John Shelby Spong discusses the concept of hell in 2006
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Christian doctrine makes a clear distinction about the afterlife for those who have led a life of sin and those who were honourable and righteous before death. In the Bible’s Matthew 13, Jesus mentioned the fiery pits of hell when He spoke about a “furnace of fire” where there is “wailing and gnashing of teeth”. And in John 14, Jesus tells his disciples of “many rooms” that await His followers in His “Father’s house”.
But John Shelby Spong, a retired bishop of the Episcopal Church in the US does not believe Medieval-era representations of the afterlife are accurate anymore.
In a recently unearthed interview from 2006, Bishop Spong explained why he thinks the idea of paradise-like heaven as a reward and the fiery pits of hell as punishment for sin is a human concept and not an entirely spiritual one.
He said: “I don’t think hell exists. I happen to believe in life after death, but I don’t think it’s got anything to do with reward and punishment.
“Religion is always in the control business and that’s something people don’t really understand.
“It’s in the guilt-producing, control business and if you have heaven as a place where you’re rewarded for your goodness and hell as a place where you’re punished for your evil, then you sort of have control of the population.
“And so they create this firey place, which has quite literally scared the hell out of a lot of people throughout Christian history, and it’s part of a control tactic.”
The Right Reverend John Shelby Spong was the Bishop of Newark in New Jersey, between 1979 and 2000.
He is a staunch believer in reforming Christian dogma, challenging the Church on what he thinks are outdated or dishonest practices and beliefs.
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Bishop Spong famously published his 12 Points of Reform in 1989, where among others, he challenged the biblical story of creation in a post-Darwinian world.
Under Point Five, he also wrote: “The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity.”
And under Point 11, he wrote: “The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behaviour control mentality of reward and punishment.
“The Church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behaviour.”
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The bishop was asked in the interview whether he truly believes hell was invented by the Church.
He said: “Yes, I think the Church fired its furnaces hotter than anybody else.
“But I think there’s a sense in most religious life of reward and punishment in some form.
“The Church doesn’t like for people who grow up because you can’t control grown-ups.”
More than 20 years ago, a Church of England commission rejected the idea of hell many people ascribe to today.
A report published by the Church’s Doctrine Commission said hell is not a medieval-styled subterranean world full of fire and pitchforks.
Instead, the report said: “Hell is not eternal torment, but it 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.”
The same definition of hell is being taught by the Episcopal Church in the US.
Both churches are part of the Anglican Communion although they went their separate ways after the American war of independence.
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