“Not Hell, But Hope”
A Sermon delivered by the Rev. Carol Rosine
At The First Universalist Society in Franklin, MA
January 8, 2006
from Being Liberal in an Illiberal Age by Jack Mendelsohn
There is one terror I would banish from every heart in the world if I could: the fear of hell. In the early years of my ministry, I was asked by a couple who were strangers to me if I would conduct a funeral service for a family member. I listened, shaken, as they described their last experience with death, the death of a baby born to close relatives. The officiating minister felt compelled by his doctrinal belief to announce that the infant was burning in hell because she had died unbaptized. With all due respect for the sincerity of the minister’s belief in infant damnation, I felt then, as I feel now, that for anyone to make a statement like that to grief-stricken parents is not only incredibly cruel but also the opposite of all that I hold to be religious.
Were this an isolated case we might sadly let it pass; but with the passing years I have been approached over and over again in similar circumstances because it was known that I did not believe in hell and would not use a funeral as an occasion to harrow grief.
To their everlasting credit, our Universalist forebears were lifting their voices against the cruel myth of hell as early as the last half of the 18th Century. In England and in the American colonies, brave spirits began to preach that it was unthinkable for God, as a loving creator-parent, to damn any of God’s children everlastingly to hell. How could the offspring of a good God be willfully consigned to damnation of that same God?
from Challenge of a Liberal Faith by George Marshall
Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick: A Baptist minister. Had been a Presbyterian but after a heresy trial he became minister of the Riverside Church in NYC where he served for 17 years during the 30’s & 40’s.
“Better believe in no God than to believe in a cruel God, a tribal God, a sectarian God. Belief in God is one of the most dangerous beliefs someone can cherish. If the God one believes in is small and mean, the more intensely this belief is held and cultivated, the smaller and meaner the person who holds this belief will become. Humanity has believed in a cruel God who will send a large part of the human race to an endless hell, and by this belief all their own cruelty was confirmed. They got the idea that the torture chambers of earth were but replicas of the great torture chamber of God. It behooves us to take care what kind of God we believe in. Some of the people who do not believe in God at all are more merciful, truth-loving, and just than are some who do.”
A few weeks ago, This American Life on NPR did a feature story about the Rev. Carlton Pearson, a Pentecostal Bishop, whose church in Tulsa had been drawing over 5000 worshippers each week. Bishop Pearson had a close relationship with Oral Roberts, he appeared regularly on television, received invitations to the White House. But then, lo and behold, scandal erupted. It wasn’t a scandal involving an illicit love affair or the embezzlement of church funds or the abuse of children. The scandal was that Bishop Pearson had stopped believing in hell.
He said that one day while in prayer he heard the voice of God speaking to him but it wasn’t the voice of the judgmental, punishing, angry God that he’d been preaching about for so long, but instead it was the voice of a loving God. He started to wonder whether this loving God whom he’d heard so clearly could be a God who would condemn his children to the fires of hell. He came to believe that this could not be true, and so this is what he started preaching. A loving God. No eternal punishment. No hell.
Well, all hell broke loose! He was denounced as a heretic by those in positions of power, his ministerial colleagues shunned him, and the people in his congregation left in droves. After all, if there’s no hell, you don’t need a Jesus to save you from it, and therefore there’s no need to go to church.
Today he continues to preach that there is no hell, but his congregation has shrunk to a just a few hundred, and the only colleagues who’ll associated with him are other heretics among whom, of course, are the Unitarian Universalists.
As I listened to this saga unfold over a whole hour of broadcast time, I was reminded that the question of hell is not only stirring the pot among Pentecostals, but within other Christian churches as well. A few years ago there was a twelve page article published in a respected Jesuit journal, with Vatican approval I might add, stating that although hell exists and is eternal, it’s “man himself” who chooses to be damned by rejecting God. This article says that the familiar image we have of hell as a place of physical torments is wrong. It’s nothing like what Dante described in The Divine Comedy. This article says: “It is misleading, even if the popular imagination represents hell that way, to think that God, by means of demons, inflicts fearful torments on the damned like that of fire…. Hell exists, not as a place but as a state, a way of being of the person who suffers the pain of the deprivation of God…. Hellfire, the article argues, has nothing to do with the fire of which we have experience; it signifies the state of suffering of the entire human being through the fact of being deprived of God, who is the font of all happiness.”
