Sunday, March 27, 2011

Do You Believe In Hell?

I don’t. Never have. Don’t know why.

Okay, I do know why. Hell never made sense to me: if God is so loving and wonderful then why subject people to some kind of eternal torture? Especially when we’re so good at doing that to ourselves, amiright?

That doesn’t mean I don’t believe evil doesn’t exist, or don’t believe in the concept of “sin” (a loaded word, I know ... more on that another time). But the concept of a Hieronymous Bosch-style afterlife of damnation and grotesque punishment just seems stupid.

Hell does not exist in the Old Testament, it seems to be a relatively recent concoction; the Hebrew world “shaol” referred to the Jersualem garbage dump, while “satan” is more accurately translated as “opposer” or “accuser.” That seems to fit my idea of the world. We have ying and yang, darkness and light, morning and evening ... everything has its opposite. This is not the same as Western Christianity’s ideas of “heaven” and “hell,” which seem to have their origin in Medieval art and literature (and that I believe was informed by the Black Plague). So, thank you Dante Alighieri for saddling us with these crackpot ideas.

It’s interesting that in modern America people have become so attached to these cultural notions of “heaven” and “hell” -- ideas which do not exist anywhere in the Bible -- that something like this can happen:
Pastor loses job after questioning hell

DURHAM, N.C. - When Chad Holtz lost his old belief in hell, he also lost his job.

The pastor of a rural United Methodist church in North Carolina wrote a note on his Facebook page supporting a new book by Rob Bell, a prominent young evangelical pastor and critic of the traditional view of hell as a place of eternal torment for billions of damned souls.

Two days later, Holtz was told complaints from church members prompted his dismissal from Marrow's Chapel in Henderson.

That’s almost funny except it’s not, it’s very sad. Congregations are supposed to listen to what their pastors have to say on theologoical matters, aren’t they? Isn’t that the point? If you've already made up your mind then why even bother with a pastor? Just go on in your comfortable little universe where you're never challenged to look at the world in a different way.

But of course we all know that has its limits: every pastor with a passion for social justice knows you can only challenge your congregation so much. Preaching “love the sinner, hate the sin” is fine; preaching homosexuality isn’t a sin at all but just how some people are born is asking for trouble. People don’t want to be pushed out of their comfort zones, which is why it’s the rare preacher who has the stomach to challenge the status quo. I mean c’mon, Jesus was that kind of preacher and look what happened to him.

Anyway, I’m getting off on a rabbit trail here but I thought I’d ask people their thoughts on this. What's your concept of hell? Is it like that old Twilight Zone episode, where the Hell's Angel is stuck for eternity with a group of senior citizens looking at pictures of their trip to the Grand Canyon? Is it the hell on earth we create for ourselves?