This weekend, I talked to an old friend — a Unitarian — about Hell. Actually, we were talking about religious extremists, Christian fundamentalists in particular, and he just pointed me to an episode of “This American Life” about a modern heretic who decided Hell wasn’t real. I listened to the the tape and wrote my friend this email:
- The prosperity gospel preachers are generally considered wrong or, to use the show’s language, heretical. Teaching that God is going to make sure you prosper if you give money to the Church (a main component of this guy’s teaching) is just wrong.
- T.D. Jakes was one of the people condemning this guy? Christianity Today did an article on T.D. Jakes since Jakes refuses to say without equivocation that he believes in the Trinity. The Trinity is far more basic to Christian dogma than Hell is.
- When he was describing his “conversion” experience — watching starving people in Africa — I was struck that it felt like the only way he could rationalize his inaction. “Well go if you have to save the from Hell. … But, wait! They’re not going to hell! They’re escaping it! … Now I don’t have to do anything!”
- The canonization of scripture is described cynically, but, yes, church leaders did decide which books ended up in the Bible. This is something many Protestants, especially the KJV crowd (which Pentecostals tend to be) don’t realize. The man probably rejects the historical church (i.e. Roman Catholic, Orthodox, etc.) so, yeah, as a result he gets to interpret scripture pretty much context-free.
- Finally, “Hell”. Many people spend way too much time worrying about esoterica. Hell is esoterica. And this “heretic” is absolutely right that they spend way too much time creating an image of God as someone who likes to punish people. Yes, claiming “God is Love, but he’s sending you to hell” isn’t very endearing. (I never liked Pascal’s Wager, either.)
I found (and attached) this quote from Saint Anthony in “River of Fire”:
God is good, dispassionate, and immutable. Now someone who thinks it reasonable and true to affirm that God does not change, may well ask how, in that case, it is possible to speak of God as rejoicing over those who are good and showing mercy to those who honor Him, and as turning away from the wicked and being angry with sinners. To this it must be answered that God neither rejoices nor grows angry, for to rejoice and to be offended are passions; nor is He won over by the gifts of those who honor Him, for that would mean He is swayed by pleasure. It is not right that the Divinity feel pleasure or displeasure from human conditions. He is good, and He only bestows blessings and never does harm, remaining always the same. We men, on the other hand, if we remain good through resembling God, are united to Him, but if we become evil through not resembling God, we are separated from Him. By living in holiness we cleave to God; but by becoming wicked we make Him our enemy. It is not that He grows angry with us in an arbitrary way, but it is our own sins that prevent God from shining within us and expose us to demons who torture us. And if through prayer and acts of compassion we gain release from our sins, this does not mean that we have won God over and made Him to change, but that through our actions and our turning to the Divinity, we have cured our wickedness and so once more have enjoyment of God’s goodness. Thus to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind.
This made me curious. Serendipitously, I had a tab open in my web browser to Christ the Conqueror of Hell. When I finally got around to reading it, I found some Universalist, but aparently completly Orthodox, thoughts:
Christian consciousness in the East admits the opportunity to be saved not only for those who believe during their lifetime, but also those who were not given to believe yet pleased God with their good works.
The interesting contrast is that Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev doesn’t say that Hell doesn’t exist, but that Hell isn’t eternal, that Christ completely destroyed Satan’s power and, with it, the power of Hell, that any Hell is one of our own making and that righteousness isn’t an exclusive trait of Christians.