What this means is that the Vatican has issued a corrective to the popular Catholic understanding of hell. For those of you who grew up within the Catholic Church this may be stunning news. I’ve heard so many of you speak of how you were warned that if you committed a sin you’d end up being punished in hell. This is so often where the fear of death is rooted—people terrified about what awaits them on the other side. Well, if this is what’s been making you toss and turn at night, you can relax. The Vatican now says that the popular concept of hell, which has been passed down through centuries of preaching and teaching is wrong. Hell is not a place but a state of being. It is what happens when the individual turns away from God. Is separated from God.
In response to this Vatican corrective, Peter Gomes, minister of Harvard’s Memorial Church says: “When people say to you in anger, ‘Go to hell!’ or ‘To hell with you!’ they are not inviting you to alter your spiritual attitude, but rather meaning to consign you to the worst and most vivid torments imaginable. They want for you the equivalents of fire and brimstone, the lake of sulphur, remorseless and valueless labor, and perpetual anguish and torment; and they don’t have to be ‘believers’ to believe in such a hell. These images are available to the literate through the courtesy of Dante’s ‘Inferno’… where souls suffer eternal torment in proportion to their sins.”
One of the books on the Best Seller List for fiction this summer was The Dante Club. Did any of you read it? It’s actually a mystery that takes place in Boston in 1865 and involves a series of murders that end up being solved by a group of Dante scholars, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow & Oliver Wendell Holmes. It’s really quite a gruesome tale because the murderer has chosen his victims based on the sins they have committed. He takes it upon himself to inflict the punishment described in Dante’s Inferno, punishment that’s appropriate for the sin that’s been committed.
Peter Gomes reminds us that the image of hell created by Dante looked like this: “In the vestibule to the inferno are those who did nothing in life, neither good nor bad; and within the inferno itself there are nine circles of descending intensity from limbo to the ninth and final circle, which is not fire but ice, and reserved for the most odious of all sinners, the betrayers. Here, for example, are to be found Judas Iscariot, Brutus, and Cassius.”
Even basically good people may sometimes fantasize about those who do them wrong burning in the fires of hell. Altering ones spiritual attitude is not enough. Retribution is what’s called for. Justice. Eternal punishment. Hell, in the old image of hell. Peter Gomes describes a scene in Stella Gibbons’s black parody, Cold Comfort Farm, in which “Amos, the wild lay preacher, relishes preaching to the quivering Baptists on the temperature of hell’s fires. In one of his sermons he asks the people if they remember when they burned a finger on a hot stove and applied butter to ease the pain. ‘Well,’ he cries, with obvious delight, ‘there is no butter in hell!’”
I’ve listened to all of this discussion about hell with some amusement because this “corrective” issued by the Vatican as well as the recent revelation by Bishop Pearson that there is no hell, is pretty much the same message that our Universalist forebears were preaching 250 years ago. Those early Universalists knew that all that hell fire and brimstone preaching being heard at the time, was a bunch of bunk. You see, the God that those Universalists worshipped back then was not a cruel God, a tribal God, a sectarian God, a small and mean God, but a Precious Lord kind of God who’d hear their cries, hear their calls, through the storms, through the nights and then would take their hands, and lead them home. That Universal God was not a God to be feared, but a God to be loved.
But boy did those old-time Universalists ever get into trouble for their heretical beliefs. You’ve heard me talk many times about what happened right here in Franklin with Nathaniel Emmons, the Calvinist minister of the Congregational Church here for 60 years who swore there’d never be any Universalist preaching in the town of Franklin while he was alive. From our vantage point it’s hard to understand how their message of love could have generated such fear and anger and even hatred. The UU minister, Chris Raible, explains it like this:
“A few years ago, I read the autobiography of a frontier Methodist circuit rider, Peter Cartwright. For almost a half a century, he served in Ohio, in Kentucky, in Indiana, finally pushing west to Illinois. Until I read his story, I had always thought that the worst hazards to a frontier circuit rider were storms and floods and wild animals. But no—at least not to Peter Cartwright.
To him, the worst evil that he could encounter were those sinful people, the Universalists! Of their ideas, Cartwright wrote: ‘…if I were to set out to form a plan to contravene the laws of God, to encourage wickedness of all kinds, to corrupt the morals and encourage vice, and crowd hell with the lost and wailings of the damned, the Universalist plan should be the plan, the very plan, that I would adopt.’
