Saturday, December 13, 2008


I grew up in Cathedral School at St. Matthew’s and eventually attended St. Marks also in Dallas, Texas and then on to St. Dunstan’s School in Providence, RI and Lenox School in Lenox, Massachusetts. They were all Episcopal schools so I was literally raised in the church. It became a part of my DNA. I was an active participant in the church singing in church choirs and glee clubs as an accomplished a capella soprano soloist all the way to my evolution into a mediocre, burned out baritone which was proved again at the annual company Christmas party. I went on to become Sexton of Trinity Church in Lenox. My confirmation by Bishop John Seville Higgins at St. Martin’s in Providence was one of the high points of my life. I remember it like it was yesterday… Was I a willing and compliant child doing my catechism? Well, probably not as I was sometimes incorrigible and hard to handle. I questioned everything including the color of the sky and made other provocative and now potentially embarrassing inquiries.

I even thought about going into the Episcopal/Anglican priesthood given the influence of one Dr. Robert L. Curry, DDS, etc the headmaster at Lenox, an incredible, positive influence in my life. I was his, “Miracle of Lenox School.”

At Lenox and ultimately at Ole Miss I was taught to question everything, to be inquisitive and come to my own conclusions about all matters. That’s what impressed me most about the Episcopal Church – it allowed for the option of original thought, not a blind rush towards and acceptance of what was to me some opaque doctrine. I was taught to think.

And so it comes to the subject of this post – the concept of Hell. No, I’m not going anywhere near the deliberation of the existence of Heaven and I don’t believe that the existence of one begets the other. We’ll save that one for later.

I heard reports most recently on National Public Radio (NPR) where parishioners of the Reverend Carlton Pearson’s New Dimension Church in Tulsa being literally stopped on the street and in a very public inquisition questioned by strangers about their supposed heretical lack of belief in Hell. I pray that someday someone has the temerity to so question me. They will regret their imposition on my privacy though they will be treated with respect. Why do these people refuse to let others worship and believe as they see fit? Yes, that news made me mad as..... well, Hell!

While this Christmas season might seem an inappropriate time to so deliberate, I see these kinds of behaviors occurring at an alarming and increasing rate, especially here in the South and Southwest. We are the home of the Pentecostals and the conservative Christian Right and what’s left of the right wing of Republican Party (they are still legion) and one of the reasons the GOP failed so miserably in representing The People. If you don’t believe what we believe, they say, then you are doomed to eternal damnation and Hell. If that’s the case, then Hell has to exist for their belief system to survive. Ka-ching! It’s mostly this mind set that bothers me, not the existence of Hell.

As a child my parents never threatened me with the fiery pit if I misbehaved or “sinned” though some righteously motivated school masters insinuated that may be my ultimate fate if I didn’t toe their line. I have been intrigued with my ultimate fate since then with one Episcopal priest even righteously praying for the disposition of my soul (for another reason).

Most Christians are taught and believe that there is an underground domain – an endless, irreversible, infinite abyss - an actual physical place of eternal fire, damnation and torment called Hell. They believe that when they die their souls will either go to Heaven and forever enjoy the rewards of a sin free life with God in some cumulus firmament or descend into Satan’s sulphurous realm, Hell, where they will painfully and excruciatingly burn and be tormented until the end of time. Then there’s Purgatory which we will discuss at a later time along with Heaven.

Of course, a stagnant and corrupt Catholic Church was want to keep their mostly illiterate, ignorant and disobedient fold compliant and in line. The way to do that was to unfurl the banner of intimidation, superstition, fable and ultimately persecution to hold them in check. It mostly worked. We have apparently forgotten that The Catholic Church viciously persecuted and executed those that disagreed with or contradicted the church’s belief system (Galileo is but one example). That was one of the reasons so many ultimately immigrated to America, including many of my ain folk. I am pleased and honored to uphold their tradition. I will also concede that unlike other denominations the Catholics amid great controversy now appear to be trying to right their ship.

Yes, like many other aspects of Christianity, the concept of Hell, eternal damnation and torment wasn’t original to Judaism/Christianity or part of the early teachings and message of Jesus. The reality is that the concept of Hell predates Christianity by a thousand years (Zoroastrianism). Distinguished historians and theologians have long corroborated (using the historical record) that the early so called references to Hell are mistranslations that have no basis in reality. Just because people (sincerely or in an agenda driven angst) were/are taught that it was/is truth doesn’t make it so. Some folks feel that it has devolved to the level of pernicious propaganda that further degrades our students committing them to the bottomless pit of ignorance.

The early development of the Jewish State and later the Christian Church was predicated on the Roman occupation of the Jewish Homeland and how they were going to free themselves from tyranny (their Salvation). Theologians state that we have mistranslated, embellished and reinvented the early Christian religion so as to ultimately embrace the concept of Hell in a more modern context. It needs to be said that for the early religion and even now the penalty for sinning was and is purely and simply – death – an easy out as we all (good or bad) will ultimately embrace that outcome. This is not a eureka conclusion, rocket science or magic.

The Protestant concept of Hell has most recently been an effective tool of fire and brimstone Elmer Gantry evangelists intended to save “sinners” and absolutely frighten church members into what they deem righteous behavior. Their premise is that if you don’t believe in Hell then you don’t need to believe in Jesus and you will become, “exceedingly sinful.”

Though some will protest, many believe that it is irrefutable that there is no physical domain of Hell or eternal damnation. All many hear are the empty threats of an overbearing, ethnocentric literalist religious mafia trying to impress their beliefs on those who don’t share their beliefs. On a personal note, I am positive that those inclined to believe in Hell (whatever I believe) don’t care about me personally or surely the ultimate repository of my soul. They appear scared to death that those who question the existence of Hell such as the parishioners of the New Dimension Church in Tulsa may threaten their status quo and system of checks and balances. Maybe, just maybe, their Mafioso tactics will prompt some folks to start thinking about their own environment and belief systems. Needless to say, all people need to become more tolerant and appreciative of differing belief systems. Now, that’s a good Christmas message!

Today, even the Catholic Church and some Protestant denominations are withdrawing from the myth of Hell, conceding there has never been a Biblical basis for that supposed physical realm. Witness Pope John Paul II in 1999 when he stated that, “Hell is not a place of fire and eternal suffering.” John Paul referred to the descriptions of eternal torment and damnation as, "improper use of Biblical images." Well, maybe we will eventually get it right though some in Tulsa seem to be embracing and fomenting the old ways.

The reality is that we appear to have a few loud, narrow minded folks in our midst that embrace a short-sighted religious dogma-driven agenda and folly intended to impress their views upon the general populous. The rest of the world is wrong and they are right. You don’t believe? You are going to Hell.

So, many now concede that a physical domain called Hell is not real, never has been and does not reflect the sentiment/heart of the God that they worship. Most believe and I concur that Hell is at least that metaphorical separation from the presence, influence and love of God. It would appear that Hell is right here on this planet in the personages of those who would voraciously and wantonly feed on the weak in our society. Ironically, it is our critical responsibility to respect, protect and support the right of everybody to include the Reverend Carlton Pearson of the New Dimension Church in Tulsa to practice their faith as they deem fit. I pledge myself to that effort.

Yea, I am still trying to figure it all out…

John 3:16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life (KJV).


Ned Buxton

No comments: