A New Year Dawns for Our Nation and the World

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 8 January 2009 0 Comments
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Do you believe in heaven and hell, the blissful heaven and the burning hell? And do you believe in Jesus Christ as your personal savior?


Answering your two questions is impossible until some terms are defined and some explanations are given. When you define heaven as "the blissful heaven" and hell as "the burning hell," you reveal an evangelical mindset that asserts a particular understanding that you are requesting that I either affirm or deny. It is to bind the discussion to your frame of reference. That immediately suggests that you do not want real answers, you want affirmation. I cannot give you that nor would I be interested in doing so. With that background, however, let me proceed to respond. I think it would be fair to say that I do not believe in a blissful heaven or a burning hell as evangelicals define those terms. I do believe in life after death and shall try to explain both why and in what way in my next book, which is scheduled for publication in September of 2009.

You define heaven and hell as places of reward and punishment where God evens out life here on Earth. I regard that as primitive, childlike thinking that transforms God into a parent figure who delights in rewarding goodness and punishing sinfulness. This portrays God as a supernatural, judging figure and it violates everything I believe about both God and human life.

If anyone pursues goodness in the hope of gaining rewards or avoiding punishment, that person has not escaped the basic self-centeredness of human life and it becomes obvious that such a person is motivated primarily by self-interest. The Christian life is ultimately revealed in the power to live for others, to give ourselves away. It is not motivated by bliss or torment. Both of those images are little more than human wish fulfillment.

The fiery pits of hell are not an essential part of the Christian story. If one would take Matthew's gospel and especially the book of Revelation out of the Bible, most of the references to hell as a fiery place of torment would disappear. That is a quite foreign theme to Paul, Mark, Luke and John. Evangelicals never study the Bible deeply enough to make this distinction. They basically talk about a book they do not understand.

When you ask about "believing in Jesus Christ as your personal savior" you are using stylized evangelical language. That language has no appeal at all for me. To assert the role of savior for Jesus implies a definition of human life as sinful, fallen and helpless. It assumes the ancient myth that proclaimed that we were created perfect only to fall into sin from which we need to be rescued. It was a popular definition before people understood about our evolutionary background. We have been evolving toward humanity for billions of years. Our problem is not that we have fallen from some pristine perfection into a sinful state from which we need to be saved, it is that we need to be empowered to become something that we have never been, namely fully human beings. So the idea that I need a savior to save me from a fall that never happened and to restore me to a status that I never possessed is in our time all but nonsensical. It is because we do not understand the nature of human life that we do not understand the Jesus role. I see in Jesus the power of love that empowers us to be more deeply and fully human and so I do not know how to translate your questions.

Sorry, but the old evangelical language that you use is badly dated and I believe quite distorting to my understanding of what Christianity is all about.

John Shelby Spong




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