Every once in a while when I served as a parish pastor, I would joke with colleagues or parishioners that stewardship would be a lot easier had it not been for Martin Luther. When they gave me a slightly confused look, I would say that I just thought it would be easier to raise money if I could threaten my people with hell, or at least with purgatory, rather than assure them they were justified by faith rather than their good works.
Just to be clear, it really was a joke in that I am regularly and incredibly grateful for the Lutheran witness to God's grace and the promise that we are, indeed, justified by grace through faith rather than through our own accomplishments. But....
But it sure would seem easier if we had this massive threat to hold over people. If you don't give a certain amount or do a certain amount your eternal salvation is in doubt. Don't you think that would fill the coffers the way it did, well, in the middle ages?
All of which brings me to hell. (Not a totally clear transition? Stay tuned.)
I've been reading through Matthew's Gospel as part of my Daily Bread devotions and one of the things I've noticed is that Matthew seems more interested than his compatriots in punishment in general and hell in particular. Actually, it's hard to say it's "hell" he's focusing on, as it's usually referred to as "the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." (Which sounds close enough to me.) But what has struck me is that the overwhelming number of times this reference is made, it's at the end of parables. Not only that, but as you read the rest of the New Testament there are very few references to hell (outside similar parables) and in the Old Testament next to nothing.
And yet in the popular religious culture, of course, the threat of going to hell is alive and well as a motivator to church attendance and better giving and as a deterrent to all manner of sins (as defined by the community and its preacher, of course).
Which brings me to my question: does the mainline church miss hell?
For the last few decades at least, you see, "hell" has stopped being a particularly lively or compelling topic in mainline preaching and conversation. Given it's relatively scant place in Scripture, that may be a far more faithful treatment of the topic than many on the far right of the religious spectrum would guess. But while many of us have a harder and harder time imagining the God we know in Jesus consigning someone to a place of eternal torment and therefore applaud this development, I have wondered from time to time if we've figured out exactly what is a good substitute for hell.
What, that is, is the motivation for our gathering, our giving, our serving and volunteering? At least things were pretty clear when you had heaven as the carrot and hellfire as the stick. But what now? Even heaven seems increasingly difficult to talk about, as we perhaps too narrowly defined it as, well, the opposite of hell. So if we don't have the mother-of-all reward-and-punishment schemes to fall back on, have we figured out exactly what we're offering people. Community? Perhaps, though a little vague. Justice, certainly, though harder to attain (especially, some might argue, absent the threat of hell). Abundant life? This one appeals greatly to me but has been at times co-opted by the prosperity-gospel folks on the one side and Madison Avenue on the other.
I think if the mainline traditions are going to have a future, we need to be far clearer about why we gather and what we imagine participation in our communities yields. I'm not advocating for a return to hell, mind you, just recognizing that we need to recognize that in a world of many faiths, many narratives, and many, many ways to make sense of our lives, we need to get straight what we think is the heart of the Christian faith and offer that in as winsome and compelling a way as possible. I don't miss hell, but I'm not sure we've quite figured out what to do without. And that needs to change.
As always, I'd be interested in your thoughts.