Shuck and Jive

Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Hell-Bent on Fundamentalism

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?



24 comments:

  1. Well, I consider myself a follower of the Christ as exemplified by Jesus and I do not believe in Hell. Perhaps I will find out differently but in the meantime I don't lose any sleep over it.

    Being a Christian is trying to live your life by the principles set forth by Jesus and all of the others who came to show us how to be close to God.

    The biggest problem I have is not judging and forgiving those who constantly hate or live by hate. My nephew went to an AOG Hell house one time and he told me about it. Those people are just warped.

    Hang in there John ARTYAL. j

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  2. What a provocative question and one that demands being asked. H-E-double hockey sticks is one of my favorite topics. Especially because I am so lukewarm about that place.

    Let me start with place. I think it is imperative as a Christian to not get caught into spatial and temporal modes when considering Christ. Of course we live in a world of space and time, but I believe in looking at the intersection of chronos and kairos - where it all really happens.

    As a result - letting go of some of chronos makes for the fullness of time, which is hard to even talk about in a comment box.

    This means that heaven and hell are in a manner of speaking - right here and right now.

    I believe that hell exists to be honest, but I doubt that there is anyone there. (pardon my place reference!)

    Hell is a very useful tool as a way of prodding and controlling people. Jesus Christ, that left wing inclusion monger, was not much of a threatener in my reading and understanding of him.

    However, what other tool does a church have? I say that rhetorically, because I think that if any of us even remotely began to understand Jesus and his imperative, all of our heads would spin and that means us lefties too.

    So hell is another flavor of discipline and control and power.

    I hear about a loving God in almost all the preaching I am present for - a God who condemns no one and welcomes everyone. Whether or not everyone responds... that is another story.

    So this amazing God who offers us unconditional love then sends us off to hell??? Um, no.

    I often shock people (surprise) and upset them when I say that we should all be prepared to see Hitler, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein and others in the Kingdom.

    How else could it be?

    Sorry to go on so long - and I have left out a lot of what I would love to say. This really is a favorite topic of mine.

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  3. Well, I consider myself a follower of the Christ as exemplified by Jesus and I do not believe in Hell. Perhaps I will find out differently but in the meantime I don't lose any sleep over it.

    Thanks, Jay. Pretty much a typical response of those for whom I have been a pastor over the years.

    Hell is a very useful tool as a way of prodding and controlling people.

    That's the truth.

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  4. Wow, you aren't afraid to tackle the hard issues, and difficult questions. Are you John?

    Have to give this some deep thought, and will be back tomorrow to respond, if I"m still welcome that it.

    I have to say that I think it wrong to just scare people into the kingdom, or to present the gospel as nothing more than a fire escape.

    I know when I personally came to Christ, if was definitely out of a deep desire to know God, and to know truth, not from fear.

    But, all that being said, I think there is a Hell.

    Will be back later.

    Prayers requested. My Border Collie pup has run off into the woods. It's dark. I can't find him, and I'm really concerned about the coyotes.

    Worried..

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  5. I heard a popular Pastor speak out against such heretical teaching as "no Hell". He was concerned about what a world would be like without "consequences". He said that, if there is no Hell... then he is headed for the strip joint tonight.

    This told me a lot about what he really thinks of Christ. He doesn't really believe Christ is the way ... he just feels threatened and wants to be on the winning side, the side with the biggest bully. He doesn't feel that the words have Christ have inherent value... without coercion they are empty. Christ did not really say anything world changing.

    And they call me the heretic.

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  6. I don't think we can ignore hell because it is so vividly described in Scripture by Jesus especially. There I do like C.S. Lewis' image which is also an image Jesus conjures, of a great divorce between humanity and God which is the ultimately hell. It is an utter separation from that which gives you life which can be translated into death, a kind of living death.

    To franiam's point, I think that, especially if we understand human suffering in terms of Simone Weil's notion of affliction, there is a sense of hell on earth. There are people who suffer this great divorce here and now - when you know what can give your life a sense of wholeness and meaning and are pushed by forces you cannot control into a place where that Good cannot be received. Like a rape victim being dragged off into an alleyway...

    But as I do not believe we go to heaven right after we die since that idea is nowhere in Scripture that I have been able to find, I do not believe that we will go to hell either. I believe that Hell exists and has its effects felt on earth now just as the Kingdom of God does (which is also a vivid image of Jesus - a future fulfillment of the Kingdom with Present effects), but that it will not be "populated" until the general resurrection which again Jesus is vivid about. There will be some kind of final judgment at which time we can put on the robe that is freely given to us to join in the wedding party, or reject it forever. Grace will eventually come to us even at the end and all we have to do is submit to love.

