So recently retired Episcopalian cleric John Shelby Spong was in the news offering the absolutely predictable opinion that Hell was “invented by the Church to control people with fear”. This is, after all, the guy who says that Paul was a repressed homosexual, that Mary was a victim of rape, and that the Resurrection is a myth. Why the man ever bothered being a bishop I will never know, though I suppose the fact that books titled A Parking Lot Attendant Rethinks the Birth of Jesus are unlikely to sell well has something to do with it.
At any rate, I happened on a Facebook group of folks on the Left nodding together about the obvious truth of this claim with more precision than synchronized swimmers. They are, in the main, nice people mostly brought together by their shared horror of Donald Trump—a worthy sentiment. But being on the Left, they were largely unacquainted with folks outside their social circle who actually take the whole Catholic thing seriously. So as the weirdo outsider, I thought it might be good to try to set things a bit straighter. Therefore, after sundry “Duhs!” and “Obviouslys!” I commented:
Cancer was created by doctors to keep people from enjoying smoking.
It’s all about controlling people.
Gravity was invented by killjoy scientists to keep people who believe in human flight from leaping off buildings to their freedom.
More social control lies.
Addiction is a lie invented by public health professionals to keep people from the pleasures of heroin.
More manipulation and control.
Or then again, it could be that Jesus was warning people about the nature of the universe and the potential for misused human freedom to lead to radical and permanent slavery to sin and destruction of the human soul.
Just a thought.
A whole FB social group that has spent months and months marveling at the human capacity for perverse, self-destructive evil among Trump supporters should really consider tuning out the silly legends of John Shelby Spong and consider looking outside the epistemic closure bubble of the Left and back to the witness of the New Testament. Said witness is not that the Church created hell to “control people” (for the very good reason that it was too weak to control anybody), but that Jesus himself warned of hell because hell—the willful rejection of the good by the misuse of our capacity for choice—is really possible and really can lead to eternal misery.
Why do you guys waste your time warning of the consequences of Trump support if you don’t think our choices can have real (and catastrophic) consequences? You believe the same thing Jesus was warning of.
This was a perspective they had not anticipated and one guy was intrigued. He replied:
I don’t think I follow you here. It’s completely possible to warn against Trump and not be Christian. Being a Christian doesn’t automatically make you good, and being an atheist doesn’t make you evil. Maybe I’m missing your point or something.
I’m not saying only Christians can oppose Trump. I’m saying that the warning “actions can have catastrophic and permanent consequences” (which anti-Trump people take for granted, especially when he threatens nuclear war) is what Jesus’ warnings about Hell boil down to as well. Only a fool would say that warnings about the consequences of nuclear war are “just for manipulating suckers”. So why assume that Jesus’ warnings about Hell are mere manipulation? If anything, the stark and terrible (and eternal) consequences of sin are thrown into 3-D relief at this of all times as the choices of two corrupt idiots not only threaten millions of lives, but place their own souls in mortal jeopardy as well. The final meaning of Hell is that choices matter and actions have consequences, something I assume you take very seriously or you would not be protesting Donald Trump.
Well this is where we will meet an impasse because I don’t believe in any of that, and I’ll respectfully bow out because despite my beliefs I don’t want to offend anybody on this topic because I know people are touchy over it.
I thought this was rather considerate since it was clear that he was concerned for my feelings. But I was much more concerned that he seemed to miss my point. So I replied:
Not touchy. Just explaining what Hell is. Although there have certainly been people who use Hell to scare people (just as they use cancer or nuclear war to scare people), the point of Hell is simply not what Spong says it is any more than warnings about cancer or nuclear war are. The warning of Hell is the warning that our choices really matter and have real effects. It is something morally serious people here believe and live by every day or they would not be trying to stop the evils of Trump and would just be getting high and ignoring the world. It is a tragedy that the Christian moral tradition and so much of the Left are on the outs with each other. You’d have a lot to talk about. Suggestion: Get to know Dorothy Day. You’d love her.
Again, he misunderstood my point:
I’m sorry but I reject the idea that people would just be running around getting high and not caring. I am not Christian and I do not fear a hell, but I still believe my actions have consequences, just consequences here in the real world. The idea that without god people would lose control is a debate that has gone on forever and I just don’t see any evidence that that would be the case.
As far as the left being out of tune with Christian moral tradition, perhaps it’s because a lot of that moral tradition is unconstitutional. I think every religious person has their right to practice, but when they try to legislate from the Bible, and that’s what a lot of them want to do, it concerns me deeply.
This is probably going too far and I’d like to end on a positive note because i feel like i am stepping in a mine field and am going to offend someone so I’ll end by thanking you for engaging with me.
So I replied:
You misunderstand me. I reject the idea that people who believe in God are all moral and atheists are all lazy and immoral too. Obviously, the people here—who are mostly unbelievers—are motivated by deep moral concerns because they know that life is played for keeps. Lots of people are not motivated by such concerns and do spend their time getting high and not giving a rip. You’re not hearing me. I’m not saying that people who disbelieve in hell don’t care. I’m saying that people who believe that our moral choices matter and have real and permanent consequences are saying the same thing Jesus was saying when he warned about hell. They just don’t seem to realize it.
And he finally got my point:
Ah, OK. So I apologize because I thought you were making a completely different point. Sorry about the confusion.
So I took the ground gained and made a finally point:
Jesus just takes the idea of moral responsibility and, if you will, cubes it. Morally responsible people say that our choices affect who we become and affect those around us and after us. So the choice to sell meth is going to hurt, not just us and those we love, but society as it becomes tangled up with more and more evil. Breaking Bad is an illustration of how sin enslaves and destroys.
If you only believe in this life, all that is over at death. But what Jesus says is that the slavery doesn’t end at death (assuming we don’t repent) and that it extends into eternity with the everlasting disintegration of the person into what might be called an ex-human as a burnt log is no longer a log but ashes and gas. It is to deliver us from that ultimate loss of the self that Jesus came, according to the Christian witness.
It is to the opposite possibility that faith actually points. The focus is not Hell but glory—the conviction that the poor we love and seek to save from the predations of men like Trump are intended not merely for a decent wage and a reasonably comfortable life of three meals and a bed, but for participation in the ecstatic life of God himself and a glory so intense that, if you saw the redeemed as they will be, you would be strongly tempted to worship them. That, not crowd control via fear, is the point. “Fanfare for the Common Man” expresses a deeply Catholic view of the human person, not “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
At which point, somebody objected that all the Hell stuff was invented by the Church and added to original message of Jesus, who spoke only of Love. Of which more next time.