We have seen controversy recently here at AATW with Jess’ and Chalcedon’s posts on Julian of Norwich. I think it is worth reminding ourselves that this medieval society was frequently reminded of the Last Judgment through daily prayers, liturgy, and images. Many a church featured a so-called “Judgment Portal”, which no doubt created anxiety in the minds of large numbers of people. Martin Luther, who lived in the transition from the Medieval to the Early Modern periods, struggled to find peace and love, perhaps exacerbated by what we would now call neurosis.
Figures like Julian of Norwich, who had visions and intense personal piety, seem to have risen up to proclaim the love of God to a society that struggled to feel and accept it. Although in many respects removed from the Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Roman cultures that created their respective portions of the bible, medieval people could still in many ways relate to its narratives. This was an age that witnessed incredible brutality, abuse of power, refusal of justice, and religious hypocrisy and perversion. The man who would become Richard III had a taste of this during his time in the North in his younger years. A man was brutally killed and mutilated – yes mutilated – by highwaymen who managed to evade justice because they were protected by a powerful local lord. Richard of York tried to obtain justice for the man’s widow – but to no avail. The courts of equity were born in the medieval period as a consequence of the Crusades and, as their name suggests, they were created because the courts of law were no longer considered fair.
So we can understand the visionary figures who emphasised the love of God and devotion to Mother Mary in a world that, if it thought God was anything like the local lords and justices, feared the Last Judgment. They were taught about the eternal torment of Hell, and although Purgatory would eventually lead to Paradise, it too was feared. Prayers were said and pennies paid to hasten release of the dead from Purgatory. Nor could people openly question these doctrines, for fear of being excommunicated, tortured, and executed.
Underneath was a creeping anxiety that sometimes broke out, but only really emerged on a large scale during the Reformation, concerning a division between God and His Visible Church. On the one hand was personal piety and devotion to the Church caused many to feel that disobedience to the Church was disobedience to God, since the Church was Christ’s Body on earth. Those who knew the Scriptures would reinforce this with episodes such as David’s multiple refusals to kill Saul who, though corrupt and wicked by that point, was still the Lord’s Anointed in David’s eyes. On the other hand, when faced with abuses and cruelty, an inate sense of justice, the conscience, cried out for justice.
Though we live in different times, forms of these problems and questions do persist. Even stripping away our societal and personal concerns, we are faced with grim images of the afterlife of the damned in Scripture. These do not sit well with us for a few reasons.
- Our natural pride and instinct for self-preservation clouds our judgment. We consider that, in general, people do not commit murder or other very grave sins (and we also lie to ourselves about the gravity of sin), and so we tell ourselves that eternal torment in hell is disproportionate.
- The images of hell in Scripture frequently involve fire. Fire is one of the most painful forms of execution and torture known to man. Beheading is at least swift and brings an end. A fiery hell is not. It is everlasting and more painful than anything else. This causes fear and makes it hard to love God when contemplated frequently because in our sinful state, we tell ourselves that God is doing this to people. In that thinking, God is painted as a torturer. While our theology tells us that we put ourselves in hell and it is not God who does so, it takes discipline and a spiritual journey to accept that message and hold it firmly. Discipline and rigorous intellect do not sit well in our zeitgeist of emotionalism.
- The Church has been given over to emotionalism in recent years, which feeds our mental instability and undermines a consistent approach to faith and Scripture. All denominations have been affected by this. They have all witnessed, to greater and lesser extents, the conversion of church from a scene of worship and focus on God into self-help seminars and opportunities for people to make themselves great. This takes various forms, but one of the more prominent ones has been people proclaiming themselves as prophets and flouting authority.
- The images of hell are very vivid and often in the context of apocalyptic prophecy. There is often, therefore, a question as to the degree to which hyperbole and imagery are used to make a point. In our modern, post-Enlightenment world, it is common to dismiss metaphysical pronouncements of Scripture as so heavily conditioned by ancient mindsets that they are not useful in our context. This is fallacious, but nevertheless more common than we might care to admit. It is often strengthened by foolishness exhibited by sometimes well-meaning (sometimes not-so-well-meaning) fundamentalists in their readings of Genesis and other passages of Scripture. When Scripture or certain forms of its interpretation are made to look foolish, it becomes easier to start emptying Christianity of much of its content, such that it becomes a bland form of monotheism without anything of substance to say.
How are we to respond to all this? As I have stated before, Scripture teaches eternal conscious torment of the damned in hell. I do not see anyway around that. It would be one thing if we had only the ambiguous passages that can be interpreted in an anhiliationist manner – but the authors of Scripture did not leave that option open to us. Certain passages also imply that there definitely will be people cast into the Lake of Fire (at the very least the Beast and False Prophet of Revelation).
We have to accept that and find some way of living with that knowledge. Jock is right about the dangers of neurosis and various practices that have crept into the Church (he mentions Protestant churches generally, but they are also true of Catholicism, which has adopted many practices found in Protestant and Pentacostal churches). While he and I don’t agree on all things, I’m very much with him on this. To the extent necessary, therefore, we need to find a mental discipline and outward focus that allows us to trust God and devote ourselves to the mission in whatever form that may take, be it preaching the Gospel, serving others, or simply praying that God will save people and make right the wrongs of this world.
We also need to shun things that are harmful and beware of false prophets and false teachers within the Church. I am glad that these have been exposed in recent months (particularly those who prophesied that President Trump would win a second term). Scripture tells us not to fear false prophets and the like. That is something we need to take more to heart because these conmen do just that – cause people to fear by playing on the anxiety I described earlier above. “Disbelieve me, and you’re disbelieving God.” If the Scriptural approach over the experiential and emotional one has been criticised as Pharisaical, we can at least commend it for providing a better hedge against manipulation and abuse than the latter.