I. Some Practical Concerns
My preoccupation with the topic of hell has been little embarrassing, really. Against my better judgment, at times, I have– over the last few years –continued to drive home the point that there is something very wrong-headed about our conventional teachings in this regard. And yet I understand perfectly well the potential downside to abandoning this doctrine–a doctrine which even Plato had recourse to, 400 years before the Christian era:
Indeed, Plato– whose Myth of Er in Book X of The Republic helped to introduce and reinforce this idea in the West –insisted that there is something about human existence (something about our sensible and appetitive nature) that requires that we be in some way compelled to turn away from illusion, towards the truth. See, for example, the cave allegory in Book VII of The Republic:
Apropos of such compulsion, it is undeniable that the doctrine of hell does get our attention and makes us willing, at least for awhile, to consider our existence from a different point of view–especially when we are exposed to the doctrine (from our youth up) in a tight-knit religious community in which the eternal conscious torment of unbelievers is taken for granted. Indeed, how many of us would have ever read our bibles– would have ever become inspired by the God ideal –if we had not first experienced the fear of God which exposure to this doctrine instilled within us? Some perhaps, but not nearly so many–or so I imagine…
Nevertheless, as I reflect on the way in which it was taught to me (in fundamentalist and evangelical churches in Appalachia), it seems likely that this doctrine has done at least as much harm as it has good–providing, as it does, a good rationale for both religious fanaticism and anti-religious ridicule. Moreover, in this day and age, it seems to me that the doctrine (taught in this way) clearly generates more skepticism– if not out right unbelief –than it does repentance unto salvation. See, for example, this essay: A Good Time Was Had by Some. Or consider these signs, complements of the Wesboro Baptist church:
As such, it is my considered opinion that if the concept of hell must be retained as one component of an integral Christian tradition (which I am inclined to think it must), it should be presented in a more nuanced fashion so as to maximize its potential benefits while minimizing its potential harm.
To be continued–Parts II and III to follow: