A recent cartoon pictures a woman exiting from the church door. With extended hand to the robed clergyman, she exclaims, “I really liked that stuff you were saying about all of us being sinners and how we’re damned for eternity.”
One is reminded of John Steinbeck feeling exhilarated and dignified after attending a service in New England where the minister delivered a Jonathan Edwards’ “sinners in the hands of an angry God” sort of sermon.
The cartoon’s humor is two-fold: One, that she felt good being so excoriated. Secondly, there is humor in the notion that such a judgmental message would have been offered in a high church pulpit.
Certainly the teaching is in the tradition: “For sin pays a wage, and the wage is death.” (Bible, Romans 6:23, REB) The Lutheran Augsburg Confession reads, “The Gospel says that all men are under sin and are worthy of eternal wrath and death.” (The Book of Concord, c. 1959, p.115, para. 62) Reformer John Calvin wrote, “How great and severe ... is the punishment, to endure the never ceasing effects of his [God’s] wrath.” (A Compendium of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, c. 1939, p. 147)
The Larger Catechism of the Westminster Confession reads: “The punishments of sin in the world to come are everlasting separation from the comfortable presence of God, and most grievous torments in soul and body, without intermission, in hell fire forever."
A worshiper, in all likelihood, will not hear this sort of “orthodoxy” from pulpits in Los Gatos. There may be some exceptions.
Perhaps one would hear such teaching at the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Lost Gatos. Adventists teach that Christ “paid the penalty we deserve for our hateful choices toward God.” (www.adventist.org/beliefs) But the payment applies only to believers.
At The Kingdom Hall of the Jehovah Witnesses there will be a denial of the traditional Christian view of hell. Rather hell is said to be the “common grave of mankind” (www.towerwatch.com/Witnesses/Beliefs) where they are not conscious, while true Jehovah Witnesses will rise in the resurrection.
The occasion of this reflection is your correspondent’s recent reading of the widely-selling book, Love Wins, by Rob Bell, the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church, an evangelical body in Grand Rapids, MI. Bell says that the teaching that a “select few Christians” will gain heaven while “the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell” is a “misguided and toxic” doctrine. This is radical stuff issuing from a conservative pulpit, though it coincides with the silence on the subject in many circles.
For some time now it has seemed to this writer that a moral God when issuing discipline should do so in a rehabilitative, not merely punitive, manner. Furthermore, what balance exists in an endless retribution for mischief done in the space of a few years? And then there’s the good question: If God is sovereign and God’s nature loving, will the divine purpose for anyone always remain thwarted?
But someone may ask, “Is hell not exactly what Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, etc., deserve?” It’s a good question. What say you?