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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Hell and Rumors of Hell

Whenever considering the role of spirituality and religion, it seems to me we have to address a primary question about the role of spirituality and religion before beginning in earnest. The question is this: Do spiritual and religious systems describe the way the universe (and by extension God) works, or do they determine the way the world (and God) works?

Traditional religious institutions often behave as if they believe they determine the way the world and God works. One of the more absurd examples of this fallacy occurred when Galileo discovered that the Sun and not the Earth was the center of the galaxy. The Church informed him he was wrong and promptly excommunicated him, only to "apologize" some five hundred years later. The fact that the Church held that the Earth was the center of the galaxy did not make it so, all their efforts to prove otherwise (including consigning Galileo to exclusion from the Church and therefore heaven) notwithstanding. The Church also tends to believe it determines what God does as well. Look at the elaborate system of indulgences that were held to shorten the time one spent in purgatory - the sale of which led in part to the Protestant Reformation. The Roman Catholic Church doesn't have the market on arrogance exclusively to itself, however. How many Protestant Churches have taken it upon themselves to determine what behaviors and personal qualities with disqualify you from heaven? Let's not forget it was the Protestants who ran the Salem witch trials, a charming period in history wherein women were thrown into rivers. If they sank they were not witches, but they were dead, and if they floated they were witches and therefore executed.

It can be easy for those of us raised in institutional religion to believe that the more or less exhaustive (and certainly exhausting) lists of doctrine and dogma do in fact determine the way the universe works. The truth is, however, that they represent the best that human beings have been able to do at different points in history to describe the way the universe works. Let's not forget that the Psalmist's description of the Earth as being flat and supported by four pillars made more than a few people certain that Christopher Columbus would said his Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria right off the edge of the world and into oblivion - or worse, the fires of hell. Of course, he didn't, and what he and those who followed him did when he arrived in the West made Indigenous people wish that the Earth was indeed flat and supported by four pillars. Countless people have been threatened with hell fire and damnation and throughout much of history it has often been an effective thought and behavior control technique. Many who step away from institutional religion struggle with also stepping away from the threats of their former Church. Religious abuse is difficult to overcome, and we need to be clear that such threats are religious abuse and not valid spirituality.

Spirituality, and some religious people as well, understands that spiritual and religious teachings are attempts to describe the world and how it works but does not have the power to force the universe to do anything. If there is a hell, and I don't believe there is, it most certainly wouldn't be the case that St. Peter would meet someone at the pearly gates and tell them that God didn't want to send them to hell but the Church said God had to and God had no choice to obey. I suspect this may be news to more than a few Church types who feel fairly certain they can consign people to eternal damnation through their doctrine and dogma. What's more, since our understanding of how the universe works is growing all the time our spirituality must be fluid and evolving or it will become little more than a museum piece.

Of course there will always be people whose need for certainly outweighs their need for common sense and solid reasoning. They will counter with certain passages from scripture that seem to say that scriptures were written by God and therefore cannot be in error. Holding consistently to that view requires ignoring some pretty glaring inconsistencies that simply wouldn't be present in a book written by any God worthy of worship. That being said, we cannot force anxiety laden people to enter reality because they simply aren't yet equipped to cope with it. Attempts to do so are bound to fail, and leave both sides frustrated. That's no reason for those of us who are ready for the next step in our spiritual evolution to voluntarily pretend otherwise. In fact, doing so creates an uncomfortable level of cognitive dissonance that will compel us to leave institutions we have moved beyond. That doesn't mean we cannot behave with compassion toward those left behind, but it does mean that honesty compels us to move on - and valid spirituality must be grounded in both compassion and honesty!


  1. Bishop Craig,

    Thanks for this post and your previous posts. I identify myself as a Buddhist Christian as well. I couple my admiration for the life and teachings of Christ with the Buddha's teaching of "impermanence" and the Eightfold path.

    I thought I was alone in my spiritual thoughts. My parents thought I had gone of the deep end (Southern Baptists). Thank you for
    your blog.