Those who seem to have taken Jessica’s posts as meaning she thinks hell does not exist are, I think, not getting her point. As I read them, she thinks it does, but is not eternal. That’s an interesting point, and one I’ve not seen raised often – that hell will cease to exist when God triumphs and evil is defeated for ever. It makes one wonder, that’s for sure. But on the main issue, hell as a place of torment, then it seems to me that despite all the cleverness with words by the Church of England, we are left with the usual choice on these matters – what most Christians have always thought is wrong and what a few modern ones think is correct – or that traditional wisdom prevails. In the context of explaining away the prohibition on women preaching and leading, and explaining why homosexual marriage/relations are not really sinful, we might expect the same word-play with hell – so I am unsurprised we are getting it.
Now we might, up front, say a few things of wider import here. Jessica has suggested that the view many have of hell is conditioned by secular society’s legal norms and practice in the past. There is much to be said for that, indeed it is hard to see how it could not be so – we can only explain the ineffable by reference to something with which we are familiar. There is equally something similar to be said for the way in which the role of women and of homosexuals are treated. But if we are going to say that the maxims of Scripture are all conditioned by the norms of past societies, then where does this stop? Acknowledging that the way in which we interpret certain parts of Scripture is by reference to our own society does not, so it seems to me, involve conceding the point that everything is relative. Our Lord treated women in a way which was profoundly counter-cultural; what Paul had to say about who could be saved was equally so controversial and counter to what his fellow Jews held that he was persecuted by them for it. As it happens, there is no evidence that Graeco-Roman society held any ‘prejudicial’ views on homosexuals – so again, the view put forward by Paul was not in line of that of the wider Gentile society to whom he was appealing. Women clearly had major roles in the early Church, so prohibiting them from preaching had a particular purpose and was not necessarily in line with wider Gentile practice; indeed had that been the case – i.e. had wider Gentile society not had women in such positions in Temples, then Paul’s words would have been unnecessary. The same is true of hell.
I am quite prepared to believe that there were varied views about hell in the early church, but I remain to be convinced that these views paralleled that of modern annihilationist thought. But I also remain to be convinced that we are meant to read hell quite as literally as some would like. The notion that it is how those who have rejected God feel in his presence seems to capture it best for me. This is not analogous with anyone putting anyone in a cage and burning them. If there is an analogy, it is with how we might feel when we realise, looking back, we made a really bad decision and there is nothing we can do because we refused advice and thought we knew better. It is the choice of the individual – not of God.
I don’t know how far that helps anyone, but that’s my two penn’orth. A Happy New Year to you all.