History and Tradition Introduction
Traditions of men
The Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?” And He said to them, “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written:
‘This people honors Me with their lips,
But their heart is far away from Me.
‘But in vain do they worship Me,
Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’
Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.”
He was also saying to them, “You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition.”
I start out this chapter with the biblical quote above because a common argument for the doctrine of hell is that it is the historical, traditional view that has been held by the Church for hundreds of years. It is tradition.
It is readily apparent from Jesus' teaching that tradition is not a good reason to hold to a doctrine. In fact, you might say that Jesus is quite harsh with the religious leaders on multiple occasions because they elevated their traditions above compassion for their fellow man.
Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.”
Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”
The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”
When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing.
Compassion for people was a hallmark of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus loved and cared for all people. His compassion was particularly evident toward sinners and the oppressed, but I believe the warnings to religious leaders that opposed Him were also made out of love. He wanted them to flee their oppressive traditional religious systems and come to Him, the true source of living water. I think He offers the same warning and plea to us today.
The religious tradition of hell is, in my view, a prime example of a tradition that erodes away our compassion for others. If we believe that God consigns billions of people to eternal torment, how does that affect our view and treatment of them? Below are some statements from former church leaders (spanning several centuries) who staunchly supported the traditional doctrine of hell, as quoted from the late Dean of Canterbury, Frederic Farrar’s work. The first quote is from Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica.
"That the saints may enjoy their beatitude more thoroughly, and give more abundant thanks to God for it (ut beatitudo sanctorum magis eis complaceat et de ea liberiores gratias Deo agant), a perfect sight of the punishment of the damned is granted to them." — Summa iii. Suppl. Qu. 93, i.
So too Peter Lombard, the Master of the Sentences, "Therefore the elect shall go forth…..to see the torments of the impious, seeing which they will not be grieved, but will be satiated with joy (non dolore efficientur, sed lactitia satiabuntur), at the sight of the unutterable calamity of the impious." (Sentent. Iv. 50, ad fin.)
It is not wonderful that hosts of minor theologians should have repeated a sentiment for which they had such high authority.
Thus the German theologians of the "dogmatic" epoch all accept it. Luther, to the question whether the Blessed will not be saddened by seeing their nearest and dearest (conjunctissimos) tortured, answers, "Not the least in the world"; and Gerhard says that "the Blessed will see their friends and relations among the damned as often as they like (quoties cunque voluerint!) but without the least compassion."
"The view of the misery of the damned," said Jonathan Edwards, "will double the ardour of the love and gratitude of the saints in heaven." (Works, vol. iv. Serm. xiii.) Boldicke, in his Versuch einer Theodicee, argued that eternal torments proved the beneficence of the Deity, because they would so greatly heighten the happiness of the elect! Andrew Welwood speaks of the saints as "overjoyed in beholding the vengeance of God," and their beholding of the smoke of the torment of the wicked as "a passing delectation."
"This display of the divine character," said Samuel Hopkins, "will be most entertaining to all who love God, will give them the highest and most ineffable pleasure. Should the fire of this eternal punishment cease, it would in a great measure obscure the light of heaven, and put an end to a great part of the happiness and glory of the blessed." "The door of mercy will be shut," said Newcome in his Catechetical Sermons, "and all bowels of compassion denied, by God, who will laugh at their destruction; by angels and saints, who will rejoice when they see the vengeance; by their fellow-sufferer the devil, and the damned rejoicing over their misery.”
Commentary on the Theological Statements
Compare these statements to the compassion, forgiveness, and love evident in the Person of Jesus. Are they consistent with the character of Christ? Some of us may be surprised to see the statements of some of our “theological heroes” in regards to hell. While many of these men did contribute valuable insights to the Christian faith, insofar as these insights were actually biblical, it seems quite apparent that they also had a twisted sense of morality and justice. The statements above clearly show a seared conscience, a conscience bereft of moral sensitivity and compassion. How could these believers get to that point?
I believe the traditional doctrine of hell is largely responsible. How can we view other human beings with compassion and love, if God views them with unmerciful, unrelenting hatred? If God is willing to torture the unrighteous forever, won’t his followers do the same to those that they perceive as unrighteous? History suggests that this is exactly what they did.
Let’s now revisit the “love chapter” in 1 Corinthians and compare it to the quotes made by hellfire advocates.
1 Corinthians 13:4-8
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends.
