An Open Letter to the World’s Missionaries


Dear Missionaries,

I’d like to say that, generally, I like you guys. I invite you guys into my house because I like to talk to you, I like to talk about theology and I even like talking about the Bible. And honestly, every time you stop me on the street or corner me at a meeting, I’m secretly hoping you succeed. I really would like to join a religious community. I think it would be lovely to earnestly ponder the infinite among others. Unfortunately, the earnest part of that desire, my missionary friends, is why you continue to disappoint me. I’m just not impressed by the way you believe.

Let me explain the nature of my disappointment. I have spoken with enough of your missionary brethren that I can more or less precisely predict the path of our discussion.  You begin with the soft sell. First, you will explain that I would surely convert at once to some particular brand of Christianity if only I had read the Bible. I will explain that I have read that Bible from cover to cover. I will further explained that my reading the Bible was one of the biggest reasons I stopped being a Christian. You will be shocked for about three seconds and then ask me why.

Depending on my mood, I suppose, the sequence of the following topics can change, but regardless of order, we will inevitably speak of hell, revenge fantasies and a paradox called the “Problem of Evil.” For the hell topic, I usually wait for you to say “God loves you” or something similar. I will then ask you how love is compatible with eternally torturing someone. You will counter by saying that unbelievers turn from God by choice and that, by doing so, earn his anger. You will likely ask me how my parents would feel if I denied them. I will nod, since this is a good point. However, I will inevitably point out that regardless of how disappointed my parents felt, they would not sentence me to torture, much less eternal torture. This, to me, is simply incompatible with the notion of love as I understand it.

An awkward pause will follow on this. I will smile to indicate my willingness to continue the discussion and, as has happened the last three times I’ve spoken with a missionary, offer an alternative explanation of hell to relieve the awkwardness. You will look at me with hope, thinking perhaps I’ve solved the problem for you. At this point I will begin to suspect I’ve thought about theology considerably harder than you have.

“I think hell makes a lot more sense if you think of it as a revenge fantasy,” I’ll say.  “The meek and timid, the people who are failures gleefully imagining a future in which they can watch their masters burn.”  I’ll mention how hell doesn’t appear in the first parts of the Old Testament because the Old Testament was written for people with power. I’ll mention early Church Fathers like Tertullian, whom you will not have heard of, and quote these lines.

“At that greatest of all spectacles, that last and eternal judgment how shall I admire, how laugh, how rejoice, how exult, when I behold so many proud monarchs groaning in the lowest abyss of darkness; so many magistrates liquefying in fiercer flames than they ever kindled against the Christians; so many sages philosophers blushing in red-hot fires with their deluded pupils; so many tragedians more tuneful in the expression of their own sufferings; so many dancers tripping more nimbly from anguish then ever before from applause.”

I’ll point to Thomas Aquinas when he explains the following:

“In order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned. . .So that they may be urged the more to praise God. . .The saints in heaven know distinctly all that happens. . .to the damned.

I might even toss some Jonathan Edwards your way if you strike me as particularly Protestant.

“The sight of hell torments will exalt the happiness of the saints forever. . .Can the believing father in Heaven be happy with his unbelieving children in Hell. . . I tell you, yea! Such will be his sense of justice that it will increase rather than diminish his bliss.”

I am, I fear, not in the market for this kind of bliss. Perhaps you have difficulty understanding, but as someone who once pursued vengeance, I have lost my taste. Perhaps you disagree, but I don’t think revenge has any value at all.

If you haven’t lost patience with the soft sell yet, we’ll talk about the Problem of Evil. You’ll offer a free will defense or, more commonly, just get frustrated and transition to the hard sell. Regardless, I again offer an alternative. We can dismiss the concept of evil as nonsense, we can dismiss the need for god’s goodness, we can dismiss the need for god’s omnipotence and omniscience. Doing any of these things solves the paradox but you will resist.

