Last Sunday, along with many churches throughout the country, we celebrated Harvest Festival. In the Anglican church there are three or four harvest hymns which are only chosen for this particular Sunday. One of them is ‘Come ye thankful people come’. Although I have sung this hymn every year for the past 60+ years, I have never paused to consider the meaning of all the words in the verses. The first verse speaks of gathering in the harvest before the winter storms begin. But then the tone of the hymn shifts. Humanity is likened a massive planting of seeds in a world which is ‘God’s own field’. But the planting contains both wheat and tares. We are thus exploring the parable told by Jesus in Matthew 13. 24-30. Verse 3 of the hymn introduces us to the prospect of a final day when a large section of humanity (the tares) will be cast by angels into the fire. What began as a cheerful celebration of the harvest becomes a hymn that sets out the horror of eternal damnation for some.
The idea that even a part of humanity is to be purged and cast into an eternal fire is, when we think about it, a shocking thing to believe. Like most of my readers I have not really before dwelt on the meaning of this well-known hymn. Although the parable of the wheat and the tares is familiar to me, I had always read it as a story. As a story it seemed to be expressing a hope that in God’s Kingdom justice would prevail and his will be done. The binding of the tares and their burning was not the part of the parable that I dwelt on. Certainly, I did not read it, as the hymn writer has done, as a literal description of what God intends to do, either now or in the future.
The question of whether the New Testament is ever describing a real literal place called hell is a debate that continues to this day. A majority who wish to soften the harsh edges of this teaching point to one constant refrain in the teaching of Jesus, ‘do not be afraid’. If Jesus had in any way focussed on the possibility of hell, his disciples might well have reacted with terror to such teaching. It is a topic of teaching that can make anyone who hears it and believes it utterly demoralised and afraid. The best words to describe the likely state of fear is to speak of abject terror. Sometimes I suspect that some preachers want to produce this state of fear as a deliberate tool of control over their congregants. It was certainly a constant theme of teaching in the notorious ministry of Michael Reid at Peniel Church Brentwood.
Today even among evangelical writers there has been a tendency to soften the teaching about hell. One approach has been to suggest that those who do not reach the state of bliss we call heaven, enter a state of extinction. But equally there are writers like David Pawson who want to maintain the belief in a literal hell complete with flames and eternal torture. Back in the 90s he wrote a complete book, The Road to Hell, promoting the idea of everlasting torment as being part of God’s plan. This was to answer the teaching of other evangelicals who had gone, in his estimation, soft on the issue.
I am fully aware of all the passages in the New Testament that seem to speak of everlasting pain and damnation for the unsaved. As I have already indicated the fact that Jesus speaks of eternal torment in the context of a parable does not lead to a conclusion that he regards this as part of the nature of God. Reward and punishment in the context of a story may just be part of a metaphor about good and evil. This metaphor may be a way of struggling with the conundrum that we live in an imperfect world. Some things we have to leave in God’s keeping. Human sin as well as natural evil are allowed to exist in this world and perhaps it is futile to believe we can understand its meaning this side of the grave.
The belief that some individuals are destined for a place of eternal torment also can create an utterly repulsive attitude among ‘good’ Christians. As a writer, Carol Meyer, has said: ‘We can readily see the arrogant and callous self-righteousness that a belief in hell engenders. The “saved” proudly assert that they are going to heaven, with nary a care that everyone else will suffer for eternity. They might even glory in the damnation of others’. Any group of Christians that spends time or energy speculating about who is going to hell and who not may develop attitudes of smugness which can only be described as obscene.
What are the arguments that allow us to take a gentle, even liberal, attitude to the question of what happens to individuals when they die? In the face of the quotations that appear to promote eternal punishment for some, we have two New Testament principles that argue definitively against the idea of a God who is waiting to punish human souls. The first argument is one we have already mentioned. Jesus constantly calls on his disciples not to fear. We can go further than this and say that his call always seems to be one of encouragement and support. We get the feeling that Jesus wants his disciples to be men and women of adventure. We never get the sense that those who turned away were destined for eternal punishment. Rather we have the feeling that Jesus is focused on getting people to live life in a richer, deeper or fuller way than simply living according to selfish desires. Not to follow him is seen somehow as the missing of an opportunity. The Greek word for sin, as many of us know, has nothing to do with evil. It has the meaning of missing the mark. Those who do not follow the message of Jesus can be said to be missing out on something, the opportunity to live better lives.
A further argument which goes against the idea of a vengeful God bent on punishing those who do not turn to him is indicated by many of the parables. Many of them picture a God who is patient and loving. The character of the father in the story of the prodigal son is one who waits patiently. God as represented by this father has an infinite capacity, not only for patience but also for forgiveness. The same characteristics are seen in Jesus himself. He spent a great deal of time in the company of individuals who were being utterly rejected by the Jewish spiritual establishment.
The arguments about the existence of hell do not depend on particular quotations that can be extracted from the New Testament. They are answered far more clearly by our realisation that Jesus came to reveal a God of love, forgiveness and patience. God also wants to arm us against the paralysing fear that would make life in all its fullness so difficult to find or to live. It is for these reasons that I found myself unable to sing most of verse 3 of the harvest hymn last Sunday.