The other night, as is my wont, I imagined myself dying, and I wondered as I came near the end whether I would suddenly fear that I might be going to hell. Even if it doesn’t happen to me, there must be huge numbers of people in the world facing that prospect as they die.
Almost two in three Americans believe in hell, accord to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Amusingly to me, three quarters believe in heaven. Believing in heaven but not hell seems like a great option. We could probably found a whole religion around that.Kurt Selles, director of the Global Center at Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School, has found in his workshops for pastors that nobody is preaching on hell anymore. “I think it’s something people want to avoid,” he said. “I understand why. It’s a difficult topic.” That’s marvelous un-American understatement.
But let’s suppose there is a hell. Will I end up there? This is clearly a “difficult” question.
I imagined myself all dressed up for the day of judgement, being on my best behaviour. But what, I the wondered, happens on the day of judgement and what exactly are the criteria for admission to heaven or hell?
Back to Wikipedia. The best description is in Revelation 20:12-15, the King James version, of course. I may not be religious, but I adore the poetry of the King James Bible.
“And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.
And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.
And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.
And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.”
Will my name be written in the book of life? And if I am to be judged by my works, then this blog will be included. So I must be respectful.
Revelations is not clear on the criteria for admission to hell, but Mathew is more specific:
“When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and He will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at His right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.
Then He will say to those at His left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me….Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me….And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. (Matthew 25:31-36, 40-43, 45-46 NRSV)”
This looks like good news for all those working in the NHS. After the hell of the NHS on earth there will be a clear place in heaven. I doubt that my two year’s doctoring will qualify me. I have given people food and drink, but most of them had consumed more calories and drunk more alcohol was good for them. I have eaten myself to portliness, while hundreds of millions in the world have hungered. I’m sceptical that my covenant to Oxfam will be enough to keep me from the flames. I’ve not done much clothing of the naked (and some of what I have done in that line was in the context of what seems to count elsewhere in the Bible as sin) or visiting of prisoners, although I have written a book on prison health care.
Hell and the day of judgement are not of course the sole property of Christians and Wikipedia summarises the Muslim position, which is nicely specific: “The Qur’an states that some sins can condemn someone to hell. These include lying, dishonesty, corruption, ignoring God or God’s revelations, denying the resurrection, refusing to feed the poor, indulging in opulence and ostentation, and oppressing or economically exploiting others.”
If it’s one strike and out, then it looks again like I’m headed for hell. I have ignored God’s revelations—unless being exultant on the tops of the South Downs the other day counts—and I’ve undoubtedly indulged in ostentation: you need only to see pictures of me in my Harlequin suit that I had as a student. And surely I’m economically exploiting others through my ISA account or whatever it’s called now.
Sadly it looks like hell for me. So it’s just as well that I don’t believe in it—but then that in itself is grounds for admission. One day I’ll find out—but will not be able to report back.