04 Apr

Are you going to hell?

Did Pope Francis say there is no such place as hell? Well, is there? What does the Christian faith have to say about this question? The answer is both “much” and “various.”

Hell is a biblical concept, first found in the Old Testament, the ancient Hebrew scriptures. There are two words for hell: sheol and gehenna. Sheol (Genesis 37: 35) and elsewhere) is the place of departed spirits, a gloomy underworld, hades. There is no connotation of punishment in sheol. It is simply where we all go when we die, where we live a shadowy existence, the nearest thing to fading away. Though another ancient Jewish tradition declares that in sheol there is a section – “the bosom of Abraham” – where we wait in hope to be taken into the nearer presence of God. Gehenna (Matthew 10:28 and elsewhere) is a place of punishment and “unquenchable fire.” At the time of Jesus, the endlessly smoking, festering rubbish tip outside Jerusalem was referred to as gehenna. Also in the New Testament hell is described as “a lake of fire and endless torment” (Revelation 20:10).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992) says this on the subject:

“We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbour or against ourselves. He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren. To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called “hell.” Jesus often speaks of this “gehenna,” of “the unquenchable fire” reserved for those who to the end of their lives refuse to believe and be converted, where both soul and body can be lost. Jesus solemnly proclaims that he will send his angels, and they will gather… all evil doers, and throw them into the furnace of fire, and that he will pronounce the condemnation: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire!” The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, which is described as “eternal fire.”

We can’t escape by turning Protestant. The Westminster Confession (1646) speaks unequivocally of “eternal torments.”

There are other views. Eastern Orthodox Christians believe that hell should not be imagined as a place but as a state of being, of one’s personal experience: so that those who have loved God and tried to serve him will experience the afterlife as benign, while the persistently sinful and disobedient will feel only pain.

Others hold a doctrine of annihilationsim according to which the soul of an unrepentant sinner after death endures a period of punishment and then is destroyed.

A more cheerful teaching is that of universalism (Origen AD 184-253) and Karl Barth (1886-1968): the doctrine that no one will be eternally damned. The argument is that, since God’s purpose is the redemption of sinful human beings, then if one person should remain in hell forever, then God’s purpose will be thwarted. Universalists thus argue that the demons and the devil himself (if there are such beings) will also be saved at the last and God’s triumph fully revealed. But the Bible and subsequent Jewish and Christian theology tell us that God also gave us freewill. If God were then to compel us to repent, to be saved and taken into heaven, then God is abolishing his own gift of freewill.

Whatever hell is, it is, so to speak, a philosophical minefield. For what can life after death mean? As Wittgenstein said, “Death is not an event in life.” Death is the end of life because for the individual the event of death is the end of time and space. And existence of any kind without time and space would seem to be impossible, for all we mean by existence is experienced as being in time and space. As Heidegger said, “We are embodied time, Dasein” which, as Woody Allen knows, means “being there.”

And what am I when I am no longer a living body? What sense can we make of the word soul? If it is not a body – and by definition it is not – then what is it and where is it? If it is not a body, can it be  anywhere? Can it even be a substantive, a what? In any case, and contrary to the popular notion, the Christian faith does not teach the immortality of the soul but the resurrection of the body (I Corinthians 15). Of course not many people think that the resurrection of the body means skeletons, rotted corpses and vanished ash putting on flesh once again. Instead, St Paul says that at the resurrection we shall be given a “spiritual body” a swmapneumatikon But can a spiritual body be anything other than a contradiction in terms?

Another view – that of so called “realised eschatology” or the things of the future in the here and now – says that heaven and hell are images, picture language, metaphors for present states of being. Thus hell is an image of the unrepentant sinner as he is presently living his life. Well, that is not what the Bible appears to be saying. And, in any case, many unrepentant sinners do not feel themselves to be in hell. Perhaps they do not even think of themselves as sinners! And secularised modern man would be mightily offended were you to call him a sinner. He has done away with Original Sin and replaced it with Self-Esteem.

About hell and heaven, I don’t know. See you when we get there – or not, as the case may be…    

01 Jan

Does Welby have a wireless?

