The Rapidian

Ethics and Religion Talk: Why Do So Many People Need to Believe in Hell?

Linda asks, “Why do humans feel a need to confirm hell exists?”

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at http://topics.mlive.com/tag/ethics-and-religion-talk/. More recent columns can be found on TheRapidian.org by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

“Unitarian Universalists, as a general rule do not need to confirm the existence of heaven or hell. Most of us believe it is how we treat each other in this lifetime that matters most of all. We believe our own actions can create a ‘heaven’ or ‘hell’ here on earth. For example, if we are inactive and allow people to go hungry, we are creating hell. If we work to provide food for everyone then we are creating heaven.”

The Rev. Steven Manskar, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Grand Rapids, responds:

“Humans naturally believe in and demand justice. By ‘justice’ I mean retributive justice. When the law is broken the perpetrator must be punished. Children have a very clear understanding of fairness. Misbehavior must be punished. This expectation of fairness, or justice, carries into adulthood.

“This belief in, and demand for, justice and fairness when applied to God and God’s kingdom results in the concept of ‘hell.’ Many Christian traditions teach hell is a place of punishment reserved for people who break God’s law. Some believe people who fail to proclaim faith in Jesus Christ as savior and Lord will be condemned to hell for eternity. Hell is a requirement of God’s retributive justice.

“Humans feel a need to confirm hell exists because they find it in Scripture. The word appears thirteen times in the New Testament. Most of them are from Jesus himself. For Christians, if Jesus talked about hell, then we need to deal with it. The threat of hell (Gehenna) in the New Testament is used to show the seriousness of sin and to awaken the conscience to fear of the divine anger (Matthew 10:28; 23:33).

“Christian scripture includes a variety of images for a place of punishment – oblivion, outer-darkness, a garbage dump outside city walls, a place of fire, gnashing of teeth, a fiery lake of burning sulfur. These images express the efforts of writers to portray the unknowable. Such images allow us to imagine that those who hurt us or hurt society will ‘get what’s coming to them.’ A concept of Hell allows humans to imagine revenge upon those who we perceive as evil, hurtful, violent.  Shouldn’t there be such a place for the likes of Pol Pot, Hitler, Judas, or Timothy McVeigh? We need ‘Hell’, or so the argument goes.”

Linda Knieriemen, Senior Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Holland, responds:

“In my theology, hell has faded away in favor of a creating, loving God who would not destine any one to a place of torment. I observe that some humans choose a life absent God or a life-affirming ethic, that is, one of hatred, fear, violence, or pain. They create their own hell on earth suggesting they aren’t interested in a life of goodness with God beyond this life.

“A friend grew up in a strict Missouri Synod Lutheran household and recalls being forced in a first grade Sunday school class to draw pictures of hell with burning, writhing miserable people. She has spend 50 years recovering from that and other experiences which reinforced this notion. ‘Hell is lore’ she recently told me. Religious leaders and institutions use this lore, this fear based story, to exert control over a population.”

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

“Because all humans belong to a race of beings created in the image of God, they reflect (to varying degrees) the character of the just and holy God who made them. The apostle Paul affirms that ‘the work of the law,’ that is, the halachah or ‘way of walking’ prescribed in God’s law, is written in the hearts of all mankind. This inward light or innate knowledge accounts for the very human behavior of accusing others of wrongdoing, and defending ourselves when our conduct is faulted​ (Romans 2:15). The same knowledge creates a longing to see justice done, if not in this world, surely in the next.

“In a world beset by sin and sunk down in the misery sin produces, justice is often delayed or denied. The wicked prosper in their wickedness, while the righteous suffer oppression and persecution at their hands. But it will not always be so! Christians believe that our Lord Jesus Christ will come again from heaven to ‘judge the world with righteousness’ (Psalm 96:13). In that day, ‘God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil’ (Ecclesiastes 12:14).

“Christians affirm the existence of hell because this doctrine features prominently in the teachings of Christ. To cite just one example:  ‘My friends, be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear Him, which after He hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear Him’ (Luke 12:4, 5).”

 
This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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