There was recently on television the story of a pastor who fervently preached hell and damnation to his congregation with all the gusto he could gather. Each Sunday – and any other chance he got – he used the threat of fire and brimstone to frighten his flock into religious submission.
At one point, while traveling out of the country with his wife, the man became critically ill due to an intestinal infection. He became so ill, in fact, he literally died in the hospital; for several moments he was clinically dead – no pulse, no heartbeat, no brainwaves, no measurable signs of life.
While the medics frantically attempted to revive him, this man had a near-death experience, during which he received a life review. Here, he saw himself giving one of his sermons, and as he did so he literally felt the fear and anxiety he caused his congregation by focusing upon fire and brimstone punishment rather God’s pure adoration and acceptance of His beloved creation – us!
After hospital medics brought this man back to life, he remembered his near-death experience with extreme shame. Instead of teaching those under his care about a loving and peaceful Creator, he had, in fact, taught of a hateful, vengeful God. Realizing his mistake, the man ask God’s forgiveness and decided to continue his work as a pastor. However, he did so by teaching about the mercy and wonder of a loving Creator.
This man is not the only person – or institution – to frighten people about how their souls will burn forever in a pit of fire and brimstone if they don’t follow a particular religion. And now, those scorching fires of hell come under close scrutiny in a riveting new book sure to fascinate open-minded Charleston readers. Razing Hell: Rethinking Everything You’ve Been Taught About God’s Wrath and Judgment (Westminster John Knox Press), written by Messiah College professor Sharon L. Baker, explores traditional views of hell and how they have damaged our understanding of a loving God.
Using questions her students have raised about hell, Baker considers the origins of the notion of sinners and non-believers cast into an eternity of unquenchable, punishing flames while undying worms eat their flesh – and candidly outlines the problems and inconsistencies these views present.
Arguing that God favors restoration over retribution, Baker ultimately refutes traditional notions of eternal damnation and proposes an alternate theology of hell. She uses the concept of fire in the Bible to develop alternate theological and biblical ways of thinking about hell that are more consistent with a God “who loves unconditionally and who abhors evil and violence enough to shatter its power, to extinguish its influence, and to terminate its existence for all eternity.”
Sharon L. Baker is Assistant Professor of Theology and Religion and Coordinator of the Peace and Conflict Studies Program at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. She has published numerous articles and speaks frequently throughout the United States on non-violent atonement and hell. A former stay-at-home mom, Baker received her PhD from Southern Methodist University in 2006. She is the mother of four grown boys. For more information, click here.
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