Friday 29 April 2016

No Hell Below Us?

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today...

This song written by John Lennon was originally released as an LP by the same name (Imagine) and according to the Guinness World Record British Hits Single Book it's the Second Best Single of all time and it's also been sung and recorded by dozens of other artists like, Joan Baez, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross and Elton John. I can hear you thinking if 'Imagine' was the second best British single of all time, what was the first? (Can you guess?). It was Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen. Anyway, the song Imagine was apparently inspired by one of Yoko Ono's poems in which the reader is invited to "Imagine the clouds dripping, dig a hole in your garden to put them in." The other inspiration for the song came from a Christian prayer book. John Lennon said that, "The concept of positive prayer ... If you can imagine a world at peace, with no denominations of religion—not without religion but without this my God-is-bigger-than-your-God thing—then it can be true . . ."

This song has inspired millions of listeners, whilst others will have dismissed the song as being hopelessly utopian, a dreamer's song as in the lyrics, 'you  may say that I'm a dreamer but I'm not the only one'. It is of course a gentle subversive song because it appears to turn the values of the world upside down, a world with only people, a world without all that nationalistic flag waving, a world without war, a world of peace and a world without possessions, perhaps a world of common ownership without the excesses of power and wealth. The song sounds like it could have almost come from the lips of Jesus and maybe it could have. This morning / afternoon I would like to discuss the idea of heaven and hell and the role of religion. These are concepts of course that John Lennon deals with in his song and they are concepts which Jesus appears to address in his teachings, and in his parables. I think that the simplistic response we often hear in regard to the presence of religion in the world is that religion is the cause of all wars. There is also  this idea of heaven and hell and I refer particularly to the idea of hell, and that the supposed existence of hell, and suffering in eternity is a threat, a  tool of fear, a tool of control used by the church.

To be clear, what I am preaching on today will come down to this question - does hell exist? And I'm going to be very unambiguous  on this question, and I'm going to tell you in my usual diplomatic way that yes, hell does exist! John Lennon's song invites us to imagine that there is no heaven or hell and 'only people living for today' In this case I might say 'define your terms John', because the phrase  'only people living for today' is ambiguous because it can seem to have nihilistic and dismissive overtones but I'm sure it wasn't meant like that. Alternatively, it can mean that 'only people living for today' is that we should live our lives in the present moment, live our lives in the now which in a sense is to live in a grounded realistic way in which we are in touch with the depths of our own being and there is of  course a spiritual dimension to this, for in this way of being we may gain a sense of  peace and unity in our own lives and the world in  which we are part of.

Recently I became embroiled in a little debate concerning this same question, of hell or if you like, of No hell below us - Above us only sky. It happened that I saw a post on a Methodist Facebook page and this page showed a video clip of  John Shelby Spong who is a retired American bishop of the Episcopal Church and a renowned liberal Christian. This film clip seemed to have been posted, to promote him and to support what he was saying. But I was taken aback a little to hear this retired bishop basically claim that hell is an invention of the Church that they use to induce feelings of guilt in order to control peoples behaviour, he said that religion is in the guilt producing control business. He went on to say that, "If you have heaven as a place where you are rewarded for your goodness and hell is a place where you are rewarded for your evil then you have control of the population and so they create this fiery place which has literally scared the hell out of a lot of people throughout Christian history".

I mean, it's not that I don't believe that the threat of eternal suffering in the afterlife, in hell, has been used by the church as a form of control, of course it has but so have a lot of other church doctrines too, including of course the doctrine, the dogma of the Trinity. No, why I was taken aback was the assertion that somehow, that the concept of hell was actually created by the church. But the fact remains, as we have already heard (this morning), that  Jesus himself in the Gospel of Matthew, referred to eternal punishment in his Parable of the Final Judgement. And no doubt you will recall the story of Dives and Lazarus we heard a couple of weeks ago, in another parable from the Gospel of Luke, where Jesus tells how Dives suffers torment in the afterlife as a punishment for his thoughtless selfishness. Well, in the course of this short debate I was told that  all this is wrong and that hell doesn't really exist in the Bible, that the translation is all wrong and its just the rotten power hungry church that just wants to frighten and control people by fear.

