Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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An ancient tradition of the Christian Church is that certain people, ultimately known only to God, go to hell. Once there, so it is said, they are tormented eternally to punish them for the evil they have done while alive. Mick and Rick debate the contentious issue of damnation in an attempt to understand what it might mean today.

Mick: Flavius Josephus was born soon after Jesus died. His knowledge of Palestine was considerable. He knew of Jesus and John the Baptist, mentioning that "the tribe of Christians, so called after him [Jesus], has still to this day not disappeared".

I was startled recently by Josephus' Discourse Concerning Hades, written about the same time as the gospels. For there in all its sordid glory is the Church's vision of Hell. Get the reek of brimstone from this excerpt:

To these [the damned] belong the unquenchable fire, and that without end. A certain fiery worm, never dying, continues its eruption out of the body with never-ceasing grief �

Westerners don't like this idea of hell, living as they do in tolerant and relatively kindly societies. I'm interested in your approach, Rick. Do you think damnation to hell is the fate of unrepentant sinners?

Rick: As a sports fan, particularly of American football and baseball, I am acutely aware of the necessity of umpires to judge infractions of the rules of the respective games. Without the assessment of penalties, the games would be chaotic and dysfunctional. So it is with life. Everyone seeks justice. Frequently, infractions go undetected or are inappropriately assessed. What then? No justice is done. Life isn�t fair.

In Western civil law there are so-called statutes of limitation. These terminate claims for justice after a prescribed interval from the point of the offence to the claim for justice. The length of the interval is based on the nature and seriousness of the infraction. It is short if it is trivial. It is long or indefinite for crimes that are serious such as those committed by the Nazis.

Does death define the statute of limitations for human wrongdoing? If one believes in God and divine justice, the answer is, no. "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." Finally, it is God who administers justice, if not during our earthly journeys, then certainly in what lies beyond.

What form the justice of God will take I have no idea. As for Josephus� vision of Hell and punishment, it was undoubtedly derived from the prevailing imagery of his cataclysmic times. He may have, unwittingly, described his own punishment as he was hardly a shining example of virtue.

Mick: I have difficulties with your position so far.

First, if you're correct, then surely one good reason for going straight would be fear? I can understand someone who remains a dedicated Christian at least partly for this reason, but it doesn't seem the most worthy of motives.

Second, is it valid to use human legal processes as more than a useful metaphor? I had hoped that God is other than a judge who repays regardless. My understanding is that the ancient "Vengeance is mine �" has been superceded by another metaphor - the loving and forgiving father.

Indeed, I had supposed that the central message of Jesus was that opinions of his time about judgement were misguided. If this is not the case, I don't understand what's unique about being Christian. Condemning sinners to damnation is easy. Forgiving them is not. Being a sinner, I know which I prefer.

Rick: I think you are right that Jesus greatly softened the idea of vengeance and retribution as was understood in the Old Testament. He emphasized love and forgiveness over condemnation. In this context my thoughts go back to Martin Luther and the times in which he lived. Then there were monsters abroad ready to devour the sinner causing much fear in Christians. Release was to be bought with money or good deeds. Then a light went on in Luther�s head. The New Testament and in particular the writings of Paul said that we are saved from the consequences of our offences by grace and faith in Jesus. If one believes in Jesus Christ and accepts his message then there should be no fear of damnation.

Allow me to briefly extend my previous sports metaphor. I love playing golf. In many ways golf reflects life experiences. It is full of challenges and great rewards. It can also be a source of disappointment and occasional penalties. I do not dwell on the penalties but try harder to avoid them when possible. The total experience is delight. It is not the threat of penalty that motivates me. It is the sheer joy of the game that engages me.

Of course my reference to earthly jurisprudence is a metaphor. You and I as sinners need to be reminded of our moral frailties and the possible consequences of them. We should not, however, be paralyzed by negative thoughts of damnation. Rather, we should be energized by the positive example of Jesus who wants us to have life abundantly. What the ultimate justice of God will entail I do not have the hubris to speculate upon.

