Hell No

September 28, 2008

Glynn Cardy

Pentecost 20

 

There are some theological ideas and doctrines that we think are plainly wrong. They don't fit with our experience of God and life. We often find Christians who hold to such ideas difficult to converse with, although we try to be understanding and tolerant.

 

Then there are some theological ideas and doctrines that over time prove to be plainly silly. They are examples of ancient ‘common sense’ or metaphors wrapped in God language that now in hindsight and with greater scientific knowledge make no sense.

 

And then there are some theological ideas and doctrines that are just plainly dangerous. Like asbestos they need to carefully extricated from all teaching and preaching and destroyed. Tolerance is not an option. Hell is one such doctrine.

 

We can laugh about hell, sell pizzas on the strength of it, but the sad fact is that it’s beyond a joke. There is a significant and horrific history in the Church of imprisonment and torture premised on the supposed existence of hell. Bishops palaces, like Lambeth, had their own torturer and torture chamber. They believed that by threat or the administration of pain someone who was deemed heretical – and all the current and most of the past clergy of St Matthew’s would be included – could not only be made to recant but would have their spiritual wellbeing and post-life prospects improved. By inflicting pain in this life the torment of hell in the next life might be avoided.

 

The logic of such cruelty was that in order for us to be good and holy there had to be a deterrent. As God has a torture chamber called hell to scare us into prayer, so the Church also is justified in inflicting pain. It is an anti-gospel of coercion and violence.

 

If you think this logic belongs back in Tudor England or in the dark recesses of medieval Europe then read in the latest Taonga the views of a leading New Zealand evangelical Anglican, the Revd Dr Peter Carrell. I quote, “All those who are not saved from their sin… are headed for hell.” And again he writes, “If it did not exist, hell as a place of punishment would be invented.”

 

Dr Carrell seems to understand hell as essential for three reasons: Firstly, ‘our response to the Gospel matters’. Meaning, I suppose, that if we choose not to accept it we will get smacked over by God’s horny assistants. Secondly, ‘God’s justice is real’. Meaning, I suppose, that justice requires offenders to be slowly roasted in the hell-fire. Lastly, he argues that without the motivation to avoid hell the need to preach and share the Good News in Jesus would be diminished. ‘Hell underlines urgency’. Meaning, I suppose, that people wouldn’t share their relationship with Jesus without a good dose of fear.

 

Hell is premised upon a God of reward and punishment, a God who is modeled on a feudal king with throne, court, and dungeon. When the feudal-king-God is blended with the intimate loving-parent-God that Jesus favoured problems arise.

 

Humanity is always in a childlike position with this reward-and-punishment deity. The relationship is marked by servitude not friendship. A behavioral modification approach, albeit modified from ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’, might be considered suitable for younger children in this reward-and-punishment parenting style but not for an adult’s relationship to his or her parent. It is hoped an adult relates his or her parents in an adult-to-adult way without threats, coercion, guilt, judgement, and punishment. Friends don’t threaten each other.

 

A second problem with this reward and punishment God is that instilling fear and threatening eternal torture are not what most parents and child welfare agencies consider good or appropriate parenting methods. Parents don’t send their children to eternal torment no matter what they’ve done. As the Scripture says, ‘Would a parent give their child a snake?’ [Luke 11:11] Rather parents want their children to flourish, to grow up psychologically strong without fear and threats, and in time to relate to them as friends. Of course fear has its own consequences including ill-health, dysfunction, and insecurity.

 

There is a quote attributed to Orlando Bloom, “How can you be in hell if you are in my heart?” It is central to the Gospel that the God-in-Jesus loves everyone unconditionally and holds all humanity in his/her heart. If this loving-parent-God has any integrity then there can’t be anyone in hell and neither can it exist.

 

But it gets worse. Hell also portrays God as a bully. It says, ‘If you don’t behave then God who is bigger and stronger and always right will use his boys with the pitchforks to physically and psychologically work you over. It’s for your own good of course. So, come to Church, raise your voices, pray… or suffer the consequences. There’s nothing like a good threat or toasting to assist your spiritual growth.’ Yeah, right.

 

So, the first foundational theological doctrine hell contaminates is the integrity of God as an intimate loving parent.

 

The second foundational theological doctrine hell contaminates is the traditional doctrine of omnipresence. If hell is a place without God, a place of separation, pain, and torment, then the notion that God is unbounded, infinite, and everywhere is plainly wrong.

 

There are numerous stories of gross evil happening throughout history, and maybe the one we are most familiar with is the Jewish Holocaust. The gas chambers, the inhumanity, the suffering, are seared upon the conscience of the Western Christian world. Was God absent? Yes. [Big pause]. And no. The God of power, might, and justice was absent. But time and again those who were there talk of glimpsing a god who was suffering alongside them.

 

As St Paul so powerfully said, ‘What can separate us from the love of God?’ [Romans 8:28] And he answers, ‘Nothing in all creation.’ There is nowhere where God is not. There is no three-tiered universe with heaven on top, middle earth, and hell on the bottom. Heaven is simply a symbolic way of talking about the presence of God. The reference in the Apostles Creed to Christ’s descent into hell is simply a symbolic way of saying there is no one nowhere outside of God-in-Jesus’ love. Death cannot separate us from the love of God. The alleged existence of hell creates a boundary around the love of God and therefore is anti-gospel.

 

Is there then no judgment and no justice? The Gospels don’t talk about hell but they do talk about judgment. While Christians differ over divine involvement in consequences there is a ‘reap what you sow’ maxim that pervades. There are rights and wrongs, good decisions and bad, and all have consequences. Like a stone in a pond a good deed or a bad one ripples out affecting the environment around.

 

Can there be judgment and justice without prisons and torture? For those who say ‘there must be a strong deterrent’ then on a theological level the same thinking creates a hell. However there are others of us who say that prisons and torture have never been an effective deterrent and indeed deny our common humanity. We believe there are other more effective ways of restoring people and protecting society. In this life or the next we don’t need a hell in order for there to be justice.

 

I think post-life judgement is just wishful projection – hoping we will be okay and others won’t. Hell of course has always been a convenient place to put those who are politically and theologically threatening to one's worldview. The post-life heaven that makes sense to me is one where we will all be there. For some that will be ‘heaven’ for others ‘hell’.

 

I think this-life judgement is along the lines of ‘reap what you sow’. The nasty, rich and famous neighbour might get all the accolades but his nastiness in time breeds nasty relationships around him. His judgement is living with himself. Now I know that this understanding of judgement sounds sort of lame compared to a full-on eternal rotisserie Dante barbeque. Yet I think Christians have to make a choice between either a God of reward and punishment who burns and tortures the baddies in hell or a God who is unconditional love and empowerment. You can’t have both. For fear is the antithesis of love.

 

Hell as an instrument of fear has contaminated Christianity for too long. As a literal or metaphorical place its effects are still the same: undermining the integrity and omnipresence of a God who is unfathomable and inexhaustible love. Hell has fostered an infantile spirituality of rewards and punishment. Hell has bred generations of preachers and churches who made their profits through fear. Hell needs to be extricated from Christianity. It is dangerous theological and psychological asbestos. It is anti-gospel. For as the writer of II Timothy wrote long ago, “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and love and of a sound mind.” [II Timothy 1:7] May we then bravely cast out the entire doctrine and mythology of hell until our great grandchildren will only ever think it was once a pizza company.

 

Amen.

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