Monday, March 3, 2014

What Pope Francis (Should Have) Said

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.”
Mark 9:42-4

Late on Saturday night, as I was going over my sermon for Sunday.

Okay. I should be honest. It wasn’t really late. It was barely 9 o’clock. But it was late for me, and “late on Saturday night” seems like the time I should have been going over my sermon. And the idea that it was late would make what happened next seem less stupid.

Yesterday was “Transfiguration Sunday,” and I was thinking about “mountain top experiences.” I was thinking about the real “mountain top” behind the house where I grew up in Sagamore. It was really just a hill, but we called it “Mount Tom,” and from the top we could look out across the Scusset marshes to Cape Cod Bay. It was spectacular. I was also remembering a wonderful memorial service that morning, which was wonderful celebration of a life well lived. And I was looking forward to what I anticipated would be some very creative and inspiring themes that our worship team had been working on for Lent.

And then I looked at Facebook, and I saw this wonderful quotation from Pope Francis:

“Through humility, soul searching, and prayerful contemplation we have gained a new understanding of certain dogmas. The church no longer believes in a literal hell where people suffer. This doctrine is incompatible with the infinite love of God. God is not a judge but a friend and a lover of humanity. God seeks not to condemn but only to embrace. Like the fable of Adam and Eve, we see hell as a Literary device. Hell is merely a metaphor for the isolated soul, which like all souls ultimately will be united in love with God.”

It made me happy. Giddy, even.

Not exactly groundbreaking theology. When I was in seminary I did not know a single student or professor who would not have endorsed the general meaning of that statement. No serious theologian or biblical scholar would have argued for the notion of “a literal hell where people suffer.” Most mainline Christian thinkers, then and now, are Christian universalists. They believe that we come from God and we go to God.

But for the Pope to say it clearly and directly was like a breath of fresh air.

And yesterday morning, at the last minute, I decided to include it in my sermon. And it went very well. Until a friend came up to me after the late service and said that he had seen the quotation and looked for the source and discovered that it was a hoax. The Pope never said it.

Normally, I am deeply skeptical of almost everything I see on the Internet. And most of the time I can smell a hoax before I finish reading it. But in this case I was completely gullible and it did not occur to me that I should verify the source before using it in a sermon.

I just wanted to believe it. And for what it’s worth, the Pope SHOULD have said it.

Rob Bell, once proudly claimed by Evangelical Christians as a rising star, stirred fierce opposition among that group when he published a book called, “Love Wins.” In it, he shared his belief that no one is consigned to eternal torment. For many Christians, apparently, the only thing more precious than the blessed assurance that they are saved is the comfort they get from believing that others are damned.

Bell was accused of the heretical teaching that hell is not a real place. Actually, what he said in the book is that in the time of Jesus, hell was a very specific place. The Greek word most often translated as hell is “Gehenna.” In biblical times, that was the name of a ravine outside of Jerusalem. Originally the site of pagan child sacrifice, in Jesus’ time it was a garbage dump. In Gehenna, the fires literally never went out. And wild dogs gnashed their teeth as they went through the garbage. There were some actions, said Jesus, for which one deserved to be treated like garbage.

In other words, Jesus used “hell” as a literary device, just like Pope Francis “said” in the bogus quotation. Lest anyone think that is a groundbreaking insight, we can also find it in William Barclay’s New Testament commentary, published in 1954.

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