Sermon – 26 September 2010

Here’s what I said yesterday in the pulpit…

There’s no getting away from it. Sooner or later we do have to think about hell. That’s the message from this morning’s gospel reading and I don’t think that there is any choice but to deal with it head on and allow ourselves the chance to ask ourselves what we believe about it. [Read more…]

To Hell and Back

I’ve received the following comment via the feedback form, in relation to something that I wrote in the 100 things about me. Number 18 of those things was: “I believe that there is no God worth believing in, who sends people to hell”
My correspondent says:

Hi Kelvin,

I don’t think there can be a heaven without a hell; how could we know heaven if we had no experience of what hell could be like? So does God send people to hell, or do they choose to send themselves by their own actions or inactions, and cut themselves off from God’s love?

It is a really good question and one that I thought I would answer here as others may want to chip in.

Before starting to answer the question, it is worth noting that there will be many different opinions about hell in St Mary’s – a whole spectrum of opinion. This should not be surprising really as we have all come from different places and have different experiences to draw upon. Furthermore, we know, because of Eric Stoddart’s research that there is a similar spectrum of opinion across the churches. (I commented on Eric’s research here). Moreover, another reason that this should not surprise us is that there is a spectrum of opinion amongst the biblical writers about hell. Different authors in the Bible say different things. (In this respect, hell is just like marriage! If anyone tries to tell you that they know what the biblical view of either marriage or hell is, they are either a fool or purposely trying to mislead you. There are a number of different voices in the Bible saying different things).

There is a rather weak Wikipedia article on hell which, if nothing else, shows a range of different treatments of hell.

I’ll not rehearse all those different views. Though it is worth noting that belief in the everlasting punishment of the unsaved used to be one of the principle defining doctrine of Evangelicalism. Whether that still holds true is for Evangelicals to comment on. They seem these days to want to be defined by their views on sex, not death.

The Apostles Creed (that we say at Evensong each week) suggests that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell.”

So, how can I reconcile saying that with saying what I said in my 100 things? The way of understanding hell that I rather like comes from Mother Julian of Norwich. She was taken in one of her visions to hell. She asserted that hell was very real. She also said that it was empty.

Hell certainly exists as an idea. I’d define that idea as utter ultimate separation from God. And I don’t believe that God is capable of chosing to be utterly separate from us.

I’m sure that people can try to cut themselves off from God’s love and know some kind of alienation that is the beginnings of hell. But could that be for all eternity. I’m not convinced that a religion that teaches such a possibility would ever satisfy me. Such a God would be a tyrant. Not worth knowing. A god one could never please.

No, for me, I would say that we are loved, blessed, cherished and saved from that ultimate separation by a God who only wills love for us, not punishment.