When the hard sell starts, you’ll make a show of concern about my spirit. Perhaps you are being sincere. I hope you are and, since I can’t tell for sure, I’ll assume you truly care. But the more I think of Tertullian’s orgy of resentment, the more I imagine Tomas Aquinas deepening his enjoyment of heaven by observing the damned, the more I wonder if you aren’t, perhaps, looking forward just a little bit to the vengeance part of divine judgment.

You then darkly imply I might be headed for the pit and, shaking your head at the waste of it all, say you want to join me in heaven. At this point, my missionary friends, I transition from being disappointed to being insulted. Perhaps I look like a coward. Perhaps my mannerisms betray a person easily swayed by threats, but the assumption rankles. Maybe it’s just my pride.

I usually turn to leave when the hard sell starts. This will alarm you because, well, I’ve been nice to you. You aren’t used to people being nice to you and you’ll really, really want to get me in the church. You’ll reach a hand out and say “just try reading X.”

This, my missionary friends, is the point when you make me sad. You see, this is always the part of the discussion where I say “I’ll read your X, if you promise to read my X.” It doesn’t matter what my X is. Sometimes I point you to Aristotle. Sometimes I point you to The Genealogy of Morals. Sometimes I even ask you to consider theological works. You always refuse. Always.

Why, my friends, if you are so sure of your faith, are you unwilling to test those beliefs? This seems cowardly to me. It seems hypocritical. The very idea of conversion means that I, the potential convert, must be willing to put my beliefs at hazard. I am willing to do this. Why aren’t you? But even your failures here do not sadden me the most. What saddens me the most is the fact that I will go to your church on the exact same day I think you’re being honest. I will attend your church as soon as you say “I don’t know, but I believe. I don’t know, but I continue to search. I don’t know, but I believe nonetheless.”

My fear, missionary friends, is that such honesty is incompatible not just with your church, but with churches generally.


Ben Garrido

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  1. Ben, I recall meeting a handful of believers who say they don’t “know” and don’t feel they have to know as long as they believe, but those words would not be enough to entice me into attending their church. I would attend with a friend who really needs the company, or to mourn the passing of someone dear. For a wedding, of course! But not because I think mere attendance will offer anything more than a change of scenery and some lovely music. For me there is no pretending that spending time in a place of worship or reading religious texts (both of which I’ve done) would change my disbelief in superpowers or magic. Magic and fantasy have a place in the world but they do not influence the pragmatic, rationalist view I hold. That view came naturally to me and I am not sorry for it. You are right that it’s a shame that so many believers resist testing other points of view (or even discussing them), but I have found a few folks who will, and do, and I appreciate that they can open their minds to the diversity of human beliefs.

    1. I think there’s a little bit of a difference in what we’re talking about. One of the things I greatly admire about Socrates is his central insight that we are ignorant. The second Richard Dawkins tells you he has it all figured out, he’s probably full of bull. The second Pat Robertson pounds his pulpit and expresses his certainty about X, he’s over-reaching.

      To me, this means that an honest believer isn’t certain by means of reason (which is impossible) and also isn’t certain by means of faith (which is almost a contradiction in terms). The honest believer should hold his or her belief in this attitude of humility, in my opinion. I am, in other words, against certainty.

      What makes me so sad about missionaries (and evangelical atheists, as well) is that they are trying to win me over by the very same thing I suspect the most – certainty. What really, really makes me sad is that I get the very strong feeling a lot of their projected certainty covers for a deep, unexamined and thus frightening subconscious uncertainty.

      This article is kind of an attack on religious certainty, but I’ve written others attacking different forms of certainty, if you’re interested.

  2. Congratulations on talking to these folks. I always envisage the scene you describe and turn them away as quickly as possible, but lately I’m more open to a chat.

    The problem is, a lot of these people are kids. They don’t really know what they believe yet, but they’re probably listening to you.

    I used to worry that the things I would say to them would eventually sink in (once they’re away from me, alone at night perhaps) and a few years down the road they’d pull an Amish rumspringa teen-freedom freak out, emphasis on “rum,” and fall into the abyss of the extreme opposite side.