    The issue now is not to get people ready for heaven and have then cross their fingers that their deeds have not lead them to eternal damnation. The goal is to love God and love neighbor in the best way that we see fit and use Scripture as a guide to do that. But even if we know people who are not able to work out their salvation that way, I believe that grace will trump justice in the end otherwise the resurrection of Christ out of injustice means nothing.

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  7. Grace--prayers for your puppy. Hope you find him soon.

    Andrew--you are talking about what I am talking about. I am not referring to subtleties and nuances regarding the theology of heaven and hell. It is the low-brow "turn or burn" stuff that I am really objecting to...which leads me to

    Drew--

    I believe that grace will trump justice in the end otherwise the resurrection of Christ out of injustice means nothing.

    What you wrote seems to echo Barth's theology that if God is truly sovereign then all will eventually reside in God's presence--irresistible grace.

    Or in Buddhism, the Bodhisattva awaits his or her own "salvation" so to speak until all are relieved from suffering.

    Hell in either case is at most temporary, not eternal damnation.

    As far as Jesus is concerned, who knows? A lot of quotes in Matthew's gospel about Gehenna and weeping and gnashing of teeth. Matthew is a 'heretic' anyway as the sheep and the goats parable seems to be a theology of works. : )

    There is no where near any of this subtle and nuance in what I see everyday from hell-based religion.

    Speculation about the afterlife I find tedious and that is when I am most generous.

    If I learned anything from Barth it is that because of Christ the worry is over for all, even for those who don't "believe."

    Barth was helpful for me regarding what it means to be a "good person" existentially. Christ is the grace and freedom to get over ourselves and live life with love and compassion.

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  8. That's exactly my point of reference John. As it is for any good PTSem graduate ;-)

    I need to dind where Barth said it, but one thing that someone told me he said was burned into my mind, "I believe there is a hell, but that it is not populated". He apparently said this in response to someone who asked if he was a universalist!

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  9. Can I be a Christian without believing in hell?

    You betcha!!

    Hell is useful for prodding folks, as franiam notes. And hell produces a warm sense of comfort and satisfaction for millions who believe it's where others are going. Some folks get gleefully giddy about it. Carlton Pearson's church of thousands literally walked out him when he gave up on hell. Here's his story as told on "This American Life."

    http://www.thislife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?sched=1159

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  10. Can I be a Christian without believing in hell?

    You betcha!!


    O boy, yet another I have put in danger of eternal damnation.

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  11. "After you are dead, no hell, regardless of your religion or if you have none. Would you be a Christian? "

    Yes, I think so. Christianity is not based on hell, nor is hell based on Christianity. But what happens after we die is beyond my pay grade.

    Interestingly enough, Jesus seemed to reserve hell mostly for self righteous religious leaders.

    And the teaching is based on a theology of forgiveness. It is more than being about God's forgiveness, it is about our own forgiveness for each other. In order to be in God's Kingdom it is essential that we not only be forgiven but also forgive those who trespass against us.

    The theology of Hell is really the theology of forgiveness turned on its head. A trick of the devil, if you will, to turn a beautiful thing into an ugly thing. A thing to embrace into a thing to fear. The opposite of what God's revelation is Jesus is trying to tell us.

    I believe that God in his infinite Grace forgives all those who sin against God's Self. But God does not usurp the right we have to forgive or hold back the forgiveness for those who sin against us. Nor does he usurp the right of those we sin against. He merely shows us the way. For the sin we commit against Him, he forgives us. But if we hold back forgiveness from each other, then for that sin we are not forgiven.

    The focus should always be on forgiveness as the way of life. The Kingdom of God is the Kingdom of the forgiving forgiven.

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  12. Pearson cites scripture for his reasons for abandoning hell:

    1 Tim 4:10 "...because we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe."

    and,

    1 John 2:2 "And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world."

    One thing that bothers about hell is that if we believe it, it acquires meaning only if some one is condemned to it. I balk at a religion that requires that some people, even one person, suffers eternal torment with zero chance of relief, zero chance of receiving mercy.

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  13. Of course Hell exists. Hell, Michigan. It is about 15 miles north of Chelsea, where I live. You get there on Darwin Road (no, I'm not kidding) which, in spite of the cliche, is not paved with good intentions, but with asphalt, like any other road. (BTW, Hell actually froze over in January 2004.)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hell,_Michigan

    Seriously, though...

