Of Hellfire and Empathy

John J. Dunphy

Adult Bible Studies is published quarterly. It is identified on its inside cover as “An official resource for the United Methodist Church approved by the General Board of Discipleship and Published by Cokesbury, The United Methodist Publishing House.” Its reading for Easter 2018—which fell on April 1, appropriately enough—was titled “He Has Risen” and opened with the account of Jesus’s resurrection as recorded in the gospel of Luke. So far, pretty much what one would expect. But some assertions in the text that followed the scriptural quotations raised my eyebrows.

The unnamed United Methodist minister who wrote the essay began one paragraph by proclaiming, “Death is a powerful enemy of humanity.” No argument from me on that point. I regard death as an adversary that I intend to battle until there’s no more fight left in me. In the next paragraph, however, the author wrote, “There is a reason that most pastors prefer doing funerals over weddings.” And that reason? “Funerals first give us an opportunity (usually) to celebrate a life well lived and then to affirm our collective faith in the resurrection.” He or she concluded the paragraph by noting that “Nothing is more profound and powerful than gathering together and affirming that death is not the end and that our God has not only been through death but has come out on the other side the victor.”

I understand the reasoning here. All but the most liberal Christians believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ. Their crucified god rose from the dead on Easter, thereby conquering death not only for himself but for his followers as well. “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” as Paul put it in I Corinthians 15:55. I have my doubts about personal immortality, despite the assurances offered by scripture and clergy. These words, spoken at a child’s burial by Robert Ingersoll, hold a special place in my heart: “We do not know whether the grave is the end of this life or the door to another, or whether the night here is not somewhere else a dawn … . The poor barbarian weeping above his dead can answer the question as intelligently and satisfactorily as the robed priest of the most authentic creed.” (See my essay “Offering What Solace We Can” in the Fall 2011 Secular Humanist Bulletin.)

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