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Hell, and how to escape it

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This is third of a series of sermons by the Rev Peter Mullen, requested by the editor of The Conservative Woman, which we will be publishing through the Advent and Christmas-Epiphany season. You can read the first here and the second here

AFTER Death and Judgement, we peer into Hell. Most people today regard this subject as rather quaint. Many are personally offended by the concept of Hell – primitive, medieval and superstitious as it is. And now that no one accepts the Ten Commandments, what might you possibly be sent to Hell for? Hate crimes, putting your waste in the wrong recycling bin, global warming denial, criticising Bob Dylan and John Lennon. And what used to be regarded as mortal sins are now only lifestyle choices.

Let’s leave theology and consider simple logic. If we cannot speak of sins any longer, neither can we speak of virtues. If no one is ever to blame for anything, then praise is impossible too. The very idea of success must include the idea of failure. Where there is no possibility of punishment, the idea of rewards is meaningless. Unless, of course, you speak for the Department for Education which says that all shall run and all shall win prizes; in these Covid days prizes are awarded even to non-runners.

But God said, through his prophet Moses, See, I have set before thee this day life and good, death and evil, therefore choose good that thou mayest live. Morality is not just a matter of opinion: there are very definite acts which are good and others which are evil. So next time you come across a coterie of moral relativists, spiritualised vegetarians and wafflers about human beings’ essential goodness, call to mind G K Chesterton:

A sort of Theosophist said to me, ‘Good and evil, truth and falsehood, folly and wisdom are only aspects of the same upward movement of the universe.’ Even at that stage it occurred to me to ask, ‘Supposing there is no difference between good and bad, or between false and true, what is the difference between up and down?’

Or again, in anticipation of our own age of non-judgementalism and political correctness, he said:

A whole generation has been taught to talk nonsense at the top of its voice about having ‘a right to life’ and ‘a right to experience’ and ‘a right to happiness’. The lucid thinkers who talk like this generally wind up their assertion of all these extraordinary rights by saying that there is no such thing as right and wrong.

There are those around today – materialists and many biologists – who don’t just deny the reality of good and evil: they deny that we have the free will to choose even if there were such things. They say all our actions are determined by our genetic makeup and by the world of material causation. This is instantly disproved by looking at the way we actually live our lives. Even the most dogmatic materialist believes that he is exercising a genuine choice when he decides to go to the pictures rather than the pub. Chesterton again:

Determinism would even stop a man in the act of saying, ‘Thank you’ to somebody for passing the mustard. For how could he be praised for passing the mustard, if he could not be blamed for not passing the mustard? If determinism makes no difference, why should the determinist thunder from his pulpit about the difference it makes?

The whole of our lives – all we regard as the most important things in life – require us to believe in the reality of good and evil and of our ability to make free choices concerning them. We admire courage, generosity, kindness and we are ashamed of cowardice, meanness and cruelty.

Here is the good news: God does not send anyone to Hell. Those who go there go of their own choice. Hell is not something that starts after death. Hell is here and now. Whenever someone chooses evil rather than good, he enters Hell. Remember Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus. When Mephistopheles appears, Faust asks him why he isn’t where he belongs, in Hell. Mephistopheles replies, Why this is hell, nor am I out of it. Think’st thou that I, who saw the face of God and tasted the eternal joy of heaven, am not tormented with ten thousand hells in being deprived of everlasting bliss?

Everlasting bliss is the realm of perfect goodness. But is that what you want? Remember the man who asked after the whereabouts of the spiritualist medium’s daughter, forgetting she had died. The spiritualist replied, ‘Actually, she’s enjoying everlasting bliss – but I wish you wouldn’t speak about such unpleasant things!’

God created us with free will and the one thing he will not do is stop us from exercising it. If we choose evil, then we choose the culture of death: that is, if we take the hell option, we are free to go there. In fact, like Mephistopheles, we are there already.

We all make mistakes. We don’t live up to our own standards for ourselves. God allows for this. There is confession and forgiveness. But if we deliberately and persistently choose evil, we manufacture our own Hell here on earth and hereafter. We like to be comfortable, have enough money to enjoy ourselves. Fine. But if money takes pride of place in everything we do, we have turned away from God. Again, there are sensual pleasures which we are meant to enjoy. But we are not meant to crave immediate sensual satisfaction all day long. If we do this, we are making our own Hell on earth. Instant satisfaction leads to greater craving for more. We hear of drug addicts. We hear of sex addicts. Morbid fascination with transient pleasures leads only to the frustration described by C S Lewis as an ever-increasing craving for an ever-decreasing pleasure. Or, as that noted moral philosopher Mick Jagger said, I cain’t get no satisfaction.

We are not to fall into the opposite trap of Puritanism. Abstinence for its own sake can become a form of addiction, a form of self-obsession. Masochism too is a form of self-obsession. David Frost once told us of the man who liked to take a cold shower: so he took a warm shower. There are great dangers in obsessive abstinence, the hair shirt and whipping oneself too much. These can become just another variety of that attention to one’s own feelings, constantly monitoring our senses and reactions. This is the particular Hell of modern times, when the first question is, How did you feel? Our culture of touchy-feeliness arises when we turn from our duty to God and our neighbour and concentrate all our attention on self-satisfaction. I once heard a programme on Radio Four called Me-time complete with in-house psychologist and woman’s magazine editor. This is Hell. As Shakespeare makes the King say, Richard loves Richard: that is I am I.

Hell is not, as Jean Paul Sartre, said, other people. Hell is self-esteem taken to the limit of self-obsession. How to escape Hell then? Jesus Christ told us: Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you. Then you can be at home in the good things of the earth which God has given us.

St Augustine puts this crisply: Love God and do as you like.

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Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen is a Church of England clergyman, writer and broadcaster

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