Friday, May 13, 2011

Just For The Hell Of It: Wading Into the Debate Over The After-Life


Today I entered into an unexpected conversation with someone in a professional situation when I casually mentioned that I was on the Board of Directors at my church. “Which church is that?” she asked. Now, whenever someone asks me that question, I have to do my best to briefly clarify that Unity is not a traditional, fundamentalist Christian church. “It has roots in Christianity, but it is quite liberal and inclusive,” I said. And then she said, “Oh, kind of like Rob Bell?” “Nope, I think we'd go beyond Rob Bell.”

If you're unfamiliar with Rob Bell and the recent controversy, he's a Christian author who, many say goes “way beyond Christian orthodoxy” by saying in his new book “Love Wins” that God saves everybody from Hell.” I must confess I haven't read the book, but I'm sure I'd find it interesting, and that he doesn't go far enough for my liking.

Recently, speaking of the idea of Hell, the VP of Communications for Unity (of which I am a member), Paula Koppel quoted another author, Dr. Tom Shepherd,who said the following in his book Friends in High Places:

“Only the conservative fringe of Christianity still clings to the charred edges of hell in a vain attempt to convince people that a fiery afterlife awaits evil-doers. The idea of eternal punishment is considered so repugnant to the modern mind, so immoral and sub-Christian, that it has been summarily dismissed from the discussions of religious scholars.” (p. 25)

“Wow, (Coppel writes), I thought, could we really be finally outgrowing these mythical beliefs that not only defy logic and common sense, but also demean and insult the image of a loving, forgiving God?

I read on:

“However, the general population remains unaware of [this] because church leaders on the Religious Right make a lot more noise than the moderate center-left majority. Consequently, the conservatives have succeeded in convincing the public that ‘turn-or-burn’ is not only prevalent but the only authentic Christian doctrine. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Shepherd then quotes an Anglican theologian John Macquarrie, who, as academic chair of theology at Oxford, once stated:

“Needless to say, we utterly reject the idea of a hell where God everlastingly punishes the wicked, without hope of deliverance … Rather we must believe that God will never cease from his quest for universal reconciliation, and we can firmly hope for his victory in this quest …”

Now let me chat for a bit in response to the above quotes. Firstly, I don't agree that it is only a “conservative fringe” that still believes in a literal Hell where sinners go. I for one grew up saturated with this belief within my evangelical, fundamentalist denomination (Brethren In Christ), and the notion of Hell was in the Christian music I listened to, in the books, and even on T-shirts. Secondly, I do agree, along with the Anglican quoted, that there are many many people within Christendom who do not believe in Hell and have rejected it summarily. Here, though I would state that a lot of said evangelicals and fundamentalists would merely summize that these “leftist, liberal Christians” are not “really” Christians at all. This, to me, is another sign of arrogance, and one that I used to hold myself. I used to drive past the United, Anglican, Presbyterian churches in my village when i was growing up and I thought to myself “they aren't REALLY Christians. The Baptists, Mennonites, Pentecostals – maybe, Missionary Church people were all good, but not those other ones.” So I would just caution both Coppel and Shepherd that Anglicans, etc can say all they want but a lot of evangelicals will have none of it.

I do agree that the Religious Right, more conservative Christians “make more noise” about these issues, so many non-Christians look at the news and may think that all Christians believe in a fiery Hell where God sends people. This is far from the truth. Many many believers in Christ do not believe in a literal Hell (and a whole host of other issues might I add, such as that gay people are sinning by loving their partners).

Let's get back to Rob Bell for a minute. TIME magazine did a story on the whole “Love Wins” controversy, and this is a quote from that article:
“From a traditionalist perspective, though, to take away hell is to leave the church without its most powerful sanction. If heaven, however defined, is everyone’s ultimate destination in any event, then what’s the incentive to confess Jesus as Lord in this life? If, in other words, Gandhi is in heaven, then why bother with accepting Christ? If you say the Bible doesn’t really say what a lot of people have said it says, then where does that stop? If the verses about hell and judgment aren’t literal, what about the ones on adultery, say, or homosexuality?”

There are a few important questions posed here to Christians. If Heaven is where everyone is going to end up, what is the point of following Jesus? My answer to this is that believing in and following Jesus is not “fire-insurance,” and people should not be scared into the kingdom like old hellfire and brimstone preachers used to try to do. I think following Jesus can be more about living the kind of loving, compassionate, kind life here on earth that he proposed and exemplified. Including the “unloveable,” hanging out with societal rejects, choosing humility over exalting oneself.

Secondly, what about the Bible then? Paula Coppel says it nicely here:

“Any serious study of the Bible reveals it is anything but a seamless consistent whole, much less a reliable documentation of actual historical events. Shaped largely by myth and oral tradition, and written by non-eyewitnesses decades after Jesus died, it is an interesting read not because it is historically accurate but because it depicts the culture, mindset and consciousness of the times and gives us at least a general idea of what Jesus stood for.”

I believe that we can learn much from the Bible, but a lot of it must be taken in a historical and cultural context. Taking it a step further, I believe in the evolution of truth, that as time passes we understand new things. For instance in places the Bible advocates slavery, murdering babies, considers divorced women to be adulterers if they re-marry, and basically says that women should shut up in church and not have leadership over a man. How many implement these Biblical statements into their lives these days?

Coppel concludes: “So what happens if we take out the hell, heaven, fear, damnation, prejudice, oppression and judgment in the Bible? We can focus on what Jesus was trying to tell us about how to live our lives—how to love God and each other, which is what Christianity should really be about.”

Personally speaking, it honestly does not worry me one iota what happens to me when I die, it is more important what happens while I'm living and how I love and care for my friends and family in this life. There is no fear of burning. Unity teaches that “hell” and “heaven” are states of mind that we experience here, right now on earth. And we can change our experience by the renewing of our mind with spiritual principles and love. And oddly enough, now that I am not an evangelical Christian, I can perhaps be a more faithful follower of Jesus by paying attention to what he had to say and how he lived while walking this earth.