BETWEEN A HARD PLACE AND SATAN’S SPANDAU
(Or, Why I Believe in Hell)
These are strange times in little Britain. Times when our national churches have abandoned historic Christian doctrine to trumpet the values of redeeming government, even as our rulers decry the role of the savior-state and enthusiastically preach the power of damnation. Out on the western edge as I was, it was some days before I could acquaint myself with the Gospel according to John Patten; there being few outlets for the Spectator in the Bays of Harris.
Poor Patten. Why, it is easy enough to be a popular clergyman in the United Kingdom: the Rev. Bloggs need only be "contemporary" and "relevant." Let him strut his parish in beads and faded jeans; let him nightly quaff a half in the howff; may his deacons all be women and his organist ever gay. Give him a sweet smile and a butch moustache; permit him to believe nothing save that Che Guevara should be canonized and that this Government is wicked. However libidinous, however inane, be his antics as trendily obsolete as flared corduroys — at least the Rev. Bloggs does not believe in Hell.
Who, Mr. Patten apart, preaches Hell today? Why, scarcely a church in the land. The Roman Catholics believe in it, but prefer to warn of Purgatory; it is a much more useful dogma for keeping the faithful in line. The small Highland presbyterian denominations adhere to it; but what are they, save Highland and presbyterian? Even most evangelicals — that is, those Christians who claim to hold to the final sovereignty of Scripture — are eager to forget the Hard Place.
They may sing choruses like Heaven’s Gonna be a Blast! (a title I have not invented), or even Hallelujah! Outasight! (Another title I have not invented), but — Hell? Damnation? Oh my, no; after all, these are hymns, not psalms and hymns are only ever about nice things.
Prominent evangelicals who used to preach Hell like John Stott, now push the new doctrine of conditional immortality. Poor John Stott is so eager to be loved, and who will love the great man in Oxbridge if he continues to warn of everlasting torment? Hence conditional immortality, or isolationism: dead, the godly go to Heaven and the wicked cease to be. Vaporised. Finito.
But I am very Highland, and very presbyterian, and I believe in Hell.
Like Mr. Patten, this makes me very unfashionable. But I repeat: I believe, as a matter of plain fact, that there exists a state of conscious and everlasting misery beyond death for all who die in their sins; that is, for all who live out their lives without God and conclude them without Christ.
And this is a hard thing; who can hear it? For there are few of us who care to acknowledge our through-and-through depravity; and there can be no-one reading this column who has never been bereaved. To face the possibility of hell as our final end is at present enough; to realise that many — any — of our loved ones may be there already is to know true horror.
Now, your intrepid columnist is a buoyant and cheerful fellow, and nothing would delight him more than to be able to assure his readers that Hell is a medieval fiction. But he cannot.
Hell flows logically from the teaching of scripture. The terrible end that awaits the ungodly is stressed from Genesis to Revelation; as much part of the New Testament as the Old. Indeed, Jesus in the Gospels refers more often to Hell than anyone else in the Bible. He believes in it in sober earnest; after all He created it. For Hell is not the kingdom of Satan. Hell will be Satan’s Spandau.
The doctrine of Hell necessarily follows from the founding precepts of Christianity. Man — oh, all right, Maria Fyfe, humankind; but Man is quicker — has been made in the image of God. He is above all other creatures; he has self-awareness, self-knowledge, the capacity to relate, the capacity to relate, to create, to dream. And he is immortal. The soul — the "think" — must live forever. It cannot cease to be, for it is of God. In our hearts we all know that death is unnatural, the change appalling, the grave obscene.
But when man has rejected God in this world — when he has gone his own way, when he has rejected the moral law — what then? The logic of God precludes eternal fellowship with such a being, one who has despised His law and defied his will. And when the Gospel itself is spurned, and the way of Christ’s atonement ignored, what can there be at the last for such a man but to grant his heart’s desire? He has repudiated God in this life; let him now forego Him forever.
I have never doubted the reality of such a place; but Hades of deep and lasting darkness. But I have never thought of it in popular terms, as a rather nasty boiler room run by wee men in red tights. Hell is ultimately a negative, a place of nothing but anguish: it is a place without God, and without anything of God, without light, without warmth, without friendship and without peace. No racks, no pincers, no claws: only the fires of an awakened conscience, the burning thirst of frustrated ego.
The wicked ones of history: they will be there. The killers and the exploiters; they will be there. Libertines and gossips, rapists and drunkards, they will be there. Those whose gods were Sex, or Money, or Ambition, or Power; they will be there, Catholics, Baptists, Free Presbyterians — if their only faith was religiosity, who had nothing for eternity but denominational; adherence — they will be there. And in the darkness, thickest corner of all: the nice ministers, the jolly vicars, the benevolent bishops, who told their people it was heaven for all, and that love was all that mattered and that they really should join the Constitutional Convention.
This I believe. And I believe too that there is only one escape, by flight to Christ and faith in His finished work, living in His service but never looking to such toils for my salvation. But there is this final paradox: to believe in this latter end of all things, and to live and walk in a world that must one day melt in fervent heat — to walk among the living dead, with my bright smile and polite talk, and never to challenge, and never warn.
The Herald, April 28, 1992
John Macleod was, at the time of the publication of this article, Scottish Journalist of the Year