She Said “I Want Some of That Hellfire and Brimstone Stuff”

July 26, 2009

Okay. I’ve put off this article for awhile. I’ve touched on it several times in other pieces on my site and I’ve spoken of it countless times with friends but I’ve never put it all into one concise article before. But here goes, I’ll try.

“I want some of that old hellfire and brimstone stuff,” a 20-something woman I used to work with once said. She was visiting different churches and when I asked her what she was looking for, that’s what she told me. I thought she was joking. “That’s what you really want?” I asked.
“Well, not for me personally, like I don’t want hellfire and brimstone! I want to hear it in the sermons at church though!”

So, she was saying she didn’t want to experience it herself, but she wanted to hear about it in the sermons preachers gave on Sunday morning when she went to church. She certainly didn’t want to go to hell, but she wanted to hear about how others were going to go there, she wanted to hear about the fire, the gnashing of teeth, the wailing, the violence that would be inflicted on those that don’t believe what she believes. Well, at least she was honest, I’ll give her that. Many people subscribe to a belief in a literal, violent, flaming hell in which everyone who isn’t  a factual-literalist conservative Christian will go to. These people may believe in such a place for a multitude of reasons, many quite innocently. They may think that to be a true Christian you have to believe in such a thing. They may be Biblical literalists that ignore the near absence of a literal hell in the Hebrew Old/First Testament and focus on every parable, reference to Sheol and seemingly actual reference to an eternal pit of fire from the New Testament and apply it to their current lives with fervor. The church has grown significantly in historical periods in which the fear of hell was invoked with the most fervor. The early tent-revival explosion of the early 20th Century owes a large debt to hellfire and brimstone (as well as Rapture theology). For many, it’s fear of hell that initially “converts them” and it’s fear of hell that leads them to evangelize to others to seek their conversion—honestly, if you truly feel that your best friend will writhe in eternal torment if he doesn’t pray the same prayer to Jesus that you did, you’ll spend every waking moment trying to convince him to say that prayer, right? If you truly, deeply believe that you will.

I don’t buy it. Many other Christians don’t buy it either. Let’s take a look at some other ways of looking at this for awhile.

In two recent articles, “Why Church? Why Christianity? + ‘The Heart of Christianity’  by Marcus Borg” and “Salvation,” I tackled other ways of viewing Salvation, the Christian mission and why church and Christianity are and can still be relevant. I mentioned arguments that attempt to deflate Christian exclusivism. So if I believe other Religions have a valid tie to salvation even though I myself hold to Christianity, do I believe that anyone goes to hell? People always throw Hitler out to get hell deniers to concede a point. Yes, what Hitler did was atrocious. But, could anyone who was truly whole, full and complete have believed as he did and done as he did? Something was missing from him at his very core, for whatever reasons and contributing factors. Does that mean he will forever suffer as a result of that, when (and I’m not saying this as a certainty, just a suggestion) what drove him to be so monstrous may have been at least somewhat out of his own hands, in some way? Some Muslims believe that many of us go to hell and “burn off” our sins and transgressions and then proceed to paradise. I can see that more than I can an eternal hell. If God “punishes” humans, isn’t the point of the punishment to cause the person to modify their behavior, change their viewpoint or to grow as a person? If the person is eternally in hell there can be no modification, change or growth. Of course, many Christians don’t believe God chooses to literally “punish” people, yet that’s another issue altogether. But for those many who do believe God may sometimes choose to punish humans in order to grow them, where does that leave hell? I imagine most would say that hell is a last resort, a place for all of those who refused to accept Christ despite their many chances in life to do so. Well, what about all of the millions of folks born, raised and rooted in Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Taoism or Sikhism?  Sure, they can hear about Christ through missionaries. Yet will they be prone to accept him? How prone are we as natively born Christians in America to adopt Buddhism or Islam? We can say that we aren’t very likely to do so because we have the “right” God and doctrines. Yet we have the luxury to say that by feeling so comfortable in our scriptures and traditions, and we would most likely be as such in one of the other enduring world religions had we been born elsewhere or at a different time in history. Marcus Borg once wrote that if we believe that only one religion is right and that there is only one true way to get to heaven, it’s awfully convenient that it’s the tradition we ourselves are born in.

That’s the thing. We as humans love to sort everyone  out into “the saved and the damned.” We desire to classify huge numbers of people as an out-group so that we ourselves can be part of an in-group. Humans do this in grade schools, church groups, workplaces and prisons alike. If we can convince ourselves with utter certainty that our way is right, many of us feel we must identify all other ways as wrong. After all, what’s so special about heaven if everyone gets to go?
That belief makes heaven a prize we have earned through proper beliefs. Heck, if it’s all about proper belief proper action becomes irrelevant. Many that hold this belief do begin to emphasize proper action with the concern that it shows the believer to be authentic, but usually in the personal morality sense. We must act right if we’re truly believe right, but righteous social concerns are often still irrelevant for this group.

