No doubt you’ve heard that Douglas Garland was convicted of kidnapping, torturing, dismembering, and burning the bodies of five-year-old Nathan O’Brien and his grandparents Alvin and Kathy Liknes.
Garland, 57 years old, was sentenced to three consecutive 25-year terms of life imprisonment. He won’t be eligible for parole until he’s 132. He won’t live that long. Other prisoners will see to that. Even on his first night of his prison sentence, he was attacked and required hospitalization.
Seventy-five years might seem sufficient punishment, but Nathan’s father wanted more – eternal punishment.
At the sentencing hearing Rod O’Brien addressed Garland directly: “For those who choose evil, they will get an eternity of evil. A life sentence on earth is nothing compared to what waits for you.”
Having lost a son myself, many years ago, I can sympathize with the intensity of O’Brien’s grief. I hope his belief in hell – and in heaven for Nathan -- gives him comfort. It wouldn’t, for me.
Because I don’t believe in hell.
Rewards and punishments
Hell, it seems to me, is based on a vision of God as a ruthless judge, somewhere out there looking down from a golden throne, delivering punishments that mere humans cannot do themselves. A kind of omnipotent auditor, recording every act of good or bad in an eternal ledger.
Like Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado, he’s “got a little list.” Like Santa, he keeps track of “naughty and nice… checking it twice…”
No doubt O’Brien would like to make Garland to suffer, as Garland made little Nathan suffer. But he can’t. Because, in Canada, that would be a criminal act.
So he expects God to do it for him.
I don’t believe in that kind of God.
The problem of hell
Geologically, we know that there is no subterranean sea of fire where sinners go. There’s heat down there, certainly. But eternal torment requires eternal life to experience it eternally. And any life form from the surface of the earth wouldn’t last a second in the molten magma 50 kilometers underground.
Biologically, then, a physical hell is not possible.
I used to believe in hell, I suppose. I was taught that it existed, along with heaven, as a system of reward and punishment. God took good people to heaven, and sent bad ones to hell. But both heaven and hell seemed a long way off, so I didn’t bother thinking much about them.
Later in life, I read the Twenty Articles of Faith, enshrined in the act of parliament that created the United Church of Canada in 1925. Article 19 states, “the finally impenitent shall go away into eternal punishment…”
And I began to wonder about the purpose of punishment. Was it to cause sinners to repent, to regret their errors? Or was it just a desire to for revenge?
Did sending them away into “eternal punishment” mean that they lost, forever, the possibility of regretting their actions? Because if they did repent, Article 19 implied, not even God could forgive them and bring them back.
Wouldn’t that make hell almightier than almighty God?
Something didn’t quite equate.
I don’t believe God – at least, the God I believe in -- ever gives up on anyone. Not even Douglas Garland.
Copyright © 2017 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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Stuart McLean’s death prompted a number of letters, as I expected. Perhaps every country has its own favourite storyteller. Bob Warrick, in Australia, thought that Stuart sounded a lot like their Steele Rudd.
Peter Clark, in England, hadn’t heard of Stuart either. “So, prompted by your tribute, I watched a YouTube clip about taking a carrot to work and the consequences. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zww8E1mXBAo). What a wonderful story told in a gentle and compelling way. I shall certainly be watching more clips of his. Thank you for alerting us to him.”
Tom Watson played with the political implications: “Interesting that Stuart McLean was, as you say, ‘just a story teller’ but we will remember him with much more reverence than the vast majority of people who have come and gone among us. Why? Because he played to our greater angels and not our lesser ones. Perhaps those who would seek power by playing to our lesser angels should take note, for they will pass from our collective memory banks without even a whimper from us.”
But Peter Scott objected to that line, “just a storyteller.” He wrote, “I know you didn't mean it in a derogatory sense, but we tend to underestimate the profundity of a well-told story. My preaching improved significantly when I recognized that telling one significant 10-minute story engaged people more and allowed them the opportunity to examine their own lives more powerfully than a 20 minute theological talk, even though the message was essentially the same. My ego was bruised but my eyes were opened the day that my worship committee chair told me ‘I get more out of your children's stories than your sermons.’ I think Tom King put it best in his Massey Lectures. ‘All we are is story’.”
