hell

Hate Won't Win

Fred Phelps died early Thursday morning. Phelps was best known for his deeply rooted hatred and promulgating the tasteless slogan “God Hates Fags.” His little group of mostly extended family members that comprised the 59-year-old Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, carried their signs with such ugly and painful statements all over the country. Phelps’ small cult got the most attention for their protests of military and other high-profile funerals, claiming that the slain soldiers deserved to die as a consequence of God’s judgment against America’s tolerance of gay and lesbian people. Such shameful and angry messages, understandably, caused great pain among the mourners and family members grieving their loved ones.

Hell and the Love of God

Illustration by Ken Davis

I GREW UP IN THE BAPTIST CHURCH, memorizing scripture as part of our “sword drills” and arming myself with the necessary tools to convert my friends to the side of righteousness. I was taught that the Earth was 5,000 years old, that scientists fabricated the fossil record to fit their agenda, and that some people—really, most people—were going to hell.

I remember waking up, shaking in my bed from dreams of the hungry flames of hell licking at my heels. My daily decisions were increasingly governed by fear and guilt rather than by love or a sense of what was right.

Where do our contemporary ideas about hell come from? First, we have to consider what it is we’re talking about when we say “hell.” Is it effectively the same as the annihilation of the soul, when one ceases to exist, even in the spiritual sense? Is it less physical and more of a conscious torment, where we, bound by our sins, spend eternity aware only of our irreconcilable separation from God?

Blue Like Jazz author Donald Miller says, “If the religious fundamentalists are right, heaven will be hell. And almost nobody will be there.” Rob Bell, best known for his bestselling book Love Wins, stirred up a tidal wave of controversy not so much for suggesting there wasn’t a hell, but for suggesting a loving God would ensure that such a place would sit empty.

IN THE OLD TESTAMENT, the word “hell” appears 31 times. The phrase “the grave” is used 31 times, and “the pit” comes in at a distant third with three appearances. But all 65 instances of these words throughout the first 39 books of the Bible come from the same Hebrew word, Sheol.

In the Jewish tradition, Sheol is a resting place for the dead. While some believe this is the same as hell, there are indications to the contrary. In the ancient Jewish tradition, Sheol is a place of rest for both righteous and wicked, with no distinction.

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Beyond Fire and Brimstone

MANY PEOPLE HAVE been given a very tame and uninteresting version of Jesus. He was a nice, quiet, gentle, perhaps somewhat fragile guy on whose lap children liked to sit. He walked around in flowing robes in pastel colors, freshly washed and pressed, holding a small sheep in one arm and raising the other as if hailing a taxi. Or he was like an “x” or “n”—an abstract part of a mathematical equation, not important primarily because of what he said or how he lived, but only because he filled a role in a cosmic calculus of damnation and forgiveness.

The real Jesus was far more complex and interesting than any of these caricatures. And nowhere was he more defiant, subversive, courageous, and creative than when he took the language of fire and brimstone from his greatest critics and used it for a very different purpose.

The idea of hell entered Jewish thought rather late. In Jesus’ day, as in our own, more traditional Jews—especially those of the Sadducee party—had little to say about the afterlife, about miracles, about angels and the like. Their focus was on this life and on how to be good, just, and successful human beings within it. More liberal Jews—especially of the Pharisee party—had welcomed ideas on the afterlife from neighboring cultures and religions, especially the Persians.

To the north and east in Mesopotamia, people believed that the souls of the dead migrated to an underworld whose geography resembled an ancient walled city. Good and evil, high-born and lowly, all descended to this shadowy, scary, dark, inescapable realm. For the Egyptians to the south, the newly departed faced a ritual trial of judgment. Bad people who failed the test were then devoured by a crocodile-headed deity, and good people who passed the test settled in the land beyond the sunset.

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Are Sinners 'Hellbound?'

Kevin Miller, Creator of 'Hellbound?'
Kevin Miller, Creator of 'Hellbound?'

This year we are presenting the Raven Award on Nov. 12 to Kevin Miller for his documentary with a question for a title: Hellbound?. Autocorrect doesn’t like the question mark, especially when it’s followed by a period, but I’m glad Kevin used it. Because the idea of hell raises all kinds of questions, particularly about the relationship of God to sin. (For Adam, it raises questions about God’s justice – read his reflections here.) For me, the idea of hell raises questions about punishment, like these:

Does God punish sin in this life and if so, how?

Does God punish unrepentant sinners in the next life with eternal suffering?

These questions have corollaries, of course:

Does God reward the righteous in this life and if so, how?

Does God reward a life of righteousness with eternal bliss?

What Do You Mean, 'Open,' Rob? (Rob Bell Blogalogue Part 3)

Open-mindedness illustration, yeahorse / Shutterstock.com
Open-mindedness illustration, yeahorse / Shutterstock.com

This is going to be a problem. This chapter on faith and science and quantum mechanics is going to be a problem. Why? Well, because this faith and science thing has been done to death. Did you know that the Vatican has an observatory and that one of the authors of Red Shift Theory was a Jesuit? Yep. The famed Scopes Monkey Trial was more than a century ago and those of us in the Protestant Mainline have long ago made peace with it. The Vatican apologized for the oppression of scientists, most specifically it said that Galileo was right. Scientific inquiry and Biblical interpretation are not the same thing. So what's Rob's purpose for this chapter?

Well, it's manifold. He's an evangelical. He's writing in some ways to other evangelicals, specifically those who have felt cut off from the tradition. Here in the States, the classic evangelical line holds echoes of the arguments used during the Scopes Monkey Trial. Some in that Christian tradition are still fighting that fight. Heck, some progressives are, too. Powerful (if false) dichotomies have been established. 

