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
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
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
� 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.