Monday, November 7, 2011

The Holy Sacrament... of Doom

Communion is the Christian practice of eating a small wafer and a sip of wine or grape juice, which represent the body and blood of Jesus—or which literally are his body and blood, according to Catholic and Orthodox traditions. The ritual is meant as a way of remembering Jesus' sacrifice, although unbelievers often view the idea of eating flesh and drinking blood as bizarre and morbid, metaphorical or not. The church I go to with my parents (since I'm not out as an atheist) holds communion on the first Sunday of each month.

It's scarier than it looks. You'll see.
The pastor at this church takes a particular interest in a certain biblical passage addressing communion:
"Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep." (1 Corinthians 11:27-30)
He emphasized the bolded part above, proclaiming that those who take communion insincerely "eat and drink damnation unto their own soul." As I began to doubt Christianity but continued to take communion, this terrified me. Judgment? Damnation? Did that mean that if I was wrong and Christianity was true, I would go to hell automatically for taking communion while not believing?

On the first Sunday of each month, a private drama played out in one second-row seat of that church. I couldn't just decline the ritual; that would probably be taken by my parents as a sign of doubt. But I also couldn't brush off communion as meaningless, since I still retained that overwhelming fear of eternal torment. So instead I tried to temporarily psych myself into a state of belief for long enough to scarf down the cracker and grape juice. After a while I realized that wasn't going to work, so at one point—I'm not making this up—I surreptitiously pocketed the cracker and poured the sip of grape juice on my hands during the preceding prayer, then pretended to eat and drink. Luckily no one noticed that I smelled like grapes for the remainder of the sermon.

These are the sorts of crazy things that a real fear of hell can make someone do. I still take communion, but it doesn't hold any meaning for me (although last time I was grateful for the grape juice since my throat was a little parched). If this passage means what the pastor implied it does, that only highlights the unbelievable pettiness of a being who would send someone into endless suffering for drinking some juice out of a plastic cup.

By the way, for some reason my pastor never mentioned the final sentence quoted above: "For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep [i.e. die]." Hmm, so taking communion unworthily causes illness and death? That's a very testable claim. Maybe we should try it out. I would bravely put life and limb on the line to volunteer for the unbelieving experimental group. Seriously, though, this idea is as silly and demonstrably false as the Scientologist belief that learning about OT III (the Xenu story) before one is ready could cause pneumonia. Cases like this make me reluctant to treat Christianity as though it's worthy of serious discussion.


  1. Ironically this pastor took 1 Corinthians 11 out of context. It wasn't about doing the Eucharist wrong or in bad faith or whatever. Some of the Christians that Paul was writing to seem to have been greedy at the shared meal (i.e. Eucharist) leaving some others out of it. He says that if they were hungry, they should eat a proper meal at home and not use the Eucharist to gorge on food and wine. The Eucharist wasn't a proper meal, it was just a ceremony.

  2. J. Quinton,

    You're right, that is indeed the context. The problem is that biblical interpretation is often a tremendously subjective business. When Paul said "whoever eats...or an unworthy manner," did he mean only the Corinthians, or only people who treat communion like a meal, or anyone who treats communion in any unworthy manner? It's impossible to say with certainty. So while you may well be correct, I'll have to withhold my judgment on the matter.