July 30, 2008

There is a Hell

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 9:35 pm by Rev. Thomas Perchlik

This afternoon, sitting at a local Starbucks, I was reading chapters of Ahab’s Wife, purportedly written by First Mate Starbuck himself (actually written by UU author Sena Jeter Naslund).  Cool coincidence. 

A chapter or so later as the main character, Una, is having a last supper aboard the Pequod, she asks about religion in Nantucket, the town to which they are headed.  Of course, in their listing they mention the Unitarians (who Una’s mom had described as letting people believe as they wished.  “Only your behavior must be according to what is commonly held to be good.  You must be kind…”)  After Mr. Stubb calls one church “the Elephantists!”

Mr. Flask corrects, “Nay, it’s the Universalist Society.” 

“What is their belief?” Una asks. 

“That ye cannot be damned.  It makes no difference if ye worship elephant Hindu gods or the crescent moon.  There’s no hell, they say, and ye can’t go to it.  Salvation is universal.” 

At that moment Una’s husband, who is chained in the next room, crazy with grief and guilt and alcohol, cries out, “Hell.” 

The point is that Hell is real and very much a part of our experience.  We found that out in Knoxville this past Sunday.  When children  gathered before a UU congregation to sing “The sun will come out tomorrow,” a crazy man fired a shotgun three times, killing two adults in the audience and wounding five more. 

That must have been a bit of Hell. In Church of all places. Watching the people that they loved, trusted and identified with being shot; blood splattering all over.  I am glad the shooter still lives, to face what he did. To plumb the depths of his depression and insanity.  Perhaps, to wring some vision of salvation, forgiveness and healing from it all. 

It was the great American-Universalist theologian, Hosea Ballou, who insisted that freedom from Hell did not mean freedom from judgment for sin or from consequences of wrong belief.  Hell was for him, and is for us, very much a reality in this world, even if there is no place for it in eternity.  Hell is the world in which so-called ‘liberals’ are a scourge that is ruining this country and must be taken out with shotgun blasts.  Hell is a world in which a person is isolated, without community, without family, without work and about to lose his food stamps.  Hell is a crazy angry man with a gun in a church trying to end the worship of hope and love and courage.

  Hell was in the world of his own mind, and so he made it tangible and real in the world of others.


  1. juuggernaut said,

    But hell can also be a false fiction, namely the inability to look for perspective, for ways out, for rescue.
    As others have pointed out, Tennessee Valley UU Church – or another caring institution – could have been that man’s way out of his distress, and yet he didn’t know to identify who is on his side, and who exploiting him against his own interests.

    The right wing propaganda machine is well oiled, and works on proven principles, most prominently the Big Lie mechanism: Tell them what they want to hear and repeat your message endlessly; in due time it will be accepted as gospel even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary (Read David Brook: The Republican Noise Machine, for one insider account).

    One problem in the United States is that parts of it show the dysfunctional rottenness of your typical 3rd world country, side by side with apparent wealth and all the goodies of civilized society. If only it weren’t so easy to slide off from the happy world into the living hell.
    What does the US have in common with Papua New Guinea and Swaziland? The absence of mandatory paid maternity leave for young mothers. Hell starts early.

  2. fausto said,

    You and brother Ballou are right about Hell, I think. It’s not that Hell doesn’t exist, it’s that it’s not eternal, because love is stronger than hate and can outlast it. We are seeing a little bit of how love triuphs over hate this week, I think.

    However, I think sister Naslund is wrong about mid-19th-century Unitarianism and Universalism. The latitude in belief she describes is not too bad for a mid-20th-century view, but a stark anachronism in Nantucket before the Civil War, at the height of the whaling boom. Both U’s back then would have been kinder, gentler Calvinists — dissenting from Reformed orthodoxy on a few of the sterner tenets, but remaining more similar to mainstream Protestantism than different.

    And even Barnum’s circus lay several decades in the future. By the time of Barnum’s success, Nantucket’s harbor had been closed by a sandbar and her whaling days were largely pehind her.

  3. amy genova said,

    Although juugernaut’s second paragraph gave me the chills, I caution that we liberals don’t stereotype conservatives. We have some very politically conservative members of our very liberal faith. When I heard about the church shootings, I felt angry at our politicians for so dividing this country. The schism is so deep, it’s really frightening. I applaud John McCain’s moderate stance and willingness to be his own man, not the party’s. And, I appreciate Barack Obama’s willingness to stretch across party lines to look for leadership.

  4. amy genova said,

    Read my blog:


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