Ted Wilson picked out a different line: “Life, Stuart seemed to say, is too serious to take seriously.”
“That pretty well sums him up,” Ted wrote. “I used to listen to him on the way home from church Sunday afternoons and often got more out of The Vinyl Cafe than I did from the service. Stuart became one of the family. That allowed him to poke fun at us and our peculiarities in ways that strangers were not allowed to do. Sort of like -- we can tease our sister but if someone else tries to, them’s fightin’ words.”
Mary Elford, Gwen Boyd, and Bryan Strapp simply expressed thanks for the tribute.
Jean McCord agreed, and added, “I loved his stories and was so sad to learn of his death. I did get to hear the last Vinyl Café broadcast, last weekend, another good tribute to a good man.
“I also want to applaud you also for your mention of Elizabeth Goudge. I think she’s often forgotten now, but her books have been important to me ever since I read ‘Valley of Song,’ 60+ years ago when I was in second grade. I did an ‘Elizabeth Goudge pilgrimage’ once, renting a car and driving to various places she’d lived and/or written about. It was a great way to see England, and it introduced me to Ely, the site of my favorite cathedral in all of its shabby glory rising above the fens. When I moved from the States to Ecuador, I brought all of her books with me. Her people were and are whole persons.”
Paul McPherson suggested, “I think that Stuart could read a recipe for making porridge and all would be captivated!”
Laurna Tallman wrote, “Stuart McLean surely will be missed. So many people these days are looking for extremes of behaviour, for violence, and for conflict. Few people have the gift for appreciating deeply the small dramas of people whose lives revolve within the range of peaceful times and normal lifestyles.”
Laurna then went back to the previous week’s column: “Your column on listening is one of the most important you have written. Few people, including many counsellors, are prepared to truly listen to someone who needs to talk. While talking can be healing, listening to someone who has something worthwhile to say also can be healing; the act of listening in itself has the potential for healing. (I won't trouble to provide the neurology, but both those points of view can be supported by scientific evidence.)”
It is pure coincidence that the lectionary’s choice of a psalm for today, Psalm 32, also focusses on forgiveness:
1 Happy are those who have nothing to hide;
2 Even happier are those whose slate has been wiped clean.
3 I used to lie awake worrying about what I had done.
4 My conscience tormented me. I couldn't concentrate.
I was terrified of being exposed.
5 So I went to God, and confessed.
I made no excuses for myself; I didn't hide anything.
6 And God forgave me.
What a relief it is to share a gnawing secret!
7 Forgiveness is like a cool drink on a hot day,
like a warm fire in a blizzard.
God's grace renews my strength;
it gives me a second chance.
8 God says, "I will teach you how to take charge of your behavior.
9 You are not like horses and camels;
they need bridles and bits to control them.
10 You have a mind; you can think.
You can anticipate consequences before you act."
11 Experience isn't always the best teacher.
Let God guide you through life.
For paraphrases of most of the psalms used by the Revised Common Lectionary, you can order my book Everyday Psalms from Wood Lake Publishing, firstname.lastname@example.org.
YOU SCRATCH MY BACK…
• Ralph Milton most recent project, Sing Hallelujah -- the world’s first video hymnal -- consists of 100 popular hymns, both new and old, on five DVDs that can be played using a standard DVD player and TV screen, for use in congregations who lack skilled musicians to play piano or organ. More details at www.singhallelujah.ca
• Isabel Gibson's thoughtful and well-written blog, www.traditionaliconoclast.com
• Wayne Irwin's "Churchweb Canada," an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. <http://www.churchwebcanada.ca>
• Alva Wood's satiric stories about incompetent bureaucrats and prejudiced attitudes in a small town are not particularly religious, but they are fun; write email@example.com to get onto her mailing list.
• Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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