My buddy Bob and I got a pretty good conversation going on Hell stemming from my article on Islam and the commonalities between religious fundamentalists of various religions. Bob, accused me of being a fundamenalist about the issue of Hell because of my "certainty" about the non-existence of Hell. Of course, at first I bristled at the idea of being any sort of fundamentalist. Then, I kind of settled into it and accepted that, on some issues, I may be a fundamentalist. But, even beyond that, Bob brought up the idea that it really doesn't matter what we believe about Hell. Now, that I don't believe at all. And, I'll tell you why.
First of all, just a quick aside on the issue of Fundamentalism. Ironically, I'm currently reading a book that discusses Spiral Dynamics which is the notion that individually and collectively people evolve from one level of consciousness to the next. These levels (in this particular system) are color coded. As I was reading the book and trying to put myself into one of the boxes, what I realized is that I am on different levels on different issues and operate on different levels depending on the situation. In fact as you progress up the hierarchy, you don't actually abandon earlier levels, you transcend and integrate them. That's a different post. But, what I realized is some people thinking they are "evolved" make the mistake of thinking nothing is right or wrong anymore. No values are better than any other value. It's all a matter of perspective or cultural bias or whatever. We hesitate to call the stoning of adulterers "wrong" because that's just "their way" (besides our own Bibles say it's OK to stone some people). Well, it's simply not true that all ideas, values, traditions have the same merit. Some things are better than others and when we have a conviction about something, it's OK to have that conviction. I am very confident that G-d does not send people to eternal conscious torment as punishment for "sins" against Her and if saying that makes me a fundamentalist, I'm OK with being a fundamentalist. Respecting others doesn't mean I have to accept all of their opinions or say they are just as likely to be right as I am. I respect others' right to hold a different opinion. I will fellowship with them. I will not say they are not "saved" because they don't agree with me. But, of course I think I'm right. And of course, I think my way of thinking is more "evolved" than theirs. I'm sorry if that offends.
I've spent a lot of time on the blog backing up why I believe what I believe. So, I won't reiterate it all here. In a nutshell, there is scant evidence of Hell, period. The Old Testament doesn't mention it even one time. Sheol (properly translated as the grave) is a shadowy underworld where there is no notion of torture mention in the Old Testament. When G-d cursed Adam & Eve, not a peep about Hell. In all of the threats and promises in the Old Testament, not a word about Hell. Only in a few passages in the New Testament can we even begin to find anything about Hell. Then when I studied the origins of this concept, I found out they were pagan and came from the ruling class to keep the common folk in line. Look it all up for yourself. But, ask yourself, if you hadn't been taught that the New Testament says people are going to be tortured, would you believe it? What if you have been taught to misinterpret those passsages? Are you open to that possibility? Bob asked me if I were open to the possibility I'm wrong. Sure. But, why would I believe it? There's almost zero evidence for it and a ton of evidence against it, including most importantly, the nature of G-d. Frankly, even if the Bible clearly taught the existence of Eternal Conscious Torment, I'd have to reject it. But, thankfully, the Bible does not.
Finally, to the point of this post. Why does it matter? Bob wrote this:
I think that the question of hell begs the question of why do we need to know? What difference does it make whether hell exists or it does not exist? Here are a few scenarios:
Fundamentalist A sez that the existence of hell motivates them to preach the gospel.
Fundamentalist B sez that the existence of Hell creates an untenable picture of God.
Both use the bible to support their positions.. each believe that thy are correct.. nothing changes because it is not about hell.. it is about something else.
Fundie A doesn't need hell to exist to motivate them to share their faith.. they just need to have love for people.
Fundie B doesn't need hell to not exist to see God as a love.. they just need to understand the cross.
Feel free to deep six these thoughts.. not sure that they make sense to anyone but me.
Concerning Fundy A, I agree with Bob. If he needs the existence of Hell to motivate him to share the gospel, he is seriously missing the point. I believe Jesus was telling us to bring heaven (justice) to Earth, to bring G-d's Kingdom to the here and now. I do not need to be motivated by the threat of Hell to share this with my neighbor. People without the knowledge of G-d's love and His desires for all of us to accept that are already living in Hell. They don't have to die to go there.
