Editorial: What the hell?
Where did hell go? I’ve been writing an article on the BBC website about the ways hell has been imagined, and it leaves me wondering about how doctrines die. How does it happen that new ideas become obvious, and then go on to become obviously untrue?
Some teachings die a violent death at the hands of others. Francis Spufford, in this month’s interview, talks about the idea of providence becoming impossible after the unmitigated genocides of the 20th Century. Scientific discoveries have done for traditional accounts of creation and fall.
But hell is different. It seems to have slipped peacefully away, not refuted by new information, but falling into disfavour. It has simply come to feel wrong.
Thoroughly mainstream Christians deny anything like the traditional view of hell. Of course there are conservatives who hold to it adamantly – as seen in last month’s interview with Carlton Pearson, whose career burned to a crisp when he started to question it. But even in those churches, in Britain at least, you will almost never hear it mentioned from the pulpit.
In fact, the most conservative Christians tend to talk far more openly and emphatically about creationism and God’s intervention than about hell – clearly disproof is less damaging, for an idea whose time has gone, than dislike. It’s been starved of the oxygen of palatability.
So what did happen to hell? One answer might be that we noticed that the idea of perfect love sits rather uncomfortably next to the idea of subjecting the objects of your love to infinite torture and sustaining them through it for all eternity.
It is a bit incongruous, isn’t it? But that only reverses the problem: what would make such a problematic idea so universally accepted for so long? Not the Bible, where it is a marginal idea at best. It must have come to seem right and natural, just as it has now come to seem the opposite.
My guess is that what happened to it is democracy. In a medieval world held together by kings, emperors or warlords, where one supreme ruler declares war and decrees execution, and where that power structure seems necessary to hold off the violent hordes of enemies all around, it must have seemed the most natural thing in the world or anywhere else for God to have at least such great powers and rights over enemies.
Today, when our society is built on the equal rights and authority of every individual, and that structure seems to secure us long, comfortable lives, damnation seems entirely unnatural and ungodly. On top of this, pluralism and globalism have blurred the lines between “us” and “them”, giving them faces and names and extremely large numbers.
If ideas grow and die as society changes, it’s salutary to think how many of our own ideas must be founded, not on reason or revelation, but on the way we live. Notions that are obvious to us will one day go the way of alchemy, phrenology, trepanation, sacrifices, the evil eye – a cause for humility if ever there was one.
As for where ideas go to when they die, that’s a different matter.
This article was published in the June 2013 edition of Reform.