I have never been afraid of Hell. I’ve never had a dream that I was in Hell. I doubt I ever seriously believed in it, though it was a teaching of the church I attended as a child. For me, the doctrines of penal substitution seemed logical in the sense of a need for some kind of balance, but not in the sense of staying out of Hell. For me, the idea of annihilation has always been worse. What if there’s nothing? What if I am simply no more?
Existential crisis much?
I do feel that I have some assurances that annihilation will not be how I experience eternity. I have the experiences I call Glimpses from which I derive a personal knowing of certain deific personages. I believe that I’ve had encounters with natural spirits, ancestors, and even one I call Jesus or Yeshua Ben Yosef. In a small non-denominational Christian church in Indiana, I was taught that God is Love, that the Holy Spirit lives within me as a source of life and of counsel, and the Jesus died for my sins.
Jesus died for my sins. What does that mean? In another post of mine, “Does God fix the problem of sin with sacrifice, or with String Theory?” I confessed that I believe the true miracle – and the point that joined all humanity with God – was more the birth of Christ than the crucifixion. At the moment of divine conception, all humanity – maybe even all of the material cosmos – was joined and imbued with the life eternal. Could there still be a Sheol, though? Logically and philosophically, yes, but as my favourite Christian author, C. S. Lewis put it, “The doors of Hell are locked on the inside,” which I take to mean that we each live in the Hell or Heaven of our choosing, figuratively and possibly literally. Since I also believe that the Bible is only the beginning of the word of God — as interpreted by both writers and readers — this quip from one of the greatest 20th-century masters of English literature is as authoritative as St. Paul, and I no more agree with Lewis on everything as I do Paul.
Furthermore, I don’t believe one needs the Bible to provide a moral code, at least not beyond Matthew 7:12, 22:36-40. These two snippets of scripture are a complete summary of the entire subject of morality. The Bible is not a book about morality. If religion were only about morality, your Bible need be only half a page long.
If this is what I believe about the workings of Salvation, and that being <<saved>> is the default — a sort of plenary predestination (yes, I’m Presbyterian) — then what is the point of Christianity? Why do I still claim the name, Presbyterian? Remember my reference to Predestination just a few words back? Well, that’s only part of it. I’ve never, ever thought of faith as either a reason to be a moral person or a get-out-of-Hell-free card.
All of humanity have the opportunity to pursue some kind of relationship with the greater cosmos. For Atheists, it is one of finding connections between the individual and the whole — “We are made of starstuff,” a quote attributed to Carl Sagan, is one of the most spiritually power-packed statements of our time, and yet it neither requires nor assumes any belief in the supernatural. Every religion on the planet has at its core the charge to pursue greater knowledge, greater devotion, and closer relationship to the god or gods of each faith.
Are they all correct? That depends. Every religion is right about *something*. Even the church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is right about its assertion that you don’t need God to be a good, moral person. It is enough “to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it, too.” (Douglas Adams) I just happen to think that these “fairies” represent holding an unspeakable wonder of the universe – a personification of the spirits of nature which I do think are there. Who am I to say that those who experience science through magic are any more wrong than those who are in awe of the magic of science? If magic is merely science mixed with pure, child-like wonder, then the cosmos is full of magic; is MADE of magic! You can appreciate the garden as well as the fairies if you like.
Why then am I a Christian? The traditions of the Christian church, like all religions, are rooted in the struggles of my ancestors and their experiences of wrestling with God. I could certainly experience and wrestle with other aspects of the divine through other religions, but it is this one through which my forebears prospered and suffered. My little Earthly body grew within and learned about God through these traditions. Therefore, these traditions — church on Sunday, seasonal celebrations of saints’ days, Easter, All-Hallows Eve, Christmas, Yule, and Hogmanay, as well as the celebrations of the wheel of the seasons — these have the most power to create experiences and enrich a spirituality that amplifies the more noble echoes of those who came before. Those echoes that are not so noble (the Crusades, the Inquisitions, the witch burnings, misogyny, genocides, centuries of homophobia) are dissonances important to remember and to be called out as failures so that the better parts of my past kindred can retain their value, rather than “Throwing the baby out with the bath-water.” Through participation in the rites and nobler traditions of my ancestors, I continue the line of people in laudable pursuit of God, and live alongside the One for whom my 14-billion-year existence from star-stuff to human, is as clear and navigable as a walk down to the chemist (see Douglas Adams, “Space . . . is really big”).