The Archbishop of Canterbury has delivered his New Year’s message to the nation in which he praises the responses of what he calls “communities” to last year’s terrorist atrocities and to the Grenfell fire. Actually, “communities” is not a helpful word, Mr Welby if your aim is to promote social cohesion. There is one community and we are all part of it, whereas “communities” connotes ghettos – that failed multicultural experiment which encouraged the separate development of the different races and creeds. Most of the immigrants who have settled in Britain over the centuries have integrated into the general population – into the community, in fact. Only in recent years there has arisen an exception: Muslims who so dislike our British community that they segregate themselves in a form of apartheid. How inconsistent and odd of lefties such as Welby to have condemned apartheid when it took place in South Africa, but to applaud it here in their use of that divisive word “communities.” What we have in Tower Hamlets, Dewsbury, Walsall, Oldham and a score other of our cities and towns is not Muslim “communities,” Mr Welby but Muslim ghettos.

In his message, which was broadcast on the BBC, the Archbishop said he also wanted to highlight the suffering of people “struggling to find work or relying on food banks” and “those who are bereaved or coping with poor mental health or physical illness.”

He added: “Their suffering will never make the news.”

Really? Does Welby live anywhere near a television set or a wireless? Does he ever read a newspaper? If he did, he would discover that, far from “never making the news,” the topics of unemployment, food banks – many organised by the Church of which Welby is titular leader – and mental health are never out of the news. These subjects are of great public concern and so it’s right that they should feature prominently in the news.

It is entirely right that the Archbishop should express his thanks to the emergency services for their courageous presence during terrorist attacks and at terrible public disasters such as Grenfell. Likewise, his concern for the poor and the sick is something required of him by the faith which he professes. I just wish he would profess the Christian faith rather more than he does. Christian morality is derived from Christian doctrine. And the most fundamental Christian doctrine is that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but we can take comfort and hope from the fact that Jesus Christ died to save us from our sins. So, if we repent and turn to Christ, we shall be saved,

Not a word about this from Welby. As if a chemist were to talk about chemistry while avoiding all reference to chemicals, or England’s opening batsman should walk out to bat – only without his bat.

Surely, the turn of the year is the time for looking back and repenting of our sins, negligences and ignorances and for looking forward in hope and confidence in the saving work of Jesus Christ?

The social gospel is a very fine thing. But the social gospel without the gospel is just sentimental socialism. 

24 Nov

God makes an American comeback?

On Thanksgiving, Abraham Lincoln urged the American people to offer, “Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.”

Barak Obama omitted all mention of “God” or “prayer” in his message to the nation.

By contrast, Donald Trump declared America “blessed,” referred to “my prayer” and ended with “God bless you all. God bless America.”

I just wonder if this might be the start of something good, something wholesome and restorative?

“Thus saith the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel: In returning and rest shall ye be saved; in quietness and confidence shall be your strength.” (Isaiah 30:15)

I could spend all morning quoting biblical texts at you in which the Old Testament prophets admonished an erring and straying people and urged them to return to their God. They added that the people would live in peace and prosperity if they followed God’s Commandments; but that they would inevitably end up in trouble if they did not.

But the Bible was written a long time ago in the days when people actually believed in God. Surely, four hundred years after the Enlightenment, we have outgrown such superstition? Dietrich Bonhoeffer – an Enlightenment man if ever there was one – declared that 20th century people had “come of age.” He neglected to mention the gifts reserved for age: two world wars, the most destructive wars in history. Man come of age perpetrated more slaughter in the Second World War than in all previous wars put together. In the same century, there were the genocides of the pagan Hitler and the atheists Stalin and Mao.

I have noticed modern man’s famous difficulties with belief in God all my life and I am sure that these difficulties arise because modern man first invents a god in his own image – a cartoon god, an unbelievable god – and then rightly and logically this belief. What if, instead of the cartoon god, we were to say something like this:

Unless you hold that there are absolute values by which your conduct is measured, by which you try to live, you are bound to live a morally incoherent life. Enlightenment nostrums and wonderfully progressed discoveries in mathematics, physics and biology will enable you to cure diseases, to live in warm houses, to construct an atom-smasher and even fly to the moon.

But no science, no technology, however advanced can give you guidance how to live.

Life requires absolute values. Relative values which change to accommodate our convenience and our shifting fashions and prejudices are not real values: there needs to be something definite, something absolute by which our lives are measured. The biblical word for this is “judged.”

As the great Enlightenment philosopher himself, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) put it: “The starry heavens above and the Moral Law within.”

Personally, I would want to go further than this theologically.

But will it do – for a start?