    There is honestly no topic in theology that I care less about than hell. I know the orthodox positions and the unorthodox positions, and some day when I have a spare 5 or 10 minutes I'll think about what I believe about it. Frankly, I'm more interested in the existence of extraterrestrial life than in the existence of hell. I think the former has more likelihood of impacting me than the latter.

    In the meantime, if hell actually is what the fundies say it is, then I'm a Christian in spite of the existence of hell.

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  14. One can argue against the notion of hell quite effectively starting from Christian principles. Imagine the final judgment, with the apostles seated on thrones (Luke 22:30). A sinner is brought before them. Jesus says, "Let he who is without sin among you be the first to set the fires of hell blazing"...

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  15. Jodie--

    Interestingly enough, Jesus seemed to reserve hell mostly for self righteous religious leaders.

    Which is the point of the irony of Jesus in the gospels.

    DR--

    One thing that bothers about hell is that if we believe it, it acquires meaning only if some one is condemned to it.

    Sadly enough, that is the motivation for much of hell-based religion. Who wants an unpopulated hell, anyway? The image of hell crammed wall to wall with sinners appeals to the righteous glee of watching our enemies suffer.

    Alan--I think Hell, Michigan and Paradise, Montana are sister cities.

    James--I hope the apostles will have more a conscience then the heresy hunters of old (and present) who think they are without sin.

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  16. Count me as another, John.

    I am a Christian.

    I do not believe in hell.

    (And you had nothing to do with it, you'll be happy to know. I came to that belief a long time ago. Had something to do with "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do"...)

    Pax,
    Doxy

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  17. Aw Hell.

    Andrew makes a fine point. The fairy tale that is a physical "Hell" is simply a willful misinterpretation on the part of Christian Hierarchy that is used to install an understanding of the fact that one's actions tend to produce consequences. Sometimes bad ones.
    When Jesus used this "place" as an analogy or parable, if you will, he realized he was speaking primarily to people who obviously had little or no education and needed to be "guided" on their own level.

    Cities of that time obviously didn't have nice porcelain thrones to perch on and deposit our doodie, so some intelligent being with a big nose invented the Dung Heap (pit, actually) in which people could empty their buckets.

    This pit was used to burn all manner of waste and rubbish. It was also used to burn the decaying bodies of various living things. Creamation if you like.

    Unfortunately, Israel being the bloodthirsty brood that they were (are) also tossed condemned prisoners into this pit of fire. Alive.

    Hence some major "weeping and gnashing of teeth".

    The lesson was sound. It works.
    Being separated from Love by our own ill mannerisms leads us to misery and despair in our lives and causes us to be the misery in the lives of others.
    A death bed of angst instead of peace awaits those who refuse to love, unconditionally, all our fellow man and the earth that we live on. To die filled with anger and fear, outside of God's Love.

    Hell.

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  18. Back to talk abit more about this.

    My husband is a committed, orthodox Christian, but a strong universalist. He would emphasize those parts of Scripture mentioned up on the thread by dr., feeling so strongly that Christ is the Savior of all...

    My beloved makes some good points. :)

    He is also very evangelistic by the way, wanting everyone to find new life in Christ in this life as well as in the next.

    But, I'm not so convinced, guys. I think there is plenty of Scripture, even from the teaching of Jesus that seems to also speak of the real possibility of judgement, and eternal seperation from God, what we would call Hell.

    I suppose the analogies used in C.S. Lewis in his book "The Great Divorce," would best sum up my own thinking.

    I basically think that Hell is self-chosen. Sadly, if people want nothing to do with the God who is really there in this life, may deliberately choose evil, and even willfully mock, and scorn the cross of Christ, why should their opinion automatically change in the next.

    I think it's actually an aspect of God's love that He made us more than mindless robots, and that no one is forced into the Kingdom.

    My other concern is that apart from our unity with Christ, being found in Him, we could all make an utter Hell out of Heaven, so to speak.

    At any rate, I think we can trust the love, and justice of God in this. So, I'm about caring for people, and sharing the gospel of grace, encouraging people to trust Christ.

    I think the results of that, as well as our eternal destiny is in the hand of the Lord.

    "Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?"

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  19. John, I would agree with Drew...I don't think we can ignore the concept of hell.

