In August 2006 Journalist Keith Morrison of Dateline NBC conducted an interview with retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong and he shared his thoughts on life after death and the concept of hellfire. The interview was conducted in a question and answer format.
Spong (Retired Priest): I don’t think Hell exists. I happen to believe in life after death, but I don’t think it’s got a thing to do with reward and punishment. Religion is always in the control business, and that’s something people don’t really understand. It’s in a guilt-producing control business. And if you have Heaven as a place where you’re rewarded for your goodness, and Hell is a place where you’re punished for your evil, then you sort of have control of the population. And so they create this fiery place which has quite literally scared the Hell out of a lot of people, throughout Christian history. And it’s part of a control tactic.
Morrison (Interviewer): But wait a minute. You’re saying that Hell the idea of a place under the earth or somewhere you’re tormented for eternity is actually an invention of the church?
Spong (Retired Priest): I think the church fired its furnaces hotter than anybody else. But I think there’s a sense in most religious life of reward and punishment in some form. The church doesn’t like for people to grow up, because you can’t control grown-ups. That’s why we talk about being born again. When you’re born again, you’re still a child. People don’t need to be born again. They need to grow up. They need to accept their responsibility for themselves and the world.
Morrison (Interviewer): What do you make of the theology which is pretty quite prominent these days in America, which is there is one guaranteed way not to go to hell; and that is to accept Jesus as your personal savior.
Spong (Retired Priest): Yeah, I grew up in that tradition. Every church I know claims that ‘we are the true church’ – that they have some ultimate authority, ‘We have the infallible Pope,’ ‘We have the Bible.’… The idea that the truth of God can be bound in any human system, by any human creed, by any human book, is almost beyond imagination for me.
I mean, God is not a Christian. God is not a Jew or a Muslim or a Hindi or Buddhist. All of those are human systems which human beings have created to try to help us walk into the mystery of God. I honor my tradition. I walk through my tradition. But I don’t think my tradition defines God. It only points me to God.
The debate about the existence of Hell, between various circles of faith and science is one that has been long-standing. At every point, one side tries to out-do the other with evidence and counter-evidence. But one fact which has remained is that there is no physical proof of hellfire – just a theological one.
Christian priests have been the ones at the forefront of defending the fact that there is a “hellfire”. So it comes as a shocker, to see a former priest, and a well-experienced one at that, say the things he said about hellfire not existing. This is one conversation that opens the doors for many other arguments between the Christian faithful and the awakened ones.
What is your opinion? What do you think of hellfire?
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