Tuesday, 7 May 2013

HELL

 Some people think that there is no hell, and they say so confidently. Others think it better to wait until they can find out and be sure. The latter course may seem the wiser, but the former is certainly the more popular. On this occasion the popular mind has been voiced by the Rev. Dr. Charles Strong. Although regarded by the churches as a heresiarch, yet there can be no doubt that he does to a considerable extent represent the mind of the "average man." As we understand Dr. Strong's latest utterance on this subject when compared with his previous statements, he distinguishes between the idea of hell as nemesis or consequences, and the idea of hell as a kind of fiat of an offended Deity; and, again, he distinguishes between the material, flaming hell of Judaistic and mediƦval theology and the mental and spiritual hell of more modern thought.  And so both aspects of this modern conception of hell may be summed up in the words of Omar, the Persian poet—

"Heaven but the vision of fulfilled desire,
 And Hell the shadow of a soul on fire,
Cast on the darkness into which ourselves,
 So late emerged from, shall so soon expire."

Omar, who lived eight hundred years ago, could say that "I myself am heaven and hell ;" and the voice of the twentieth century, as interpreted by Dr. Strong, can say no more. The flaming material hell of an "almighty despot's "fiat" has gone into the limbo of the past ; and it is interesting to notice how quickly and yet how silently this change has taken place. Men who are in the midst of their years to-day can easily remember how during their childhood this old conception of hell swayed the popular mind and the popular teaching. That was but thirty or forty years ago, and yet it is now gone, never apparently to return.

Now, we may be told that men's ideas in this matter can neither make nor unmake the fact itself. If there be no hell, then man's thinking cannot create it; and if there be a hell, man's incredulity cannot destroy it. But the practical test of a doctrine is its working power. If this conception of hell has wholly lost Its sway over the minds of men, then it is useless for either pulpit or religious press to insist on the teaching. Has the hold been lost however, or is it merely that the doctrine has been changed? Evangelists tell us that fear drives more men into religion than love or gratitude does. There seems no need to question these statements. What, then, is this fear? It is no longer fear of the old material flaming hell. Well, then, of what nature is it? Perhaps science is taking a hand in this matter, perhaps also psychology. Men are getting to realise something of what disease may mean, both mental and physical; what nerve decay and nerve torture may mean ; what ruin, loss, destruction may mean. They see these things as a kind of consequence of ill-regulated lives now. Imagination does the rest. They think it possible that there may be some kind of a hell beyond. Every man who knows anything of life gets glimpses of something like a kind of hell in this life. So he does not find it unnatural that he should shrink from this kind of nemesis both here and hereafter. There is no thought of a material flaming hell, no thought of the fiat of an Almighty Ruler. There is rather a sense of natural law, of scientific consequence. He fears disease, he fears madness; so also he fears hell. That is probably the reason why men still have a kind of hell in their popular theology while they have thrown over their old ideas altogether. Garnier, who worked among the Red Indians, wrote to a friend in France asking for pictures of souls in perdition, with plenty of demons, dragons, and flames thrown in. Of souls in bliss he thought that one picture would be enough. Well, there is still a touch of the Red Indian in most of us.

This change in the popular view of hell is only one of a whole series of changes which are going on around us. Almost all the theological conceptions of the past are in the melting-pot. The fall, sin, original sin, the atonement the judgment heaven and hell, the Trinity, the person of Christ, inspiration, revelation—these and all the rest are in the same plight. The churches will not acknowledge this. They will not yield one inch of the creeds and confessions of the past. Yet outside their official statements there is going on in the minds of all the people, both clergy and laity, a subtle process of disintegration. The movement is like an atmosphere laden with germs. All breathe it. All are infected by it. All show the symptoms of it. The man who should be in the pew instinctively stays away from church. The man in the pulpit is struggling to reorient his faith so as to preach sermons that will have some reality in them and some point of contact with present-day feeling. It may be that Christianity is being submerged under a universal wave of rationalism. Or it may be that Christianity is being reborn into a higher form, is passing through a crucial stage in its evolution. Whatever be the cause there can be no doubt that men are having other thoughts of God and of religion, of duty and of judgment than their fathers had. The manward, humanitarian aspect of religion is becoming the main thing, while the Godward, theological aspect is being put into the background. And this process is going on with extraordinary rapidity, yet with equally extraordinary silence. If we look at the quiet irresistible change in the last forty years, could we point to any period in past history equally short yet equally momentous in religious evolution? There has been no demonstration, no blare of trumpets, no advertisement. Hence many cannot see what is going on, and will not admit it. But the fact remains. Every single theological doctrine or conception of the past is under criticism. Even the general principles of the Christian ethics are being questioned, and the great problem is being pressed as to whether there is any living connection between religion and conduct at all. What will come of it all no one can say. Prophecy is still the gift only of the inspired. But we are quite sure that, in the absence of an inspired prophecy, a healthy optimism is the best. Those will most help things upward who believe In upwardness. Those who hold that our Western religion is the highest and final form of religion—is revelation, in fact—should hold also that this religion will never be still, and that in all its movement it is steadily shedding its own mistakes. Hopefulness seems a necessary consequence of belief either in God or in mankind.

The Argus 13 November 1909,

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