    I think I could handle them now, though. I’d even give them coaching on how to talk to people like us. Drop the certainty shit—”what about Job, dude?”—and be sincere.

    I don’t think I could ever go to church, though. Maybe a Catholic church, but only for confession. (I’ve always wanted to go into a confessional and get some free therapy.) 🙂

    1. What is it about church you don’t like?

      I’m with you on the Catholics. By far my favorite services to attend. They were definitely the most relaxed, the ceremonies were beautiful and the coercion I associate with protestants was absent.

      1. My experience with church is pretty limited, but as a child I went to my mother’s church. It was a Korean congregation (sub-congregation, really) inside a beautiful ginorous cathedral-like church next to a beautiful cemetery—tons of stuff to explore. I never attended services, but instead followed the janitor around (great access to EVERYTHING) and listened to Led Zeppelin in his office.

        Oddly, I actually talked to the janitor about life after death, etc., and we both concluded that we didn’t know what happened, but I made him promise me that if there was life after death, he’d come back as a ghost and let me know. (He hasn’t come back.) 😦

        My other experiences were very different. When I was in middle school, I decided to try again with religion. I went to friend’s churches whenever I was invited. Those had huge turnouts, youth groups with hundreds of kids my age, TV monitors in every direction and mostly took place in an abandoned Walmart. No giant organs, no secret rooms, no dark prayer rooms with creepy images of bloody Jesus. I had an aesthetic distaste for their contemporary stuff. I felt like there should be something beautiful about a church, but it was as if they purposefully stripped that out. Plus, I felt like they were trying to bamboozle me by trying to be cool (and they so clearly fell short of ‘cool’…the guitarist for the band could only play four chords. Gaw.)

      2. I replied on my iPad, which was probably a bad idea. I realize I never got to the point. SO the point is, I don’t like churches that try to be cool. Any church that has “cool” in its slogan is off my list. I find that those tend to bring on the high pressure sales tactics after you experience all the “cool-ness”, and that stuff gets pretty sinister.

        I’d happily go to a traditional service, just so long as no one tries to pressure me.

        One time I was walking the streets in Prescott, AZ and a couple of teenagers were handing out flyers for what looked like a free rock concert. I didn’t care to go, but my husband had never been to one and we didn’t have anything else to do. Turned out to be a “cool” church, except this one had fog machines, a heavy metal band, and ultra-creepy people in attendance. When we tried to leave, someone came up to us to beg us to stay. They followed us out on the street and would not stop. The whole thing really freaked us out. My husband finally understood what I meant when I complained about this sort of thing. He was so pissed…and he has nothing against religion, being religious (sort of) himself. He was mad at the fact that they didn’t advertise what it was.

  3. Hi Ben! Speaking as a devout Catholic, I’m proud that the Church does not engage in open proselytizing. It comes from St. Francis of Assisi when he said, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and only if necessary use words.” The Church is too aware of the amount of converts and reverts who come into the fold because a devout believer crossed their path, and impressed the other individual not with arguments or a sales pitch, but rather by his/her example.

    I don’t see the quotes used above as an example of revenge fantasy. To me, (of course this is a subjective interpretation) it seem to reflect something akin to seeing a homeless person and thinking to oneself “There but for the grace of God go I,” instead of, “You’re getting what you deserve. You lazy bastard!”

    On the “Problem of Evil,” I’m surprised you don’t mention the “cold and darkness” analogy. Have you ever seen it? Also, because you mentioned attending Catholic services, I’m wondering why you’ve never mentioned the effect of the Crucifix rather than a plain cross.

    The Crucifix represents one of the most evil acts ever committed. The flawed and faulty creatures, kill the innocent loving creator in one of the most brutal executions ever recorded. Yet, from that act of evil comes the greatest good, namely, the forgiveness and redemption of humanity.

    1. Cold and darkness analogy? What’s that?

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