BEING A CHRISTIAN DOES NOT MEAN BELIEVING IN A GOD WHO DAMNS PEOPLE FOR ETERNITY
A fortnight ago, I wrote a post about the Westboro Baptist Church. I argued that its theology is heretical because it focuses on damnation to the exclusion of salvation. Writing about this strange sect’s obsession with hell, made me wonder if it might be worth writing about saying something about hell’s place in more mainstream Christianity.
Christians understand the balance between mercy and judgement in a host of different ways. That said these days even many evangelicals do not emphasise hell to the extent that non-Christians might imagine they would. And they certainly don’t imagine it as a place of fire and brimstone – an image that despite its cultural resonance has little biblical basis. And for some Christians – probably a minority though one that includes me – it may not exist at all. As the philosopher Keith Ward explains in his book ‘Is Religion Dangerous?’
“Traditional Christianity has perhaps had the harshest doctrine of hell, as a place of punishment from which there is no escape. But some notable theologians, including Origen, St Isaac the Syrian, St Gregory of Nyssa and Mother Julian of Norwich, have held the belief that all will eventually be saved. Pope John Paul II said that, while the church could not guarantee that all would be saved, it was certainly a possibility, and Catholics could rightly pray and hope for it. The Roman Catholic Church has long accepted purgatory as a place of purification for souls who will be saved, but for who are not yet ready to stand in the presence of God. As Cardinal Bellarmine said, perhaps purgatory is full and hell is empty. On the most traditional view, souls only enter hell if they are irretrievably damned – that is, if they have turned against God in a completely final and irreversible way. And perhaps no one is in that situation.
As a Christian, I think it is very odd to believe that a God of love would send people to hell just for not having heard of Jesus, or for not having been baptised. At least, a God who did such things would not be a God of love in any sense of the word ‘love’ I can understand. Even so, this belief is not dangerous, since those who accept it (usually fundamentalist Protestants) also believe that it is their duty to preach the gospel to as many people as possible, and they think that no one can be forced into sincere belief. They hardly ever believe that violence could help to save people.
Most contemporary Christians probably think that hell is a state in which people find themselves in a world where greed, hatred and selfishness are unrestrained, and where they are the victims of the aggressive behaviour they displayed on earth. In such a world, they will be tormented by the flames of passion and locked into ‘outer darkness’ of their own hearts. There will be bitterness instead of joy, frustration instead of fulfilment, and anger instead of calm. The world of hell is the world of unrestrained desire, where the destructive consequences of people’s own egoistic behaviour are unleashed upon each other without the possibility of mitigation or escape.
The fear of hell, in other words, is the fear of a future without love and without God. Since the New Testament teaches that God wishes all to be saved – ‘God our saviour who desires everyone to be saved’ (1 Timothy 2:3-4) – Christians should be sure that God will do everything possible to bring sinners to repentance. But if human wills are free, there is a possibility that they may reject all advances of love, and remain locked into their own torment. How long will that last? It may be that a sense of duration is meaningless in hell. The twentieth-century Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner suggests that it could be ‘eternal’ in the sense of being beyond measured time – not torment going on for endless time, but just a state when one realises one’s final exclusion from God.
For most Christians, those condemned to hell are those who finally, consciously and in full knowledge of the possibility of salvation, reject goodness and choose a life of malevolent desire. From traditional Christians, Jesus Christ is the only one who can liberate from the possibility of hell, the only ‘name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12). But Christ comes in many forms and guises. He is the ‘true light which enlightens everyone’ (John 1:9), and many Christians feel that people can be saved by one they may not have recognised on earth, but whom they will know as their saviour after death.”
That said I’ve been to Birmingham New Street station