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[Bertrand Russell lays the blame for an inhuman conception of hell at the feet of cruel individuals. But this explanation won’t do, for there have been any number of normal, decent, and even admirable persons who have subscribed to an inhuman conception of hell. I believe that fanaticism deserves a large share of the blame, and it would be easy to find evidence that you don’t need to be a fanatic yourself to be the victim of fanaticism. Today, the doctrine of justification by faith strikes most of us as one of the milder forms of fanaticism. The modern attitude is that your behaviour, especially how you treat your fellow man, is far more important than your theological beliefs. But it was quite otherwise throughout Protestant Europe and American in the centuries after the Reformation. The huge emphasis on the quality of one’s conversion experience and the necessity of feeling certain that one is indeed saved—still very much alive in some evangelical circles—is bound to create a fair bit of anxiety. Perhaps that anxiety, in some paradoxical way, made the old conception of hell more plausible to our ancestors than it is to us, even as it fueled their anxiety. The following excerpt from Arnold Lunn’s biography, John Wesley, 1929, may help us understand the psychology of a form of Christianity that never seems to completely disappear.]

I have quoted the tribute of a great Oxford philosopher, Mr. Bradley, to the doctrine of justification by faith. The other side of the picture has been painted by a famous Oxford historian, J. A. Froude, who thus describes an evangelical meeting in the 1850s:

“We were told that the business of each individual man and woman in the world was to save his or her soul; and we were all sinners together—all equally guilty, hopeless, lost, accursed children, unable to stir a finger or do a thing to help ourselves. Happily, we were not required to stir a finger; rather we were forbidden to attempt it. An antidote had been provided for our sins, and a substitute for our obedience. Everything had been done for us. We had but to lay hold of the perfect righteousness which had been fulfilled on our behalf. We had but to put on the vesture provided for our wearing, and our safety was assured. The reproaches of conscience were silenced. We were perfectly happy in this world, and certain to be blessed in the next. If, on the other hand, we neglected the offered grace; if, through carelessness, or intellectual perverseness, or any other cause, we did not apprehend it in the proper manner; if we tried to please God ourselves by ‘works of righteousness,’ the sacrifice would then cease to avail us. It mattered nothing whether, in the common acceptance of the word, we were good or bad; we were lost all the same, condemned by perfect justice to everlasting torture. . . When the first address was over, the congregation sang the following singular hymn, one of a collection of which, it appeared from the title page, many hundred thousand copies were in circulation:

“Nothing, either great or small,
Nothing, sinners, no;
Jesus did it—did it all
Long, long ago.

It is finished, yes, indeed,
Finished every jot:
Sinners, this is all you need,
Tell me, Is it not?

When He from His lofty throne
Stooped to do and die,
Everything was fully done:
Hearken to His cry,—

Weary, weary, burdened one,
Wherefore toil you so?
Cease your doing, all was done
Long, long ago.

Till to Jesus’ work you cling
By a simple faith,
Doing is a deadly thing,
Doing ends in death.

Cast your deadly doing down,
Down at Jesus’ feet,
Stand in Him, in Him alone,
Gloriously complete.

“We are left face to face with a creed which tells us that God has created us without the power to keep the commandments,—that He does not require us to keep them; yet at the same time that we are infinitely guilty in His eyes for not keeping them, and that we justly deserve to be tortured for ever and ever, to suffer, as we once heard an amiable clergyman express it, ‘to suffer the utmost pain which Omnipotence can inflict, and the creature can endure, without annihilation.’”

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