Do you see any characteristics of love in the statements of these men?
Let’s also compare these statements to the fruit of the Spirit.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
Do you see any fruits of the Holy Spirit evident in the statements made by the church leaders who made them? Why then do we feel compelled to blindly follow the doctrine of hell they ratified, especially when it contradicts so many clear, straightforward statements in the Bible?
Finally, let’s consider Jesus’ statements on how we would know His followers.
John 13:34 -35
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”
The argument that the traditional doctrine must be right since it is the historical doctrine also falls flat based on the verses above. Much of the history of Christendom and the institutional church was not a history of love, but rather a history of brutality and oppression. The darkness and tortures of the Middle ages and the Inquisition, the murders of the Reformation, and the injustice of American slavery provide little evidence that the purported Christian leaders of those time periods were actually following Christ. Throughout these ages, how many people have been tortured, burned at the stake, persecuted and excommunicated? Investigate this for yourself. Yet all throughout, the doctrine of hell persisted and was actively promoted by these same leaders. Just because they’ve held to it, doesn’t make it right.
Tradition and history are NOT reasons for promoting such a doctrine. If anything they suggest we should not.
We know for a fact that official Church doctrine is not always correct. Sometimes it is blatantly wrong as a result of faulty Bible interpretation. The story of Galileo Galilei is a prime example. He was declared a heretic by the institutional church because of his views that the Earth wasn't the center of the universe. Of course, we now know that Galileo was right. Nevertheless, he was condemned:
On June 22, 1633, the Church handed down the following order: “We pronounce, judge, and declare, that you, the said Galileo… have rendered yourself vehemently suspected by this Holy Office of heresy, that is, of having believed and held the doctrine (which is false and contrary to the Holy and Divine Scriptures) that the sun is the center of the world, and that it does not move from east to west, and that the earth does move, and is not the center of the world.”
Along with the order came the following penalty: “We order that by a public edict the book of Dialogues of Galileo Galilei be prohibited, and We condemn thee to the prison of this Holy Office during Our will and pleasure; and as a salutary penance We enjoin on thee that for the space of three years thou shalt recite once a week the Seven Penitential Psalms.”
Galileo agreed not to teach the heresy anymore and spent the rest of his life under house arrest. It took more than 300 years for the Church to admit that Galileo was right and to clear his name of heresy ("Galileo is convicted of heresy" 2009).
Notice the misinterpretation of the passage that the sun moves from east to west. We now rightly interpret this to be figurative language. In fact, we still use this language today because it describes our everyday vantage point. No one ever says they saw a “beautiful rotation of their location on the earth away from direct exposure to the sun’s light waves.” We say it was a beautiful sunset, for obvious reasons.
What shall we say then? Does the fact that the historical institution of the church has made some serious interpretive errors negate all doctrines of the church? I would argue no. The historical church has also done great good. Motivated by Scripture, believers from all denominations have cared for the sick, shown compassion to the needy, and believed in the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Many have experienced salvation, and many more continue to experience it because of the work of the church, which is us (Christ’s followers).
Even if some have preached from the wrong motives, the gospel has spread in spite of those motives. As the Apostle Paul said,
Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice (Philippians 1:15-18).
We too can rejoice that Christ has been proclaimed, but now is the time to abandon the traditions of men that have made it so difficult for so many people to know God as He truly is. In this section, we will see how the current tradition of hell developed, and why the claim that it is “the historical doctrine” is false. We will also see that the conviction that all people will be ultimately saved is as old as the Church itself and was held by many of the most brilliant minds and ardent defenders of orthodoxy throughout history. Through careful examination of primary source documents and historical facts, it will become readily apparent that belief in the salvation of all people by Christ is not only biblically and philosophically sound, but also stalwartly supported by history.
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Citations and Notes
“Galileo is convicted of heresy.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2009, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/ galileo-is-convicted-of-heresy . Accessed 10 July 2017.
Farrar, Frederic W. Mercy and Judgment: A Few Last Words On Christian Eschatology With Reference to Dr. Pusey's, "What Is Of Faith?" . London Macmillan and Co., Limited New York : The Macmillan Company, 1904 (first published in 1881), http://www.tentmaker.org/books/ mercyandjudgment/ mercy_and_judgment_ch4.html
Note: The section referenced is from Chapter 4: Was There Not a Cause?
Here also is a digital copy of the printed version from Google Books: link