Heaven and hell - it's now or never

The joyous Christian celebration of Easter this year was accompanied by a rather mixed press for its message and for the contribution of church leaders.

The joyous Christian celebration of Easter this year was accompanied by a rather mixed press for its message and for the contribution of church leaders. Somerfield's poor publicity officer had three stabs at the meaning of Easter, first saying that its range of eggs marked Christ's birthday, then corrected it to Christ's rebirth, before finally settling on something to do with his death and resurrection.

The Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, fulsomely praised President Ahmadinejad's release of the naval hostages, commending Iran's 'moral and spiritual tradition' and the President's references to the Prophet's birthday and the passing-over of Christ, but forgetting the injustice of their capture and the fear and isolation they were subjected to before the appalling stage-managed videos.

Meanwhile Rowan Williams' cerebral sermon illustrating the Easter theme with reference to political reconciliation in the Solomon Islands, was compared unfavourably with John Sentamu's start to his message with “Today is a day for noisy celebrations” and then going out to baptise 20 adults in a tank in the streets of York. It was suggested that the two archbishops might be better to swap mitres.

But what really intrigued me was the speech of Pope Benedict, which hit all the headlines just before Easter, stirring up those forgotten fires of Hell: it 'really exists and is eternal', he said, 'even if nobody talks about it much any more'. No doubt he saw himself wielding the stick of the consequences of sin, before offering the carrot of resurrection and new life.

He is right, of course, that Hell is no longer fashionable, certainly not as a place or state to be feared. Mark Twain praised Heaven for its climate, but recommended Hell for the company, while Machiavelli suspected that Heaven would be full of beggars, monks, hermits and apostles, whereas Hell would be the place to enjoy the raffish company of 'popes, kings, and princes'. No longer is a lurid Hell a major feature of art and literature, like it was; no longer are heaven and hell graphically depicted on the west wall to frighten us every time we leave church, as in Byzantine times.

This is partly because these days our sense of personal sin has declined, but also surely because the world wars and totalitarianisms of the 20th century created a hell on earth as bad as anything we can imagine in the afterlife. And the recent Wilberforce anniversary has graphically and uncomfortably reminded us of the similar hell endured by slaves in the centuries before that, while the current horrors of Iraq and Darfur fill our TV screens and newspapers every day.

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Undeterred by the vivid images of Hell in Dante's 'Inferno', Sir Thomas Browne, Norwich's own 17th century Christian thinker, surely got I right when he wrote: “I thank God…I was never afraid of Hell, nor ever grew pale at the description of that place. I have so fixed my contemplations on Heaven, that I have almost forgot the idea of Hell, and am afraid rather to lose the joys of the one, than endure the misery of the other: to be deprived of them is a perfect hell, and needs, methinks, no addition to complete our afflictions”.

The Pope too distances himself from medieval images of hell pointing out that the new Catholic catechism holds that hell is a “state of eternal separation from God”, to be understood symbolically rather than physically. This is also the Church of England's position as set out in its doctrine report, The Mystery of Salvation (1996), which says that hell is the “final and irrevocable choosing of that which is opposed to God so completely and so absolutely that the only end is total non-being”.

Christians do believe that humans still face a day of judgement, when we shall be held accountable for the actions and decisions taken during our lives, and that there remains a final possibility of permanent separation from God. But if there is a hell in the final sense, I do not believe that God condemns anyone to it. If anyone is lost it will be in spite of all God's loving and patient searching and seeking (remember the parable of the lost sheep). This is the meaning and purpose of Christ's birth, death and resurrection. If there is a final rejection, it will be our rejection of God, not his of us.

To belong to God and to reciprocate his love is heaven, to reject God and pursue selfishness, and not to repent, is hell, and each brings its reward, beginning in the here and now.

For me the important thing is this that we all have our chance now to respond to the love of God, and we must take it. Whether or not anyone will be finally committed to the eternal separation of Hell, it would be the height of rashness for us to assume that we shall have a second chance after this life: certainly nothing in the Bible ever suggests that. For us it is now or never.

All church leaders (and supermarket press officers) stick their necks out when they make public statements, and not all get it right: at least they make us think. But it was Pope Benedict this Easter who spoke what we need to hear. God has given us free will to choose “whether spontaneously to accept salvation…the Christian faith is not imposed on anyone, it is a gift, an offer to mankind”.