And why, pray tell, did Cartwright and others consider Universalism to be such a devilish doctrine? They believed that the Universalists preached ‘no hell.’ If, they thought, there is no hell, then there is no punishment. If there is no punishment, then there is no fear. If there is no fear, there is no reason not to sin.
If the Universalists had no reason to fear, and thus no reason not to sin, they must indeed be very wicked people. If, their neighbors thought, the Universalists had no fear of hell, then their neighbors thought, the Universalists must be engaging in all those wonderfully wicked things that their neighbors wished they themselves could engage in, if they feared no hell.”
There’s a wonderful story that I’ve told many times about Hosea Ballou, who was the first Universalist preacher who was effective in spreading the message of Universalism in America and organizing Universalist churches here. The story goes that one day while he was out riding his preaching circuit he was accompanied by an itinerant Baptist preacher and as the rode together, they argued theology. At one point, the Baptist preacher said, “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.” Hosea Ballou looked at him and replied, “My brother, if you were a Universalist the very idea would never occur to you!”
Chris Raible goes on to say, “No doubt, some of the Universalists did engage in wickedness, just as, no doubt, some of their Methodist and other neighbors did too! But what the neighbors did not understand about Universalists was they were not so much preaching about ‘no hell’ as they were arguing about its location! They were telling of hell here on earth that we make for ourselves if we cannot live lives of love. Further, the Universalists were arguing against the idea that fear and guilt are necessary for there to be morality.”
So what are we Unitarian Universalists to make of all of this today? Well, obviously we no more believe in Dante’s version of hell than our Universalist ancestors did nor, as it turns out, the official stance of the Catholic church today. But what about this concept of hell as a state of being, as a turning away from God, as a separation from God? Well, I guess we’d all agree that we can sure feel like hell sometimes. At least I feel like hell sometimes and for me, what that means, is that I’m out of sorts in some way. Things aren’t quite right with me. I’m off balance. Perhaps feeling angry. Even vengeful Wanting to lash out or perhaps just whimper off into a corner some place. Maybe feeling real, real sorry for myself. Something’s burning away in here that’s separating me from the people around me, that’s separating me, perhaps, from life itself. That’s what I feel like when I feel like hell.
But I also know that for me, the feeling of hell, is sometimes associated with a turning away from God, a separation from God. I know that among us here in this sanctuary there are many different concepts of God. Of what that is or even if it is. Some of us here grew up with a cruel God, with a sectarian God who favored some over others, with a God who led to division, to suspicion and hatred of others, with a God who was small and mean. Some of us here may have come to the conclusion that it is better to believe in no God than in a God like that.
The God of my childhood was not like that but more the Precious Lord kind of God, a good God, a loving God, but I turned away from that God as well. An image of any kind wasn’t big enough. Especially an image with human characteristics. Over the years, however, I eventually began to redefine for myself what God might be. Perhaps God wasn’t something majestic out there but perhaps God could be found in those places and things and ways of being that I was beginning to experience as Holy, as Sacred. In nature. In the turn of the seasons. In other people. In myself. In expressions of compassion and kindness and love. In service to others. And the more I became aware of what I was beginning to call God in all these little places, the bigger God became for me. Until now God is a presence in my life. At least sometimes. Often even. Unless I turn away. Unless I close my eyes and batten down the hatches and separate myself completely. And that’s when I really feel like I’m in hell.
I know that this is not what our Universalist ancestors were talking about when they talked about hell. They had more of a biblical understanding of God than I do at this point in my life. And I’m pretty sure that this isn’t what the Pope has in mind either. But then again, perhaps a lot of it is just semantics. Perhaps at a deep level, we are talking about a common reality. And that is that we human beings have choices about how we will live our lives. We have choices about the decisions we make. We can choose to live in accord with what is good, not just good for ourselves, but good for those around us and for the common good as well. We can choose to live as if we really are connected to each other. As if we really are part of an interconnected web of existence. We can choose to ground ourselves in all that is life-affirming. We can choose to have love at the center of all that we do and all that we are. And when we choose not to live in this way, this is when we create a state of being that some call hell. A turning away from what many call God. A turning away from what others consider to be the ultimate truth and goodness. A turning away from what is experienced as unconditional & all-embracing love. Perhaps hell does exist. Perhaps it really is a state of being that we create.
All Sing: “immortal Love” #10