Hell, no…

Watching the third episode of the excellent “Wolf Hall” last night, (caution – spoilers below) I was struck by the statement of James Bainham, a barrister and enthusiastic reformer, while cataloging doctrines with which he did not agree, that he found no scriptural justification for the concept of purgatory.

I use “enthusiastic” there with a double meaning: the usual one, and the uncomplimentary meaning understood by Wesley when he described people as “enthusiasts” – too much emotion, too much displayed, and not enough calm reason. Bainham is seen in the episode interrupting a reading of scripture in Latin at as church service by quoting the same text in English from his (banned at the time) copy of Tyndall’s translation. He ends up in jail for the second time in the episode, and is then burned alive.

Ironically, a few years later Thomas Cranmer, seen at this point as supporting Bainham’s arrest, was himself imprisoned and eventually burned for his beliefs, which by then included all those avowed by Bainham. The regime had changed, and Henry VIII’s elder daughter Mary was imprisoning and burning protestants as her father’s and brother’s church had done to Catholics.

I asked myself if I would have had the courage or foolhardiness to do as Bainham did. I not only don’t believe in Purgatory as not being supported by scripture, but I don’t believe in Hell as conventionally portrayed on exactly the same basis. To explain why would take a blog post of its own, but suffice it to say that whatever awaits us after death, everlasting torment is not a possibility I contemplate as being possible.

I do, however, attend a church which is theologically conservative, and I don’t any more keep my mouth firmly sealed about what my views on this and a number of other doctrines on which I’m not exactly orthodox. However, I’m not noisy about it, and certainly wouldn’t interrupt a service. Nonetheless, I keep anticipating a request to go elsewhere, which is as far as I’d expect this church ever to go – a previous church did invite me to leave when under intense pressure I did actually share my views on a point of doctrine.

Then, in one of those coincidences which part of my subconscious wants to tell me is divine action, a link appeared on my facebook feed describing the case of Rev. Carlton Pearson. A pentecostal minister, he found that his study of the Bible came to the same conclusion as mine, that there is no Hell-as-eternal-torment and that everyone, irrespective of beliefs, is saved. (I might mention here that I have some sympathy with the ideas of Jerry Walls as described by Richard Beck, who contemplates a purgatory-like state after death – Richard’s whole series on universal salvation is well worth a read). Rev. Pearson was roundly condemned by the pentecostal and evangelical authorities and lost over 90% of his then large congregation overnight. 500 years ago, I’ve no doubt he’d have been burned too. Of course, they don’t do that these days. Not, at any event, in the first world.

He did, however, lose a lot – and I was heartened to learn that he hadn’t admitted error and returned to the fold, had persevered, and as at the time of that broadcast had a growing congregation again. I have less to lose – I would merely lose some friends and the opportunity to be of service. That, I think, would not be sufficient to make me recant – as Cranmer initially did, though he famously withdrew his recantation on learning that he was not going to be pardoned anyhow.

No, I think I can do no other than state that the concept of a God who would ordain and maintain a place of eternal agony into which you could fall merely for having the wrong intellectual concept is not one which resembles in the slightest the God whom I experience. I think it’s a wrong, damaging and anti-scriptural concept.

But of course, no-one is going to be condemned to flames in this world or the next for thinking otherwise…

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