Into the Shadows: The Origins of Hell and Satan (Part 2 of 2)

Nickolay Stanev / Shutterstock.com
Scene from Hell painted on the walls of Rila Monastery church, Nickolay Stanev / Shutterstock.com

Yesterday, I discussed some of the historical bases for our contemporary understanding of Satan. Today, I’ll consider how hell evolved as part of the Christian faith.

In Old Testament scripture, the resting place for the dead is called Sheol. While some believe this is the same as hell, there are indications to the contrary. In the ancient Jewish tradition, Sheol is a place of rest for both righteous and wicked, with no distinction.

Not everyone is happy about it either.

In the third chapter of Malachi, the prophet recognizes the consternation of faithful Jews who are frustrated that the wicked share the same fate. In Ecclesiastes, the priest Koheleth claims that serving God is vanity. For him, the fact that the righteous are treated the same as the wicked and vice-versa should be a call to eat, drink and be merry.

With respect to any relationship between Satan in the Old Testament and Sheol, there is none.

Satan and Hell: A Brief History (Part 1 of 2)

Garden of Eden depiction, Robynrg / Shutterstock.com
Garden of Eden depiction, Robynrg / Shutterstock.com

(I was invited to take part in a debate about hell at a university recently, but unfortunately, the dates don’t work with my schedule this time. But since it’s an interesting topic, and one about which many folks have questions, I thought I’d share a couple of short essays I’ve written on the subject.) 

While Jonathan Edwards wasn’t the first to preach about hell and condemnation, his ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ sermon in 1741 crystallizes the beginning of a modern movement in the church. Edwards employed fear of punishment as a primary means for conversion and doctrinal adherence. Meanwhile, his congregants fainted in the aisles and clung to the pews to avoid being dragged down into the abyss.

We can argue day and night about whether fear-based theology is effective, biblically accurate, or even necessary. But it’s worthwhile to consider where our contemporary ideas about hell and Satan even come from.

Today, we’ll begin with Satan; we’ll save hell for tomorrow.

Come Hell and High Water

IF IT WASN'T the year from hell for the North American continent, it was the year from a place with a very similar temperature.

It's hard to remember, but it began with that bizarre summer-in-March heat wave that meteorologists described as one of the most anomalous weather events in the country's history. Before long there were record blazes burning in Colorado and New Mexico, and then a stifling heat wave moved east, triggering a "derecho" storm that raced almost 1,000 miles from Indiana to the Atlantic and left 5 million without power. July was the hottest month ever recorded in the United States; it was also when drought descended full force on the Midwest, stunting corn and soybeans and driving the world price of grain up by 40 percent (and making sure our hellish year became traumatic for poor people the planet round). By August it was clear we were in for a record melt year in the Arctic; when the long polar night finally fell, it was clear we'd essentially broken one of the planet's biggest physical features. And all that was before Sandy piled into our greatest urban area, leaving behind an indelible image of the future.

So the question becomes, what's an appropriate response? What even begins to match the magnitude of the trouble we face? What doesn't seem like spitting in the wind?

My sense is that the time has come to take on the fossil fuel industry itself—not the members of Congress they buy in droves each election season, but the real powers. Ignoring the damage they've already caused, these people spend hundreds of millions of dollars each day looking for new fossil fuels. And they spend hundreds of millions each year making sure no government stops them. They're like the tobacco industry at this point, except that instead of going after your lungs they're going after the lungs of the planet.

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New “Hellbound?” Movie Explores, Challenges Christian Doctrine of Hell

I first heard about the movie “Hellbound?” (coming out this fall) at Wild Goose Festival. They were offering an advance screening of the movie, and although I was just passing by the tent at the time, the subject matter stopped me where I was. A thoughtful, well-researched, accessible discussion about the history, purpose, and prospects of hell in Christian theology?

I’m in!

The film opens with reflections on September 11th, including a 10-year anniversary memorial event at the site. And as would be expected, the infamous picketers from Westboro Baptist Church were there, complete with signs bearing slogans like “Thank God for 9/11 and, of course, “God Hates Fags.” The movie progresses to, let’s say, more educated points of view, focusing more on the front end on those who advocate for a real hell that is populated with innumerable souls experiencing eternal conscious torment.

But then the movie breaks off from the oft-quoted pro-hell camp and considers the social and historical backdrop for hell, as well as extensive screen time for the doubters and skeptics about the reality of such a place. Folks offering counters to the “traditional” evangelical view of hell include Brian McLaren, Frank Schaeffer, and an Eastern Orthodox priest, all offering fascinating tidbits meant to expand our understanding of where this modern-day understanding of hell even came from, let alone whether we claim a God who would send people there.

Hellbound? New Film Explores Ideas, Doctrine of Hell

One of the highlights of the Wildgoose Festival for me was a sneak preview of the feature length documentary Hellbound?,which will be released in select theaters nationwide this fall.

The film picks up on the recent media buzz generated by Rob Bell's controversial bestselling-book Love Wins, taking that debate into new levels of intelligence and depth.

Like any good documentary, we have the entertaining attention grabbing parts, which aren't hard to find when your topic is Hell and damnation:

We meet people at a death metal concert, take a tour through "Hell House" where actors attempt to traumatize teens into the kingdom by reenacting scenes from Columbine. Then there are the street interviews with the rather obviously mentally unstable and angry folks from Fred Phelps' church, holding their "God Hates Fags" signs and screaming at anyone who passes by.

The movie quickly moves beyond this however, delving into the deeper issues at hand. Unlike so many other Christian films, Hellbound? is neither sentimental nor sensationalist. The word that comes to mind instead is depth.

 

 

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