Hell is making a comeback. Not in Anglican pulpits, but in the columns of secular commentators. While Archbishop Justin is pumping out hot air over the global warming apocalypse and Pope Francis has just banned fags in the Vatican (why worry about smoking tobacco if you’re damned to inhale sulphur in hell?) atheist Matthew Parris has been stoking the embers on this controversial topic in his column on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation last week.
The headline is sensational: ‘Heaven and Hell have no place in the Church’. The strapline is provocative: ‘Christianity needs a new reformation where belief in doing good for its own sake replaces ideas of salvation and damnation’. The results are remarkable. I have yet to see a newspaper column on religion written by an atheist trigger so many comments from readers.
In a post-Christian culture there is a ravenous appetite for God-talk. The irony is that people who deny the existence of God want to talk about God, while establishment clergy who are expected to talk about God are spouting post-Freudian psychobabble and post-Marxian social justice drivel. Parris has earned my respect as a ‘Protestant atheist’ – his rather charming description of himself!
He needs to be congratulated for so succinctly articulating Luther’s slogan of sola fide – faith alone saves us, not our good works. Parris puts it better than most preachers. ‘“Good works” might be a consequence of that personal faith, but the faith alone, not the good works, was the key to Heaven,’ he writes.
Parris misses Luther’s keyword ‘grace’ and Luther’s chief slogan sola gratia – by grace alone. Grace, unmerited favour, is a one-word summary of the gospel. Parris observes that Rome had perverted this gospel and was peddling indulgences as a ‘get-out-of-Hell-free card’. He is right and wrong. Rome lost the gospel plot but indulgences were a get-out-of-Purgatory-free (not Hell) card. In Catholic theology, Hell is permanent while Purgatory is a holding-place and you could buy your way out by enriching the papal coffers.
Parris recognises the profoundly liberating consequences of Reformation theology. The potential for any power-mongering on the part of the church and clergy is eliminated – ‘in the end, it’s between you and God, and a private affair’, he notes, although I would prefer the word ‘personal’ to ‘private’ since biblical Christianity is never a private affair.
Parris warms to his theme. ‘It frees people from fear. It elevates the individual as against the herd, the private conscience as against social or conventional morality.’ Spot on, Mr Parris! In fact, political philosopher Larry Siedentop in his book Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism argues that it was the Christian moral revolution that made the ‘individual’ the organising principle of society in the West.
Luther made a direct leap to faith in God by circumventing the church. Parris now calls for a ‘second leap’. He argues that Luther failed to question ‘the need for any selfish reason to lead a moral life or to love God’. For Parris, the selfish reason Christians lead a moral life is a hope of the reward of Heaven or the fear of the punishment of Hell. ‘Reward, if such reward exists, is surely unnecessary as a reason to be good,’ he posits.
Can you see what Parris has done? He has filled his car with petrol and instead of sitting in the driver’s seat and turning on the ignition, he has walked to the back of the car and is trying push it with his own strength. That’s not how a car works and that’s not how the gospel works!
As Christians, we do not live a moral life because we are enticed by Heaven or repulsed by Hell. By grace through faith, we are already assured of Heaven and freed from the fear of Hell because on the cross Jesus made ‘a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world . . .’ in the splendidly eloquent words of Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer.
Our incentive to love God and neighbour is what God has already done. If salvation is by grace, then good works are out of gratitude. Out of gratitude we obey the two greatest commandments to love God and neighbour – but we are not saved by obedience to the commandments. We don’t do good because of reward; we already have our reward even though we don’t deserve it – sola gratia! Why is Parris suddenly denying what he has been affirming all along?
Tragically, in proposing his new reformation, Parris backtracks on his excellent argument and slides back into the medieval Roman understanding of Heaven and Hell, reward and punishment. The Bible does not portray Heaven as reward. Heaven is God’s throne-room. Heaven is merely the penultimate dwelling place of sinners who are saved by grace through faith. Heaven is not the end of the world. In biblical eschatology, Heaven comes down to earth and a renewed creation is where God and his creation dwell together for eternity.
Hell is God’s greatest monument to freedom of choice and individual rights. ‘All God does in the end with people is give them what they most want, including freedom from himself. What could be more fair than that?’ asks Timothy Keller. It would be the ultimate contradiction if a God of love forces people to love him when they have made a free and fully informed choice not to love him.
So what incentive does Parris offer for being good? ‘If we have a moral sense at all, and we do, being good feels good,’ he claims. Come again? Is that all you have to offer, Mr Parris? A wishy-washy feel-goodism – a motherhood-and-apple-pie Moralistic Therapeutic Deism? Does Matthew Parris lock his doors at night? Needless to say, you don’t need God to be good; but you cannot have an objective basis for being good without God.
Parris finally backslides into his incredibly naïve diagnosis of human nature. People are basically good. ‘From infancy mankind is imbued with a strong grasp of moral reasoning and an instinctive desire to find and cleave to what is right.’ This is the fallacy of the Enlightenment. Its roots are in Rousseau’s Èmile.
‘The epistemology of salvation and damnation degrades the moral life,’ Parris insists. No. It is the epistemology of liberalism and Leftism that degrades the moral life. If you believe human beings are basically good, you will attribute evil to external causes such as racism, poverty and government cutbacks, not to people who commit these acts. Or you will attribute evil to psychological dysfunction and call criminals sick, not bad. Or you will work on changing external social structures rather than inner moral character, and distribute condoms instead of teaching teenagers responsibility.
Parris ends with a plea for ‘original virtue’ rather than ‘original sin’. Original virtue is a fantasy. Original sin is reality. Chesterton once said that original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine in Christianity. Can Mr Parris produce evidence for original virtue? Apparently when The Times asked famous authors ‘What’s wrong with the world today?’ Chesterton responded simply, ‘Dear Sir, I am. Yours truly, G K Chesterton.’