Mick: It's the very idea of conditional love that I don't like. That is, I will care for you as long as you � And if you don't then �

But don't get me wrong. I accept what you say about eternal risk assessment. If a person acknowledges that he or she sins then the possibility of eternal punishment will usually lead to considering alternatives. Dr Johnson (I think) once said something like, "The prospect of being hung the next morning sharpens the mind wonderfully".

Martin Luther may have been correct. Though it should be noted that apart from getting terribly constipated, he didn't like peasants upsetting the social order of the day by fighting oppression. And his hatred of Jews isn't now acceptable. But, like the threat of eternal damnation, those were things of his time.

As for metaphors, they are all we have when we consider God. The deity is by definition beyond description. To all intents and purposes God is a metaphor. So why not God as completely loving and forgiving?

If you want corrective therapy, how about it having been written into the way the universe works? In other words, we are all visited by the consequences of our actions. My shoulder aches on cold days because I tried to bowl fast at cricket even though I knew I shouldn't (hubris). My marriage broke up because � and so on. Though why I should always have been too poor to play golf isn't immediately apparent to me.

Rick: The traditional, classic Protestantism, in which I was raised and to which I adhere to this day says that the love of God as manifested in Jesus Christ is unconditional except that you must believe in him. This is the only condition as I see it.

Luther lived in different times. I will not defend him in this forum except to say his positive contributions outweigh his human failures. He radically changed the course of not only Christianity but of Western society as well.

As for metaphors of God I am sure there are as many as there are people who believe in a supreme being. Within groups that associate because of this common belief there are some common features. Citing again the traditions of classic Protestantism, God is a personal God who is interested in me as an individual. If God is all powerful, this power is not only manifested in the macrocosm but also in the microcosms where ordinary people dwell. In my book that�s the way the universe works.

Mick: I once rested comfortably with your conclusion that non-belief is the only qualifier which could lead to damnation. But when I tried practising acceptance of others, my position changed. I found that unconditional acceptance can't be qualified.

What I mean is that you are the only you I have. If you must change before I can relate to you, how can you trust me? For if I don't accept you for who you are, sooner or later I will demand that you become the person I want you to be. In doing so I diminish you. That I have no right to do. For if I have such a right, don't others have the same right over me? We are not here to diminish each other, but to build each other up in order to become what God meant us to be - or as close as possible to that, given our weaknesses and sins.

Unconditional acceptance of you doesn't mean, however, that I must approve of or condone your bad behaviour. (Yes, defining what makes an action "bad" presents great difficulties - but that must be dealt with another time.) Acceptance does mean that I will either change my position or negotiate a change of your behaviour. But I will not reject you if either you or I cannot change. For acceptance is driven by goodwill, and goodwill by charity, and only charity prevails in the end.

That, if you like, is my metaphor for God's unconditional acceptance.

I take it that by "belief" you don�t mean wholehearted assent to spoken or written propositions. That approach has too many holes in it to stand. So perhaps you mean by belief an attitude to life which is marked by commitment despite the risk of being utterly, disastrously wrong. If "belief" is betting one's shirt on a poor man who got himself killed two thousand years ago, then I'm with you.

Finally, I remind myself that Jesus doesn't seem to have judged others. So I refuse to say that those who don't take a bet on Jesus are going to be damned. God belongs to everyone, appearing to us in many forms, in many metaphors. The stand taken by Jesus is epitomised by his metaphor of a loving father, which we know as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. That's what I bet my shirt on.

Rick: Our interpersonal relationships are continuously evaluated by each party for quality and content. That is how we decide who we want as friends, associates or spouses. Unfortunately, it does not always work out. When one of the parties is judgemental and attempts to control or change the other party to satisfy his or her particular prejudices, a formula for discord and general trouble is created. Often the judgemental individual is unwilling to accept reciprocal judgement.

Jesus said it well: "Why do you see the speck that is in your brother�s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?" Passing judgement on others is risky business. We may dislike certain people and not want to associate with them but we ought not to stand in judgement of them. Rather we should try to treat everyone with respect, understanding and good will. I know this is easier said than done. For guidance, Mick, I "believe" in the man called Jesus. In this we completely agree.

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