Concerning Fundy B, the fact that the belief in Hell creates an untenable picture of G-d. Well, I agree with Fundy B. For the first several decades of my life, the belief that G-d would send me to eternal torment tormented me in the here and now. Oh, I supposedly had escaped the flames. I went to church, said my prayers, tried not to sin, confessed when I did sin, got baptized, spoke in tongues as evidence of the infilling of the Holy Spirit. The whole thing. But, I knew in my heart it was a lie. As much as I wanted to love G-d, I could not love someone who wanted to torture me and only let me off of the hook because He tortured His Son instead. I loved Jesus. Oh, I adored Jesus. But, G-d? G-d who could only bear to have me in His presence because He could not see through the blood covering me? This was not a G-d I could love, it was a G-d I could only fear and resent for even creating me to have to live with this horrible lie. I wished I had never been born.
As much as possible, I pushed this out of my mind. The though of my brothers and sister being tortured if they died because they had not said the right words and been dipped in the pool were thoughts I could not bear to think too often. Then, it happened. It became personal. My uncle was murdered. The rumor going around the family at the time was that he had been thinking about joining the church. In fact, he called me just a couple of days before he was murdered and left a voicemail. Unfortunately, I did not speak with him between that time and his murder. So, I don't know what was going on. As far as I know, he died "in his sins". This was more than I could bear. G-d was torturing my uncle because he had not joined the church in time. That's what I had been taught. This was when I could no longer avoid and say "it's just a mystery". I was forced to confront the issue head on.
Compounding matters, my uncle was gay. As a gay man, he would not have been accepted in any church I knew about at the time. I know he "loved the Lord". But, what is a man to do when he loves G-d but is rejected by the church? These "good people" who reject divorced people, gays, alcoholics, etc. etc. because of what their book tells them, think they are doing G-d's bidding. Do they even consider the fact that they are also condemning people to eternal torment? But, hey, if G-d's going to torture them, they deserve it. Right? My heart aches every time I think of my Uncle Michael because I blame his death largely on the lifestyle he was living at the time of his murder, a lifestyle I attribute largely to society's and the church's treatment of gays.
So, why is this issue of Hell important in the here and now? I believe that people become like the god they serve. If their god is petty, they'll be petty. If their god is unforgiving, they'll be unforgiving. If their god creates throw-away people, they'll see some people as throw-away people. I don't have statistics on this. But, I wonder how many churches that teach eternal conscious torment are also open and affirming to gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgendered people. I wonder what their emphasis is on bringing peace and justice to Earth now to all people when they are just waiting for G-d to throw those people into a fiery pit. The issue is also important because there are some people who simply cannot reconcile a G-d of infinite love and mercy and grace and justice with a god who not only tosses aside a huge chunk of his daughters and sons, he locks them in the basement and gives them just enough breath to feel the pain He plans to inflict on them forever. People who cannot reconcile this and cannot get beyond this teaching either reject Christianity all together, accept the fact they are going to Hell or live a lie and pretend to love G-d because they have to.
I have found among my more sensitive Evangelical friends what seems to me to be a growing trend, the "I don't know. We can't know. It's a mystery. I'll leave it up to God" stance. I find very, very few people who will adamantly defend their belief in Eternal Conscious Torment. Right now I can't think of one. Of course, I have a theory on that. I think it's their way of compromising and avoiding what is an unbearable dilemma for them. A couple of thousand years ago, mankind was not as evolved and the world was a much bigger and more scary place. It was easier to think of others as truly other. Even a few decades ago most of us hung out with other Christians (or white people or straight people or whatever). The idea that G-d was going to send masses and masses of "others" to Eternal Torment wasn't something you really didn' have to think about. Now, most of us have a Hindu living down the street or work with a Muslim or know a gay guy or two. We cannot openly declare that G-d is going to torture all those people but OTOH, we cannot reject a "clear" teaching from our infallible Bibles. So, we toss up our hands and chalk it up to mystery. A fair position to be sure. I see it as a way station. One I was in for a long time. But, it was never a place I was comfortable being in.
Bob's right about this though. I cannot "prove" Hell does not exist, not even using the Bible. I think properly translated and looking at it from the overarching message of scripture, it's pretty clear the Bible teaches all will be saved (particulaly Paul's letters and most especially the book of Romans). But, it would be a waste of my time to try to prove it to someone who doens't want to see it. As much as it would be a waste of their time to try to prove their position to me. That does not mean the issue is not important and it doesn mean, for me, that I have to chalk it up to a mystery. If G-d is the kind of G-d who would do such a thing, I want to know. If the point of this life is simply making that one decision and escaping the flames, I need to know. It'll impact how I live my life and how I treat others.
BTW- the picture for this post is my Uncle Michael. He sent it to me not too long before he was murdered. My conversation with Bob yesterday reminded me of him again and again I wept for him over 20 years after his death. He is my constant reminder of why this is so important.