The idea that we can believe what we like is deeply rooted in our society as part of our fundamental freedom. I doubt many of us wish to return to the time when uttering a word of sedition against the monarch or the Established Church could land you in chokey. In that sense the answer to the question of whether it matters what we believe is that it does not. On the other hand, it clearly does matter – were it not so, politicians and advertisers would not spend fortunes trying to win our support. Belief has consequences.
One of the things we used to hear from the pulpit was that one of the consequences of sin was hell-fire. If I were ever tempted to write about the last fifty years, I’d call it ‘the decline of hell’. I recall being told many years ago by a priest in the Church of England that he thought the whole idea of such preaching was a bad thing. It was, he argued, better to stress God’s love than to dwell on hell. I agreed with him about God’s love, but didn’t about hell.
The emphasis on God’s love has often led, as it did with Origen, toward a form of universalism – that is the belief that all shall be saved. The discussion we had earlier this week about predestination was, in part, a debate about whether a merciful and loving God can make folk who are bound for hell. It was, in part, the old Calvinistic idea of predestination which made some reluctant to preach about hell-fire, but if we reject the notion that it is God who condemns us to hell in favour of the idea that it is we who do so by rejecting Him and His love, then it becomes incumbent upon us to mention hell occasionally.
There is a consequence to rejecting God and His love. Christ Himself tells us about hell and that those who reject Him will be consigned there. Of course, if we want to advance the argument (not often heard in mainstream Christian circles now) that only members of our own communion will go Heaven, then we are bound to expect a back-lash from the rest of Christianity. But what if we take the view that those who confess Christ are in with a chance? If we were to do that, we’d open a space to talk about what happens to those who reject Him.
Note that this is not about those who do not know or who have not had a chance of knowing Him. In the beginning and the end everything is, as Jess implied this morning, Grace. But I do wonder whether we have not gone far too far in the direction of stressing God’s love and not done enough to warn of the consequences? That is not to argue we should believe because we are frightened of hell, but it is to say that if we believe it exists, we are under an obligation to say something about it.