Americans have a fascination with hell. Popular American religion is fixated on hell. Around my mountain we have hell houses in which you can scare the hell out of children. This is done for the love of Jesus, of course. It truly is a sick thing. Over the past few decades hell-bent religion has entered the mainstream and has infiltrated mainline denominations.
I have been the pastor of three congregations. These congregations as a whole didn't care about hell. I certainly don't monitor what people believe about things, but the impression was that most people didn't believe in hell. Normal Presbyterians are not Christian because they think being so saves them from hell.
Granted there were a few evangofundies or fundagelicals in my first couple of churches who thought hell was a pretty important thing. After a few of my sermons they realized I was a lost cause--a preacher who had entered the dark side of universalism and put my mindless sheep at risk of eternal damnation. Those who didn't find enough hell in my sermons found happy homes at fundagelical churches.
Not long ago a successful Pentecostal preacher, Carlton Pearson, saw the light and started preaching that there was no hell. What happened? He lost his church. His flock was no longer interested in a Christianity without hell. Hell was the driving force for their religion. If hell doesn't exist, what is the point? The LayMAN for whom there is never enough hell reported on this story with the telling title Without Hell, a megachurch goes cold.
The moral of that story is that hell brings in the bucks. For fundamentalists there really is no reason and no purpose to Christianity unless there is hell to pay for anyone who isn't a born again Christian. The mission of hell-bent fundamentalism is to convert everyone on the planet to their religion in order to save them from eternal damnation. This goes for people who are perfectly happy with their own religion or none--and especially gays.
What does this have to do with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)? We are not hell-bent are we? I didn't think so earlier in my career. But there is an increase of hell-bent Presbyterian preachers on the loose, some who have great success with a religion of fear. I think this is one of the reasons the PC(U.S.A.) is slow-slogging through the gay ordination issue. I think it is one of the reasons there never will be a compromise or legitimate conversation. If it weren't for this infiltration of hell-bent evangelical preachers in the PC(U.S.A.) we would (like the UCC) have settled this long ago.
This fixation on hell has also hurt inter-faith collaboration. There can be no cooperation or conversation with people of other faith traditions if in your heart of hearts you think they are going to hell. This is why the fundamentalists object to churches who draw from other faith traditions in worship.
Fear of hell is the fire that drives fundamentalist/evangelical Christianity. Without the threat of hell, their faith would die. They would have no purpose.
Think of religious doctrines such as original sin or substitutionary atonement. They are all based on fear of hell. Most normal Presbyterians interpret these things loosely or metaphorically or perhaps existentially, but not literally.
The divide in religion today is over hell. I think it is time for normal Presbyterians to say what they really believe about hell. It is a harmful doctrine. It is destructive. We don't believe.
Question for discussion. Does Christianity have a purpose if there is no hell?
No fudging. I am not talking about hell as a metaphor for existential suffering. I am talking about the real thing. After you are dead, no hell, regardless of your religion or if you have none. Would you be a Christian?