(Most modern Christians are very reluctant to talk about hell and when
they do they skirt around it with much prevarication and equivocation)
Ya reckon?  They seem to have little problem talking about Satan,
demonic possession and all the rest …  Or do you mean the academic
ones, not educated at American bible colleges?
No, pretty much all of them.  Satan, demonic possession is easy.  Hell is another matter altogether.
What has happened, I submit, is that even very fundy Christians no longer truly believe that Hell is a *just punishment*.
Tertullian (c 200ADish) wrote that one of the chief pleasures of heaven would be watching the sufferings of the damned in hell.  When you think about that, its actually quite logical.  God is perfectly just, as are his punishments.  If people are punished with eternal suffering by God, that punishment is what they deserve and the exercise of it is an exercise of righteous correction.  Surely the saints should rejoice in seeing perfect justice being done – if they were sad to see people in hell, doesn’t that imply that (1) they doubt that the judgement was just (2) Satan has won – the saint’s pleasure in God’s presence in heaven is tempered by the sins of others?
Try getting even the most fundy evangelical to agree with Tertullian.  In fact try getting a fundy to actually condemn a particular person to hell.  Ye olde fundies were quite happy to say to particular people ‘You are a sinner, justly condemned to fire for your heinous sins’.  Nowdays they talk as if our inability to reach heaven was some sort of inherent limitation, like being born with no legs, and God has in his love given us a wheelchair – all we have to do is get in and use it.
God’s just anger and wrath has gone.  God has been recast as passive – God ‘because he is just, cannot say that our rebellion against him doesn’t matter. … When I go astray I am actually saying to God, “God, I do not accept you as God of my life – I am the ruler – please go away and leave me alone.” … God cannot just say to Hitler that it doesn’t matter and sweep Hitler’s offence under the carpet. And God (because of his justice) can’t say that my offence doesn’t matter, for my offence may be of a different degree – but its antisocial nature is the same.  God in his justice gives us what we ask for. Eternity without him. ‘Hell’ is not the popularly conceived ‘goblins at the end of the garden’, but rather is eternal loneliness … as God withdraws relationship from us. ‘
Look at all the ‘cant’s’.  God would like to forgive you, but ‘can’t’.  God doesn’t actually punish you he ‘gives us what we ask for’.  Hell isn’t fire but ‘eternal loneliness’.
These people no longer believe that eternal wailing and gnashing of teeth is a just and Godly punishment for those who have not been saved through Jesus.

Tertullian (c 200ADish) wrote that one of the chief pleasures of heaven would be watching the sufferings of the damned in hell.

When you think about that, it’s actually quite logical. God is perfectly just, as are his punishments. If people are punished with eternal suffering by God, that punishment is what they deserve and the exercise of it is an exercise of righteous correction. Surely the saints should rejoice in seeing perfect justice being done—if they were sad to see people in hell, wouldn’t that imply that:

  1. they doubt that the judgment was just
  2. Satan has won—the saint’s pleasure in God’s presence in heaven is tempered by the sins of others?

C S Lewis’ terrible “The Great Divorce“, which people keep on quoting as through it was a canonical work on par with the Epistle to the Romans, has a version of this argument.  He pictures a woman who has reached heaven coming across her late husband, who is stuck in Lewis’ personal version of Hell.

Lewis cannot allow her to feel pity.

“Is it really tolerable that she should be untouched by his misery, even his self-made misery?” Lewis’ narrator asks; is is not true that “the final loss of one soul gives the lie to all the joy of those who are saved”?  Poor George MacDonald, coerced posthumously by Lewis to be the guide responds: “That sounds very merciful: but see what lurks behind it…. The demand of the loveless and the self-imprisoned that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy: that theirs should be the final power; that Hell should be able to veto Heaven”

Try getting a modern evangelical to agree with Tertullian—even Lewis can’t go so far as to have the inhabitants of heaven actually rejoice at the deprivation of hell and manages at most a sort of sociopathic contentment.

In fact try getting a modern enlightened evangelical to actually condemn a particular person to hell.

Ye olde fundies were quite happy to say to particular people ‘You are a sinner, justly condemned to fire for your heinous sins’.  Look at good old Jonathan Edwards:

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince: and yet ’tis nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment; ’tis to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep: and there is no other reason to be given why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up; there is no other reason to be given why you han’t gone to hell since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship: yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you don’t this very moment drop down into hell.

O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: ’tis a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you as against many of the damned in hell; you hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no interest in any mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment.

Good stuff. Hellfire and brimstone from a God who sees us as loathsome insects; just like Jesus taught.

Compare and contrast this modern evangelical output, aimed at university students: http://www.credo.org.au/findout/god/hell/

God, because he is just, cannot say that our rebellion against him doesn’t matter. All of us have offended him. We reject God’s commands, which is a personal rejection of God.

