6 Sep 2010
The first was part of Sue McGregor's superb series The Reunion, which last week brought together some people who were caught up in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. A number of features in the programme were worthy of note, but the most compelling parts were when eyewitnesses described the devastation of their city when the levies broke. One word was repeatedly used: 'hell'. Pastor William Walker, of Noah's Ark Baptist Church (!), was one of the few people who made his way into New Orleans while many people were making an exodus. He brought relief and help to those in need, but his description of the moral breakdown of The Big Easy made sickening listening. It was a picture of what happens when authority and society break down, and when mankind is left to itself. And the word 'hell' was used in a fitting, frightening and personally convicting way.
As Pastor Walker said, the best of humanity and the worst of humanity came out in the wake of the disaster. Such statements (from Christians and non-Christians alike) affirms the contradiction which we see in our society and in our selves time and again - fallen image bearers, bad people who are capable of so much good, and good people who are capable of so much bad. The whole concept of hell takes definition when we think in these terms, and when we project the possibility, or inevitability really, of a time in eternity when people are left to their own depraved, deviant, God-denying devices. How we need a Gospel of grace and regeneration!
The second excursion to hell offered by Radio 4 was in the format of the comedy programme Old Harry's Game (not recommended listening) which aired around 1130am during my return journey from hospital visitation. This 'comedy' centred around the activity of Satan (in the part I heard before having to tune out due to Jesus being dragged into the gutter) and his torture of those consigned to hell. Aside from the theological vapidity on show the comedy was low level, and fairly conventional, playing on infernal and perreniel metaphors of horns and tails. The disturbing part of the programme was the casual approach to what was once considered a taboo or conversely sacred subject. It appears that society at large, and the world of broadcasting specifically has decided that we can be so confident of there being no afterlife that it is culturally acceptable to ridicule it with no fear of reaction (human or divine).
In my own Christian life hell has simultanaeously served as a point of struggle and motivation, as the unthinkably logical conclusion of a fair reading of Scripture, and as a great driving force for telling others about Jesus and the reality of His wrath bearing work on the cross. To hear the subject handled so glibly and gladly on a daytime slot on BBC radio grieved me deeply.
But perhaps that grief is not entirely devoid of guilt. As evangelical Christians we have perhaps handed over the reins on the subject of God's judgement, preferring to hedge and harbour our views in fear of offence. This could, perhaps, give the impression to a watching (and listening) world, that we don't really believe in God's eternal wrath either - and maybe that is part of the reason why it is 'open season' on the fearful subject of an angry God.
On Friday morning, Radio 4 went to hell - both in metaphor and mirth. One snapshot was frighteningly close to life, the other terrifyingly far from the truth - but both have brought my mind back to the reality and relevance of the subject of damnation to a world without God.