Heaven and hell are two sides to a coin which has been in general circulation since mankind first realized there are consequences to choices.
The idea of divine retribution is one which is pervasive because humans are indelibly vindictive creatures. The agenda for one evening at the local symphony was a production of Hector Berlioz' Requiem, and a production it was. A full chorus on stage, four timpanists and four brass choirs arranged in the corners of the concert hall. We sat perched on the edge of the balcony, stage right. The lights dimmed. The music began. Immediately, and indeed throughout the performance, I was taken aback at the overwhelming immensity of the piece. Though full of simple chord progressions and harmonies, some minor, others major, the unforgiving point of the entire Requiem was awe and fear. The piece was large, looming, awesome and terrifying, from the melodies of the flutes to the words of the chorus. Perhaps it was merely the mood in which I happened to be, but I was struck by the notion that a God who would demand such frightened reverence is not only a God I would not love and worship, but a God at whom I grew tremendously angry. I was reminded of a passage in Huxley's The Perennial Philosophy which described that god of fear and awe, the god of destruction as well as creation, the god of Job, of the Aztecs, Moloch and Kali, as a god trapped in time - the dreadful theology that arises when the eternal Godhead is removed, by our own devices, from eternity and placed into the causal reality of the natural world. How strange and appalling it is to believe in such a god, and to try and reconcile this divine wrath with divine love! Berlioz wrote singly to that god of power, not the God of power, wisdom and love. If we lose any portion of the Godhead in our perception of the Divine (in other words, if we allow our own clouded sight to define the boundaries of what is and what is not, instead of accounting for our limited understanding), it is no wonder we arrive at something which leaves us apprehensive of God.
"A young man may keep himself from vice by continually thinking of disease. He may keep himself from it also by continually thinking of the Virgin Mary. There may be question about which method is the more reasonable, or even about which is the more efficient. But surely there can be no question about which is the more wholesome," wrote G.K. Chesterton in Heretics. In a puritan and strict pamphlet once published by G.W. Foote, the author "dismissed very contemptuously any attempts to deal with the problem of strong drink by religious offices or intercessions, and said that a picture of a drunkard's liver would be more efficacious in the matter of temperance than any prayer or praise." But this "fire and brimstone" approach to sin - the idea of scaring someone into submission to a cause or belief - can never truly work. "In that picturesque expression," Chesterton writes of the pamphlet, "it seems to me, is perfectly embodied the incurable morbidity of modern ethics. In that temple the lights are low, the crowds kneel, the solemn anthems are uplifted. But that upon the altar to which all men kneel is no longer the perfect flesh, the body and substance of the perfect man; it is still flesh, but it is diseased. It is the drunkard's liver of the New Testament that is marred for us, which we take in remembrance of him." Frightening a person with the possibility of hell may, for the time being, scare them into outwardly behaving as they are told. But "there is no fear in love, for perfect love drives out fear" (1 John 4:18), and so we find ultimately that providing a person with a higher goal - God - will do infinitely more to change that person for the better than does providing them with only the "diseased flesh" and threat of vindictive judgment of hell.
Evangelical Protestants, militant Muslims, and several other religions are nefarious for this "God as judge" viewpoint. But, as John Smith the Platonist once quoted, "Such as men themselves are, such will God Himself seem to them to be." The doctrine of eternal damnation is only one of these "traditions of men," brought about by a dogmatic understanding of scripture couched in an ideal of God as judge instead of God as merciful father. "It is difficult," says Conrad Noel in Jesus the Heretic, "to imagine a person so utterly corrupt as to merit hell, or a God so impotent as to be unable eventually to draw all men to himself." Indeed, this fits with the more Eastern thought of reincarnation - we are allowed a second, and perhaps even a hundredth or ten-thousandth chance. If, in our greatest, most selfless, most altruistic, and most loving moments, when we are most like God, we pardon even the greatest of trespasses, why should we not believe God to do the same? "Some interpretations of the doctrine of the Atonement which have been held by professing Christians are definitely anti-Christian. There is, as the outstanding example, the doctrine that God the Father was so angry with the human race because of its sins that he condemned the whole race to everlasting torture in hell; that his more merciful Son shed his blood on the Cross in order to appease the Father's wrath; and that on account of this blood-shedding those people who should afterwards be `converted' (and only those) would be let off this awful punishment and admitted to heaven when they die.... This interpretation is one variation of the general view that Jesus, by his death on the Cross, effected a favourable change in the mind of God towards men. This view, even when held in a less repulsive form than the one I have just described, is definitely unorthodox. For the orthodox teaching is that nothing could change, or is needed favourably to change, the mind of God towards men. The one thing upon which we can rely is... God's `eternal changelessness.' It is the mind of men towards God and his purpose for human life that needs changing," Robert Woodifield aptly wrote in Catholicism: Humanist and Democratic. This reminds us that a literal translation of any Scripture - or, similarly, a legalistic one - is not always appropriate. If we see God this way, it is easy to assume that heaven is some kind of reward for the good (or the "saved"), and hell a punishment for the eternally damned. F.D. Maurice argues, "Mankind stands not in Adam but in Christ. This relation is fixed, established, certain. It existed in Christ before all worlds. It was manifested when he came in the flesh." God is ours to find in the world, but not in fear. "There is no fear in love."
6 days ago