When my two year old daughter jumped violently on the back of my baby son, she offended my son but she also offended me. I have been clear with her that she is to be gentle with her little brother. In the same way, when we adults act against each other (in our sexuality misbehaviour, in our selfishness, in banging into each others cars without owning up) we offend another person, but we also offend God.

Our rejection of God’s commands is a symptom of our personal rejection of God. God has been clear how he wants me to live and how he wants me to relate to him. When I go astray I am actually saying to God, “God, I do not accept you as God of my life – I am the ruler – please go away and leave me alone.”

God cannot just say to Hitler that it doesn’t matter and sweep Hitler’s offence under the carpet. And God (because of his justice) can’t say that my offence doesn’t matter, for my offence may be of a different degree – but its antisocial nature is the same.

God in his justice gives us what we ask for. Eternity without him. ‘Hell’ is not the popularly conceived ‘goblins at the end of the garden’, but rather is eternal loneliness … as God withdraws relationship from us.

The greatness of the Christian Gospel is that God is not only just, but loving. In the moment of the death of Jesus, the love of God and the justice of God meet. In his last moments on the cross, Jesus cries out in anguish to the Father, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” The answer is that God so loved us, that he has abandoned Jesus (sent him to hell) to pay the price of our rebellion, so that God could in his love accept us, and yet maintain his justice (and not say that our offence does not matter).

We must accept God’s justice, the question is: Will you accept God’s love … and thank him for Jesus death on your behalf?

God’s just anger and wrath has gone.

In fact, God has been recast as passive—God ‘because he is just, cannot say that our rebellion against him doesn’t matter. … when I go astray I am actually saying to God, “God, I do not accept you as God of my life – I am the ruler – please go away and leave me alone.” … God cannot just say to Hitler that it doesn’t matter and sweep Hitler’s offence under the carpet. And God (because of his justice) can’t say that my offence doesn’t matter, for my offence may be of a different degree – but its antisocial nature is the same.  God in his justice gives us what we ask for. Eternity without him. ‘Hell’ is not the popularly conceived ‘goblins at the end of the garden’, but rather is eternal loneliness … as God withdraws relationship from us. ‘

Look at all the ‘cant’s’.  God would like to forgive you, but ‘can’t’.  God doesn’t actually punish you he ‘gives us what we ask for’.  Hell isn’t fire but ‘eternal loneliness’.

They’re prevaricating.  It’s not God’s fault he does nasty things to us. No indeed. In fact he doesn’t do nasty things to us at all, no siree. He just allows nasty things to happen to us because, deep down, that’s what we want to happen to us.  He’d really love us to be happy, but he can’t go against his nature, no matter how much he’d like to. It’s not as if he is omnipotent or anything, after all.

Why do they prevaricate?  Because they no longer believe that eternal wailing and gnashing of teeth is a just and Godly punishment for those who have not become Christians.  Because they no longer believe that a burning lake of fire should justly await the girl who served them chicken laska in the university canteen yesterday.

They don’t in their hearts believe that a loving and just God would condemn their coworkers, their children, their friends and family in that way.

Is this universalism?  Maybe.  But it is a negative version.  A version which shies away from hell but does not proclaim heaven.  A conflicted, hesitant version.  A weak, lukewarm version.

Neither hot nor cold.

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Spong on Hell

May 31, 2009

I have always found Spong worth listening to, even as I doubt whether his attempt to provide a grounded liberal Christianity works for me.  Anyway, here is a short opinion of his on Hell:

Ballou v Channing

May 25, 2009

From “The Universalist movement in America, 1770-1880” by Ann Lee Bressler pp 4-7, arguing that “Channing’s disdain for those of humble backgound cannot completely explain his lack of collegiality, indeed of civility, toward a neighbouring minster [Ballou] whose doctrinal criticism … often mirrored his own”:

John White Chadwick … maintained in his 1903 biography of Channing that the [Ballou’s] Treatise [on Atonement] “anticipated the full-grown expression of Channing’s thonght on all its principal lines.” Chadwick’s subtly condescending assertion, issued long after the Unitarians and Universalists had grown cozy, reflects a view about the relationship between the early histories of the two movements that remains prevalent nearly a century later. Unfortunately, it is based on a fundamental misreading of the Treatise. While many of the major ideas and arguments in the two works are strikingly similar, the central thrust of the Baltimore sermon differs greatly from that of Ballou’s Treatise.

One commentator has observed that, in Channing’s thought, we can see a “vast reversal in the orientation of the New England mind since the time of [Jonathan] Edwards,” even “the triumph of Edwards’s opponents.” Channing valued the gospel for its “aids,” “motives,” and “excitements” to a “generous and divine virtue” and insisted that virtue could not be “infused into us without our own moral activity.” It was in the human ability to oppose nature and history, not in human openness to God, that Channing saw the beauty of man. As Ballou’s biographer, Ernest Cassara, has pointed out, Channing’s Arminianism was directly opposed to Ballou’s belief. The keynote of Ballou’s message was the power of God’s love in the face of human sinfulness and apparent intransigence. Man “experimentally becomes a child of God,” and “by the spirit of the word, the soul is brought into sweet communion with God.” In this key respect, Ballou remained closer to Edwards than to Edwards’s opponents.

