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Hell is still hot?


Sometimes it's good when people say things we disagree with.

Not always; it can be irritating, frustrating, or wounding. But sometimes it arouses our curiosity, causes us to examine our assumptions, and sets us off on a trail of new discoveries.

So it was when somebody posted this image on Facebook.


It says, in emphatic block capitals: We need preachers who preach that hell is still hot, that heaven is still real, that sin is still wrong, that the Bible is God's word, and that Jesus is the only way of salvation.

After my initial reaction of, "We certainly do not!" the curiosity kicked in. What was it about this particular formulation of the Christian faith that I didn't like? If I wouldn't preach that, what would I preach? Given that hell is not a major topic of the Bible, how on earth did we get Christians who think it merits headline billing in the gospel?

What's wrong with it?

Picking something apart is always the easy bit. I partly object to what this meme does say. I don't think that "hell is still hot" should ever, ever, be the first line of a sermon. And although it mentions heaven on the second line, it's only "real" - at best a neutral word, which, sandwiched between a hot hell and wrong sin, comes across as closer to a threat than a promise. 

That repetition of "still" suggests, to me, a reluctance to change, an avoidance of exploration. This is the only truth about God, Jesus is the "only way", and there is no possibility of discussion.

And I partly object to what it doesn't explicitly say. The words it uses suggest a wider context with a set of values which I do not hold. That means my brain tends to fill in the gaps with phrases like: 

  • hell is still hot (and you're going there if you don't believe what we believe)
  • sin is still wrong (especially if it's homosexuality, doubt, or women preaching)
  • the Bible is God's word (which must be interpreted in this particular way, with no deviation)

Of course I realise that the parts in brackets don't necessarily follow from the original statements. The problem is that they often do, so that it's difficult to say the first half without people hearing the second. In fact, I think these kind of statements are often used to say, "This is the type of Christian I am" without spelling out the bits in brackets.

Overall it gives an impression of a God who barely tolerates us, of a preacher who knows he is right and everyone outside his church is wrong, and a religion which leans heavily on the fear of hell.

What would I say instead?

The interesting thing when I started wondering what I would say instead, is that none of my statements were original. I'm not sure I could previously have named my major influences, but once I started thinking, they rapidly popped up.

My first thought, as an antidote to this meme, was "God is nice and he likes you", which is Adrian Plass, of course. His Sacred Diary probably qualifies as classic literature by now, but it's still worth reading.

That seemed a little simplistic, so I expanded a bit: "God is endlessly fascinating, and more generous than you expect". I have to credit Jem Bloomfield for the idea that God is quite interesting - or endlessly fascinating - an idea which I developed in my blog post about why faith is like science. The generosity comes from Rachel Held Evans, who wrote in Faith Unravelled, "Where I expected to find anger [in Isaiah 55], I found tenderness and affection. Where I expected to find a lecture, I found poetry."

Finally, I couldn't resist writing my own statement in the style of the meme.

I dropped the all-caps and went for: Let's be Christians who show that grace is still real, that justice will be done, that sins are forgiven, that God is generous, and that Jesus' way is the way to life.

It's hard to sum up a creed in eight lines; I still feel I could tweak it. There's definitely some Penelope Wilcock influence in there, and echoes of recent homegroup discussions about justice and judgement, partly based on these videos.

And I'm sure others could add some disparaging brackets to my version as well. But if I were preaching, this would be the version I'd preach. Preaching would be easier than living. Most of the disparaging brackets would highlight the fact that I live it extremely poorly.

And the hell thing?

Well, I bought a book!

May be an image of text

It was an interesting summary of the history and geography of hell by someone who doesn't believe in it at all. I'm not entirely sure what I believe about hell; I think the subject is going to need more exploration and another blog post. 

So there we go. Curiosity aroused, assumptions examined, and new discoveries about hell, of all things, to be made.

And "hell is still hot" is my new definition of a bad sermon.


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