    The sermon I've gotten the most comments on so far in my three years of ministry was on the subject of hell; preaching through the apostle's creed and on the phrase "He descended into hell, and on the third day rose again" http://www.thechurchgeek.com/archives/472

    My essential point, borrowed from Barclay, was that God's love reaches to the very depths and the lowest point that any of us can go and triumphs in the end. If it were not so, God's grace would indeed be a small and powerless thing.

    I think that fits along with what Drew was expressing.

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  20. Welcome ChurchGeek!

    God's love reaches to the very depths and the lowest point that any of us can go and triumphs in the end. If it were not so, God's grace would indeed be a small and powerless thing.

    I don't disagree that hell is a symbol for existential suffering at its most despairing level. Hell is also a symbol for the evil we humans inflict upon one another and the planet. I use the word in that sense as well.

    That is not what I am talking about, however. I am talking about hell as divine punishment or eternal damnation.

    I find no positive use for that at all.

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  21. Question for discussion. Does Christianity have a purpose if there is no hell?
    Yikes! This implies that Christianity has no positive purpose. But of course it does. All things will be reconciled to God in the end - the purpose of creation will be fullfilled. So I think the two choices are a) conditional immortality (those who are not reconciled to God will cease to exist) b) universal salvation (B seems unlikely as it seems clear from scriptures that some will choose not be reconciled to God)

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  22. Hey Steve!

    Welcome! Do I put you in the "no" category then? : )

    Of the choices a and b, I like a. It would seem to me that being reconciled to God is being at peace with the reality that at death we cease to exist.

    Of course b has its advantages. B affirms that nothing anyone does or believes in this life changes what will happen after one dies. We either all cease to exist or all carry on in some form.

    Obviously, the button I am pushing is whether the notion of personal afterlife at all (either punishment or reward) is essential to one's Christian faith.

    My personal faith is one of contented agnosticism regarding what may follow my own death. To use Christian language, "whether I live or die, I am the Lord's."

    The only afterlife I particularly care about (and maybe even be able to do something about) is the life that follows my death on Earth. That is the life of those (all living things) who follow me.

    Put that way, would you or could you be a Christian?

    I don't insist that my answer is for everyone or for anyone except me.

    It is yes.

    Admittedly, this is a different kind of Christianity than what most folks are familiar.

    All of the symbols and rites associated with Christianity have one purpose--to live fully with integrity in this life with an eye to being a positive influence on the lives of those who follow.

    I wasn't intending to give that long speech, but your response invited me to come clean on all of this!

    I took a quick glance at your blog. Interested in your work on Christianity and evolution.

    I would say that it is our evolutionary and cosmological history that has driven me to rethink Christianity and its purpose for me.

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  23. Hi John,
    re: The only afterlife I particularly care about (and maybe even be able to do something about) is the life that follows my death on Earth. That is the life of those (all living things) who follow me.


    And what many of my fellow Evangelicals fail to realize, is that on this point, your view closely matches that of the ancient Hebrews.

    re:Put that way, would you or could you be a Christian?

    Yes. One of the Great Heresies of modern Evangelicalism is its belief that "right doctrine" is a necessary qualification for being a Christ Follower. (Um, yes that is my way of saying that I think you are leaning the wrong way theologically on this one :-) ).

    BTW, how do you reconcile 1 Cor 15:19 "If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men."? Or do you think Paul was wrong on this ? (Not trying to be confrontational, just curious).

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  24. Hey Steve,

    (Um, yes that is my way of saying that I think you are leaning the wrong way theologically on this one :-) ).

    Ha! Yup, I lean the wrong way on a lot of things I suppose. But that is why I keep hanging in there and need to hear the views of others.

    BTW, how do you reconcile 1 Cor 15:19 "If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men."? Or do you think Paul was wrong on this ? (Not trying to be confrontational, just curious).

    Great question. Oddly enough, I preached on that very verse just a few weeks ago and commented on it on this blog entry, According the the Scriptures

    I said I disagreed with Paul. One commenter caught me up on it, though and said that I was missing what Paul was writing. He said that Paul was not chiefly talking about 'life after death' but life outside of resurrection which is a bit different.

    "If for this life" Paul means the life of ignorance, sin, and misery, we are to be pitied. It is a life focused on our desires, fears, selfishness and so forth.

    In other words Paul is saying that if Resurrection doesn't change us then we are to be pitied.

    I liked that.

    If that is what Paul is saying, I am with him. But if he is saying that our soul, consciousness, body or whatever must survive this existence in order for us to find meaning, then I disagree.

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