When I was a kid, I mean about 10 years old, I was given a leaflet by a certain Christian who was handing them out on the street. I have to tell you that when I read this leaflet it literally scared the hell out of me too; at the time. This leaflet described in graphic detail the horrors and the torment that would be waiting for me should I continue to live a sinful life. It scared me for a time and then the fear wore off. One day I had this leaflet with me and I clearly remember standing at a market stall with my mum in Ashton. I'll tell you what I did with it, I folded it up nice and neatly and I dropped it into a woman's shopping bag when she wasn't looking and then secretly hoped she'd  find it and read it when she got home and that it would scare her as much as it scared me. We are often taught fear as children, strangers that shouldn't be trusted, canals with whirl pools that can drag you down to the bottom, another one at the time was the unpredictable behaviour of Alsatian dogs that can kill a grown man and then when I was 14 I read Bram Stoker's Dracula that definitely gave me a few sleepless nights! And it's not as if we need to go to church or read the Bible to be given scare stories, you only need to see the on line media, or Facebook or pick up a copy of  the Manchester Evening News to read frightening stories, scare stories of 'internet trolls' and 'stalkers' and drug crazed maniacs, they're all out there waiting to get you. I mean why pick on the Church as if its been the only organisation responsible for spreading stories to frighten people?

And so I return to something I said earlier and its quite simply this and it may be unfashionable in such enlightened times to say this but hell does exist. Of course its not some underground Hades that is all fire and sulphur but it nevertheless exists and I think we can understand the prevalence of hell when we really consider the mission of Jesus because the whole point of Jesus' ministry was to proclaim the Kingdom of God and to point to it. Jesus who came into a world of darkness to bring to bring light, to bring enlightenment, to bring the power of truth. Howsoever, our Bibles may be translated his message and teachings shine through and can be received. And in the teachings of Jesus, we don't find complicated theological discourse in fact rather the opposite. His lessons are short and direct and simple, so on the question of the Kingdom of God, you might say the Kingdom of Heaven, he tells us directly, he tells us in straight forward terms that the Kingdom of God is not out there, rather its within. Not only that - we can glimpse it right here and now. As he said, "the Kingdom of God is at hand"  That being the case, Hell too is in the same place. We have a choice between good and bad, love and hate, or heaven and hell. My friends, we make our own heaven and our own hell. And talking about 'friends ' the, simple truth is that in making that choice for heaven or hell we have another choice, we can decide to be our own best friend or our own worst enemy which is it to be? In the times of our  greatest difficulties we could just ask ourselves one simple question and that is, "What would a best friend say to me right now?"

I know it seems easy to say these things, they sound like platitudes, clich├ęs that easily roll off  the tongue but Christianity didn't become a great religion because the teachings of Christ were, superficial, platitudinous, or  wrong. No! Christianity became a great religion because the teachings of Christ were and are absolutely right and perfect and are so even for our modern times. I'll give you an example. Currently one of the best books concerning personal well being, which by the way includes a free CD of guided meditations, is Mindfulness for Health by Vidyamala Burch and Danny Pennman. This won the British Medical Association's First Prize in 2014 for popular medicine so be in no doubt this is cutting edge stuff. In his foreword to this publication Mark Williams says, "But Vidyamala and Danny don't just give a clear and up to date scientific explanation of how this happens; they also provide a step-by step guide to help you through your suffering. The meditations and the essential message of this book is that we as a species, as a people have grown up and evolved to see threats and to feel fear and other negative stimuli, as a form of self protection for our own self survival.  But this, in effect, our own negativity bias is the fundamental cause of our suffering. Our task in life is to work to rebalance this bias and the rebalancing through the meditations  can according to Burch and Pennman help us to 'see more clearly, act more effectively and be less distracted by day to day life. It will also create a sense of open hearted calm; the warm  and tingling love of life that you probably experienced when you were far younger.'

The accusation against the Church is that Jesus said: "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." And that somehow this is a way for the Church to control people by making them child like and naive. It's been argued that people should ignore these words of Jesus and grow up instead. But the problem is that we have all grown up in the ways of the world. It's not growing up that is the problem but perhaps a need to wake up to the suffering in the world, the personal suffering that we can create for ourselves. Hell of course, does exist. Some one once asked, "If you can't be happy in this life, how can you expect to be happy in the next? And to some extent, you know, I think its a fair point. In the afterlife, I'd hate to become a miserable earth bound spirit wandering around scaring people, moaning and clanking chains! Let our faith and the teachings of Christ be a message of joy and personal liberation. Let me close with this well known prayer from an unknown author:

Give us the spirit of the child.
Give us the child who lives within – the child who trusts, the child who imagines, the child who sings, the child who receives without reservation, the child who gives without judgement.
Give us a child’s eyes, that we may receive the beauty and freshness of this day like a sunrise. Give us a child’s ears, that we may hear the music of mythical times.
Give us a child’s heart, that we may be filled with wonder and delight.
Give us a child’s faith, that we may be cured of our cynicism.
Give us the spirit of the child, who is not afraid to need, who is not afraid to love. Amen