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Hell's Ramparts Rebuilt

 

Text: Matthew 16:13-18

 

I have often heard it said that long ago Universalism had one great cause to uphold, one great battle to fight, and that was to conquer the terrible doctrine of eternal Hell. All the major Protestant Churches taught the doctrine in the 1800s when Universalism undertook to explode it. And they were successful. They became the 6th largest Protestant denomination in the country, and with the rise of Modernism, the doctrine of Universal Salvation had permeated the whole Protestant community. But there was a certain irony in this. This meant Universalists were now doomed to be a church without a cause. Like the Maytag repair man, just sitting there with nothing much to do. Universalism had seemingly worked itself out of a job. So it began to turn its attention to more worldly matters, devoting itself to the Social Gospel--again, just like all the other Protestants! So inevitably Universalism lost its distinctiveness and shrank to a colorless also-ran powered mainly by inertia, plagued by self-doubt. What is our raison d'Ítre? Just to go on existing for the sake of existing? Like a tapeworm? 

And yet I see the situation quite differently. Is the battle fought by Hosea Ballou and the others truly a thing of the past, a glorious but fading memory? Our error is in not seeing that the mainline denominations, the ones who did slough off their belief in Hell many years ago, are no longer the mainstream. They are mostly still liberal, but they are no longer the mainstream! They have been marginalized, they are fast becoming a marginal minority, like Universalism itself, while the more aggressive fundamentalists hold the field. The Evangelical factions within the United Methodists, the Episcopalians, the Presbyterians, are organizing to take over the old denominations. And worse yet, the liberal bureaucrats in charge of those denominations are only too willing to let them do it! They know their funds are shrinking, so they are willing to fill the pews any which way they can! 

Like it or not, the fundamentalists, Evangelicals, Charismatics, are the mainstream now. And they do believe in Hell. And they preach it! As in the old days, the bullying with the carrot of heaven and the stick of eternal damnation resounds from the pulpits of the land. Based on the Matthew text we read, a biography of John Murray, the founder of American Universalism, was called Hell's Ramparts Fell. Now they have been rebuilt, while we weren't looking! Like Britain after World War One, we let down our arms, in our complacency, and now we find ourselves facing a greater threat than before, and sorely ill-prepared. 

It seems clear that we Universalists are like the loitering laborers in Matthew's parable of the Workers in the Vineyard: the farmer is surprised to find them hanging about the village square smoking and playing dice. "Why aren't you men working?" he demands to know. They answer, "Because no man hires us!" "Yeah? Well, consider yourself hired!" "Behold, the fields are white unto harvest, but the laborers are few." Here we have been for decades sitting about, muttering, as if trying to excuse our torpor, that there is no longer any work for us to do. It is time to stop goldbricking! Our old job awaits us again! We must assault Hell's ramparts with the battering ram of reason and polemic, as we once did to great effect. 

Let me tell you just why this is important. You may think all the old doctrinal debates that characterized 18th and 19th century Protestant theology, including Universalism, are quaint and irrelevant, like medieval scholasticism: how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? But if so, you fail to realize that the rest of the world does not share our sophisticated view of the matter. There are plenty of people who preach and believe in Hell. And because they do, there are genuine, real world consequences. It is worth debating, worth our taking the time to challenge it. Here are three reasons. 

First, and most importantly, believers in Hell, by ascribing cruelty to God (he is willing, they say, to torture people forever and this simply because they are infidels) are redefining their notion of morality so as to make "goodness" compatible with cruelty and torture! If your God is your moral standard, and it must be, and your God tortures unbelievers in Hell eternally, then your standard of goodness is compatible with the most terrible sadism. 

Look, this is not clever sophistry on my part, as if I am exploiting an unintended consequence of their belief system, an embarrassing implication they never notice because they in fact do not countenance cruelty. I only wish it were so! But sadly, many do see the implication and embrace it! Look at the Inquisition! "We're burning you for your own good! Hell is a lot hotter, and this way you'll get the pain out of the way here and now!" Look at John Calvin, who not only had Michael Servetus, a Unitarian forbear, burnt at the stake, but afterward published a tract explaining his theological justification for doing so! 

Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson do not say what they say because they are mean men. In fact, a friend of mine lives right across the street from Falwell, sees him buying cat food in the supermarket. And my friend, a secularist, attests that Falwell is a friendly fellow! You see, his cruelty is a result, not of his personality, but of his theology! The fruit of the Spirit is bigotry, I guess. 

Second, the Hell belief retards morality, even apart from the danger of perverting it as I've just described. It keeps people in the earliest stage of moral development: doing the "right" thing because they fear punishment of Hell if they don't. If you think that, you will never get to the point of doing what is right for its own sake. You won't have the luxury for that! And you will never come to trust your own moral judgment--because there is no margin for error, Hell being the consequence of a mistake. So you'll play it safe and play by the rules that the Hell-monger gives you. You know, the Grand Inquisitor. God becomes a pedantic teacher: you don't want to get an F, so you stick to rote memorization, and forget about creative thinking of your own. If Hell awaits you, you'd be a fool to do it any other way. For this reason, Kant correctly saw that a belief in Hell does not promote moral character but instead must always undermine it.

The Trinitarian Church Father Tertullian of Carthage once wrote a treatise against the so-called Heretic Apelles. Apelles, a Marcionite, rejected any belief in Hell. Tertullian scoffs at this. "If there is no Hell to fear," he says, "then why not kill? Why not steal? All you can answer is 'God forbid! God forbid!'" Pathetic! What was Tertullian--two years old? Hosea Ballou was once riding with a fellow itinerant preacher, a Baptist preacher. They were passing the time in friendly theological debate. The Baptist offered a standard argument against the leniency of Universalism: "Brother Ballou, if I were a Universalist, and feared not the fires of Hell, I'd hit you over the head and steal your horse and saddle." Ballou answered, "My brother, if you were a Universalist the idea would never occur to you!" 

Third, and this may well be the best point of attack as we challenge Hell-believers to take responsibility for this thing that they believe: to ascribe to God the invention and maintenance of a pit of eternal torture is blasphemy! If you say this, my friend, take care! You are maligning and defaming God! With a God like this, who needs a devil! Do not blaspheme against the Divine Spirit! 

I refer to the famous passage where Jesus warns his hecklers not to blaspheme. He says, "I tell you the truth, every sin that men commit shall be forgiven them, except for the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit." And what, pray tell, is that? I suggest that one blasphemes the Spirit insofar as one denies that men shall be forgiven for every sin that they commit! If God is the loving father of the Prodigal, if God tells us to expect no forgiveness unless we, too, forgive our enemies--then how can we make him over in our own hateful image as a malicious sadist who nurses his grudge (and this against petty creatures whose sins can never harm him anyway!) throughout out all eternity! 

Let us rise to the old challenge again! Challenge fundamentalists to account for themselves! Admonish them for blaspheming God! And this does not even require that you yourself believe in God! Even the atheist sees it is better to believe in a noble God than in a devilish one! Don't ask them to change more than they can be expected to change. If they want to believe in supernaturalism and superstition, let them. It's none of our business. But it is our business not to let hate-mongering go unchallenged. Take the offensive and take the high ground! Unmask the nightmare of Hell for what it is! It is not simply as Rationalists that we must condemn Hell belief; Christians should have an even greater urgency to condemn it, and thus to deliver the name of God from the slander of reproach that he is a torturer and a terrorist worse than Adolph Hitler! We need not tell them, "Reject your religion and accept our Rationalism." We need only ask them to be true to their religion and believe that "God is love." "And where love is perfected," as 1 John tells us, "there is no fear." 

But does not modern Universalism concentrate on this world, not the next? We have no certain belief in life after death at all, so what right have we to speak against Hell? Haven't we made ourselves ineligible to speak on the subject? Like a heterosexual pontificating about homosexuality which he knows nothing about? No, simply because the key doctrine of Universalism is not that everyone is going to go to Heaven. No, the central doctrine is that nobody is going to go to Hell! We are not particularly confident that everyone is going to be saved because we are not sure anyone is going to be saved.But what we are certain of is that no one will be damned! And that is still a timely and welcome message. Indeed it has never been timelier. And the time is now. 

Robert M. Price

drafted in April 1995
preached on October 15, 1995
written up November 4, 1995


 

 

 

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