Editorial by Jonathan Clatworthy
from Signs of the Times No. 12 - Jan 2004
[Reply: For me the angels sing by David Taylor, July 2004]

Hell has become topical again. At the end of October a new survey of Americans' beliefs revealed that 71% believe in it but only 0.5% think they will end up there. Heaven does better: 76% believe in it and 64% believe they will end up there.

On 12th December the Church Times published an article by Paul Thomas arguing that the doctrine of hell should be consigned to the flames. At the same time the Spectator decided that a reflection on the doctrine of hell would be a suitable way 'to mark the Incarnation'.

My own interest in the subject began at the age of six. My brother, who was seven and therefore knew absolutely everything, explained on the way home from school one day that when people die, the good ones go to heaven and the bad ones to hell. I asked him which way I was heading. If he had replied that it all depended on whether I let him play with my toys, I would have believed him; but instead he explained that when children die they always go to heaven because they are not old enough to accept full responsibility for their misdeeds. I pondered the matter. When we got home, I found my parents and announced my intention to commit suicide forthwith, to be on the safe side. They persuaded me not to, but didn't convince me about their reasons. I must have been a horrible child.

The issue arose again six years later. I was at a boarding school, and as a vicar's son had been placed with the religious houseparents. We had two bible-reading/sermon/prayer sessions a day. One was about the unforgiveable sin, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which carried an irrevocable sentence of eternal hell. Had I ever committed such a blasphemy, I asked myself? The fact was, I had been alive for a very long time - twelve years - and I just couldn't remember. What could possibly matter as much as this? For the next two or three years I agonized over it. Once again my parents told me not to worry, but didn't provide convincing reasons. Added to the anxiety was a puzzle: why did the other boys who had heard this sermon care so little about it?

Well, why didn't they? Looking back, the answer is obvious. They had been taught that religious doctrines are the kind you assent to (their successors today wouldn't even do that) but don't take seriously enough to think through the implications. These days we might call them 'metaphorical'. I, by contrast, was a rare throwback to an age when people took these things dreadfully seriously.

As, indeed, people did in 'the ages of faith'. The first Christian proponents of eternal hell thought the matter worthy of more than polite assent. Once it had become the standard Christian doctrine it proved useful. The medieval church made the most of it to discourage sexual and other sins, and nineteenth-century preachers warned the laity against non-attendance at their church.

As with Americans today, hell has usually been the destination for other people, not for oneself. A minority have believed it of themselves. Keith Thomas describes the findings of a seventeenth-century witch-finder, John Stearne, who remarked that many witches had been drawn to the Devil 'by some sermons they have heard preached; as when ministers will preach of the power of the Devil, and his tormenting the wicked and such like'. Ignorant people were seduced by Satan 'coming to them, and asking them, "How do you think to be saved? For your sins are so and so... And you heard the minister say that I will torment you. Give me your soul... and I will free you of hell-torment"'. The fear of hell-fire was thus paradoxically alleged by some witches as an explanation for their apostasy.

It was entirely logical. For us today it takes a leap of the imagination to appreciate the terror in which they must have spent their lives. The conceptual gap between them and us is because they believed what they believed, and we do not.

Still, they were a minority. More often hypocrisy came to the rescue, and on this point we are at one with them. We can believe that other people deserve hell, and will get it, without ever imagining that we ourselves may be in the same boat. In medieval Christendom it was for Jews, Muslims and heretics; in the nineteenth century West, for non-Protestants, non-Catholics or all who do not belong to one's own denomination. For church leaders it is a way to 'encourage' attendance and devotion; for the laity, a cheap sense of superiority.

Like much of classic Christianity, the doctrine of hell is widely attributed to the Bible but in fact dates from a later era. The biblical authors offer a variety of alternative doctrines; what we have inherited it is the worst of all possible worlds. What more oppressive doctrine could there ever possibly be, than that everyone except oneself and ones friends are going to spend eternity in extreme pain? What more manipulative doctrine could there be than that those who do not obey one's rules are destined for the greatest imaginable punishment?

Many today struggle to defend the doctrine of hell because they think abandoning it would be disloyal to the Christian tradition. The greater disloyalty, however, is to discredit the tradition by hanging onto those elements which need to be ditched. The psychological argument against believing in hell is that those who believe it of themselves are condemned to a life of terror, awaiting something even worse for eternity; and those who believe it of other people, but not of themselves, are thereby encouraged in that error, which all moral teaching tries to overcome, of considering oneself superior to other people.

This leads us to the ethical argument against it. Why does God give us free will and allow us to commit evil acts? Because, the mainstream Christian answer goes, we are thereby enabled to overcome our selfishness and share in God's holiness by being good out of free choice. But if our good works, and our avoidance of evil, are motivated by the fear of hell, they too become acts of selfishness, and cannot ever be altruistic. God's invitation to us to share the divine holiness is a glorious offer; but if we believe that failure to accept it destines us to eternal hell, our need to look after our own interests puts that holiness well out of reach.

This in turn leads us to the theological argument against it. What distinguishes the Jewish and Christian God from the ancient pagan alternatives is monotheism. In a polytheistic system divine punishment makes more sense: one god created us like this, and another doesn't like the result. If God is one, though, our lives, their planetary context and the prognosis for a post-death future are all established by the same divine being. Only within a polytheistic theology is it possible to believe that a God who intentionally made us like this, with the freedom and motivations we have, is surprised, let alone angry, about our sinfulness.

So what should we believe? Perhaps we should begin by admitting that we simply don't know what happens to us after we die. Maybe the reports of near-death experiences have something to teach us, but they tend to affirm heaven rather than hell. My own suspicion is that we are intended to live one life at a time, without worrying about the hereafter. But if there is a clue, it will lie in the relationship between the life we live now, and its creator. Those with a positive experience of life are likely to feel more inclined to trust its creator - and therefore trust that what the creator has in store for us after death will also be positive.

If this is how our experiences inform our expectations, the best way to solve the problem of hell will be to do what we should be doing anyway - to work for a world in which everybody's experience of life is a positive one.


Jonathan Clatworthy stood down as Modern Church General Secretary in July 2013 after 11 years. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics. Jonathan edits the Modern Church theological journal Modern Believing.