Saturday while engaged in domestic chores, I turned on the History Channel. The just-beginning program was more-or-less the history of Hell.
Hell, of course, has a very long history, predating Christianity and since, like God and Heaven, Hell is presumably not open to visit until after you’re dead and go there, it is susceptible to human interpretation, misuse and abuse. Hell has lots of authoritative interpreters…and they disagree.
I’m Catholic – in fact, just returned from Sunday Mass. The history of Hell is a long one with me, including intermediate places like Purgatory and Limbo, and procedural things like Mortal and Venial sins and Confession). I don’t believe or disbelieve hell. Through an older adults view, I take the claims with a grain of salt, especially when some other human is expressing to me, with certainty, something that is not at all certain.
Nonetheless, the History Channel program was interesting, appearing to emphasize various images of Hell, including the most dramatic: that of Dante Alighieri’s Hades.
One thing is sure: if you believe in Hell, you don’t want to go there!
But fear of the hereafter is and has always been an exploitable fear: a way to keep people in line. We surely learned it when we were growing up in small town Catholic America.
On the TV program, quite considerable time was spent with a young Baptist preacher with a small congregation somewhere. There was no uncertainty in this preachers mind: he could cite chapter and verse. Being Baptist, there is a certain way out of the pit, regardless of your misdeeds.
I’m not here to argue theology.
As I watched I began to think back to a very powerful radio program I had chanced upon on National Public Radio a few years ago. I was somewhere between here and there in my car, and the radio happened to be on when I heard the program. I’d cite ‘chapter and verse’ but I can’t remember the program or the person interviewed, except that it was on a Saturday afternoon.
The person being interviewed that day was a former very high profile evangelical with a mega church in Oklahoma or Texas. He was a powerful orator, and he had built a very large congregation based on his own particular personality and “hellfire and damnation” message. He could paint a vivid picture of the pit of Hell. He was a Bishop in his denomination. As I recall, he was African-American, and his flock was basically but not entirely white.
They were “saved”, and thus immune from the bad place.
The ministers downfall began one day when he was at home watching television, and the image was of the evacuation of refugees from Rwanda after the genocide in 1994.
The image was apparently pretty vivid, of starving people, particularly young children.
As he watched, he was transformed: rather than Hell being someplace down there it was, he came to feel, a condition here on earth – “hell on earth” comes to mind. Not only that, it was a condition which we humans had considerable control over.
The next Sunday, he preached as usual, with power, good humor and all the rest. But he revised his hellfire and damnation story, making all of his flock cause in the matter of heaven and hell.
It stunned the flock in the pews.
The impact was immediate. Attendance fell off, and fell off some more.
His was not the message they had come to hear, and financially support.
He left his church, and his reputation was ruined in his entire circle.
I wonder, today, not about Hell as described in that program on the History Channel, but about this Minister: where he is, what he’s doing. Whether he repented from his revisionist view of hell, or stuck with it.
He was talented, and I’m sure he survived and probably thrived. But I don’t know that.
Merry Christmas to all.