Part XVI Matthew - Did Jesus Teach Us to Pray the Lord's Prayer?

Essay by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 6 March 2014 4 Comments
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Question

I've recently been reading Why Christianity Must Change or Die and listening to some interviews with you online. I wonder if you would be willing to help me with a rather burning question. Let me first give you a little contextual information if I may.

I'm from South Carolina, a small town called Landrum, which is very close to where you came of age, so I know that you are familiar with the religious background that is prevalent in the area. I've even heard you speak on it. I grew up in a Southern Baptist family, attending church three times a week throughout my childhood and youth. I moved to New York about nine years ago and have since been pursuing a career as an artist. I love the tradition that I came from and celebrate it in my work and life, but I have some serious troubles with parts of it and they have recently become amplified, hence my search into your work and the work of others.

I became a born-again Christian pretty early, at age nine I think, and at first I have to admit that I just thought it was a good thing to do. As I learned more about what all of this meant, I had trouble with the idea that my religion was the only right one and that a lot of other people who did not agree with my religion were, therefore, going to burn in hell. I decided to trust my parents on this one. After all, they did pretty well by me in most other regards. Hell was a very strong part of the doctrine of my church-you know fire and brimstone as preached about in the Bible belt. I have always struggled with the idea that any one religion could be the only correct one and that we, as Christians, might be lucky enough to be in the right and the all others were simply wrong.

In my studies and my thinking over the years, I have come to think that a broader view of the world is necessary and have even logically arrived at some places that have nothing at all to do with good and evil. It seemed to me that God must be bigger than the understanding that was hammered into me as a child. So I was torn between what I thought, what made sense to me and what I was taught. I have largely avoided serious religious thinking for most of the past decade, but because of the death of a friend of mine back in November it has come back to the fore. Whatever got the ball rolling, I found myself obsessing about it. There was actually one event that really set it off though.

I was driving with my fiancée, now my wife, down to the Carolinas to visit for Christmas. I was describing to her that I didn’t think that I believed in the Christian tradition that I was once taught. I was thinking of myself as one who leaves the faith, but with no animosity. I explained to her that I thought my anxieties were the result of seeking to leave a culture of hysteria. Still, I was struggling with the idea of hell. She asked me what I thought hell was, how I would describe it (she doesn’t believe in hell by the way). I went into a full-on panic attack for the first time. It was accompanied by a disembodied sensation and difficulty in concentrating. I was just trying to re-center myself when we stopped for dinner and it lasted for hours.

For many months after this, I was obsessed with the topic. I’ve done a good bit of reading on it as I try to wrap my head around it. I’ve calmed down now, but the questions still nag. I’ve read some beautiful understanding Christianity and other systems of belief. Somehow I’m still very worried about hell. It’s as if it’s planted there.

I’ve heard you say that hell is an invention of the Christian Church, which continues to perpetuate it. I would very much like to believe that hell is not a reality, but a tool designed to control. I can’t really identify at what point in the early development of Christianity that hell was inserted into the dogma. I know that it wasn’t part of the Old Testament thinking (at least in an eternal suffering kind of way). What I’m asking is how can I be confident that hell is an invention of human beings and not of God? I know that concepts of hell abounded before Christianity so I guess I’m not asking who invented it as much as who inserted it into the dogma and when?

Answer

Dear Brent,

Thank you for your letter and for the honest telling of your story. I apologize for what well-meaning, but profoundly ignorant people have done to you in the name of Jesus. You are not the only one. I have a close friend, who lives in Highlands, North Carolina named Ray McPhail, who is a very successful builder and developer, as well as a university-educated man, but he is still so troubled by the threat and the fear of hell that even in the mature years of a very creative life he still shudders at the concept of hell. He also does not attend church, except for discussion groups because he simply does not want to endure the terror that some of the words the church uses in liturgy elicit for him. If one takes seriously Jesus’ stated purpose, as it appears in the Fourth Gospel, “to give life and give it abundantly,” one realizes just how distorted Christianity has become for so many.

To deal with your question, there is no consistent view of hell in either the Old Testament or in the New Testament. The Old Testament is almost devoid of any concept of hell. There is talk of Sheol, but it is a shadowy place of the dead to which all go with no sense of either reward or punishment. Paul, the first writer in the New Testament, and strangely enough his writings are devoid of “hell talk.” He rather contrasts life in Christ with no life at all, not with some form of eternal punishment. Matthew’s gospel and the book of Revelation are the primary sources of the fires of hell in the New Testament. John sees heaven as a mystical union between the believer and Christ and speaks of that relationship after the analogy of a branch relating to a vine. In John’s gospel there is almost no mention of eternal punishment.

I’m certain the fires of hell began as an analogy. The Valley of Hinnom was an unpleasant place in Judea into which refuse was regularly dumped and so the fires that consumed this garbage were always being fed and thus were never extinguished. When one was asked to describe what it is like to be apart from God, the answer was that it must be at least as bad as spending eternity in the Valley of Hinnom. Once the analogy was made, the literal minds did the rest. The Valley of Hinnom became Gehenna and finally hell.

The Christian Church leaped on this concept as a way to control behavior through fear and stoked the fires of hell regularly. In time, they even developed different sections in the afterlife, which served to moderate the eternal punishment. That was when Limbo for noble pagans, Limbo for unbaptized babies and finally Purgatory, where punishment was real but not eternal, came into being. When one had been sufficiently punished in Purgatory, then he or she was admitted to heaven.

The Christian faith has as its purpose the calling and empowering of its adherents to become whole - to be all that each of us was meant to be. Religion on the other hand has been designed to control life, usually through fear, for the good of both church and society as religion understands both. Over the years Christianity has been corrupted into being a religion. Christianity is a faith to be lived. Religion is a method designed to control.

Hell has long ago died as a force in our secular society; but it still needs to die in our churches. A God who would condemn anyone for time-bound misdeeds with eternal flames is not worthy of anyone’s worship.

You appear on rational levels to understand these things, but you also appear to be emotionally bound to them. You need to open your emotion to healing. That takes time, but you have clearly already begun that process. Being afraid of God is a sign of inadequate healing. I hope you will continue your journey toward wholeness. I also hope that you will discover that Christianity is quite different from the horror and fear with which it was communicated to you in your childhood by sincere, but uninformed people.

~John Shelby Spong

 

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