True Blue Miracle?

Essay by Rev. Mark Sandlin on 26 July 2018 3 Comments

I don't know about you, but it seems to me that reports of bonafide miracles seem to have gone the way of dinosaurs about the time cameras came along – maybe doubly true since video cameras were invented. (Of course, during the early days of Photoshop we did see a bit of a revival.)

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Question

I came across a video of Bishop Spong saying he doesn't believe in hell. He believes in some kind of life after death, but it doesn't have a thing to do with reward and punishment.

The indoctrination of Heaven/Hell has been around as far back as the creation of Zoroastrianism, maybe further. It's all through the bible, whether you pay attention to Hell being mistranslated as Sheol/Hades/Tartarus or Gehenna. Or if you find only that those who won't spend eternity in heaven will only be completely erased from existence. To me, this paints God as either an Ogre that was willing to sacrifice his own son in coercion for your belief in them, or as an infinite being who would give up on you after a single lifetime.

I want to ask you, what do you believe will happen in the afterlife? Are we as the human race going to be okay? Should I worry about what's going to happen to me after death? My girlfriend who believes in God but struggles with what to believe in exactly, is she going to be okay? I’m terrified right now, and as one of the very few looking past religious Dogma, I need your help, or at least some insight into what I should be doing, praying for, anything.

Answer

Dear Brandon,

Various religious and folkloric traditions speak of an afterlife. One belief in the afterlife refers to an individual’s soul or spirit living beyond the life of their physical body. It is the belief that one’s moral choices and actions in life can result in their soul residing -based on divine judgement - in a place of reward or punishment, known as Heaven or Hell respectively, in Christianity. A soul like Socrates, however, lives in an eternal destiny of Limbo. Because Socrates was born before Christianity, he’s deprived of the purported benefits of Christianity, like the salvific advantages of having faith in Christ. And, according to Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” a soul can reside in Purgatory, a temporal punishment for sin, representing the penitent Christian life.

You’re correct in stating that Spong doesn’t believe in Hell. In the chapter “Life After Death-Still Believable?” in his new book Unbelievable Spong lays out a cogent argument about the inutility of the concept.

“I have no use for life after death as a tool or method of behavior control. …The one thing which we are certain, even as we begin this quest, is that the liberalized post-death images of our religious past cannot be resurrected. There is no hell, no heaven, no limbo, no purgatory, no lake of fire, no milk or honey. Those concepts no longer mark our lives.”

Spong understands that many religions create theologies with elaborate and fictive narratives of reward and punishment systems as a form of social control, like the human-made Christian concept of Heaven and Hell. Like Spong, I don’t think after death one is likely to go to Heaven or Hell in an afterlife. I do, however, believe in a living hell created by crushing setbacks, grinding poverty, racial, gender, sexual discrimination, and religious profiling (to name a few), that many Americans, like myself, confront and navigate daily.

I also concur with Karen Armstrong, a prolific British religion writer and former Catholic nun, that beliefs of an afterlife can distract attention from and to important issues. For me, the belief in an afterlife can create complacency and/or indifference to present social justice issues and crimes against humanity like the Holocaust, American slavery, lynching, and the immigration crisis presently at the U.S. - Mexico border.

In the case of enslaved Africans, the belief in an afterlife was passed on to my ancestors as an intentionally Christian theological concept as a form of social control to maintain the status quo of perpetual servitude. The indoctrination of an overjoyed and jubilant afterlife wasn’t to make them better Christian but instead obedient, subservient and God-fearing slaves.

For African American slaves, however, the belief in an afterlife was a coded critique of an unfulfilled life denying them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in this life. The belief in an afterlife functioned as an eschatological hope and aspiration that their future progenies would indeed have a fulfilled life that they could only supposedly experience in death.

There is a plethora of material supposedly proving the afterlife, like the New York Times bestseller “Proof of Heaven” by Harvard-trained neurosurgeon Eben Alexander, MD. I feel, however, the concept- real or imagined- can potentially deprive you of living fully present in this life - missing small miracles, random acts of kindness, and the beauty of a sunrise and sunset in a single day.

~ Rev. Irene Monroe

 

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