02.12.18 | Hell Revisited

It’s now been sixty years since this one-time eight-year-old kid first faced what might be called the metaphysics of an afterlife. Before the Sunday school class that day the whole concept of heaven and hell had been introduced as cartoonish metaphor — imagine that all people were born with arms so long that their hands couldn’t reach their mouths: hell, you see, would consist of all those wretched, starving souls unable to feed themselves; heaven, on the other hand, would be populated by the joyous, well-fed ones who’d learned to feed each other. Fair enough.

But then the stakes were raised. For in the back of that classroom six decades ago was the illustration of Jonathan Edwards’ July 8, 1741 sermon, “Sinners In the Hands of An Angry God,” depicting each soul as a loathsome spider hanging by a thread over the pits of hellfire. One’s fate was in the hands of a deadly and easily-provoked God. The image somehow stuck.

The focus article for Member Monday (2/12) is the very readable, Hell And The Mercy of God — how many theologians, Biblical scholars and philosophers now address the doctrine of hell. The subject may come across as abstract but it’s as real as the way we regard our own mortality. Perhaps the fear of the ultimate known unknown actually arises out of abstractions that were stuffed into the subconscious. If so, an update would seem to be quite relevant.

Newsflash: we’re now introduced to “conditionalism,” allowing for the worst downside as we shuffle off our mortal coil to be our simple elimination; or, alternatively, “universalism,” with hell merely purgatory as a way station giving us multiple shots at life until we eventually get it right. So much for the childhood nightmares of elongated arms and dangling spiders. So much for a fear-based life. 

Hell would thereby seem to be in greater possible alignment with the fuzzier and less eternal or punitive Buddhist Naraka or Sheol of Judaism. It might also allow for the more secular notion of that final curtain call i.e. everlastingness simply the remnants of our thread woven into the fabric of humanity

Yet the views of theologians, scholars and philosophers representing any one religion or the mystics is not our focus. Our discussion will be about the beliefs that animate our lives. Beliefs rest on faith which, almost by definition, resides outside the world of proof, linear thinking, or objective truth. 

So let’s just pause and contemplate our respective belief systems and try to tease out whence they come. Better now than to try and cram it all into the last minute.

- Steve Smith.

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