Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Salamanders, Hell and the perverse appeal of illogical thought

I’ve been thinking a lot about hell recently. It’s not a subject which normally preoccupies but a forthcoming sermon series which will include a reflection on the nature of life after death has prompted me to follow up in more details some issues which have been at the back of my mind for the last few years. I’ve been helped in this process by Rethinking Hell, an excellent resource published just this year which brings together a collection of various writings which make a compelling case for evangelical conditionalism.

One of the essays included in this book is written by Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, who reflects, amongst other things, on the writings of Augustine on this subject. One of the logical problems which needs to be overcome by those who insist on the notion of eternal punishment achieved by flames perpetually licking around the damned is the fact normally consumes that which it burns. I was intrigued just a few days ago to discover the workaround that Augustine proposed on this issue. He called upon the science of his day and informed his readers that certain creatures, and in particular the salamander, “can live in the fire, in burning without being consumed, in pain without dying.”

So there you have it… a picture of a loving God who not only sustains the lost for the purposes of ensuring their constant punishment, but constructs for the purpose a special new type of flame-retardant body, a smart new version of humanity with a little bit of salamander thrown into the mix. Am I the only person who finds this notion a little ‘left field,’ to be polite?

And yet the problem with Augustine’s proposal is that its weirdness is probably part of its appeal to some. It is so illogical, so outside the realms of natural and predictable patterns of thought that we are tempted to think of it as having a kind of dazzling brilliance. Some of us might be tempted to think, ‘Of course, wow, I’d never thought of that…’ and hence assume it must be right.

The flame-resistant Salamander theory reminded me of another theory on eternal life which was taught to me years ago. I remember sitting in my bible class as a teenager and being told about the dual tracks open to people for eternity. One of my concerns about heaven was how it would turn out to be such an enjoyable place for those present, given their awareness about all the souls suffering in hell. ‘It’s fine,’ I was told with considerable confidence. ‘In heaven, you’ll be so busy praising God that you’ll forget about anyone you ever knew who isn’t there.’ Problem solved, then – we can all party with a clear conscience. The answer was offered with such supreme self-belief that it didn’t seem right to challenge it, but even then I remember having my doubts. I wondered about the authority with which this theory was pronounced, where this ‘insider information’ came from and I found it hard to feel completely at peace about the notion of what seemed to me like a heartless heaven, a group of people having a great time but with a somewhat callous disregard to those who hadn’t made it to the celebration.

Of course, faith does sometimes require us to lay aside doubts and believe in the possibility of miracles. The defining event in which we place our trust is the resurrection of one who had been in the grave for three days.

But, it seems to me, there’s a difference between belief in miracles and belief in that which requires us to put all of our critical faculties on hold. We all know the maxim about a lie being half way round the world before truth has got its boots on. How many other misapprehensions are sustained because of the apparent confidence of someone who claimed a special kind of higher knowledge and the reluctance of others to ask questions for fear that their sensible logic would be talked down and labelled as doubt?

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