Indeed, the disagreement between Channing and Ballon continued in important respects a conflict that bad originated between Jonathan Edwards and the liberal clergy of Boston. Figures like Jonathan Mayhew and Charles Chauney had developed what Henry May has called “a post-Calvinist adaptation of the Moderate English Enlightenment” They held at more than arm’s length the sort of intense concern with human sinfulness and the fate of souls that flared during the Great Awakening.

Channing was clearly an exponent of the outlook they had nurtured. Ultimately, he sought to furnish the rational structure for a religion of moral self-culture. For Channing, after all, virtue was rooted in human moral nature, with its likeness to God. Andrew Delbanco has written that Channing’s conception of virtue “as a property of individual insularity” made him uncomfortable with the “communitarian metaphysics of Edwards, who always conceived of virtue in terms of relation.”

We can see the basic incompatibility between Channing and Ballou when we recognize that Ballou’s vision was essentially communitarian as well. Indeed, Ballou’s understanding of the power of the doctrine of universal salvation is reminiscent of Edwards’s expression of true virtue:

In pure love to others i.e., love not arising from self-love, there is a union of the heart with others; a kind of enlargement of the mind, whereby it so extends itself as to take others into a man’s self: and therefore it implies a disposition to feel, to desire, and to act as though others were one with ourselves.

Ballou held that the heartfelt belief in universal salvation induced people to rise above the “natural moral sense,” to act out of a higher and less purely selfish virtue. Faith in universal salvation severely discouraged the elevation of individual virtue as it celebrated the organic purpose and will of God.

In the end, Ballou and Channing thus directed reason to very different purposes; Ballou put it in the service of fervent evangelical piety, while Channing used it to illuminate an urbane moralism. Channing’s refusal to recognize Ballou, then, was probably far more than the snubbing of one who held a lower social station; it was also an expression of distaste for the broad implications of Ballou’s teachings. Ballou had, in an important way, appropriated the legacy of Edwards, while Channing was socially and intellectually descended from his opponents. Imbuing the organic, egalitarian piety of Edwards with a heavy dose of Enlightenment rationality, Ballou challenged an Arminian individualism that implicitly reinforced a sense of social hierarchy. Intellectually as well as socially, this preacher from the hill country made William Ellery Channing uneasy.

It is obvious which of those visions won. I wonder what was lost, though, in the victory?

God does not exist
        like a rock exists
        but God is my sure foundation.

God does not exist
        like a tree exists
        but God is life.

God does not exist
        like I exist
        but God was a man.

God does not exist
        like the number three exists
        but God is one.

God does not exist
        like love exists
        but God is love.

God is.

One of the things about WordPress is that you can see where people visiting your site are coming from, and what searches they use to get here.

The other day, someone vistited from the AOL search Carlton Pearson ask god to kill him.

That’s a big call, don’t you think?   OK, so you don’t agree with Carlton; but shouldn’t you pause just a little before asking God to kill him?

Jesus was very keen on the connection between thought and action; isn’t praying for Carlton Pearson’s death morally the same as killing him yourself?

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.

Simple and Intelligible Redux

September 24, 2007

A while ago, I (mis)used an academic paper online at the Unitarian Christian Colloqium by Andrew Brown from the beautiful Cambridge Unitarian called ‘God, Jesus, Christ & Holy Spirit’ as a starting point for some comments of mine on the need for a simple and intelligible presentation of liberal faith. Andrew was nice enough to leave an excellent comment, which is worth highlighting:

[…] I think it is right to point out that liberal Christianity should be simple – at least in its everyday practice (whether in prayer or in social action). However, this does not mean we need to be simple minded when we reflect upon our faith. I think it is vital to explore how sound, intellectually and philosophically, liberal Christianity is. Liberal Christians got caught out after the First World War simply because many of them simply hadn’t done enough hard thinking and it left the door open for people like Karl Barth to set the theological agenda for the rest of the century (and beyond). Let’s not get caught out again. I don’t claim for one minute my own theology is good and sound enough to do the job but I am keen to encourage us all to think as deeply as we can. In between times as a regular kind of pastor I try to practice Christianity in its most simple and intelligble terms just by following the example of Jesus.

The older types of liberal protestantism, such as the Universalists’, with their belief in the perfectability of human society (one 1935 creed endorsing “the power of men of good will and sacrificial spirit to overcome all evil and progressively establish the kingdom of God”) were plainly inadequate in the face of the first half of the 20C – failing Rabbi Greenberg’s post-Shoah test that we should make no theological statement that could not be made in the presence of burning children.

We certainly should not forget that lesson.

So hard thinking is certainly needed. And clear words, too.