While researching material on belief and reason, I’m not just reading books by stroppy atheists; I’m reading books by believers too. Which is why I found myself in a small campsite last night, turning the yellowing pages of The Road to Hell, by David Pawson. Yes, a whole book… about the torments of hell.
The author admits that hell is seldom talked about these days, except as “a mild expletive”. You can get through a whole service in most churches without the vicar referring to hell even once. Hell does not appear in the Old Testament. The punishments - and they are many and frightful - end with death. It’s “gentle Jesus meek and mild” of the New Testament who introduces the noxious idea of punishments extending into the life to come. Jesus threatens sinners and unbelievers with the prospect of spending eternity in the lake of fire, and Pawson quotes chapter and verse. He has no truck with symbolism. Hell is is real place (not just “a separation from God”, as some liberal clergy may suggest). “The modern mind, considering itself sophisticated and refined, rejects hell as barbaric and primitive”, he warns, before confronting us with the uncomfortable truth.
He recalls the first time he tackled hellfire in one of his sermons. “My records tell me that I began to do so in the Methodist church at Addlestone, Surrey, in July 1955” (these “records” sound like a riveting read). He agrees that most Christians talk about hell as a destination for other people rather than themselves, while suggesting we should reconsider our complacent assumptions. We have to face up to the prospect of hell, because “there can be no final comfort in delusions” (an odd thing for a man to say who privileges faith over reason). He writes about an “alarming” move away from “a traditional understanding of hell as endless torment”, from which there is no appeal, no clemency, no parole. He may be alarmed; I am relieved. It takes a particular quality of mind to invent a punishment that is, literally, “a fate worse than death”.
Pawson quotes a Weslyan Cathechism (written for “children of a tender age”):
What sort of place is hell?
Hell is a dark and bottomless pit of fire and brimstone.
How will the wicked be punished there?
The wicked will be punished in hell by having their bodies tormented by fire and their souls by a sense of the wrath of God.
How long will these torments last?
The torments of hell will last for ever and ever.
Sleep well, kids; sweet dreams!
Pawson takes hell very seriously, mentioning “the high temperatures and consequent thirst”. He mentions “the obnoxious smell” of brimstone and sulphur. Jesus stated that the fires of hell are inextinguishable. Oh, and it’s dark, and filled with acrid smoke, and the torment never ends. “Prayer will be futile” Pawson warns, “for there will be no God to worship”. In the absence of God, hell is populated by Satan and his fallen angels (though Pawson reassures his readers that the Bible makes no mention of pitchforks).
Our “loving God” will judge us on the day of reckoning, when all souls will be weighed in the balance. Pawson goes into lip-smacking detail about the consequences of being found wanting. The lists of punishable sins is long, and includes ‘thoughtcrime’: not just committing adultery, but also “looking at a woman with lust in our hearts”. He was about to give his readers some good advice about how to avoid the fires of hell, when I fell into a deep, untroubled (and, thankfully, dreamless) sleep.
If the Rev Pawson was preaching hellfire and brimstone back in 1955, he’s probably dead by now. I wonder where he’s spending eternity…
Ye Olde Naked Man Café, in Settle...