Rejecting the emptiness of hell

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Understanding God as a fearsome, unforgiving being does real harm in the world (image via Twitter @Ausanimal).

A compassionate, humane conception of God contributes to a fairer, more equal world, writes Sue Stevenson

'Hell is empty. All the devils are here.'

– William Shakespeare

CAPITALISM WAS BORN out of the worldview of an empire and its state religion which claimed that a few were saved and most were damned to burn eternally. Less than 400 years after Jesus Christ’s birth, the words and deeds of this Jewish carpenter from Palestine were converted into the official religion of a powerful empire.

The religion went from whatever it had been for its first 300 years, before the powers of Rome got hold of it, to something else that of course resembled Rome – a system of domination, a way to make holy the craven authoritarian urges of a small group of people to wield massive amounts of power and privilege over an uncountable number of people.

Sound familiar?

I called myself a Christian for 16 years. At 22 I had some kind of spiritual experience, I guess you could call it. I've had lots of spiritual experiences, really. It's embarrassing in secular Australia to speak of them. They are peripheral to the national psyche's sense of itself and if you claim to have them you're a bit suss, maybe even a fruit loop.

Nevertheless, I have continued to have a spiritual component that I exercise when I have half the chance. It seems to me to be a natural part of human nature, which is why young people seek transcendent experiences at music festivals to cope with living in the capitalist shitstorm.

I suppose I was not a particularly good or obedient Christian. I did not stick to my own lane. I had sex out of wedlock and smoked bongs. Halfway through my Christian life I had already long abandoned the institutional church as a dead piece of a flapping empty glove and had begun labelling myself as a zen universalist Christian.

Universalists – those who believe that an eternal hell of punishment is whack – were at the bottom of the respect barrel in the Christendom I came into in the 1990s but the advent of the internet meant it was an idea able to more readily spread itself about.

After falling in love with the works of the avowed 19th-Century Scottish universalist George MacDonald and then other people online who were unashamedly espousing a hellfire-free Christianity, I entered into a battle trying to work out whether I was letting go of a stupid tool of control or whether, as the puritans of American evangelicalism were telling me, I was merely giving into convenience. Putting myself above God with my limited reasoning skills.

Thing is, if wasn't very hard to put yourself above a psycho, a sociopath with horrendous anger management issues so in love with his own holiness that he couldn't even muster up a skerrick of compassion for the frailty of a people who had never even asked to be born in the first place. It didn't gibe with the compassion of Jesus. To make matters worse, if that poor bloke dying a horrific death on a Roman execution torture device didn’t seem to have appeased the bastard either nothing was going to be enough.

By the time I'd pretty much almost decided that eternal-punishment-hell was a crock of crap, I was participating in a forum of other heretical Christians who weren't bothering to go to church either. One of the other forum members contacted me privately and asked me if I wanted to chat about the whole hell business.

We began corresponding in a weeks-long rambling email conversation that felt close to a true communal church experience. This man, who I'd never met, was willing to spend hours helping one person along to reach the conclusions he could see I'd just about reached. But he never once coerced me or tried to talk me into anything. He just watched and helped me unravel all those hell references. One of Jesus' references to hell became a literary device, a metaphor, a reference to Gehenna, the Jerusalem garbage dump. Others became simply the grave. Another became a place not of eternal torment but of afterlife purification and healing.

In effect, God went from being a psycho to being something approaching the correct state of love and expansiveness you'd imagine an uncreated being would possess.

I then discovered the Greek words aion and aionios, which mean an age, or a period of time, were mistranslated all over the place to instead read "forever and ever". The respected and influential church fathers Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and Clement of Alexandria taught universalism before Christianity became the state religion in the 300s. Origen even referred to reincarnation and it was so uncontroversial that nobody appeared to see fit to even question it.

What else had we lost through two millennia? What had we gained that was never meant to be there at all? What I found in my few years attending a Salvation Army church is that you simply don't ask those questions. The Word of God, despite being a collection of documents traversing millennia, written by many people and contradictory in parts, was nevertheless all inspired by God. All of it and no questioning. From God's psychotic mouth to your traumatised ear.

Ever since burning the concept of hell, I've felt a real sadness for those Christians who still believe in it. I’ve noticed, though, that the idea of universalism is one which has gained more currency since the 1990s, enough to set off a torrent of refutation of God’s holiness by evangelicals in return. It just feel like so much evil is unleashed from those who hold to this idea. If you have a god who is that damn holy, it’s quite hard to exude love and compassion for your fellow human and earth if he can’t bring himself to.

If all of these people and this earth are going to hell, then what is the point in caring for each other and treating each other as if we have inherent dignity? If the Father is a psycho, then his kids are turds and his earth is crap and sinful and anyway, he's making a new one for the believers so let's just focus on that.

It is therefore unsurprising that Scott Morrison has escaped the burning smoke of Sydney to holiday in Hawaii. After all, he's alienated from the rest of us and the earth three times over.

Firstly there is the Pentecostal faith that says everyone is hellbound unless they accept Christ as saviour.

Secondly, there is the capitalism he's so wedded to that he'll stick with it even though it's ending, even though the financial system it's embedded in has run out of money (again) and is about to crisis once more. Capitalism reduces people down to economic units in a financial machine and makes redundant the dependency upon each other that keeps us connected.

Thirdly, he's ensnared in the puppet strings of Washington, so much so that we still haven’t been able to get a citizen of our own home back from Belmarsh because he said bad things that the bad men were doing in their bad endless wars for profit and control.

With a so-called leader so unable to govern for the people, it was a real shot in the solidarity arm when some real ones decided they’re taking things into their own hands and going ahead with the bushfire summit Scott Morrison pooh-pooed

The Emergency Leaders for Climate Change are a group of former senior fire and emergency service leaders who have been trying to get Scott Morrison’s attention since April to warn the government about the fire season we’re currently experiencing, and to call on greater funds for the sector. Meanwhile, ScoMo says it’s all good, and the volunteer firefighters want to be there so nothing to see here.

For those of us who believe not only that capitalism must be scrapped entirely but also the roles of lords and kings and billionaires and politicians and privately-owned corporations who first set it into motion, this declaration by a group of people that we must, therefore, turn aside and do whatever we can ourselves is exciting to see. It is a bit of an inoculation against the idea that the grassroots must just sit there and burn, and then burn later forever.

A society where we rule ourselves, care for each other and live harmoniously on the earth? That really would be something, wouldn't it? That’s the kind of society that would promote peace on earth and goodwill to all men, women, nonbinary people, children and non-human beings. That would the kind of society we could sweat to realise. The kind of dignified society that we all deserve.

You can read more from Sue Stevenson here.

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