In its end of year issue, The Guardian Weekly recently published a long feature article on hell (Meghan O’Gieblyn, ‘How to sell hell to modern consumers’, 19/12/14, pp. 34-38). Not, of course, written by a Christian theologian, or indeed a scholar of any religion, but by an ex- believer. It is the story of a woman's moving from belief in hell (and all other Protestant doctrines), to discomfort with the doctrine, to outright rejection of Christianity. She also writes of the new trend within American evangelicalism to soften or tone down the idea of hell.
As with many ex- believer stories, it is very sad to read; sad mostly because the author seems sad, mourning the loss of her world view. It is hard to know what exactly leads to loss of faith; and unfortunately most of the article does not argue for her new views, but simply puts them in a narrative of ‘I have moved on’. Of course new ideas can be right, and old ones wrong. But that needs to be demonstrated and argued for, not just assumed; and a coming-of-age narrative is no substitute for rational argument.
Not that the coming-of-age story isn't fascinating, which is why O’Gieblyn’s article is so powerful. From her home-schooled childhood to her eventual leaving of the church altogether, she tells of her particular discomfort with the idea that God could ever send anyone to hell. She could not square this with the idea that God is loving.
Sometime after her rejection of Christian faith for this reason, O’Gieblyn came across Rob Bell's controversial book on hell (Love Wins), in which he suggests that hell will eventually be emptied. One would think O’Gieblyn would appreciate this alteration of the doctrine. However, she was strangely unwarmed by this new ‘rebranding’ of hell, as she puts it.
The fact is, as O’Gieblyn points out, humans do have a capacity for incredible evil. Bell evidently suggests that the hells on earth, created by human evil - boys with limbs cut off during the genocide in Rwanda, for instance - are 'slowly being winnowed out as humans work to remedy social problems like justice and equality'. O’Gieblyn, for all her dislike of Christian doctrine, realises this won’t do. 'Bell claims to address the exact theological problem that motivated me to leave the faith, but rather than offer a new understanding of the doctrine, he offers up a Disneyesque vision of humanity, one that is wholly incompatible with the language biblical authors use to speak about good and evil.' And let us not forget that the biblical person who speakers most often of hell is Jesus himself. God hates evil. He is just, and so evil must be punished.
But it is not just justice on a cosmic scale that suffers when hell and sin is redefined out of existence. O’Gieblyn goes on to note that it is precisely when we recognise our own capacity for moral failing that we can be humble enough to forgive others. This is the basis of community. Love can recognise, accept and forgive failings because it is the opposite of pride - pride which seeks to cover up one’s own failings and condemn them in others. This has always been fundamental to Protestant doctrine. We cannot boast in our own salvation, because it was not our doing. We cannot be self- righteous, because we are not. Only Jesus is righteous. Our sin, and the knowledge that we do not deserve God’s mercy, is fundamental to our love of others.
O’Gieblyn, although she no longer wants to be part of the church, sees that something has been lost to society if such a radical message is watered down. 'Like so many former oppositional institutions, the church is now becoming a symptom of the culture rather than an antidote to it, giving us one less place to turn for a sober counter-narrative to the simplistic story of moral progress that stretches from silicon valley to Madison avenue.' Society loses out when we fail to remind it that evil exists, and will be punished, because God loves us enough to care about it.
Kirsten Birkett is on the staff of Oak Hill College and a Research Fellow at the Latimer Trust.
This article was first published in the CEN in February 2015
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