It’s important to stress that there are many different ways of looking at the concept of hell and that more than one of these viewpoints are valid within the Christian tradition. Christ himself rarely mentioned the afterlife at all, heaven or hell. He was most concerned about the world here and now: how we treat each other, how we act, live and interact in groups, how we honor God, ourselves and our neighbors. His primary message was concerned with the Kingdom of God, a system very much rooted in present, real life. Often when Jesus mentioned Hell the actual Hebrew term was Sheol. Sheol can be modernly translated as “abode of the dead,” “death” or “the grave.” It often meant simply physical death, the end. It other times was used to imply a “second death,” an ultimate and final end. In the books of Ecclesiastes and Job, Sheol referred to the final destination of both the just and righteous as well as the unjust and unrighteous alike. Jesus used Sheol in parables that linked it to the pits outside of the cities in the Roman empire where trash was hauled and burnt, completely evaporated until nothing was left. This and the concept of a second death both point more to “oblivion” than “eternal punishment.” One major way of looking at hell is this idea of a second death. In this view, those that live, believe and cultivate a spiritual life and core continue on after death, growing and becoming whole. Those that have no spiritual side in life don’t suddenly gain one in death. Those that reject all eternal belief thus will themselves to this “second death,” this eternal oblivion. When Hebrew texts were translated into Greek, many such uses of “Sheol” were substituted with “Hades,” and from there it later became Hell, and once Hell caught on as such a fear tactic and conversion inspiration, it stayed. It was the bread and butter of an entire evangelical movement of Christianity within the United States at the turn of the 20th century.

Also of note is that the majority of popular perceptions of hell come from admittedly fictional works. Dante’s “Inferno” most famously. Christian scriptures don’t literally describe hell, what most people assume comes from scripture on this subject really come from Dante and sermons of early Puritan and traveling evangelist sermons.
Which is not to say that there isn’t any basis for the most persistent views of hell within scriptures. Of course there’s basis for such a viewpoint, it’s been a predominant Christian viewpoint for hundreds of years. But it really boils down to what most other modern theological debates boil down to: how you view scripture interpretation. You either find it to be literal/factual or historical/metaphorical, which affects almost every other issue coming forth from it.

It’s really not of the utmost importance that progressive Christianity goes on a battle to dispel and remove all concepts of hell from modern Christianity. That’s not necessary. But it is important that we step back and take stock of the different views out there. Most importantly we need to think before we ever consign entire groups of people to hell. God is compassionate, forgiving, loving, all-encompassing and divine. He’s not petty, cruel or joyous over inflicting pain. The arguments for inclusivity are numerous, there are so many common-sense approaches that leave room for those of all religious stripes to find a seat at the table and do the earthly work of God’s kingdom in their own way, in their own culture and with their own scriptures. Yes, there are some people that seem to reject all forms of love, compassion and forgiveness. There are people that do horribly heinous things with clear minds and no discernible defects. Are such people still privy to a continuing life after death or any type of “paradise?” It seems odd to think so. For that reason I myself still find room in my theology for some type of what many would call hell, but I don’t perceive a loving compassionate God as making it a place of agony, or making it a place at all for that matter. I think the earliest perceptions of Sheol are the most fitting. Those that reject peace in life and form no spiritual core are apt to “wink out,” to fade away. Then again, there’s no clear teaching from Jesus what heaven is like either. The main point this should show those of us that call ourselves Christians is that far more important than the afterlife is the here and now. “Let the dead bury the dead,” Jesus is said to have stated in Matthew’s gospel. What matters is now, the afterlife however it may be and whatever form it may take will take care of itself someday. Christianity is based around the person of Jesus and Jesus’ concern was ushering in the Kingdom of God through charity and peaceful, nonviolent justice on earth. “A new heaven and a new earth,” isn’t some other dimension but rather a transformed world that we are to work towards. Hell shouldn’t be a threat to scare others into saying a certain prayer and then relaxing at home no longer afraid. What good does that lend the Kingdom of God? Why would God instill a system that’s all about humanity believing proper doctrine without bothering to do righteous action?

This issue isn’t fully encapsulated here, I realize. It’s a weighty issue, and there are many great ways of looking at it from Islam, Buddhist and Jewish world views that help shed some light on what it universally is. I think it’s safe to say that most point to it being almost something we make for ourselves by not allowing ourselves to reach our full potential and purpose in creation, working within and living inside of God itself. So really, if anyone is truly concerned with hell they’re already on the path to overcoming it if they haven’t fully done so yet.

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3 Responses to “She Said “I Want Some of That Hellfire and Brimstone Stuff””

  1. […] why I couldn’t hold to the traditional and most popular Christian version of hell (click here to read […]

  2. […] starting point which assumes we all deserve damnation (well, I don’t hold to a traditional hell view […]

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