is proof of Jesus’s resurrection “beyond a reasonable doubt,” what you find is that that evidence is the Bible. And because the Bible is the word of God, then its claims are beyond doubt.
Right away, there are two major objections to this claim. First, as St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out centuries ago, God is not self-evident. If God were self-evident or beyond a reasonable doubt, then no one beyond the insane or the utterly unreasonable would doubt the existence of God; but people do doubt the existence of God—smart, reasonable, sane people. The inability of these apologists to understand that shows a fundamental missionary failing: an inability to put yourself in the shoes of the other. It’s too easy to simply imagine that the non-believer just hasn’t heard the message forcefully or loudly enough; it’s far more difficult o try to undersand why the other believes the way they do.
Second, while I will admit that the Bible does count as evidence—it is a record of people’s experiences with an encounter with the divine—it is not automatically convincing to people who don’t already believe in the Bible. This argument has always been hopelessly circular:
A: God exists. B: How do you know that? A: It's in the Bible. B: But how do you know that the Bible is right? A: Because God wrote it. B: But how can you be sure that God exists? A: Because it's in the Bible...
As I said, I am willing to grant that the scriptures—as a record of Israel’s and the Church’s wrestling with the encounter with the divine—are evidence. They’re just not the knockout proof that these folks imagine them to be.
On some level, this is really just another version of the previous section. It is a rejection of modern science by using a quote from the Bible. It’s another instance of this “for the Bible tells me so” kind of theology.
But on another level, it’s really ironic because it uses as its proof text for Biblical literalism Genesis 1, a text that demonstrates that you cannot take the Biblical creation accounts literally and that it’s the texts themselves that are the clue. The creation accounts —yes, accounts; there are two—in Genesis are poems reflecting on the overarching themes rather than the details.
There is nothing about Christian faith that requires you to disbelieve science, and indeed, much about it that should spur you toward greater scientific understanding. Jesus calls his disciples to love God with their hearts, soul, strength, and mind—science is a part of that.
Religion as Self-Help
I once worked in a law firm that offered a legal services plan to social workers. My then-boss loved working with social workers because he admired their holistic way of working with people. He told me a story about a man who had broken his leg and was laid up and severely depressed. Doctors and counselors all tried to help the man by getting him to cope with his injury and address the feelings of self-doubt or disappointment the man was clearly having. The social worker, by contrast, realized that because of the broken leg, the man hadn’t been able to go shopping for groceries and was hungry. So, she went and bought him groceries, and his mood improved immeasurably.
Religious folks are prone to seeing every problem as a spiritual crisis, and, to be sure, there are a lot of people having spiritual crises. However, not every instance of anxiety or depression is simply because the person hasn’t heard the story of Jesus. Sometimes, the person is in need of serious psychological counseling and mood-stabilizing medication. Religious folks so often give truth to that old adage that when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.
Christians should be concerned with the well-being of the whole person—body, mind, and spirit. If a person is suffering and food or therapy or medicine is the answer, Christians should seek to provide that remedy rather than forcing people into some kind of religious belief system because you believe it’s what another person needs.
If there’s one thread that runs through this billboard theology, it’s this: Christianity is a product. It’s a combination get-out-of-jail fix-what-ails-ya banish-all-doubt-and-uncertainty cure-all. The Christians have it, and you need it.
There is nothing in any of this that portrays Christianity as a journey, only a destination. There is nothing here that prepares you for wonder or mystery, only pat answers and doctrinal certainty. There is nothing in this that suggests that Christian faith might actually cost you anything or be disruptive in your life. There is nothing that speaks to the power of solidarity in suffering, in the restoration of the world, in the establishment of justice, and the liberation of the oppressed—in short, there is nothing of the gospel in any of this.
One of the earliest names for Christianity was “the Way”—suggesting the road of discipleship that Jesus calls his disciples to follow, a road filled with challenge, mystery, wonder, hope, and love. A road we are still called to follow. A road that has little to do with I-95.