Hellfire and Hypocrisy
Unitarian Universalist Meeting House
September 30, 2018
Those of you who watched the Blasey/Kavanaugh hearings this week may remember a peculiar speech by Senator Lindsay Graham, decrying what he saw as the unfairness of the process by which Dr. Ford’s allegations had come to light. The senator asked Judge Kavanaugh whether he thought he had been through a job interview, and when the judge responded that the process was like a job interview, Senator Graham corrected him and said it was more like hell, and the judge agreed.
What is hell? We like to say it’s a place we don’t believe in. What are other beliefs in hell like? And does it matter what we believe, as the reading we did earlier asserts, does our theology affect our behavior?
The letter to the editor I just read intrigued me because it came from a Roman Catholic and was about the issue rocking that denomination now, the sex abuse scandal in Pennsylvania.
It is not my intention this morning to throw any criticism upon the Roman Catholic church. But I had the feeling that the issue this letter-writer brought up could shed some light on our own beliefs here in this very different denomination, particularly the Universalist side of it. What does it mean to say we don’t believe in hell?
In this century, we have, sadly, gotten accustomed to reading about child sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, starting in the Boston archdiocese in 2002. Even so, the scope of the abuse detailed in the Pennsylvania Grand Jury’s report was staggering. The hierarchy covered up abuse by more then 300 priests involving a thousand children over 70 years. There are likely to be as many as a thousand more victims whose records were lost or who are afraid to come forward.
The letter-writer asks, What about hell? These priests must have gone to seminary, where they learned about hell, and they have been preaching about hell. Don’t they believe in it?
“Is it because they all know there is no hell and they have nothing to lose? What do priests know that we do not on this subject that causes them to commit these horrific acts?”
Basically, this letter-writer poses two alternatives: either these priests believe in hell and cannot control their sexual urges or they don’t believe in hell and are hypocrites.
A hypocrite is someone who holds out a public image of himself or herself as righteous but whose behavior is anything but righteous. Jesus’s teachings are full of warnings not to be hypocrites.
The word comes from Greek words meaning “behind the mask,” and originally referred to actors in Greek theater. It seems to have morphed to refer to anyone who tries to appear as something he or she is not.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says (Matthew 7:1-5)(NRSV):
1 "Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. ... 3 Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your neighbor, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' while the log is in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye.”
We do this all the time. We are in a discussion with another person, who can’t see our point of view, which is of course the correct one. We conclude it is because something is blocking their vision. We offer magnanimously to take out the speck blocking their vision, but we can’t even see to do that because of the log blocking our own.
There was a lot of that going on in the Senate this week.
Jesus reserves particular scorn for the Pharisees, who hold themselves out as learned in Jewish law. He told his disciples (Matthew 23:2-3): "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; 3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” This is the scriptural tradition in which the Roman Catholic church is situated, and it is apparent that a priest of that church who teaches the doctrine of hell but commits horrific sexual acts with innocent children is, like the Pharisees, not practicing what he teaches, or in other words is a hypocrite.
So much for hypocrisy; let’s get back to hell. Hell is still very much a part of Roman Catholic teaching. The official Catechism of the church, the statement of beliefs which a child must learn before confirmation, says
“1035 The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, "eternal fire."615 The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.”
Now the current Pope, Pope Francis, has impressed many liberals inside and outside of Roman Catholicism with his attempts to reform the church and its doctrine. He has also stirred up opposition from the conservative forces within the church.
Back in April of this year, there was a kerfluffle in which an Italian journalist who himself is an atheist, but who is a friend of Pope Francis, published an account of a conversation he had supposedly had with the Pope in which the Pope said he does not believe in hell. It caused quite a stir, and the Vatican had to move quickly to put out the fire. It turned out this journalist took no notes during his conversation with the Pope, and the quotes he printed were probably wishful thinking on his part.
Catechism of the Catholic Church http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/_INDEX.HTM